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Posted by on Mar 6, 2014 | 6 comments

Creating a Unified Voice


Image by flickr user woodleywonderworks. Used under Creative Commons license.

This article is not what I originally intended. I started it, nearly completed it and then decided to rewrite it from a different angle. It’s core subject remains intact, speaking to our collaborators…the people who hire us to make their pieces of media “sound good.” Whether we work in film, television, games, mobile applications, interactive art installations or any other existing or emerging medium, the majority of us work in service to another. Many a sound professional can be found lamenting the working situation they find themselves in; proclaiming, “ if only…”

When I first wrote this article, it’s title probably would have been “How NOT to Promote the Importance of Sound.” And I’ll still touch on that later. When I was nearly finished, Randy Thom sent me an article for the site. [To be posted tomorrow.] It’s relation to my original musings can’t really be called direct, but there was a relation none the less…and it gave me an idea for a different direction to take with this discussion.

There’s been a push to give sound a better seat at the creative table in each of our respective mediums. It’s not a new idea; it’s been sought for a long time. We seek to assert ourselves as story-tellers and artists, not mere “technicians”…to serve another’s vision without being subservient to the visual. We know that we can add to, and drive, the story…and we want that opportunity. To get it, we have to affect change. We have seen its beginning, but we need to continue the campaign to see it realized. If that’s to happen, we can’t continue to sit back and rely on people like Randy Thom and Gary Rydstrom to do the work for us. We all have to contribute; that’s the hard part. It’s easy to stick your head in the sand and daydream about the ideal situation. It’s a lot harder to actively pursue it. There are those of us out there that are doing just that, but we’re fractured and isolated.

That’s where I want to start.

This is a call to arms…well, maybe not arms…that implies battle. We don’t want to battle with our collaborators. That immediately puts us in an antagonistic situation…counter-productive. I think you get what I’m saying though. It’s time we stopped doing this alone. What I’d like to see are stories from people who are pushing for greater collaboration. Were you successful? In what situation? How did you do it? Did you fail? Why? How do you even measure the success of your efforts? All of these question require honest reflection…particularly in cases of failure. For example, “The director just doesn’t get it,” is not a valid reason for failure. If he or she was not interested, that’s one thing. Was it just something do with that particular production? Did you continue the discussion outside of that production?

What ideas can we try to promote the use of sound in story-telling?

We should be working together on this. Looking at what worked in what situation, and what didn’t in others…as a group…empowers us all. As a community, we can learn from each others’ mistakes and successes. Designing Sound can become a clearing house for this discussion. That doesn’t mean you have to submit your story for posting on the site. If you’d like to, then certainly bring it here. We’ll be happy to put it in front of the rest of the community. Post it to your personal site if you prefer, then let us know that you have. We’ll be just as happy to direct traffic to it. This is a topic that’s too important and central to our work to restrict to just one month. This should be an ongoing discussion, and we should continue to analyze and adapt approaches. Let’s crowd-source the process and work towards an effective voice for our community.

How we present ourselves in this process will greatly affect our chances for success. Which now brings me back around to the original article I wrote…though this will be much abridged compared to its original incarnation…inspired by this little piece: 6 Ways Directors Screw Sound Editors.

This article aggravated me before I even read it. The title alone is a lesson in what not to do. While I appreciate the sentiment of the article (written by a visual editor “on our behalf”), I have a hard time imagining any of its intended audience (directors…not sound editors) taking it seriously. Just look at the responses left below it; they’re mostly from sound folks. It manages to be both condescending and whining at the same time. Do NOT speak this way to our collaborators. In my mind, that kind of tone says one thing, “This job is too challenging. You should have made it easier for me.” That leads people to another thought…you lack confidence in your ability to do the job. Either that, or you just don’t want to be bothered with it.

We’ve all had to deal with the issues associated with sub-par production audio and/or working conditions. There are ways to address these without giving the impression that you don’t belong at the desk. If you can’t be enthusiastic and professional working in sound, even in less than ideal situations, then go find another career. We already have enough of a struggle without being seen as an industry of complainers, so don’t make us appear to be one. [We may be past that point already; in which case, we now have yet another river to paddle against.] In some respects, how we speak to other sound designers needs to carry over into our conversations with directors/producers/leads/etc. Story, design, aesthetic…our collaborators need to be exposed to our thoughts in these areas. Then there are the conversations we have amongst ourselves, that are less appropriate outside of our circle of peers. Think about your audience, and adapt accordingly. If you’re not sure how to present an idea to a collaborator, talk it over with others first.

I recognize that I’m calling for action and providing little direction. This is meant as merely a starting point. Where we go from here does not have to be so rigidly defined. As I mentioned before, we shouldn’t be relying solely on a small group of champions to extoll the virtues of sound in narrative mediums. We all should be contributing. Just remember, that you’re not alone when you do so. We have an amazing community of peers at our disposal. Use it. Take support from it, and bring your experiences to it. Together we can create a unified voice to advance sonic story-telling, and make it one that is hard to ignore.

Some suggested starting points for discussion and reflection:

The Sound of Simon Killer – Interview with Antonio Campos and Coll Anderson
– How About a Sound Ideaboard/Storyboard? – Randy Thom
– Designing a Movie for Sound
– The Tonebenders: Episode 9 & Episode 10


  1. Awesome article Shaun,

    For me, from a game developer’s perspective, on different projects, at different companies and working with different folks, I’ve always tried to place the responsibility for collaboration squarely at my own feet, and never at the feet of a director or a producer. It is probably the only thing that we actually *do* have any control over. If something is frustrating about a process, it is my responsibility (and duty) to respectfully & professionally (and enthusiastically!) talk about it with as many different opinion holders as I can, and work towards getting something in place to fix it, or at the very least least, improve it next time around. Often this means adjusting *my* work methods, pipelines, and expectations, at least as much, if not more, than any change I would expect to see on the ‘other side’. I’d say, always be prepared to make changes on your end first. Ask yourself, how would I like someone else to respond when I offer them an idea or a suggestion? Next time someone offers you an idea, that’s your opportunity! Default to YES! An idea/suggestion is only a starting point!

    I realize I’m very lucky to work in the video games industry where technology, workflows, and attitudes are changing (fast) all the time, and industrialization is often seen as a hindrance to staying current with the functionality of the game (and agile as an industry). With that comes a lot of opportunity and a lot of flexibility, in a sense we’re all making it up as we go along, and every project feels (and is) very different. I also think that every ‘culture’ (environment, team) you work in operates differently, and this is important, because to fix issues of collaboration requires unique approaches specific to, and operating inside of, those cultures and the people inside those cultures – empathy and listening skills are massive wins here.

    Getting a collaborative group working well together is also something that you don’t just ‘fix’ once, and never need to go back to the way it was before. It is the work of every day, every email, every conversation and every action. In the end, it is just something you are always doing. You are always explaining sound, talking about sound, in often very basic terms, but you’re also talking about art and visuals and pacing, timing and presentation, and before you realize it, you’re not really working exclusively in sound terms any more…

    This kind of work is an enormous part of the work I find myself doing every day, on every project, and will likely continue to do, every day on every project. It is constant communication, constantly changing, It is an effort that will never end – and I feel like I work on the actual material of sound creation and implementation- maybe 30% of my job – (Maybe a case of being careful what you wish for here, but if you enjoy sitting in a studio working through a list of sounds, then maybe the collaborative end of the industry isn’t for you – if you enjoy certainty and clarity, then maybe it isn’t for you either, if you enjoy stability and predictability, then its not those things – and it really isn’t for everyone – and that’s OK! – it can be abstract, challenging, political, throwaway, frustrating, rewarding, inspiring, depressing, and ultimately is about working in the world of ideas and not sounds, long before a sound has been made – but, when its all said and done, working on the sound can be so much more rewarding)

    Thanks again for a good read Shaun!

    Ooh, and, for those attending GDC this year, I’ll be yakkin’ about this very topic …
    Looking forward to continuing the discussion!

  2. Rob, I am making “Default to yes!” my new slogan. It makes so much sense – in virtually any kind of workplace. Reminds me the proverb: “The best way to make friends is to be one”. Or something to that effect. Great and important first comment to a great and important post.

  3. good piece Shaun, and I look forward to Randy’s comments tomorrow-

    the one thing that I have to say is that most Directors and Producers dont seem to appreciate the storytelling resource that sound is- this is most evident in hearing comments from Academy Members, who even after significant outreach from the Sound Branch, cant seem to wrap their heads around the difference between “Best Sound” (mixing/production sound) and Sound Editing- and it seems that some even think that somehow there is “production” sound in animation and VFX. This is a tragedy. Its akin to someone eating bacon and having no idea of where it comes from. I do think that sound as an artistic tool needs to be emphasized in Film School to a far greater degree than it is- which seems like an obvious matter- but is met with the same sort of antipathy the bacon eater has for the pig- As a person who has a child completing a Drama degree at CSUN, I have to say that to hear her talking about the disinterest the Drama and Film students have for ALL of the crafts outside their area of interest is a little unsettling.

  4. I have very little experience in movie sound. But, just alternate thought.

    If, a movie director doesn’t know anything about the sound, and, each his step during shooting ruins a future soundtrack… Doesn’t it MEAN that a movie also will be just a piece of sh*t?

    I mean, if a director cares about his movie, then he cares about all its aspects. Like a mother about his child.

    Why bother about movies whose director is just an ignorant person, making another purposeless picture?

    • I dont know if thats a fair critique Robert- the problem is not so much a sin of commission in many cases- perhaps its the over-optimistic ignorance of thinking that the audio post team can recreate the nuances that production missed- I mean, it is relatively difficult to shoot a period costume drama without the intrusion of modern sounds into the shoot- some directors are more sensitive to that, and take all the measures they can to redo takes and or shoot wild lines to repair sonic intrusions like that- an example I ran into was when I supervised (and largely did most of the design and editing) on Jay Russell’s film “Tuck Everlasting”- one of the principal locations was next to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and the location which was on a river, was a rustic house set in the late 19th Century- I remember Jay telling me how many extra takes they had to do with Sissy Spacek and William Hurt who spoke in quite delicate tones, becuase there were daily artillery barrages that the Army conducted. It did cost production a lot to film the extra takes, and wait for the Army to do what it does, but it was a priority to him to get the best sound he could- (and he had an OUTSTANDING production audio team who bent over backwards to please him). So I would say that in many cases, the problem is that the Producers and Directors have simply grown accustomed to the amazing we audio folks can do in editorial and mixing. That being said- if the story is bad, the end product will be bad- and sound has rarely wrecked a film which had great writing and acting.

  5. Something that I find always helps in this endless endeavor is to vocalize passion for the project as a whole. Show my honest interest in the story they’re trying to tell or experience they’re trying to create and prove that I’m not just in it to get paid or make some cool sounds for them. If I can prove this, then I always find the collaborative relationship is vastly improved. Often what’s required is sacrificing, showing I have no hesitation in dropping a great sound or allowing a great sound moment to be cut which I may have put blood sweat and tears into because I know it’s for the betterment of the project as a whole. And then I tell them that’s part of the process and I understand that work wasn’t wasted but was part of what led us to the stronger story or experience.

    That follow up may seem redundant as we’ve already moved on, but it show’s you’re willing to spend time on these dead-ends (which later to some may seem was wasted) because you understand the importance of the process. If they don’t believe that, they might try and save you the blood, sweat and tears the next time a creative opportunity comes up, and thus deny you the opportunity to explore it.

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