Elliott Koretz Special: Exclusive Interview
Here is the first interview with this month’s special guest Elliot Koretz, talking about general aspects of his career.
How did you get started in sound design?
My first industry job was as an apprentice editor in the shipping room at Disney Studios. I was exposed to all types of editing (picture, music, and sound) but I was attracted to sound for not only what I saw as the ability to be very creative but for the autonomy of working independently of the director and producers who seemed to be always in the picture editors room. At Disney I met a sound editor who was also moonlighting at Neiman-Tillar, a leading independent sound house back in the day. He saw my interest in wanting to advance to editor a little quicker than what was the norm at Disney and offered to put in a good word for me there. I was offered assistant editors position and took it. While there I was first introduced to electronic editing. This was approximately 1980 and they had, as far as I know, the first system that was used for this, ACCESS. That’s really pretty amazing for so long ago. I think the first show I ever cut on electronically was a tv show, “Aloha Paradise” It was a kind of “Love Boat” on land and the sound needed was pretty straight forward fx. But I do remember one particular episode where the story line had a man who was interested in a divorced woman with a young child. The kid was opposed to this relationship and at one point bites the guy on the leg in kind of a comical manner. This lead to what I believe may have been the first “design” moment of my career. I layered a celery snap with some sort of other big crunch and………I was off and running as a designer.
After that I moved around landing at a number of post facilities for a while. I was an editor at Stephen Cannell, which turned out to be a great place to learn to cut action sequences. On shows like “The A-Team” you had a week to cut an entire reel (approx 12 min) of Dia, FX, BG’s and Foley. And inevitably you had a scene like this: Our heroes were in some sort of large vehicle, traveling pretty fast on a rough surface, being chased by a helicopter that was shooting at them. They meanwhile had constructed some sort of rapid firing gun that was shooting nails or some other projectiles……..and little to none of this could be created just straight out of the sound library.
These kinds of sequences needed multi-layered design and remember this was on film. Many units and also much of the final result of my work couldn’t be heard played together until the dub stage. On an old fashion film sync block you could only hear three or four “channels” at once. Anything wider than that and you had only your experience and imagination to visualize the combined sound.
I think doing this kind of design work way back then really helped me understand how to efficiently combine elements to get the sound I wanted.
I spent some time at Soundelux when the company was still pretty young and while there moved into cutting sound on features. (Still editing on film). I did return to tv editing and ended up working first as an editor then as supervisor on the show, “MacGyver”. It was another busy design show with the lead character always inventing something to beat the bad guys that required creative design work. After a successful first season the producers wanted to change to an all-electronic post. Soundelux at that time was not prepared for the huge investment in equipment and ultimately the show was moved to a newly created facility, Modern Sound. Over that summer they built a new mix stage, foley stage, and editing rooms using both Synclavier and 24 track editing systems. I was offered to continue as the supervisor of the show and accepted. After a very brief training period at the offices of New England Digital (the creators of the Synclavier) I jumped into the world of electronic post again.
The problems we faced were immense. This was 1986 and the technology was still in it’s infancy. There were not yet sound libraries that were “digital” and the decision was made to purchase a copy of the library of a leading sound supervisor at the time, Fred Brown. Then the issue was storage. The best we could do at the time was to digitize onto floppy discs. They could only hold a few seconds of sound each so you can imagine the challenges that caused. This was truly the bleeding edge of technology.
It was at times very exhilarating but often very frustrating to be at the forefront of this transition. There were times we struggled to achieve what was extremely easy to accomplish on film and other times we saw how cool it was to work in a non destructive environment with new tools to manipulate the sound.
After that season I moved around again to a couple of different facilities but then found what turned out to be a long-term home at Weddington Productions. The three owners at that time (Steve Flick, Richard Anderson, and Mark Mangini) were doing some of the most creative sound design anywhere. There is no question that was the turning point in my becoming a much more accomplished designer. Working with the talented people at Weddington constantly challenged me to step up my game and really think hard about what I could do to impact the movie sonically in every detail.
While there I made the full time transition to ProTools and it’s world of opportunities that cutting digitally has brought to all of us.
All these pieces of the puzzle have helped form what I do today. At Universal where myself and my crew have 5.1 editing suites and all sorts of plug in devices I reference all that experience from both the film and digital worlds when conceptualizing the design work I do.
How has been the evolution of your work and how your approach to sound has changed over the years?
Well, in some ways it’s changed dramatically and in others not so much. In a practical sense I mentioned the switch from film to digital. I really embraced it and all the flexibility it gave me while staying in my editing environment and not having to wait for a reprint of something or a specialist for processing. It’s just more efficient and much easier for me to experiment with sounds. In a more subjective perspective I think I grow after every film I do. I am a very hands on supervisor and I feel that one of the perks of being in charge is that I get to choose which elements of the project I will personally handle. I still try (time and budget permitting) to be very old school in my method. I like to pull and organize the fx and bg’s my editors will work from (I always encourage and give them the option of going beyond the pull) and give them a “cut list”. I think that method lends itself more to continuity and flow of the sound of the film. If I can’t do that then I meet with the editors, run the reels and give as much info as I can to them and review the work later. I think one of the bigger changes in my approach in recent years has been to make a concerted effort to co ordinate with the composer more. We all have been in the situation in a mix where we are fighting for the same sonic space with the music tracks. If I know where the music is working and in what frequencies and what type of rhythm I can attempt to compliment it and not fight it.
I wonder how sound design has changed the way you listen.
I think I listen and think about emotions. What are we trying to say to the audience? Like with music I don’t want to fight the dialog so I see fx, bg’s and design as a tool, sometimes very subtle other times not, to promote the directors’ vision. I listen for bridging opportunities to use sound to connect scenes. I always remember on the dub stage for the movie “Speed” Greg Landaker (not sure about spelling) the lead fx mixer suggested some great ideas to do just that. The frenetic pace of the film lent itself to fast whooshing elements to bridge cuts. It was just one more layer to make it a more finished and cohesive movie.
How has been your work with directors? any particular story on that?
You touch on a very important question. I think that just as important as my design work on the film or maybe sometimes even more important is my rapport with the director (and the picture editor as well). We as supervisors and designers need to be very politically astute and sensitive to the personalities we work with. Some clients like a “take charge guy” who they are counting on to lead the way in the sound post. Some want a person that gives them exactly what they ask for…and nothing more. I guess what I am saying is that we need to size up who we are working with and as early as possible give them what they need. As wildly creative as we are we can’t lose sight that we are a service. I don’t believe that one style will fit all.
I have been very fortunate to work with some amazingly talented directors. When people look at my resume they usually want to know about Michael Mann. In addition to working on and supervising some of his television shows I supervised and did the design work on both “Collateral” and “Miami Vice”. Michael is without question a creative genius and a visionary that has given us some amazing tableaus. The challenge is that he is so demanding of himself, often working 20 hours days for seemingly months on end and he expects his team to keep up with him at all times. I think he has his ideal of the visual and sonic harmony he wants and has little tolerance if you are not on board with him. If you understand that it makes your job less difficult. People always want to hear horror stories, the truth is that the hours were long and tough but as I was mentioning in the previous question when you understand who you are working with and what they expect of you then you as a supervisor can depersonalize challenging situations for you and your crew and keep everyone on point.
I did a film with the amazing Irish director Jim Sheridan. He was a very easygoing guy with me and my crew and regaled the dub stage with wonderful tales, as is the tradition for storytellers like him. His style was more to allow me the freedom to bring design ideas to the stage and then he would give input.
I love when a director really understands and supports what sound and sound design will bring to their film. I worked with Gavin O’Connor on the film “Miracle” a few years back. He wanted realism throughout his film. He wanted hockey players that could act as opposed to actors that could skate a bit and for sound he wanted the most realistic sounding sports movie ever. We did extensive recordings of skating and hockey crowds and then mixing with Mike Minkler and Myron Nettinga we got a terrific soundtrack. Gavin was so incredibly appreciative of the work we all did and that’s always refreshing and nice to have.
Another great collaboration has been with the director Thor Freudenthal. His name may not be familiar to everyone but I think it soon will be. He is a very talented young director. I worked on “Hotel for Dogs” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” with him. Both films presented unusual design challenges and Thor was very supportive to make that sonic space that we all hope for available in the final mix.
All these directors I just mentioned understood the value of doing field recording for their films. Whether it’s getting out to Miami and recording onboard speed boats at over 135mph (Yikes!), Directing a crowd of 5,000 people chanting “USA, USA” or dog ADR sessions (Story on that to follow), working with someone that gets the concept of what we can bring to the film by doing these things is always a bonus.
I wonder how you approach the different roles you can play on a film, such as sound designer or supervisor. Any preference?
I really enjoy them all. Unless a particular film is just too demanding a job for me to exclusively hold both titles I will try most often and handle those myself. To accomplish that I am fortunate enough to have worked with for almost ten years one of the best assistants (who also happens to be one of the best field recordists, great editor and also talented mixer) Bruce Barris. His wide range of skills allows me the freedom to be creative while he has handled some of the other aspects of the workflow. He has been an invaluable partner in the design process.
And speaking of that I do see the work we do as a collaborative effort. I am most definitely the point man with the client but it is the entire team that I count on. With the budgets so tight these days my crew is often small. Everyone has to be really capable. I try and spend quite a bit of time with each member keeping them up to date with as much info as I can.
On some of my films for one reason or another I have assumed the role of ADR supervisor as well. I do really enjoy getting the opportunity to work with the actors.
So I guess that although design is probably my favorite part of the job, as I like to say “it’s full service” and I’m good with hands on the other tasks as well.
What are your favorite tools to work with?
I think it’s rare that I use any effect out of the library without doing some sort of tweaking to it. I use quite a bit of the standard plug ins that are included in ProTools and also the Waves bundle, Izotope (particularly Trash), AltiVerb, and Speakerphone to name a few. Multiple layers of sounds addressing different frequencies are the key. I look for new plug ins and applications all the time as they are rapidly growing.
Do you have any special method for dealing with deadlines/creative challenges?
Well, that’s not very easily accomplished. It’s time management. I think one of the most important skills in that regard is having the dub stage experience to really understand what will play and what will be less important in the overall mix. Sizing up the key sequences and looking at how much time you have to spend on them is crucial. I find this does not come naturally to everyone and I help my crew know what areas to concentrate on.
Is there any of your projects that you remember for being the most challenging or favorites?
Which of your children do you like the best, eh? So hard to answer. I will pick out one but I probably could find examples in almost all my films.
A couple of years ago I did a family film, “Hotel for Dogs”. On the surface it seemed like a fairly simple movie to do. There were some Rube Goldberg like mechanical inventions to design but otherwise I didn’t at first see any challenges or possible difficulties. Was I off the mark…..by a mile. The movie had many dogs in it (it was titled Hotel for Dogs…..right?) a number of them feature performers. The conceit was that they sounded like normal dogs. Nothing comical or unrealistic in their performance. It turned out that in every single bit of production the tracks were filled with the sound of the various trainers urging on their dogs to perform with whistles, clickers, and other devices that basically made the original sound track unusable.
So now I was faced with the reality that I had to replace every single sound all the dogs made for the entire movie. There was no library in town that has such a variety and complete sets for all these dogs. I was in serious trouble until an incredibly serendipitous event occurred. Some of my crew members and I were walking to lunch. We were working at Universal and sometimes we would cut through the theme park to eat up above us at City Walk. As we walked through the park I noticed there was a stage with the sign that read “animal act”. There was a worker standing in front with a dog beside her. I told her I was a fellow employee and what I was working on and asked, “Do the dogs in the act follow commands to bark?” She assured me they did and led me to backstage to meet the trainers. Turned out they had worked on my movie and actually some of the same dogs were here in this live show. After discussing what was needed with the trainers we set up a date and brought the dogs down to the foley stage for a “doggy” ADR session. Each dog responded to silent commands and barked, whined, sniffed and growled as we recorded them. I now had my kits for each of the main dogs in the movie.
Cutting their tracks was like doing voice replacement for about eight actors throughout an entire movie. Dogs never stop making sounds. They are always panting and licking and doing something that required considerable thought. I would find the most evocative material while still “keeping it real”.
The satisfaction came that in the final product my work was truly invisible. The dog vocals fit perfectly (being from the same dog in many instances) and no one would ever suspect that what they were hearing was not production. The work did not call attention to itself but never the less was some of the best sound work I’ve done recently.
What are your favorite films for sound?
That’s another loaded question. There is such great work out there. I go all the way back to classics like “Shane” and “Forbidden Planet” as early examples. And certainly I used to try and destroy my speakers playing “Top Gun” and then “Days of Thunder” at dangerous volume levels. The work of Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom, Randy Thom, Ren Klyce….I could go on and on. When I worked with at Weddington the movies that we were doing, Die Hard, Apollo 13, Speed, all the Joe Dante films……..were so incredibly well done. And recently my colleague at Universal Scott Hecker has put out some of the coolest tracks (300, Watchmen, and Suckerpunch) with Chris Jenkins and Frankie Montano mixing. I thought Avatar was an incredible piece of work knowing the difficulties in having to conceptualize design when you may still be working against a storyboard. I love movies. Always been a film fan and it’s just too hard to narrow the field on my favorites.
This is a good point to mention mixers. To understand how to collaborate and help them do their job is huge. I can’t emphasis enough my belief that it’s a team effort and although I do plenty of premixing back in the editing room I love that another set of very talented ears listens to the material and can add their expertise to it. I always try and meet with the team as early as possible and include them in the process.
Is there any advice you’d like to give to other sound designers out there?
Well, I think the key is to think divergently. Outside the box. Don’t be confined by the laws of nature. That’s how little kids think and that ability seems to disappear as we grow up. I know that there are sounds that have to be exact and correct but emotional sound has a huge role in design. And the practical advise is to put your ego aside and listen to what the filmmaker is saying and present yourself in a manner that instills confidence that you are the right person for the job. One of my favorite stories that help bring that point home is this. Walter Murch and Randy Thom were participating in a forum about sound. When Randy was speaking he told a story of how when he meets with the director he regales him or her with visions of incredible design to come with all sorts of amazing nuance and the client is wowed. They know they have he right person. The the meeting ends, Randy goes into the privacy of his editing room and says to himself, “How the f*ck am I going to do it?”
So don’t let them see you sweat. Bring your best attitude to your meetings……and then go back to your room and start panicking!
Seriously, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks for the opportunity to share some stories. I hope this has been informative and a little entertaining.