29 March 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
“Our job is to make the show sound like you’re there, but you shouldn’t see our hand in the process;” Fionán Higgins and Mark Henry on the sounds of Smother
31 Mar 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Fionán Higgins and Mark Henry of Windmill Lane.
We caught up with Sound Supervisor, Fionán Higgins and Re-Recording Mixer, Mark Henry to find out more about their work on Irish drama series Smother, their close collaboration with director Dathaí Keane, and the challenges of adapting and delivering a series while working remotely during Covid.

Fionán is one of Ireland’s most experienced Sound Supervisors, Dialogue Editors, and Re-Recording Mixers for feature, drama and animation audio. The same can be said for Henry, who is one of Windmill Lane’s most senior Sound Mixers across film, television drama, documentary and advertising work; both boasting more than 20 years’ experience in the industry.

Higgins has been IFTA award-nominated four times, while Henry has been nominated for an IFTA three times; he won the award for Best Sound for Television in both 2013 and 2015, as well as an ICAD for best Sound Design in 2019.

Written by Kate O’Riordan (Mr. Selfridge, Penance) and directed by Dathai Keane (An Klondike), Smother is a family thriller about deeply buried secrets and their unintended consequences. The series is set in a small town on the wild and rugged coast of Clare, and shot across a number of prominent locations in the west of Ireland including Lahinch, Liscannor, Spanish Point, Fanore, Ennistymon, and Lisdoonvarna. 

As such, Fionán and Mark took their lead from Director Dathaí Keane’s brief, which was very much about grounding the drama in a sense of place, when approaching the soundscape for Smother“The location is very important,” Higgins told IFTN. “The drama is set in Clare, a wild Atlantic location, with footage from around the Burren and the stunning natural landscape in that part of the world. We wanted the sound to subtly mirror that. The audio needed to reinforce the sense of place and, at the same time, mirror the turbulence going on in the lives and minds of the characters.”

Smother, which began its 12-week shoot in February 2020, was forced to shut down in mid-March when only halfway through production. It took a number of months before principal production could be completed under strict covid guidelines, and audio was no difference to the changes wrought by the Covid pandemic. “A lot of the workflows that we would normally have used had to be re-thought and reworked to find a way to work safely and remotely,” Higgins explained. “We had to come up with new ideas and solutions to these new problems.”

Covid made many of the sound sessions far more complex than usual, according to Higgins; “ADR (Automated dialogue replacement) sessions were challenging.”

“Recording sessions that normally take place in a state-of-the-art studio had to be done in people’s houses remotely,” Higgins continued. “We had to constantly find workarounds to remain Covid compliant and in some instances, we sent recording equipment to actors who were then able to record themselves in their houses, in the garden, and even in a hotel room in Cardiff. ”  

The pandemic also affected the general workflows of the audio department; “We did our spotting sessions remotely, going through the locked episodes and discussing possible approaches and the overall brief with Daithi,” Higgins explained.

“For final mixes, normally we’re in the room with the director, but during lockdown all the producers watched the final version independently and came back with their notes,” he continued. “We used the SyncSketch system for the live review sessions and that worked very well, so there were some upsides to the disruption.”

Location is a very important part of the drama, and Fionn and Mark worked to amplify that sense of location through the sound too.  Mark, who hails from Galway, used a lot of his own sound library recorded in the West of Ireland. “I tend to bring my portable recorder with me when I’m traveling, be that abroad, or trips here in Ireland,” Mark told IFTN. “These proved invaluable for Smother, especially ones from Achill Island where I got some great beach and coastal recordings a few years back.”

One of the signature sounds weaved throughout the series is the haunting sound of the curlew. “We decided to use the call of the curlew as the signature sound of the series, simply because it’s a sound you hear a lot in that part of the world and it’s a beautiful, haunting bird call,” Mark explained. “We used it in the opening titles, within the flashback sequences, and it is threaded throughout the series anchoring the sound in the location.” 

One of the other things the West of Ireland is famous for is its challenging weather, particularly for a location shoot; As we know, you can get four seasons in one day in most of Ireland, but particularly in the West.” 

“Rain and wind played a huge role in the soundscape of the series,” Higgins explained. “Rain on cars, on windows, heavy wind throughout. And that gave us a real license to play with those elemental sounds.” 

With such a selection of challenging shooting environments , the location sound recordist Hugh Fox got a special mention from Higgins and Henry. “Even with the huge challenges posed by the elements in this location, the recordings were superb and location sound recordist Hugh Fox has to get special mention for his incredible work,” Higgins said. “We were able to enhance everything that he recorded on set, so it was a matter of us enhancing and amplifying his work.  

“Our job is to make the show sound like you’re there, but you shouldn’t see our hand in the process – we always aim to be invisible in what we do,” Henry added.

The fifth episode of Smother airs on RTÉ One this Sunday at 9:30pm.

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