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.