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Interview: 'Whiplash' sound editor Ben Wilkins

Interview: 'Whiplash' sound editor Ben Wilkins

Audio veteran shares some of his secrets that helped catapult the film to success at this year's Oscars.

A veteran of sound editing for the big screen, Ben Wilkins has worked up a formidable list of credits including Twister, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Terminator 3 and Star Trek, but he’s also been in the news lately for being part of the Oscar-winning Whiplash sound team. Matt Fellows quizzes him on the secrets to the film’s success.

Whiplash tells the story of a talented young jazz drummer who studies under the caustic tutelage of an obsessively perfectionist music teacher, whose brutal methods he must endure if he is to achieve greatness.

The film recently scooped the Oscar for Achievement in Sound Mixing and a BAFTA for Best Sound; feats made even more impressive by the fact the sound team completed the work in just 10 days. 

How did you approach a project with such a tight schedule?

Everything had to be prepped ahead of time with that short deadline in mind. A great deal of levelling and panning went on inside a Pro Tools environment. We had to eliminate the need to make decisions – we had to start narrowing our choices. We didn’t use a scattergun approach to sound effects and Foley – it was more a sniper approach to make everything as efficient as possible. There were a few sections that I did and sent to the music editor and the director to get signed off ahead of time, but for the most part we kept it very straight-ahead.

Is such an efficient and expedient approach one that you’ve employed in your earlier career?

Yes, it wasn’t the first time we’ve done this. It’s starting to become standard. We’re definitely at the bleeding edge of technology as far as finishing films as quickly as possible is concerned. Schedules are getting shorter and I’m not sure how much shorter they can sensibly get. We’re starting to come up against the physical limitations of how long it actually takes to record and play back a film in real time.

What did you find most challenging about this piece of work?

Getting sounds into the movie that weren’t drums. The drums were a character; the drummers were all interacting with these very loud drum kits, and to get any sounds in under the music or around the music was the biggest challenge for me because the music represented these monolithic blocks of sound that I had to try to pierce and shape sounds out of. 

The drums are the main focus of the film, so how did you go about capturing them?

The main philosophy was just to make them sound as real and accurate as possible without any coloration. The director had a very strong desire to connect with that visceral feeling of how deafeningly loud they can be when you’re sitting at the kit and playing them. 

To achieve that we created impulse response recordings: we took loudspeakers with all the impulse response tones that were necessary out to the set and we captured four-channel quad recordings of the impulse responses, which we then sent to be rendered into usable reverb programs. 

What was your methodology for the wider film?

My approach was to enhance the storytelling and help the audience to emote and feel what the director wanted them to feel, but actually in this case, a lot of scenes were made more powerful through the absence of sound. The film takes place mostly in New York, a very rich and busy environment with a ton of extraneous sound always happening. There are times in Whiplash where you do get that sense and come out into the world, but for the most part we’re in these womb-like subterranean basement practice rooms that are very warm, but very sterile. And we tried to create this feeling that you were trapped in these cave-like surroundings with a monster.

Whiplash

Picture: sonyclassics.com

What would you say were the key items of audio equipment that you used on Whiplash

The classic Lexicon 480L Reverb. Believe it or not, that reverb unit is still as useful to me as the day I first used it in the 1980s. It was the first reverb unit I ever used, and the first where anyone sat me down and taught me how to use it. It’s become a real collector’s item, and it still sounds better than 90% of other reverbs out there. I use all the Avid Pro Tools-based reverbs as well, but there are certain sounds that the 480 makes that are still very dear to me.  

The fact that it’s such a predictable reverb saves so much time that when you come up against a schedule that’s as challenging as Whiplash was, having equipment that is predictable and reliable and familiar becomes a real asset because you just don’t have the luxury of testing and experimenting.

Also the Euphonix Series 5 Fusion, which allows you to both use the traditional mixing console and control Pro Tools, was invaluable and a real time-saver. 

Why do you think this particular project succeeded with such little room for error? 

I think it was a rare situation where a lot of very talented people came together and we had a lot of technical support. The sheer scale of technology that we were able to utilise was designed for much bigger, grander scale projects; all of the sound was played off one central server and there was no downtime from having to move from one room or machine to another.  

What was your favourite part of the whole process?

The most fun was putting back the sounds that the recording engineers worked so hard to take out of music recordings. There’s a scene where an upright bass player is playing – to put the sound of his fingers back on the frets and strings was a private joy for me; to add all that music paper, all that rustling, all the setting up. Those quick-cut scenes where people are adjusting music and unpacking instruments, blowing spit out of the trumpet – all of those sounds were really good fun. I had to take advantage of any time where there wasn’t music playing, to put the reality of the physicality of playing instruments back into what otherwise would have been very sterile playback. 

How proud are you of the finished product?

Whiplash is a great film; even if someone else had done the sound, they would have had just as much fun with it. We were really lucky to have such a rich canvas to put our mark on.