Production Sound Mixer Nina Rice Has her Best Day Ever with Lectrosonics

The Barbie movie is much more than the summer blockbuster of 2023. Its massive commercial success and critical acclaim has made it the flagship of a fleet of films envisioned, created, and narratively driven by women. Thanks to production sound mixer Nina Rice, that’s just as true of the audio cart as the director’s chair. Rice’s credits also include Persuasion, This Is Going To Hurt, and November’s psychological thriller Saltburn (directed by Carrie Cracknell, Lucy Forbes, and Oscar-winner Emerald Fennell, respectively), as well as several episodes of historical drama The Crown, which chronicles the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. She spoke to us about the role Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid Wireless has played in ensuring flawless audio across her body of work, with equipment for Barbie including a bevy of SSM micro-compact transmitters, legacy SMB transmitters, HMa plug-on transmitters for boom and plant mics, and SRc receivers alongside their predecessor the SRb.

What was your pathway into mixing production sound?

I started at the bottom, so to speak. I went to the National Film and Television School at Beaconsfield back in 2010. Once I graduated from there, I got a trainee job on a BBC show called New Tricks. I was in TV drama for a bit, but I also worked on my own documentaries, including one in Chicago called Dream Catchers.

Then, I went back to assisting in sound on The Crown, and worked my way up to boom operator, then mixing second unit. For the most recent season, the lovely sound professional who pushed me into mixing, Chris Ashworth, got me back for the last season and I mixed two episodes.

Then I wound up on Barbie and on the feature film Saltburn, which is directed by Emerald Fennell. [Editor’s note: Fennell won a 2021 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the film Promising Young Woman. Fennell also played midge in Barbie.] Another feature for Netflix was I Used To Be Famous, which had a lot of live music and playback. Persuasion had a lot of creaky corsets in which I had to hide mics, and I just finished a little feature called Joy, which chronicles the invention of in-vitro fertilization. There was a lot of dialogue to capture in that.

How did the call to work on Barbie come about?

I heard that Greta Gerwig was directing, and I loved her previous films like Lady Bird, Little Women, and her acting role in Frances Ha. I said to my agent, “I have to get a meeting with her for this.” My agent got me into the room with her, and we chatted about our children, who are around the same age. Then she told me all about how Barbie was a musical inspired by the 1950s, and how she wanted the plastic void of Barbieland to be very different from the scenes in the real world. There were going to be a lot of voice-overs and dance numbers, so I remember taking loads of notes and knowing that I’d need to get a great team together. When I got home, I learned that I had been offered the job!

Do you think anything in particular gave you an edge to get the Barbie gig?

I suppose it was a good thing that in I Used To Be Famous, I had worked on integrating dialogue with a lot of recorded and live music. I think she felt like she could trust me to do similarly on Barbie.

What was your first encounter with Lectrosonics wireless equipment?

My journey with Lectrosonics actually started on a documentary series I shot in Japan called Becoming You. It's about the first 2,000 days of childhood from birth and it included a lot of small children. That’s why I used the SSM — they’re tiny and easy to hide. I tested another brand which turned out to be not as good, so I wound up purchasing the whole lot of Lectro packs I had rented. 

From there, I got my first drama shoot, a series called This Is Going to Hurt, and we won the Royal Television Society Award for best sound. At that time, I got the HMa transmitters for our boom mics, which I paired with active aerial antennas.

I absolutely love using Lectro. I haven’t had any problems with it, going from little documentaries to TV series to major feature films. No matter the location or amount of moving around. 

What is your process for frequency coordination and setup?

When I get to a set or location, I always do a scan with my receivers. With the width of spectrum being taken up by 5G service, not to mention lighting departments having wireless applications, you need to have your wits about you and test everything. For that reason, I love the flexibility of Lectrosonics and especially the LectroRM app [a third-party product], which lets me remotely control transmitter packs so I don’t always have to engage the artists directly on set, which can be quite tricky.

Did you rent additional equipment for Barbie, or did you just bring your own kit?

I had quite a roster of kit built up for Barbie but ended up purchasing more over the course of the job. I used the Sound Devices Scorpio [mixer-recorder] and CL-16 [fader control surface], and some older Lectrosonics as well — the SMBs, which are great for placing with plant mics around the set. In Saltburn, I used this setup underneath actual mud for a scene in a graveyard, and it performed brilliantly.

Could you tell us a little more about Saltburn?

It’s a very dark, Gothic sort of drama about an Oxford university student who spends a summer of debauchery at the estate of a wealthy friend. It takes you on a roller coaster through all your emotions. I loved working with Emerald Fennell, as she’s not scared to make audiences feel uncomfortable.

It was a challenge on set every day because it was not just about capturing all the dialogue. There was a lot of music and capturing other sounds on set to create certain vibes —a party scene, for example.

What were some of the most challenging scenes to mix in Barbie?

The ones in which the cast wore very little clothing, such as the beach scenes in Barbieland. The film was very collaborative across departments, so we worked very closely with the costumers to come up with solutions for hiding transmitters on the artists. We had mics sewn into the very starchy shirts the guys wore, for example. Again, the size of the SSM gave us that flexibility. Also, we sewed a DPA 4060 mic and entire SSM pack into Margot Robbie’s massive Barbie wig. This allowed us to capture the dialogue very cleanly. For the massive dance scenes, we gave the artists and dancers in-ear monitors so they could all keep in time.

Does that include scenes such as the “I’m Just Ken” number, which was practically a whole mini-musical in itself?

Yes. Also, we had two packs sewn into Ryan Gosling’s big fur coat. One had a DPA 4062 mic with the gain set low for the shouts, to avoid overloads. Another SSM was set with higher gain to capture the whispers and quieter dialogue. Nonetheless, I think even a single SSM handles a wide dynamic range very well when paired with an excellent microphone. This was the case, as Ryan wore a third pack for when he takes his coat off during that number.

What gear did you employ on the receiver end?

We were using SRC and SRB receivers.

Did you face any specific challenges in terms of range?

More likely Robert Sharman would have, as he did all the “real world” mixing in Los Angeles. I worked in the U.K. and mixed all the sound for the scenes in Barbieland. We had quite similar kit, so it was easy to liaise with him.

As for my own range needs, I love the combination of the Lectrosonics radio mics and the active aerials. I have 50 meters of cable on them, and assistants are always placing and relocating them. On Saltburn, we were shooting in a huge estate which was like an old castle with a lot of thick walls. This setup enabled us to get good range despite that.

Barbieland was such an immersive world. The audience really accepts it as this parallel universe. How large was that set, how much of it did you have to cover, and how many wireless channels were needed at once?

When I first walked onto that set, I asked myself, “How the hell are we going to aim booms at this?” Because the Dream Houses are open from front to back, just like the actual toys, so you can see everything. My boom operators were harnessed into platforms just out of frame, which they loved because it wasn’t your average day on set — they got to be high up in their own little perches.

For the big disco dance number in the Dream House, and also the finale, I had up to 18 channels of wireless going at times. Also, the whole scene on the beach where all the actors are saying “Hi Barbie” and “Hi Ken,” that went up to 18 as well because we went around recording everyone.

Altogether, I had the SSMs, SMVs, and older SMBs. I mixed between all these different generations of packs, and even the older products showed exceptional audio quality.

On that subject, what’s your general opinion of Lectrosonics’ sound quality? Naturalness of spoken dialogue, for example?

I’ve done tests before, recording things from whispers to shouts, using the same actor and microphone. Not only do I find the audio quality excellent, but it’s my team and assistants who have to be most hands-on with them — they’re the ones placing packs on the actors — and they’re constantly singing their praises. I was struck by the consistency of the audio whether using a current-model pack or a legacy one; it was fantastic across the board.

You mentioned the importance of the compact size of the SSM. Is there a trade-off in terms of battery life?

We only need to change the NP-50 batteries in the SSMs once a day — at lunch, usually. This means we don’t have to disturb artists as much, which would have been tricky given all the costumes and sets of Barbieland.”

Where was the set for Barbieland located and what was the RF environment like there?

It was at Warner Brothers Leavesden Studios in the U.K., where the Harry Potter studio tour is also located. The RF environment was perhaps not as crowded as L.A., but for every shoot, I work on a frequency planning chart ahead of time. The walls are thick, so that helps, but I communicate with other mixers who may be working in the compound to space out the frequencies.

Was the overall rig good at rejecting interference, avoiding crosstalk, and the like?

Absolutely. The only problem I did have was a one-time conflict with the transmitters and receivers the lighting department was using. It created an undesirable noise in our receivers but was not the fault of the Lectros. All I needed to do was get my aerials far enough away from them, and everything was fine.

Did any Lectrosonics packs ever get dropped, or wet, or otherwise abused? If so, how did they hold up?

I have had an SSM fall down a toilet. I took out the battery, dried everything off, and put it in a quarantine box for a while. I was dreading having to send it back and being down one pack. After it was thoroughly dry, miraculously it turned back on again and worked. I couldn’t believe it.

I’ve also had actors drop them from time to time, but they’re very robust. Not so much on Barbie as on documentaries. Both the varied locations and the fact that people aren’t accustomed to radio mics can lead to some battering. Again, I’ve never had a unit fail under such circumstances.

What is the most important non-technical skill for doing your type of work, for those who aspire to your level of career?

The best non-technical thing is to learn how to listen — to the space and to people. There’s also planning, knowing all the tools you’re going to use ahead of time and how they work together, though I suppose that’s more on the technical side. But non-technically I’d say yes, developing your ears and listening skills is crucial.

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ABOUT NINA RICE

Nina Rice is an Irish UK based Production Sound Mixer. Nina studied Sound Recording at The National Film & Television School. After graduating, Nina became a trainee on BBC drama, then sound assisted on Netflix' ‘The Crown’. She worked her way up the ladder working on various productions with several mixers over the course of her career. Nina was fortunate to be trained by one of the leading drama industry Production Sound Mixers, Chris Ashworth.

In 2020 Nina was scouted by the first and only female crew agency RA (Reel Angels) founded by Lulu Elliott to specifically represent women in these technical roles. Lulu placed Nina on her very first mixing job, to which astonishingly led Nina to win the prestigious Royal Television Society Award, for Best Drama Sound In 2022 for her work on Sister Pictures drama ‘This is Going to Hurt’. Since cutting her teeth in drama, Nina has now mixed 5 features including the mega summer blockbuster ‘Barbie’ which was co-produced by Margot Robbie's production company Luckychap. Followed swiftly with a second Luckychap Production was ‘Saltburn’ which was directed by Emerald Fennell, who happened to be one of the Barbies!

Nina is the UK’s leading feature female sound mixer, as there are only a handful here, but on one has yet to break the glass ceiling in major motion pictures like Nina has. Who is now on the contenders list with not one but two films, to be potentially the first female Production Sound Mixer to win an Oscar for Best Sound in history! Nina is very passionate to actively lead by example but also to be involved in any talks, workshops to empower more women to follow her steps. Working closely alongside RA Agency to make sure the gender balance is addressed, which is very much needed still in 2023/4.

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