Mark Hills, Class of 2010 – Sound Designer Soho Square Studios
At only 26 years old, I feel incredibly fortunate to be in the position I am right now. Most people my age in this industry are still working as runners, making teas and fetching lunches. Some may be working in transfer or as an assistant, dealing with files, deliverables and setting up sessions. I decided to send in my alumni story to offer my own insight as someone who has now been in the audio post industry for nearly 5 years. This is a recent piece of sound design I finished for Pierre Michel, creative director at Digital Domain in LA.
Like most sound designers, my love of sound came from a musical background. At the age of 12, I fell in love with electronic music. This inevitably led me towards buying a pair of turntables and music production, making “fat beats” on Dance eJay and recording my mixtapes into Cool Edit 2 (now known as Adobe Audition!). I took media studies as a course at A-level and immediately realised, that in one capacity or another, creative media was the path I wanted to choose as a career.
Unfortunately, when I applied to Lincoln in 2007, the Audio Production course was still being prepared. In fact, I believe it was announced shortly before I graduated. It was a shame, because I would have loved to have applied for it. Instead, I chose BA (Hons) Media Production, and in many ways, this was a better choice for me. I got to experience all aspects of the industry at a time when I wasn’t 100% where I wanted to end up. I was able to try my hand at photography, graphic design, motion graphics, film making and script writing to name a few. In my final year, I actually specialised in “Digital Media”, motion/3d graphics using After Effects, Maya and 3D max. I loved the challenge of it and I wanted to be able to come away from University having learnt a new skill. There was one small problem though… Although I really enjoyed it, I wasn’t very good at it. I could never translate the ideas in my head into my actual work, and in all honesty I bit off more than I could chew for someone with such little experience. This led to months of stress and frustration, staring at a render bar and never being happy with the end result. Until this point, I had anticipated a career in VFX, but after my third year final project very nearly didn’t make it to hand in (My friend George literally was burning it to disc for me on his laptop whilst we ran to the faculty), I decided to throw the towel in and accept it wasn’t for me.
I spent the majority of my time at University working as the “sound guy” on practically every project, writing the music and adding the SFX. I had always loved this, and coupled with my passion for music production and interest in sound, I began looking for companies that only specialised in audio post production. Being so naive, I had no idea just how many studios there were. After graduating, I began the process of putting together a CV and sending it out to as many companies as possible. 170 CVs in fact (I remember counting them some time later). Out of those 170 CVs, I had 5 interviews and a trial day. That right there, is the first lesson. Do not be disheartened if you do not receive a response immediately. Sound engineering has become a very popular job, and there is a huge amount of competition. You won’t always get replies, and if you do it will be often be “thanks for the interest, we have no positions at the moment but we’ll keep your CV on record.”
Persistence is key. Many times, I sent CVs to the same companies more than once. In fact, that’s how I got the job at Soho Square Studios. I had sent a CV a few weeks prior and received no response, whether it was intentional or not on my part (it all got a bit of a blur after a while of sending so many applications) I sent them another in late May 2011. Incredibly, within 5 minutes of sending it, my mobile rang. The owner of the company happened to be sitting upstairs on the front desk at the time, and my CV arrived just as they decided they needed an extra pair of hands the next day to help with their re-branding launch party. And that was it, that was my beginning in the industry.
I spent my first working day at a studio filling bags of popcorn and blowing up balloons. I worked as a freelance runner for the next nine months, being called in for the odd days/weeks here and there before finally being offered a full time job in January 2012. During this period, whilst not running I worked on a handful of paid freelance projects, short films mostly. I found these on mandy.com in the job section. It’s amazing how much you think you know when you’re fresh out of Uni, then after a few years later of being in the industry you look back and laugh at the mistakes you made and how much easier it would be if the project was undertaken now. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I hope to look back on the work I’m doing now in 5 years and feel the same.
When looking for jobs, take full advantage of the job seekers allowance, I’m not just talking about taking the money every week – but the fact that if you have an interview, they will pay for your travel (at least they did in 2011, hopefully it hasn’t changed!). I was living in a small village in Norfolk at the time, and the cost of a return train ticket to London was £80. I had five interviews whilst I was looking for employment, and by being on JSA, it meant the £400 in travel expenses was covered. I would have never been able to afford as a recent graduate with a huge overdraft.
This brings me onto my next lesson, and possibly the most important one I can give to any inspirational sound engineer. In fact, this is relevant to pretty much ANYONE who wants to get into either production or post production. Once you finally find yourself a studio or company, you will have to run. Running, is the true definition of starting out at the bottom in order to work your way up. You might have graduated with first class honours, best in year, and worked on some really successful films. You may even have a masters degree. Trust me when I tell you that if you want to work at a studio worth working for, you will have to be a runner. It involves working very long hours, for minimum wage, doing very menial tasks like making tea, tidying studios and fetching lunch for people. Welcome to the industry. This is something I have found some people have a real problem with. Far too often we receive CVs sent through from people fresh out of University applying for sound engineer roles. When we try to explain that’s not how it works and they will have to work up from a runner position, they often respond with a look of shock or as if we’ve insulted them.
Running serves a huge purpose though. When a studio employs you as a runner, they know that you don’t want to make tea your whole life. They don’t expect you to be in that role forever. Running is very much a test of character. You want to be a sound engineer? Ok good, prove it. Why should we employ you as a sound engineer over the nine other people who applied for the same job today. If you can shine as a runner, and put 110% into the job and make yourself indispensable, then people will know you will behave in the same manner as a sound engineer. If you approach running with an attitude of it being beneath you and/or give anything less than the your full dedication, it will be looked upon as a reflection of your character. A studio will not trust you with the responsibilities of a sound engineer if you can’t be trusted with the responsibilities of making tea or keeping the rooms tidy. Trust me when I say that studios receive dozens of CVs daily, and if you’re not pulling your weight, there’s plenty of other people a phone call away desperate for the opportunity.
There are also huge upsides to being a runner. At times it felt as if my 2.5/3 years spent as a runner were more valuable and useful to me, than my entire degree. Yes, I was polishing tables, fetching sushi and emptying bins, but look at the environment I was in. I was in professional studios surrounded by the best in the industry. I could watch them work, ask questions, get to know the clients. I was being trained by these people and I took it upon myself to find short films and projects to work on out of hours. When the studios were quiet (and after I’d finished all the jobs I needed to do), I would find an empty studio and open up people’s sessions and simply look at what they did and try to understand why. I would go through their sound effects, their settings and take notes on their methods and techniques. What compressor did they use, how much are they limiting the audio, what some engineers do that others don’t etc. In my first few months of running, the studio was working on Disney Pixar’s “Brave.” I got to meet all the actors, the director and producers who had flown over from America for the week. Fetching Billy Connolly his tea and Emma Thompson’s soup was a pretty cool way to spend the day even if it was exhausting looking after so many people. The place had an amazing atmosphere during that time.
My final word on running however will be this, approach it with an element of caution. Pick your company wisely and don’t just accept the first offer you get because it’s a paid job in the industry. There are a LOT of huge post production companies with huge numbers of staff. One of my first freelance shifts was at a huge company that offered full post production services from the edit, grade, CGI and audio. The company I was at had three different buildings, and employed around 20 runners just in my building alone. These kind of places can be very risky to start your working life at. I’ve heard of many people who have gone to these big facilities that hire dozens of runners, and they never make it into the industry.
The reason for this is firstly due to the competition, if you are running in a team of twenty, that means if a job does open up, you are already statistically at a disadvantage. Secondly, and this is sadly more often the case, if a sound engineer leaves the company and a position opens up, more often than not the facility will simply hire, or or poach a more experienced engineer who is already established in the industry with their own set of clients or a credit list you will never be able to match at that stage. Your worth as an engineer later in your career, is your clients, the people you meet in the industry who want to work with you only, this makes you very valuable to any studio.
These big facilities have a reputation for being a bit of a black hole for runners. I’d heard many stories about people being employed, running whilst receiving training, but then after three years being released as there were no jobs available as engineers. This is the worst case scenario as a runner, as generally you simply won’t get employed as a sound engineer without relevant credits and experience. In this situation, your choices are pretty much limited to finding another studio to begin running at again, or leaving the industry at the thought of doing another three years of tea making.
I can even give an example of this. A few years ago, I was running at the studio and we needed to hire in a freelance runner for the day as it was exceptionally busy. I was talking with him about studios in the area he said he had an interview at one of the big post production facilities in Soho. I knew of this company and had heard of runners experiencing similar situations to what I described above, and I warned him about it and tried to explain he might get swallowed up there. A few weeks later he Linkedin with me and I saw he had taken a full time job as a runner at the company. Late last year, I saw his Linkedin employment change to a sales role at a company I’d never heard of. I googled them, and it was a company that manufactured and sold high end stereo systems. This guy, who had hopes and aspirations of becoming a sound engineer, spent three years of his life running only to go and sell stereos. Now – of course, it is possible that there is more to this story from both sides, maybe he left on his own accord, or he lost his job because he wasn’t good enough or made huge mistake, but his case was literally exactly what other people had warned me about happening.
So, my strongest advice is when you go in for an interview, or research a company, make sure you enquire about how many people, and specifically, other runners they employ. Ask about their structure of promoting runners and what the path looks like and above all else, use a bit of common sense and be savvy. You’re one of nine runners looking after six studios? Do the maths, and don’t be lured in by the companies showreel or the work they do. Smaller studios/ companies are SIGNIFICANTLY better places to start your career at than the big ones. I cannot emphasise this enough. At smaller companies, you will become part of the team and integrate very quickly, you will have a name and a face and you will be given opportunities much sooner. At the big places, you’re just another runner, people will not remember you and you will very quickly feel the “us and them” divide between the runners and everyone else.
Back to me now.
As time marched on at Soho Square, I was gradually given more responsibilities. I began taking on more transfer jobs, downloading/ uploading files, converting videos, preparing sessions etc. This is a huge step up from running and it feels amazing, you’re finally out of the kitchen.
Your tasks are still pretty menial, but you have bigger responsibilities and you begin liaising more with clients. If you continue to work hard, and do a good job, you’ll soon find yourself being booked in smaller, basic engineering sessions. In a smaller company, all it takes is for someone to go on holiday when it’s busy or take a day off sick, and you can find yourself in your first session.
Aside from the initial nerves, your early jobs are likely to be very simple, basic voice records or mixes. As you gain experience, the projects and jobs will become more complex. What you need to make sure of at this early stage is that you have every possible outcome covered, and that you can quickly troubleshoot and deal with the unexpected. Clients may ask for things that can cause you technical headaches or challenges, and you have to make sure you are ready for it. This is not a corporate desk job.
There is no formality, no “congratulations you are now an engineer.” Opportunities come and you grab them. Work hard, make yourself an indispensable member of the team and prove yourself. In my case, I found myself suddenly being booked on more and more jobs until I was practically fully booked out for days or weeks at a time. This meant when the time was right, I had a really strong case to go to my bosses and negotiate a significant pay rise and full engineer status.
A few weeks ago,I read Philip Rollett’s alumini story, a graduate who appears to have gone down a similar path to mine. Whilst reading, I found myself disagreeing with some of what he wrote because of my own experiences, which I’d like to share. Here are a couple of sections from his story that I would like to comment on. “Since leaving university I have done one week’s free work experience in London and it was so bad, I think it was the company’s fault and others are undoubtedly better, but I don’t plan on doing any more, unless it’s for Christopher Nolan or some other amazing opportunity, and even then I’d be like “hey, Nolan, stop being so tight and pay your staff”.
“It’s the company’s fault” is probably not the best attitude to start your working life with. When you start looking for work, you have to make sure you know what you are getting into before you agree to anything. Work experience is a tricky one, as generally it’s for the benefit of you, not the company. A lot of places, including our studio offer work experience when we don’t have to. If you have agreed to unpaid work experience, then you can’t be upset for not being paid when experiencing work. From my personal experience, even if you’re just doing the odd days running, you will have to go through an interview process and that’s where you discuss pay. If you financially cannot afford to do work experience, then you shouldn’t. Look for running jobs, even as a freelance runner doing the odd day making tea, it’s a much better way to get into the industry and meet relevant people.
“Perhaps my unwillingness to work for free is why it has taken me six months to start getting work, but what people expect graduates to do in the media industry for free (or for hardly any money) is absolutely ridiculous. I don’t mean if you visit a studio for a few days because everyone should definitely do that for free, but once you start actually doing work for them you should be getting paid, no doubt about it. It’s only because people are so desperate to get into the media industry that companies can take advantage of students coming out of university and you have to be very careful of that. It’s down to everyone individually, but there’s still plenty of money in the industry to be paid for your contribution.”
It’s not particularly uncommon for it to take six months to find work. In fact, it took me 9 months just to get regular freelance work, and in total about 13-14 months to get a full time position in a studio. I was commuting in from my girlfriend’s flat in Rugby to London every day, a grand total of 600 miles a week and pretty much making a loss financially because my entire wage was being spent on train fares. I was exhausted all the time from commuting, my social life was non-existent and I’d spend the entire weekend just resting and recovering from the working week. I did of course, eventually move to London but I’m just trying to paint a picture of how hard you have to actually work for it if you truly want it.
In my experience, the notion of working for free, is very uncommon. I ran at a few different studios before getting full time work and they all paid (albeit minimum wage). The only places that didn’t offer full pay were smaller independent studios (4-5 staff max) who were offering work experience or internships. They made it very clear and were not attempting to trick me into working for free. One company called and offered me an unpaid internship, but they would cover travel expenses. Had I been living near London, I would have taken it even though I knew it was unpaid. Ultimately, it’s your responsibility, so use common sense. You are there to provide a service and you owe them nothing, and you are fully entitled to expect full payment unless you agree otherwise beforehand.
So finally, I would say that I got to where I am today through sheer grit, determination and hard work, and it is finally paying off. I recently completed my first film feature sound mix in Dolby 5.1 and I’ve worked with some of the biggest clients, companies and celebrities in the world including some of my personal heroes. Spending an afternoon talking football, specifically Norwich City FC (the team I’ve supported all my life) with Stephen Fry was a huge highlight. I’ve worked on films, games, adverts, radio campaigns, short films, documentaries, promos and music composition.
I’m one of the lucky few who actually enjoys going to work, and being able to pursue what is effectively a hobby and a passion as a job, is worth more to me than any money or pay cheque. The first time I ever saw my work on television is a feeling I’ll never forget, and even now when I see TV shows, adverts or promos I’ve worked on broadcast to millions of people, it fills me with a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
I read somewhere once that the term luck can be described as when preparation meets opportunity, and I think in my situation that’s very much the case. I was fortunate to a degree in the sense that positions opened up at the right times and suddenly I was in the deep end, but you better believe that I was ready for it.