Award Winner John Rodda Takes Sound To Another Level

John Rodda, production sound mixer, took time out of his busy schedule to speak to Audiofile about his work. His TV credits include the highly successful Netflix show Black Mirror, the much loved TV series Downton Abbey, Miss Marple, Maigret and Silent Whitness. His film credits include 28 Days Later, Pearl Harbour, National Treasure, Ripley’s Game and King Arthur. John has received awards including BAFTA for Best Sound, CAS for Outstanding Sound Mixing and AMPS for Excellence in Sound.

How did you get into sound?
It all started in 1980. I was working in a restaurant in Cornwall and got friendly with our cook and her husband. The restaurant was closing for the winter and I needed a job. Fred offered me work on their farm initially, but he soon discovered he’d inherited some money and decided he wanted to shoot a film. He needed a sound man and offered the job to me! I basically set about finding out as much as I could and from there taught myself. One thing led to another…

What do you love the most about your job and what is the most difficult?
Every day is like a school trip – you usually do something different, challenging and interesting – no two days are the same and I love all the challenges we have to deal with.

You have won a BAFTA, Cinema Audio Society and AMPS awards. Do you find that people ask your advice and if so what do they usually ask about?
I get asked about all kinds of stuff. Often, questions about “28 Days Later” which is considered a cult movie these days. We shot on domestic video cameras and transferred digitally to 35mm for cinema. Sound was recorded on Tascam DA98 and HHB Portadat.

You have worked on some high profile Films and TV shows, what has been the most challenging project and why?
Big challenges from a sound point of view came on shows like Shackleton where we spent much of our time in temperatures as low as -20c and had to keep the hard disk recorders running so they’d stay warm to avoid damage to the drives.

Marco Polo and The Pillars of the Earth were physically very challenging because we worked in difficult locations in extreme temperatures (-18c to +42c). Moving equipment around can be really tough sometimes so I built special brackets onto a big quad bike which could the carry pretty much my whole sound cart and ancillaries over rough terrain that even a 4×4 pick-up would struggle to negotiate.

What has been your most enjoyable project and why?
I like working abroad and have been lucky enough to travel extensively. I’ve filmed in around forty-five different countries so far and always try to fit in a trip or two at weekends or at the end of a shoot. I was lucky enough to be in Jordan on a shoot at the end of last year and managed to squeeze in visits to The Dead Sea, Petra and Wadi Rum, all of which have been on my bucket list for quite a while.

All my projects have been pretty special, each in their own way. Sometimes there’s a kind of alchemy where the finished show is much greater than the sum of its parts and those are special projects.

You recently worked on the award winning Black Mirror for Netflix. How did you become involved with the show and what challenges were you presented with?
Black Mirror “USS Callister” was one of those special projects. I was hired for the show by its Producer and friend Louise Sutton.
We all worked so hard to make it work not just for Toby Haynes, the Director but for Charlie Brooker the writer because we knew this was going to be a really good show.
Amazingly we shot the whole episode in just twenty days. One of the key challenges on this was the long takes Toby wanted to record because we had so much to get through each day and to keep the momentum of the performances going. So, we joined multi-page scenes together and kept rolling with resets back to the top of eight or nine pages of continuous dialogue and seven or more actors.

What are the main challenges of working on location?
Background sound gives the audience a sense of geography up to the point (in a scene with dialogue) where it becomes intrusive and distracting. It’s our job primarily to record strong clean dialogue tracks which allow plenty of options for sound designers to add music, effects, foley and all the extra layers of sound which create texture and depth in the soundscape. Clean dialogue is very important to us.

Additionally, as many effects as we can pick up along the way are always useful in post – last week we recorded a lovely, clean track of a distant woodpecker in the forest which I hope will make it into the soundtrack of the menacing sequence we were shooting at the time.

What changes have you seen in the industry over the last 10 years and where do you see it heading?
Where we lead, camera technology follows. We were the first to go digital with DAT tape back in the eighties. Later, camera followed with Digi-Beta when they’d figured out how to get the vast quantities of picture data onto cassette tapes that had previously only been used to hold analogue images. These days everything we shoot goes on to solid state drives, of course; a very robust technology unlike those fiddly little DAT cassettes we used to use.

Radio mic technology has advanced amazingly too – I’m now fully digital and each of my Audio Ltd transmitters has a built-in recorder to overcome potential drop-outs if transmitter and receiver are separated but too great a distance during a shot. That way I can transfer data cards later to be sent in to post production – thus saving the day.

What is your favourite bit of kit and why?
I use my MacBook as my monitor. Hooked up to a Decimator quad split unit and feeding into my Black Magic mini recorder, I can have four camera images on my laptop from just one cable connection to “video village”

My Ambient time code systems sync via wi-fi – they’re incredibly accurate and fool-proof, enabling instant and seamless sync for picture and sound, but I think the new Audio Ltd A10 radio mics win the prize. Exceptional audio quality, internal recording, fantastic range and a super-wide tuneable bandwidth to cope with radio frequency regulations on jobs which take us all over the world.

What advice would you give someone who wants a career in film/TV sound?
Don’t say you’re a sound designer when you’ve just left university or film school. Even after forty years I learn new stuff every day. Take your time and build your knowledge and experience. There are so many smart people I’ve been lucky enough to learn from over the years. We’re a friendly and helpful community who are excited to share our knowledge with anyone who truly wants to learn.

How did you get involved with the AMPS and how have you contributed to its success?
I’ve been an AMPS member for around twenty-five years and was voted on to council six years ago. I’m proud to have contributed to the inception and development of the AMPS Awards – especially the award for Excellence in Sound for a Feature Film as well as the new for 2019 Award for Excellence in a Hardware or Software Product.

Has there been a shift towards better sound in TV and film? If so why is that and is there room for improvement?

With a decent home cinema TV system, there’s nowhere to hide and no excuse for bad sound. Audience expectations are high for feature films, but the boundaries between films and television production are blurring with the result that many a well recorded and mixed TV soundtrack will stand up well on the big screen.

Despite a decline in the use of proper sound stages and where disused warehouses are often considered acceptable these days for set builds, we also contend with multiple cameras, shooting simultaneous wide and tight shots. So, to cope with these issues we regularly need to make extensive use of radio mics as well as other techniques to close-up sound for the tighter camera shots being picked up at the same time as a wide master frame. Whilst radio mics are not the solution to every problem, when carefully positioned and complimented by well operated boom mounted microphones, we can often provide an acceptable standard of coverage. However, any number of factors such as rustling fabrics in the costumes or noisy lighting can conspire to make good clean recordings very difficult.

The last resort in these situations is ADR (automated dialogue replacement) but any production sound mixer worth his salt will do everything possible to avoid it.
That said, I’m in awe of the amazing work that can be done by our colleagues in audio post-production. Their skills, along with some very impressive audio repair and restoration software available these days can work wonders on what might otherwise be an unusable track.

Making sure original dialogue is used in the finished production is a personal and professional challenge and that’s what gives us a sense of achievement at the end of a long, tough day.

All my projects have been pretty special, each in their own way. Sometimes there’s a kind of alchemy where the finished show is much greater than the sum of its parts and those are special projects.