Creative Lives — Sound designer Harry Linden Johnson walks us through life in theatre and film
From his days as a chorister, Harry Linden Johnson always envisioned that he would work within the field of music – in one way or another. Fast forward and the sound designer is doing just that. Working for some of theatre’s best directors and sound designers straight out of university. Not long after, Harry found himself catapulted into the professional world of film and theatre. No one project is the same – each coming with its own challenges – like figuring out how to replicate the sound of waves by rubbing plastic bags against a wall. We caught up with him to hear about his latest projects, how he deals with freelance lulls and what it takes to succeed in the world of sound.
Harry Linden Johnson
The Shed, Theatre Royal, End Youth Homelessness, City to Sea
BA Theatre Sound, Central School of Speech and Drama (2014-2017)
How would you describe what you do?
I am a freelance sound designer working across theatre, film and media. I am usually integrated in the creative team alongside other designers from different disciplines. We help to create and support story arcs.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
My working days are extremely varied, depending on what I am working on and where we are in the project. If it’s a piece of theatre, I will either be in a rehearsal room or working from my studio, creating and composing content for the show. This is combined with the long technical days in the theatre, working on the live production of the sound and music.
I focus on creating a sonically balanced presentation for an entire audience. If I am working on a film or other piece of non-live media, it will involve a lot of days working from my studio – recording, manipulating sounds and music to match the images or any other assets I’m working with.
What are the least and most enjoyable aspects of your job?
The nature of this job means that the work tends to stack up into short intense periods where I’m working 12-14 hour days in order to get designs finished on a tight deadline. This is then followed by quieter periods which I use to prepare myself for the next sprint, making for a slightly strange schedule that takes a bit of getting used to. To maintain this long-term, it’s important that I have days off between the busy stretches in order to stop the work taking over my entire life.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Last year I got the chance to go and work on the launch of a brand new theatre and arts space in New York called The Shed. I was a sound and music associate for a strange genre-crossing piece of opera called Norma Jean Baker of Troy. This starred the actor Ben Whishaw and opera singer Renée Flemming. I also worked on a really sonically interesting short film called Turning Tides. This was an abstract surf film highlighting the rise in ocean waste, and for this, I had to create a musical soundscape entirely made out of playing around with plastics.
What skills and tools would you say are essential to your job?
The digital workstation I use most is Logic Pro, both for music and sound creation as well as recording. Recently though I have started using a piece of software called Izotope RX in a slightly strange way based on a recommendation by the composer Paul Clark. This software was created for use in audio restoration and noise deduction but can be co-opted to great effect to mangle and manipulate sounds with really interesting results. This was especially useful while working on Turning Tides as it helped me to create the breadth of different sounds I needed. Especially the more abstract tonal elements.
How important is it to tackle current affairs within your work, and what effect does this have?
Most of the work I am involved with is in some way related to current issues. It means I get the chance to research and be educated on a whole host of things that I would not necessarily be exposed to.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I initially wanted to be an orchestral percussionist and drummer.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
I spent the majority of my early life as a chorister in Wells Cathedral. This meant spending four hours a day before and after school learning and singing new pieces of music. This gave me an extremely thorough musical education which I still draw on today.
Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I did do a degree [BA Theatre Sound at Central School of Speech and Drama] which I really enjoyed, though I think the most useful part of this was the connections that I made during it. I am still working with the people I met while doing my course. I don’t think this is the only way to get along although it can accelerate your progress slightly. Obviously this comes at a significant financial cost, which I’m trying not to think about.
“Being able to take these initial steps while still having support from an educational institution really makes the shock of those first years easier to manage.”
After graduating what were your initial steps?
For me, the transition was fairly smooth as I spent most of my last year working in a professional environment. Being able to take these initial steps while still having support from an educational institution really makes the shock of those first years easier to manage. I got quite lucky in that I got to work as an associate to a sound designer called Gareth Fry straight out of university on a couple of films and theatre shows. As a freelancer, working as an associate is a great way to ease into it.
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
Quite early on in my career, I got the chance to work in an associate design role for productions created by director Katie Mitchell. These projects, which combine film and theatre into incredible live cinematic performances, have allowed me to develop my skills as a designer and work alongside extremely talented artists like Donato Wharton and Melanie Wilson. They have also given me the chance to travel the world and work in some of the most amazing places.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
The biggest challenge I faced recently was probably Turning Tides. There were definitely some long days and nights wondering if it would ever actually work. The whole process was a series of small breakthroughs. Finding I could replicate the sound of waves by rubbing plastic bags on the walls, and then working out you can replicate the sound of a car horn with a pitched down recording of blowing through a plastic tube.
Setting up for Maladie de la Mort at the Teatro Argentina in Turin
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Find people whose work you genuinely admire and see if they will let you shadow them. You’ll definitely learn a lot, and it might even lead to some work in the future.