It’s Sound Check!

with Gary Wilkins

You’re in for a great read this month with another sound story from the location department, this time from one of our Australian Screen Sound Guild Lifetime members. Please sit back and enjoy getting to know Gary Wilkins.

What drew me to work in sound? It seems a strange thing but it all sort of fell into place.
When I was a teenager in the 1960’s I found some parts of a gramophone my father had built. The valve amplifier, a 12-inch Rola speaker and the 78 RPM turntable were all intact and after a few electric shocks, I got it all working. Then I began playing his collection of jazz and popular 1940’s and 50’s music discs which I also found in the garage.
I used to love playing those old 78’s and knew most of them off by heart so began to be able to pick out and follow a particular instrument in the big swing bands such as the brass, guitar or drums and bass. I used to imagine I was playing a particular instrument and learnt the cues; I realize now that I was actually training myself to listen analytically to sound. I had no idea of a career, it was just great to do. Maybe I could have become a musician but chance sent me in a different direction.
A small private production company called Academy Films located in Ringwood was producing a film for the Victorian Education Department and my high school class was the test audience. The print we were shown was, I now know, a work print. It had the cue lines for the narration drawn across it in yellow Chinagraph pencil and all the dissolves and fades marked. I was fascinated by the lines and technical things I was seeing on screen.

At work with the Nagra IV-S in the 1980s

I pretended to go to the toilet and went out to the back of the screening room and saw some people there and a couple of 16mm dubbers  running as well as the projector. I was fascinated by all this equipment. The blokes in the back room saw me looking and kindly explained what was happening with the sound and picture and I thought it was magic.
I actually asked for a job there and then and they all laughed. To this day I could not tell you what the film was about but I can remember the spools on the dubbers  turning and the sounds of the machines running as the sides of the spilt spools rubbed on the magnetic film.

My father used to work as a projectionist at weekends to supplement his income from the railways and as early as four years old I would be taken with my mum and dad to theaters in the Dandenong Ranges on Saturday nights. My mum was selling the tickets and dad was running the projectors. To a four year old kid those big black steaming projectors were very impressive and to see the great big 35mm spools turning always excited me. So I guess it was imprinted on my mind fairly early. I can still remember the sound and smell of the carbon arc lamps as they struck. I thought my dad was pretty cool to be able to do all that.

 became restless at high school – I loved the outdoors and thought more and more of getting into some kind of work in Television. I knew nothing about it of course but I wrote to the only two TV stations seeking work and was rejected. At 17 I left school and got a job with a travel agent in the city. I learnt many valuable lessons there about travel and operating businesses in general but I hated the filing I had to do. This lack of application finally led to my demise in the travel industry. At the same time I was doing a night course in Diploma of photography at RMIT in Melbourne.
I needed a job. One of my uncles suggested I go and see this company Crawford Productions in Collins Street Melbourne. They had just produced a TV crime show called Homicide. It was rough and clunky compared to the slick Hollywood productions on TV but it was Australian and it featured our city and our voices. The audiences liked it and Crawfords had just renewed the contract for a further series of the show with HSV7.

Here’s the part where it gets weird. On my lunch break on my last day at the travel agency I walked into the offices of Crawford Productions. It was on the 4th floor at 476 Collins Street. The Olderfleet building was a large gothic structure with a corridor running the depth of half a city block from Collins to Flinders Lane, quite long. The hallway was decorated with a golden arch and chandelier above a reception desk. No one was in attendance at the desk so I walked a little further on and waited. There was absolutely no sign of life in the building until about half way along the hallway a door opened and a young man about my age stormed out and slamming the door walked away towards another very large door at the end of the passageway.

I headed towards the door he had exited from and saw the sign Hector Crawford on it. . So I knocked and a voice said gruffly “Come in.” So I stuck my head around the door and saw an impressive silver haired man at a large desk.
He said “What do you want?”
So I replied “Are there any jobs? “
To my surprise he said “Do you know anything about tape recorders?”

Now while I was at school my mother was friendly with the wife of our GP Doctor Matthews. He was doing some kind of research and had started a film appreciation group. He wanted someone to assist him and part of that meant learning to thread up and operate his 16mm projector and run his National Stereo tape recorder which he used to record the audience reactions. I thought that tape recorder was beautiful and really liked using it.

So I was able to answer Hector Crawford’s question reasonably truthfully.
Then he said “ Good! You start in the sound department tomorrow 7.00 am – What is your name?”

Now it turns out that that the other young man was the junior in the Sound Department and had been offered another job at the ABC. He had just asked for a pay rise or else he would leave and Hector apparently had a policy of never giving in to a threat like that and had just fired him. So when I stuck my head around the door 30 seconds later we were both surprised at the result.

So I became employee number 35 in an organisation which grew in size to 450 staff  with three studios and five film crews working full time. I was fortunate to grow with and help the company expand in skills and technology over a ten year period that I was with them. It was the best education in film that anyone could ever ask for. I worked on everything from live symphony concerts, orchestral recordings, films, television, radio commercials , documentaries, special projects like the talking chairs for the Australian Expo pavilion at Montreal. I spent time in editing, sound post, foley, sound effects, post sync dialogue, track laying, mixing and radio transcription, even negative matching. So many areas of experience that cannot be acquired these days. Crawfords and the ABC were the main places for training as there were no courses available in media of any description especially technical areas.
Crawfords came from a successful radio drama production background and I learned many useful techniques from that as all their sound recording, editing and mixing was done in house. After more than ten years their star began to fade and they switched over to video tape production just as the feature film industry began to blossom. Their film crews were becoming redundant I decided to take the plunge and become freelance as I really wanted to do the movies which were just beginning to start up.

My two most memorable projects are Breaker Morant and the mini series The PacificComplete contrasts in many ways. Breaker was shot on a AUD $500k budget and recorded on a single track Nagra IV.2 and The Pacific had a budget of US $360 million and was recorded on 8 track Deva HD with multiple wireless mics and plenty of  support from the post production team. 

On Pacific I had the type of project I had always wanted to do, the equipment I had always wanted and the crew I had always wanted – the money wasn’t too bad either – at last. I used to wake up each day excited to go to work on it,
The other project worth a mention is Where The Wild Things Are. This was the most technically challenging shoot I have ever worked on. I once told the director Spike Jonze that this was the shoot I had been preparing for all my working life. I had to use every trick I knew and then invent some new ones it was really stretching but exhilarating when it worked.
(Click here for a CAS article written by Gary Wilkins on the technical challenges of Where The Wild Things Are. Pg 24-25)

On location in Pacific Harbour, Fiji for Anacondas II – The Hunt For the Blood Orchid 2004

But every one of more than 80 Features and other miniseries I worked on is like one of your kids, each is different, each has their own problems, failures and successes but you still love them all equally. Some of the least known or commercially successful films were some of the sound tracks that I am most proud of contributing to.
I also taught a lot of people how to record and was guest lecturer in sound at the VCA Melbourne for eight years which I loved doing.

If I hadn’t been in this industry God knows how I would have ended up? I reasoned that I would be unemployable at any other job so I had better make this one work. I once went down the list of possible jobs out of film and got as far as bus driver. I was able to survive for fifty years doing what I loved and I still couldn’t believe they paid me to do it.

Two soundtracks that I would have loved to have worked and which both inspired me to move from TV to Film were Lawrence of Arabia for its sheer scale and emotional impact and Zulu. Zulu uses sound in very interesting ways which builds the dramatic thrust of the story.

That scene when the two men in the outpost hear a sound which they think is a train in the distance but turns out to be thousands of chanting Zulu warriors approaching and the other sequence of the dancing at the start of the movie are things I would have loved to have worked on. Such powerful sound.

Recording music live on set is always a challenge and much of the music in Breaker Morant was shot and recorded live on location.

Now retired and living happily in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This was not exactly the best advice I was given but a conversation I had with Hector Crawford. In the 70’s, when the company was expanding rapidly they sent around a questionnaire asking “What is your present position and what do you hope to do in the future?”  I think everybody else in the sound department wrote down ‘Film Director’ as their future goal.
I put down Present position: Sound Recordist . Future desired position: Sound Recordist.

A few days later I was called into Hectors office. He said “You have put down that you want to do the same job that you have now why?”  So I told him that I liked doing that job and with all the other film directors he was going to have he would need a good sound recordist so my aim was to learn as much as possible and become as good at my craft as I could.

He told me that I was the only one in the company who had given him an honest answer.
Then he said some words to me which actually inspired me greatly. He said “You have talent. I will help you achieve what you want to do.” And he did. The company brought in outside experienced technicians to train us all and bought better equipment. The quality and efficiency of all their productions increased accordingly as did my skills.

But just being told that encouraged me to really want to learn everything I could about sound recording. I haunted the technical bookshops of Melbourne and read anything remotely connected to sound and film even translated Russian textbooks, books on psychology and perception, the ear and hearing. I even attended lectures on British naval artillery, firearms, explosives, studio design, projectionists licence and enrolled in an electronics course. At every opportunity I spoke with every technician and sales person who would give me the time.  I collected pamphlets about sound equipment and learned what all the terms used meant.
I picked up valuable tips from the old radio panel operators and the young television techs as well. It’s a habit that I still practice in retirement. I left school early but I have never stopped learning. I like finding stuff out.
At home I used to record movie soundtracks off the TV and replay them through headphones for hours on end listening to them. I began to get a feel for the things that should and shouldn’t be in a soundtrack.