With Bulletproof – Q&A with Roland Heap & Simon Hill

Roland Heap Bio:
Roland is a re-recording mixer, supervising sound editor and founder of Sound Disposition, an award-winning boutique sound post-production facility based in Soho and Tottenham. His recent credits include feature films Wounds by Babak Anvari for Netflix, Monday by Argyris Papadimitropoulos, and Sky drama Bulletproof.

Simon Hill Bio:
Simon Hill is a senior dubbing mixer at London-based facility Halo Post Production – one of the most respected, independent post facilities in the UK and winner of multiple awards. Having worked across a multitude of genres, his recent credits include HBO’s Run, BBC/Starz Dublin Murders and Sky drama Bulletproof.

About our collab:
SH: Bulletproof production company Vertigo Films have had a solid relationship with Roland and the team at Sound Disposition for years, consistently delivering high-quality soundtracks for their projects. With Halo’s expansion into offering full-facility solutions for TV drama, a collaboration began in Season 1 (2018), providing the mix theatre, mixer and packaged deliverables to go with Sound Disposition’s bespoke foley, ADR, dialogue editing and sound design.

Can you tell us how you entered the post-production industry and what some of your earliest influences were?

SH: I got bitten by the post-bug while studying at Leeds Beckett University on my BSc Music Technology course. I was biting the handoff of every module on that course and one of my tutor’s ended up offering me an alternative project for the typical ‘replace all the audio on this film clip’ sound-to-picture module. I said yes without knowing what it was, but I ended up doing the full production and post-production sound for two student films with the Northern Film School. I loved it – and it showed. There’s a constant flow of guest lecturers at Leeds Beckett and I got introduced to one of them by that same tutor, which was my foot-in-the-door and led to my first job in the industry as a runner. That was 9 years ago now! Really I just enjoyed tinkering with sounds and trying to tell a story with them… I never really idolised or was influenced by anyone or anything too much. I just wanted to have fun with it and, hopefully, be good at it.

RH: I started recording things (almost anything!) in my teens, and did the University of Surrey’s Tonmeister course. During my placement year there I worked at Abbey Road studios, mainly working on film score recordings, including the first of the Lord of the Rings movies, Harry Potter, etc – it was quite a vintage period! I returned there after graduating, but became fascinated by the rest of the process of sound-for film, and left to try my hand at location sound recording. After working on a number of projects as a recordist, I ventured into post and formed a small company to do the same around 2008, which has gradually evolved and developed into the sound post-production facility it is today. In terms of influences, it’s hard to know where to start – there are so many amazing dedicated professionals in our sphere of work, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of them.

Please describe a typical day or project at work.

SH: What a weird year to describe a typical day at work! I’m lucky enough to have remained almost constantly busy since the pandemic hit the UK a year ago and have had the ability to work at home for several of those projects. At the moment I’m working on teen drama The A-List for Netflix – another collaboration between Halo and SD – so on any particular day, I could be pre-mixing, final mixing or delivering an episode. Once the first episode of a series is done, there’s a tempo set and everyone starts working in rhythm so things just fall into place. Today I’ve been mixing and delivering the international version of Ep6, while receiving notes for the mix for Ep7 I sent to the director yesterday, and gathering all the assets and media from all the remote music/sound editorial crew for Ep8 that I start pre-mixing next week. Schedules on these shows can be incredibly efficient, so there’s never a quiet day!

RH: There is no typical! It depends on the project. My passion is mixing, the best days are normally the ones where I’m doing that, but I also have to spend a fair bit of time on the day-to-day of running the business. Luckily, I have an amazing team around me who shoulder a lot of that load.

Please tell us more about the mixing studios at Halo

SH: Halo has a really eclectic bunch of studios and setups. In fact, we’re slowly but surely trying to standardise our rooms so we can do the audio equivalent of hot-desking a bit more! Bulletproof was mixed in Studio 5, Halo’s Dolby Atmos Home Entertainment-certified room. We run custom Munro Acoustics Dynaudios for our 5.1 and 7.1 system. In Atmos mode, we keep the screen speakers (C3As) but substitute the arrayed Dynaudio surrounds for point-source, Genelec 8250s in sides/rears/overheads. That’s all matrixed so it’s easy to switch between speaker set-ups depending on what channel configuration you need for the project.  We’ve been doing a shoot-out and price analysis on upgrading one of our other rooms recently from a 7.1 PMC setup, which is giving us the chance to look into options outside of the more common Genelec/Dynaudio/PMC offerings – Miller and Kreisel is on the list for sure!

RH: We’ve got a few rooms. Our mixing suite in Tottenham is 7.1.2 with all Dynaudios and a Trinnov monitor correction system, fed from two HDX rigs and controlled by a Euphonix System 5 Fusion. In Soho, we have a Home Atmos setup with 7.1.4 ATC monitors, again a Trinnov room controller, and 2 x Avid HDX rigs with an S3 controller. Our other rooms are generally Bowers and Wilkins speakers as I have a lot of history with that company. I’ve mixed in M&K rooms before and they have been great – for the next room we build they would certainly be on the list of options.

London vs Hollywood – many international filmmakers and studios hire London-based post-production houses. Are there any major differences in techniques and styles compared to Hollywood?

SH: In the film world, the UK has an insanely good talent pool for productions to choose from. We’re a smaller industry and a smaller market-share but have some of the best sound crews in the world here. I think that’s starting to apply to our TV drama sector too, as the quality of these productions has been matching that cinematic sound for a few years now. I’d say on average we tend to have smaller crews – it’s pretty common for a TV drama to be mixed by two talented mixers in the US but over here our standard is just a single-mixer setup. I also think budgets can stretch a bit further here in the UK post-world but you still get top-quality creativity coming out the other end, which must be attractive to overseas productions. Plus we’ve got banter, tea, and biscuits..

RH: What he said! Rates are competitive here, the talent pool is stunning, and the rooms and facilities are top-notch.

Congratulations to you and your team on your fabulous work for Bulletproof, particularly on the latest season, South Africa. How does your work this season compare to previous seasons and what were your greatest achievements and challenges for this project?

RH: Bulletproof is an amazing show to work on. It’s great to have so many all-out action scenes to design sound for, and being a small tightly-knit team we can push the boundaries. The crew has been really consistent across all the seasons so we all know the ‘house style’, and our workflow is pretty streamlined. That said each season presents a new set of challenges. For this season the major challenge was working through Covid! Everyone was working remotely, which was straightforward for the editors, but caused challenges for mixing and nightmares for ADR. We always try to rescue the sync audio where possible, but in Ep1 for example the beach scene really had very little usable sync audio due to crowd, wind and other factors, and needed extensive ADR. With half the cast in the UK and half in South Africa, and with their lockdown being much stricter than ours, we were unsure as to how we might be able to get any ADR recorded at all. We couldn’t even ship over one of our remote recording rigs! Fortunately, a studio opened and we were able to get what was needed there in a Covid-safe manner, monitoring down the line – but it took a mammoth effort and a huge amount of coordination.

Is your work influenced by how the audience enjoys the content? For example, a Dolby Atmos home set-up vs soundbar or iPad?

SH: Great question! We initially mix the show in an Atmos ProTools layout but we monitor in 5.1 mix. The number of Atmos users at home is growing rapidly but we wanted the 5.1 to be our priority for the exec reviews. I’ve found mixing natively in Atmos and fold-down straight down to stereo can cause a real faff in scenes with a lot of layers and require some heavy tweaking of the downmix. For us, it made sense to perfect the 5.1 on our Dynaudio system until we’re super happy. The show is cinematic in its appearance and dynamic in its content – so it makes sense for us to do both with sound! When it needs to push the limits, we’re not shying away from it!

Once we’re happy with a dynamic and punchy 5.1 mix, I then do a play-through of the stereo fold-down of that through our reference soundbar, doing any minor tweaks necessary. Then I spend a day up-mixing and mastering the Dolby Atmos version of each episode. I get the creative freedom of pulling things out of the mix for overhead use and object panning so people with great Atmos setups will hear everything we’ve done in crazy detail.. but if they don’t have Atmos, that’s ok too because we’ve got a 5.1 that we know sounds killer and a stereo fold-down that’s also had a pass on our reference soundbar (which I believe is actually the most common home listening device now!). On the ‘South Africa’ specials, I went one step further and did a headphone pass with the stereo to make sure it’s optimised for those users listening on headphones. Some of those tweaks apply just to the stereo because you can lose a lot of low-end information folding down for Sky’s delivery.

What are your tips for how the audience at home can best enjoy the audio post-production?

SH: The stereotype of an end-user is someone with a £700 TV that might look great but will sound awful. The quality of built-in speakers has only got worse over the years – and believe it or not – those fat CRT televisions of the 90s had way better speakers! Invest in some sound equipment. A soundbar/base, floor-standing speakers, anything will make your experience so much better! It doesn’t have to break the bank either, there are some really affordable options out there and even the price of Dolby Atmos soundbars are becoming reasonable – cheaper than a TV for sure. It seems wild to me that some of the most commonly used headphones on people’s heads cost £200 and are marketed with ‘great bass’ but we’re watching our TV shows with built-in speakers that have no bass, no detail and are often placed on the back of the unit – which is facing the wrong way to you as the listener. We want you to have the best sonic experience possible and that’s why we put in the work, the production’s put in the money, and manufacturers make great sounding equipment – I’d love a world where we care about choosing our sound equipment as much as the flat-screen.

What new projects can we look out for featuring your work?

SH: We’ve nearly wrapped up on Netflix’s teen drama ‘The A List’ that will be out this summer. I also spent a couple of months mixing on the game Age Of Empires IV coming out later this year!

RH: With lockdown pausing the production of a number of drama projects, we’ve been keeping ourselves busy doing a ton of specialist ADR over the past few months, including loads of remote ADR using our custom-built remote rigs. Projects on that front have included Warner Bros.’ Pennyworth, Sky’s I Hate Suzie and Riviera Starz’ The Girlfriend Experience, Disney’s Black Beauty, HBO’s Mare of Easttown and many more besides. On the drama front, the feature film Monday by Argyris Papadimitropoulos will be coming out very soon.

Finally – please share some of your favourite music tracks, TV shows and movie titles.

SH: I’m a sucker for shows that I wish I could’ve done myself. I want to make content that tells a story and makes an impact on someone. Goosebumps, tears, laughs, whatever it is, I’ll enjoy it,

RH: Likewise really – I’ll watch anything. Although I find when I’m working a lot often the only thing I want to hear when I get home is sweet silence!

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