Blog of a Film Making Technical Instructor

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Neil Sherman
Lead Technical Instructor, Audio Recording

About me

As you’d expect, I like films, but my main passion is music – listening, playing, recording and generally making noise. I currently teach sound recording on numerous courses here at Bower Ashton.

Like many location soundies today, I studied music technology. Film location sound teams use similar technology to music sound engineers. Therefore it’s a common sideways move for technicians who don’t mind holding a mic on a long pole. The ‘talent’ i’m used to working with are actors and presenters.

Music is mainly just a hobby these days – although i’ve been able to pay for a few guitar strings and plectrums over the years by recording it.

In 2006 I started working as an on-set sound assistant (boom swinger) and sound recordist.

I’ve worked on numerous big budget drama productions (Skins, Gavin & Stacey, and recently Dr Who) as well as small productions, similar to the film projects our students work on.

This technical experience is what helps me to train the students of the media courses.

I work at UWE full-time but still think it’s important to work in the industry occasionally. I don’t want to lose touch with the industry i’m preparing people for. I don’t want to become a teacher with old on-set anecdotes, teaching outdated techniques.

What does a technical instructor do?

It depends a lot on the time of the academic year. I do a lot of scheduled workshops with students, showing students the tools of the trade. Before a student is allowed to borrow film making kit, they have to be shown it by one of us.

I aim to keep my workshops very hands-on, with plenty of listening, practice and review.

Although I work in a creative field, i’m a technican, not an artist. Recording good sound in a studio can sometimes be tricky. Recording good sound on a noisy film set can often be a lot more challenging.

The first big teaching challenge is showing the students the difference between good and bad sound. Then the much more subjective difference between ‘good enough’ and ‘unacceptably bad’ sound. I teach skills and practices which can hopefully affect that outcome!

Once all of the scheduled workshops are over, I assist students with their various projects. This could mean recording clear dialogue for a short comedy film or helping a Fine Art student with a multimedia installation. I love the variety and students will often come up with wonderful ideas. Sometimes I don’t understand their creative vision but at least I can help them to sound good!

I work in a small team of very talented technical instructors, each with their own specialism. Our skills overlap a lot though. I think between us, we could probably make a beautiful media masterpiece, but we’re too busy helping students strive to produce their own.

We get approached daily by the students we work closely with. The student project co-ordinators will often put us in touch with students from other sites who want to branch out and learn our specialist skills.

How has Covid changed things?

I started here full-time in January 2020. At the time, making the decision to stop freelancing was difficult, but by March it seemed like the best decision ever! My friends in the film industry were facing a very difficult period of financial uncertainty. However, MY biggest challenge was how I was going to teach the practical skills of sound recording effectively whilst staying safe.

I knew about Panopto before Covid hit, but after March it became a vital tool for providing learning materials to the students. Panopto allows me to film and share training videos with high quality video and sound and share them with anyone. I can link it to quizzes and check stats to see if they are being watched or just skipped.

I’d worked with cameras a bit before, but not done much video editing. By the summer of 2020 I was filming and editing my own training videos.

I also had to learn some new equipment.

The team bought a few small digital switchers which easily allow one person to switch between a number of camera angles, a bit like some YouTubers do these days. It’s such powerful technology-we have a huge TV studio here for multi camera shoots, but this little gadget lets us produce similar results with box smaller than a laptop.

‘Blended learning’ was a teaching style I was aware of, but suddenly it was more important than ever. My online workshops required students to watch videos and complete quizzes and then we could discuss specific questions and plan for individual projects. Students had to reduce the scope of all of their projects. Us instructors had to focus on the most important skills to teach.

Post Covid

Now we’re moving back to face to face teaching, the resources we have at our disposal make it much easier to do our job.

If a student doesn’t make it to one of my workshops, I have videos and quizzes I can refer them to catch up.

I can make students watch pre-recorded material before a workshop. That way I don’t have to spend precious lesson time answering questions like ‘where’s the ON button’ instead I can answer more engaging questions like ‘how can you make me sound like i’m wearing a space helmet?’.

My face to face teaching uses a lot more reference videos and sound examples. I think the students who started in 2020 will wind up with a better education as a result of our new teaching skills.

After leaving the freelance world I wondered if I would find full time work for the same employer a bit too repetetive.

My 2020-2021 UWE experience has been very eventful and it shows signs of continuing. I’m currently learning VR and 3D game design software so I can apply my sound skills to that area. I’ll get to teach an even wider range of students. It’s a cool job.

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