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Tara Webb: Building Story Worlds with Sound

Since graduating from AFTRS in 2011, sound designer and re-recording mixer, Tara Webb has lent her keen ear and passion for creating intricate soundscapes to a long list of acclaimed works, including Hacksaw Ridge, Top End Wedding, Judy & Punch, Mortal Kombat and most recently, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, for which she is the first Australian woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound. Speaking to AFTRS’ Alumni Program Manager Christine Kirkwood, Tara discusses working with the inimitable Jane Campion, championing female filmmakers and her advice for anyone interested in a career in sound.

CHRISTINE KIRKWOOD: Of all the disciplines available in the world of filmmaking, what drew you to sound?

TARA WEBB: Probably my musical upbringing. My great grandmother used to play piano for silent films. My Nan and Pop inherited her piano when she passed and they gave it to my sister and I for us to learn on. In high school I got into making films on our home video camera. Then at Murdoch Uni [in Western Australia] I studied film. I enjoyed editing but when I got to study sound I fell in love. It combined my passion for music and my love of film.

CK: What a great advantage to have a musical ear, it must enhance what you do.

TW: Definitely. A lot of people working in sound have musical backgrounds or have played an instrument at some point.

CK: When did you first notice the effect sound had in a film or series?

TW: At uni I saw an Australian film called Noise [Dir. Matthew Saville, starring Brendan Cowell, 2007] which really struck me. Sound was a vital component to the story. I don’t know if I ever paid attention to sound in film and TV before that. Japanese Story is another film I remember. There’s a pivotal moment in the film where sound was used to create an emotional impact. It was really powerful.

CK: You recently worked with Jane Campion on her acclaimed film The Power of The Dog, what was that experience like?

TW: I was very excited to work with Jane. We had access to the music [composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood] very early on. Jane incorporated a lot of Jonny’s sketches in the edit process, and a lot of those went through to the final cut which is unusual. It was great to be able to work our sound around and alongside the cues. The film was a dream to work on, there are so many beautiful exteriors and so much detail.

CK: You spoke to Variety about your approach to creating the sounds of the landscape and the underlying emotions in the film. How was the sound mix used to assist in the creation of the characters?

TW: Phil’s boots were a way for Benedict Cumberbatch to get into character, and they were beautifully recorded on set. That made it easy to emphasise in the mix and enhance his intimidating nature. We added spurs to the boot sounds which made them even more distinctive. The teenage boy character ‘Peter’ frequently runs his fingers along his comb – this was one of the more notable sounds in the film. Ari Wegner’s beautiful cinematography lead us to the right sound choices. Sometimes it’s as easy as that – a detailed shot means we create that detail in the sound. For example, a hand running along a saddle.

CK: The bristling of Peter’s comb is one of the most spine-tingling sounds I’ve heard in a film in a long time. I respect the creative choices that allowed the audience to really see, hear and feel that.

TW: That’s the thing about working with Jane. Her attention to detail and respect for all areas of the craft is second to none. The close-up shots were a dream to work with – such as Phil rolling a cigarette while sitting on the bed. The images told us so much, so it wasn’t hard to create the corresponding sound world.

CK: Whilst on the topic of working with strong female directors, you worked on fellow alum Unjoo Moon’s biopic of Helen Reddy, I Am Woman. What an incredible opportunity.

TW: Yes absolutely! We mixed that film in Adelaide. When [Sound Supervisor] Rob Mackenzie brings me a film with a female director I always cheer. And I love working with Rosemary [Blight] from Goalpost Pictures. The film was full of music which made me happy, and I got to cut a lot of crowd scenes which I love doing. One of my first attachments after AFTRS was on The Sapphires and they let me cut crowds, that was so much fun. The music in that film is incredible as well. I walked home from work every day humming the tunes.

CK: Of the varying sound roles you’ve dabbled in – sound designer, sound editor, sound mixer – what is your favourite and why?

TW: I love all of those areas, but I usually find myself sound effects editing. More recently I’ve been mixing my effects as well. I was mixing recently on Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra and The Power of The Dog obviously. I love creating environments and sounds, but I also like it when I can give my edits to someone else to mix and get their take on it. It’s always good to have more than one set of ears on anything. When I work with other effects editors we exchange ideas. My colleagues – for example [sound designer/editor] Mick Boraso might call me in to get my opinion on something he’s done and sometimes I am blown away because I would never have thought about doing it in that way. Then we share ideas and we end up trying out new things. You end up with a better product in the end with more collaboration. I love seeing it all comes together at the end: pictures, sound and music. That’s my favourite part of the process.

CK: Who are the mentors that have had an effect on your career?

TW: Firstly Andrew Plain [1953-2013, former Director, Huzzah Sound] – he was always supportive of women in sound. He was super encouraging and supportive of me. On The Sapphires attachment, he could see I was keen and gave me opportunities to cut rather than just sit around watching. He was instrumental in launching my career. William Ward, the sound designer who took the reins after Andrew passed, gave me a lot of opportunities to move from assisting to cutting which was great. Rob Mackenzie has helped me move from cutting into mixing so I’ve been very fortunate. I wish I could list more females among those names! I can mention Leah Katz—dialogue supervisor on The Power of the Dog—she has been great to work with. We don’t have enough women in leadership roles across the film industry though and that’s something I’d love to see change.

[See Tara speak about working with Andrew Plain here]

CK: What were some of the pivotal learning moments at AFTRS that still ring in your ears when you’re working?

TW: There were so many inspiring lecturers and mentors that taught us through the AFTRS course. Jane Paterson was our lecturer and was also working in the industry, so it was always great to learn from her. She would sit with me and give me feedback and relate to current industry standards. AFTRS is such a welcoming, safe space and we felt like we were part of a community. Chris McKeith was head of sound at that time and he was amazing to learn from as well.

CK: I imagine working on action or horror films such as Mortal Kombat or Hacksaw Ridge are very different to dramas, is there a particular genre you’re more drawn to?

TW: I’m drawn to a good film, no matter what the genre. I love new challenges and being pushed outside my comfort zone. Mortal Kombat definitely did that for me. Hacksaw Ridge was amazing, it felt like we had the right amount of time to work on everything, and everyone on the team was on the same page. We were sent reels of the film while they were still editing it, and we could add sound in and send it back, so the director and editor could utilise that in the edit. That was a really advanced way of working as it allows the director to get used to how the final film will sound, much earlier in the post process than usual. That way there can be feedback back and forth, and there are no nasty surprises. The industry seems to have changed from that time and now we all try to work that way.

CK: How do you unwind when you’re not working, do you seek out silence?

TW: Yes! My ears get fatigued from listening to loud or overwhelming sound all day. Especially when working on an action film or a project with war or violence. I don’t know how some soundies work with the volume up all day. You have to be careful with gun effects as well, not to damage your hearing. So when I’m not working I love getting out into nature. My least favourite places to be are reverberant and noisy, like shopping centres. I do a lot of hiking and bushwalking, that’s really the antithesis of spending all day in a dark room.

CK: What advice do you have to young creatives still trying to find their feet and/or budding soundies?

TW: Working in collaborative team environments it’s so important to communicate clearly. You will end up working with the same people over again so it’s essential to respect those relationships. If you make a mistake, you need to be able to talk about it calmly and work through it, rather than shut down and avoid the problem, or pretend it didn’t happen. It’s best to go into any work environment with a humble attitude and be ready to learn. I’m still learning, and I hope I never stop. I’ve seen some people come through on attachments who have the wrong attitude or approach it as if they already know everything, and it can be detrimental to their career. Collaboration is a huge part of the industry, so people want to hire those with a positive attitude.

CK: What’s next for you?

TW: Recording my baby crying! Newborn cries are always hard to get for films so I’ll be hovering over the cot with a mic trying to capture those sounds! She’s due on the day of the Oscars ceremony so sadly I won’t be able to attend. Then I’m looking forward to a break before working again.


WATCH: Tara Web, Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright reveal the sound techniques they used to enhance and shape the story of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge in this two-part AFTRS Masterclass.

Part one