Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sharing My Sonic Madness: My Favorites from 2010

Despite the serious dip in today's economy, I have been fortunate enough over the last two years to have remained relatively busy as a sound editor.  Many of the films I've worked on have been moderate to meager in terms of budget, but as someone who appreciates the work, I remained diligent in presenting the clients with a solid and creative soundscape.  In EVERY case, I've pushed my inventive limits and, together with the input of the clients and the members of my team, have been able to deliver great sounding tracks to our mixers for the final mix.

Though I've blogged to some extent about some of our more recently completed projects, I feel compelled to mention a handful of the other interesting films that have given me a sonic and mental workout over the last two years.

The Bad Penny 

Things heat up for ex St. Louis boxer-turned-Bangkok-bar-owner Jack "The Ripper" Stemmons when a mysterious boxing fan unexpectedly walks in and starts to bring up Jack's chaotic final fight.  Filmed almost entirely on location in Thailand, the gritty and tense camera work truly personifies the utter loneliness and hell our hero has been through.  Loaded with high-adrenaline fight scenes, gruesome flashbacks, and lots of payback and revenge, this film was definitely great fun for our FX, design and foley teams.

I had the privilege of working with a team of great creative minds on The Bad Penny:  Director Todd Bellanca, writer/producer Sasha Levinson, and picture editor Giacomo Ambrosini.  These three truly embody the collaborative spirit of filmmaking, allowing for great ideas (both in the picture cut and sonically) to grow and take form.  Our creative discussions helped elevate the film to another interesting level, as we figured out how to balance an intricate fabric of dark and melancholic design with a crisp minutia of tiny details to really enhance the experience.

I got a similar sonic workout from writer/director Aaron Rottinghaus on his mind-bending drama,
Apart.  Beautifully shot and really well written and directed, Apart is the journey of the tragically star-crossed Noah and Emily who, linked by an unusual mental illness, delve into the dark and twisted, catastrophic events of their pasts in order to make sense of their lives.  They uncover so much more than a tangled web of deceit!

I myself had to delve into my dark recesses for this one, as I created layer upon layer of twisted sound design to convey the madness behind the eyes of both Noah and Emily.  Again though, as it was imperative to keep the storytelling at the forefront, tragic themes for the two main characters were created to support the action and interwoven during Noah's and Emily's moments of madness.

Aaron's background as a picture editor is quite evident as he skillfully conveys the complex tale of love and loss through a tapestry of beautifully  images.  Extremely talented, I am sure Aaron's career will skyrocket as soon as Apart hits the general market.  Congrats to you Aaron on such an intriguing and genuine film!

Lost Boys 3: The Thirst 

When I tell people that I cut sound effects and backgrounds on the third installment to a very popular vampire film series, their reactions are always the same:  "WOW!  You worked on 'Eclipse'?"  Uh, no.  Sorry.  Though that would have been a nice gig, I explain that I didn't work on Twilight, but rather on Lost Boys 3: The Thirst (LB3).  Their reactions to my revelation is equally priceless, yet no less predictable:  "Lost Boys THREE?  I didn't know there was a TWO!"

The second sequel to the iconic 80s vampire flick The Lost Boys, LB3 brings us up to speed with the down-and-out Edgar Frog (Corey Feldman), now living in a dilapidated trailer in the fictional town of San Cazador, CA.  He is sought out and hired by pop-culture vampire novelist Gwen Lieber (Tanit Phoenix) to track down and find her missing brother (who has presumably been abducted by vampires after attending a rave).  Edgar learns that these vampires, who are actually hi-profile underground DJs, have been holding illegal raves around the world and generously handing out a new designer drug to all the lost boys and girls who attend... only the drug is not a drug, but the blood of the Alpha vampire.

That sets the stage for
LB3.  Needless to say, there was a lot of work to do in terms sound design, sound effects, foley, dialogue and ADR, and in the end, we delivered some hefty sessions to our mixers.

Though I've done quite a number of horror films as part of the sound effects team at Monkeyland, I try not to minimize these films as typical genre pieces.  I approach every film individually (despite budget, genre, content or timeline), identify recurring themes and scenarios, and then strategize with the foley and FX team as to what we'd like to accomplish.  Yes, LB3 required lots of guts and gore, vampire vocal design, ambient spookiness and a no-holds-barred Phantom Menace-like sword fight, but at the end of the day, it's the story that needs to shine through.  It ain't the stingers or giant scares that make it scary!

On a sad note, we were well into the post production process when news broke that Corey Haim had passed away.  Though he wasn't part of this film, his character is referred to regularly, and without revealing too much about the plot, I can safely say that LB3 serves as a nice tribute to both Corey's memory and to his on-screen character.
Space Chimps 2:  Zartog Strikes Back (SC2)
Evil alien Zartog escapes from his deep freeze and steals a NASA prototype "departicalizer", which he intends to use against the chimps who ended his reign of terror back on Malgor.  Hi-jinks ensue as the chimps try to steal back the ray gun while simultaneously trying to help navigate the youngest member of their team through a dangerous wormhole and back to Earth.

Lots of fun on this one!  Zipping space ships, boomin' circus cannons, sleek rocket jet-packs, a playful and friendly alien planet, musical Globhoppers, bouncy Jump 'shrooms and manta-like Fluvians set the bar for the sonic task at hand.  Definitely a film for the kids, but a serious full-fledged sound job nonetheless.  Director/producer John Williams is a fan of detailed and fully-realized sound design, and he was absolutely appreciative of all the attention that went into building the sonic landscape on SC2.  

A hearty thank you goes out to the producers, writers, directors, post supers, picture editors and friends that allowed me a chance to expressing my sonic madness on their films.  I love working on movies, and hope to never miss an opportunity as a sound editor to bring the noise!


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Sonic Philosophy: A Supervisor's Challenge

Let's face it, either somewhere in the editorial process or during the final mix, things can and sometimes will go wrong.  Most often than not the issue may be a simple lack of communication and the problem can be quickly addressed, but sometimes an unforeseen act of god (like a system crash) can create panic in the studio.  Either way, it is important that the clients' best interest be handled with the utmost care, since we are supposed to be stewards of their project.

In some situations, problems can be prevented with a little foresight and much preparation.  Thus, in this blog, I wish to share a few thoughts on my simple approach to actively trying to thwart tough situations before they arise and make the audio post-production process delightful for the clients.

Supervising: Preparedness and Taking Responsibility
On some occasions, I am called to supervise the sound effects for a project, which usually means that in addition to my duties as an editor on the show, I am also responsible for the quality of the sound effects and foley that are being cut by other editors.  I approach the supervisory role with much care and excitement, but always keeping in mind that ultimately, I must answer for everything that could go wrong on my sound "ship."  As a "captain" (to continue with the seafaring motif), it is one's duty to make sure the crew is pulling its weight, creatively putting together awesome tracks, and adhering to all the steps I discussed in my previous blog ("Stress and the Crazy Deadline").  If a member of the team is not living up to expectations, it is the supervisor's job to address the issue as quickly as possible.  

A supervisor has the dual responsibility of not only making sure the client's sonic vision comes blazing to life on the screen, but also of being an ambassador for the company that employs him or her.  Since a director's experience with a Post house can (to some extent) be measured by how well they were treated throughout the process, as a supervisor, I make it one of my many goals to go to bat for the client while trying to keep the good name of my employer respectable.

My newly updated editorial suite, Monkeyland Audio
Preparing for a Sound Effects Review with Clients
Under normal circumstances, it is the supervisor who liaisons with the client throughout the entire process, thus it is he or she who will conduct the sound reviews and receive the clients' critique firsthand.  To quickly recap, the review session should contain all cut sound effects, sound design, backgrounds and foley, and should be accompanied by a clean-enough dialogue guide track which could be turned on or off to give the client a sense of what to expect on the mix stage.  

The supervisor should spend enough time smoothing out all the sound effects so that they plays well during the review and truly enhance the story.  All the client's initial FX notes and concerns should have been addressed by this point, but if the work needs some beefing up, the supervisor should either do it him or herself, or get the editors to build additional tracks to blend into the comp.  Whatever needs to be done prior to the client taking a listen, make sure it gets done.  Period.

Though each editor, assistant, engineer and mixer should share equally in the duty of trouble shooting potential problems and giving them a preemptive "fix", on occasion things do slip through the cracks and it is the supervisor who's on the receiving end of the rant.  I must admit, I've faced a bit of that heat before (though on rare occasion, I might add), but in retrospect, those tough moments were great moments that truly tested my wits, my communication and detective skills, my sense of humor, my faith, my relationship with the client and lastly, my desire to be a sound guy!  I'm still here and I'm still challenging myself continuously.

Which brings me to my next point:

A word or two about Integrity
By no means have I ever, nor will I ever, throw any member of my team under the bus to make myself look good.  Integrity is a key ingredient to the job, and a quality that I work hard to maintain in all aspects of my life.  As a supervisor, I know that it's my ass on the line, and though another editor may have been responsible for producing some shoddy or sub-par work, it is in the job description to ensure the client only listens to high-quality, top-notch design.  My philosophy?  Fix the problem, not the blame.  Work with the editors or roll up your sleeves.  Either way, get it done... and again, BEFORE the clients come in for a review.

To revise our nautical metaphor one final time (I promise!):  A ship can only stay afloat when all hands are on deck, rowing in the same direction and making sure the vessel remains waterproof.  A greedy or hapless captain who abandons ship at the first sign of trouble (and leaves his crew to fare for themselves) is a captain whose colors are not worth sailing under.  A captain with integrity, well, he goes down with the ship... but then again, that's part of the job, isn't it?

When granted the task of supervising, I always try to challenge myself and my crew to really dig deep and come up with some good stuff.  I don't want to meet the client's expectations, I want to surpass them.  If it's good, I want it better.  If it's great, I want it mind-blowing!  Each film deserves to be treated with respect, and I want the clients I work with to know they're in good hands from start to finish.

Whether I'm supervising the sound effects work on a film, or just cutting the backgrounds, I approach each task honestly and responsibly, with integrity, creativity and with absolute respect for the project and the filmmakers.

That's all for now.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Sonic Philosophy: Stress and the Crazy Deadline

I've been fortunate in my career as a sound editor to have had many character-building and enriching experiences.  Since no two days are EVER alike, and since every project brings with it its own unique set of challenges, I've had plenty of opportunities in which to test myself as an editor, as a liaison for Monkeyland, and most importantly, as the person responsible for bringing the clients' sonic vision through the editorial process and onto the mix stage successfully.

"My Sonic Philosophy" will hopefully become a way for me to share some of the knowledge I've gained along my journey through the world of audio post.  Enjoy!

Lesson 1:  Coping with Crazy Deadlines

Communication between the entire editorial and mix team, as well as between Monkeyland and our clients, is absolutely crucial for a project's success, no matter how long or short the editorial schedule may be.  More often than not, we're presented with a strict budget and a very compressed editorial schedule for a film, and our goal is to deliver a rich sonic experience under those parameters.  Also, these cozy parameters may include a day or two of predubs as well as a five-day mix.  These tight confines leave very little head room for any surprises, and though we're always prepared for last-minute picture changes and new music delivery, our biggest challenge relates to the preparedness of our team.  This poses an interesting challenge to our supervisors, and I will share my approach to making a project fly successfully.

1.  Understand the vision.  It is imperative for everyone cutting dialogue, sound effects, foley, backgrounds and design to get where the director wants us to go sonically.  This also goes for the ADR and foley mixers. If time permits, I like to have a mini post-spotting session sitdown with the crew and express the finer points of the director's vision in person.  If time doesn't allow for a team pow-wow, I present the group with detailed notes from the spotting session.  Consciously working towards a common goal is the first step towards efficiently making our deadlines.

2.  Cut creatively.  And, I must add, always do you your best.  Half the battle is won by just making good sound choices.  Whether you're a seasoned editor or someone just starting out, trying your best to do your best is win-win in itself.

3.  Think like a mixer.  With impending deadlines and short mix times, it's best to prepare your tracks as cleanly as possible.  I highly recommend that editors think like mixers in the sense that they present their cut sessions with lots of depth and appropriate perspective.  Tightly-cut foley with good volume graphing and perspective cuts can really enhance the minutia relating to story's characters and situations.  Similarly, a well-prepared car chase split out into banks for ease of panning can heighten a film's more intense moments.  Backgrounds highlighting both close up and distant sounds can enhance a film's tone and give lots of rich depth to the story.  I encourage volume graphing, hard cuts on a frame, long prelaps of sounds, jarring dips down into silence, creative cross fades, muting, grouping, and any other sort of inventive way to tell the story in a dynamic way.

4.  Make the next person in line look good.  In the spirit of teamwork, I like to think that all the editors and mixers I work with share the common goal of not only creating a solid soundtrack for our clients, but also will strive to make the post house we work for stand out as a well-organized machine.  The post house's reputation stands on the line with each project, and therefore it is important that each member of the team fully adhere to the above three points.  By understanding the film's sonic goal, by cutting rich and intense sounds and sculpting them into relative perspective, we would have already added tremendous value to the project even before the different elements are put together and prepped for review with the clients.

Think about it:  If everyone along the audio-post ladder really made a conscious effort to make the next person in line look good, then we could quite possibly achieve higher levels of efficiency throughout the hierarchy, and consequently, come in under budget.  

By adhering to items 1 through 3, the sound editors will have put their best foot forward, delivering their best work to the sound supervisor, thereby minimizing said supervisor's "fix it" time, allowing him or her extra quality time to spend enhancing the work and bringing it to a higher level for review with the client.  If all goes well, the supervisor will look good in the eyes of the client (thanks in part to the efforts of the editorial team), and once the work has been reviewed and additional fixes have been made, the supervisor will deliver super-duper, well-prepped tracks to the mixer.  With few predub days, it's uber important that the supervisor work hard to make the re-recording mixer look good, particularly since the mixer is the last bastion in the long line of sound people, and everything now rides on his or her shoulders.

Needless to say, the stress level can be quite high under such tight mix schedule, but by setting small, achievable goals at each level of editorial, and if each editor strives wholeheartedly to meet those goals, the  mixer could very well earn a bit more time to spend not adjusting levels, tweaking sync or recutting sounds, but in doing the thing he or she was hired to do:  MIX! 

A mixer that looks good in the eyes of a client can do justice for the post house that employed him or her.  The client can go away with a strong project and a good feeling in his or her belly, and as a result, the company will look good.  Two plus two can definitely equal five if everyone aims for the same goal.

That's all for now.  In the meantime, I'll keep upping my game, cutting creatively and doing my best.  Hopefully, my work can speak volumes about my standards and work ethic.  I look forward to blogging again soon!
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