Aaton-Digital congratulates Stuart Wilson

Interview with CantarX3 user, UK Production Sound Mixer Start Wilson, who was awarded a BAFTA for Best Sound, and an Oscar for Best Sound Mixing, for his work as Production Sound Mixer on the movie ‘1917’

photo by Victoria Beattie - Stuart Wilson
Photo by Victoria Beattie

    Here are just some of the movies he has used his Cantar X-2 and X-3 recorders on:
  • 1917 -- The Two Popes -- Mary Magdalene -- Macbeth -– Cinderella -- Edge of Tomorrow -- Marie Antoinette --
  • Star Wars:
    Episode VII-The Force Awakens
    Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
    Episode IX-The Rise Of Skywalker
    Rogue One
  • James Bond:
  • Harry Potter:
    The Order of the Phoenix
    The Half Blood Prince
    The Deathly Hallows parts 1 & 2

Q: Can you tell us about your experience recording sound for ‘1917’?

1917 was a very challenging project but ultimately very satisfying to work on.

It was one of the most collaborative films I’ve done. All the departments pulled together creatively under the clear direction of Sam Mendes. We were pushed beyond our comfort zones and it was worth it.

There was a long period of rehearsal and ‘proof of concept’ work. The actors worked with the script and a small camera to plot out how long everything would take. They worked out literally, how long each trench would be, how far from the woods to the farmhouse, how long would the dialogue last from the farmyard to the army truck etc. The set layout was built to serve the drama with director, script and the actors, mapping out how it would play in real time. This gave the Sound Team a chance to plan and test how we would record those performances over the great distances. We would need to capture the dialogue through deep muddy trenches, in and out of buildings, across the battlefield and even down a river.

Q: About your career, were there any early experiences that led you towards sound?

I've always been interested in sound and in listening. I collected vinyl records from age six. My Dad gave me a cassette recorder for my seventh birthday, and I used it to record my birthday party. I loved playing with this new toy. I used to listen to music and draw pictures of what I was hearing. In my teens I got interested in photography and movies – this was such a powerful medium – so when I came down to think about what I wanted to do, the idea of combining sound and movies seemed like the ultimate.

I knocked on doors of production companies and asked if I could come and help out on any shoots. Eventually someone called me and I worked on a few student films which led me to apply to film school. I was turned down for being too young but found a one year traineeship which paid a small bursary and let me go on attachment to professional TV shoots. I worked for a year professionally but got disillusioned by the lack of creativity in the work I was getting so I applied to film school again and got in. This was where I found my place, doing sound recording and editing for every type of film, and never looked back.

Q: When did you first hear of Aaton Cantar recorders?

I started off working on a Nagra recorder and then moved onto DAT which was great at the time. Film-makers always have new creative ideas for the work they want to make and I wanted more tracks to be able to realise some of these ideas. Improvised or overlapping dialogue, shooting in real, noisy locations etc needed more tracks to make it work. The first viable hard disk recorder was the Zaxcom Deva 2 which I used on a couple of films.

I’d read about the Cantar and was interested because they'd taken the heritage of the Nagra and examined why people loved them so much. It had a beautiful analogue sound. The preamp design, the limiters, the low cut filters. A few HDD recorders were coming on the market but Aaton seemed to be the company who cared most about how it actually “sounded”.

Q: So when did you come to purchase your first Cantar?

I was preparing a film called ‘The Constant Gardener’ which was to shoot in Africa. The conditions were hot and dusty and we would be far from any kind of technical help. The Cantar was all sealed against water and dust with rubber gaskets, the drive had its own shock-mounts, the faders were magnetic so no dust could get in through there, the headphone socket has a drain hole in case water gets in and the battery life was good. You could sit it on the ground and because all the connectors are raised up, they wouldn’t touch any dirt or moisture – I was impressed. I proposed to Aaton that I would buy a Cantar if they would lend me a second machine as a back-up for the film which they did (there was no way I was going to find one where we would be shooting in Africa!)

A highlight was recording some beautiful singing from villagers near the border with Sudan. The film earned me my first BAFTA nomination.

Q: There must have been a learning curve?

Yes, but I have to confess, even though it’s a bit risky, there is nothing like being on a film to really try out a new bit of gear! Having the second machine there was my safety although I never used it.

Q: When did you buy your first CantarX-3?

In 2016 I was working on a Biblical film about ‘Mary Magdalene’. We were a small crew, would be shooting up mountains and carrying all our gear. Most scenes had 12 disciples with dialogue, so I needed more tracks, in a package I could carry!

Q: Then you bought a second CantarX-3?

Because I went on to a ’Star Wars’ film. It’s a big movie, there are no excuses for not being prepared. You need to have complete redundancy of gear. Time is money as well so I wanted to have to have one recorder on the cart and one in the bag ready to go.

Q: What are some of the Cantar features that you value in your work?

I like the fact that it’s so solidly built; you don’t have to be over-careful with it in whatever conditions you find yourself in, desert dust or rain, heat or cold.

The recorder has been designed around its purpose and the way people are going to use it, rather than, ‘Here's a square box with inputs and outputs and that's it!’ It's been designed to be ergonomic and intuitive.

The limiters really sound good on the Cantar, and they help you out. You can get away with quite a lot. If something really loud happens unexpectedly, it just copes with it.

With the X-3 you've got redundancy with the recording media, either recording live, or mirroring when idle. You can record monophonic and polyphonic at the same time. It produces a PDF, a spreadsheet file, and an AVID file, with all the metadata right onto the recording media with the audio. You have the feeling that what you're handing over to post-production is going to be taken seriously because it's such a nice, professional package.

Q: Do you use any of the additional fader panels?

I use the Cantarem - the 12 fader panel. The battery draw is negligible. The faders are very good, long and smooth, and again it's designed to be robust, weatherproof; water and sand can just flow through it without getting stuck.

Q: How about the customer experience received from Aaton?

Aaton are always addressing user feedback and making changes. Even with the X-2, you would give some feedback or ask something, they’d quietly take it on board, then without even announcing it, you’d find that it was included in the next software. They'd implemented it without a big fanfare or anything. They don’t promise to do anything before they've actually done it.

The X-3 can save error reports so Aaton can diagnose them.  They have a very good system at the factory where they have working recorders, with all the circuit boards laid out so that they can quickly troubleshoot problems on the hardware or software on the bench.

Jacques Delacoux, president of Aaton-Digital and Transvideo:

“It is very rewarding to work with people like Stuart, he always has a positive attitude and a kind word for the team, I congratulate Stuart on his exceptional career in film sound, and wish him well for his ongoing and future sound recording experiences with his CantarX-3 recorders.”


by Stuart Wilson, a CantarX-3 user and Production Sound Mixer of the multiple award-winning movie ‘1917’, for which he collected a BAFTA® for Best Sound 2020,
(Collected with the rest of the‘1917’ Sound Team of Scott Millan, Oliver Tarney, Rachael Tate, and Mark Taylor at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on February 2nd) and an Academy Award ® for Best Sound Mixing 2020 (along with Mark Taylor, collected on stage at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards® at the Dolby® Theatre on February 9th in Hollywood, California on February 9th)
Article reproduced, with thanks to ‘Production Sound & Video’ magazine of Local 695, Los Angeles

Sam Mendes sent me a script in June 2018 with the plan to shoot in April 2019. It’s unusual to be asked ten months in advance for a film shoot but it is a measure of Sam’s meticulous planning which was key to the methodology of such an ambitious project.
The starting point was Sam’s vision for the film. He felt the drama could be best served by playing in one continuous shot."

Stuart with Spectrum Analyser
Picture#1 Stuart with Spectrum Analyser

The film is all about movement—a journey. It’s given us an unusual challenge because the actors travel so far in a single continuous shot. They could be moving over half a mile, talking all the way. In deep trenches or in and out of buildings. The camera sees 360 degrees, while moving around the actors, so equipment and crew have to be hid- den away.

I set about working out technically how to achieve Sam’s vision in terms of capturing the sound, the voices, the actors’ performance, without getting in the way of the process.

My first thought was to carry my recorder, documentary style, and follow in the blind spot behind the camera, but in planning it out shot by shot, it emerged that:
1. I’d be adding another set of unwanted footsteps to the sound
2. It may not always be physically possible so I’d need a Plan B anyway
3. For the whole choreography to work, it was essential that a number of key crew could hear the dialog live, wherever they were stationed and I would need to be able to broadcast the live mix to the Director, Camera Crew, Special FX, Script Supervisor, Video Assist, etc.—who could be half a mile away over a hill.
A documentary approach wasn’t going to work for this one!

Left Hugh Sherlock and right Tom Fennell - Boom Operators (1st Assistant Sound) Wielding MS stereo booms (Schoeps CMIT and CCM8)
Picture#2: Left Hugh Sherlock and right Tom Fennell - Boom Operators (1st Assistant Sound) Wielding MS stereo booms (Schoeps CMIT and CCM8) to cover part of a 600 yard long trench as the soldiers get their orders.

The essence of Sam Mendes’ film is the performances. The writing, design, rehearsals and choreography of the cast and the camera are all geared toward those magic moments when the actors perform in front of the camera. There needs to be as few distractions for them as possible and, within the limits of the process, the actors—their characters, have to be given the space to inhabit the drama of their situation. If the technical process might get in the way or limit the actors’ freedom to be in the moment of the drama, then it wouldn’t work for the film.

The sound coverage for the most complex shots became like site-specific installations. We installed antenna net- works so we could receive the actors’ microphones con- tinuously over the large areas. We had antennas hidden inHugh Sherlock (left) and Tom Fennell (right)—Boom Operators (1st Assistant Sound) wielding MS stereo booms (Schoeps CMIT and CCM8) to coverpart of a 600-yard-long trench as the soldiers get their orders. 1sandbags, in trees, in piles of mud on top of the trenches, on munitions boxes, etc. I got the Drapes Department to make us some bags from the same material as the army sandbags and used these, as well as leaves and artificial grass smeared in mud to disguise equipment (speakers, receivers, antennas, etc.). Hundreds of feet of fibre-optic cable were used, which was new to me. It’s great what can be achieved with it, but it’s expensive, fragile, and tem- peramental. The cable can fail if the connectors are not absolutely clean (not easy when it’s raining and everything is covered in mud!).

Director Sam Mendes discusses the scene with Script Supervisor Nicoletta Mani and Co-writer Krysty Wilson caims
Picture#3 Director Sam Mendes discusses the scene with Script Supervisor Nicoletta Mani and Co-writer Krysty Wilson caims
Stuart’s crew shaking out the sound carpets
Picture#4 Stuart’s crew shaking out the sound carpets
Colin Firth, General Erinmore
Picture#5 Colin Firth, General Erinmore

We would all be relying on wireless links so I had to establish from the start with the Camera, Video, and RF departments that we would all use the lowest power possible for our transmitters. We concentrated any amplification on the receiver end.I managed to see most of the locations four months before filming so I could examine what could be beneficial or det- rimental to the sound before any construction took place.

This was an exceptionally collaborative production and I was fortunate enough to have previous experience work- ing with key crew; Production Designer Dennis Gassner, DOP Roger Deakins, Camera Operator Peter Cavaciutti, Location manager Emma Pill, and the Costume Designers Jacqueline Durran & David Crossman, so that all helped enormously. (Trinity camera rig op was Charlie Rizek, who was new to the team.)

In pre-production with the camera team and their rigs, we made some useful improvements to the noise of their gyroscopes and a company called Cobham built us a spe- cial fan-less version of their high-powered miniature video transmitter which really made a difference.

I lobbied all departments to prepare to be able to work without electricity so we wouldn’t require the noise of a generator on location.

In the end, we did need one generator for some equip- ment, but there would not be spare power for nonessen- tials as I wanted it to be as quiet as possible and that meantkeeping it small. We found one which looked promising, it was well-silenced and newly built on the back of a Land Rover 4x4. It was in use on another film when we were in prep so I went to that set to have a listen for myself and chat with the sound mixer there. I concluded that it would be workable as long as we kept it at least one hundred yards from the action and we got it reserved for our dates.

There was a period of rehearsals and “proof of concept” work with camera, sound, and cast which gave us a good dummy-run at achieving the distances we would face for the shoot. We were able to try things out and develop a way of working to suit Sam’s process. Any testing or rehearsal is useful. Even putting lav mics on actors when their cos- tumes are not finalised, you always learn something.

I have to thank Sound Mixer Tim White and Boom Op Peter Davis for stepping in on my behalf to this early rehearsal period and solving a lot of the issues.

We had the luxury of being able to plan. We knew where the camera would be, where the actors would be and could plan where to install and hide the infrastructure to be able to capture the sound and relay the mix to everyone else involved in the elaborate choreography of the piece.Planning made it all possible but once the sequence starts, it’s like a theatre show and you can’t stop, if some- thing is not as expected that’s where the jazz comes in and it’s a buzz to improvise.”

It was important that the cast could feel like they were in the drama as much as possible so crew around the camera had to be minimal and agile. Some of the sound crew wore army uniforms so they could blend into the background when the camera moved around in their direction.

For the drama, we had to feel ‘locked-on’ to the lead characters with a continuous connection. This is prin- cipally the dialog and breathing of the actors. The next dimension was to extend beyond the frame into the sup- porting cast and crowd who all have been given authentic roles within the story. We placed additional microphones on and around the set to capture sound of the other sol- diers’ activity and recorded in stereo along the axis of the camera to expand the soundscape out beyond the frame.

George Mackay, Lance Corporal Schofield behind enemy lines
Picture#6 George Mackay, Lance Corporal Schofield behind enemy lines

There was a section where the camera was rigged on a wire cam. These are often used in sports stadiums with four massive lifting cranes at the corners, computer- controlled winches and generators by each one, to control the movement of the wires. In sports, equipment noise is not much of an issue and this setup was too noisy for us to get clean audio. The providers pointed out that there was no dialog in this five-minute section, so maybe it wasn’t a problem. I had to explain to them that, even though there was no dialog, there was still breathing and there were footsteps over many different surfaces. The breathing was as important as dialog because it conveyed the state of the terrified characters as they ventured into no man’s land.

The breathing was subtle and full of detail, conveying a lot about what our heroes were going through as they inched forward out of the relative safety of the trenches into the exposed landscape of no man’s land, diving into shell holes, stumbling past fallen comrades and on toward the enemy lines The sound of their breath conveys so much and keeps us connected to the characters’ experience

Breathing is very difficult to recreate in a dubbing studio because the actor is trying to consciously do something which was unconscious at the time. It’s never as convinc- ing as the original performance.

Sound Team with the mobile sound hub vehicle
Picture#7 Sound Team with the mobile sound hub vehicle L to R Tom Wilkin 2nd Assistant Sound, Hugh Sherlock 1st Assistant Sound, Michael Fearon Sound Trainee, Stuart Wilson (standing) Sound Mixer, Tom Fennell (seated) 1st Assistant Sound, David Giles 2nd Assistant Sound

We swapped out their generators for the quietest ones they could get and we hired in acoustic barrier sheeting for the winches.
The result was one of my favourite shots of the film, barely a word is spoken, yet it is gripping and the connec- tion with the characters is completely held.

I have to pay tribute to lead actor George MacKay’s as a result of his great collaborative spirit, he didn’t have to replace any of his dialog as all the recordings of his live performance were usable. On one shot we had him wear- ing four radio mics at the same time or two body-worn recorders when he went down the river and underwater. It’s very difficult to get wireless transmission through water so body-worn recorders were used as well, in case of any wireless dropouts.

We filmed a lot on a location called Salisbury Plain. It’s a huge area of land owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) where we’d been given permission to film. It felt like a spe- cial opportunity. Hardly anyone lives there. Beautiful rolling countryside that looks the same as it did one hundred years ago. It was quite surreal as if we’d been dropped in the middle of wilderness, as a film crew, free to use it to stage our story.

For sound, it was fantastic and because it’s controlled by the MoD, we were even able to put a ‘no-fly zone’ in place. If there was an aircraft, they’d find out what it was and get it diverted. Come on—for a Sound Mixer—that’s the stuff of dreams!

The only downside is when we could hear live shelling going on in the “impact zone” where the real army were training. We were lucky most of the time and it didn’t impact our sound recording too much.

An antenna carefully designed as vegetation
Picture#7 An antenna carefully designed as vegetation
Stuart’s recording setup with his Cantar X3 bag rig
Picture#8 Stuart’s recording setup with his Cantar X3 bag rig
Stuart and 1st Assistant Sound, Tom Fennell, recording an Army Truck.
Picture#9 Stuart and 1st Assistant Sound, Tom Fennell, recording an Army Truck.
Stuart recording sound effects.
Picture#10 Stuart recording sound effects

I had the best crew who made it all run smoothly, six of us full time and eight on the biggest days.
HUGH SHERLOCK, a former gymnast, equally adept in a choreographed dance with the camera as in using a sewing machine to make transmitter pouches.
TOM FENNELL, long-term collaborator and expert in radio mic concealment and costume negotiations. DAVID GILES, a sound mixer in his own right, ready to back me up and take on the challenge of sending and receiving any audio anywhere.
TOM WILKIN making sure the key crew could hear what they needed to at any point.
MICHAEL FEARON, all-round flexible support assis- tant.
ROB PILLER, Fibre-optic Specialist, and running repairs.
THOMAS DORNAN, Sound Trainee, ready to have a go at anything with a bright future ahead.

It’s the first time I’ve managed to work with the brilliant Sound Editing team of Oliver Tarney, Rachael Tate, and their crew. They’ve really managed to make the best of the location sound and bring it onto another level with the sound design work.

It was a real gift to work with a director that understands the power of sound in performance. In this way, we are party to something one-off and intimate. We tell a precise emotional story and not a general one. Sam pushes every- one to do their best work and that can be hard but when you get there, it’s all worth it. It was a big challenge tech- nically but incredibly rewarding to be part of such a truly collaborative experience.

Stuart’s bag rig, Cantar X3, Cantarem, wireless receivers, both Wisycom and Lectrosonics
Picture#11 Stuart’s bag rig, Cantar X3, Cantarem, wireless receivers, both Wisycom and Lectrosonics
Stuart’s Sound van
Picture#12 Stuart’s Sound van
Another view of Stuart’s cart setup
Picture#13 Stuart’s main recording setup

I used Danish and German microphones, Italian wireless and fibre-optic equipment, a Swiss mix- ing board, French recorders, British boom poles, and German headphones—all in all—a very European kit.

Aaton Cantar X3 recorders
Sonosax SX-ST mixing board
Wisycom wireless equipment (plus two Lectrosonics) DPA & Schoeps microphones
Panamic boom poles
Ultrasone headphones
Clark antenna mast

The Wisycom gear was fantastic. Very well designed and built. Fibre-optical links, high gain antennas. True diversity on every receiver.
An aluminium antenna mast bolted onto the van from a company called Clark Masts was an essential piece of kit, an extra yard of telescopic mast was worth more than adding 250mW to the power output and messing up everyone else’s signals.