Juraj Mravec: I moved to London to find out why US and UK films sound so much better

Juraj Mravec, photo: Ian Willoughby

Scores if not hundreds of millions of television viewers around the world have enjoyed the work of Czech sound designer Juraj Mravec. The 43-year-old has worked on a long list of shows that includes such commercial and critical hits as The Crown, Veep, Black Mirror and Peaky Blinders. When Mravec stopped by at our studio, the conversation took in everything from the difference between international and Czech productions to what precautions he takes to protect his hearing.

What qualities do you need to be a successful soundman?

“You need to be able to listen, but I’m not sure if there’s anything such as a talent thing for sound.

“You need to have some reasonably sophisticated hearing. But a lot of that I think comes with practice – you can really train your ears up quite a lot.”

“I think it’s more like you have to be involved in the film and you have to be able to work with films and to be able to follow the story of a film – that’s kind of crucial.

“And then obviously, yes, you need to have some reasonably, I don’t know, sophisticated hearing.

“But a lot of that I think comes with practice – you can really train your ears up quite a lot.”

On your IMDB entry it lists you as a sound effects editor, a Foley recordist, an ADR [automatic dialogue replacement] mixer. What exactly do you do?

“These are all sub-professions of a sound designer on film or a TV show.

“If you look at what happens with how a soundtrack is produced, then you obviously start on the set, you start with the recording, and you have a person who does that.

Photo: Pexels, Pixabay / CC0

“That’s one profession and, basically, especially in the UK and the US, these are people who do just that – they don’t work in the studio, they’re just on the set. They’re called production sound mixers.

“And then you go into post-production, when you prepare all the sounds, when you edit them, record them, you have to find them somewhere – that’s the part which I’m involved in.

“There are several sub-professions in there. You have to record some dialogues with the actors, because some dialogues might have been missed on the set, or the set was noisy and it just wasn’t possible to record everything, or the director wants to record a new line.

“That’s what an ADR mixer does.

“Some sounds are missing and will be done by a sound effects editor. They work with huge sound libraries and you may go out and record some sound effects, such as atmospheres of a place or the sounds of a car going by.

“And a sound effects editor will then collect these and edit them, work with them and work them into the picture.

“Then there’s this beautiful thing called Foley, which is basically sounds recorded in a studio in sync with the picture. Such as there’s a scene where somebody comes into a restaurant and they get glasses, you actually have glasses in the studio and you put them down on the table – and the Foley artists do that in sync with what’s happening. They can also do footsteps.

“I liked The Crown for the story and for what it is, but I also liked it for the possibilities we had with sound. Because there was so much attention to detail.”

“You have dialogue editors who cut just the dialogue and clean it up – it’s amazing what they can do these days.

“And then you have the mixer, who mixes all these sounds together.”

Typically would you be on the set for the shoot of a TV series, for example?

“I work as a sound effects editor or a supervising sound editor, which means I’m responsible for the whole part of editing all the sounds, so I wouldn’t be, no.

“That would be the production sound mixer who’d be recording the sounds on the set.

“But what might happen is if there is something quite special going on on the set that we know right from the start is going to be really difficult to get from either libraries or just to recreate again, then we will go as a second team on the set and hopefully we’ll get a chance to record the stuff.

“There’s this whole thing of doing Czech versions of all the foreign films. Most of the actors do that for a living and I think it somehow damages them.”

“For example, historical cars: If there’s something happening set in the second world war and you have all this equipment on the set, then hopefully you’ll be able to negotiate with the production that they’ll let you spend half a day or a day on the set somewhere slightly to the side – and be able to record all these things. Because that’s obviously very precious.

“So I will go on the set in this sense, to pick up various sounds, but not actually to the recordings of the actors and of the action – somebody else will do that.”

Your list of credits is incredibly long. I think I saw something like 100 on IMDB. Are there any projects that you’ve worked on that you’re particularly proud of?

“I think the project which I liked the most was The Crown, because it was just my kind of show, I suppose; it’s not like I’m saying it’s better or worse than something else – I really liked it.

“It was a really good script and a really good story. And it’s still going on, actually.

“I really enjoyed that. I liked it for the story and for what it is, but I also liked it for the possibilities we had with sound. Because there was so much attention to detail, as there was in all the other elements of the whole show – from costumes to camera – that it was really challenging but at the same time really satisfying.

Kuky se vrací [Kuky Returns], photo: Czech Television

“In the Czech Republic I really enjoyed working on the feature film Kuky se vrací [Kuky Returns] by Jan Svěrák, which I thought was the most fun project to work on.”

Also I guess if you work on something like The Crown, that’s a world hit – that’s one of the biggest TV shows of the year on the planet, right?

“It is and it was at the time when it came out. It was Netflix’s number one show – they had never spent more money on a show. They have now, but at the time that was the biggest budget they’d ever done on a TV show.

Kuky se vrací [Kuky Returns], photo: Czech Television

“And yes, luckily it was very successful.”

Everybody says that there’s a really high level of technical standards in the Czech Republic when it comes to filmmaking, and that’s why so many foreign crews come here. But when you work here and when you work in London or maybe in the States, how does it actually compare in reality? Are the standards comparable here and there?

“I think in certain aspects they are. In certain aspects, less so.

“The reason foreign filmmakers come here is for the filming, for the actual production on the set.

“I think that’s because obviously they can get very good prices, but also the crews are quite amazing here and, as you said, they get good technical expertise.

“So I think the people who work on the set are really quite good.

“Then when you go to post-production. What I’ve been able to see, is that a craft such as sound design – which is what I do, I can’t really talk about everything because I haven’t experienced it enough – in terms of the post-production of sound it is quite different, I have to say, in London or in Los Angeles.

“That’s actually the main reason why I went there, about 10 years ago. Before I moved to London the big question for me was, How come those American and British films sound so great? When I go to the cinema they just sound amazing. We spend all this time working on this Czech film and it sounds good, but you can just tell, it’s not there, it’s not the same thing.

“So I was really intrigued by this question and I really wanted to get to the bottom of it [laughs] and I thought the only way to find out was to move there, basically, and to become part of the teams.

“It took me some time to find out, but I think the main reason is, one of the things I observed is, that there is a way of actually looking after the craft and passing it on to young people – which there isn’t in the Czech Republic, with sound.

“I don’t go any more to very loud places, such as concerts and night clubs. Just because it’s too much for the ears.”

“For example, here you become part of a team and everybody kind of learns for themselves. It’s quite exciting because you get thrown at things and you have to figure them out yourself, and you do, and you make mistakes and you learn from them. And it takes you a couple of years, but you get there.

“It doesn’t really happen like that in London. You basically have to assist someone for a couple of years and you have to learn things the way they’re doing them.

“That can be quite excruciating, quite difficult, and maybe sometimes quite depressing, but it actually gets you into a really good place really fast.

“Another thing I noticed is somehow there is more competition between people. I don’t know why. We always have people coming into the studio asking for a job. People want to start at the lowest position possible as a runner.

“Whereas here it can even be slightly difficult to find people so that you can manage the projects. That’s another thing.

“And then I think, of course, the scale of the industry and the budgets are different there.

“That also has a substantial impact. And the attention all the projects get from the producers is massive.”

I have a question about Czech films. I’ve often sensed when I’m watching them that the actors have dubbed themselves later, which I am aware also happens elsewhere. But is it the case that it’s done more in the Czech film industry? Or is it the case that it’s done less well and is more obvious? Sometimes it’s seems SO obvious to me.

“I agree with you, unfortunately [laughs].

“It’s not done more than it would be on British or American films. It’s done not as well – that’s the simple answer.

“There’s several reasons for it. Part of it is actually the skill, to be honest, of the sound designers. It’s done slightly different here than it is in London. There are more people involved in London, more people supervising it, and that does help.

“And there is a certain method which is slightly different, which really helps.

“Another thing that I think is really not helping with Czech films and the voicing and revoicing is that there’s this whole thing of doing Czech versions of all the foreign films.

Photo: European Commission

“Most of the actors do that for a living – and I think it somehow damages them.”

Do they articulate too much or something?

“No. It’s a very fast thing – they have to do a whole film in a couple of hours basically, with the exception maybe of some animated films for cinema, where it’s a real proper set-up and they have to time to do it.

“With all these television things which are dubbed for television into Czech they just have to do it really quickly, so they basically read through the script with a little bit of acting and the sync’s not there – because it can’t be, because it’s a different language – and there’s a certain tone in their voice when they do that and I think that kind of stays with them for the ADR.

“I find it incredibly difficult actually to snap them out of this.

“And the British and American actors have never had the opportunity to do this, which is probably a good thing.”

I’m almost surprised to learn that there’s so much of this revoicing, or dubbing of actors by themselves, in the UK and the States. Is it really a lot? If I watch an episode of Veep or something, how much of it is recorded authentically on the set and how much is added later, or changed later?

“Of course it differs for every film. But I would say about 80 percent is the original dialogue and 15 to 20 percent or so is redone.

“Obviously we try to use as little as the re-recorded stuff as possible, because it’s incredibly difficult to recreate a performance in the studio when it first happened on the set with, I don’t know, 100 people around, in the actual environment. It’s just different.”

In the same way that, for example, an opera singer when they go on a plane is always sucking lozenges and taking different measures to make sure their voice is not affected, do you have to look after your ears?

“Yes. I do to an extent, because it’s a long career and there are long days at work.

Photo: Andrés Rodríguez, Pixabay / CC0

“And especially when you’re mixing and especially when it’s for cinema, but even for TV these days, you work at quite loud levels.

“The day can be eight, nine hours, but also 10, 11, 12, if it has to be, and your ears really get tired.

“There isn’t that much you can do, but I don’t listen to anything on headphones, for example, at the end of the day. When I walk home or when I walk on the street, I’m just listening to the street – I really like listening to the atmosphere of the world around us.

“That’s one thing. The second thing is I don’t go to very loud places, such as concerts and night clubs – not any more. Just because it’s too much for the ears.

“I’ve even had a couple of times when we went to the pub and we had to go a different one [laughs] because it was just too loud, with the music and everything.

“And, yes, there are actually these very clever earphones, or actually like pods, that are done as a mould especially for your ear. It’s like a print of your ear and you put it inside your ear, it fits really well, and it takes the level of the sound down by 15 DB or something like that.

“In theory it should still sound the same. It doesn’t exactly, but it’s actually pretty good.

“So I have those. Just in case I know I’m going to be somewhere where it’s loud, I have them available.

“You may even use those on a mix if somebody else on the mixing stage is going through a very loud sequence – just like re-editing, re-editing, re-editing.

“So yes, I’m doing these things. You kind of have to, in order to keep your ears fresh.”