Guest Contribution by Joel Raabe
At night in the darkness, I often hear voices in my head. Though it’s strange to admit, as I drift off to sleep after a long day of cutting dialogue or mixing the latest program, indistinct voices emerge and converse in the surround field of my theta wave brain. The wash of leftover phonemes from the work day somehow eases me to sleep, a bizarre lullaby panning through my mind.
As sound artists, we spend much of our lives with people we’ve probably never met, famous actors and fantastical creatures. These characters lodge in our brains as we rely on their patterns and personalities to guide us through editing and storytelling. I often wonder, how much of own voice ends up projected in these characters? Is it our job to color them or should we mostly stay out of the way, mechanically fulfilling our sonic duties in service to the director, producer, or sound supervisor?
For a number of years, I worked sessions as a voice-over engineer and director for commercial radio casting. Some days I would log miles walking up and down the hall of the studio, making small talk with countless actors and getting them situated in the booth. The actors themselves spent their days trekking from audition to audition, reading script after script in hopes of landing the next gig. Though most were extremely talented, not all were well prepared. The least ready of these pros could often read the words cleanly but lacked any regard for character until take two, after receiving further direction and clarification. The good ones could not only read cleanly but also pick out a well-practiced voice from their repertoire to lay onto the script. The great actors, however, brought something else entirely: their own unique insights and understanding. They brought themselves, not just their canned voices, but their voice. It was a refreshing surprise to hear their new ideas and inflections shine through scripts that could easily be dismissed by many as routine, performed mechanically on the way out the door to the next job.
I’d venture a guess that if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all admittedly spent some time in the least prepared group, out of time and frantically throwing sound design spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks to picture. On better days, we’re able to draw upon our acquired toolset and knowledge of craft to design efficiently and effectively. But how do we really bring our own voice, our own selves, into the picture and onto the canvas? Can we advance from talented practitioners to actual artists, with unique voices, in such collaborative environments? I think so. Here are some ideas on how we might become better, more distinctive voices.
Think of yourself as an artist.
This may outwardly seem a bit pompous and self-important, but I think it’s key to contributing to any project. As artists, it’s our job to believe that we have a voice, something to say that is unique and fresh. It takes an artist’s mindset and discipline to develop a point of view on life and become an active participant in his/her environment. We need to learn our tools, sketch, revise, throw away, repeat. We need to contribute as storytellers with vision. We spend so much of our time attempting to translate the sounds we hear in our heads into the sounds emitting from our speakers. Often, I feel like an infant struggling to speak. I know what I want to say but land somewhere different in the end due to my own limitations.
I think we need to admit that this development is going to take time. A lot of time. Our entire careers. Our voice will grow with each new experience, project, failure, success. It may be a while before we come into our own as artists, but it should be a fun journey.
Develop a working vocabulary to know and avoid (or elevate) the clichés.
On a recent program I edited and mixed, the very talented Cloris Leachman was reflecting upon her illustrious acting career and her desire to keep pushing herself into uncharted territory, no matter the script or scenario. Here’s what she said:
“It’s so easy to do cliches. We all know what they are. In fact, some actors who think they’re really good and they aren’t, they think they’re good because they know the clichés. […] So you have to think, ‘I know what this is about, but how can I do it in a more interesting or fresher way?’”
The Wilhelm. The red-tailed hawk. The microphone feedback. The telemetry from every computer interaction. We all know these film sound clichés, and we may even be justified in using them at times. But that doesn’t make us good. If we just execute out of laziness, tradition, or expectations, we’re not doing a service to anyone.
Find a way to elevate the cliché. This involves studying your craft’s history and developing a working vocabulary for your voice. That vocabulary will include your own learned set of workflows, plugins, DAWs, mic techniques, and administrative tools. There are so many skills to master that will help expand your creative voice through sound.
Stay open and participate in the conversation.
In the darkness of the mixing process, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the presence of other voices in the room. You’re seated in the chair twisting knobs and pushing faders as ideas flow around you, the director with one opinion, the editor with another, you with yours. Though you’ll want to explain and defend the logic behind your artistic decisions, having a voice does not mean you have free reign to scream the loudest. Keep your voice participatory and open. Admit when you’ve missed the mark and learn from it. Those who have lived with the project longer than you probably know their characters, themes and audience more intimately, so it’s important to trust their insights while bringing your ideas to the story. But don’t just concede when opinions differ. Learn when to let your voice be heard.
Stay open to the ideas of your fellow artists to help develop and inform your own voice. I don’t mean just fellow audio colleagues or filmmakers or game designers. All art informs other art. Read a book, hike a new trail, visit a museum, or learn something different that has nothing to do with sound. It’ll help develop you as a person, which will help you develop your voice, which will help you develop your characters through sound.