Mr Flibble Talks To... Flibble-O-Phonic
The ever-intrepid penguin covers his ears and roams through the bowels of the BBC sound department in order to bring you an interview with the man who wants to make a T-Rex chirrup - Jem Whippey.
2 February, 2001
Jem Whippey
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble tapped his microphone hard enough to break it. Ten minutes later, the interview began with replacement equipment, as Andrew forwarded the first question: What is a typical Red Dwarf PRODUCTION DAY?

A typical day - get up, come along to Shepperton, sort out the rig for whatever's technically needed that day. It could be a pre-record day where there's no audience along, and that would be capturing the performances of the artists doing the show. That's then edited, quite often that day, and then there might be some sound bits and pieces to sort out on that ready to play back to the audience. But quite often, for the scene to work, there needs to be some effects added. If somebody punches someone - even if I punched you now - you wouldn't hear anything; of course in acting you're not punching anyone anyway. Everything has to be enhanced; to make a joke work, you have to do a bit of sound work.

It's trying to ensure that we're well rehearsed and that we're not getting any surprises on the night when we shoot the scenes in front of the audience. The thing with comedy I've found is you've got to get Take One right. Shooting with an audience is completely different to shooting without an audience. The vibe is completely different - it's more of a theatrical performance. And although there may be little mistakes in take one, quite often that's the one that makes the show because it's got the vibe. So you can't go, 'I didn't get the sound right can we do take two, three, whatever.' It's no good, you have to catch it on one.

And what do you do with the sound in POST-PRODUCTION?

That shoot ends up on digi-beta, digital pictures and sound, on a tape; and it's edited on computer, so that's loaded into a computer. All of the best takes are put together - and you have a show!

But what you have there is a very raw-sounding show, particularly with Red Dwarf. It has to be believable. If you're shooting a sit-com, a standard sit-com, which is people sitting around talking, you don't have to do much to that to make it convincing. Music, yes, and the odd effect - but with Red Dwarf you've actually got to really go to town. So there's lots of sound post-production to be done on it - everything needs a sound.

It's great fun to do, it is the best job to do; it is the most challenging but it's also the most fun, because a show will come up and something strange will happen on screen that couldn't possibly happen in real life. My job is to say, 'What would that sound like? What would it sound like if somebody's head turned inside-out then flew around the room and out the window?' (Laughs) Nobody knows what that would sound like, but that's the gift. It's great fun.

Mr Flibble thanked Jem for allowing his natural sound to be used, rather than dubbing over his method-acted performance. How do you know when it's been done right?

You know when you've got it right because you laugh. We had a lot of fun with some of the dubbing that we've done. At the end of Tikka to Ride the crew are very upset with Lister and they drag him behind a fence and beat the crap out of him,. So it's a sound gag - and we just went completely over the top; they were bashing his head in and nobody could possibly survive this onslaught. Every time anyone heard it, it just made them laugh - it was so over the top. It's good fun to do that sort of thing.

Basically I go to a studio alongside the dubbing suite and start knocking the hell out of whatever I can find in there. (Laughs) You record all those sounds, get the best ones, put them together and there's your sound.

A lot of the sets and props aren't the metal they're made out to be, either, are they?

Nothing sounds right! Nothing sounds as you want it to sound with telly, particularly with Red Dwarf. The set sounds like a set - it's everything, every switch, every footstep, doors, absolutely all machinery, robots, some of the artists voices... Cassandra's voice had to be treated. Not very treated because you still want the humanity of it. If you over-do voice treatments on a sci-fi thing you go too far and you're not laughing anymore. For some reason it's not as funny.

In series VIII, Back In The Red, they're in a huge jail - you see the establishing shot and there's several thousand cells - and then you mix through into the scene. And I had put on a very deep sound to represent how vast, how huge this place was; a very bass-y sound. And the scene wasn't as funny, because there was this foreboding, bass-y sound; not that you were conscious of, but subconsciously. And Doug spotted this, he said, 'Something's wrong.' Then we went back and put a lighter sound on it. You just learn all the time, what works and what doesn't work. There are no rules.

Red Dwarf is, structurally, a sit-com; but as the series has gone on it's gone further and further away from the genre of sit-com. It's got very filmic. If you want to do space-ships tap-dancing with cats, it takes longer to do that than it does to do you and I sitting here talking. We have to try to squeeze into the time-scale of doing a sit-com - I get three, four days max to do the post-production on an episode of Red Dwarf.

Ed Bye has said how much POST-SYNC SOUND effect work he likes...

It makes it funnier for me. There's a style that is best exemplified by The Young Ones. The Young Ones was a sit-com, but not as we know it. It was ridiculous - if someone got blown up it went on for ten hours! (Laughs) It was great and people loved it. And I think it's sort of become part of the main-stream now, that very enhanced style of sound-dubbing.

It was taking television comedy into Tom & Jerry-style cartoons - Fred Quimby's Tom & Jerrys have fantastic sounds, absolutely incredible enhanced sound. Pan fighting! There's a great scene where you've got the three of them - Spike, Tom and Jerry. Jerry's hitting Tom on the knee with a pipe and Spike's hitting Tom on the head with a broom-handle or something, and there's three sounds going, 'Ding, dong, dung. Ding, dong, dung.' It's very enhanced, and it's about rhythm as well. When the rhythm's right, you laugh.

Comedians always say, 'Timing, it's all in the timing.' And it is very much all in the timing - generally as well, but particularly in comedy. It's weird. If you get the timing right, it's great, and if it's just a tiny bit off, it doesn't work. I've noticed it with comics when they're delivering a line. If they do a slight - oop - hiccup on the feed-line, you don't laugh. It's really weird, it's exactly the same gag, but the timing's so important.

It came from vaudeville drummers, when the guy falls over on stage and the drummer goes 'drrrumm-tch!' That's the timing. I don't understand it, I just recognise that going through comedy.

With all this sound work, do you ever have to adjust the DIALOGUE as well?

We keep most of the dialogue. There are even lines of dialogue that have to be replaced - if the performance wasn't right, they got the words wrong, or whatever; little snippets have to be tarted up a bit. It's part of the job. There isn't an enormous amount of it.

There are feature films that I have seen where every line is post-synced - it's called post-sync dialogue; and it is a style. I personally don't like it because I think it sounds processed, it sounds too good to be true. There's no humanity in it is the problem; the humanity goes out of it, and in comedy it's got to be human because people have got to identify with comedy.

Mr Flibble objected to the term 'human', but pressed on. You do a lot of comedy shows, is that something you deliberately aim for?

No. Absolutely not. My original interest was much more in music, I imagined myself producing music or being the guy with the big desk in a music studio. I've done some of that, because when a band comes on a TV show you've got to record them. My job is nice, because at the BBC we don't specialise, we do a bit of everything - I do a bit of single-camera film-style shooting, do a bit of multi-camera shooting, a bit of post-production, a bit of music recording, everything, really. I just drifted towards doing comedy. I do mainly light-entertainment shows and sit-coms.

You've just worked with Ed Bye on KEVIN AND PERRY GO LARGE...

Working in an advisory capacity, which meant I didn't do much of it. Ed Bye - who's a very, very good director, very experienced at doing comedy, and all the editing, all the shooting of it, he knows exactly what he's doing - hadn't made a feature film before.

Most feature films you see are probably more subtle than Ed wanted it to be. When somebody falls over, Ed wanted it to sound like The Young Ones' somebody falling over. He wanted to show the people making this film that he wanted that enhanced style of working - they weren't used to it, they don't do so much of that. I think it's coming now, I think Keven and Perry's changed that.

You've been doing a lot of sound effects for Red Dwarf - even a RAMPAGING T-REX -where have you been getting those from?

I nearly blew my throat out doing those [roars], actually. One thing I did was get a long tube, like drainpipe, and bellowed or squeaked down that. If you do that, which doesn't sound great, then you slow that down a lot, play it half-speed, it'll scare the living daylights out of you. Your bowels will move if you take the frequency down; in life things that are low-frequency, bass sounds, are big things. High sounds are little things.

What do dinosaurs sound like? They are the ancestors of birds, which probably means they went around chirruping at each other or something - but we want them to sound scary. You pick up the psychological cues for what is scary. Also you've got Godzilla and what-not as references, Jurassic Park was fabulous for sound; it gave them all identities, and lots of them did click and chirrup at each other. I thought that worked really brilliantly.

What are you doing at the minute?

I've just done two Dale's All Stars, I'm just finishing off a series of Rhona, which is a new sit-com - they've all been shot and edited, I think I've got two more shows to do the dubs on. I've been doing a bit of Kevin and Perry. At the BBC we all do a bit of everything, which is nice, so I've been doing a bit of early-morning Children's BBC stuff. I used to love Otis, Otis isn't in it anymore, but he was very funny.

Mr Flibble grinned and said, via Andrew, 'Oh, I do miss that aardvark - although he, of course, was just a puppet...'

Damn right, I think he deserves his own series! Now! (Laughs)

Mr Flibble enjoyed taking to Jem Whippey, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble is very cross.