Interview: Ronan Hill, Game of Thrones production sound mixer

Having recently won a second Primetime Emmy for Game of Thrones, production sound mixer Ronan Hill takes a break from filming Season 6 to talk to Adam Savage about the challenges he regularly faces, what it’s like working in such tough locations, and the gear he relies on most…

You’ve said before that Game of Thrones gets bigger and better every year. Has your role therefore got more challenging since the beginning?

I don’t think my role has got more challenging but it certainly hasn’t got any easier. Scenes can be complex with a large character count and involved action. When you throw difficult costumes, smoke and snow into the mix there aren’t many easy days. However, the crew on Dragon unit, across all departments, give us great support and do everything they can to make it work for us.

Has sound become a more important part of the whole production?

Having producer Greg Spence attached to the project from the pilot ensured sound was always important. He has supported me through the seasons to ensure ADR is kept to a minimum. His influence with departments ensures their negative impact on production sound is negligible. He keeps a close ear to each episode right through to the final mix.

It must be difficult having to work in so many different environments?

Where do I start! A lot of the show is shot exterior in difficult, inaccessible locations, which may also be hostile to RF. Our local weather is also a challenge. I remember one morning in particular when we were shooting the shoreline scenes on Hardhome (Season 5, Episode 8). There was horizontal rain. It was one of those rare occasions where you feel filming is impractical and someone will make the decision to send us home. When the decision was made it was to set up four cameras and shoot. In studios with up to 200kW of lighting power the equipment must also work at high temperatures.

What are the main items on your kit list that you couldn’t do without?

I am still mixing on a Cooper 208D. It sounds as good as ever and and the only reason I can imagine changing it is for a desk with more channels. The Sound Devices 788T SSD is my main recorder. The 788T has proved extremely durable and reliable for the job. I contacted Sound Devices at the end of Season 1 and during the subsequent seasons, to ask if they planned to release a recorder with more inputs, as on a show like Game of Thrones with only eight inputs I am maxed out a lot of the time. I can only hope a replacement with at least 16 fully-fledged inputs and bulletproof – or should I say swordproof – limiters is just around the corner.

I have used Audio Ltd 2040s since Season 1 and I am hoping any day now to receive one of the first of their new digital radio mic systems for testing. An internal SD card recorder seems like a great belt and braces idea and encryption I imagine will become mandatory in the future.

What are the main mics you’re using at the minute? Are you still mostly working with Sennheisers and DPAs?

I have three Sennheiser MKH 60s and an MKH 70, which I use for exteriors. For interiors I have four MKH 50s. I also have two MKH 8050s and two MKH 8040s with all the accessories, which allow us to break them down and place them in areas too small for the 50s. For Season 6 I purchased three of Rycote’s new Cyclone baskets and suspensions for the 60s, to cope with the local weather. They sound more open than the old baskets and are proving to be an asset in our fight against the elements. I also purchased a couple of their new softie wind covers for the MKH 60s and 50s.

The DPA 4071s are definitely the way to go for a natural sound with great isolation. The accessories are very useful, although at this stage we have adapted and created a few of our own. They are more fragile than other lavs but DPA has taken measures to rectify this. Time will tell.

Has your set-up changed much over the years?

My set-up hasn’t changed that much from Season 1. The most recent change was upgrading my IEM system from the Sennheiser 300 series to the Sennheiser 2050 transmitter and 2000 receivers, allowing greater flexibility. I don’t run a return for video playback to the mixer; instead I provide a transmitter for video on an adjacent channel. By pressing one button on the IEM receiver it can be switched from ‘Sound’ to ‘Video’ depending on whether you want direct sound or playback. It can also be utilised for two-zone use.

How does working on a series like Game of Thronescompare to other well-known projects you’ve been involved with, like The Fall?

It has been great over the last few years to be able to work on a huge multi-award-winning show like Game of Thrones – a period fantasy drama – and contrast this with The Fall, which is a highly acclaimed contemporary drama. In both shows we are trying to achieve the same results: pristine dialogue and stereo effects where possible. The Fall gives me more scope to capture the texture of Belfast to give the drama an authentic feel.

Have you got anything else lined up at the moment, other than Season 6 of Game of Thrones?

There have been a few outline calls for potential jobs in the new year and it’s great to see Belfast busy and continuing to blossom as a centre of excellence for film and television drama. I haven’t agreed to a deal on any job yet and at the minute my head is full of Game of Thrones.

Pictures: Helen Sloan SMPSP