Over the course of the last three decades, Ronan Hill has established himself as one of Northern Ireland’s best sound engineers, a reputation built up with his work on a host of leading television and film projects, from Steve McQueen’s acclaimed Troubles drama Hunger to HBO behemoth Game of Thrones. For his efforts on the latter, Hill has garnered a trio of Primetime Emmys, a testament to the quality of his contribution to the world’s most famous TV show. During Creativity Month, the Ballycastle man took some time out to discuss his experiences and the genesis of a successful career in this highly specialised discipline.
How long have you been working as a sound engineer?
Ronan: I have been recording sound professionally for over 30 years.
Could you tell me how you got into this area of the film and television sector?
My career in sound started when I was a boy working with my father, Patsy Hill, who was a freelance cameraman and filmed news and features for BBC NI news. If there was a soft news story close to our home in Ballycastle, I would hope to be involved. It was here I gained experience and a love for the industry.
What drew you to the job?
I appreciated the craft involved and the job allowed me to get to places, see things and meet people you wouldn’t normally meet, and then hear the results of your work later on television.
What does the discipline bring to the broader creative process?
Before I moved firmly into drama, a lot my work was in documentaries, which involved recording events as they happened with no second chances. Here you are also trying to capture the texture of your surroundings to give an impression of being there. I also worked as a boom operator on films and television dramas, learning the skills related to recording dialogue for drama.
I found that the discipline of one really helped the other. As I started to mix drama, I brought all these skills with me. Whilst working on films like Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen, I tried to capture the sound as real events, recording the majority of the sound in stereo to make the audience feel as if they were there.
Can you describe the training/experience you undertook to get into it and to develop your skillset?
Initially my training was on the job from an early age. In my teens, I worked with my father during the school summer holidays and met lots of talented sound recordists who were primarily employed in the BBC’s audio unit. Watching them work gave me a great insight into sound.
I also had a keen interest in photography and, with a view to following in my father’s footsteps, completed an introduction to television course, which covered all aspects of broadcasting and was run by the BBC.
I used the experience I had gained to start recording sound professionally and learn more about lighting and camera operating. The more sound I recorded, the better my skills became and the greater my interest in sound as a career.
What is your career highlight so far?
There have been many highlights in my career. I travelled the world recording sound for documentaries. I have worked on films like Hunger and television dramas like The Fall, with an array of talented cast and crew. But Game of Thrones is the job that has elevated the position of Belfast as a centre of excellence for drama production. Thrones allowed us to improve our production infrastructure by building new sound stages, training a highly skilled crew and showing the world the beauty of our surrounding landscape.
The show also rewarded me with three Primetime Emmys and five Cinema Audio Society awards for my work in sound.
What opportunities are currently out there for aspiring sound engineers and those youngster looking to get into the field?
There are a lot more opportunities these days as the industry is much bigger with several projects happening at the same time.
What tips or advice would you have for those people?
When I am starting a job and have a position for a new trainee, I am looking for a person who not only has a keen interest in sound but also knows the basics. They should have previously worked on set in some capacity and have experience working with microphones and recording sound. Getting basic experience working on short films or TV programmes is essential to gain a position where you will receive more extensive training.
Photos by Helen Sloan - HBO. Discover more about Ronan's work and career to date at www.ronanhillsound.com. Game of Thrones will return to screens for the second part of its seventh and final season in 2019.
This article was originally commissioned as part of Creativity Month 2018, themed this year around creative industries careers and skills. For more articles you may have missed click here.
By Matthew Coyle