An interview with Erin Millican who is studying Location Sound at the National Film and Television School
Jessica (J): So you’re doing your Post Grad at the moment at the National Film and Television School (NFTS), how did you get into that?
Erin (E): Yes, I am! I’m very much at the beginning of my journey into Location Sound Recording which is an incredibly exciting place to be. I’m currently surrounded by wonderfully supportive, inspiring and talented people from many different facets; I feel extremely lucky to be in the position I am at the moment.
I guess to start at the beginning, I did what a lot of young adults do upon leaving school – I travelled and worked hospitality jobs here and there. It wasn’t until I applied for University that I saw the potential to have a career in sound. It’s funny, I felt that most people I met during my Undergraduate degree gravitated towards music and studio-based production work, which did leave me feeling a little alienated and disappointed in myself at times as I couldn’t seem to get as passionate as they could about it. It wasn’t until a module that explored Post-Production Audio for Vision that I started to find my path. It was a great experience, and I’m so grateful to have been able to learn the skills I have in that area, but I often found it difficult working the very long, isolated hours sitting at your computer in one room, headphones on, working away. You go into this sort of bubble where you listen to one thing so many times it doesn’t even sound like a real sound anymore, which can sometimes be draining!
When we started coming out of the COVID lockdowns I was able to gain some location experience, for example, I did a bit of sports broadcasting. I think that’s when I first realised how much I liked being in the thick of the action, having to make decisions and take responsibility on the spot. You have to trust the knowledge that you’ve learnt, trust your skills and believe in yourself to be capable. Of course, it can be pretty nerve-wracking when it’s the first time putting yourself out there to the test like that, but the sense of self-satisfaction that I felt when I got that reassurance from others that I was doing a good job just had me hooked I think!
I applied for the NFTS whilst actually writing my dissertation, which was maybe a little stressful! But I was so proud of myself for how hard I worked for my degree, and I managed to graduate as Valedictorian with a First Class Honours, which felt amazing to gain that level of recognition. It was absolutely the right decision for the NFTS to be the next step for me as it’s such a vocational, specific course in exactly what I’d love to pursue.
J: What is it that you study there, at the NFTS?
E: So the course is “Location Sound Recording for Film and Television” and it’s what it says on the tin really, we are learning on real shoots with real funding, it’s exciting and terrifying at the same time! You’re definitely thrown in at the deep end, but it’s a fantastic way to learn at such a fast pace – you can feel your confidence in your abilities progress so quickly, especially under the mentorship and tutorage of really experienced industry professionals.
We’re absolutely encouraged to pursue opportunities beyond our immediate course as well, for example, last October I accompanied a documentary Director to the port of Dover to explore the subject of asylum seekers attempting to cross the English Channel. In contrast to, say, feature films where you are within a sound team, it was just the two of us due to the sensitive nature of the topic being covered. I think being in that scenario, where your director is trusting your decisions and you’re relying on each other’s individual skills to be one cohesive unit in very real situations, was a real moment for me where I got excited about my future in the industry. I just loved it. My Director was fantastic, I have a lot of admiration and respect for him. We actually ended up being approached by multiple News companies regarding one of my soundbites, which was a real feat for me at this stage.
Similarly, I’ve now been fortunate enough to also gain experience on commercial shoots, within advertising, factual entertainment for television and even tried my hand at fisher booming! They all move at completely different paces; you work with different sized teams and you have to be able to show versatility and adapt your skillset to each situation. I think if you’d told me 5 years ago that I’d be able to navigate all these instances I would have been in disbelief! I’m not embarrassed to admit that in all honesty, I didn’t even know what certain departments on a film set did or what their roles were, even one year ago. I didn’t ever think that environments like the ones I’m in now would be accessible to me, it’s a complete pleasure.
J: Have you ever noticed that because you’re a woman you get mistreated within the sound industry?
E: I’ve been very fortunate so far whereby no one has said anything particularly discriminative directly to me. I am coming into the industry in a time where women are overtly supporting other women, where we’re breaking boundaries, we’re defying stereotypes, we’re tackling any prejudice head-on and changing the culture of the industry that may have previously held women back. I feel fortunate that I can feel confident in myself as a woman, as I’m sure a lot of women in the industry before me have had thoughts of “I’ve just got to accept this”, which you could say is fundamentally suppressive. It feels great to be in a time where we are challenging that.
I think, actually, one thing that is quite difficult for women, that perhaps isn’t so frequently spoken about, is the pressure society constantly puts on us to look younger than we are, however then will question our professionalism, knowledge or expertise based on our age, or I suppose “perceived age”. I certainly feel this is at a disproportion to men. Speaking for myself, I’m 25 and have dental braces at the moment; I often get comments about how I don’t look my age or that I look very young, which can knock my confidence as I don’t want to be judged on that. I have definitely been in situations where I do feel like because I look young and specifically because I’m female, I have been treated differently, and I’m sure others do too in other male-dominated industries. Sometimes you can feel as though you’ve been put in a position where you have to prove yourself unnecessarily and we shouldn’t have to. We need to remember that we are here in the position we’re in because we have the relevant skills and knowledge to do our jobs and do them well. I think in those scenarios it can become very easy to put extra pressure on yourself to almost “perform”, where otherwise you wouldn’t, for example trying to hide the fact that your arms are wobbling when holding a boom pole on full-extension outside in strong wind! Of course, it’s going to happen, but you don’t want to be questioned out of fear of not appearing capable.
J: I think the main thing I’ve gotten out of this is that because there’s such prejudice in the industry and it’s been this way for such a long time it doesn’t always come across in the right way. I do feel like it’s changing and for the better which is good. A lot of the women have said they never know whether they don’t get hired because they are a woman, but they do get rehired because they're good at what they do. I think it’s important to remember that if you work hard you will do well.
E: I couldn’t agree more. I’m definitely an advocate for hard work and a positive, proactive attitude. I believe it will get you wherever you wish to go. Your gender should not be a representation of what you can achieve in any industry and equally the same for men in more female-dominated industries.
J: Just to round off, what advice would you give women not only trying to get into this industry but any other industry that is heavily male-dominated?
E: Don’t be afraid. If you’ve found something that brings you joy, that you’re passionate about and that makes you want to show up in the world, don’t hold back. Whether you’re in a heavily male-dominated industry or surrounded by other women, I think no matter what the ratio is, no matter what the preconceptions are, if you can secure an environment where people are rooting for you, where people want to see you succeed, you’ll not only do well but you’ll be happy doing it! Whether that’s as a woman surrounding yourself with other women who are cheering you on or equally by men who are cheering you on. That type of support and appreciation is key.
The shoot I was on this week was with almost an entirely female crew, which felt like a really tight-knit, inclusive unit. Yet the one I did the week before featured a male cast and mostly male crew, which equally was a pleasure to be a part of because we were each other’s greatest advocates on set.
I think it’s also important though to be the change you wish to see. I think as long as we are prepared to have these conversations where we get out of our comfort zones and question ourselves and each other, I believe that's what is going to move us forward. It’s become so easy to berate each other anonymously online and unfortunately, there is a lot of this in our digital age, but I think what a lot of people forget is that it takes real guts to confront others in reality, for example, onset, and it can be especially daunting to challenge someone we otherwise like and get along well with. I do believe we are coming to a point now where people are prepared to do that more often and I will always support that. We can be assertive without being confrontational.
J: I find when we, as women, are assertive we can get called bossy.
E: Absolutely, we need to change our language. There are these words that are generically associated with women like “bossy” or “whiny”. Why is that different to a man’s “confidence”?
J: It’s a good point. You have to make sure you’re confident in the industry because you know what you are doing, otherwise you wouldn’t be there. Stick to your guns.
E: Absolutely. I have a quote written in my phone notes by Carl Jung that I often look to when I need an extra boost and I think it holds such an important sentiment. Hopefully, it can bring the same comfort it brings me to anyone else that needs it - it reads, “I am what I choose to become”.
If you would like to get in contact with Erin then please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org