"Sound Editor is a good name,” says John McKay. “Not sound engineer, which is a technical term. To be an editor is to be a selector. I’ve never done options. Why have an option? That is creating forests rather than roads. I try to build roads."
McKay describes himself as a sound dramatist — selecting material that is part of the drama, the fabric of the film. His approach is to find things in the story that inspire him to find the right sound.
McKay was “mad keen” on movies as a child. Television was a conduit to classic films from Hollywood and Britain. The works of Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick all fired his enthusiasm. Inevitably he developed a desire to make films himself. Aged 16, I just wanted to go into movies. It seemed totally mad, impossible. There were no film schools, and there was no film industry … but there was television.
Luckily McKay's father knew someone in broadcasting. He arranged an interview for a cadetship with the NZBC, and McKay was accepted in 1974. After a modest start in the NZBC's Christchurch mailroom, he applied for a trainee film editor position in Dunedin. “My first experience was cutting the first thing I was given — a paraplegic basketball game. I was given that as a trial. The next day I cut something that went out in the news."
McKay eventually moved to Wellington and a job with TV2 in 1979, but he was restless. "I lasted 8 months before the boredom of cutting news became too much. The independent film industry was starting to get going, so I jumped ship."
McKay joined a generation of people seeking to forge new careers in the emerging independent NZ film industry. “I suppose it was an adventure. A group of us were keen to do bigger things than work for the corporation. It’s easy to forget that it was all so new back then and quite exciting."
In short order, McKay made a documentary about the temperance movement, Fight the Good Fight, followed by an adaptation of a Maurice Gee short story, A Glorious Morning Comrade. The films were well received, but cost their young director more than they earned. His bread and butter remained freelance editing work.
The scene in Wellington was pretty congested: Jamie Selkirk, Simon Reece, and Mike Horton had it covered. McKay got a lot of boring synching jobs (synchronising pictures with magnetic sound tape), but there was an upside: synching rushes for 1982 feature Bad Blood. "The level of craft in Mike Newell’s direction was masterly. Looking at the raw footage was an education."
McKay’s central ambition had been to direct, but his determination was undermined by the challenges of field production. “The actual filming didn’t appeal to me. I also assistant-directed a couple of features, and I hated it. It had a damaging effect on my personality.” McKay’s career quandary was resolved by two simultaneous events. “My wife was pregnant, and a friend was looking for someone to do sound work, so I said yes."
That film — David Blyth’s grisly horror Death Warmed Up (1984) — would be McKay’s first introduction to crafting sound. McKay says his subsequent choice to focus on audio was purely pragmatic. Specialising in sound was a natural progression. “I sort of fell into it. And then grew to love it."
McKay’s mastery of the job was based on a combination of trial and error, and a relentless technical curiosity. “I put a lot of effort into understanding the studio and keeping up with the times, getting technically adept, going with innovations to make the craft better."
An innovative interest in technical matters is a persistent theme in McKay’s work, but so too is the creative philosophy underscoring his approach. “I have never seen soundtracks as technical exercises. I only see it as telling a story. You are part of the storytelling process. Anything flashy, anything too noticeable that doesn’t fit into the movie … drop it!”
The Quiet Earth and Footrot Flats cemented McKay’s credibility (he was nominated for his work on both, winning for Footrot). They hold up today as iconic Kiwi films hugely complemented by imaginative sound design.
The Quiet Earth (1985) depicted a completely quiet world. All the sound in it was deliberately crafted. McKay says director Geoff Murphy was inspiring, even though intimidating. “He was good in the room during the mix. He used what we had done, and said his job was to protect the story.”
That experience of working with Murphy clarified McKay’s approach to collaborating with directors. I ask them, “tell me what the story is that YOU want to see”. That’s the best thing a director can say to me. Not “I don’t like that sound”.
Footrot Flats took over a year. McKay went to great lengths to put character into the sounds of machines (the helicopter was synthesised), as well as people and animals. McKay built farm gates and a mud pit in the studio, to create the sounds and squelches of a rain-soaked farm. At one point, the sodden atmosphere became all too authentic. McKay recalls, “the rubber pool we used for water split. We had to bale like crazy to avoid saturating the floor below our studio.”
In 2004, McKay changed course completely. He invented an ingenious software solution to a common sound-editing problem. Virtual Katy was a tool that allowed automated tracking of edit changes. McKay threw himself into the world of business, raising venture capital and promoting his product around the world.
Virtual Katy ended seven years later with the company taken over by venture capitalists and sold. McKay returned to sound design, and made a happy discovery. “I realised I loved it. There is nothing like trying to create that magic of mood with a bit of music, dialogue and sound. Having been away from it really gave me the joy of coming back."
"I am a journeyman. I am a working sound editor looking for a gig. I’m going to carry on until they discover I’m deaf.”
In early 2015 McKay set up company POW! Post, whose team handle the whole gamut of post-production sound. The company has a keen eye on the fast-expanding Chinese screen industry — the POW! website can also be read in Mandarin, and one of their first projects was Chinese 3D CGI fantasy 10000 Years Later/ Yi wan nian yi hou.
Profile written and researched by Costa Botes