Confessions of a Small Working Studio—21st Century Sound-for-Picture

Sep 7, 2010 12:52 PM, By Lisa Horan and Kevin Hill

New Opportunities for Small and Mid-Sized Studios

Traditional Work Still Available
Even with the wave of new technology available, the more traditional sound-for-picture projects haven’t vanished and aren’t expected to disappear anytime soon, yet the work that sound designers are called upon to complete has undergone some changes. Documentary films, for instance, make up a big chunk of Wright’s workload. In most cases, much of his time on these projects is spent repairing audio. “A lot of documentary work is really run and gun and the camera operator is concentrating on getting the shot, rather than the sound,” says Wright. “More often than not, there’s no boom operator, no cable guy, no sound mixer. While the cinematographer may get a great shot, he or she will seldom get great sound.” For Wright, that typically results in a lot of clean up, sound replacement, Foley work, and custom environmental sound creation, which he captures with his Sony handheld recorder. A good example is Wright’s work on Kicking It, a documentary that chronicles the journey of the International Homeless World Cup of Soccer. According to Wright, production sound was “a mess,” and, as a result, he spent a majority of his time in clean-up mode. “Because the film was shot throughout the world, the producers had to use pick-up crews, so there were multiple sound sources,” explains Wright, who was left to contend with finding a way to bring consistency to sound, which was captured by an array of camera mics, lavaliers and booms, as well as varying formats. In Spain, for instance, crews recorded in MS. The format inconsistency had to be accommodated, and Wright had to re-create most of the sounds in the film, including sneaker squeaks, body checks, cheers, groans, boos, and referee whistles, because what had been captured in the field simply wasn’t usable. “The biggest challenge for me was taking all of the variables, smoothing them out and creating a coherent mix,” says Wright.

photo of Dan Cunningham

Dan Cunningham of EggHead Productions in Rocklin, Calif.

On the other hand, Cunningham—who admits that he is not an audio engineer, but rather a video producer who happens to be familiar with the recording process and sound design fundamentals because of his experience as a musician—typically uses SoundSoap Pro for repairing audio field problems. In addition, he uses features offered through Final Cut Pro Suite to create sound effects. That’s what he used for a children’s educational program called An Afternoon With Music Matt, for which he created sound design. “I had to incorporate a laugh track into the project, but I couldn’t find any tracks that featured children,” Cunningham says. “I was able to use Final Cut Pro to pitch up the adult laugh track I had so that it sounded like a room full of kids.” Educational projects like this one are perfect fodder for audio post professionals, as they generally require the incorporation of sound effects and music, and today, the Internet provides even more opportunities for distribution. An Afternoon with Music Matt, for instance, is Web-based and will be pitched to schools as a part of series of music education programs that can be downloaded and shown in the classroom.

Music production and supervision are main ingredients in many of the projects landing in the hands of small and mid-sized studio owners. Wright reports that his primary responsibilities for his work on political spots include creating custom music and choosing appropriate music. “While political consultants can, and sometimes do, work directly with music libraries and choose their own music for spots, it’s a black art that they generally prefer to have other people do most of the time,” he explains Wright, who says he works both with local composers and standard music libraries.

Dominating Trends
While opportunities are plentiful and the scenario is actually pretty rosy for engineers who consider themselves well versed in the sound-for-picture arena, there are still some realities that can’t be discounted. One is the fact that, thanks to the ever-increasing availability of technology, many companies and agencies have begun taking on sound design in-house. “Years ago, much of the documentary work around the Washington, D.C., area was generated by National Geographic and Discovery, but that work has pretty much vanished because both have huge facilities in which they can do a lot of the work in-house,” says Wright. And to add insult to injury, “If they’re not doing it in-house, they’re working with larger production facilities—not the little guys.”

On top of that, corporate videos used for internal purposes are beginning to dry up because of shrinking budgets. Many companies simply no longer have the budgets to justify such projects, which, at one time, were the lifeblood for many sound designers and video producers. In the case of sound for picture, however, it seems the prospects outweigh the challenges, which is certainly welcome news for sound professionals. The sheer volume of opportunities, in fact, has presented Goldberg with a problem that most of us can only dream of having: “We have so much work right now,” he says, “that we’re converting an AC closet into another studio because our workload demands more employees than we can fit into our current office setup.”

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Tips for Sound-for-Picture Success

Do your homework. If you’re an audio engineer who has worked primarily on music projects, don’t assume that you can instantly make the leap to a sound-for-picture project without doing some serious homework. “Recording a rock band is not the same as recording a voice-over artist,” says Goldberg, who started out as a music producer before making the transition to audio post. “If you study commercials, you’ll realize that there are no breaths or mouth clicks, the music is supporting the voice, and the low end on the vocals has been decreased, which is different from recording a band.”

Assess where you are, and be realistic about your goals. “Don’t shoot for the stars if you don’t have a ladder,” cautions Goldberg. He suggests that if you don’t currently have any contacts in the advertising or visual media worlds, then you shouldn’t expect to land a major advertising campaign out of the gate. Instead, start small and work yourself up to the bigger projects. If you live in small community, for instance, you could go to your local florist, bank, or grocery store, for example, to offer services for a small fee.

Know your audience. “It’s critical that you know who you’re talking to, why you’re talking to them, and where they are listening to you,” says Goldberg. Without these important pieces of information, it will be nearly impossible to deliver sound for picture projects in an effective manner.

Be inventive. Don’t overlook opportunities that lie in new media trends. “Though viral video is, in theory, supposed to spontaneously catch fire, many agencies are designing media for the purpose of becoming viral and are, in turn, willing to sink thousands of dollars into producing quirky videos,” says Wright. Even though sound design may be a secondary consideration in some cases, there may be hidden opportunities that lie within these types of projects, but it’s up to sound professionals to seek them out and figure out a way to convince potential clients of the ways sound design could benefit their project.

Limit your limitations. In other words, find a way to make it happen. “We’ve had clients ask for delivery of a project in a format we know nothing about—and sometimes have never even heard of—so we have to think on our feet,” says Goldberg. “We tell them, ‘Yes. Absolutely, we can deliver your project in that format,’ and then we quickly do research and figure out just how we can make it happen for them.”

Team up. Don’t expect to have all of the answers or capabilities. If you’re given the opportunity to work on a project that involves a foreign language that you’re not familiar with, identify and team up with a reliable resource that can take on that portion of the project for you. “For a recent government project that required us to produce a piece in 12 different languages, we teamed up with a language specialist,” says Cunningham. While you can't expect to know how to do everything, you can partner with those who know how to do what you don’t.

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