It goes without saying that women have long been underrepresented in the film and television industry — but that extends well beyond just actors. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, in 2017, only 16% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers on the top 100 grossing films in the U.S. were women (up a mere two percentage points from 2016). Research is even more grim and practically nonexistent when exploring women in roles such as “best boys,” key grippers, and electricians.
In partnership with DOVE® Chocolate, an advocate for women in film, Refinery29 set out to find the inspiring women pursuing their dreams and breaking barriers in traditionally male-dominated positions.
Sound recordist Fiona McBain started her career in 1987 as an audio trainee at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Over the years, she’s become a force to be reckoned with, working on feature films, TV series, documentaries, and commercials in Australia, China, New York, and beyond. She also previously worked on a video project with Refinery29 and DOVE® Chocolate, which showcased the stories of cocoa farmers in Ecuador.
Read on for McBain’s insight into her world behind the camera — from the importance of mentorship in the film industry to the impact #MeToo and Time’s Up will have on society moving forward.
What are the most important aspects about sound and recording sound that many outside your field may not realize?
“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that sound is the most important. People tend to really think that the visual aspect of any story is the most important, but if you cannot hear the story being told, then you quickly lose interest and disengage. If you can’t hear the story, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is. These days, we all have our phones; we can all make and tell stories. But as far as documentaries are concerned, you’re not only capturing information, you’re also capturing emotion. So don’t let anybody tell you that they can ‘fix’ sound in post production.”
Throughout your career, you’ve had the opportunity to travel to several different countries. How has gaining a more global perspective enriched your filmmaking?
“I think any kind of travel makes you have ears open, eyes open, heart open, and mind open. One of the best things about this job is that it’s a giant privilege to be in other people’s lives. For the DOVE® Chocolate shoot we did in Ecuador, we were walking into the lives of cocoa farmers who had been doing it all their lives. It was such a great privilege to go there and be in their homes and in their lives and to see their work. The great thing about traveling in the film industry is that you really do go places that you would never find yourself otherwise.”
Aside from advances in technology, can you speak to some of the industry changes more broadly?
“Something that has changed as recently as two years ago is the [surge] of more women crews — all-women crews. More specifically, the value that people are finally seeing in having more women in roles that were predominantly occupied by men — certainly in sound. The most important thing we can do is support each other and bring to light the facts that we are here and that we’re just as experienced as the men.
“There are so few women in sound and in other roles like key gripping, [gaffering], and electrics. It’s really important to have women on set and in those roles. That is the most recent change I’ve seen, and truly I think it’s well overdue.”
What do you think has helped spark that shift?
“I think what has changed is that there’s more interest in women’s stories. More women are making films and realizing that they can also have women crews. It’s almost like people just didn’t think of it. They just kept on hiring men; they didn’t think women did these jobs.
“It always used to be, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. The equipment’s too heavy; it’s too strenuous.’ People told women that as if the entirety of the job was to just carry heavy stuff. Of course, it’s not.”
For women interested in pursuing roles behind the camera, what’s been the larger impact of the industry’s lack of female representation?
“Not seeing enough women in these roles was and is a big deterrent. If you’re a woman and you’re in a field that’s predominantly occupied by men, then you don’t see that you can be yourself and approach the job from your own perspective.
“[Representation] is so important because we’re telling stories, and you've got to have our perspective. You have to have it from every level — even if it’s through the sound recordist who’s not literally telling the story. My input — as a woman and from my perspective within what I do — is important and affects the outcome.”
In what ways does mentorship directly impact the number of women working in film?
“Mentorship can be as simple as seeing people in roles who are women. There were always a lot of women in the camera department when I was coming up in Australia, but there were so few in the sound department. It was still such a boys’ club that everyone had to be ‘tough.’ It was all about struggling, power, and who’s got the most important job. The job isn’t anything like that now. Now, we can get the job done in a way that we do it without having to act like men.
“Whenever I meet women in film, I recommend them. I always recommend the women I’ve worked with first — whether it’s in camera, sound, lighting, or grips. The most important things we can do are support each other and bring to light the facts that we are here and that we're just as experienced as the men. Keeping the circle of women is really important.
“Mentorship is also good because it says, ‘You are welcome here; you are welcome in this position.’ It says, ‘You are valuable and you have something to offer.’”
Can you share your thoughts on the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and how you think they will change things for women in the film industry and beyond?
“The #MeToo movement was inevitable. I think a lot of men didn’t realize — it wasn’t on their radar the kind of behavior that was going down, whether they were contributing to it or not. Everything has to change; it all has to change.
“When I listen to music — and consider all the music I’ve listened to in my life — there just aren't enough narratives where women aren’t either objectified, nameless, in the background, lusted after, ‘sweet little girl,’ or ‘angry vixen.’ The narrative’s just got to change; it is about time.”
What lessons stemming from this shift in society do you want to pass on to younger generations?
“I want [my daughter] to know you don’t have to be so polite, and you don’t have to be afraid of failing. You can say what you want, and it doesn’t have to be perfect or ‘ready to go.’ Men are much more comfortable with saying something and putting it out there as an idea. If it’s not right, it’s okay. I was certainly raised to be polite and well mannered. And on one hand, yes, it gets you through. On the other hand, though, women should feel free and feel valuable. Your opinion is as valuable as anybody else’s. Sometimes I think women don’t have that feeling. That’s something I want my daughter to feel.”
What has been your greatest career accomplishment thus far?
“I don’t know what my greatest accomplishment is — yet — probably just staying in the game. What’s helped me stay in the game has been the stories and the people. The camaraderie in a film crew is real and fun and lasting. The skills that you learn being a part of a film crew — the life skills — are so valuable.
“Obviously, I’ve worked with many, many, many, men. And many, many, many men have encouraged me to stay in this job. They have encouraged me and have made me feel good about what I do. But in this situation now, where there are more women working in film, I say it’s about time. That is something that has given me a lot of joy. Every time I go on set and there’s an all-women crew or a nearly all-women crew, I just think it’s about time.”
This story has been edited and condensed for clarity.