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‘So many things affect your mental state as a freelancer’: Sound editor Lucy J. Mitchell on the exciting and challenging life of a freelancer

Having worked on Guitar Hero Live and Eastenders, Lucy J. Mitchell gives us insight into how she got to where she is today, and the impact of being a freelancer on mental health

Lucy J. Mitchell has been steadily garnering a reputation as one of the most versatile freelance post production sound editors and mixers in the business, boasting an impressive CV across TV, film, documentaries and video games. Here she tells Daniel Gumble about post production career paths, working on one of Britain’s best loved soaps and why more work must be done to address mental health issues in the industry…

At approximately one hour and 20 minutes into PSNEurope’s conversation with Mitchell, our dictaphone runs out of space, forcing us to stop, delete some long forgotten chats and pick up the recording. At this point we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we’re here to talk about – ‘here’ being a part-hipster, part-swanky coffee shop-cum-workspace for south London’s laptop wielding locals and the focus of our interview being Mitchell’s illustrious career to date. “I told you I can talk for England,” she laughs.

She’s not wrong. Since ordering our cappuccinos, the conversation has darted from the back-breaking hours she put in to make it as a sound editor and dubbing mixer, her ambitions to build a voice over studio in her garden, being given a baptism of fire working on Eastenders and the huge toll working as a freelancer can take on one’s mental health. Her passion and dedication to her craft is immediately apparent, as is her honesty and openness in discussing the anxieties and personal difficulties she has faced – and continues to face – in the name of doing the job she loves. To date, she has worked on everything from drama and animation, to documentaries, feature-length films and video games.

“I started as a runner making tea on a low salary, and didn’t have a relevant audio or film degree,” she explains. “And though that never used to be a thing, I did notice I was the only one of my peers that didn’t have one. That was the beginning of the generation where everyone had that training, so I was a little bit intimidated. For me it was very much about going to watch someone else work in your free time and asking questions. So my progression was to first become a tape op in the machine room and I’d be there during lunch breaks and after work, which is quite hard when you’re doing a night shift and an early shift and you’re only being paid for eight hours but are there for 12.”

Though she may have earned her stripes via the more traditional route of learning on the job, Mitchell is quick to point out the benefits of a university education, having spoken to students at numerous universities and herself possessing a classical music degree.

“I would never want to put a negative stamp on universities because some of the courses are great; when I was a tape op I was always jealous I didn’t have one,” she elaborates. “Not that I needed one necessarily, but I feel like it would have made me more confident. I had to learn far more than everyone else just to get to the same level as them, and knew that they would be able to progress to editing and mixing faster than me. But even when I speak at universities I always say that work experience is super important. A lot of people come out of uni and find that work is very different.”

Like most freelancers, Mitchell made her name by taking on projects of all shapes and sizes, rendering her CV an increasingly valuable commodity and enabling her to develop her skills across a multitude of disciplines.

“The first game I worked on was Guitar Hero Live at Shepperton, Pinewood,” she says. “They do a lot of computer games there. The sound for computer games these days is crazy – if you look at the amazing visuals the audio has to match. When I did Guitar Hero Live I was doing it all linear, editing and mixing to 3-4 minute sequences like I would for film or TV, so it wasn’t quite like working on a regular game. At the same time, they were doing another big game project where they were working on the “assets” like movements, footsteps and individual sound effects, rather than sequences. This was more how I was told game would be, and closer to the workflow of another game I worked on for Cloud Imperium Games called Star Citizen. I had to edit and clean up individual lines of Performance Captured dialogue and deliver each line separately. It would then be put into the game engine by audio programmers. A lot of game audio jobs require you to do the audio programming yourself.

“Though the principles are the same, there are differences between doing games, TV, film etc. Things like track layout, as you’ll have way more sound effects tracks on a film, because there are usually way more effects and detail required. With documentaries there is always a lot less time. I always say our job, when editing, is to make the mixer’s life easy. The main difference I have found is prepping for a dialogue edit; in film and drama you need to use an EDL from the picture editor to conform all the microphones and takes from the audio rushes. I was used to just loading an AAF which had all the source audio I needed.”

One of the projects Mitchell counts among her favourites in recent years came in the form of a feature film she worked on back in 2017.

“I did the sound effects for a rom-com with David Tennant last year called You, Me and Him,” she recalls. “I was doing all the sound effects, but because we had the time scale and budget, I got sent all the foley to sort through, and was asked to merge our sessions to prep for the effect premix. Because I come from documentaries I was thrilled to have to time to go over it more thoroughly and started watching scenes without the dialogue and figuring out if there was anything on screen I wasn’t hearing. I also attended the pre and final mix, which always helps me improve my editing. In the final mix, the mixer Rob Farr sat me down at the end of the mixing desk with my own Pro Tools and fader pack and asked me to do any tweaks he wanted on the FX mix so he could concentrate on the dialogues. I enjoyed that as I got to do more than my original effect editor role; I was actually given supervising effects editor as my credit.

Arguably the highest profile name to grace Mitchell’s client list is Eastenders, for which she has applied her sound mixing and editing skills on a freelance basis for several years now. “It’s a very fast turnaround on Eastenders”, she comments.

“It was a good stepping stone between factual TV and full on drama because of the middle-ground schedule. I did well there because of my speed, which again came from making documentaries. I was able to add more background detail and individual effects to scenes rather than just the “say what you see” style effects editing often needed on factual stuff with tight deadlines. It has helped my creativity and gave me my first dubbing mixer credit so It’s been a really good job for me. I hope to always be freelancing for them.”

Outside of her freelance work, Mitchell is also in the midst of building a new studio in her garden, aimed primarily at the voiceover recording, foley and mixing sector. Her goal, she tells us, is to create a space that offers a high-end spec but at an affordable rate.

“It’s a huge job but if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing properly,” she says. “I’ve worked with good companies with high standards so if I’m going to offer new services I need to match those levels. Obviously we’re not going to compete with the Pinewoods of the world. I don’t imagine high budget features will come to us for their foley. Those studios are fantastic but they are expensive for independent film companies or lower budget TV productions; not a lot of people can afford those but they might be able to afford something a little bit cheaper. A lot of productions don’t book foley because there’s no room in their budget, and there doesn’t seem to be many foley studios that fit within these budgets, so there’s a bit of a gap in the market for us. I have some fantastic freelance voice over directors, foley artists, sound engineers and composers interested in being part of the studio who all are very experienced in their craft, so we are not going to be cheaper because our quality of work is any less, they will be paid their usual rates. It’s just my studio mark up will be less than a Soho facility.”

Like many in her position, Mitchell is well accustomed to the long hours and high-pressure demands that come with being a freelancer. However, among the major challenges she has encountered is the impact it has had on her mental health, from the uncertainty that can come with freelancing to the loneliness of being locked away in a room for days on end mixing.

“I’m lucky that my husband is also a freelancer, because it can be a really lonely job,” she tells us. “I had anxiety problems in general before, but I think that’s enhanced because of my job. I find that I am always comparing myself to others. With the internet and social media you are always aware of what other freelancers are doing and it can make you question yourself as to why you perhaps haven’t got a particular job. The internet and social media is obviously wonderful for a lot of people but it can also make things quite difficult. You wonder if you’re where you should be, or you think you should be. And as a sound editor, whether you are working from home or in a studio, you’re on your own all day, which can be difficult. It’s a lonely job and it can take its toll. Getting a dog has helped a lot because it gets me out of the house. There have been times when I’ve been working alone from home for four days or more and then realised I hadn’t been outside for the whole time. You just don’t notice this and it’s not good for you.”

A solution to these issues is far from being established, with budgets continuing to slide with production values and demand for jobs passing them in the opposite direction. For now, Mitchell believes the key is to raise awareness of mental health issues within the industry and for the sector to work harder to provide better support for those who are suffering.

“Budgets are getting smaller and smaller but people are expecting the same standards of work,” she concludes. “You can be completely drained but are still expected to work these incredibly long days, and I don’t see how that’s going to change. Something I’ve found useful is reading things that people have written about their own experiences. I read a piece on Soundgirls.org about ‘the burnout’ recently and it really made me feel like I wasn’t alone.

“Mental health is a big issue that I don’t think a lot of people consider. So many things affect your mental state as a freelancer – the worry of not knowing if you weren’t re-hired because they don’t need anyone, or if you just weren’t good enough; the stress of not having any work booked and not knowing when the next job will come; managing your finances etc. You need to be quite headstrong to essentially be a business as a freelancer. But I do love it and it is, and has been, the best choice for me, my lifestyle, and my career.

“A worry I have, although not an immediate concern, is when I have children. Obviously there is the money side, especially because both my husband and I are freelance – but actually what worries me a lot is taking time out from work (including the social media side of work) and being forgotten. I’m still not the go-to person for drama and film – people have freelancers they have been using for years – and if I then disappear for however many months to have a baby, I worry about people never thinking of me for a job and having to almost start again. Hopefully my freelancers can do some foley and voiceovers in the studio while I take time off – maybe that will keep my foot in the door a bit. Who knows!“ 

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