I’ve been writing for ProVideo Coalition in the new channel – Sound For Picture. My articles can be found here -
I’ve been writing for ProVideo Coalition in the new channel – Sound For Picture. My articles can be found here -
Neil Shaw is a master acoustical consultant whose Menlo Scientific has tamed many a sound issue. From Court Houses to Sports Facilities, Screening Rooms and Academic spaces, he has made a career out of mitigating sound issues before they arise. A soft-spoken, humorous guy with a distinct Queens accent and attitude, Neil is also a reigning Fellow to the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), a Fellow of the Audio Engineering Society (AES), and a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) among other prestigious professional organizations. Neil is also an avowed “Dead Head”, long time resident of Topanga Canyon and in full disclosure consulted with me on the building of my post audio studio Allied Post Audio. Neil is a funny, generous and inquisitive mind who took time from his schedule to share a bottle (or two!) of wine and talk acoustics.
WOODY: How did acoustical engineering become part of your desire as a profession?
NEIL: Well, I started off in the 60s. My brother had a band, the Penetrons. A bunch of teenagers playing music in Bayside, Queens, New York. Since I had an aptitude for electronics—building Heathkits, setting up phone systems and chemistry sets—I just became a sound guy.
WOODY: Did you build the Heath mixers and things like that?
NEIL: I built their radios—I forget all the stuff that I built from them. They had test equipment you could build. It was great. I wish we still had it. A lot of people don’t have that hands-on experience any more. They don’t know the joy of smokey solder, you know—the flux—the gaseous flux. I was the geek in high school, I guess. I was good at math and science, and won a physics medal—this, that, and the other thing. And I ended up at Cooper Union—their School of Engineering at St. Marks and Third in 1968, right after the Summer of Love.
WOODY: [LAUGHS] So you were in college at the perfect time.
NEIL: The perfect time. I was studying electrical engineering. But one thing led to another, you know. I left Cooper Union in 1970 and traveled for a couple of years, and started working for real bands. One of them was Edgar Winter’s band as a grunt. I was helping with the sound.
WOODY: Edgar Winter, haven’t thought of him in a while!
NEIL: Yeah, but he was the headliner. Most of them were bands where they’re probably selling real estate now. I don’t know what happened to a lot of them. But one thing led to another and I ended up back at UCLA at their School of Engineering and Applied Science.
WOODY: Is this graduate or still—?
NEIL: No, it’s still undergraduate. Originally I went back to finish my undergraduate. But it was funny because I decided to start through extension. And I took a welding class, a linear algebra class, and a rock-climbing class. And I got a call from the dean of the extension. What could I have done to be called down to the dean? So I go to see him, and he says, “One of your professors says you should be matriculating.” So I was a wise-ass—I said, “Well, what’s that,” knowing what it was. He says, “Well, that’s where you earn your degree, and I encourage you to apply. You probably can get a good scholarship.” So I applied—
WOODY: So they’re pushing you.
NEIL: They’re pushing me. This is 1973 or something. And so I enroll, and I’m there for less than a quarter and I get called down to the dean of the engineering school. Dick Stern—he’s now at Penn State, a really great guy. He says, “One of your professors talked to me. He says you should be a departmental scholar.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Oh, you work on your bachelor’s and master’s degree at the same time.” I said, “Why would I want to do that?” He said, “Automatic parking. You don’t have to wait in line to register.” So I did that. [LAUGHS]
WOODY: This is UCLA?
NEIL: UCLA. But then in 1975 I got a job with a company called General Acoustics. They did a lot of acoustical work for the military and turbine business—gas turbines for generators. Then I got a call from an engineer in Santa Monica who did more of the architectural acoustics.
WOODY: So prior to General Acoustics, did you get your bachelor’s and your master’s?
NEIL: No, I was still in school. So this was ’75 and I was still in school. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1977—both of those in ’77. Later in ’76 I got a call from an engineering firm in Santa Monica that did architectural acoustics and sound systems. So I worked for them for seventeen years. But I started Menlo Scientific in 1992, we incorporated in ’93, and it’s been twenty years since then. There’s a Menlo office down here that’s mainly the architectural acoustics office. There’s a Menlo office up in the Bay Area that’s mainly electroacoustic product development and material science. You know, development of headsets for Microsoft or helping Intel with their—at the beginning when they were doing their voice-over internet phones—uh, excuse me, Cisco with their internet phone, Intel with their internet appliance. After awhile these things get misty. [LAUGHS] And then we have a little test lab that tests headsets and microphones and speakers in the Boston area.
WOODY: So that’s a substantially different business than acoustical design, right? I mean, they’re both engineering, but one is engineering of a space and one is engineering of equipment.
NEIL: Well, no. Acoustics is acoustics, okay? The laws of physics apply no matter what you’re doing. It’s kind of like, you have a buzz in a system, all right? And a lot of people have magical solutions and different, let’s say, old wives’ tales to fix it, but all you need to do is go back to Maxwell’s equations to find out what you’re doing wrong, and that will solve your hum and buzz problem.
WOODY: What are Maxwell’s equations? Who is Maxwell?
NEIL: Maxwell is James Clerk Maxwell. He was an Englishman in the late 19th Century. He took the work from Faraday and Kelvin and others and generated four laws that join together all electrical and magnetic phenomena—electromagnetic phenomena—which basically electricity is. He was able to reduce to formula and equations what’s going on with electric fields and magnetic fields and charges, and that’s all she wrote. I can show you a book I have downstairs that I’m reviewing for the AES Journal called Grounds For Grounding. I thought at first it was a manual for parents of teenagers. [BOTH LAUGH] And he just says – it’s all about Maxwell’s equations. It’s intuitively obvious once you know it, but until you know it, you look for the mythical perfect grounds or big fat wires running all over the place.
WOODY: So what are your degrees?
NEIL: I have a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and Master of Science in Engineering.
WOODY: Wait a minute, you’re not a doctor?
NEIL: All but thesis. Actually, I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program before I got either my bachelor’s or master’s degrees, but once I started working in Santa Monica, the work was really interesting and it distracted me from a PhD.
WOODY: So you got started, like most of us, in your career, with—I’m sure you didn’t go to college thinking, hey, I’m gonna be an architectural acoustical designer.
NEIL: Yeah, I did.
WOODY: You did?
NEIL: Well, not when I started Cooper Union, but when I went to UCLA, I got there and I saw that Dick Stern was the acoustics guy in the mechanical aerospace department. And he had three classes that I took—153 A, B, and C—which was acoustical engineering. He had a laboratory course for the second one. I remember going up to a bridge they had just ripped down with sound-level meters to measure the traffic noise. And then they had the Knudsen Laboratories—excuse me, the Del Sasso Laboratories in the Knudsen Building, the physics building. They had an anechoic chamber and two reverberation chambers in a row. They even had a pool below one of the reverb chambers so you could do underwater acoustics. You know, Vern Knudsen, who they named it after—I have his books in the garage because I helped the family go through all the papers from his house in the Palisades at Mandeville and Sunset when they were donating the house to UCLA. That’s another story, and I’ll give you a copy of the article I wrote about the papers. He got here in ’22.
WOODY: This is Knudsen?
NEIL: Vern Knudsen. He was a professor at the University of California—UCSB, they used to call it. University of California Southern Branch before it became UCLA.
WOODY: Santa Barbara?
NEIL: No. They called it UC Southern Branch—UCSB. And he was around in Hollywood when the talkies came about. Can you imagine how exciting that must have been to be a guy involved in acoustics and all the studios are converting their stages to shoot sound?
WOODY: And lucrative! So, Neil, would it be correct to say that your specialty is acoustical architecture as opposed to electrical acoustics? Or is that incorrect?
NEIL: That’s incorrect. I do anything that’s acoustic related to building, recording, live reinforcement, sound playback.
WOODY: Besides the acoustics for rooms for recording and sound playback properties your work also takes you to giant industrial spaces as well. Why don’t you take a second to talk about that?
NEIL: Well, let me just say, it’s all about “the room.” It doesn’t matter what it’s used for—there are certain things you want to worry about. One is room acoustics. How is the sound perceived in that room? Are there any defects – like echoes? Is the reverberation time too excessive? Is there noise from external sources? Is there noise from the air-conditioning system? Those are things you think about in terms of the room. Then you also worry about – will the activities in the room disturb an adjacent space? How many times have you gone to a motion picture theater and seen one movie but heard three? [LAUGHS] That’s what we do a lot there, but we also do a lot of other things.
We do environmental noise studies where we go out and measure the noise before they build a project so that they can get their environmental impact report done. But also so we know what we need to design to mitigate external factors for the rooms that they’re going to build in that building. We also do audiovisual system design where we deal with a projector and loudspeakers and a mixer and the microphones in a room. Now that could be in a post-production facility where we work with the owner in selecting the equipment and the placement of it. Or it could just be for a classroom or boardroom application. Menlo did the remodel of the executive boardroom for the Academy awhile ago. We dealt with the room acoustics and the HVAC quieting, as well as the projector, the screen, the microphones.
WOODY: When you say microphones, do you mean for like conference?
NEIL: Well, they had a conference table, so we had to put in not just a system to play back program but also a VoiceLift system so that the people at the end of the really long executive boardroom table could hear the others. It had a mix-minus-one system, so that someone here wouldn’t hear themselves, people over here would hear them a little, and the people at the end would hear them a lot. And that would vary depending on where you were.
WOODY: How hands-on are you in terms of the design of that?
NEIL: I did the design. I actually got under the table and helped finish the installation ’cause they weren’t quite ready when it came to the sign-off.
WOODY: Is this going through a mixing console?
NEIL: It actually goes through a digital signal processing system. I take all the microphones and mix them together, and then I subtract yours out and send that signal to your microphone. And then do that for each of the microphones around the table. And then you also might attenuate the signal from the microphones on either side a bit. There are twenty-two microphones, and I think in this system we had eighteen loudspeakers up above, so we needed to map which loudspeakers got which microphones. So there was like eighteen mixes. And then there’s enhancements where you can have gating at a certain threshold, so it turns off below a certain threshold. You don’t have the noise in a room, and you can add EQ, and a little bit of compression, gain control, among other processing.
But not only that. We worked on the electromagnetic compatibility design criteria for the No. 7 Line Extension for New York City Transit between Times Square and the Javits Center. We put together criteria about how you want to design the system to avoid interference between systems. We wanted to make sure that the train signaling system didn’t interfere with the radios, and the radios didn’t cause the doors to open or close, and things like that.
And the reason I got that is because I knew about grounding and routing for audio systems. You remember we spoke about Maxwell’s equation earlier? For this project we talked about what type of pathways to use using conduit and things—how to route signals of different levels. You don’t want to have the traction power next to the microphone signal for the train dispatch. This is where the cabling and routing and shielding and grounding and frequency coordination comes into play.
WOODY: [makes muffled unintelligible sounds like a train announcement] Have you ever been on a subway train in New York City?
NEIL: Many times. They’ve gotten much better. I did the paging system design at three of the terminals at LAX, and I remember I was in old Terminal Two. I didn’t work on the new one, but when I was in the old one when I was flying to Canada a lot in the 1980s. Not only did I not know what they were saying, I didn’t know what language it was in. [LAUGHS]
WOODY: I wouldn’t think of an acoustical designer as being someone who would be hands-on in a paging system for LAX. It wouldn’t occur to me that someone has taken the time with those systems, because giant industrial spaces like LAX sound terrible to begin with. I wouldn’t think that someone actually spent time baffling sound.
NEIL: Well, some of them sound really bad, granted, but most newer terminals, they spend a lot of time and effort, at least in the design, on getting the acoustics and the paging systems right. They don’t want to have a reputation for bad sound and that you’ll miss your connection because you couldn’t hear the announcement.
WOODY: So Menlo is hired for those types of jobs?
NEIL: We’ve done everything. If you looked at our website—
WOODY: Yes, you’ve done them all: performance spaces, hospitality, convention centers, transportation, courts and government conference centers, sports facilities, museums. Again, from my very limited view, I would think of it only for recording studios, I would think of it for movie theaters, or you know, the Walt Disney Hall where the philharmonic’s gonna play. But I wouldn’t think of it for a terminal at a train station.
NEIL: Well, I’ll tell you, more people use the terminal at the train station than use Disney Hall. [LAUGHS]
WOODY: On the Westside (of Los Angeles) they are building a new train line that will be near the Bergamot Station.
NEIL: So this is how acoustics are involved with that. One, you want to know what the existing noise environment is, so that any development you do will not impact it too much even though they keep doing incremental things. Then they can use that baseline information in the design to determine the alignment – do we need sound walls, do we need a special kind of a track bed to lower the noise? Don’t forget, these are all steel on steel. Those things make noise. You can also determine the station design—what sound levels will you need for any paging announcements. You have to balance them so that the passengers can hear, but not you know, bug somebody who’s living adjacent to the terminal.
WOODY: I wouldn’t think about the sound of the train on the track. That’s also a consideration that you would deal with?
NEIL: And also the noise of the machinery on the train. You ever go down to Union Station and see the big Amtrak trains?
NEIL: Oh, you have to go. It’s beautiful, it’s wonderful. But those trains are noisy. They have all these pneumatic and hydraulic equipment going on, and the electrically operated equipment. It can get noisy.
WOODY: I spend my time as a sound designer putting all that in.
NEIL: Well, you could go down there and sample it. You know how do you know if a soundscape’s in a city or the boondocks? What are the elements of a boondocks soundscape? Crickets, birds, and an occasional hound dog barking. What’s the soundscape of the city? Dogs barking, police sirens, and traffic. Have you ever been in a prison or a jail situation?
NEIL: So how do you know what the soundscape’s like there?
WOODY: Because of all the movies I’ve ever seen.
NEIL: Well, I’ve worked on jails and prisons and I’ll tell you, they’re much happier places while they’re under construction than after they’re open.
WOODY: I’m sure. [BOTH LAUGH]
NEIL: But the beauty of what we’re doing in TV and film is that we’re creating a believable reality for when people go into our show as to willful suspension of disbelief. And so you just need a hint of certain things and you suck ’em right in.
WOODY: Sure, a prison door slam. Boom – you’re there.
WOODY: So let’s talk more about some of the considerations that you would have for recording studios or those kinds of things. A lot of the people who read my blog are sound people or they’re filmmakers. What sort of things can they do? In a professional environment—48 Windows, Allied Post, large dubbing stages on movie studio lots, places like that—we design them so that they’re acoustically correct, but the vast majority of people today, even union people, are encouraged to do the bulk of their work at home and then translate it. So what sort of things can somebody do by themselves to mitigate acoustic problems?
NEIL: Well, there are various international and SMPTE standards for how to set up your room, what the levels you want to have when you’re mixing, and the conditions in which you’re mixing. The first thing is you want to make sure that you have equipment that is fairly faithful to the sound that’s reproducing. You don’t want it to colorize the sound. And then you need to make sure that they’re in the proper location. If you’re mixing 5.1, there’s a standard set-up. I’ve seen rooms where it’s anything but standard. If you want to move from space to space, you have to have certain things be common between them. Let’s talk about loudspeakers. Certain lines of loudspeakers, they voice their speakers so they sound similar—not identical—when you move from the ones you use in your home to the ones you’re using in a bigger dubbing theater. You want to make sure that the orientation, spatially, for the ones in your home are similar to the ones in your professional mixing facility.
You also want to make sure that your room has no defects. You want to make sure that you’re not mixing in the null of the room nodes at the low frequencies. You want to make sure that you don’t have any early reflections off walls that come to you in the 20 to 30 millisecond time window because those tend to smear the sound. You want to make sure that it’s quiet. You have to also understand that in a smaller room your low-frequency audition is going to be a lot different than it is in a big room. I don’t care where you do it. The laws of physics—they’re there. I remember I went to this one little home studio that these guys were managers of an apartment building complex, and they took a storage room and took a pre-built room and put it in there to do their things. They said, “We have too much bass in all our mixes.” And I said, “Well, look at the room you’re mixing in.” There is no bass, so of course you want to crank it up, so when you get out into your car, which has more room, you’re going to be bass heavy.
WOODY: So how does somebody who doesn’t have a degree in physics get a better idea of what you’re talking about?
NEIL: This is the one thing you need to know in acoustics: size matters.
WOODY: So a small bedroom might not be the best place to mix a feature film in 5.1.
NEIL: You may find that you may need to fix it later. [LAUGHS] The first thing is the walls of the room are important because if you’re depending on walls to give you some low frequency, the low frequency may not see the walls and just pass right through. Or the walls may be resonate at a particular frequency. Certain constructions in homes just suck up 250 Hz. So I don’t care how much you turn it up, it’s not going to be enough. But you understand that if the room sucks up the sound, you may have a problem. Now at very low frequencies, by using panel absorbers or Helmholtz resonators to kind of tame some of the room nodes, yeah, that’s great. But 250 Hz you don’t need to have that type of control—or at least you shouldn’t.
Okay, windows and doors—those are other problems because any window is basically – an open window – in terms of the amount of sound you’re going to get back from it at low frequencies. At higher frequencies, you’re going to get a lot back. But starting at about 1K and below, sound just goes right through there. There’s an interesting book by Lothar Cremer, Principles And Applications Of Room Acoustics, where he talks about this, and he says, “Why does a whip sound different in a circus tent than outside?” Well, it’s because the canvas lets the low frequencies go right out and all you get back are the high frequencies, so it makes that snap even more intense. So think about your room as a circus tent and what’s going to go through it and what’s gonna bounce back.
WOODY: You’re never going to have a dubbing room-sized bedroom. There’s always going to be a window in an awkward place, or a closet door in an awkward place, or a door in an awkward place, so even if you put sound absorption like Owens Corning or something to absorb some of the sound—
NEIL: Fiberglass, unless it’s really, really deep, only works well for high frequencies. You may get some appreciable absorption starting at about 250 or so, but it’ll unbalance the room, depending on how you do it. Spread your absorption out—don’t put it all in one spot. Use diffusion to get rid of some bad things, and appropriate bass management. You know, deep bass traps are great except they take up a lot of space—you don’t have that kind of space in these small rooms we’re talking about. Panel absorbers and Helmholtz resonators would be much better. There are commercial ones—you can build your own. There are a lot of resources on the web that tell you how to build it. There are also many good books.
WOODY: Now I know you can be a purist because you’re a professional who does this for a living but can you—
NEIL: No, no, no, being a professional and a purist doesn’t mix because they (clients) always want it—I always tell clients you want it good, fast, or cheap—pick two. So this is what I would say. Realize where you’re doing your work. Realize that you have to use this sometimes instead of this while you’re working. I’m pointing to my head and my ears here.
It used to be in live sound, sometimes you would not be able to mix in the best position, so good mixers would go to the best position and listen, and then go to their mix position and then be able to do the translation—I’m hearing this here, this is what I have to do to make it sound good here. So you have to use your head, in addition to your ears, to sometimes compensate for what you’re hearing, so it’ll turn it better than the room will allow it.
WOODY: You know, the idea a number of years ago was that the solution to mixing at home and mixing in bedrooms and so on was this concept of near field monitoring, so that you were listening through accurate monitors in a triangular orientation to your ears and minimizing the room, so that it’s really about coming from these spectacular near fields into your ears, so that you would then make your judgment.
NEIL: The question then is how do you overcome the laws of physics? Every room has what’s called a Schroeder frequency, named for Manfred Schroeder. He’s the guy who came up with the mathematical theory for the quadratic residue diffusers. In
Number Theory In Science And Communication.
He came up with this formula that kind of gives you the dividing point where you can use statistical acoustics versus geometrical acoustics. What happens below the Schroeder frequencies is you get nodes. Why do you get nodes? Well there are not enough to fill in between the few you get, and you can hear the bass dead spots. Once the nodes are dense enough, they may be there, but you can’t “hear” them in the “denseness.” If the room is twenty feet and the wavelength is forty feet, you’re going to have really strong nodal behavior in the room. You have nothing in the middle and strong stuff at the walls. Twice that, you’ll have two dead spots. You’ve been in many rooms where all of a sudden you move three feet and there’s no bass. Well, that’s the problem. In small rooms, no matter how good the speakers are and no matter how close you are, you’re not going to get accurate reproduction at the low end.
WOODY: So the near-field concept is a fallacy?
NEIL: It’s not a fallacy, but this is what you need to do. You have to realize you’re doing mixing in a bedroom and you need to finalize at the stage or the dubbing theater. And you listen to it, and you say, “Oh, I have too much here and not enough there.” And you keep that in your head next time you’re doing a mix in your small space – that what you’re hearing here you have to remember that you have to make up for the deficiencies in the room. It’s like when you’re going into a skid, right? You have to turn into the skid just enough—not too little, not too much.
WOODY: All right, well then, let me ask you this. So the latest sort of advancement from the near field concept is the room mode detection software. So for instance, I have the JBL LSR Series of monitor speakers, and they came with a microphone and its own calibration system, so you stick the microphone in the mix position and you to leave the room—crank it up and leave the room—because it’s gonna blast pink noise, white noise, and so on. And it’s gonna analyze the characteristics of my room. It’s then going to, I’m assuming, apply an EQ characteristic that makes up for the deficiencies that it reads from the room, and now I’m mixing in a perfectly flat space because the reproduction of sound has been altered to now make up for the deficiencies of the room.
NEIL: I would say the only place you have a perfectly flat room is on a flat earth. Okay? However, those programs are really useful. I know some of the people who developed the algorithms and the techniques. You can’t get around the laws of physics. You can minimize some of the deficiencies in a room, but you cannot fully eliminate them. Yeah, that’s all possible, but you’re in a bedroom. There’s a bed in there.
WOODY: So what?
NEIL: Well, it’s not the same as a theater unless it’s a home theater where there’s a bed in there. [LAUGHS]
WOODY: The bed soaks up the sound?
NEIL: I would say it is most likely the largest acoustical element in a room.
WOODY: Well, what about recording studios that have couches in them?
NEIL: How much bigger are they?
WOODY: Than a bedroom?
NEIL: And they’re also against the wall and the person’s away from them. Let me just say, you can do a great soundtrack in your bedroom—okay? You can do a lousy soundtrack in the best recording studio. The maxim says, it’s a poor workman who blames his tools. So it comes down to the engineer. I think that these auto set-up systems are a great boon for a lot of facilities, but in the end, you have to listen yourself. And you should listen in the final delivery space. Right now there’s a big thing going on. Why does the movie sound different at the AMC googleplex than it does when I was mixing it at blah blah in Culver City, Burbank, Hollywood, wherever. Well, is the room set up the same? How do you set up your mix room for SMPTE 202? You’re supposed to listen at 85 db for your monitoring. Your neighbor’s may start complaining, all right?
WOODY: Define some acoustical terms for me because I think people hear terms and they don’t know what they means. I’ll throw some at you. Room nodes—nulls.
NEIL: They’re both the same. Standing waves are multiples of one-half the wavelength of the sound that fit exactly between two walls or the wall/ceiling. As such there are places where the velocity is zero, which is always at a wall, and where the velocity is maximum. At locations where the velocity is zero, the sound pressure is maximum, and where the velocity is maximum, the sound level is minimum. At the sound level minimums on a standing wave, you have a node, and where the sound level maximums on a standing wave, you have an anti-node.
WOODY: Are you talking about a frequency?
NEIL: At a frequency.
WOODY: So a node is a frequency?
NEIL: Nodes are frequency-dependent.
WOODY: So you’re standing in one part of the room and 250 Hz is really loud, and you’re standing over here and you can’t hear it.
NEIL: Let’s look at this. Let’s assume that half a wavelength at 250 Hz fits perfectly between two walls. That means there’s going to be pressure maximum at the walls because of where the sound wave presses against, okay? An open window is a pressure anti-node, or pressure release. Remember at a wall the air can’t move, while at the open window it can. So that it can’t support a wave coming back. But on a wall it can go there and it bounces back, so you can get an acoustic pressure anti-node at the wall and an acoustic pressure node in the middle. That’s why you can’t hear it in the middle because there is minimum acoustic pressure at that point. Where the velocity’s maximum, the pressure’s minimum. And where the velocity’s zero, the pressure’s maximum.
So at the wall, the velocity has to be zero because the wall can’t move. So you get a maximum pressure there. In the middle of that half a wavelength, there has to be a velocity maximum in order for there to be the standing wave. That’s what that means that the wave doesn’t travel—it stands there, it doesn’t move. And if you have a standing wave, you have pressure maximums, pressure minimums, nodes and antinodes.
WOODY: So, in the real world, I have a 250 Hz standing wave and I’m mixing. What am I altering?
NEIL: You can’t change the standing wave by EQ.
WOODY: No, I can’t change the quality of the room, but I’m changing the quality of my mix. I’m hearing one thing because of this standing wave. So what’s the adjustment I make? Am I attenuating?
NEIL: Well, it depends if you’re in a node or antinode. You’re gonna boost or cut to compensate. And that’s what’s important that you listen to the mix in your bedroom and then you listen to it in the dubbing stage or the mix room. And then you can hear the difference. You go and say, “Ah, there’s way more than 250 Hz here or there’s not 250 Hz here.” You’ need to listen. I had this discussion earlier about hearing and listening. I tell people my hearing’s getting worse, but my listening’s getting better. [BOTH LAUGH]
So this is the thing—you have to realize that in acoustics size matters. The only thing we can deal with within the room itself is the size, shape, and materials we’re using. So what we want to do is we want to design the room for the purpose. We want to utilize the size, shape, and materials to get the optimum result out of the room. And then we have to understand that the room’s going to have limitations. Carnegie Hall has limitations. That reminds me: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
NEIL: No – you rent it. [LAUGHS] And so you have to understand that you need to use your knowledge and experience to improve what the room can offer you.
WOODY: So, you know, at the end of the day, what you’re saying is it all goes back to what any mixer learns as they get better, which is I need to listen to my mix in the car, I need to listen to my mix on a boom box, I need to listen to my mix here, and then I need to evaluate these various experiences I’ve had in each one of these and to make adjustments. You know, this is what I deal with my clients all the time, because I’ve had clients who’ll say to me, “You know, I listen to it here and it sounds great, and then I listen to it there and it sounds different.” And I try to explain to them that audio is a very peculiar beast, and your experience of audio is gonna change depending on not only the room you’re listening to it in, but also the equipment you’re listening to it on and the speakers you’re listening to it through.
NEIL: And your state of mind.
WOODY: Yeah, absolutely.
NEIL: The company you’re in.
WOODY: Totally. And it’s such a subjective experience that what I explain to them is the reason I have these crappy little speakers here and I have this television set over here and I have these flat beautiful monitors speakers here is because I’m constantly swapping between my three main sources and making adjustments. And I go, “But I listen to it on the television, the music’s too low, so we need to make the adjustment.”
NEIL: But listen, look, most mixers will provide—will do a theatrical release mix, and then they’ll go remix it for DVD, and then they’ll remix it for streaming. Why do they do that? Because each one of those delivery points requires a different audio, let’s say, experience.
WOODY: A good mixer will want to do that. Now a studio may not give them that same latitude! OK, Neil, what we’re talking about, it seems to me, is more about frequencies more than it is about amplitude.
NEIL: Look, we want to have an even frequency response because if you don’t, the amplitudes will be different. Think about it, if you’re in a dead zone in a room, the frequency response is not right. If you’re in an area where you have a lot of reflections within an integration time, the frequency response is not going to be right. In fact, it’ll even smear the sound a bit. So you have to think about temporal and frequency at the same time in a mix situation. On TV’s you can have three, even one, front speakers. In many mixes, in certain scenes, everything’s out of center channel.
WOODY: Well the deliverables for surround in TV is dialog only in the center channel. Period.
NEIL: You don’t need 7.1 for when you’re talking on the telephone.
WOODY: Right. You know, most mixes I do require LCR. (Left, Center, Right)
NEIL: Well Woody, you know there is no accounting for taste – some clients like the “ostentatious conspicuous-consumption” mix. Some people like a good mix. I know I just eliminated 90% of future clients but— [LAUGHS]
WOODY: If someone is doing a mix at home, are there, in terms of the room—let’s say they’re using decent equipment, they have decent monitors, and so on. Are there any sort of simple tricks they can do?
NEIL: First thing I would do is I would get one of the room-analyzer programs. There’s a lot of them out there that are pretty simple. Put your microphone where you’re going to mix and see if there’s any like holes in the response. Then move the microphone a little bit one way or the other. Know your room—okay? You can listen and you can measure. It’s like in physics: they come up with a theory and then they eventually know how to measure it to confirm the theory. Or they make a measurement and they can’t understand it, and the guys into theory have to figure it out. Same thing here. I’m not saying the measurement is the be-all end-all, but it can help give you some more insight into what may be some of the problems with your room.
You can also use them to determine some of the reflections in your room. Are you getting reflections beyond the Haas integration time that may smear—or just at the border—and just smear your sound? You might figure you may need to put some treatment at those frequencies. You know, normally, it’s halfway between you and the speakers on the side walls, unless the side walls are splayed. Don’t forget about the ceiling and the floor. I see people treat their walls to within an inch of their lives and then forget about the big bounce off the ceiling. Or the floor, depending on how your room is set up.
WOODY: What about the mirror trick?
NEIL: The mirror trick. You don’t want to have mirrors in a room because you may scare yourself. [LAUGHS] But that’s the thing—that’s the trick that you have an assistant walk around a mirror and you look on the side walls of when you can see the speakers. Oh, you can say, that’s probably a reflection point. And the same with the ceiling. And angling treatment helps you too. Spacing a treatment off of a wall a bit gives you a little more bang for your buck. There’s a lot of commercially available devices that when used appropriately are really, really effective. Traps and absorber panels and diffusing panels—there’s a ton of stuff out there. Now some are good and some are better and some are excellent. Some are overpriced, some are fairly priced, some are a really good bargain.
WOODY: So without a brand name, if I pasted some foam—
NEIL: Forget it. I don’t like foam. Because first of all, any foam you need class-A fire rating.
WOODY: What if it’s two inches thick, though?
NEIL: Size matters, remember? I don’t like foam because it deteriorates over time, and I don’t like the way it looks—okay? You know, if I was in an industrial spot where I was doing airport announcements, it might not matter. But you know, you want to be in a room that’s visually pleasing to you too. I tend to like the transondant fabric-covered panels. Sometimes there’s nothing behind the panel just so it looks the same as the places where there is stuff behind the panel to accommodate the visual design in the space. And if you have a membrane absorber with a little piece of cloth over it, that’ll match the visual design where you may have fiberglass or diffuser behind the transondant cloth. I guess I’ve had to deal with too many interior designers.
We just re-did the Menlo website a week or two ago. www.menlozone.com/ We updated my projects and we changed out some of the pictures. We’ll be adding a page that has a lot of the PowerPoints from presentations that I’ve given at Acoustical Society, AES, Infocom—talks I’ve given at those things and also all the class notes from the courses I taught at SCI-Arc and at USC.
WOODY: Well, let’s take a second and talk about some of that stuff. So you’re a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, fellow of AES, senior member of the IEEE, member of SMPTE —what does all that mean? There’s a whole lot of letters there.
NEIL: Well, ASA is the Acoustical Society of America started in 1929 by Harvey Fletcher who was at Bell Labs. Leo Beranek was president of it. And Vern Knudsen was too. It’s the premier acoustical society. The AES most of your members probably know about—the Audio Engineering Society.
How I became fellows of them—I guess they have affirmative action for Topanga people. It’s a great honor to be among some of those greats who were also fellows. The Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers—you guys must know about that because they set a lot of the standards for the audio, the projection, the delivery of what we do. INCE is the Institute of Noise Control Engineering. That’s a professional society that deals mainly with noise control—everything from making sure that the boiler in the basement doesn’t vibrate too much or make too much noise to community noise and quieting of HVAC (heating/air conditioning) systems and trucks and transportation noise and all that. And the IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. They’re the ones that made the internet possible. 802.11—that’s an IEEE spec. Wi-fi —firewire, are all IEEE standards.
WOODY: As a fellow, are you part of the committees that design these things?
NEIL: Anyone can be on a standards committee. I am on the SMPTE 202 study group right now. I am on the architectural acoustics committee, Books Plus, physical acoustics, and engineering acoustics technical committees of the Acoustical Society. I’m on the Acoustics and Sound Reinforcement Committee for the AES and a couple of others.
If you’re interested in this stuff, you get involved to write the standards. Why do you write the standards? Because you don’t like the standard you have to use, so you get down there and you lobby and you work and you convince the people to arrive at a consensus that maybe it’s time that we look at this a little different. Maybe we need to upgrade our measurement technique. Maybe we need to specify our technique a little better. Maybe we’re finding that the bandwidth we’re asking for is not good enough—the dynamic range is increased a bit. You know, a lot of theaters still use the Geneva movement in their projectors, okay, with that stuff called film.
WOODY: But of course!
NEIL: Actually, film is coming back in the same way that vinyl records are in certain ways. It’s not the medium as much as the message you can put on the medium, and some different media are maybe more amenable for different messages. I remember when we had gigantic floppy disks and then we went to 3-1/2. And then I remember when they had the Iomega drives.
My first computer was at Cooper Union—an IBM 1620. It had a panel with flashing lights. It had an IBM Selectric typewriter. It had a punch-card input reader and puncher. And we took the punch cards to a big cachunka-cachunka machine to print out. It was nice.
WOODY: Is acoustics a field that you’ve seen grow in terms of interest with students?
NEIL: I would say that the field has grown considerably since I started. There used to be one or two consultants in a major city. Now there are many because there are a lot more venues that require it—a lot more venues that realize they require it. Think about all the places where people want to put sound together in L.A. I mean, it’s everywhere from the mobile truck to someone’s bedroom to the scoring stages at the major studios to the live venues—everything from the Hollywood Bowl to the Greek to the small clubs.
WOODY: I think live people don’t think about sound in terms of the space and how the space affects the sound.
NEIL: I think that’s a misconception because especially the guys who have to go to venues—
WOODY: People just look at a wall of amplifiers and they’re thinking, well, that’s all it is.
NEIL: But that’s not true. I was fortunate to know, and be a friend of, Don Pearson, who was head of Ultrasound, the Grateful Dead’s mixer. In fact, I had him come down and help me with tuning several rooms because he’s tuned more rooms in a year than I probably did in my lifetime. Every time they went to a different room he had to tune the system to the room. I don’t know how much I would say he would intuit, but I would say he had to optimize its performance based on the room he was in at the time.
How many arenas, coliseums, stadiums, and sheds were built for one type of performance but are used for performances far from that which they were designed? The Grateful Dead cared about the sound in every space they played. I remember the Dead played the Sports Arena once and they blocked off part of the area just to hang heavy drapes to just try to control some aspect of the room acoustics. Don said, you do the best you can and realize that most of the people are going to have a good time anyway. [LAUGHS]
WOODY: Well, if the acid’s good.
NEIL: I heard that as long as it’s not the brown acid. [BOTH LAUGH]
WOODY: Do not take the brown acid.
NEIL: I was at Woodstock. I was eighteen years old—and it was just before I started my sophomore year at Cooper Union.
But all I can say is that the ride up was interesting and the ride back was interesting—and a lot of stuff happened in between.
WOODY: You don’t really remember much?
NEIL: It rained a lot.
[Special note of thanks to Eddie Flowers who did the original transcription as well as editing. Thanks Ed!]
If you’ve seen any 70′s era Hanna Barbera cartoons or any major motion pictures over the last several decades you’ve heard the craftsmanship of David Stone. He has worked with some of the most creative and unique directors and producers in Hollywood and picked up an Oscar© [Oscar is the sole property of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] along the way for his stunning work with Tom McCarthy on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Now a full time educator at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), he is currently serving as Chair of Sound Design. Working along with other stellar professionals such as Peter Damski, those students are getting their money’s worth in Georgia.
Along with his sound career David was also the editor of the Movie Sound Newsletter. It was a chronicle of audio for film from the trenches of Hollywood. The Newsletter is long since out of print but David is bringing it back to life on the web. You can find online versions of the original Newsletter here. There were numerous notable contributors to the Newsletter including David’s brother, Richard Stone, a composer and multiple Emmy award winner who, among many other projects, composed the scores for Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain.
An accomplished visual artist as well as a consummate audio professional, David is truly a man of many gifts. Probably most key of all is his curiosity, sense of humor and temperament. David hosted me for a weekend series of workshops at SCAD in the Spring of 2011 and I found him to be an extremely personable, approachable and popular guy. In an industry filled with nervous and insecure individuals, David is a shining light.
WOODY: So how did you get into sound originally?
DAVE: Probably just like you and a million other guys, I know Walter Murch talks about having this experience, I was a kid who knew how to play with tape recorders. We were lucky enough to have one as a kid. I would never say that audio technology and recording is a passion of mine, it is not. It just seemed to be another tool for storytelling. So I played with tape recorders and my friends and I made little radio plays when we could. When kids were doing a presentation at school I would offer to prepare a tape to play back with music and sound effects or whatever was needed. In junior high I fell in with the 8 millimeter filmmakers. I was always interested in animation and special visual effects. I thought I’d have a career, if I was lucky. I got my art degree, and was hoping to get into animation and visual effects.
WOODY: So your degree was visual arts?
DAVE: Fine arts, painting sculpture with a major in print making and a minor in art history.
WOODY: Visual art informed your sound craft?
DAVE: I feel like I transliterate ideas from print making, which is really all about layering areas of color in composition. I transliterate that thinking into audio. I think intuitively about layering sound in my sound effects. Everything having to do with the architecture of layered sound, my print making background comes into play. Even though it’s slightly different language, the principles are the same. In college I worked part time in a print shop preparing graphics for printing presses. Commercial art which I had not learned in school. The principles of commercial art also apply to sound effects editing.
WOODY: Did you continue to pursue the visual arts as you were working in sound or did that transform more into sound exclusively?
DAVE: My official transformation from animation to sound editor was a very specific incident. I was working at Hanna Barbera. This was in 1976 or 1977. I was working as an “in-betweener.” An in-betweener is the bottom rung of the animation ladder. I was drawing the less important in-between drawings that the assistant animators provided. I was in the bottom there with hundreds of others who were drawing on those horrid Saturday morning cartoons. Because I had interest in tape recorders and helped making backyard films with buddies I took breaks with the sound editors down the hall. We had a lot of rapport and I was interested in their sound effects and was interested in what they did. I also had a deep understanding of the esthetics of sound effects in the Warner Bros cartoons that Treg Brown edited. So we used to talk about that stuff a lot and in not too much time the guy who was in charge of that department asked me if I wanted to apprentice there instead of in animation. I moved over there and very quickly had to learn sound editing skills. Like rewinding three thousand foot of mag, working with Moviolas and all the editing bench skills. I had to learn them fast.
WOODY: This is at Hanna?
DAVE: Yes, at Hanna. In the basement on Cahuenga in the middle of the Cahuenga pass.
WOODY: So the shows that you were working on back then were – Scooby Do and re-dos of The Flintstones and Popeye too right?
DAVE: Yes. The Popeye’s were a particular offense to real animation fans. We knew they would be. I infamously put out a gag memo. If you saw it today you’d think it was something that would have come from the Onion. I heard a rumor from suits upstairs that they were thinking about doing Popeye at Hanna. Any hardcore animation fan who appreciates the Max Fleisher and Dave Fleisher Popeye’s, with animators like Irv Spence would not be happy. So it was offensive culturally and I wrote this joke memo – I stole some letterhead from Hanna Barbera, I still have a copy of it around somewhere, it basically explained how Hanna was going to do Popeye but they were going to make some changes. To please the network they needed to change a few things – like Popeye and Bluto were not going to fight, they were just going to argue. Olive Oil needed to be filled out because she was too skinny and they had to determine who were the parents of Sweet Pea. A gag just intended to be an office memo. A couple of months later we started doing the Popeyes and they were being animated in Australia in a place that Bill Hanna had invested in. They were beautifully animated actually for television, we didn’t expect them to be well animated, but I was right about the stories and the ridiculous changes that came from the network TV interference. Trying to make everything relevant and less violent. Popeyes were probably the worst choice for updating. In this case my satire turned out to be prophetic.
WOODY: Isn’t that usually the case?
DAVE: Absolutely! I didn’t work on the Popeyes that often, I worked on Scooby Do’s Laff-A-Lympics, Captain Caveman, Dinky Dog – I can’t even remember all the stuff we did. I generally asked for and was given the funnier cartoon animal shows as opposed to superhero cartoons. My bosses knew that I would get bored and upset pretty quickly if I had to do stuff like Super Friends. You know that stuff was pretty dreadful. So I tried to stick to the Saturday morning cartoons that were at least inspired by classic theatrical shorts. There was a better overall quality and I had more fun doing those.
WOODY: Animation is different than live action since it has no sound and everyting must be created, and all animated programs have such distinct audio characteristics per show, were there specific sound libraries while you were at Hanna to pull from? And also were there guidelines so that – this show used these effects but – this show used only those effects and so on?
DAVE: Absolutely. When a new show was established there were a small handful of sound effects that became signature for the show. Partly because in limited animation for TV there are certain pieces of animation that get used over again, a certain run or zip off-screen and so forth. One of the reasons that limited animation works for TV is the ability to engineer repeated craftsmanship. Scooby walks on from right to left, that becomes a library of animated movement. Likewise that affects a library of sound effects that you apply to each show. When the show is new the editors have fun because they are establishing that all for the first time. Incidentally the same thing happens with music, they couldn’t score those cartoons straight through so they would score, say, the first six episodes and the main titles. Then everything was tracked from the music cues that were built for the first few shows. Music editors would do the whole rest of the series based on the library of cues that came from those first shows.
We’d do the same thing in sound effects. Within the first few episodes you could guess what the bits were that the characters were going to do over and over again. For instance, Captain Caveman launching himself into flying or whatever it was he did. [Laughs] So when you create sound effects in that milieu in terms of the workflow, what you are really doing is layering five six seven eight mono sound effects in a sequence that matches the animation right? So since you didn’t do pre-dubs at Hanna Barbera cartoons back in the 70’s you would get a reprint of the effects track from the mix and keep that reprint as a loop that said “after Caveman Launch” or “Superman landing.” You had a loop of those mono sound effects mixed together for any action that you knew was going to be used infinitum. Once they were approved by the producer or show runner you knew you were safe to use them over and over again. So you don’t create effects from scratch, you create these from those that are in the library.
WOODY: What was the management of those assets back then? Today we create a folder on a drive and drop them in!
DAVE: I’m sure it was the same way at Filmation and at DePatie/Freling, all the other animation shops in town were set up this way. There were individual cutting rooms, which an editor would occupy, if he was employed there frequently, he could make it kind of his own room. In those rooms you had a film rack and some shelves you could keep your favorite mini library version of the overall library in there while you were doing a show. Every cutting room had shelves with rolls of mag on them that contained those sound effects. For instance, one of the running footstep sound effects would be called “dull thuds in 12’s” Every cartoon character that ran in those days had “dull thuds” which was a sort of an innocuous footstep impact. You used them for running not for walking. They were printed in 12’s, 10’s, 8’s, 6’s and 4’s. Meaning – that many frames for the repeat of the sound. So a run cycle of 12 that an animator does, as soon as you sync up the first footstep no matter how much he runs, he’s running on that same rhythm. So if you have a loop that says dull thuds in 12’s, you can have the assistant, and I was the assistant, go up to the transfer department and say I need a thousand feet of this. So he puts up the loop, prints a thousand feet, that’s ten minutes, endlessly looped running footsteps in the rhythm of 12’s. So one of the rolls that you keep on your rack is “dull thuds in 12’s.” Then you see some new animation and you say, “oh I see, he’s running in 12’s” then you throw that in and sync up the first step. That’s sound editing much in the spirit of sewing, not very creative but it pays the bills.
So the main library, outside of everyone’s cutting room, at Hanna anyway, was in the common hallway that all the cutting rooms shared. In that hallway, in that space, were a line of film racks where hundreds and hundreds of these rolls sat. I don’t know – maybe there were 2 or 3 hundred rolls of these sound effects that everyone used commonly. If I needed some machine gun fire I could walk to the rack that had them and grab what’s left of that thousand foot roll and take them into my room, cut some machine gun and then put the roll back. The apprentice would watch the size of those rolls and as they diminished to the point that the rolls would fall through the steel rods of the racks then he or she would know that it was time to print some more. Then they would go back to the library, pull the loop out of the files, take the loop to the transfer room and order another thousand feet.
Now I’d like to tell you about some of the interesting folklore that has to do with cartoon sound effects. It has to do with the workflow and it is the cause of how some of the effects are named. Hanna Barbera eventually created commercial CDs of the library. First of all there is corruption in the creation of the CDs. Stuff was put together in units and rolls for the CDs was nothing like the way it was configured in real life. There is some reconfiguration in the CDs that throws everything off. The equivalent of this in the music world would be if there was a new “Best of John Coltrane” album and you had a couple of pieces that were in the same order that they were on one of the well known records and there were also several pieces that had no connection to it or were recorded under different circumstances. Recorded with a different band of musicians or recorded at a very different part of his life’s work and his style had changed. Then all of a sudden they were on the same album and you would go nuts! This is what they’ve done to mess up the sound effects.
I’d also like to discuss the naming of the effects. When the assistants got transfers made onto rolls from the original loops, the way that they would identify them was with a white paper or cloth tape on the outside of the mag roll and a sharpie to identify the name of the effect. Sometimes when the prints were being made by transfer or the apprentice, or assistant they would misspell or miswrite the name of the sound effect. Pretty logical, human error right? So here is a good example of that – there was an effect called “ear’s splutz” it was a particular type of squishy comical sound. Comedy sounds would have these funny onomatopoetic names. My favorite one was “crab quacks.”
WOODY: Crap wax?
DAVE: [Laughs] “Crab quacks.” My sister was an English professor, she would visit me and she would see these names and she would go nuts because she loved the folklore of it. The folklore was really interesting. So anyway someone misspelled – “ear’s splutz.” We know that there are splutzes and squiches and squniches and sqooshes and they all sound different, it takes the newcomer a lot of time to learn what those are because they are onomatopoetic names.
So how did it come to be named “ear’s splutz”? In this particular instance my understanding is that “ear” should have been “Earl.” The L gets left out on one fine day and forever after they are copying it as “ear’s.” Because someone was in a hurry and they left the L out of Earl. And so now it is called “ear’s splutz” – forever! That’s how some of these things got named. And many quite incorrectly but it’s become a sort of argot folklore. And Earl by the way, I believe, was before my time at Hanna. There were some legendary sound effects editors. One of them was a guy who was in Spike Jones original comedy jazz band – and that was Earl.
WOODY: So he designed that sound.
DAVE: Yes. And a lot of sound effects were… today we say designed… and that seems to imply an awful lot of deliberate creation. Often in the old days, because you didn’t have the ability to tweak sounds as well, many of the sounds were “created” by sound editors simply doing what I described before – cutting five or six tracks for a moment in the animation and then those tracks were mixed together. That mix down was then called a new sound effect. An example of that would be a sound effect in that collection that is called “Dinky digs”. That was something that I made, it was never intended for posterity. I had a series of cartoons called Dinky Dog, and he was a giant dog and he was cute and when he dug a hole in the yard, which was usually big enough to swallow a car we had a fast cut digging and shoveling sound. I made it by having a few tracks of digging sound effects that I had to cut very fast. I had to shorten them and get the rhythm that was in the animation. When I saw that it was going to be a repeated action over several episodes I made sure to keep a mix down of that. I then made a loop out of it and called it “Dinky digs.” Not being the least bit poetic about it. So that ends up in the library and guys use it every time they need a fast cut digging sound. It’s perfect for that particular type of animation.
I think sqinches and squashes often were often the result of accidents in the process of transferring from tape or from mag to mag. When a mag recorder is speeding up or slowing down or the recorder is on and the playback is speeding up or down. Before they get up to speed, you get these sometimes hilariously funny alterations of speed and pitch just at the beginning as it’s running up to to speed. So sometimes guys would have a funny kind of squash sound with like mud, comical mud sounds, percussive but mushy and if, at the end of one of the rolls, there happened to be one of these aberrations the change of speed and pitch it would make them incredibly funny. So when these accidents happened a guy would keep these sound effects and put a funny name on them and they would proliferate in the library.
WOODY: You and many of your colleagues have gone on to greater acclaim from those days at Hanna. You were working with Mark Mangini at the time?
DAVE: Mangini, who is ten years younger than me, starting working there the same time as me. We started the same week. I was in sound editing starting out as an assistant and he had been hired directly into the track reading room. [Laughs] I guess we’ll have to explain what that is…
DAVE: Mark is so smart and has such a good ear, he got a job reading track. Reading track means – for animators to make lip sync dialog they have to have someone analyze the recorded dialog on mag on a synchronizer and write out a chart of what syllables and phonemes occur at a particular foot and frame. So every cartoon piece of dialog would go through a synchronizer. Someone would scroll through with their thumb and then say “Oh the ‘m’ is at 3 feet 8 frames… “o – t- h – “ we’re going to spell Mother… “ the ‘th’ is at 3 feet 18 frames and then the ‘r’ finishes at 3 feet 22 frames.” So then all of this is then put on a chart. Phonetics meets film feet and frame timing. Otherwise the animators can’t draw sync. That’s how you get sync dialog back then for animation.
DAVE: So the track room was filled with hard working young people. We used to use the Sennheisers with the little foam ear pads, so you could hear someone if they were talking to you but you could also clearly hear the sound. They were amplified by these horrid squawk boxes.
WOODY: I remember them well.
DAVE: Oh my God Woody, you know what they were like… 90 percent noise…
WOODY: Yes, I had completely forgotten about them.
DAVE: The track reader is looking at a recording script, listening to recorded 35mm track, and writing a chart that the animators are going to see that shows them the timing. Mark was so good at that he very quickly eclipsed the output and accuracy of a room full of people. Many of whom were older than him. Many had been there a long time and weren’t advancing. Probably because they were half his ear and his brains. So he rocketed through that job pretty quickly because of his talent. So then, this is really weird Woody but, we had a pretty smart boss at the time. Mark was advanced from the track room to become a rookie sound effects editor, and I was advanced from apprentice to a rookie sound editor at the same time. Our boss could see that we were young and ambitious but we also really had a passion for the work. It’s not like we were ambitious for power, it was just that we were really good at this work and he advanced us at the same time. If memory serves we were both given a chance to cut reels as an audition to see if we could become editors. Now, we were lucky too because at that time they needed more guys, they were doing a lot of shows. They wanted to bring people up whenever possible from their own farm system rather than pull in editors who had only worked in live action TV and films. We had a talent for animation which is something you really can’t teach.
WOODY: Animation sound effects is a very specific skill. You just have to be able to think that way. Someone who’s mind hears a blender when a whirling wisp of wind goes by or something… You have to think that way – or you don’t.
DAVE: Exactly Woody. I know some remarkably talented sound designers, mixers and sound editors who just don’t get animation. I really think it’s got something in common with jazz. There are musicians who have enormous virtuosity playing an instrument but they can’t swing. With animation sound effects you either swing intuitively or you don’t. The way that people think in animation sound, when they are doing a gag not something realistic – often it’s a sonic non-sequitur – listen to Treg Brown and listen how he takes sound effects from the real world that have nothing connected to the image – rather a theatre of the absurd and somehow – he always got it right. You either have a penchant for an animation sound gag or you don’t.
WOODY: The Academy offers these wonderful events on filmmaking and I remember one that you presented on called “Now Hear This.” Would you take a moment to discuss that evening? There were some wonderful distinctions made about the evolution of animated sound.
DAVE: I’ve been a part of two of these evenings, the more recent one was on horror movies and the one you attended was the year prior. It was called “Sound Behind the Image 2.” The Academy had approached Mark Mangini to create the evening and he kindly asked me to participate by speaking on Treg Brown. The way that Mark organized it he wanted to talk about three different aspects of animation sound. The first section was performance – the history of the first sound for animation was Steamboat Willie – and everything was based on performance to picture playback. Disney and his guys rehearsed and performed the sound effects and the music live. Mark tells a story about that – how they hung up a sheet in one of their offices and invited wives and family in to experiment. Disney wanted to have an audience to help determine whether they could make the connection of the the sounds with the cartoon together and accept the illusion. That’s how far back we were going conceptually.
So Mark structured the evening very smartly I think. Performance continued through Jimmy MacDonald’s invention of mechanical props that made either funny or naturalistic sounds that were controllable to picture playback in the studio. Much as a Foley artist walks the performance of the actor in order to capture the right rhythms and nuances as if you recorded the actor’s feet on set. MacDonald had figured out that if you wanted to control wind and surf and rain to match the picture he would have to build mechanical gimmicks that would make sounds where you could control the speed or the pitch of in front of a microphone in the controlled atmosphere of a studio. That’s why Jimmy’s props are so important. For any who hadn’t seen the evening – for instance – Jimmy would create the sound of a frog croak by bowing a taut string connected to a coffee can. He excelled at creating these kinds of mechanical creations – he was an engineer and a drummer. He thought in both rhythm and in mechanical technique to make sound. Traditionally, we would never have Foley in cartoons. Now it’s done for feature animation, modern animation has Foley, just as much as modern live action films.
For TV animation you never had Foley in those days at all. In my view Foley gives you a realistic texture and has nothing to do, unless you are Jimmy MacDonald from the 30’s and 40’s, nothing you can do on a Foley stage that has a comical qualities that you want for cartoon work. When doing a film like Beauty and the Beast, I used Foley to anchor when the narrative part of the story calls for realism, when the cartoon characters are being like people. That’s when I want to hear footsteps or the nuances of their cloth movement, the kind of thing that you would hear from a live action movie. When it is dramatic and not comical I would emphasize Foley. I would shoot more Foley and I would tell the mixers where I want to hear it. When it is being funny then it is about the cut sound effects –the hard effects. Cats Don’t Dance and Beauty and the Beast and A Goofy Movie are three of my jobs that I think fit that model very well. You are not aware of Foley unless the characters are acting like people in drama. And when they are being funny, you don’t rely on Foley, you go to the hard effects where you can be silly, broad and over the top. Although in Beauty and the Beast John Roesch created some funny sound effects on the Foley stage but that is an exception to the rule. Vanessa Ament did footsteps for them and just treated the characters like people. Every movie is different but that is a general rule of thumb. So performance in animation sound was the first thing that Mark dealt with.
WOODY: In the evening at the Academy you and Mark did a fascinating experiment, could you tell us a bit about that?
DAVE: Yes, here’s what we did, it was Steve Lee’s idea – Steve Lee is a great character who has been around animation lore. In fact I first learned about Jimmy MacDonald from Steve. So Steve says to Mark “wouldn’t it be funny to hear a bit of a Treg Brown cartoon with Hanna Barbera sound effects on it or live action sound from sound editors.” It would be a great illustration to see the brilliant non-sequitur choices that Treg Brown makes for sound effects. Mark got a hold of the M&E for Zoom and Bored, a roadrunner cartoon and we took a minute or so section. We had the music and I cut Hanna Barbera library sound effects, and I know their style so well that I was able to do it as if it was cut in the Hanna Barbera sound editing rooms. Of course it was totally awful that way! [Laughs] They are the wrong sorts of sounds for the cartoon. Then I did a version as a prosaic, live action sound effects editor who only worked on movies and didn’t understand animation.
WOODY: I remember that, it sort of fell flat… [Both laugh]
DAVE: Yes, the magic juice of animation humor was not invested in the sound effects. And that is what happens.
WOODY: So “performance,” as Mark saw it, was one category of animation sound. I think he broke it into several sections for the evening…
DAVE: Yes, the first part was performance and then “interpretation” was next. That section was where he asked me to talk about Treg Brown. The idea was that, as Ben Burtt pointed out in one of the clips, Treg Brown was the first guy to handle animation sound effects with live action sound effects from the Warner Bros. Movies, cut inappropriately for the wrong things. Does that make sense?
WOODY: He juxtaposed – took the seeming wrong sounds – to create comic moments…
DAVE: Yes, exactly. And he was a master at doing this. As Ben pointed out, and this is why this is the category of “interpretation”, instead of just trying to find funny sounds, Treg Brown took sound effects from the complete library. So – Elmer Fudd is running and skidding to a stop but the skid may have come from an early 30’s gangster film at Warner Bros., just stuff that they had in the library. So a guy falls out of a window and is falling and Treg Brown would cut in the sound of a fighter plane or a bi-plane from World War 1. He is making analogies and metaphors with the sound, drawing comedy from associations that people have with certain real sounds but applying them in the cartoon realm.
David plays a short clip from the evening, “Now Hear This.” It is Ben Burtt discussing Treg Brown’s use of sound in animation.
“BEN BURTT: Usually the sound effects that you heard were sound effects used by musical instruments…. but with Treg Brown he would bring sounds in from the Warner Library…. it was this imposition of realistic sounds into this fantasy world of cartoons which gave them comic impact.”
DAVE: Yeah, now you can’t say it better than that Woody. Now we’ve had a guest in the interview! [Both laugh] Rounding out the evening Mark designated “storytelling” as the third evolution in animated sound. So it’s performance, interpretation and storytelling. Then he introduced us to Randy Thom and played the very impressive piece from The Polar Express. Randy is wonderful and I love his work on The Incredibles.
WOODY: Amazing! I am a huge fan of all of his work.
DAVE: Incredibles knows when to do comic and when to do Foley. It is so important that you buy that these animated people live in our world, in the real contemporary world, so when the guy is at his job in his office and his job is to deny people insurance claims and it’s so gray and dismal we have to have Foley because Foley grounds us to the real world. Foley is about the friction of dramatic characters as they live in the real world. It’s very important. That’s why we use it. It isn’t necessarily useful to come up with a comical sound it’s about performing live. They did a good balance of that in The Incredibles, in all of the Brad Bird movies, they know when to sound realistic and when to sound comical. Brad Bird is consistently good that way.
WOODY: That was a wonderful evening for the public offered by the Academy. I often speak with students and new filmmakers and I always encourage them to attend meetings like this that are open to the public. That night I had the marvelous opportunity to see you, Randy Thom, Mark Mangini and others show and tell the sound work from the inside and it’s rare and invaluable.
Alright Dave, let’s move to some of your other work. You’ve had the opportunity to work with world class filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Tim Burton, John Hughes, you won an Oscar for your work with Francis Ford Coppola. These artists create such a wide range of types of films – I loved The Dead Zone but it was nothing like Oceans 12 or Beetlejuice – I would imagine that each of these directors take a different approach to sound. Would you take a moment and touch on working with some of these different directors?
DAVE: There were plenty of jobs that I am associated with where I was just a part of the crew and I never worked directly with the Director. On jobs where I was the supervisor you can bet I worked with the director and have strong opinions about them. I do have some favorites that are on the top of my list because they were good people and knew how to be a team player and appreciated everyone’s contribution to their show. I’ve been asked this before and I will tell you the top three of terrific directors, well I’ll have to add Soderbergh and make it four – Leonard Nimoy who I was just on a crew with, Mark Mangini was the supervisor, Leonard and Mark worked much more directly. I was just a cutter but I spent weeks on the dub stage with Leonard directly, sometimes it’s a line producer on top of the dub but Leonard was there himself, and he’s just a good man.
WOODY: That was Star Trek 4?
DAVE: Star Trek 4, yes. He’s an intellectual and he’s is very appreciative of everyone’s skills and their specialty which makes his films better. You know? So he is on my list. Another great one is Billy Crystal. I did the sequel to “City Slickers” and Billy was not the titular director he was the executive producer. He hired a director to be behind the camera but Billy had input everywhere and was on the dub stage every day. He was very hands on and very appreciative and very much of a “small d” democrat! If he was the first guy at the dub he would make the coffee!
WOODY: I’ve heard stories over the years like that about him.
DAVE: I was back in the machine room winding down footage and I couldn’t get a phone call. He was alone on the dub stage, he picked up the phone, took a message for me and walked all the way back to me and say “Hey Dave – Vanessa’s on the line”. He was such a good man and a mensch. So he’s on my list. The third guy on my list is Nick Castle who a lot of people don’t know about. He made a picture called “Tap” with Gregory Hines and he was the director and creator of the movie. It’s not the best motion picture in the world but it served its purpose which was a very noble one, to capture in a sort of vehicle drama almost like the old school movie dramas with a great star in a sort of stupid story. It captured the great art of African American hoofers, tap dancers, a vehicle not only for Gregory Hines but also a showcase to display the work of his very, very elders. All these old guys who have passed now. Finally captured on film courtesy of Greg Hines and Nick Castle. Nick was very egalitarian in his style as a director. It wasn’t about “audio” it was about – you know what to do to make my movie sound great. I’ll give you what you need to make my movie sound great. Explain to me what you are doing and I’ll learn something. That’s a real director if you ask me.
DAVE: Finally, of course Soderbergh, he has a good enough ear that he could have been a sound editor or mixer himself. His supervising sound editor is usually Larry Blake and Larry would hire me to work on Sex Lies and Videotape, Oceans 11 & 12. The craftsmanship and architecture is really between Steven and Larry. Steven is a great guy and I think may be the great American director at the moment. He’s given us a body of work in a short time that many people don’t achieve over a long career.
DAVE: One thing that Steven has always done is to defer to the style that movie needs to be. Like any great artist he is not imposing his thumbprint or his personal style on the movie. Too many guys go to film school and try to show off on every shot to show how clever they are. He wouldn’t do that. It’s what I call invisibility. Steven is very invisible. I just saw Thirteen Assassins and I thought that Japanese director was very invisible. Steven is very skilled that way plus he’s a really good man. Just as a human being. I have real admiration and respect for him and he’s very funny. Like a lot of intelligent people.
WOODY: I heard that Soderbergh will do everything to minimize the need for ADR (dialog replacement). That he takes a hands on approach to the set recordings quality, which is not always on a directors agenda! [Both laugh]
DAVE: We did very little on Oceans 11 and on Ocean’s 12 we only did two lines and it was because they decided to change the pronunciation of a proper name. They had pronounced it in the shoot – both George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones pronounced it a certain way and then in post Steven thought it should be pronounced a different way. Probably the correct way, and so we did one line of ADR for George and one for Catherine.
Now this is how clever these guys are, you can blame this on Larry Blake. Larry did a “non” studio ADR recording of George doing his line, it was in the sequence where he is walking across the street to Amsterdam with Brad Pitt and the camera is not close to him. Larry set him up with the edited dialog from the scene and a pair of headphones and sent a recording rig with no picture. They went outside of George and Steven’s office on Warner Bros. Lot, you know, with Olive Avenue in the background. They recorded the line as audio only ADR. And it was absolutely perfect. It just laid right in. I mixed that stuff, Larry let me do the dialog predubs, on that show and also on Oceans 11. It’s my only mixing experience; I owe Larry for that big time. I don’t think it was credited but I learned a lot doing the dialog predubs myself. And I was the lead dialog editor I’m proud to say so I knew where all the skeletons were buried in all the dialog tracks. So, that was a non-picture ADR, we had to re-do Catherine’s pronunciation, I think Larry did it himself, because she was very close-up when she said that word and that was the only instance on that show that an actor spent time in an ADR booth – on that entire movie!
We teach this to our students here at SCAD, and let me mention that SCAD sound design majors are the best prepared college students to work in the industry. They are starting to work now and they are great. They don’t get thrown because we are preparing them so well. One of the things they learn is to try and collar the filmmakers from our film school and they go out and scout locations to scout for audio locations as well as visual locations. So they don’t get that beautiful shot under the freeway…
WOODY: Pointing a mic at the street [Both laugh]
DAVE: Yes! On Star Trek 4 in the Klingon Space Ship where the good guys were there is a floor prop, a prop on the corridor floor that was kind of like a plastic sheet that you would put over a fluorescent light… it looked perfect… but they would walk down the corridor and while recording all of this wide shot dialog, these plastic sheets were rattling like crazy. It absolutely ruined all of the recordings. So the production mixer, I can’t remember whether it was Gene Cantamessa or Jim Webb, [it was Cantamessa] it was one of those guys, and he said to Leonard “ I can’t get you any useful dialog with this crap on the floor” and Leonard stopped production long enough to have the floor redone into something quiet. And he got beautiful stuff. A good director understands that it’s part of the filmmaking – it’s not something that you fix in post.
WOODY: So – Nimoy, Crystal, Castle, and Soderbergh.
DAVE: I almost forgot Joe Dante.
WOODY: What did you work with him on?
DAVE: I was never a supervising sound editor for him, but I was a lead editor under Mangini on “Gremlins,” on “Innerspace” and “Explorers” and “Looney Tunes: Back In Action.” I can’t remember them all.
WOODY: So let’s talk about Joe Dante.
DAVE: I found a real affinity with him. In another life, I would have wanted to be his supervising sound editor. But it was Mangini—and that was perfectly fine with me. Because we think alike—we’re all three of us, very knowledgeable animation fans. Mark and I, as I explained, worked together in animation in the early parts of our careers. I felt some affinity for Joe as I got to know him a little bit, just working under him as a sound editor and being on the dub stage with him many times. Because we’re the same age, and he grew up, I think, in South Jersey. I was in suburban Philly. And at some point, we put together that, as kids, we watched the same local television broadcasts where we were exposed to the same 16mm prints of The Thing, and The Invisible Man, and the Warners cartoons , you know, in rotation when there were three broadcast TV stations for a major city. It’s a pretty good bet that the smart 12-year-old boys are all watching the science fiction and horror when it goes down on TV. We would have seen the same prints with the same unintentional splices in them. We were both shaped by that part of popular culture, and Joe turned it into a career. Also because he had been, I think, an editor at Roger Corman’s. He was part of a tribe of baby boomers who basically went to film elementary school by working at Roger Corman’s.
WOODY: I had forgotten that he was part of that. What an amazing group of people—including Francis Ford Coppola.
DAVE: Was he involved in Corman?
WOODY: Yes, his first movie was Dementia 13, produced by Roger Corman.
DAVE: Oh my god.
WOODY: Scorsese too. I think every major filmmaker from those days, somewhere along the line, touched Corman.
DAVE: Corman was the godfather of so many, especially the baby boomers who worked like slaves on his films. But that was their real film school. Tina Hirsch, who cut Gremlins; Bobby Kaiser, who’s been a top ADR editor for 40 years, John Sayles was part of that crowd too, I think. That was really—that was to roll-up-your-sleeves filmmakers and editors and writers – kind of what Harvard Business School used to be to Wall Street. It was a great learning thing.
For sound editing—a lot of people I knew grew up at Gomillion Sound which was—
WOODY: You spell it the way it sounds—go million?
DAVE: Yes, it was a proper name. The guy’s name was Ted Gomillion. Flick worked there, and I think Richard Anderson worked there. My ex-wife Vanessa [Ament] worked there doing Foley—so many people I know learned post-production sound work at Gomillion. David Yewdall did, of course. They were kind of a low-budget place, but everybody learned a lot of craftsmanship—how to do a lot of work in a hurry. Gomillion was, for sound editors and Foley artists—those of us on the sound side – as Corman was for writers and editors and future directors.
WOODY: Tell me about Joe Dante.
DAVE: This impressed me. When Steven Spielberg was a young god, Joe Dante was his peer and not one of his subjects. I never imagined that someone would speak truth to such power—Steven was producing I guess it was Gremlins for Joe and he had just finished Indiana Jones 2. The buzz was that Indiana Jones 2 was, what we used to call, an “E Ticket Ride” at Disneyland. You know, it was theme park—it was just – one shot led to another, and they were all linked to physical gags. It was tremendously funny; just as you thought you were safe from sliding over the precipice, something else comes to endanger you, right? And it was beautifully put together that way—very well conceived, and Steven adopted a very fast editing style. And he was kind of high on that style.
He and Michael Khan had recut a scene of Joe’s movie in that fast editing style. I remember Steven coming to the dub stage—we were working on some pre-dubs—and they were discussing this. And I remember Joe saying, in his high thin voice, very boldly, “You can’t cut it like that, Steven—it’s a different kind of material.” And I thought people were all going be kissing Steven’s ass, but what impressed me was how very much those two guys were equals and worked together and talked like any other two peers at a job.
WOODY: Steven Spielberg accepted it as a peer?
DAVE: Yes, like criticism from any peer—they were brothers.
DAVE: So, they [Gremlins and Indiana Jones 2] come out the same year, and they’re in various stages of post-production when they have that conversation. And that was on Warner Hollywood Stage D where Vanessa and I got married.
WOODY: You got married on the lot?
DAVE: We got married on that stage—yep.
WOODY: Between shifts?
DAVE: On a Sunday. They rented it to me for a dollar.
DAVE: Instead of a religious altar, we had the two giant VU meters behind us. Talk about an industry wedding—we used the editing change room to change our clothes.
WOODY: How many people came?
DAVE: Oh, it was only about fifteen, something like that, very small – friends and family. We couldn’t afford much for the party after. But it was very sweet of Don Rogers who ran post sound at Warner Hollywood before he ran the sound department at Warner Burbank, he rented it to me for a dollar.
WOODY: We haven’t spoken yet about your experience on Dracula, for which you won an Academy Award shared with Tom McCarthy. Was that the only picture you did with Coppola?
DAVE: Yes, it is. And it wasn’t supposed to be me. Understand that I was the utility player that they brought in when they couldn’t get the big-name guys they wanted.
WOODY: Who were they looking for?
DAVE: It was supposed to be Richard Beggs. Richard Beggs is a San Francisco-area sound designer who goes back to Apocalypse and that period of Coppola’s. Mark Berger, the mixer; Doug Hemphill, who’s now a mixer, who was a great field-recording guy for years; Jerry Ross, who’s a great, wonderful sound editor. They were all young dudes on Apocalypse, and this whole gang of guys more or less taught themselves how to do multi-channel, high-quality sound layering and mixing pretty much for Apocalypse. I mean, it took them forever, but they did it all right.
Richard Beggs was one of that crowd of guys, pretty much always worked in the San Francisco area. I don’t know that he spent much time in Hollywood. He’s got a great ear. I don’t know if he cuts, but he was supposed to be the supervising sound editor for Coppola because he worked for him before. But, Richard got a picture called Toys, and he committed to that. So, as much as he wanted to do Dracula, he couldn’t. They hired Leslie Shatz. Leslie Shatz is also a brilliant mixer and San Francisco-area sound designer type guy. And I had worked with him once or twice. He did a lovely job suping War Of The Roses—I think was the last time I had worked with him.
Now, Leslie is not a San Francisco—I think he’s a Los Angeles guy by birth, but he spent a lot of time in San Francisco, and he knew a lot of the post-production sound community. He worked, I think, as a studio mixer up there and stuff. Not really that sure about his background, but he was known to work a little bit in Hollywood and a little more often in San Francisco, which is still the case. He just did a lovely job on a very arty picture that just came out that they’re calling the first feminist Western, which is called Meek’s Cutoff, – Leslie suped that. Again, it was a low-budget independent artistic feature film with probably a very small sound crew. Leslie is really good at the kind of stuff—kind of high-art sound supervising. So, he was supposed to do it—he was the brand name in San Francisco and was a pinch-hitter for Richard Beggs.
Now it gets complicated. [Laughs] There was some deal with Sony Pictures where Francis was supposed to be doing Dracula as a big-studio, money-making picture—not an art picture. And although I don’t know the historical details—and I’m only just reporting what I saw from the trenches—but my impression was that—it’s similar to the way in which Orson Welles was lured back from Europe to do one last money-making project. That was “Touch Of Evil.” One last time he had to cope with the studios to do Touch Of Evil. He wasn’t supposed to turn it into an artistic film—it was supposed to make money as a film-noir picture. And of course, he turns it into another Orson Welles masterpiece. It reminds me of how Francis was supposed to come and make a big studio picture like he did with The Godfather, and make them some money. Consequently, there was pressure on post-production to figure out how to share the wealth and expenses of post-production. So, a deal was made somehow—I was not in on this when I got hired, by the way—I’m just figuring this out post-mortem. Francis could have part of the mix—he could have final dub, and he could have part of the sound-supervision, sound-design team. But Sony Pictures was going to have an in-house sound-editing crew, and do the pre-dubs on the Sony lot. So, Tom McCarthy Jr. was the Vice President of Post Production Sound, and an old buddy of mine. We’d worked together many, many times in the past, so he called me up and said, “How’d you like to do a horror picture?” And this was right on the heels of my being upset that I had missed out on a couple of other good titles where I didn’t get on the crew. “So, it’s a horror picture—what have ya got?” He says, “Oh, they’re doing Dracula.” I go, “Okay, fine.” And he said, “And you know who’s directing it?” I said, “No.” And he says, “Francis Ford Coppola.”
Tommy was supposed to represent and provide the functional, pragmatic editing of sound work and the preparation of pre-dubs. Then we were supposed to bring them up to Francis’s place and mix them in his attic mixing room above the winery office, which I think is where they mixed Apocalypse. So, that is what we did—we put a crew together and I was supposed to be like the liaison between San Francisco high-art sound design and Hollywood pragmatic sound editing. And I thought that Tommy was right to think of me. I filled that role perfectly because I had worked a little up north and a lot down south. And I understood there was a cultural difference, at the time, between the way guys did their work up north and the way they did it down south. And there was some political mismatch—the style of how people approached their work was different. I was supposed to be both a manager and a diplomat, and make that all work. Leslie Shatz, who is a sound designer/editor/mixer/supervising sound editor, was going to be the sound designer, and ultimately the final mixer. He didn’t get involved—he was busy with something – until we actually did the final mix, so you could say that he and his co-mixer Marian Wallace were just the final re-recording mixers. And also he brought a friend from San Francisco—Christensen…
WOODY: Kim Christensen?
DAVE: Yes, he brought sound effects, and added them in through keyboards and what-not. It was kind of an extra tweak while we mixed. My job was to handle a crew of guys that Tommy had semi-regularly employed on the Sony lot. They were young—a lot of young sound-effects guys with great ideas who had not worked on any feature films pretty much. Or they had worked on B features and television. And I was supposed to wrangle them into a team that could do some high-falutin’ sound effects work on moviolas and on Cyber Frames. Then we also had a slightly older, more experienced crew doing dialogue at Sony that was run by Dave Cohn. He was like the lead dialogue guy. I was the supervising sound editor, along with Tommy McCarthy, who was the head of the department. It was an interesting job, Woody, because it was a hybrid of technologies. We cut the Foley and the dialogue on Cyber Frame, and then laid that onto 24-track for pre-dubs and then made 35mm pre-dubs from those 24 tracks.
WOODY: Did you say Cyber Frame? Was that a system at the time?
DAVE: Yes. Very big before Pro Tools came in. Then the other end of it was moviolas. We cut a whole lot of sound effects on moviolas. And then we made special sound effects. I would audition sound—let’s say, I’d audition a bunch of animal effects on a moviola, and ask the young Cyber Frame sound-design geniuses— at the time, Cyber Frame—if you wanted to make new sound effects, it had a double boot system, and you would boot it up as an Audio Frame, which is a totally different animal. If you booted it up as an Audio Frame, you had yourself an MS DOS non-graphic platform, which would allow you to combine sampled sounds and make what I guess what you would call a wave editor, but not a track editor. It would be like Sound Forge.
So, the guys would load sounds—you know, lions and tigers and bears in 35mm, they would send those to transfer. Transfer department would transfer those 35mm sound effects onto magneto optical media, [MO] which is what the Cyber Frame reads. It would take those MOs, which were like early versions of CD-ROMs, I guess you’d say, and it would read those into the system. Then they would boot the system as an Audio Frame, not a Cyber Frame, and while it was in Audio Frame mode, these guys would design new combined, mixed sound effects. They would then go over to Cyber Frame to be sunk up and spun out onto 24-track, so we could make our 35mm pre-dubs. Now if that isn’t a hybrid, I don’t know what is. [Both laugh] ’Cause it went from 35mm—dusty old library sound effects from the old MGM sound-effects library—it went to the digital realm where sounds were combined, and then laid up as tracks and spun out onto two-inch tape, and then mixed back down to 35mm in pre-dub. So, we went a long way around from 35 to 35, going through digital. That’s as hybrid as it’s ever gotten in my understanding. We had some very clever young fellows—Sanford Ponder and Chris Aud and Dave Van Slyke. Bunch of very clever guys who are still in the rackets. Well, not Ponder. Ponder went to work for a young software company up in the Northwest, when it was just starting out. It was called Micro . . . soft. [Laughs] And after a couple of years, I think he cashed in his stock options and retired. [Laughs]
WOODY: The American Dream. Well, God bless him.
DAVE: God bless him, indeed. Sanford had a great ear, and was a true designer, and has always made—even back in those days—made electronic music of his own compositions. So, he’s an artist. I have a couple of his CDs—sort of ambient, electro, spacey, meditative music. I really like it.
WOODY: Tom McCarthy is still at Sony today.
DAVE: Yes, back then I don’t think he had the VP title then, but he was the head of sound editing. Parallel to what CeCe Hall did at Paramount. So, they ran the editing shops for sound, and they—Tommy and CeCe, I believe, had salaried positions, but everybody else who worked in the cutting rooms for them was on a weekly wage for the union. So, Tommy was Sony Pictures’ sound editing. Everybody who had a job at Sony Pictures in sound editing or Foley knew Tommy or was put in their position by Tommy. On Dracula his role was really to represent the studio, and make sure we were on time and on budget.
WOODY: Had he already started Dracula by the time he involved you?
DAVE: No. We went to the very first meetings together in Francis’s office. We went up to San Francisco—Tommy and I and Dave Cohn and a couple of other guys went to Francis’s office at Zoetrope in downtown San Francisco to have an initial meeting about it. We hadn’t seen any footage yet, at that point, and I think before we left San Fran, somebody showed us some rough cuts of a few scenes. Then we went back to Hollywood and set up cutting rooms, and waited for the picture to arrive.
WOODY: What kind of time did you have for the design and edit, and then how much time did you have for the dubs?
DAVE: I have no idea! [Laughs] I have complete amnesia about the period. I don’t know if it was six months or three weeks, Woody. I have a friend who’s working for Francis now who called me up and asked, “Is this normal when you work for Francis that you don’t know how long you’re gonna be there and you lose all sense of time?” [Laughs] It’s like—it’s like you’ve gone away to this strange island, and time just stops until the picture’s over. I could, I suppose, research it and figure it out, but I don’t have a clue! I’m gonna guess it was maybe four months all together—which is long for post, but Francis kept changing the picture.
Let me go back and re-emphasize something. That was part of San Francisco filmmaking—I’m sure it’s not true any more, it’s a whole different world now——because now you have Pixar, and however things are done at Lucasfilm from job to job—it’s not the same old story. But in those days, I think a lot of the post-production sound people in the San Francisco Bay area must have thought, or may have thought, that we in Hollywood were just grinding out sausages without much thought to art. Which is a very insulting way of looking at what we do. On the other hand–on the other side of that geographical, cultural bias would be the Hollywood editor who thinks people in San Francisco have all the time in the world to fiddle around with their movies to get them perfectly right, and don’t have big-studio suits breathing down their necks. So, both of those things are terrible biases, and they’re not true. Somewhere in the middle there are various shades of gray and truth.
I’m sure much of that must have started with Apocalypse Now taking fifteen years in post. [Laughs] Whatever it took. It did take a long time in post, but they gave us the whole legacy of how to do a lot of the processes having to do with split-surround movies. And so they were almost like a research-and-development farm for some of what has become standard practices. So, that was very important. On the other hand, we Hollywood editors, I’ve always felt, had much more skill at editing production dialogue and mixing it to sound realistic without relying on a lot of ADR. And we had other skills with sound effects and with working efficiently that did not take place in the San Francisco area. In fact, I’d venture to say our Foley artists developed workflow methods on their own in Hollywood, since the earliest days of regular Foley or Foley being done on every feature film, which may not have always been practiced in the San Francisco Bay area because those people didn’t know how to do it that way. So a lot of their Foley in the 70s and 80s was really not so much Foley as clusters of sound effects recorded on the Foley stage. And recorded beautifully, by the way. So, their emphasis—it was a totally different style of work, their emphasis was more on getting the individual sound effects recorded well in front of the picture while our Foley artist developed ways of getting through longer movements in reel, and getting through them well. And since they basically worked with headphones up north, and most of the Hollywood people didn’t work with headphones on—they were too interested in getting the movement right. It’s different—so, there was a big cultural difference, and part of the job for Tommy McCarthy and I was to keep those differences minimized and work collaboratively and get the best possible effect out of everybody’s skills.
So, while I knew for instance, in terms of special effects sound design, I had great material from my young lads—Chris and Dave and Sanford. It was a huge crew. I had original sound effects made by them on the Audio Frame, and we knew that Leslie and his San Francisco friends were gonna have some original sound effects available to us only at the final. So, we had stuff you had to put into the pre-dubs. You couldn’t do it all in the final. And I also thought we ought to have our own Hollywood-based special sound-effects design guy, so I thought of Alan Howarth, who is a genius at that stuff. We hired Alan to custom design a handful of effects which I assigned him. I figured out—we will need an ambience for the canyon outside the castle; we need castle walls; desiccated, decayed sounds; we need Dracula-floats-across-the-floor sounds; we need some scary breathing stuff—you know, we need backwards drips, we need a lot of stuff. I had like a shopping list to turn over to Alan Howarth because he has always doing this kind of stuff for everybody I knew who was suping tracks in Hollywood: Rich Anderson and Steve Flick and Mangini. Alan had been on the first Star Trek, I think, with those guys, so he knew them from that movie. Alan was great at the interpretive design sort of special effects. We had a bunch of stuff from him too, and so everything you hear on the final track—there are mundane sound effects which were edited, I think artistically, by my crew; there are Alan Howarth sounds blended into that; there are original sounds made by the sound-effects editing crew by guys at Sony on the Audio Frame machine; and then there are final-dub additions that Leslie spun in on the fly during the final dub.
Kim Christensen sat with Leslie and Marion. They had a little—what was the big thing in those days—a little emulator thing, a little mini-keyboard with a sampler. Leslie wanted to send in these vocal improvisations from Diamanda Galas, the singer, with her doing these like ululations and kind of weird soprano singing. So, that’s all in there—it’s all mixed up. What always gets overlooked is how the Sony mixers who did the pre-dubs—how hard they worked—for very little glitz and glamour. Guys like Greg Watkins—I forget the other ones—Gary Bourgeois maybe. These were really, really strong everyday mixers on the Sony lot. And we gave them piles and piles of material to get through on our pre-dubs.
WOODY: Neither of those guys are credited.
DAVE: That’s typical on a deal like this. A lot of guys do the set-up work—it’s not fair, but it’s the way it is sometimes. Regular, everyday mixers who do whatever you put in front of them on the lot. We had tons and tons of mags that we schlepped up to Napa in order to do those mixes.
WOODY: Were there moments during the re-recording on the dub stage that you go, “Damn, this thing’s pretty darn good … we may win something?”
DAVE: Nah, man, you don’t think about the World Series—you just try to get through the next game against the White Sox. [Laughs] You know how it is Woody, you’re so in the moment—you’re much more concerned with “Can I have this particular problem solved by the next hour and a half?”
WOODY: So, you were nominated and then won, what is that like? What do you go through then?
DAVE: That’s a little weird because one of the competition was my dear friend Mark Mangini, who had just done Aladdin, which was brilliant, and a huge job, and a very creative job.
I’m sitting in the audience with my wife, and Mangini and his son Matthew. And then the other guys we competed against. We all knew each other, of course, and we had all been to the nominees’ luncheon together. But Mangini and I were such old pals that it was weird to be competing—and to be competing with such different material. Now, had it been today, an animated feature might have been taken more seriously, and he could have maybe won. But just being animated was a mark against them winning that year.
WOODY: It’s crazy, isn’t it?
DAVE: Mark and I both thought we had a good chance against them, for reasons only that the voters get sick and tired of the same old same old on these action films, right? He thought he had a chance because it was this unusual and creative animation job on an animated musical. I had a Coppola picture which had artistic cache, and was thought by everybody to be very artistically done. So, we thought the Steven Seagal guys didn’t have a chance. It was good craftsmanship, but we’re talking about the politics in the Academy. There are some years when those kinds of pictures win, and some where they don’t. I think we fell into a time when voters were looking for artistic stuff.
WOODY: Having spent a career in sound effects, specifically— you did hop around. You did dialogue editing and various—in fact, you mentioned that you did dialogue dubbing on one of the pictures we talked about.
DAVE: That would have to be Ocean’s Eleven.
WOODY: Larry Blake gave you that opportunity to do that?
DAVE: He wanted to teach me. I knew he didn’t want to give me credit for it. I don’t think he ever meant to, but he taught me some great stuff. And so I had some real satisfaction mixing those pre-dubs. It came at a good time for me too in my career, because I felt like one more big challenge before I throw it all away and start teaching. [Both laugh] Let me just say this about the differences between dialogue editing and sound-effects editing and supervising sound editing. I just see it all as a continuum. I think different people have a stronger talent in one specific flavor of sound editing than another, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t experience both, and I feel like to be a supervisor you damn well ought to be excellent at each of those specific kinds of sound editing. I don’t like to be supervised by somebody who isn’t a great dialogue editor themselves—’cause they don’t know the job! I don’t want to hire a dialogue editor who can’t cut sound effects. They may not be my favorite sound-effects editor, but what happens when the second baseman breaks his toe and I gotta bring in the guy from left field and have him play a couple of games?
WOODY: Jackie Johnson, who I use a lot for dialogue editing, can do anything. I’ve hired her to do music editing for me, I’ve hired her to do sound-effects editing for me, and each time she’ll say, “Oh Woody, I don’t really do that.” And I’m like, “Jackie, you cut!” She’s more concerned about it than I am!
DAVE: You just reminded me of something I heard that Roman Polanski said – some directors plan the shot and then figure out how to fit the actors into the shot. And he said, “I start with the actors and I let the actors rehearse the action before I figure out where I want to put the camera.” And he said, “Not doing it that way is like a tailor who makes a suit and then looks all around for a man that fits into it.” [Both laugh]
DAVE: I love that idea. So, with sound editing, even in the highly specialized specialty of sound-effects editing, I used to have some favorites. Sometimes I thought one guy’s good at car chases, one guy’s good at gun battles, one guy’s good with military stuff—and so you sort of subdivide the specialty. But that doesn’t mean everybody should be painted into a little corner. I worked on a picture about Jerry Lee Lewis called Great Balls Of Fire.
WOODY: With Dennis Quaid, right?
DAVE: Yes and a young Winona Ryder. She was I think 15, playing 13. The supervisor was a woman—supervising sound editor—and there was another sound editor who was a woman, and then two guys. So, you had a cutting supe and three editors. And she decided on the first day—she said, “Guess what, guys. You guys are gonna cut the dialogue, and the girls are gonna cut the muscle cars. We wanna cut the sound effects. We’re tired of people thinking girls can’t cut cars.” ’Cause it’s a guy thing. So she said to the other editor—who was Gary Wright—and I, “You guys don’t mind cutting dialogue? And we said, “Shit, we’d love it.” So, men cut dialogue and women cut the cars and all the sound effects, and of course, they did a great job. They’re great editors. You don’t have to have a penis to cut car sound effects!
WOODY: Kimberly Harris, Julia Evershade?
DAVE: Julia was the supe, and Kimberly Harris is a great editor—she’s still a great editor. I don’t think Julia’s in the racket any more. Gary Wright always got pissed off because people said, “Sing ‘Dream Weaver’ for me.” That was the name of the guy who had the hit record. Gary Wright’s a fine editor—I’ve known him for years. And Kimberly Harris. It was a small crew. We did a great job. I still enjoy seeing that movie.
WOODY: You have any sort of secrets or tricks you could divulge?
DAVE: Well, the most fundamental secret that I can think of on the sound-effects side, almost every good sounding piece of sound-effects element is made of two or three layers. You can’t always do that. You can’t layer a car rev or a car idle with another one, because it’ll sound like two cars. But in many cases, with sound effects, you can build character into them by layering two or three things together. And almost everyone does that anyway. That’s not a trade secret—that’s just basic craftsmanship. But dialogue—I was a great dialogue editor because I listened to every single foot of every take we had available before I started cutting. I’d study the material twice as long as other people on the crew before I made a single cut. And I would plan my tracks on paper before I cut them.
WOODY: It’s really just as simple as being a good craftsman – in any trade. You just gotta work hard and know your business.
DAVE: You’re making me remember an old thought – “measure twice, cut once.”
DAVE: And I think that’s the way I approach dialogue all the time. Very careful carpentry—measure twice, cut once. You have to listen to everything—I tell our students at SCAD that—you gotta listen to everything, listen to everything on every take from slate to slate. And the wild tracks to get to know what’s available. Don’t wait to find out there was a great alternate take until after you’ve cut and slavishly tried to make it sound good. And then do what students frequently do, which is revert to the sort of travesty of trying to EQ smoothness into it, when it didn’t cut right in the first place—and then suddenly find out there’s an alternate take you forgot to listen to—that’s stupid.
WOODY: I think that’s the secret weapon of dialogue editing, for sure. I just can’t believe how many people don’t go back to the tapes. I’ll get an ADR list, and I’ll be, like, this is insane—we don’t have anything to cover all of this?
DAVE: Very often the ADR editor, if they specialize, they don’t know that much about what you can save in production, and then on commercial jobs, and sometimes we see this on student films, somebody else like the director decides on the ADR list, and it’s all wrong—it’s all stuff he didn’t need to ADR. Unless, of course, the director wants a different performance or wants to re-voice a character or something. Typically, during my career, we would meet with ADR editors on a show—at the beginning, they’d have a big, huge, humongous list of everything that was conceivably, possibly vulnerable in production. And we’d have that list before we cut the production. After we cut the production, we would re-meet with them, and say, “You don’t need this line or this line or this line if you did it for the reasons I think you did it for.” And by the time they got the actor in front of the microphone, 80 or 90% of those lines on paper got omitted. It was always for a very important ritual for us—I don’t know how it’s been for you in your career—but we would always wait for the omit list and happily greet it when it had lots and lots of omits written through the ADR script. We were happy to see that. But you couldn’t get that done until there had been a lot of stuff cut.
WOODY: Let’s move into your new career at SCAD. So, were you teaching at DePaul first? Was that sort of an opportunity that came your way, or was that a purposeful shift of moving from Hollywood into the educational realm?
DAVE: It was both. Vanessa, my ex, and I had been talking about teaching as a third act of our professional lives for years before I had an opportunity to do it. We talked about it, I think, even before our son was born 21 years ago. So, we just knew that we both enjoyed campus life, and she’s a deeply intellectual person. She really enjoys studying and research. I don’t. [Laughs] And she already had a master’s degree in another field—not film—and very close to finishing her Ph.D. work in cinema studies now. So, for me, it was a matter of teaching not theory so much as production. I wanted to teach about stuff I had learned working professionally in sound. And it wasn’t going to be an easy opportunity for me, as I didn’t have a master’s degree, and I think that in Southern California it’s very easy for the colleges to get adjuncts from the industry to work—teach a class for peanuts on Wednesday nights, you know. I didn’t want to do that. An opportunity came up to go to Chicago and teach full time, so I jumped on it.
WOODY: This is without a master’s degree?
DAVE: Yeah, without a master’s. At that time—the suits have since changed their mind—but at the time, they had an agenda to hire professionals out of the industry and bring some of that panache to their school. At least they had a flirtation with doing that. At SCAD, it’s a more well-ingrained principle, and they have always been great at balancing the professionals from the arts with academics from around the arts. You get the right blend of that at SCAD—it works really well.
WOODY: You have a very impressive faculty over there. So, you are officially titled the Chair of Sound Design?
DAVE: Yes. Professor, Chair Sound Design.
WOODY: I’d like to get a better understanding of the hierarchy of that in terms of your daily work. So, you’re the head of the sound-design program—you develop the curriculum? I’ve got a book you know…[Laughs]
DAVE: The Academic Program for Sound Design Majors in the School of Film and Digital Media and Performing Arts is what I’m running. We have a school—I don’t know how many schools SCAD has—but our school, which is run by my dean Peter Weishar, our school is the School of Film and Digital Media and Performing Arts. In that school, you got your animation, your motion media, your visual effects, your performing arts, your film, your sound design, and I forget what else—oh, your equestrian art. We’re a big school within SCAD—I don’t know if you call it a school or a college.
WOODY: How long have you been there now?
DAVE: This will be my fourth academic year starting next month—next week—two weeks. My third year as chair, my fourth year of teaching there.
WOODY: Are there further goals for you as an educator in terms of SCAD, or president of the college, or start your own school—? [Both laugh]
DAVE: The only ambitions I have are to learn to be a better teacher, which will probably take me the rest of my life.
WOODY: So, you teach classes as well? What courses?
DAVE: To make a long story short, we have lots of different courses, and as a chair, I don’t get to teach the full load of courses that the other folks teach. I can only teach two or in the past we when we’ve been busy with administrative stuff, only one course. But it’s probably going be two now. I have my favorites. We have a sound effects and Foley class. I have a class called the History of Sound and Media, which is lecture only—which I enjoy. I’m supposed to teach that, and Intro to Sound Design, this fall. And I’d like to develop a new class about the industry— about how to get work and how the workflow works in the industry. My favorite, so far, has been post-production, where I teach students how to be a supervising sound editor—how to run a crew of the other people doing the editing and recording and mixing and stuff.
WOODY: Learn from the master!
DAVE: One of the things I’m trying to push for in the next couple of years—it’s really hard to change—make new courses and re-fit the old ones to match. But one of the things we’re trying to do is have sound effects and dialogue editing—separating it out from sound effects, Foley and ADR dialogue editing. Very complicated—but we’re trying to shift things around a little bit. I want to learn to be a better teacher. The other ambition I have is to study film and do more writing about the sound in other people’s movies- stuff from before I was born. I’d like to do some more historical writing, analyzing how people have used sound in movies over the years. I’m very interested in that. I’m not a scholar, but I take a deep interest in it.
WOODY: And you’ve got a book in you regarding the early cartoon animated sound too.
DAVE: I guess I might. I’m awfully interested in this stuff, and anybody who teaches really enjoys their work in the classroom, and enjoys passing on the knowledge to students. Because of the way SCAD is, we have so many professionals in all of the arts teaching kids, everybody consciously tries to be a teacher and not just tell war stories. For what people are paying for tuition, they have the right to be mentored and empowered to learn a bunch of stuff, and not just stand there and watching the show where you tell stories about movies they’ve never even heard of. I think everybody’s very good at doing that at SCAD. It’s one reason I’m very comfortable here—that we all are driven to teach, and we’re proud of our accomplishments, but there’s no way we’re trying to teach the next generation to be us. We’re just trying to teach them how to think, and using movies because everybody loves movies—using movies as a spoonful of sugar so they can learn critical thinking.
WOODY: What advice do you give to your students regarding pursuing a career?
DAVE: To network with their peers. Because the structure of the industry that they want to work for will change much faster than we can prepare them with specifics, and to also have a really broad knowledge of how—everything in post sound for movies, or sound for games, or sound art—to have the broadest possible knowledge of what goes on in those fields, even beyond your own specialty or talent. Because you can’t anticipate what the world will be when you’re out there working. Maybe there will be no more movies. Maybe there will be video games that are so integrated into our biology that there’s not even a mechanism to play them with. We don’t know what the future will be, but the principles of telling a dramatic story or leading an entertainment audience with sound—those principles won’t change. They haven’t changed since we sat around campfires and made mouth noises while we told stories.
WOODY: The tools have changed, but you still have a slate, some type of recorder and a microphone. We may not use Pro Tools in a decade, but we’ll still do it the same.
DAVE: Yes. Craftsmanship isn’t the tools. If you’re a carpenter, do you really care if your hammer has a green handle or a red handle?
WOODY: Exactly. As long as it’ll hammer a nail. Let’s take one final diversion. Now we talked earlier about your actual whole entrée into audio was the fact that you’re a visual artist, and you were interested in animation as an animator as opposed to a sound professional. And you did give me a copy of your book, which I loved, The Tao of Sh*t. So, other than this book do you still pursue the visual arts? How did that particular project start?
DAVE: One of my childhood friends, Jonathan Wolff, is a very spiritual guy, and is an educator—an educational consultant—he works primarily for the Montessori School. He holds workshops with their faculty and stuff. He’s a very deep thinker, but he also has a hilariously earthy sense of humor. We grew up listening to comedy records together, and he’s a very funny guy. You’d never know it when I described his job. He holds sort of highly psychological and spiritual workshops for Montessori teachers. He has done a lot of spiritual study from back in the 70s when we were pretty young, and several years ago he came up with these little koans that he had written that incorporated the idea of shit in the figurative sense—shit as in psychological baggage or work you have to do—shit in the figurative sense, not in the scatological sense. And he wrote all these cute little koans about shit, as we like to say. And he printed it up, with very pretty type, and gave it to a few friends. At some point, either he asked me to illustrate it, or I offered to illustrate it over dinner, or something—I can’t even remember now. But I said it really ought to have these sort of faux Japanese and Chinese and Indian—Asian—art to it. And he said, “Can you do that?” And I said, “Well, I minored in art history, and I can probably illustrate it. So, let’s do that.”
WOODY: I really enjoyed that book. I had a fun time flying home to LA from Savannah reading that.
DAVE: I like to draw, and about every two or three years, I get inspired to draw a magazine cartoon, which I never submit. Or something funny, which I never get done. I enjoy fooling around with Photoshop. I’ll occasionally do a gag Photoshop picture on Facebook. I still have the impulse to draw funny stuff. I have a project I started in the 70s sitting in yellowed old pieces of paper in a portfolio somewhere that I’d love to revive and finish up. Which was a mock do-it-yourself project book. I’d love to revive that. But first things first—gotta mow the lawn, pay the bills.
WOODY: That’s your retirement project.
DAVE: I don’t wanna retire.
WOODY: Anybody I’ve ever met who retired I didn’t meet again.
DAVE: That’s right—they usually drop dead.
WOODY: That’s what I’m saying.
DAVE: If they bust me out of the chair’s office, and I still stay employed just teaching and not chairing, then I can get some of those projects done. Because administering takes a lot of extra time—and I enjoy it. I do get my rocks off playing around with the typography and stuff.
WOODY: Thanks David, this has been a wonderful conversation. Looking forward to hearing your movies and enjoying your satire.
DAVE: It was my pleasure Woody.
Been wrapping up a busy summer here in Santa Monica. One recent project was a music video for a new artist and long time friend of this blog Neara Russell. Neara has just released a wonderful new album called Noise and Silence you can preview it here. I helped her create a music video to her track Shattered Glass. I directed it and edited the picture among other things. You can watch the video here -
I’m still on my “Audio Tour 2011″ which Wendy Woodhall has spent a great deal of time planning, coordinating and managing. The first leg of the tour, earlier this year, I went to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and spent some time with the students and faculty there. Great place, great people – I’ve never been there before and it was a wonderful experience.
They invited me to their annual “Entrepreneurship Forum” where I was asked to speak about my professional organization, “The Los Angeles Post Production Group” as well as my experiences creating and running my own audio post studio Allied Post Audio. They put me up in a wonderful old converted house owned by the school and I had the pleasure of hanging not only with the students but also with their faculty who includes some amazing folks like David Stone and Peter Damski. Many thanks to Gregory Renda for the hospitality!
Another piece of this year’s tour was a presentation for Marcelo Lewin at his FilmmakingWebinars.com website. It was called “Audio Post Workflows for Video Editors” and I detailed many workflows and strategies for the ultimate delivery of a soundtrack. I find this a blind spot for video editors who haven’t spent a lot of time exploring audio exporting, split tracks and encoding. We had a huge worldwide audience and it is still available as a download on Marcelo’s site. The teaser for it can be found here -
DV Expo 2011 here in Pasadena was another amazing experience. Many thanks to Cristina Clapp for all of her help and hospitality. We hosted our September LAPPG meeting there this year with Daniel Kramer, the Visual Effects Supervisor for “The Smurfs” for Sony Imageworks. It was a terrific presentation with Daniel explaining and defining all things Smurfs – from skin and blood color to height and movements. A fascinating discussion about bringing 2D characters into a 3D world.
As another leg of my audio tour I also presented on the main stage at DV Expo 2011- a discussion on “Audio for Content Creators.” It was a standing room only crowd as I buzzed over the main aspects of audio post from edit to outputs and delivery. A great time with a very enthusiastic crowd!
We are also beginning a new project called “LAPPG Presents” which will be classes, workshops and events produced by Wendy and I for the post community here in LA. Our first event will be a full day workshop with my colleague and friend Dr. Fred Ginsburg, CAS. It will be held here in Los Angeles and if you’d like to get a full day intensive on audio – location and post – this is the class for you. It is normally $149.00 but with my super secret code – LAPPG – you can get 50 bucks off! It is on Oct 15th in Westwood at the ShowBiz Store and Cafe. If you can’t make this one, drop me a line and I’ll tell you when Fred and I will be doing it again.
Another aspect this year as part of the “Audio Tour” has been participating with local colleges in various ways. I am a part of the Industry Committee Panel for the Musicians Institute and a part of the Program Advisory Committee for The Art Institute Los Angeles. I have been a part of workshops, meetings and student events for audio education and I’ve met with students from both of these fine schools and presented on audio post. I also spent an evening speaking with the students at Video Symphony for one of their monthly “Pizza and Post” nights. That evening was dedicated to finding and keeping work and it was called “Ten Tips for Successful Employment in Hollywood.” No magic bullet there – hard work, showing up and participating were the main themes of the evening.
The final stop on my audio tour will be in Connecticut and presenting on audio post at Production Conn. They asked for an introductory video and I have that posted here. If you are in CT please come on by. Keith Larsen is the man in charge and it will be a wonderful event.
I’ve also joined the company of filmmakers who call themselves BrevityTV.com, headed by Deron Sedy. I have joined as a producer and I have also spent some time providing post as well. I did the visual effects in Photoshop and After Effects for “Alien Lesbian Sexbot” and few others projects are just getting ready to come online. They have some pretty funny stuff and understand clearly that “brevity is the soul of wit.”
Of course I’ve also had a busy year designing, editing and mixing sound. I did a terrific pilot for FuseTV called “Popped” which chronicalled the rise of rapper Nelly. I also edited and mixed the first season of “Storage Hunters” for truTV. I did a great piece for Intel Visual Life, a bio piece called “The Sartorialist” on Blogger Scott Shumann. I won two Telly Awards for Best Sound – one for “Best Worst Movie”, which also landed on Roger Ebert’s Top Ten List for Documentaries 2010 and one for the Meat Loaf episode (the singer – not the food!) of a series I mixed for Food Network called “Private Chefs of Beverly Hills.” I recorded lots of voiceovers as usual; all the way from Michael York for the animated feature “Flatland” to Playmate April 2011 – Jaclyn Swedberg for Playboy TV and many others in between.
I have a new version of my sound reel available. Take a look at some of the fun projects I’ve been doing with audio.
Sound for documentary film is a skill where typically there are no second chances. If you are running after an interview or have a high profile person giving you five minutes of their valuable time and you’ve improperly recorded the audio, you may have blown a key moment from your film. The importance for great audio cannot be over stressed. Dialog replacement will not be an option for documentary, although today, because of the popularity of reality television, it has become more and more standard to include sub-titles for indecipherable audio. However, those audiences would prefer to hear rather than read their audio.
The demands for the audio of any given documentary project will vary wildly on the program content as well as the documentary style. A talking head program will usually have controlled interview situations and time for audio adjustments if needed. A cinema verite or run and gun documentary may often just have the chance to get a microphone close to the action and hope for the best. This post can’t address every situation that can be encountered however, it can advise best practices to the sound recording process.
Making documentaries requires a vast media tools skillset. Several skills will have to be employed: from the camera and sound recordings, the transfer and storage options, to the edit, the mix and the output. Usually by an army of one, namely, you. A thorough understanding of the tools and techniques for sound recording is going to be essential for any documentarian. Filmmakers often have extensive knowledge of new cameras, codecs, lenses and workflows but not understand the difference between a hyper-cardioid or an omni-directional microphone and might not know the difference between a short shotgun microphone or a long one. But, before you can even get to the recording process, you should be applying one of the most important of your skills: listening.
To properly plan for sound the first exercise is simple – listen. Listen to the room that you are in, listen to the location that you will be shooting and understand the consequences of the audio landscape. Filmmakers must train their ears as much or more than they do their eyes. As humans we spend enormous amounts of time filtering out sound. We block out the trucks and buses, the airplanes and birds, the hums of computers and fans and air conditioning, but the microphones hear it all. They simply record the audio environment. The environment that you may not be “really” hearing. Stop. Listen. Stop again. Listen. Try to pull out the layers of the sounds you hear, first the fan, then the computer, then the traffic, then the wind, then the birds. If you stop and really listen you’ll be amazed at how much is going on. Do it right now. Do it all day long, every day. Learn to hear. Learn to “listen” to your locations. Make adjustments if you can. No matter what, those audio recordings will be with the project right up until the finish. Make sure every recording sounds as good as it can.
I once consulted on a doc that had numerous sound issues. The first problematic scene was an interview of a person on a street corner. The filmmaker chose to orient the shot so that the boom and microphone were pointing directly at a noisy street. I asked if the composition of the shot was so vitally important to create such a noise issue. I was told that there was no one monitoring the sound through headphones and that the shot looked good with the traffic passing behind the subject. The sounds of this busy intersection completely overpowered the conversation being recorded. There was a lack of understanding of just how much the audio had been compromised by pointing a directional microphone straight into a loud, evolving noise source – the street. Of course with no one listening to the recordings it would be hard to determine the quality of the audio!
It might be easy to say, well this is something I would never do but due to the circumstances of whatever is going on as you shoot you do what you can and keep moving on. In their case the only pair of headphones they had been using stopped working. There are many problems that can and do happen in the heat of any given production. The situations may not be quite as obvious as pointing a mic into a busy street but the damage is often just the same.
I’m not a purist and I understand that not all contingencies can be planned for. But often there is no actual time logged discussing the sound beyond boom or lav and the gotchas come fast and furious in post. For those of us who are tasked with fixing the audio track it can be a real head scratcher when you hear recordings that could have been easily fixed on set with a simple turn of the mic or an appropriately placed blanket. Hear the location that you are shooting. Minimize the audio obstructions. Turn off fans, unused computers and point the microphone away from noise sources. If a location is really loud have a second look to see if moving to another place is feasible. Oftentimes simply an awareness of the sounds can prompt you to simple solutions. Listen. Many times. It’s as simple as that.
Go to a home improvement store or look online and buy several moving blankets. Sometimes these are called furniture pads. They are quite inexpensive and are worth their weight in gold. Blankets should be a part of your kit the same way a tripod is for the camera. These blankets can be used to cover loud noise sources; they can be used to deaden reverberant spaces, they can be hung in doorways to block sound. Just fold them up, throw them in the trunk and use them when needed. Blankets can often be a simple noise fix and can save many hours and dollars in post. Well worth the few dollars.
Spend some time researching microphones and their use. Chances are that you’ve learned a great deal about the camera, the post considerations, the media storage and the workflow. Spend some of that time learning a bit more about audio. Which is the best shotgun mic for your situation, short or long? Would it be better to boom the shot or mic the person with a lavaliere? How about planting a microphone to capture a wider area of sound? Would a boundary microphone provide the coverage that would be required for the shot? If these terms and concepts are new to you, if you didn’t know that shotguns come in different lengths and each one has a particular usage then next time you are on the Internet search “audio, microphones and techniques.” You are going to be living with these location recordings through the rest of the process, take good care creating them. Make sure that the audio captured is as sharp as your images.
Another main tool in the recording arsenal is the microphone preamplifier. They are sometimes referred to as mic-pres or preamps. Most microphone preamps are a part of a mixing unit or board and are built into most digital video cameras. The preamplifier is the device that a microphone plugs into and allows for precise control of the levels being sent to a mixer or recorder.
This graphic shows a mic-pre with three inputs. You can see the XLR plug inputs on the left and the three corresponding knobs on the front panel to control the signal gain. You want to record the audio levels loud enough to be well past the threshold of noise (signal to noise ratio) but not so loud as to distort the recording.
Preamplifiers are a key part of the quality of the recorded sound. Some preamps are noisy, some are quiet, some provide strong clean gain, some not. The quality of the recording will be determined by the quality of the microphone choice and usage, and the quality and signal to noise ratio of the preamp. If these terms are new or strange get on that Internet machine and do a bit of research. Just an FYI, in a general sense, the mic preamps that are included in a camera are typically not of sufficient quality to deliver excellent recordings. If you want professional results that you will be able to sell and distribute later, (right?) use professional gear.
Bring a grab bag for your audio. Fill it with safety pins, various types of tape, extra audio connectors and mic clips. Bring along a mic stand or two along with some clothespins, rubber bands and paper clips. Bring extra batteries, extra cables and most especially a bit of extra time for your audio. If you don’t have a pin to affix a cable, tape to conceal a plant mic or a stand to put a mic in an awkward place you will lose an opportunity that may not come again. You may never have another chance with that interviewee or that event. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.
One final thought regarding your location audio. Besides learning about sound and how it spreads in space, besides learning about recording devices and which tool to use for the moment you need it, besides using quality equipment and excellent recording practices like not recording too hot and keeping the microphones close – I may also suggest; hire professionals.
Professional sound mixers have been there and they have done that. They can anticipate problems before you’ve even considered it. They can offer solutions to problems that you weren’t even aware existed. They have probably been on more shoots than you, worked with many different talented people and are up to date in their knowledge about their specific skill: sound. I know that budgets are tight and particularly on documentaries, but skimping on the sound process or the quality of the recordings will have a direct impact on the final product. Bad sound has ruined many a worthy doc. If you can’t afford to hire a sound team for the whole shoot see if you can get someone to consult with you. A few hours in good conversation with someone looking over your gear and your recording locations can save you a lot on the back end. You have a story to tell, make sure that your audience can hear it.
Sandy Gendler has worked in just about every aspect of audio post production – from effects editor to Foley and ADR editor to sound designer and supervising sound editor. His career includes many well known Hollywood features such as “Independence Day”, “U-571″, and Paul Haggis’s Oscar winning “Crash” . He has been twice BAFTA nominated and twice Golden Reel nominated. Recent projects for Sandy include “Grey Gardens” and “The Blind Side”.
WOODY: You are mostly considered a “supervising sound editor” how do you describe what that means?
GENDLER: It’s the person who is in charge of the effects, sound design, voice replacement, ADR, the Foley, the background, all of the sounds it takes to put you into a picture. It’s fair to say that the supervising sound editor is the boss of the sound editing team. The supervising sound editor puts together the team. If you have a team you like, you try and use them because there’s a shorthand that you use together. There’s a trust factor. You know they’ll give you what you want.
When you begin you start with the script, the director, editors and the producers. The postproduction supervisor is the one who tells you “these are the dreams for the sound, but this is the reality of the budget. How do we make it all work?”
The idea is to look at all the sound that is needed for the film excluding the music which is usually the music editor working with the composer and the director. What I like to do while I’m creating sounds is to give them samples of what I’m making, and just say, I’m going for these registers. Is this gonna be OK with what you’re doing? Because a lot of the time the music is playing through a scene and we’re going to hit on certain specific moments and all of the sound elements have to work together.
WOODY: How involved do you get with the postproduction supervisor?
GENDLER: We’ll talk about budget and scheduling. I submit a budget for what the deal costs, how many weeks the editors will be on for, and make contingencies if something happens – where we’ll need to work overtime or they change the picture edit the day before the temp mix all of this goes through the post-supervisor. Sometimes you have to be very creative to fix the problems. The post-supervisor becomes more like the line producer for post.
I make a budget list from the budget information that they give me. I explain where I see the money going. How many weeks of dialogue editing we’re going to need, how many weeks of effects editing, how many weeks of ADR, whatever, we will have this lump sum of money for the editorial section.
The post-supervisor doesn’t usually get involved in my day to day, unless it involves a mixing facility stage. If we’re on an ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement) stage he’ll make sure we got everything we needed for each actor and makes sure that the actors won’t have to come back and go into an overtime situation. The post-supervisor is who I need to talk to if there’s a bump in the road.
WOODY: When they are making a feature at what point in the process are you hired?
GENDLER: Usually while the picture is still being cut usually, but it’s always different. It’s gone both ways. Sometimes I come on board even before they’ve started shooting. It’s great if you can get on board while they’re shooting because every picture has something very, very special about it. It could be a specific car that is different from other cars than you have in your sound effects library. It could be doing different maneuvers than what you would usually have. In that case, it’s great if you can get it on set and get the actual car if they have it there. That way you can personally record it and get everything you need for it. It makes it smooth from going to the effects sound of the car in production.
It helps sometimes if you know that there’s a location that’s special. How many times do you go on films and say, Man, I wish I could’ve had somebody down there just to record the sound effects of that swamp or something. I was very lucky on some films that I’ve been on where they had big crowd scenes. I was very lucky that they gave me five minutes at the end of the day of shooting to work the crowd for a bit to get big sounds from them that were specific for the film. That was great.
I look at the script and say, I think this would be really great if we could bring my sound recorders down to the set. Sometimes you get that opportunity. When it works, it’s fantastic. They let me do that on Stargate and on Independence Day.
WOODY: What software do you typically use for your work?
GENDLER: I mostly work in ProTools; We use various plug-ins. I used to work a little bit on Control 24 mixing console. They are incredibly useful. It really helps, especially if you have a good monitoring system. I started in mag, [magnetic sprocket audio tape] but now I’m in Pro Tools.
WOODY: Pro Tools is what most of us seem to use here in Hollywood. What’s a typical time frame on a feature from when you start to the final mix?
GENDLER: Depends on the needs of the show. For a DGA [Directors Guild of America] film, the director usually gets 10 weeks to do his picture cut. I’ll usually come on after 8 weeks (8 weeks after the shoot has ended). Typically the reason that they put me on is because the director doesn’t want to show it to anyone without some sound things behind it.
For example if the door closes you’ll want to hear a sound for it. That way it doesn’t seem like a on – set door. If I come in early, I just start pulling sound effects. It’s a lot easier nowadays for other people to access it with the abundance of servers and SFX libraries today.
I spend a lot of time making sure that things are consistent through the film: I’ll make sure the hero’s car has a certain feel. If there are firearms involved I will find the sounds for the hero’s gun. You want to make sure that the principle sounds in the film are consistent. I like to get involved in the sound design in order to give the director and producers some samples. That way I can get input from them. I also like to be involved so that I’m not shocked or surprised when we watch the temp mix in the screening and the director says, What is that?
Let’s say there are two weeks before the temp, then there’s usually there are at least 4 weeks of sound editorial. It could be more. They may have a couple of previews but you won’t be able to get through all of it.
Then there are also the pre-dubs. The length of the pre-dubs depends on the budget and the complexity of material as well. It could be a few days or it could be a couple of weeks. ADR can be time-consuming, recording and then trying to work the ADR and get it to match and not sound like ADR. But generally on a small budget, it’s usually 6 weeks until we get to the mixing stage. I’ve done it for less.
WOODY: ADR can take some time. Newer directors can be a bit cavalier about “we’ll just get it later in ADR.” They may not quite realize that besides getting the right performance and the correct lip-sync, takes will have to be auditioned and chosen and then those will have to be finessed in a mix to match the production recordings it is being cut with.
GENDLER: When I did Muppets in Space, there was a lot of ADR. They used drop down lav mics for the actors during the shooting of that picture. When we did the ADR, I went and got those mic contraptions that the puppeteers used during production so that it would match or at least get as close as we could to the production residence of the voice.
WOODY: So tell me, how did you get involved in sound?
GENDLER: I was a picture editor. At the time, it just seemed a lot less political to be involved in sound. You know, it gets really political on the cutting room floor. I helped with sound while I was in school, and I liked it. It was very straightforward and not as political. I haven’t touched picture in the longest time, years and years and years.
WOODY: A sound guy who’s not a musician?
GENDLER: No, not a musician. I can strum a little bit [laughs], but no, not a musician.
WOODY: No more picture editing?
GENDLER: No, I haven’t touched picture in the longest time.
WOODY: I remember digging through bins for frame numbers, I was an assistant film editor for my first job when I came to LA. A friend of mine was a feature editor cutting film on a flatbed. He said I can get you a job, probably only about 5 dollars an hour, to dig through the trims and find me frames to put back in. Then I started working with the mag and the grease pencils and it fascinated me.
GENDLER: So you know what a synchronizer is? [Laughs]
WOODY: Absolutely. I mean it’s such a completely different world now with Pro Tools and computers and digital world. The stuff you can do with a firewire drive and a laptop these days is just incredible. What I tell my interns these days is to buy a four track recorder and a microphone, because you need to learn the real thing. With computers what happens is you end up with crashes, conflicts with drivers, plug-ins and operating systems that need updating and you end up getting stuck there and not making audio. The fastest way to learn audio is to get out there with a recorder and a microphone, that’s how you’re going to learn this stuff.
GENDLER: You know it.
WOODY: So I see that you’ve worked with some directors on a regular basis, for instance Roland Emmerich. I’ve also noticed that you’ve done a lot of action type movies going back as far as Charles Bronson and Stephen Segal, Van Damme, and Chuck Norris. Now those I would imagine are very audio intensive, certainly in terms of the foley and fighting and gun fire etc. What type of particular challenges do you have when doing action movies?
GENDLER: It depends on the script. One tip – You want the guns to sound big and bad, but you want the hero’s gun to sound better than the bad guys guns. You have to ask yourself, why do people want to watch the car crashes at the Indy 500? They want to hear all these visceral thrills, the impacts and skids. It helps to put you into the action.
The thing is that you are really only there to serve the narrative, I mean I’ve also worked on quieter films like say two people talking in the kitchen about a relationship. You want to make sure whatever you are doing serves the narrative.
The thing about an action film is that it will be big and loud; everybody wants that. But it’s much harder when there is nothing there. You have to create mood. You can use a colder air with a little bit of whistle in it or whatever is needed to create the reality of that world. You want to give what will help, whatever supports the narrative.
WOODY: Have you found that because you’ve worked on so many action films that you are like a go to guy for action?
GENDLER: [Laughs] Get me Gendler.
WOODY: [Laughs] Right! I got crashes, I need Gendler.
GENDLER: Yeah Crash, for the most part, is a quieter film, and mainly just dialogue. You really want to make sure that the dialogue is clean, but even there we do something that tries to help the mood. When the father, the locksmith played by Michael Pena, comes home and sees his little daughter hiding under the bed because she’s afraid, we wanted to make it almost like a church in there. We played the recordings of Ave Maria and mixed them into the air, just subtly there, so that it almost feels like she was praying. You probably wouldn’t notice, but we wanted to make it real subtle, just to create that ambience.
WOODY: That’s a great technique. Do you use that on a lot of quieter film like say The Blind Side?
GENDLER: Well I was just the effects editor, on Blind Side, I wasn’t the supervising, Jon Johnson was the supervising on that. I cut the football sequences and I put a lot just to make the impacts of our star, Michael Ore, really big. I always cut explosions into the impacts so it would make it that much bigger. What you’re looking to do, especially in a lot of these actions films, is you’re always looking for the jaws effect. You’re expecting to see the shark and expecting it to be so big, so big that it scares you. I try to do that with sound sometimes, you expect it to be so big and then I make it even bigger so that you get a punch on it.
WOODY: When you’re doing a picture like that, these Oscar winning movies, do you have a sense of that when you are working on it?
GENDLER: It’s hard to say. Some movies are very special when you’re working on them, and you hope they do well. Sometimes they get discovered and sometimes they don’t. But you work just as hard on every film. It’s not that you work harder on any of these films; you just work the best you can because everybody’s got a lot riding on them, so you do your best. Some films we knew were going to be big you felt like, Wow this film really works – I hope one of these is catching. But, I don’t think you can predict ahead of time what it’s going to be.
WOODY: That’s just sort of the way it is, there’s a lot of stuff out there and some of it gets attention and some of it doesn’t.
GENDLER: Some of it’s really good and for whatever reason.
WOODY: just falls through the cracks. Even stuff with a name actor, I’m sure if you look up Al Pacino there’s fifteen pictures on there you’ve never heard of, never seen.
GENDLER: There are always different reasons; maybe they weren’t correctly marketed, wrong timing, whatever the reasons are.
WOODY: I just heard that Jackass 3 was such a huge hit they’ve ordered three more.
GENDLER: It cost them 20 million and the first week they were in profits.
WOODY: Yeah it’s a good business if you’ve got a hit! Do you have favorite moments from projects that you’ve worked on?
GENDLER: Oh gosh you know, I love a lot of the movies I’ve worked on. They were fun to do. We’ve done some crazy stuff just trying to record things. You used to be able to go out in Palm Dale and record vehicles on this one road that had gravel right out on the side of it and you could get tires on rock, dirt and asphalt.
We had this school bus on I think it was Universal Soldier that Jean Claude Van Damme is being transported in, and the driver gets shot while the bus is going off the road. We tried to mimic this shot, so we were in a car following the yellow school bus. It gets pretty wacky. We even had police coming down after us, and we didn’t have permits. But it sounded great!
There are moments in a lot of projects that are just really fun. The nice thing about SFX is that it’s like a candy – an instant gratification. You know right away if it works or not. The hardest things are the subtlest. It was difficult in the Field of Dreams to create the voice that he hears. We went through a lot of different processes treating different reverbs on parts with different pitches, the repeat on the higher and lower parts. The director didn’t like any of it until we finally nailed it, but that was a looooong process and we went through a lot of permutations.
I learned a lot though. It’s almost like every project you work on is like a term paper; you become an expert about one specific thing by the time it’s done. I think most sound editors are like that; they really need to get deep into things.
WOODY: I know you’ve done so many shows, is there one or two that stand out as a real highlight for you, as a career moment?
GENDLER: Well I’ve really enjoyed the latest.
WOODY: What’s your latest project?
GENDLER: The last one I’ve worked on is Battle of Los Angeles, which will be coming out in March (I think).
WOODY: Another action picture?
GENDLER: It’s an action picture. I was just the sound editor on it. I supervised the Foley and backing up the stage on it, because there were so many changes coming down the pipe I was trying to keep up with that. That is a great movie.
The one picture I really liked a lot is the film Stargate – that would probably be my favorite.
WOODY: On what level? Just loved the movie or the experience?
GENDLER: I loved the experience and the satisfaction with the work. It just felt like we nailed everything that we set out to do.
WOODY: So is Battle of Los Angeles the latest thing that you have coming out?
GENDLER: I did another small little thing that I did right after Battle of Los Angeles called The Chosen One, which I did the sound design for.
I did another small film with Jeff Bridges in it that for whatever reason never saw the light of day. Another recent film was The Amateurs. It was just such a sweet movie. I really enjoyed working on it. Jeff Bridges leads a really great cast.
WOODY: Yeah, you know I saw that on your IMDB and what a great cast – Bridges, Tim Blake Nelson, Fichtner, Danson. It was totally off the radar, I had never even heard of that movie.
GENDLER: It only opened in two cities, Los Angeles for one week and Dallas. They only spent like a dollar fifty for publicity on it, but it was a really sweet movie. I really enjoyed the process working on that movie.
WOODY: I’ll look for it.
GENDLER: Yeah, for some reason it just never caught the waves. Jeff Bridges is great in it, he is really just incredible and a pleasure to work with.
WOODY: Do you have any favorite actors that you’ve worked with?
GENDLER: Well he would be up there, but there are a lot of really good actors. The thing is with actors, what they do is amazing. I am so amazed at what they do. How they are able to convince us of their emotions and what they’re doing and thinking. How sometimes with the slightest movement or slightest variation they really change the meaning of something. It’s just amazing.
WOODY: I see you’ve done a lot of projects with supervising sound editor Jon Johnson. A lot of mixers work in teams. Is it sort of like that in the editing aspect as well?
GENDLER: Yeah, you just know that you can rely on each other. You create shorthand. You know you can be creative and work well together and communicate with each other. We feel that it is always in the best interest of the project to do a good job and have fun while doing it.
WOODY: So what would you tell an intern or somebody who is just learning sound editing? Do you have any career advice for them?
GENDLER: I would say to meet as many people as possible. Make sure they know you’re available. It’s an old thing of looking for a job while you’re not looking. I don’t know why it is, but people for whatever reason get nervous if someone is too hungry for work. Try to learn as much as you can from everybody, but understand that it is a work situation and not school. They can’t answer every question. Pay attention and you can learn, do your job, and do it well. Be curious and try to learn as much as you can about everything. Then – go back to law school. [laughs]
WOODY: Do you have any particular approaches to working with directors and getting the sound edit done?
GENDLER: A lot of times some directors aren’t sound savvy. They know the visual and music, but sound they are not always really involved in. You need to specifically ask them what they are trying to do or looking at the cut this is what I’m thinking. Is that in the right direction? Do you want to add something here? Some of the things you can do sometimes can help directors expand their vision. It’s like they only had money for four people on the set, but if you somehow want to convey that there is a lot of activity you can do that with rooms and backgrounds. You can coax it out of people. One of my favorite director lines was from Roland Emmerich. I want it to sound like something I’ve never heard before and I said, Well, can you explain that and he said, No, I’ve never heard it before. [Laughs]
WOODY: Do you have any advice that you would give a new director to improve sound for their projects?
GENDLER: Definitely listening to their production mixer that is probably telling them when they can’t shoot. There are a dozen things going on the set that they can’t even begin to fathom like they are losing light or they only have the location for so long and they need to shoot 5 more pages of the script. So there tends to be this fix it in post mentality.
Get the room tone with everybody in the scene still; it will sound different without the people. Hire a good production mixer; it will save you a lot of money on the back end. There is a magic that happens when the cameras are rolling, the actors just feel it. It’s always hard to get back to that with ADR. If they have a line that they think is questionable, get a wild track on set and we can generally piece together a pretty good sync of everything. It saved having to loop it later.
I like to work with new filmmakers too because their stuff is just edgy and great. But there are always a slew of problems on their projects that can’t be fixed. No matter what the budget is, there is still a certain amount of work that has to be done there has to be Foley, there has to be ADR, there has to be sound effects, backgrounds, and it all has to be mixed.
The question is often how to be creative and stretch the budget. Sometimes you can do a lot. Balancing everything against each other. If there isn’t money for predubbing, you can do a lot of the predubs in the box while you’re in the edit.
WOODY: Final Words? Something we didn’t cover?
GENDLER: To aspiring filmmakers: Sound is 50 percent of your movie so pay attention to it.
WOODY: I hope people hear that! Thanks Sandy, I appreciate your time.
GENDLER: Let’s go make some movies.
WOODY: Great idea!
Audio post is made up of several different elements. The simplest way to look at the various breakdowns is the D, M & E. This is the dialog material (D), the musical material (M) and the sound effects material (E). Within those three simple categories however is a whole lot of other stuff. For instance, the dialog can include of a number of tracks including the sync location tracks, any re-recorded dialog tracks (ADR), any walla tracks (background voices) and or voice-overs.
The music can include the composed score, popular songs, and source music like radios, cars and or muzak. Muzak is a brand-name but typically refers to background music heard in stores, elevators and the like. The sound effects can include sounds such as atmospheres or backgrounds, hard effects like car door slams or guns and explosions and or Foley recordings. Each of these various sound elements may require a number of different edits and discrete sessions for final mixing.
For the purposes of this article we will discuss these ideas using Pro Tools as our recording, editing and mixing platform but these concepts can be easily ported to any other digital audio program. For those who don’t use ProTools I will define the terms as I go – starting with “sessions.” In Pro Tools world a “session” is simply the name of any one particular document.Â In Microsoft Word you create a “doc file” in Pro Tools you create a “session file.”
Most computer programs allow for the ability to save a document “as” something new. Basically you “save as” the file saving the past work and adding to it in the new “save as” session. My strong recommendation is to “save as” whenever you are substantially changing a session. In fact I like to do many sorts of “save as” sessions.
I have encountered many engineers who like to save over their prior days work. Most programs have some sort of “back-up” schemes and Pro Tools is no different. These sessions are automatically saved and can be used to go back to prior work. However these sessions are meant as back-ups so they will not be well documented. In the case of Pro Tools it creates a new back-up file by time increments designated by the user. For instance, by choosing your preferences, you may create a back-up every half-hour or quarter-hour. This is essential practice for any engineer as a safety but it is not useful over the long term for a complicated project such as a TV show or a feature film that may contain many different “sessions” prior to the final mixing.
Here is a simple system that I have devised using “save as” in my session saving. The rule is – new day – save as the next increment – Dialog Edit 5 becomes Dialog Edit 6 and so on. Or if a new engineer is adding to the session, as in the case of a multi-user facility or project, save as the next increment. Also save each edit, record or mix session by name – “Dialog Edit 1″, “Foley Record 1″, “ADR record Jesse 1″ and so on.
Over the course of a complex project will there be many sessions created in this manner? Yes, absolutely, but it also allows for precise documentation of each session. Also the media used within the project is what takes up drive space, the actual size of the “session” file is quite small so you are not using gigs of additional storage. One of the difficulties in complex projects that are spread over many days or weeks is keeping tabs on the changes that occur as the show progresses. One thing any good editor/mixer will learn early on is that there must be a simple way to get back to prior work. Directors and producers change their minds often and you must be prepared to get to those changes quickly. A director will not want to hear that a session or sequence must “be rebuilt” to conform back to what was recently completed.
I also create a document that references each session file as a paper document.Â This is old-school – utilizes a pencil and paper!
These session sheets are printed, documented and kept in a show specific binder. A sample document can be seen here. This can and should be altered to fit the working style of the team as well as the project but this one hits the main points for documentation.
Name of session and date are obvious. I also include the engineers name as well as which session, if any, it was created from. I also include where the media and the session are physically located, i.e. which computer, which drive, which directory etc. Nothing is worse than not being able to find an edit session! Oh it’s on THAT drive!
There is also a notes section that is to used for – notes. Detail these notes, this has been a long days work and there have been many changes, additions, deletions and breakthroughs. Be sure to accurately note what has been done, what has not been done, what challenges are still faced in the session and so on. It may seem that keeping all of this information in your head is fine but good luck in a month. Theses documents will prove invaluable as the process continues and are particularly useful when multiple editors are working on the same material.
All of the session sheets are kept in a binder accessible to anyone that is working on the project. In the case of a feature film for instance I break the session binder into sections and by date for easier retrieval. One section is devoted to the dialog session sheets, one for Foley, one for sound design and effects editing and so on. Each is placed in the binder on top of the next per section so the most current sessions are on top.
This documentation is not just for today. A lot of projects change or get changed as time passes. The producer gets a foreign sale and they require a new set of deliverables. Or the music rights of some tracks have expired and the sound needs a re-cut. I’ve had many projects come back at a much later date for a few “tweaks.” These binders help track down the small things that directors need to alter the film. I’ve swapped out entire music tracks and re-mixed, I’ve changed ADR lines, I’ve recorded voice-overs to clarify story points, all well after the final mix. It’s in your interest as the post sound lead to be able to make these changes in a timely and effective manner. Three years down the line tracking down some ADR takes may be more difficult than you think.
Archiving the sessions will also take some planning if they are to be useful at a later date. Pro Tools has a great function called “save copy”. What it does is it takes all of the audio files that are used in a particular session and creates a complete new session. I can’t go into too many Pro Tools specific things here but there are a couple of tricks I use for archiving that Pro Tools offers. It has some great ways of importing and deleting audio files and tracks. When a project is complete I like to create what I call “master sessions” which are a reflection of the elements of the final work.
For instance, I will compile all of the ADR takes for each actor into one session. I will then strip the session of everything except for the initial picture editors guide track, a stereo mix of the final completed mix and all of the takes recorded for all of the characters. I will then save that as the “ADR master session.”
Of course you will need to create a “final mix master session” which will contain only the final edits, audio files and work that created the final mix. Repeat as necessary. Foley master session, dialog edit master session, whatever is needed to easily reach for those sessions at a later date.
If this article was to be stripped down to its essentials I suppose you could pin it on one word – organization. If you are the supervising sound editor on a big, long project such as a feature film you will need to find and document things clearly. Get in the habit of it. It will make the edit easier, it will make the collaboration easier and it will ultimately make your life easier. Wouldn’t you rather have the chance from time to time to leave early and relax rather than stay late digging through drives looking for a random audio file?
This is a typical email from many loyal readers inquiring about where I’ve been since my final posting last year. It has been a while but I have been very busy and there have been a lot of great things happening. Now that some time has freed up I’ll get back to some serious postings. I have a number of great things planned – more interviews, reviews and post audio articles.
blog [at] WoodysSoundAdvice.com
Even though I am pleased to receive all of the private emails from readers I’d like to encourage everyone to post comments and questions directly on the posts. It generates more interest when the conversations are out there for anyone else to chime in on. I would like to see more dialog open up on the site like that. We can all learn more from each other.
One of the main things that has taken an enormous amount of my time is a book that I’ve written for JB Learning. It is, of course, audio specific and it is called “Audio Production and Post Production.” It will be published and released in August. It has been a “long, hard slog.” But with some determination, a mighty heaping of will power and a lot of help – thank you Wendy, Roxanna and Iryna! – I was able to make it happen. The cover is posted below and the book layout ties in nicely with the cover design. I think it looks pretty good!
More information regarding the book can be found here at this link. If you use the code “WOODHALL” you will get 35% off the cover price! Buy 2!!!
I thought it was tough writing the occasional article for this blog. Never wrote a book before but I think that it is a good one. It is intended as a textbook primarily for college level classes. But it is written as a practical text for anyone more interested in learning about audio for film and television. Their site has the table of contents and more detailed information regarding the text.
I will also be offering seminars and classes specific to the book this summer in Los Angeles. I will update dates and times here.
I regularly conduct audio post seminars and classes here in Los Angeles. Â I have done a number of these already this year. Earlier in the year I did an audio seminar for the Producers Guild of America. We had a terrific turn-out and several folks joined my post specific group - The Los Angeles Post Production Group.
At the end of April I did a presentation at the Recording Institute at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood where I discussed what I call “Real World Audio Post.” This is a specific talk geared towards audio students embarking on the start of their audio careers. How to be patient, results oriented and positive as you create your career. And beyond “audio post” itself – I talk about the importance of looking good, acting humble and being willing to watch and learn.
I was also part of a panel for the ShowBiz Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center called “The Sound of Success.” Panel participants included:
- Glenn Berkovitz, CAS (Moderator) – Local 695 Production Sound Mixer (Weeds)
- Keira Morrisette – Associate Producer (White Collar)
- Phillip Palmer, CAS – Local 695 Production Sound Mixer (Glee)
- Jay Patterson, CAS – Local 695 Production Sound Mixer (Without a Trace)
- Woody Woodhall, CAS IMDB
Laurence Abrams not only set-up the panel but also created a video for members of the Hollywood Local 695, which is up on their website. There is a link here.
If your organization would be interested in my presentation of an audio post seminar feel free to contact me.
I just finished up mixing six episodes of a new reality series for Food Network called “The Private Chefs of Beverly Hills.” It is a challenging show, with multiple wireless isolated microphones and the issues of quick cutting in a kitchen environment. It is a very entertaining show and the producers are extremely experienced and it is a pleasure to work with seasoned professionals. I’ve got a few other things coming up as well and they will be detailed as they arise.
If you get a chance to see the show it is airing on the weekends on Food Network, with each show’s premiere on Friday nights at 10PM.
Jeff Toyne is a composer whose oeuvre includes feature films, many shorts — including two nominated for Academy Awards, composer for â€œThe Two Coreysâ€ on A&E and is renowned for his extensive orchestrations for Hollywood features such as District 9 and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.Â He splits his time between Vancouver and the States; back in December of 2008, we met up at his Los Angeles studio to discuss his career and insights into composing music for the moving image.
WOODY: How did you get started in music?
JEFF: I was thinking about music as a career in high school.Â What solidified it for me was the summer I spent at Interlochen in Michigan, which is a wonderful music and arts camp.Â At school, I did well in most subjects, but music really challenged me.Â I wasnâ€™t a prodigy by any stretch of the imagination, but I played the piano well, so I went to university with piano as my instrument.Â I started on a music education track, which allowed me to learn the basics of many orchestral instruments, but my secret desire was to switch over to piano performance.Â I had a wonderful piano teacher who was actually one of the only students that Horowitz ever admitted to teaching, and he was a great pianist and a really great guy.Â Previous teachers had allowed me to develop some bad technical habits that I was always able to overcome, but the only way for me to get to the top level of repertoire would be to stop everything, go back to basics and rebuild my technique from the ground up.Â That would take a year or two, but I needed to perform a recital at the end of every semester.Â There was just no way to go all the way back again unless I took a year or two off.Â So performing fell away as a possibility for me, and at the same time I took more advanced theory and composition courses, for which I showed aptitude.Â I became more interested writing music, so I did a Masters in Composition.
WOODY: What were some of the first compositions you worked on?
JEFF: Growing up taking piano lessons, Iâ€™d improvise something and my teacher would say â€œyou should write that down.â€Â One of my first experiences writing was in high school.Â I put together an R&B band that had a horn section, but the players didnâ€™t play by ear, so I transcribed and arranged the horn charts for them.Â In retrospect, that was a really good exercise to fuel my interest in composing. The last year of my undergrad I did my first film score, which was a feature that I recorded with a 13-piece big band and an eight-piece chamber ensemble.Â I had no sequencing software; I wrote it in Finale.Â And thatâ€™s how I was synching to picture; I was playing back in Finale and pressing play on my VCR.Â When I came to USC I was so ready for that course because I had actually scored a film, not knowing how to do it.Â So I had all the questions.
WOODY: What made you decide to go into film composing instead of focusing on other types of work?
JEFF: By the time I was in my third or fourth year of undergrad, I saw the music that I wrote and the kinds of composition that I was interested in, had a place in film.Â I was interested in aleatoric composition, pandiatonic stuff…Â The serial stuff wasnâ€™t really where I wanted to go; even the new tonality was interesting to me, minimalism as well, and all these things had places in film.Â Iâ€™m not just a â€œclassical musicâ€ guy, I had experience in Jazz, Blues and Rock as well.Â I struggle now as a film composer to find a hole that people can niche me into, but I came to film because of eclecticism.Â I imagined that I could actually make a living – get paid to write music and have orchestras record this music.Â This seemed like the way to go.
WOODY: That sounds like a good way to come about a career where you get paid for it, and you work with world-class musicians and sync it to the film, and it becomes an emotional experience for people and their understanding of your music.
JEFF: I really believe that Wagnerâ€™s idea of gesamtkunstwerk is alive in film today.Â I think films represent his idea of total artworks.Â They bring together artists from every field to completely envelop an audience in every sense and involve them in the story.Â If I have a score thatâ€™s attached to a film, thatâ€™s the way to reach the most people.Â The Beatles or Madonna may reach more people, but I think a couple of people saw Star Wars!Â So Iâ€™m really happy to be involved.Â One of the reasons that I think directors like to work with well-known performing artists, is because of the idea that youâ€™re bringing in people who are experts from other fields.Â If you come in and youâ€™ve already sold a couple of million records, then maybe we should listen to your idea before we tell you how itâ€™s going to be.Â They have something they can offer, something they can bring to the film.
WOODY: So youâ€™ve worked with Ed Shearmur on a couple of things.Â Tell me a little bit about the collaboration between the two of you and what you did for him and also the value that youâ€™ve taken out of it as a composer.
JEFF: I started working for Ed straight out of school as an assistant.Â I was really lucky to be recommended to him.Â Iâ€™d just graduated USC, and he was looking for a new assistant.Â I think they recommended three or four people based on the software he was using and the kind of things he was looking for. So I started off getting tea and making sure lunch happened at 1 oâ€™clock and making sure the couch didnâ€™t go anywhere.Â He was really linear about the responsibility that he doled out, but it began very much in the technical arena.Â Some of my first tasks were sorting out word clock issues and making sure samples were organized and loaded.Â After assisting him for a month or two, my first musical job was cutting together piano takes for K-PAX.Â He was really searching for the right piano sound for K-PAX.Â Giga piano was new at that time, so he had a pass done with that, and he went to Capital Records and he recorded on Nat King Coleâ€™s piano.Â He recorded a Disklavier and he wasnâ€™t completely happy with any one of them.Â He wanted to be able to A, B, C any pass at any one time, so he had me go in and slice those performances to match each other.Â So that was my first slightly musical job.Â Then at some point, I think on The Sweetest Thing, I did some music copying.Â After a year or so I got a chance to orchestrate a couple of cues on Reign of Fire, which was a big opportunity, and then I started doing more orchestrations for films after that.Â I worked for him for about three years full time.
WOODY: What were you able to take from that, now yourself as a composer, having worked with someone like that?
JEFF: One of my USC instructors said that if youâ€™re an assistant, you can see how a composer does his job; how he interacts with the director, producers, engineers, musicians; and youâ€™re right next to the heat, but itâ€™s not your heat.Â Thatâ€™s a really great place to be.Â Youâ€™re a fly on the wall.Â Youâ€™re assisting someone whoâ€™s working at the highest level for A-list Hollywood films and you can see how theyâ€™re doing it and you’re involved.Â You’ll inevitably make some mistakes as youâ€™re learning.Â But thatâ€™s his career that youâ€™re making your mistakes and learning on.Â So thatâ€™s a really valuable chance to be given – to cut your chops on somebody elseâ€™s dime, in a way.Â Iâ€™m really grateful for that experience.Â Ed is an uncannily gifted musician and film composer.Â Heâ€™s just a force to be reckoned with.Â Hereâ€™s a guy who has amazing classical chops, concert pianist skills and rock ‘nâ€™ roll credentials to boot.Â He brings those two together.Â And heâ€™s one of those people that will never ask you to do anything that he couldnâ€™t do himself.Â It was quite intimidating to work for someone so talented.Â In addition to the musical component, he was adept at understanding the drama and getting inside the structure of the movie and the interaction of the characters.Â His ability to get to the heart of what the filmmakers were trying to do dramatically and how the music may affect them — that was really impressive.Â Itâ€™s one thing to write a beautiful piece of music, but itâ€™s another thing to have that beautiful piece of music be the right tone and start at the right time and be the right emotional variant that makes sense dramatically.Â He was very good at that.
WOODY: Tell us about the process of composing a film.Â When do you get involved, and how do you start the process with the director?
JEFF: I like to be involved as early as possible, even to the point where Iâ€™m reading the script and having conversations with the director before they shoot to discuss themes and what the sonic landscape might be like.Â And having that kind of time takes away some of the pressure, especially on a lower budget movie.Â As a filmmaker, you can give a composer all of this time in lieu of the fact that you canâ€™t pay them very much, but you still want it to be really good.Â Iâ€™ve found that if Iâ€™m able to be brought in really early itâ€™s nice to have that in the back of your mind somewhere just fermenting and having conversations, thinking about how it might go and maybe even putting down some material that the director can have on set or they can at least be thinking about.Â So, Iâ€™d like to be brought in as early as possible, but generally the real work starts to happen once they have a cut to look at.Â One of the main goalposts in the production schedule is the spotting session, when the filmmakers have an edit and theyâ€™re ready to start thinking seriously about the sound.Â So they come in, and we watch the film.Â Spotting always takes longer than we think itâ€™s going to take, at least eight hours for a feature, sometimes more.Â We talk in detail about where each piece of music is going to start and, if there is a temp score, where it is starting and where it should start and what it does and what itâ€™s supposed to do.Â These discussions can really become quite protracted and abstract.Â Itâ€™s an important step of the process.
WOODY: How do you approach the work when a director comes to you with a temp score?
JEFF: I donâ€™t have a problem with temporary score.Â I think a temp score is a good way to have both of us point at something and talk about it objectively.Â Composers will generally say that they want directors to talk not in musical terms, but in dramatic terms.Â They want them to talk about character and emotion and mood and feeling; how they want the audience to react; as opposed to, â€œOh, I think this should be an oboe or cello.â€Â What a temp score can do is it can allow you both to say, â€œOkay that music there, I donâ€™t know what it is, but it works with this scene at this moment for some reason.â€Â Or, â€œHere I donâ€™t like it, thereâ€™s something that is not right.â€Â And at least it allows you to very quickly say, â€œYeah, this is a great place for music to come in, this is a great place for music to come out and this mood is kind of what I was going for.â€Â So in that regard a temp score is a useful tool.Â And we canâ€™t deny that they are absolutely necessary when the directors need to show their film to other people and get finishing funds or to submit to festivals or get distribution.Â They need to show the film in the best light they possibly can.Â Thereâ€™s going to be a temp score in there whether you as a composer listen to it or not.Â Where the problem generally comes in is when they’ve spent a lot of time with the temp score and are having a really hard time getting away from the temp score or are not really interested in trying a new approach.
WOODY: How do you combat that when a director is really attached to a piece in their temp score and they feel that you the composer are not getting what they want?
JEFF: You have to pick your battles.Â Depending on the situation, as a last ditch effort, if it seems thereâ€™s nothing else that you can possibly do, you can suggest they try to license the piece.Â â€œIf Iâ€™m not going to replace this, you should really license this.â€Â The last film I did, I went around a couple of times with the director who was having trouble getting away from the temp.Â He had a song at the end of the film that when we first started I could tell he loved, and they were supposed to be able to license it.Â So I said, “You know what, if youâ€™re going to license this song, I will take the melodic motive from this song and I will weave this into the rest of the film.”Â Music can offer this to a film: unity and diversity.Â So weâ€™ll have this little motive that will tie everything together and after weâ€™ve heard these little fragments, then at the end of the film weâ€™ll hear the full song and itâ€™ll feel familiar and satisfying and everything will be great.Â And so we did this and a week before they were going to mix the film they said, â€œYou know what, it turns out that we canâ€™t really get this song unless we pay another “x” dollars, can you replace the song?â€Â And I thought, “Can I replace this song that youâ€™ve been living with in an edit for two years, that youâ€™ve had in your record collection for five years before that, and when you were writing the film were probably listening to this song?Â Can I replace this?Â Of course I can, no problem.”Â I did kind of drag my heels for a few days, saying, â€œAre you sure,â€ giving them time to flip-flop back.Â Finally he said, â€œWeâ€™re really sure,â€ so I finally did it and I spent another two or three days on it.Â And I thought I had come up with something.Â Then a couple days later they said, â€œyou know what, we decided to pay the extra money and get the song.â€Â So thatâ€™s a situation where I canâ€™t say that I won or lost.Â The film got made, the filmmaker got what he wanted and the lesson there is that people will always find the time and money to do what they really want to do.Â Sometimes the way a song is of its time suggests not only the meanings of the song, but also the meaning of the situation that the filmmaker was in when he first heard it and the things that were going on in the world.Â But at the end of the day, I keep in mind that weâ€™re all working towards having a good film that affects audiences.Â I basically have a can-do attitude about it.Â Iâ€™m not super precious about the music.Â Thereâ€™s a push and pull between the needs of the film and our need for artistic integrity.
WOODY: I go through that all the time as a sound designer and mixer because the choices made ultimately are not mine.
JEFF: Exactly.Â But that being said, nine times out of ten the filmmakers have really good reasons for the choices that they make.
JEFF: Their ability to see the film from beginning to end in one vista is amazing.Â I definitely get myopic sometimes.Â In the same way that they have to trust me to deliver their score on time and on budget and do a good job and get what their storyâ€™s about, I have to trust them that theyâ€™ve been living with this a whole lot longer than I have.
WOODY: Do you set the cue points, the director or both?
JEFF: The last couple of films that Iâ€™ve done thereâ€™s been a temp score.Â Either an editor (ideally a music editor, but usually the picture editor) or the director have already kind of gone through a couple of times, at least for themselves, to see where music might go.Â Often, as in Shadow in the Trees, we may come to a couple of points in the film where there isnâ€™t temp music and I think we might try having a cue.Â I generally leave it with, â€œLet me try something and if I think itâ€™s working Iâ€™ll show it to you, and if I donâ€™t think itâ€™s working I wonâ€™t.â€Â That gives me options. We have these kinds of conversations about whether or not we think this should be here or there, and if so, why.Â And then weâ€™re into it, weâ€™re starting to do show and tells, (what we call the meetings after the spotting session), where usually a director is coming over to my studio, or I am occasionally sending QuickTime movies over the internet or sometimes mp3â€™s for them to slide into their timeline.
WOODY: And these are sort of sketches or demos even though it may be an orchestrated piece?
JEFF: Nowadays, demos are expected to be pretty detailed.Â If itâ€™s a director that I have worked with before, and we both have confidence in their ability to extrapolate from a sketch, then I don’t need to spend as much time on the demos, and can spend more of my time writing.Â If theyâ€™re really nervous about how itâ€™s going to go, then Iâ€™ll make the demo more fleshed out and more “convincing.”
WOODY: What kind of timeframe are we talking about from your spotting session to really having fleshed out cues?
JEFF: Well, a composer is supposed to be able to crank out anywhere from 3-5 minutes a day.Â Thatâ€™s really smokinâ€™.Â The big boys do that.Â Theyâ€™ll do fully realized, big orchestral demos like that, 3 minutes a day for sure.Â So if youâ€™ve got a schedule where youâ€™re scoring a film and you have six weeks to do it, and thereâ€™s 60 minutes of music in the filmâ€¦it starts to just play out.Â You need to be showing the director every couple of days a certain amount of music so that theyâ€™ve seen everything and you have time for notes, changes, music prep, recording, mixing and everything like that.Â I heard that Danny Elfman usually has two parties when he gets a job.Â Oneâ€™s a going away party, and oneâ€™s a welcome back party when heâ€™s done.
WOODY: Letâ€™s talk more about the process for you.Â Do you find that you are generally the composer, the performer, the recordist and the mixer?Â How do you break that out?
JEFF: Yes, but at every opportunity I will hand off a job to an expert. Iâ€™m delighted to have a mixing engineer at least mix my music.Â Sometimes itâ€™s just a matter of time, there isn’t enough time to get files over to somebody and back or to have somebody come in.Â In terms of performing, to be honest with you, I would really rather have somebody else play.Â The piano part I can go in and tweak the midi, but we have a beautiful grand piano out there (in the tracking room of my studio).Â Iâ€™d rather bring in a pianist with great touch. I remember one time I had a violinist come in and she was trying to play along with the demo and for some reason it just wasnâ€™t happening.Â After a couple of takes, I asked her to play with a little more vibrato and a little more portamento.Â And she said, â€œOh, I was trying to get it to sound exactly like the demo.â€Â I said, â€œNo, no, I want you to play like a human being.Â The reason I brought you in is because the demo sounds like that.Â I donâ€™t want it to sound like that!â€Â When somebodyâ€™s interpreting your music, thereâ€™s another level of musicality going on there.Â I tend to write for instruments in a way that theyâ€™ll sound the best.Â And I really try to avoid situations where I am trying to do something with samples.Â If I know Iâ€™m going to be doing a synth score, then it wonâ€™t be an orchestral sound.Â And if Iâ€™m using orchestra stuff, then Iâ€™ll try and write in a way thatâ€™s idiomatic for the instruments. I really do believe that this is a collaborative art form, and Iâ€™m happy to not be here by myself all day.Â Iâ€™m delighted to have someone come in and music edit, someone come in and do the copying and bring in any performers I possibly can.Â But the best experience is to record with an orchestra. Thatâ€™s the juice for the composers.
WOODY: Have you been thrown for a loop on shows?
JEFF: This is where the spotting session comes in and you kind of have to know your audience, as small as it is.Â I’ve worked with Steve McLaughlin and one of his big successes was with Badly Drawn Boy for the score for About a Boy.Â He said that a film composer only has an audience of one.Â You only have to convince a director that your music is good, sometimes with a producer or a little committee.Â But even at best youâ€™re convincing 15 guys or girls that this is good music as opposed to someone who goes out and tours their album and convinces a hundred thousand people that their music is good.
WOODY: Have you found yourself in a situation where youâ€™ve had a spotting session and you thought you were on the same page and youâ€™re presenting cues, yet theyâ€™re scratching their head going thatâ€™s not really right?Â Or has the temp score sort of solved that and you understand what they want?
JEFF: Iâ€™ve definitely been in situations where Iâ€™ve just missed the mark and there are different reasons that happened.Â As a student there was one film that was supposed to have authentic Japanese kabuki theater music. Under time pressure I just fired up the sampler and put anything remotely Asian on there.Â The director came back and said, â€œNo thatâ€™s Chinese, and thatâ€™s a Thai gong, and thatâ€™s Korean, that is Japanese, but itâ€™s not kabuki and I really need this to be authentic kabuki theater music.â€Â So that was a huge miss and a failure to listen carefully to what the director had already said. Film music can occasionally give a composer the opportunity to dive into unfamiliar territory, and explore exotic instruments and musical styles. This is an opportunity and a risk. It helps to be a quick study, but more importantly to hear what your director is telling you.
WOODY: When youâ€™re creating a score what sort of problems arise?
JEFF: Thereâ€™s occasionally a conversation that kind of goes around when the demos and samples donâ€™t really show the score very well, but you know it will sound great when played by live players.Â Thereâ€™s only so much of that that a director, especially one without a lot of experience, can really take.Â So sometimes I have to go back and spend more time that I really wish I didnâ€™t have to spend polishing a demo thatâ€™s going to have many elements replaced by recorded live players.Â On indie films, itâ€™s a soul-crushing conversation to have to say we donâ€™t have the time to spend this level of detail on every single cue because weâ€™ll just run out of the amount of time and money that is available for this movie. So what happens is directors often on indie films have to wear producer’s hats, and I often have to wear my agentâ€™s hat.Â Theyâ€™re trying to get the best for their film, and I have to somehow be gently realistic saying, â€œYou need to understand that I really want your film to be great, and I want to do a good job for your film, but we don’t have unlimited time and money.â€Â Unfortunately, especially when theyâ€™re doing it for the first time, theyâ€™re doing everything at a low-budget level so they donâ€™t really know, necessarily, what things actually cost.Â Composers like to be problem solvers.Â We like to find creative ways to solve problems and our number one problem is often they donâ€™t have enough time or enough money.
WOODY: Do you have any kind of theory for composing or do you have a way of working in terms of the creation of the music?Â Or is it just really inspired by the picture and the story?
JEFF: Every project is different.Â I tend to try and find something that I can use as a starting point and often it might be an instrument that makes sense as a voice that relates somehow to the characters in the story.Â Iâ€™m usually driven by points in the story that we can take and extrapolate out into musical references. Usually films are thematic and they generally fall into either one theme for the whole movie or themes for individual characters and/or ideas.Â When they have themes for individual characters and ideas, they start to resemble more classical opera forms.Â Most of the films I find myself working on as the orchestrator or the composer, you say, â€œOh this guy is on the screen and heâ€™s doing this and thereâ€™s his theme.â€Â Itâ€™s a pretty accepted practice.Â In film, melody is king and weâ€™re generally writing melodies that have significance that we can attach to dramatic ideas.
WOODY: How do you go about getting work?
JEFF: When I was just starting out as a student at USC, I went down to the film school to put a poster up that said “Composer Available,” next to the poster that said “Composer Wanted.”Â I did a lot of student films.Â My main kind of networking has been just to stay in touch with the directors that I met when they were students.Â I also get a lot of work from friends of mine that are composers.Â A lot of work.Â My first student film in LA was from a friend that couldnâ€™t do it.Â And he said, “Why donâ€™t you get my buddy to do it, he can do a good job.”Â My first television show was from a friend who was a composer who couldnâ€™t do that show because they needed specifically a Canadian composer, and he only knew one Canadian composer, so he said, “You should call Jeff, heâ€™s Canadian.”Â Itâ€™s funny, I remember reading a marketing how-to and it said make to sure that people know what it is that you want to do.Â So, just tell your friends and family, “This is what I want to do,” you never know who theyâ€™re going to run into that is looking for something like that.
WOODY: On a different note, tell us about your composition â€œNo Fanfareâ€ for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
JEFF: â€œNo Fanfareâ€ was a commission from the Vancouver Symphony.Â When Vancouver was successful for the 2010 Winter Olympics bid, the Symphony decided to commission young composers to write short, 3-minute works on Olympic inspired themes.Â They specifically said not to write fanfares because there are already so many great ones out there.Â And so, the title of my piece is â€œNo Fanfareâ€.Â I thought if I said itâ€™s not a fanfare, if it sounds a little fanfare-like then you canâ€™t blame me, it says right in the title itâ€™s not a fanfare.Â But it also made sense with what I was interested in exploring musically.Â I was interested in exploring musically some of the emotional landscape of the athletes that compete and donâ€™t really do well by gold, silver and bronze standards.Â If you compete and you place 76th, yes youâ€™re proud that you went to the Olympics, but I wondered what that was like. I wanted to have a piece that was exciting for the audience, so I imagined a race where there were people racing at the same time, not against the clock.Â If you start the race and freeze-frame somewhere in the middle, then consider all the possibilities that expand forth in separate timelines, nobody has won and nobody has lost yet and everything is still possible.Â At that moment everyone is a potential winner and everyone is a potential loser and thatâ€™s the most exciting part of the race, when itâ€™s actually happening.Â Musically this had nice tie-ins to the Winter Olympics because youâ€™re thinking of freezing things, flash-freezing a moment, and you have reflections in ice and things like this, so thatâ€™s kind of how I got into it musically.
WOODY: And that was played when exactly?
JEFF: The Vancouver Symphony performed it a couple of times in 2005, and now they have it in their repertoire.Â I havenâ€™t really spent a lot of energy pushing it further into the classical concert world, but that was a very blank page: writing a piece of concert music after being in film for a couple of years.Â I have been exploring that side of music further.
WOODY: What advice would give a new or first time director in terms of collaboration with a composer?
JEFF: I think one of the bigger pet peeves is that music comes as an afterthought, that directors start to think about music really late in the process.Â Maybe theyâ€™re thinking about sound late in the process, but this is half of the experience.Â People are taking in the film through their eyes and their ears.Â Directors have so much to think about, I know they do, to make a film.Â There are so many different parts that go into it, but you can get a lot more out of your composer (or any crew member) if they feel that their job is valued and their contribution is valued because youâ€™re thinking about the music early.Â My advice to a director would be to think about the sound and music when theyâ€™re writing their script, when theyâ€™re doing their prep, when theyâ€™re shooting. Begin talking and thinking about music even at that early stage.Â Thereâ€™s nothing more stressful than being out of money and out of time and having to come to somebody and say, â€œCan you drop everything and do this?â€Â Thatâ€™s really, really difficult to do.Â And I really donâ€™t want to have to say no to somebody.Â Part of my job is to go on a journey and figure out what it is that this movie is supposed to be.Â But films donâ€™t get made overnight.Â If you have a conversation while youâ€™re in pre-production then you’ve got plenty of time to think about what it might be.
Owner of the newly formed company, Hear It – Clear It Music Supervision, Dominique Preyer, is an experienced music supervisor with a background in music publishing and songwriting. As head of the music department, he has music supervised over 35 films as well as serving as executive producer and producer on two short films. Dominique has an in-depth knowledge of music clearance & licensing, copyright law, licensing agreements and many other administrative responsibilities.
WOODY: How long have you been a music supervisor?
DOMINIQUE: Going on 5 years last month.
WOODY: What was your first project? Was that a film or tv show?
DOMINIQUE: Actually it was a short film, The Spin Cycle which had a pretty good festival run. My wife was the screenwriter and our production company co-produced it with director Chris Ohlson of 824 Pictures.. At the time I was more active in my music publishing. I had this background of music licensing and that kind of activity and music supervision, at that time, wasn’t even on my mind. And then we went through a screening of the 1st cut with the director and the editor. The editor had picked the song It Must Be Love by Don Williams. And the song fit perfect but we needed to clear the rights to it. And that right there is the genesis of my music supervision. I went into it with the, I’m a publisher, I know what to do. It just was a different side of music licensing and I was so intrigued. I immediately started looking for other films to work on and it grew from there. Publishing faded to the background. Our catalog slowly diminished as the reversion clauses were coming due and everything was reverting back to the songwriters. I just didn’t have the time to deal with the publishing. I was just overwhelmed with films and licensing. That was the moment – in the editing room.
WOODY: So your background was as a music publisher. What did that work entail?
DOMINIQUE: I would get submissions from songwriters and bands looking to get their songs cut by other artists. I would listen to the music that they would send me. I would make the decision whether I would become publisher of their song and pitch to the A&R departments at RCA and Sony and various artists in hopes to get the song cut by one of these big country stars up and coming in the community. That was the gist of my publishing experience at the time. That was a very difficult and competitive venture for me because I was an unknown music producer in the Round Rock Austin area. In the Nashville area publishers were walking right up to the A&R dept at Mercury and Sony and others. It was discouraging. So when music supervision came into my vision it was something positive, something that I could do that didn’t involve someone else’s career and I gravitated to that. The publishing companies are still active; in fact, they are like a sister company to the film production company we have. If we need someone to write specific music to one of our films that we work on then our publishing company will handle the publishing and the administration of the songs, but that is a very tiny part of the business.
WOODY: Are you a composer or musician yourself?
DOMINIQUE: I have been songwriting and playing instruments since I was a child, and when I was in my late 20′s I really wanted to take my songwriting to the next level. I bought a $2000 keyboard and a 4-track recorder and I just started taking years and years of wanting to write music to the forefront of my life. I started writing music and lyrics, and putting them together and, sadly enough [LAUGHS], performing the vocals on [the compositions]. My excuse was, It was just to get the idea across, I was not bragging that I was a singer. But I had a couple of songs played on the radio in San Antonio in 1989, so I honestly wanted to be somebody, not as an artist but as a songwriter. I wanted my songs to be recorded by other artists. I would send my songs to publishers just like writers do to me, but this was back in the late 80s and early 90s.
WOODY: So this was prior to you getting into publishing yourself?
DOMINIQUE: Yeah. Well, what happened was I ended up moving to Nashville, back in 1993 and I was there for eight years. I left San Antonio, and went to Germany to visit my brother for four months, and when I came back to the states I didn’t have anywhere to go. I wanted to start somewhere new and I told my self I would either go to New York or Nashville. And in my decision I figured that Nashville would be more my scene, so I moved to Nashville and shortly after that I was working on music row at Mercury Records. There I would just immerse myself in what the A&R folks were doing and try to learn as much as I could, and I learned a lot about how the record industry works from the inside, from the Mercury Records point of view. Shortly after that, across the street was Acuff-Rose Publishing and I ended up getting a job over there working in the copyright department. I was fascinated by the phone calls and faxes that would come in from film production companies wanting to license music from their enormous catalog. That germinated in my head for about four years until finally in about 2002 I moved back to Texas, and that’s when I decided that I wanted to pursue publishing and I started two publishing companies, one affiliated with ASCAP and one affiliated with BMI. And that’s how that launched. But my own music writing kind of fell to the wayside when I was in Nashville. I had a roommate, who was an artist trying to make it and I saw what he was going through and the doors closing on him – and he was leagues ahead of me. I thought, There is no way I’m gonna make it as a songwriter. But I still write lyrics to myself right now, when things come to mind I have this box that is just full of lyrics and I’ll jot things down. I figure one day, when I get older [LAUGHS], I’m going to get me another studio just for my own pleasure.
WOODY: The urge to write music doesn’t go away. I started out as a songwriter and musician, and came to Hollywood for all that, too. Twenty-five years later I’m not going to be discovered, but you know, maybe one of my songs will.
DOMINIQUE: Exactly, and that was my whole point there, I didn’t want to be the famous guy, I just wanted someone to record my songs. Back then, Billboard magazine was like my Bible. I would always look at who the songwriters were on the charts, and think to myself, one day my name is going to be up the in the parenthesis – right there as songwriter. So, that gleam was in my eye.
WOODY: So let’s talk about what happens once you have been brought on board a feature film. What steps at that point happen for you as a music supervisor?
DOMINIQUE: Well, it really depends on what point I come on board. There’s pre-production, there’s production when they are actually shooting the film, and post-production. Some directors have no musical vision, and some are very music savvy. So that also plays into what my role will be. If I come in, for example, in pre-production, I’ll get a copy of the script. I love reading the script, and then highlighting certain scenes where I feel that, a song needs to be here, or score here. Find out, not necessarily what song needs to be where, but just that, a song needs to be there, and then I will compile it on my worksheet. When I have a meeting with the director we’ll share notes and we go through that. Then as the film is being edited and the scenes that should have music are actually ready to view, that makes it much easier to make a decision what song will actually fit each clip because you can actually see it. You get a feel for the characters and how the dialog is delivered. So the process just goes on until post-production, and usually the songs, if they are actually picked, go to the editor. The editor then drops songs in on the scenes and then once the editor puts together a rough cut then we can all sit down together and take a look at it. I usually run with that copy and try to make decisions with the director. And usually right off the bat I’ll say, This song is a great song, but with the music budget you’ve given me, there’s not enough money to license that song, so we are going to have to find a replacement. Then I go out to all my music resources and say, This is the song that we have in the scene, this is the scene, I need something that we can afford that is comparable to – whatever song we had originally chosen. And I get bombarded with submissions and I filter through them and I find two or three that I feel that the director might like. I will cut them into the scene myself, send a Quicktime to the director and editor and then have them take a look at it and if they like it then the editor will get a copy of the song. I am not an editor I just do the best I can to get the musical idea across in the scene. So that is if I come in during pre-production.
WOODY: It must be a difficult process if you come in and they have already temped the music, because I have worked with people and they bring in their film and they are using Blur, and the Rolling Stones and the first thing I say is, what are you going to do about these music tracks? Because you are going to have to get the rights to these songs? But they always think that everything is fine, and then they sell their film and they come back and say, We have to find new music, and I say yup.
DOMINIQUE: Yes, that is the frustrating part for me. Because immediately, what you just said is exactly what goes through my head and what comes out of my mouth, and then I get the look on their face, and I know, Oh boy, we’re in trouble now. So there are times when I try to convince them, You know, this is the prime time now to place the song, before we get to that point where we are back peddling, struggling, and stressed out. I have even found replacement songs for a film I am doing right now for a song that I think is not going to make it in the final distribution process. I know that they are going to come back to me, and I don’t have time to be stressed out, I have got a ton of other projects. So when I get some free time, I will go through those tons of CD’s I have, and go through Myspace, so that when that time comes I am ahead of the game. The worst situation for me is, I get a call, email, or I meet someone at a networking mixer and they say, Yeah man, we’ve got like two weeks to get these songs cleared, and one of my biggest questions is, Why did you wait? Then I negotiate my fee, and I get the information from them, and the majority of the time they still don’t make the deadline. Because the publishers are not going to rush for one specific film.
WOODY: For a festival clearance, or something like that?
WOODY: So ideally you would like to get involved with them with a script in pre-production, would that be right?
DOMINIQUE: For me, that would be the ideal situation. Because I am there at the very beginning, I can make suggestions early on, and especially in the case where they have on camera performances where I have to clear the song before they even shoot the scene. So getting involved early on makes my life easier, it makes my job easier, and it makes things less stressful for the directors and the producers etc., and I like it more from a creative standpoint.
WOODY: Since the movie process takes so long – from script to screen can take an unbelievable amount of time do you have a variable fee schedule for that? Like if you got involved in a project and you were there all the way through versus getting involved in a project a month before they finish?
DOMINIQUE: I have been in both situations. I have film right now, Conflict of Interest, which I think back in March of 2008 I came on, script in hand, started reading the script, and listed out requests for particular tracks that I thought would work. The entire film was shot, and the executive producer wanted the entire film to be complete by the Presidential election, because it was a political thriller. We were in post a month before the election, and it was just, completely, not right. And they decided that they were not going to release it yet, and keep working on it. They went on a three month hiatus, hired another director who re-shot 79 pages of an 84 page script, and we just had a test screening last Thursday. They interweaved the new footage with several scenes of the old footage. I had all the license agreements for the music ready to go out for signatures, but I didn’t send them out because I didn’t know what songs were going to remain in the film. Well, none of the songs that I found remained in the film. So I am pretty much starting over. So to answer your question about my fee structure, sometimes it varies, but I try to do either half up front and half upon completion of my job, or one-third in pre production, one third in production and when I finish it’s the final third. On this film, I was looking at my Quickbooks last night, and the one for Conflict of Interest is going on 294 days from the day I sent out the original invoice. I also did the Overbook Brothers. I met with the director and one of the producers and they said, We’ve got 30 days to clear all this music and it was like, Bam, bam, bam, every day. We hit the deadline, 30 days and it was done, in and out. And those are good. I like those.
WOODY: I was going to say, that’s probably better.
DOMINIQUE: The director had already picked the songs, but he had put some forethought into it. He didn’t go for the top tier artists, or the top ten songs, he found Indie artists on Myspace. So when I came onboard I saw a couple of them were upper tier indie artists, but I was still able to negotiate. In fact I came in with, I think, $250 dollars to spare on budget. There was a lot of negotiating and working with artist management, and the artists themselves. But it worked out great, everyone was happy. The director was happy because he didn’t have to go out and find more money and he had his songs in the film. One song we couldn’t use, they were hard balling us, and we did find a quick replacement for it and it was a done deal. 30 days.
WOODY: If someone finds a few tracks for a production are they then the â€œmusic supervisor?
DOMINIQUE: That’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions out there, and it’s getting worse in my opinion. People think that because they find a song that works well in a film that they are a music supervisor. And that is, to me, a music provider, someone who has provided music. I have a blog myself, and I wrote about the real role of the music supervisor, and the bottom line is, about 30% of [a music supervisors job] is the song selection, the creative side. The administrative side takes up about 70%, and sometimes more. So a music editor usually has a great ear, and finds a great song, pops it in there, and the director likes it. But they don’t have the relationships with the publishers and the record labels to get in there and do the negotiating, the licensing and the clearing; all of the administrative side to music supervising. The music supervisor brings the whole pie to the table, and anyone else who just finds music is only bringing a slice of the pie to the table.
WOODY: I would like you to go into the 70% a bit more deeply, because in a way I always thing of the music supervisor as a music producer. Not in the sense of a record producer, but a producer in the film sense of a producer. In that context, you are fulfilling all the producing functions for that music, you are finding the music, contracting the music, budgeting the music. People have a misunderstanding about music supervision, they don’t have a firm understanding that a great portion of the job is contracting, and negotiations, and budgeting, and clearance and so on. Can you elaborate on that?
DOMINIQUE: Yeah definitely, and before you even get to that point of negotiating etc., you have to find out who even owns the music. In today’s music world, it has been so diluted that you can’t even go to ASCAP and look up a song and see who actually owns it because it might say, Bob’s Music Publishing. Well, Bob’s Music Publishing is administered by Universal Music Publishing Group. So you have to dig down until you get to the company that administers 100% on behalf of all the other music publishers. So just getting to the right person, that can give you the contact information, that you can send your license request form to is a big hunt. And it’s not always right there in plain sight. A lot of people will go on ASCAP and BMI and see that publisher name right there and think that that’s who they have to deal with and a lot of times it’s not. Even sometimes, where the songwriter is from the UK and you have a US production going on, it might say Warner Chapel Music Ltd. and they are in the Performing Rights Society in the UK; plus you still go through Warner Chapel here in America and they do the approval through their sister company in the UK.
So there are a lot of things that you have to know before you start negotiating and get the ball rolling, and once you have identified who is the proper copyright holder for the sync rights and the napster rights, that’s when you do your license request form. That contains the production company information, the composition, composition title, the songwriters, publishers, how are you using the song, if it is going to be background vocal, background instrumental, how much of the song you are going to use– 10 seconds, a minute, the entire length, and what rights you want– America, worldwide, what media– DVD, TV, theatrical, and term also– one year only? So all these things you have to piece together, they all have be gathered up and together on one concise form, sent off, and then the clock is ticking. How long is it going to take for them to get back? You have to follow-ups many times until you get a quote. And if you have got a full $5,000 in your music budget, and you get a quote for one song on the publishing side for $5,000, then you are in negotiation mode. And right there, if you don’t have a relationship with that publisher, chances are slim to none that you are going to get that $5,000 down anywhere near what it needs to be for you to be able to license any of the rest of the songs. So having relationships with the publishers and the labels and the people that you have to deal with is key. If you do get your fee negotiated down to a favorable amount, that will allow you to have money left over for the rest of your songs.
Then if it is a major publisher they will most likely draft a license for that song, if it is an independent they will say, Can you draft a license for us? So if you don’t have the proper experience to draft a proper license, it’s not one of the forms you just download off the Internet and fill in the blanks. You have to know what’s in there, because every licensing deal is different. So that’s the next step, and once the licenses are all done, and the tracks are cut for the music the cue sheet comes into play. And putting the proper information in the cue sheet is key because the songwriters and publishers rely on that cue sheet to get performance royalties down the road. So that’s pretty much the process from the song conception to the cue sheet.
WOODY: Could you just detail a little bit the different sorts of rights that people need to acquire for a motion picture?
DOMINIQUE: Sure, you know it really depends on what their plan is from the start. If someone is going to shoot a film, and it is going to go straight to DVD, well, pretty much the only rights that they need to deal with are home video DVD rights. But if they are looking for a broad release I always try to get â€œall media worldwide in perpetuity, that way their distribution options are unlimited. However, it does cause the fee to go up. So you have to balance how much money you can afford for licensing these songs and that’s when you have to chisel your rights down unless you get a step deal, which is something completely of a different topic. I usually ask the director or producer or whoever is going to be in charge of the distribution plan, What are your plans? Are you just going theatrical or are you going to TV? and once I know that I’ll know how I’ll gear the rights that I request. If they are only planning on having it broadcast in the United States, or North America, then I just request the US only, or if they have an actor who is big in Germany I will ask US only, and Germany. Just to specify the rights according to how the production plans on releasing the film.
WOODY: So if they have some success, and their distribution model changes, then the contracts have to change as well. If this was supposed to be a DVD only release, they get a bite and all of a sudden Universal says, Hey we’re going to pick it up and run it in sixteen cities, then you have to go back and renegotiate those rights?
DOMINIQUE: That is correct. Go back to the table, present the new rights, and get a new quote and hope that either the distributor will pick up the additional costs for the music, otherwise the production company has to somehow come up with the extra money. We then revise the license agreements, we cut the new checks and then they’re good to go with the new distribution model.
WOODY: For those that don’t know, can you talk about the synchronization rights and other types of specific rights that have to be enabled for you to be able to use the music track?
DOMINIQUE: The sync rights are basically the publishing rights to the actual composition. If a song is being used in your film, synchronization rights have to be obtained. You don’t have to have the master rights, because you can do a cover song. Basically, you need permission to record that new song from the songwriter, or the artist who recorded it and licensed it to the production, or it was a work for hire and the production company might want master rights. So, the publishing rights, or synchronization rights, are something that you have to have regardless. The master rights usually belong to the record label or whoever owns the specific master recording rights. There can be many master recordings to a single composition, so whichever master recording you are using in your film, you have to find the label or owner of that specific recording. 99% of the time, publishers are your synch rights, or publishing rights holders, and most of the time record labels are the owners to your master rights holders.
WOODY: Do you recommend a certain percentage amount in terms of an overall production budget for the music clearance rights?
DOMINIQUE: I really never recommend a percentage. Usually they will know what they want to put aside for music. Once I see that number it tells me where I can shop for music or tell them what they can and can’t have based on what is in their temp tracks. There are rules of thumb out there that I’ve heard, 10% of your production budget, and stuff like that but I have yet to see that work. It’s usually the other way around. You just tell yourself, Ok I can put $10,000 on music. And that’s what you use to go shop for music. Of course music is composition, preexisting songs and it’s your composer, your music supervisor and sometimes your music editor. All of that falls under that one line item so you have to factor that in. And then once you pay the crew, how much do you have left over for the music itself?
WOODY: Do you work with first time filmmakers?
DOMINIQUE: Yes. Several times.
WOODY: And have they been surprised when you explain to them how much money it’s going to take for them to secure the rights for the music?
DOMINIQUE: Yes. They’re surprised only in the fact that now it’s reality to them. They have heard the horror stories from other people. A lot of those stories are like the AC/DC songs, the Rolling Stones songs, the ridiculous $100,000, million dollar deals. Because they hear those stories, when the small little artist where everyone knows them but they’ve never had a big song, and still his songs are demanding $5000 or in that ballpark, it is an eye opener. But still the whole world of music clearance is just baffling to most people.
WOODY:I did a picture where the filmmaker got the rights from Beck to use a song for the opening scene of his film for film festivals only. And if it sold then he would have to renegotiate the rights. He did end up selling it and was not able to secure the rights at that point and had to replace it.
DOMINIQUE: Yes, that’s exactly what happened to another film that I worked on, Yesterday with a Lie. They locked the film and only had festival rights. And they had the composer as the
music supervisor. It got to the point where they were getting broad rights for 4 songs, on average, it was about $20,000 per song in order for them to get the rights after the festival rights. So I came on board and told them that, I would try to get it down, but I didn’t think I would.
All four songs were cover songs, so I only had to deal with the publishers. I couldn’t get them down except on the one key song. But one of the artists did not want a cover version of her song used in the final film that was going out theatrically and she wanted her version in there. And as much as I tried and tried and tried, the use was denied. So they had to open up the film, pull the song out, and have another song recorded. So that is another frequent mistake made by the filmmakers.
WOODY: What advice would you have for a band, a singer/songwriter, or someone who had tracks of their own that they wanted to have placed in films but they didn’t know where to go? How would they find someone like you?
DOMINIQUE: Well, the best way is to get on the Internet and do a search on song placement, music placement. Some people don’t even know the term music supervisor, so just plug in whatever term you know. They have to do a little research and use a little diligence because it is their career in hand, and they should learn as much as they can about licensing music. The more they dig in, the more they will find terms and names and people who do what it is they need done to get their music out there. Then send an email make a phone call and inquire. Say, I have some music that I feel is very good, and I think it could be used in a movie, what do I do? I get a lot of emails. I send out a lot. In fact I have an email template, and I get these emails from either a songwriter who wants to get their music placed, or someone that wants to be a music supervisor. I just copy and paste an email and say, Hey, this is what I have been sending out, and give them some highlights and pointers to let them know what it is that they need to do to get their songs into films. And one of the important things that I always stress with songwriters is to get the administrative side of their business together. Get registered with ASCAP or BMI or whatever performance rights society is in their area. I’d like for them to get their music copyrighted. Take care of the business side so that when they get the call from me and I say, Hey I just listened to your song on Myspace and I want to use it in a film, and I need you to clear this today, we don’t have to go through all the paperwork and other stuff on their end to get their song ready. They should have their splits figured out with their co-writer – all of that side of their work should be done.
WOODY: That is terrific advice. So then they should already have their own music publishing company in place?
DOMINIQUE: They can, and it’s a choice. If they want to handle all of their own publishing and want 100% of their publishing rights they can. If they want someone else to champion their music and jockey it out there to the world and try to get placement and do a 50/50 split publishing deal then it’s their prerogative. The big thing these days is for the artists and songwriters to maintain as much control to their music as they can. But that is another thing. If you’re going to publish yourself you need to get yourself a publishing company. Get it registered with ASCAP or BMI or whoever you want to affiliate yourself with as a writer and just have your business side taken care of so when you get that phone call or that email you can jump right on the bandwagon and go. Because a lot of times, like when I had that 30 days on the Overbrook Brothers, I didn’t have time for someone to say, Oh, well let me get with my co-writer and see. We don’t even know if we are going to go 50/50 because he did more than I did. So it may be 30/70, and then it is like, move on to the next song. My thing about these new guys is to get your business together, and then get out there and learn how to get yourself played. Learn as much as you can so you can communicate with someone like me. When we start talking about sync, and Napster and cue sheet, you need to know what I’m talking about so we can have a professional conversation.
WOODY: What do you think of these song placement services out there, are they useful for you and the songwriters?
DOMINIQUE: There are places – Barry Coughlin has a company, musicsupervisor.com and I have been there. I know Barry, in fact he invited me to a panel at SXSW back in March, so I have been on their site looking for stuff. They put together some playlists for me to listen to. There are a lot of sites out there like that that are very helpful because I already have established relationships with them. They know me and I know them, and I can send them an email asking for some 1940′s era WWII music and then I can move on. Then I get an email just perfectly tailored to what I need. Then I click through, see if anything sounds good, if it does then I’ll put it in a folder for that particular film, and then I go back to it. There is a convenience there, that I don’t have to go listen to 200 songs, I’ve got some creative people on that end that will do that for me.
WOODY: So you don’t think that it is a waste of money for someone who is looking to have their stuff placed?
DOMINIQUE: Well on that side, I think it’s a good idea because you have someone that can expose your music. But the problem with it is that they have so much music that they can’t give your music the time that it needs. That’s why I would recommend that if you don’t, as an artist, have the time or desire to pitch your own music, I would find a publisher or a small music library that can champion your music and say, Hey, I’m going to work for this artist this week and see if I can get some placements. In fact in the FM Pro news group, or list, that was a conversation that they were having, about if anyone had any success using these types of services. Most of the people said no. So for me, I think, take some time and control of your own business and pitch your own music. If you have gigs on Friday and Saturday, let Sunday be your day that you get out there and find films that are in production, find out who their music supervisor is, get in contact, find out what they are looking for, and do it yourself. For me, that is the best route to go.
WOODY: I think you put your finger on it right there – filmmakers have the same problem. They don’t realize the business part of the show, and let that fall by the wayside. They just assume that their movie is going to be found and they are going to be the next Spielberg, or their music is going to be found and they are going to be the next Michael Jackson.
I saw a screening of Harmony and Me at the LA Film Festival, and after the screening they had a Q&A, and someone had asked specifically about the music, because the lead character, played by Justin Rice, is a musician himself. There are some live performances throughout the movie. I think some of the music was written by the lead actor, whether it was him performing live within the movie, or whether it was a recorded performance. Can you talk a bit about your involvement in that specific movie and some of the things that you had to deal with?
DOMINIQUE: Sure. First of all, this was another one of those films where I came in after the fact. The music had already been selected, and Bob Byington, the director, was very meticulous about the songs that are in the film. The highlight of everything, for me, was when I came on board I got a copy of the film. I watched it, and immediately I knew there were problems because a song that’s not in the film anymore is Elton John’s song entitled, Harmony. It was a perfect song for the film, but it was going to cost $100 per side to license it. Universal ended up denying the use because it was just wasted their time. The budget that we had available would not cover it, so that was the first song to get scrapped. The good thing is that a lot of the music in the film is by Justin Rice, who is the lead actor. You even see him performing, and you see a lot of musical performances in there. He and Bob Schneider did his song Changing in Mind.
WOODY: Is that in the wedding scene?
DOMINIQUE: Yeah, the wedding scene where they are at the piano together. Then Bob did the romantic performance to the bride. Bob Schneider has been working with Bob Byington on Bob’s songs. I did a short film, and I liked some of Justin’s music back in 2006. So Justin and I have had somewhat of a relationship prior to Harmony and Me. That is how he and Bob and I built our relationship and it made using all of his compositions, which is a majority of the film, a lot easier to work with. He is very easy going when it comes to licensing his music in these small films, especially the ones that he has a role in. That made it easier, but the bigger songs have been a struggle. The one thing that I preached to them, like I do to all the other directors or producers, is, I am playing the Devil’s advocate here, I am telling you the truth. I am not going to water it down and tell you that you might get this song. It is your job to take the truth and come back to me with a solution that I can take to the publishers and the record labels and try to make it happen. I am not I charge of your money, and I can only negotiate based upon what you have given me to work with.
WOODY: Right. Now if someone came up to you and said, Hey, I want to do what you do, I would love to be a music supervisor. What advice would you give them?
DOMINIQUE: Study! I would tell them to go on the Internet and Google music supervisor. There are books out there that they can read to give them the basics of everything that a music supervisor does from A-Z. There are websites that give a description of what a music supervisor does, on how to clear songs, what’s a sync license is, what a master license is. So if they really want to be a music supervisor then they are going to make the effort to learn as much as they can. Once they get a grip on the entire concept of what a music supervisor does, I would suggest going to a local mixer where people are getting together, talk to some people and find out who is shooting a film at a really low budget to bring you on. They probably don’t have any money to pay you, but you just want the experience, and you go and try to find a local band with the same situation. One with a few gigs every month and they want to get their songs in a film and they don’t care about getting a licensing fee. But, the thing about it is, what you’ll learn, is that you still have to follow procedure. Just because someone says, Yeah, you can use my song, and I won’t charge you and fee, you don’t just throw the song in the film and move on. You still have to do the paperwork. You have to do a licensing agreement. You state the in the compensation paragraph what the compensation is, and of course it has to be at least a dollar. Do the paperwork. That’s the only way you’re going to learn it.
WOODY: You go into this in some detail on your own blog.
DOMINIQUE: Yes, I have several postings on my blog. One is specifically named, So You Want to Be a Music Supervisor, and in there I go into detail about what you need to do, what you need to learn, and it points to a couple of different references that will help you to get one step closer. There are a lot of things that I have written about in my blog from three angles, from the music supervisor’s point of view, from the filmmaker’s point of view, and from the songwriter/musician’s point of view. Basically, the common thread throughout my blog, is – doing the right thing. Regardless of what side of the licensing deal you are on – just learn about it. Learn how it works so when you are in the midst of a licensing deal you know the language; you know what needs to be done. Then as a filmmaker or a musician/songwriter, if you’re in a deal and you hear something that doesn’t sound right, that knowledge that you’ve learned will cue you to say, Hey wait a minute, that’s not how it’s done. If you don’t do your homework and learn, that will go right past you and you won’t know that something happened that shouldn’t have happened.
WOODY: Let’s talk about the distinction about the music rights that you would cover versus the score, which generally is the composer. He’s been hired for the movie and is adding a dramatic through-line according to the picture edit and you are dealing more with songs that already exist. What sort of relationship do you have with the score composer?
DOMINIQUE: The director has a closer relationship with the composer during the scoring of the film because the director has his vision and knows where he wants the score to be dramatic, orchestral or something more subtle so they create that landscape together. Where I come in is I am the liaison – if the composer has an issue. He may come to me and say, Hey I’ve been talking to the producer or director about my contract, or, I haven’t been paid yet, or something like that. So on the non-creative side that I am there for the composer. On the creative side I might be looking at the film saying, Oh that montage. I’ve got a perfect song for that. And the director has just told the composer he wants that to be a very soft orchestral score to go over that scene. So we have to communicate so we know what I’m going to do versus what they are going to do so there is no overlap.
WOODY: So I would think that the director is the person you spend the most time with. When a director is deciding on the DP for instance they may go over the lighting in photographs or the style of some paintings to see that they are thinking along the same lines. Do you work in a similar fashion when meeting with a director on a project?
DOMINIQUE: Definitely, particularly if it’s time to do a song replacement. If the director already has all the music that he desires, but we can’t license the songs, basically we’ll talk about alternate bands and he’ll mention someone. I might suggest such and such band; they are a great band here in Austin very similar to what you have in the movie. And if he hasn’t heard them before I’ll get him an mp3 and have him listen to them. He’ll tell me some things, I’ll take notes, and I’ll go out on the internet and try to find that band’s music and immediately do a quick clearance check to see who owns the rights to it. I make sure that we are not going into the same problem that we had before. We do sort of paint a picture for each other musically about what her/she feels could be the right song. We listen to some things until we decide which is the best song(s) for that scene and try different songs with the scene to see which one works best.
WOODY: What do you think that filmmakers misunderstand about music supervision?
DOMINIQUE: A lot of things. [LAUGHS] Probably the one thing that really gets me is the fact that they think that the music supervisor’s job is to find music. Especially when I am looking for a job they say, Oh we’ve already found all of our music. That’s when I ask them who’s doing the clearance, who’s negotiating the deals, the licensing, who is making the music cue sheets? Their eyes light up and they say, Hmmm, gee, I didn’t think of all that! So the role of the music supervisor, period, is just misunderstood in the film industry. And of course the biggest misunderstanding is of what it really costs to license a song and all of the work that goes into it. The whole idea of not knowing that we don’t just go finding songs is probably the number one misconception.
WOODY: And probably just the idea that things need to be cleared in the first place!
DOMINIQUE: Documentary filmmakers often don”t understand this. They’ll ask if I’m just going to use a few seconds of a song do I still have to clear it? Or in a corporate presentation do I have to clear it. I try to get detailed information out there about all of this.
WOODY: So tell me what you love about what you do.
DOMINIQUE: I love it from A to Z. Even when it gets complicated I see that I can come up with a solution that will make everybody happy on the film side and also on the music side. I will say that the one thing I really enjoy about being a music supervisor is getting the call or email from someone who wants me to be onboard. If they are in early pre-production and they give me a script and I go home, I read the script and my mind is focused on what a good song for the various scenes would be. Then I just take that to the end and then finally I’m sitting there with the rest of the crew and I remember the day that I found that one song. It’s the whole process from beginning to end – and all of the ups and downs to get to the end and how it all works out .
WOODY: What is it that you don’t like about what you do?
DOMINIQUE: Oh, things that frustrate me. This one film comes to mind, I just don’t like it when I have to struggle with the director. I am trying to educate the director, and they want the song no matter what, and I have already exhausted my efforts with the publishers. I don’t want to look unprofessional in the publisher’s eyes, as if I don’t know what music clearance is all about, because often the director wants me to do things that just go beyond the norm. So, the struggle with the directors is probably the least enjoyable part of dealing with what I do.
WOODY: Struggle defined how?
DOMINIQUE: An example of a struggle is when I tell the director that I have already negotiated the song that they want from $10,000 to $5,000 for the rights they are requesting, if they want it to go down anymore we will have to reduce the rights. They say, No we have to have these rights and this is all the money I have. Go back and try to get the price down more. And I say, I have already brought a 50% reduction on it. I’ll go back, but I am going to let them know that I understand their position but I have the director breathing down my neck and he wants to bring this thing down. Is there any way we can’t work something out? And when their reply comes back, No, this is the lowest we can go, we have already brought it down $5,000. And the director is still not happy with it.
So it is just stubbornness and an inability to accept the fact that what has been laid on the table is the final offer, a take it or leave it deal. It is beyond my control, and I have already put my expertise and my relationships on the line, and I have to reach a point where I don’t want my relationships to be tarnished because the director wants me to do what is beyond what has already been done. So I have to protect myself because I will be working with these record labels and publishers time and time again and almost every day I am back and forth with them with one project or another. As for the filmmaker, I might never work with them again. So I have to reach a point in my career where is say, I have done the best I can, I am not going to tarnish my relationships just to make this one deal work, when I have hundreds of deals going on right now. That is, for me, the most frustrating and difficult part of the job.
WOODY: Is there anything that I missed that you still want to cover?
DOMINIQUE: The one thing that I might add is to underline what I said earlier – that the creative side is about 30% and the administrative side is about 70%. I have become interested in Twitter. I like to see what the other music supervisors out there are tweeting about, as far as the bands that they like, and who they are listening to, because I look up to them. They are doing big TV series and the big films and the films that come in on the weekend box office that make $30-40 million. So I like to listen to what they are listening to, and get a feel for their interest in music. And sometimes I’ll watch their shows and see what music they select. That is a learning experience for me, but it’s just interesting to see. A lot of times I will listen to a link that they put up. I will go to a band website that they just listened to and like, and I’ll make my own personal assessment and say, Wow, if I would have had that song when I was working in that film it would have worked great over certain scenes. So it’s interesting to see what the other music supervisors are doing. It is kind of refreshing, and I aspire to be in their shoes, and have the experience that they have.
WOODY: Well, this has really been great. Thanks for your time, thoughts and expertise.