James Bastable works in post-production sound in Toronto.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
How did you first develop an interest in sound?
My love of music and movies came from my dad. Music was always playing in the house or in the car and my dad was always introducing me to key films at various stages growing up.
I started playing guitar when I was 11 and as my musical tastes matured I became interested in ways of pushing the instrument beyond its traditional parameters. When I was 13 I discovered industrial music which led me on a deep dive into the world of sound manipulation, noise, and dissonance (a good counterpoint to the U2, Peter Gabriel and Led Zeppelin I grew up with).
When the time came I knew I wanted to go to university but only knew I wanted to do something vaguely film related so I enrolled in the Cinema Studies program at U of T. Being a studies program there wasn’t any technical training on offer but I did get a very broad grounding in film history, theory, and analysis. I was exposed to films of all periods, countries and aesthetics that I never would have encountered otherwise.
After graduating from the Cinema Studies program and U of T, I had some vague ideas about wanting to work in film and television and remembered from my high school days that I enjoyed the post production stage most (back then it was VCR to VCR assembly editing).
Thinking I wanted to be a picture editor, I enrolled in the post-production program at Humber College. There I discovered post sound and started to connect the dots. Things really started to make sense and I could see a path forward.
To many people, the world of sound design and sound mixing is a bit mysterious. How do you describe your work to other people?
Post sound is both a corrective and a creative process.
The dialogue editor will clean out any incidental sound on or between lines of dialogue that harm clarity such as unflattering lip smacks or crew noise, replacing them where necessary with lines, words, or sometimes even just syllables from alternate takes. When outtakes are unavailable or insufficient to solve noise or clarity problems, the dialogue editor will script, supervise and fit ADR (“automated dialogue replacement”) that is recorded in the studio prior to the final mix.
While this is happening the sound effects editor will gather and place sounds either from an ever-growing library or, depending on the scale of the project, will record sounds specifically for the show.
Where available, a foley artist will provide all of the footsteps, prop handling, and clothing rustle to match the actors’ movements.
The mixer’s task is to take all of these tracks, often numbering in the hundreds and all gathered from disparate sources, and create a single integrated track that is clear, balanced and appropriately directs attention to on-screen action. This is done with a variety of signal processing tools including but not limited to noise reduction, equalization, panning (moving sounds between left and right or front and back), and adding artificial reverberation to place sounds in the spaces we see onscreen.
To what extent does a good understanding of visual information play a role in the work of a sound mixer?
It’s essential. An understanding of shot compositions and editing strategies will inform your mix decisions and provide a common language between you and the director.
One of your tasks as a mixer is to act as a surrogate audience member. To that end you should always be taking your creative cues from the screen. How deep in the frame is the person or object in question and how does that inform the sonic perspective? Where in relation to left or right, or front to back? Do we want to imply off-screen space or maintain an intimate feel?
What are some of the more challenging moments in your day to day operations?
In the world of digital post production, schedules are very tight while at the same time decisions can be deferred to a much later stage in the process than before. It is more common than not for picture edits to change and visual effects updates to arrive during the mix process, so sound needs to be able to follow along with those revisions.
Working in such a technology driven field brings its own challenges. Current mixing systems are very robust but anyone who has worked with computers (especially in post) knows that they don’t always behave the way you expect them too. It’s essential to maintain a high degree of organization and procedure so that the creative work can take priority and when the unexpected happens you can minimize downtime.
How does one begin a career in the world of post-production sound?
A good college education will help you talk your way in the door and the better colleges are well connected with people actively working in the industry. Networking and persistence are very important. I was lucky to meet a couple of key people very early on who opened some big doors for me.
Be prepared for a long journey. It can take years of long days working as a studio assistant learning the fundamentals before you get to sit in the chair.
Of all of the projects you've worked on, what are some of the ones that have stood out?
Last year year I did the initial voice over and ADR recording sessions with principal cast on The Handmaid’s Tale. It was amazing to work an a series that was so strong out of the gate even before we had started sound in it and then to watch/hear it evolve over the course of its first season.
I was also lucky enough to work under Lou Solakofski on a 5.1 restoration of Peter Mettler’s 1994 film, “Picture of Light” (selected for TIFF’s 150 Essential Canadian Works programme). I had not seen the film before working on the restoration and it immediately became an all-time favourite.
Do you consider yourself an artist? How can post-production sound be creative work?
I’m hesitant to use the word artist in relation to sound mixing because I would never want to force my own vision on someone else’s project.
I think the word “craft” is appropriate as it more accurately captures the intersection of art, technology, and technique. Of course one wants to be hired for one’s ideas and taste but your focus should be on clarifying the director’s intentions to an audience.
Have you ever tried doing sound recording on a film shoot? How do the two environments differ?
I have done some field recording to gather sound effects but I haven’t done a full film shoot.
A mixing stage is a deliberately controlled, finely calibrated environment so I can only claim to have limited understanding of the challenges involved in a location shoot.
Unfortunately one thing they do have in common is that sound is that too often given last priority, both on set and in post budgeting and scheduling.
What sound-related details do you tend to notice when you're watching films?
If I’m watching an intimate, character driven film, I’m often listening to the tone and timbre of the spoken dialogue, as well as how ambiences are used to establish an emotional bed for the story.
When watching a big budget action or sci-fi movie with a lot of elaborate sequences, I’m interested in how the sound track is used to further clarify a dynamic and rapidly shifting visual field.
Immersive audio formats such as Dolby Atmos have opened up some exciting opportunities for sound. The addition of ceiling speakers and finer front to back separation has allowed for more enveloping music tracks.
That said, if a film is doing its work successfully, it’s nice to turn off my mixer brain and just be an audience member and save the analysis for repeated viewings.
What is your favourite grouping of sound effects to work with when doing sound design?
They all bring their own rewards and challenges.
Dialogue is the most technically demanding element but getting it right can be very exciting. It is (usually) the main carrier of meaning and is the thing that our ears are most attuned to. Unclear or technically flawed dialogue can alienate even a casual audience member.
Working with background sound effects is often an exciting starting point. Getting the right balance, perspective, and placement of ambient sound (for example, birds, background city traffic, wind, crowds) goes a long way in establishing the setting and tone of a scene.
Is Toronto a good city to be working in for those interested in post-production sound?
It is a major post production hub and along with Montreal one of the best cities in Canada in which to pursue a career in sound. The talent here is world class and I consider myself fortunate to be learning from masters of the craft.
What are you looking forward to?
There is a big crop of promising young Canadian filmmakers emerging right now, much of it based in my own city. It’s been very exciting to see the caliber of work coming from the next wave of local talent and I hope to be a part of that in my own specialized way.