Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production
The Sights and Sounds of a Dystopian London
London, UK
Final Cut takes us behind the scenes of 'Set The Thames On Fire' with editor Darren Baldwin & sound designer Patch Rowland

Set The Thames On Fire, directed by Ben Charles Edwards, opens in UK Cinemas this Friday 16th September.

Final Cut editor Darren Baldwin and Final Cut Sound's Head of Audio and Supervising Sound Editor Patch Rowland weigh in on their experience working on the film, and the distinct advantages of offline and sound design working in tandem.

Q> How did you come to work on the film Set The Thames On Fire?

Patch Rowland (PR): Having opened the London Final Cut Sound studio in April 2014, and recently completing the audio post on two other feature length films, we were ready and looking for our next feature challenge. Darren, meanwhile, had already begun editing his second feature of the year; Set The Thames On Fire (StToF). We'd seen several screenings of cuts in the studio with offline sound, and it was during one of these that I had the pleasure of meeting the director - Ben Charles Edwards - and his Executive Producer Sadie Frost. I could see immediately that this was a film that was heavy on sound design as it was a world I had simply not seen before, a very unique dystopian London that was crying out for some carefully crafted audio that would not only help frame the picture of the amazing set design, narrative and visual effects but immerse the audience into this damp, dark, desolate place.

Darren Baldwin (DB): I had worked with the director, Ben Charles Edwards, on a few other projects. One of them was a short, Ways of Seeing, which had the same aesthetic as what we were hoping to accomplish with StToF. I knew Ben had been planning StToF for a while and once I had hold of the script I knew it was something I had to be involved in.

I had just finished my first feature (Blood Cells) and this project came along right after, so I was able to just about get right on board with the schedule thankfully.

Q> What unique editing and sound design challenges did the film pose?

PR: With small budget indie films, tight shoot schedules, challenging locations and budgetary restrictions oftentimes don't lend themselves to recording production audio that can ultimately be used in the final mix. As it was, Ben’s team did a remarkable job capturing much of the dialogue and sync sound that could be used, giving our dialogue & SFX editor (Fred Pearson) a full plate. Doubly so as we knew the mix was going to be hyper-realistic and atmospheric with other-worldly characters and environments which therefore meant a huge track lay. We did, however, still have to record a number of additional voices and replace some dialogue. With a three month turnaround for the entire sound edit and mix, including a lot of characters, the ADR schedule was somewhat frantic to say the least. Luckily, the whole cast brought their 'A game', which made our lives significantly easier.

DB: We originally only had six major VFX shots planned, but as we began to put an edit structure in place it became apparent that we would need many more than first envisioned. Some scenes I would have to build in the avid (editing suite) with artwork supplied from Marcus Dobbs, which would be very rough but would at least serve as placeholders until we had a better idea of the flow of the edit. Once we had a first cut in place, it was then that we had to sit back and really pay attention to the three act structure. These act breaks moved numerous times until we felt we had the right endings per section - right up until the final edit lock. It meant dropping some scenes and restructuring others. Thankfully, the workflow between offline and sound mix was so smooth that any last minute changes I had implemented were easily dealt with by Patch.

PR: Ben had a unique and brilliant vision for this film as well as a very good ear for what he wants. From our initial sound spotting sessions we had pages and pages of notes as he was a continuous stream of ideas and themes, constantly referring and referencing the weird and wonderful worlds he loves, which more often than not involved darkness and masks! The challenge was to build sound design that complimented Al Joshua’s remarkable, beautiful and moving Gershwin-esque score. Electricity and water, as we know, don’t usually go together and they were the two main audio themes for Ben and Al’s London. Ben loved to have atmospheres that were full and noisy with sub rumbles, inclement weather, tannoys, thunder elements... all of which added to the sense of unease that this was a city that was about to cave in on itself.

Q> What were the unique challenges of working on an eccentric, independent film like this?

PR: Scheduling the work around our commercial output. In addition to being an independent film, it was also a genre film, so it was doubly demanding. Luckily we were able to use our allocated resources wisely and were able to assemble a crack team to help with the dialogue editing and foley recordings. This alleviated pressure to hit our deadline and freed up time for us to get the mix finished. Through September 2015 it took us 21 (long) consecutive days to complete the theatrical 5.1 mix for the Raindance WIP premiere in London! After Raindance the film was re-edited and new scenes were added, which ordinarily would have been a headache, however our established workflow at Final Cut between offline and audio meant it made light work of the changes.

DB: One of my favourite scenes was with Noel Fielding’s character, Dickie. He improvised a lot of his lines so cutting together a coherent dialogue sequence was rather difficult. Some of his lines we just couldn’t make work as an edit and so ended up on the cutting room floor, and some were so filthy that we decided there was a limit to how far we could go with his character before turning him from a comically tragic monster into a truly repulsive monster… We had some similar problems with other members of the cast - they were so funny, dark or in the case of the magician, tragic, that it became increasingly hard to edit them down.

Q> Talk about how you two, Darren and Patch, worked together to create cohesion / synergy between the edit and sound design.

PR: Creative collaboration is our thing at Final Cut and having worked with Darren on his first feature as well as his commercial output we now have a working relationship that involves a lot of talking (and red wine!). Throw Ben into that mix and between the three of us we were able to chip away at the task of distilling Ben's vision down to the finished film. The infrastructure at Final Cut, from production to the machine room, means that our technical and production teams are always aligned. Again, which allows more time for talking usually centred around the question: “How the flip are we going to do this!?” But I can’t stress how instrumental it was in getting the vision out of Ben’s head. Having complete access to offline meant I could pop in if I had any questions well before audio work would have traditionally started, so we were always creatively ahead of the game.

DB: Patch and I have worked on numerous projects together, so we already had a strong working relationship in place. Once Ben had been introduced to Patch he could see how much easier it would be for us all to have the sound mix completed at Final Cut, and that we would all be able to work together as a great team to accomplish quite a mammoth job. Though this is a low budget British indie flick, it has been finished up looking and sounding like something from a much larger budget. 

Q> Do you feel that the sound helps to engage the audience or drive the visual forward? If so, how?

PR: Al Joshua’s score and our sound design are, in my humble opinion, integral to the entire film! They are the ironically silent hero when you look at the quality of the cast performances, film production team, visuals and editing. Without a carefully crafted dynamic audio soundtrack, I believe the audience would only be getting half the story, and for sure the emotional connection you might feel for the lead protagonists would have been harder to achieve.

Q> Darren, did your edit lend to the world building of this dystopian setting? How so?

DB: We had many different looks throughout the offline edit - we had started out with a much simpler pop-up book style of a ruined London. But as we built the edit it became apparent that these larger VFX shots needed to reflect the same level of style as the set design (expertly crafted by James Hatt) otherwise there would be no cohesion between the two. We had to be careful with some of the dialogue - modern references just felt out of place. This was a ruined London, possibly in our future but seemingly regressing back in time as well, lending to the overall a feeling of timelessness.

Q> Patch, do you think your sound design lends to the world building of this dystopian setting? How so?

PR: Entirely! From recordings of WWII breathing apparatus to Ben’s obsession with number stations (which for those that don’t know, are a remnant of the cold war where radio beacons were used to broadcast encoded secret messages to agents in the field), the more astute audience member will spot this influence throughout the film. This was just one of the many extra layers of audio to help make this dystopian London. I liked that it was a ‘not too distant future’ world gone wrong, that had both remnants of the technological present as well as remnants of our dark past. This allowed me to use old and new sounding SFX and the tone was established though this mismatch.

Q> Did you use any new or interesting techniques to achieve the end result?

PR: We used every trick in the book! However, the biggest thing for me was that this is the second feature that we edited, re-recorded, sound designed and mixed in 5.1 entirely within the Final Cut environment. Have no doubt this session was huge - in excess of 200 tracks, playing back HD video without hitch, the whole film soundtrack all in one session - all of which was a huge testament to the brilliance of the Final Cut infrastructure and ethos.

Q> Have you worked with the Director (Ben Charles Edwards) before? If so, how did the relationship impact the experience of this project?

DB: A script had come into Final Cut for a short film called “Dotty”. Once I read that first draft I knew immediately that it was something I was going to want to be part of. Having then met Ben it became apparent that we had very similar influences and filmic aesthetic. Dotty turned out to be as good as I had hoped and was the first step in a number of collaborations between us both.

PR: I hadn’t but my favourite quote of his from this project was that he now “feels like he’s being cheated” whenever he has to work at separate edit and sound houses as they’re disconnected.

Q> How much freedom were you given in the edit/sound?

PR: Complete freedom other than the deadline!

DB: We were fortunate that Ben had pretty much full creative control. We were given some pointers along the way as well from the producers and exec producers, all valuable advice that helped craft the film further.

Q> Are you happy with the final result?

PR: This film is weird! But I am more than delighted with the final outcome of both the sound as well as the film overall! I am proud to have worked on a team that delivered such a clever and beautiful film. Like all good art, it is divisive and it won’t be liked by everyone and that’s part of the point! For the budget, this film blows all expectations out of the water and has the potential for ‘cult classic’ status. Noel Fielding without the censoring of the BBC?!?! Who allowed that!

DB: I couldn’t be happier. It is never going to be a film that appeals to everybody’s tastes (at an early public test screening Ben was called a pervert by a walkout. We both considered that a success in itself). It’s the sort of film that if I stumbled across it I know it would be something I would love - I’m just thrilled I was able to play such a seminal role in it’s creation.

It has been a labour of love for everyone involved, and I’m sure I speak for all the cast and crew involved when I say that the final piece is something we can all be proud of. 

Set The Thames On Fire will be released in UK Cinemas 16th September, On Demand 19th September and on DVD 26th September.

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