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Feature: When an OE won an Oscar

The below article has been reproduced from The Rose and Portcullis 2015 (Emanuel's alumni magazine), pages 10-11.

Author: Emily Symmons (former Development Manager) / Ben Wilkins

In February, Ben Wilkins (OE 1982-87) won an Oscar for sound mixing the recent Hollywood film Whiplash. Ben (and his two sound editor colleagues) completed a rare double, winning the BAFTA award and quickly following that success with the prestigious Academy Award. Like many sound specialists Ben has been very prolific and since moving to America has worked on well over 100 television shows and films including titles as diverse as The Sopranos, Paranormal Activity, Terminator 3 and the 2009 reboot of Star Trek. When he attended Emanuel Ben studied both A level Art and Design and was already honing his interest in sound technology before beginning work in an all-digital Soho studio ages seventeen. A few short years later he made the brave and ambitious jump to Hollywood.

When you think about it this is a strange and wonderful article to be involved with. Over 30 years ago I was a young man from Battersea, attending a local school, and then in March 2015 to be that same person, living and working in Hollywood, Los Angeles, up on stage at the Oscars ceremony receiving an Academy Award. Obviously a lot has happened in between Clapham Junction and that Oscar ceremony in California.

Often in life the first impressions stay with you the longest. I remember the long driveway from the street to the school buildings. I remember the architecture of the buildings and the age of some small parts of the school. I also remember the science teachers catching smokers with the means of a telescope, haha, but you might want to leave that bit out. I would love to come back and visit one day.

After a brief stint at the Tape Gallery which was a post-sound facility working mainly on commercials I made the rather foolhardy jump to Hollywood. In 1991 the British Film industry was in decline. I knew I wanted to work in film and Los Angeles was and still is the centre of feature film production, it’s the home of all the major movie studios. The first film I did in Hollywood was Candyman, which was with Bernard Rose an English director and Nigel Holland an English sound designer. It sort of made sense, I went over to LA and it was just like London and I was surrounded by English people. Over 24 years later I’m still working on Hollywood films.

There are things that I still miss though, it took me a while to realise, but the green spaces are very much absent from Los Angeles, palm trees are nice, but the first thing that you see from the plane when you come in to land in London is all the green spaces, the parks, the commons and trees. Even the railway embankments are very lush and verdant.

I started as a re-recording mixer but the standard was so high and competition so intense in LA that I found I was able to get more work as a sound editor and actually a lot of sound editors these days are able to supplement their income with re-recording mixing. I’ve worked on a lot of projects over the years but my personal favourite was U571, a WW2 submarine movie, I also liked the Jackass movies, because they’re so fun and silly.

Officially we only had ten days to mix Whiplash and it is interesting that we were up against films that had taken sixty, eighty days to mix and I’m sure there will be producers who will think we should be able to do all films like that, but that is not necessarily the case. This film had very Ben Wilkins Sound Editor BAFTA and Oscar winner for Whiplash controlled locations, it was a creative choice with the director Damian Chazelle that all the music rooms should feel very lonely, even though when we went outside, the film is set in New York; it is a very busy noisy environment. The project did entail some very long hours, in fact I was supposed to have my second honeymoon in Jamaica and I had to cancel, so my wife took her sister-in law instead!

By Hollywood standards it wasn’t a particularly loud film, apart from one gigantic sound moment which was pretty loud. To hear the floor creak, the clock tick and the tiny little finger touches on the music paper, those things were tough to realise. The funniest thing of all was because the band pre-records were done by professional musicians in a recording studio. They took great pains to take out all those small sounds that were not to do with the instruments so what you are left with was a really lifeless track, the extraneous noises of people playing the guitar or drums, a double bass player tapping their feet, etc - all the things that were removed by the engineers and then we had to go back and put it all back in. You’ll notice in the film that you hear the sound of the instruments being touched, we went back and took some time on that. The bass player tapping his fingers was a big thing, the trumpet spit was another crowd favourite, the Foley artists had a lot of fun with that. We actually had a drum kit in the Foley studio I got from a neighbour who was getting rid of one, and we did smash up a couple of kits particularly in one scene where there is definitely drum abuse happening!

If I was giving any advice to current students starting out it would be absolutely to learn to touch type, that’s number one for any field that involves computers which I think is almost everything now.. then decide early on what you really are interested in and try to tailor your studies around that. I focused on Art, Design and Physics, but looking back I would have liked more music theory and drama.