Let’s get started with this new special. Here is a great talk I had with our special guest Bruce Tanis talking about the general aspects of his career, his techniques, the way he works, and more!
Designing Sound: Bruce, please introduce yourself and tell us how you get started with your sound career.
Bruce Tanis: I’m a freelance sound effects editor working in Los Angeles, California. I work mostly at Warner Brothers now but a good definition of a freelance editor is that I work all over town but never for more than a couple of weeks at a time! I’ve edited a tiny, tiny bit of dialog and ADR and a whole lot of sound effects, foley, and backgrounds for film and television. I actually graduated from College with a Bachelor of Science degree in Forestry. At the time, that job marketplace was pretty full so I immediately switched to plan b which was a career in film. I enrolled at The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and spent a year in film school. My editing teacher told me they were looking for an assistant at Cannon Films so I went and interviewed with them and got the job.
After about two years of being an assistant in the trailers and promos department for Cannon, I ended up moving to Todd-AO as a TV department assistant. I guess if you don’t start in the mailroom somewhere, you start by schlepping film reels around to dub stages. Of course, now everything’s on nice light little drives. At the time, Todd-AO was really open to promoting in-house for sound editors so after cutting a demo reel for John Haeny, who was overseeing the department, I ended up moving up to editing and my first show which was for Gary David Goldberg on “Brooklyn Bridge”. It was a nice family drama set in Brooklyn, N.Y. in the fifties and was a really good project to start out on. After three months, I was put on Stephen King’s “The Tommyknockers” and told to create the spaceship effects for the end of the show. So much for my nice gentle entry into editing!
DS: Did you have a mentor early or any special resource where you learned something special?
BT: Working at Cannon Films, which was non-union when I started there in 1990, I was able to literally open any door in the place and ask whoever was there if I could sit in and see what they were working on. Any sound editing room or picture editing room or dub stage ( they had one sweetening stage, one dub stage, and one screening theater), was available and the people were great about sharing their knowledge. I started cutting sound for some trailers and TV spots and asking the picture editors for feedback. Wade Hannibal, who was the finishing / tech guy for the department, was really good about letting me go along to sweetening sessions and online dubs for various video projects and that was a great learning opportunity.
When I got to Todd-AO I started training myself on the equipment and I would sit in after hours with several of the effects editors if their workload allowed it. Not many people will remember John Haeny and those who do may not remember him too fondly as he could be a bit antagonistic, but to me he was always helpful. He was really talented on the synclavier which was the workhorse of the effects room at that time. My other mentor from that time was Joe Earle who was gracious enough to help me train and, very importantly, lobbied for me to work in his room at night when I started editing full time. The bonus here was that Joe had one of the nicest effects rooms in the department along with John so I was very happy to call that room home for a couple of years!
DS: Why you love sound design/editing? What is the best part of being a sound designer/editor?
BT: Believe it not, I don’t really call myself a sound designer. I think there’s still plenty of honor left in being a good old effects editor. Typically, anyone who edits sound effects for more than a week has, at one point or another, been called on to cut something beyond just doors and room tones so I sort of think the title can refer to all of us in some respect. I can feel everybody out there getting upset at that one! Certainly, I’ve done a lot of design work over my career and I do in fact reserve the title for some of the usual suspects but, personally, I try to put the same level of care into cutting cars and doors as I do creature vocals and supernovas.
That being said, design work is obviously the most glamourous and emotionally rewarding task we have as effects editors. After all, it is pretty fun to sit back and play a sequence you’ve cut like smashing cars together in “The Incredible Hulk”! I think one of the really interesting things about doing design work is that anything can literally become anything else! In a recent episode of “Fringe”, a scene was set in a computer based command center and I wanted something to play in the background but felt it should be something more than a hard drive motor hum so I took a rain-on-pavement track, processed it a little to sound a bit more electronic and have some movement to it, and that became the computer accessing chatter that ran through the scene. Pretty weird but it worked.
DS: You’ve edited sound for tv shows and films. What things have you learned from each industry? What is your favorite to work on and why?
BT: Typically, episodic tv has shorter schedules and smaller crews so the tracks tend to be both less in number and less detailed than film tracks usually end up being. Plus, with TV dubs being two or three days, the mixers simply don’t have the time to go through a mountain of material. You only get a week or two to work on an episodic TV show which is really limiting in terms of how deeply you can develop certain sounds whereas films have a longer schedule and, with slightly larger crews, allow for division of labor in that one editor will concentrate on vehicles, one on weapons, etc. However, the expectations are just as high in television as they are in film so clients want to hear “Jurassic Park” level work regardless of the conditions involved. Films go through the temp process which you don’t often have in television other than perhaps on pilots which are a madness all their own.
Another difference is that specific new effects are often recorded for feature films whereas they rarely are in television. Episodic TV budgets just don’t have room for that although long form TV projects like miniseries or movies of the week can sometimes allow for effects recording sessions. I don’t really have a preference but if I had to pick one, I think I’d say features simply because you get to work with the material more deeply than in television. Features allow for a more detailed blending and shaping of my work with that of other editors and the overall soundtrack and I really like that teamwork aspect.
I’m a big, big fan of handing my work over to a mixer who brings fresh ears to the material as opposed to me doing premixes in my cutting room ( which we basically do anyway these days). In cutting for TV, I pretty much edit as fast as I can and then the tracks go off to the dub stage and that’s where my involvement ends other than editing stage fixes.
DS: Let’s talk about creativity. How do you deal with bad sound design moments? When you’re working on a sound or scene and you the result is not very well, what do you do? Any special technique you have for improve your creativity?
BT: Boy. Good question! I think that’s what we all struggle with. The proverbial blessing / curse of editing design effects is that nobody knows what stuff really sounds like. I remember working on a tv movie version of “Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman” starring Daryl Hannah and the director was playing back sequences with Dave Hankins who was the Supervising Sound Editor. He told Dave, “that’s not the real sound for that spaceship!” Dave calmly asked him what the “real” sound was that he had in mind. After a moment, the director realized what Dave already knew: it’s a fifties style visual design, made-up spaceship which doesn’t actually exist. Nobody knows what it “really” sounds like! Of course, we revisited the spaceship effects to create what the director “wanted” it to sound like.
There are scenes in almost every project I work on in terms of design that I think, “what can I possibly cut for THAT??!?” The pressure, obviously, is that somewhere out there, the clients are waiting for you to pull a really cool rabbit out of your hat coupled with the fact that you know, absolutely, and deep down in your soul, that Randy Thom would pull this off with no apparent effort whatsoever. I know Randy and have immense personal respect for him and, if I get stuck, yes, I ask myself, “what would Randy Thom do?” Of course, I also ask myself what would Richard King do? Or Ren Klyce. Or Jay Wilkinson. Or Alan Rankin. Or Ann Scibelli. ( You may not know her but she’s seriously talented!) It always comes back, though, to what do I think of the sequence? What’s in there that I can hang something on. Some camera movement or object that I can start with. It’s a lot like writer’s block starting out with a blank page. You psych yourself out looking at all that emptiness. I find it helps to just start somewhere, anywhere, with something small. Look for something to get in the door with and the scene starts to build itself from there. It’s really kind of interesting how things suggest themselves once you get that first element in there.
As an example, in cutting fire sequences, start with some basic fire effects and see where that goes. As you’re working through the material, maybe you’ll see a place where a steam blast or geyser can add some power. Maybe you get to a spot where some rope swishes, or in a neat little bit of irony, a fire extinguisher (!) can add some movement. The sequence ends up getting built in layers as you think about what else you might want to include.
DS: When and how you find yourself at the most creative?
BT: This may seem a little backwards but I actually seem to get more creative work done as the day starts to wind down. Logically, It seems like you’d be most creative early in the day when you’re fresh off a night’s sleep but for some reason I seem to do better as the day goes on. I think it has to do with my brain processing things in the background while I’m working on other material. I know a sequence is there to be worked on and I’m subconsciously working on possible elements while doing more mundane things early on. It’s weird, I know.
DS: How has been your relationship with the directors/supervisors of the movies you’ve worked on? Did you have any special story about team relationships?
BT: One story I have is from working on “Seabiscuit”. I had worked on the film but had since moved on to working on “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” which was dubbing on The Ford Stage at Fox while “Seabiscuit” was being dubbed next door on the Hawks Stage. After a long day, as I was leaving, I popped in to say hi to my friends on my way home. As I walked down the hall to the stage, Frank Marshall came out stopped to say hi and we chatted very briefly even though he didn’t know me from anybody. I went into the stage and Kathleen Kennedy was lying across the couch in the back of the room, in charge of the stage, but very calm and relaxed and just enjoying the process. These are two of the biggest A-List producers on the planet and they were both just pleasant, nice people! If I could work on every film they produced, I would!
One other story I’d like to share also revolves around Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers who supervised “Seabiscuit”.The first film I worked on for them was “Blackhawk Down”. Peter Staubli, Solange Schwalbe, and I started on the film the same day and the three of us were watching the film together to get acquainted with the material. Solange was working on foley, Peter was working on vehicles and misc. effects, and I was Gun Guy #2 cutting behind Jon Title, Gun Guy #1. We start off and it’s not too bad. “Hey, Solange, there’s a little bit of foley here but not too serious”. We get a little further into it. “Wow, Peter. there’s a fair amount of humvee stuff here. Good luck”. We keep watching. the guns are RELENTLESS! at this point, I’m really beginning to rethink the whole Gun Guy thing. Neither Peter nor Solange have any words of encouragement for me. They’re just looking at me like I’m toast! Thankfully, because this was a team environment, I got through it with some unexpected but appreciated help from Jon. That was starting point in my year of cutting guns & bullets: “Windtalkers”, “Blackhawk Down”, “We Were Soldiers”, “The Last Samurai”, and “Gods & Generals”. That’s a big gun year!
DS: What would be the best advice you give to a sound designer? (both experienced and young)
BT: I think the best advice I could offer is just keep playing with stuff. You just never know where inspiration will come from. Sometimes it’s starting with the right effect and augmenting it. Sometimes it’s going way out in left field like a big game hunter and bringing the sound back with you. It’s all fair game. And nobody really knows what a spaceship sounds like so go for it! Maybe computers DO sound like rain on pavement.
DS: Do you have a favorite genre to work with? Also, what are your favorite sounds to design and why?
BT: As a freelance editor, I pretty much get handed assignments so it’s not usually up to me to decide what I want to work on. I think, though, some of the more interesting challenges for me are horror scenes. I don’t mean slasher, cut ’em up with a chainsaw type films but suspense sequences in which you may not really see much of anything at all but there’s a lot of tension affecting the characters. There was a scene in “Fringe” which takes place in a parking garage and Anna Torv’s character, Olivia, has hyper-sensitive hearing. She starts to hear things from distant points in the garage or maybe just from inside her mind and she starts to panic. You don’t actually see anything out of the ordinary, but elements like reverby starting cars and strange voices, along with somewhat musical stingers help to put her on edge. Creating tension like that is difficult to do elegantly, unless you’re Harry Cohen who does everything elegantly, but very rewarding if you can get it right.
DS: What are your favorite tools to work with?
BT: I cut with Protools version 7.4 on a mac. I’ve cut with Protools 8.oh-something but don’t really like it as well as 7.4. Being a tumbleweed, I kind of gave up carrying gear around with me so I pretty much stay within the protools/ plugins world as opposed to having any sort of outboard gear. You never know how a room will be configured in terms of adding rack mounted harmonizers or reverbs these days. With the typically available plugins like Waves, GRM tools, Altiverb or TL Space I can get most of what I need.
I actually prefer to do more layering of sounds than heavy duty processing anyway. Warner Brothers’s library is fairly extensive and they use SoundMiner as a search engine. A downside to being freelance is that the rooms typically are high editor turnover and not equipped with the latest or more obscure plugins so it’s a good survival technique to be able to get a good bit of mileage from what is a pretty standard set. I haven’t done much serious recording in awhile but my trusty old tascam dat recorder still works when I need to get something specific. I know, I’m embarrassing myself here by not having a digital recorder but then again there are still some things best left to a nagra so there you go.
DS: What’s next for Bruce Tanis? What would you like to do in the future?
BT: I’m currently working on “Yogi Bear” at Warner Brothers which has a release date in December. It’s a live action-CGI mix with Yogi & BooBoo being animated and everything in the park being live action or background plates. Animation is always fun to work on and it’s nice to be on a child friendly show. Shooting things is fun but you can only do just so much of that. No offense Charles! As for the future, I’ve been editing for twenty years now so I think it’s probably time to supervise something. Or maybe I’ll leave that for when I grow up!