"Sound Makes It Better" Isn't So Good for Sound

I thought it might be fun to light this little firecracker and throw it out into the sound-conscious ether... what do you think about it?

In our ongoing effort to get directors, writers, editors, and producers to recognize how important sound is we often tell them that creative use of sound is a way to make their movies better. This notion has always made me uncomfortable, mainly because it assigns sound the role of "repair man," or "window dresser." The implication is that there is this entity, the movie, which exists before any
serious consideration of sound, and that "good sound" can be pasted onto the surface of this otherwise finished thing to make it better.

Another argument we frequently launch in favor of sound is something like this: "Sound is important because the movie wouldn't function at all without sound." Well.... duhhhhh! The movie also wouldn't function without the existence of light waves, but that's hardly a significant part of the argument in favor of creative cinematography.

I think these kinds of attempts to bolster the importance of sound actually hurt it by reinforcing its subordinate status. A truer and more useful argument in favor of creative sound is that it is a crucial component of film making from start to finish, and there is plenty of evidence of that in almost anybody's top 100 film list. The overwhelming majority of films that tell stories well do it in part by
using sound well, and that almost never consists of recruiting "good sound" at the end of the process to rescue the movie.

Wow...I might be opening up a can of worms here, but here 'goes anyway...

Believe me, I hate (as much as the next sound supervisor) the dreaded "temp love" that picture editors tend to have with regards to the sound effects that have been cut in the Avid. However, I have tried to stave that off a bit by making sure that the cutting room is provided with good effects / mixes / treatments from day one (or as close to that as possible). Like the rest of us, I'm not always hired on jobs during the picture edit, but as soon as I do get on board, I start my crew feeding material to the cutting room so that the editor and director can start to get used to our units.

That's really at the centre of this: Not so much loving what is cut in the Avid, but simply being used to it. The cutting room is a very warm, safe, cozy place where the film gestates over many many many weeks (months). The last thing you want is for your director (AND your picture editor) to arrive at the dub stage, knowing that a) the end is near (i.e. the movie or show is about to be released), b) the pressure is on, c) the score still isn't right, d) new ADR still has to be shot, e) the visual effects still have a long way to go, etc. etc. etc. only to hear a bunch of sound effects that they've never heard before.

With so much else going on, and the clock ticking the way it tends to be doing at the dub, of course they (the editor and director) are going to broom anything that sounds unusual (read: unfamiliar).

Fortunately, these days, technology is such that we should always be able to get material into the Avid to audition well in advance of the dub. Sometimes this doesn't require any more time than simply browsing our own library (which has better stuff in it than the cutting room's Sound Ideas 1000 discs) and sending some selections in their direction. In the very least, this starts an open collaboration where my experience has shown the editor being very open to my ideas.

(Yes, other times, more work is involved, but it pays off in the end.)

Now, all of that said, I'll make one last point in the defense of picture editors at the dub because I wouldn't want to be at a dub for a feature film *without* the picture editor present. By the time the dub rolls around, the editor has been living with the film (and, thus, the director) for months, if not years. There is no one (outside of the director, and sometimes more than the director) who
knows more about the film than the editor does...from a performance /
story level all the way to the finest technical level. I constantly rely on the editor to translate into "our" language what it means when the director says "I really want this scene to sound more purple" or to point out a finer story point that I, as a dumb ol' sound guy, missed on the first time through.

These days, directors tend to be pulled in so many directions (ha) by the time of the final dub that, if not for the presence of the editor, we would all be sailing a ship without a captain. I consider myself working for the editor as much as I do for the director, in many cases.

This is just my opinion, and perhaps it will start a shouting match, but I just can't imagine ever thinking that the editor being on the stage is "the worst thing a director can do".

I must say that over the years (14years now) on this bussines (audio-music, soundtracks and cinema) I end developing a kind of ZEN approach for this topic.

For me the question is: there are the ten`s and there are the one`s. There are directors that develop as much closer relationship with they sound crew as they develop with they photographer and there are some others that don`t develope anything at all, sometimes even with they actors...

Sometime I joke saying that the re-recording mixer engineer ( What I`am) must expose more they psychologist side, trying to help the directors to find they "interior sound" :), then they very talent art/ techinician skills.

Most of the time, it`savier to me keep it in mind, that all those movies aren`t my movies, so I don`t really care about- and please it don`t mean do a bad work. Most of the time I do follow in love with the films and they possibilities, but if the directors doesn`t want, well it is they rigth.

In that case I just try to do the best of the technical side, to get free of major problems ahead, because the artistic side of those things are un-stopable...

what`s I learn from the most experience people, is to approach the sound design allways from the story telling side... dramaturgicaly with the sound coming from it. And in most cases the directors like that approach. So what I try to do is to develop the best and enjoyable relatioship with directors, producers and our fellows sound editors to create the great experience during the mix. Most of the time it works out. I also try to be avaiable as most as I can to screening projections, try to get ahead of the mix room.

Not all directors, not all sound editors invite me to, but I allways
try to show me available, trying also to not monetize all the relationship...

Well it is only my experience, not directives and some of those facts are almost obvious... but not allways that obvious :)

Sorry for my bad english. All the best

I quote the end of the first mail from Randy on this topic, that I couldn't answer before.

"The overwhelming majority of films that tell stories well do it in part by using sound well, and that almost never consists of recruiting "good sound" at the end of the process to rescue the movie."
(blonds are mine).

Now... why does it happen? Because I insist on this from the very beginning: there is no such a room, and never it was, for a "sound designer" man. We also know that in the forty's and fifty's, for example, the main credit before the director was "Music". If not, remember Rear Window. Or Tiomkin in Hawk's productions. And many others.

That's why directores come to sound equipment to say "please, rescue my movie with some sound. That's what I think at least. I may be wrong, but I don't think I'm too far from reality.

I dis have the opportunity of working briefly with director Peter Greenaway before I moved to LA on an interlocking session for his movie "Nightwatching". It was an excellent expereience, as Peter was very tuned in to exactly what he wanted in his SFX, bg's and foley tracks.

But, I'm talking about picture editors who like to present themselves as experts on the soundstage. And certainly, there are picture editors who do a good job on the temp.

But if you're going to be an expert, then at least learn the proper terminology, and stop calling reverb, delay, and vice versa, and start editing in a room That's calibrated with proper speakers. Because if I had a dlar everytime an editor said "I never heard that before".

My last experience was "The dead girl feast", premiered in Cannes this year and the director was a realy commited to sound, with a strong concept and it`s a film that don`t have non-diagetical music.

My next feature movie. I do went to a screening before the final cut and sit down with the director and the editors (image and sound) to talk about the story and the overall concepts of the sound.

I`m editing a short now where I get the screenplay months before shoting

I also can say that the directors around here are careing a little bit more about sound, since our 60`s and 70`s are a shame in terms of the overall sound qualities.
In some terms it `s the "industrie" next step...

Hi, Ricardo!
Your reports about getting involved so early with sound design are wonderful to hear. I'm seeing similar things happening here too. Let's hope it's a trend!

Hi Randy. Yeah. I`m glad your are happy.

Your post make me thing that my conditions of work aren`t bad as I usually imagine it to be, :)

I can`t tell it happens all the time, but if was getting more frequentelly. I can say we are a small comunities of editors and re-recording engineers, maybe it make those things easier...

Hi Ricardo
I'm very glad that you can share with directors and editors the overall design of sound. What I said is that there is no person that actually is designed as "sound designer" in the sense that Director of Photograpy is.

I'd like to se "the dead girl feast", but nevertheless, If I don't understand you badly, what you are saying is that the sound design was in the mind of the director of the film.

I think it's just a question of what each one thinks that a sound designer is or could be.

The real problem is that Randy mentioned yesterday: That in many occasions movies are still named "pictures". But movies today are not only pictures in movement; they are sounds and pictures in movement in time and space. We cannot create a film (or audiovisual product, or movie, or another word that we have to impose for the new cinematic experience) without taking to consideration that sound and image, -at this era, the sound era of cinema- are merging to create the audiovisual (or cinematic) experience.

Until the beginning of 80's, grosso modo, it was very often the image (and the dialogue of course) which was bearing responsibility of the narration. It was the image which was mainly in charge of continuity in space and time. The sound was there to clarify and mainly give the third dimension on image elements. The sound itself was an element of the image, not of the whole film. So for that, in many many films the sound was just and remains the illustrator of image reality.

In our days ( we hope that) the sound and image create together the cinematic experience. More frequently, we can experience the illusion of "seeing" many things that we finally only hear. Regarding the style of editing the last 20 years, the continuity in space and time is more and more often the responsibility of the sound elements too.

If we take into consideration that in Europe, where the term sound design doesn't really exist in film production and the sound editors are like assistants to "film editor" and they start to work just after the image is locked, the ambition to create a sophisticate sound design with a storytelling approach has slim chances.

The work of sound editor cannot start after the work of "film or image" editor, as many countries in Europe (starting with France) have literally translated the term "picture editor" in "monteur image et monteur son". It has to be additional, complement, parallel. And the editor has to be present in final mix and be aware of the sound work otherwise the film is separated in two components, image and sound.

I am informed by many readings that in US many editors collaborate wonderfully with the sound team, many weeks before the final cut (Thelma Schoonmaker, to mention only one) that is the ideal for everyone. Otherwise the sound seems to be complement of image and not a structural component in the narrative. If the editor is not aware of the use of sound, we will not have the space (and the frames) to do anything more than clearing the existing sounds, make them sound real.

The sound process actually does begin quite awhile before it gets to me, it's just that it begins with a "picture" editor, and he/she is always the worst sound editor imaginable (or do you agree that the out of sync Sound Ideas mp3 they sent over in the OMF works better?).

Unfortunately though, that is often the first exposure the director has to the creative use of sound, and because of that close relationship that is formed during the cutting of the picture, those ideas (however bad) often make it all the way to the mix. I doubt many directors will bring on a sound designer as early as the script stage, but it sure would be nice to at least bring them on board as soon as they start cutting the picture.

Usually by the time the film gets to the actual sound team the director is so busy dealing with all the crap that's been pushed to the very end (visuals, color-timing, distribution, etc..), that they simply don't have time to form an equally close relationship with the sound team, so we get them at the mix asking "There's this sound we cut in the Avid.."

Clear a fader boys, we got some sweet hiss sent over from the picture department..

Sorry for the rant.

That truly does drives me nuts though.
- Kris

I realize that the temp track that picture editors create is basically the equivalent of making notes with sound (effects or music), rather than writing them down. I certainly would rather refer to the audio guide the picture editor creates rather than read a bunch of sheets of paper with time code numbers.

When I listen to the temp I try to get an implication of what they're going for and then recreate that with something that is similar to the original intent, but also original in it's construction. The audio notes I get from the picture are of poor quality yes, but that's not what bothers me.

It's that I get this impression that they see the process that they went through to put that sound in their temp track (take stock library, load sound into Avid, sync), as evidence of how easy it is to cut
sound. That same sound event in my world is quite often a much more elaborate affair. Recording elements, layering, EQ'ing, treating, etc.. It takes a lot of time and care to create something unique, but we take this time because we love our job. I just don't often get the sense that the reason a picture editor's temp sound is used instead is because the sound team failed nail it.

If that were the case, there would hopefully be a discussion about what quality is missing, and we would go back and take another crack at it. What I do often feel is that as you said, they personally cut it, so in their minds it is now their sound, and it will be used in their mix, and their director agrees with them. Would that director, if he was as personally involved in the sound track as he was with the picture cut, make those same decisions? Maybe the reason they always ask for temp track sounds, and louder music, is because they are actually physically present during the creation of those elements.

You think that's bad, you should try being the composer! Editors are always on about the rhythm and so they usually put in guide music while they're cutting. The Editor and Director probably listen to that piece of music 50 times or more.

Then it's time for the composer to do his thing. Unless you're paraphrasing the guide music (yuk!), anything else is going to be a real shock as they are so used to the guide music. The Director then asks for re-writes and by the time they are happy you've ended up paraphrasing the original guide track anyway. Grrrrr!
One rant each! :)

All the more reason why the audio post supervisor and the composer should be brought in during preproduction, or at the very least the micro-second shooting is completed.

Sound will always be the underdog to picture until the standard process of starting them at different times, changes. The current system promotes too much of the fix-it and make it work role that is too often associated with the post sound stage, and not enough of the story-telling support/enhancement that truly makes sound shine.

I feel your pain on the guide music Greg. It advocates too much mimicry and often stifles original ideas. I understand why they do it, I just don't always agree that it produces the best results.

Sergio Leone would actually have Morricone score music before they even started shooting so that he could play the pieces on set (they also didn't shoot production dialogue, so this was easier). The music was often completed by the time they started cutting the picture.

Certainly not a method that would work for every film, but at least they did experiment with rethinking the process. Like many great works of art, breaking convention often expands the art form.

Of course it would make
life easier and result in a better product if the composer were employed earlier. I've usually been employed half way through production or actually when the post-pro phase starts. There are two reasons why we often don't get employed earlier. Firstly, despite
it's importance to the finished product, many directors don't even think about music till quite late on in the film making process.

This is particularly true in the world of TV commercials, where in this country you often have no longer than 24 hours to create the music. The second reason is financial: If I'm being employed from say the beginning of the production phase it might mean 6 months to a year before I'm finished (at the beginning of the pre-mix). I'm going to need a sizable fee for all that time.

However, if I could start at the beginning of production I could supply simple mixes to the editor to use as guide music when cutting and avoid the whole problem. This would allow me to be far more creative with compositions rather than following the rather cliché post-romantic model of Zimmer, et al.

The above is of course a generalization, some directors and editors have a very good understanding of the use of music (and sound) but in my experience the majority know just enough to be dangerous!

Educating directors as to what sound can offer their film, and pushing for it's involvement earlier in the process might be a better idea, and eventually (hopefully)produce change. Simply shunning working with anyone who doesn't agree with your wants is just going to alienate you from 99% of the business and keep you severely unemployed.

Gary Rydstrom said it best..
"People in sound have to keep thinking of themselves as a key part of the movie. Sometimes we have to fight against the feeling that we're not. If we do our jobs well and throw in a little evangelizing, we can make sound as important a part of filmmaking as it should be."

Sounds good in theory Charlie but in practice it doesn't quite work that way. Bare in mind I'm not a student just starting out, I've been in the business for well over a decade. There is relatively little mid to high budget film in this country (UK) and very few British composers manage
to break into the rather clique hollywood film score scene. Also, I'm not experienced, knowledgeable or particularly interested in being a producer and certainly wouldn't be able to just waltz in and hope for a sizable budget.

Being a composer for TV/film is highly competitive, it's not like I'm sitting here with dozens of high quality productions happening all around and directors fighting for my services. It's more like the other way round, not that many decent budget productions and the directors are swamped with hundreds of composers (and composer's agents) to choose from.

So I have to maximise my employability by being easy to work with and creating products which fulfill requirements and makes the dubbing engineer's job easier. This means that much of the time we are in effect slaves to the client. It's quite unusual to replace a Sound Designer on a project but replacing the composer is not at all uncommon. I could of course change my name to John Williams and solve nearly all the problems!

Don't get me wrong, I've been involved in some wonderful productions, been given free reign on occasion and one of my more experimental scores was once a BAFTA finalist. However, this sort of freedom is the exception rather than the rule and it severely cramps creativity.

Thread from Sound Article List June 2008