I was recently asked to give a guest lecture on sound design. This caused me to ask myself if I could impart just a few kernels of advice about our world of sound design, what would I say? After much consideration, I realized that the whole process boiled down to one key moment: the sound spotting session.
The spot is the moment which decides whether the project will culminate in a final product that surprises and delights or ultimately disappoints.
Whenever a new pilot, episode, or series comes in, the first thing that I do is meet with the creator, director, and/or executive producer to "spot" the material. This means that we watch it together and discuss what they would like the sound to be both generally and at specific moments.
After being at the helm of these spotting sessions for ten years, I can honestly say that the spot is the moment which decides whether the project will culminate in a final product that surprises and delights or ultimately disappoints.
So, I have put together my five keys to a successful sound spot to help make sure yours always end with the former. They are:
1. Always start by asking the creator personal questions about him/herself, the genesis of the project, and how the idea was formed.
First of all, this is just good manners. Whether you're working on a pilot and meeting the creator for the first time or this is your weekly spotting session for an ongoing series, the sound spot should be a pleasant experience for everyone involved. Furthermore, knowing a little bit about the person whose ideas molded the creative direction for the project is imperative. Does he have a whimsical sense of humor? Is she a serious lover of art films? These are important clues as to how you should proceed.
A few years ago, I worked on a pilot with a new client. When I asked him about the genesis of the project, he told me that he had spent his 1970's childhood in a commune in northern California, and this show (which was actually a sci-fi space comedy) was the embodiment of that experience. This immediately led me to understand that the function of the pilot wasn't to explore space, but instead to explore the intricacies of familial relationships which sometimes happen with people outside a traditional family structure. I knew that he would want things to be a little gritty and rugged-sounding and that it should sound like a child of the 1970's idea of the future rather than our current one. That meant big rocket thrusters and old-school Star Trek-inspired telemetry beeps in the control room.
It's amazing how much information you can glean from a discussion that has not yet even delved into sound.
2. Ask the top creative decision maker to describe how he or she envisions the overall sound of this project.
At this point, you need to begin to ask sound-related questions. My favorites being, "What are you hoping to achieve with the sound?" or "What words would you use to describe the sound?" You want to be able to mold an overall concept from this information, but keep in mind that creators specialize in the visual and sometimes technical aspects of content creation. They're not necessarily equipped with the vocabulary necessary to talk about sound in the way that you would with your colleagues. That's why it's good to ask general questions with a specific slant such as the ones above. Sometimes I go as far as to ask, "How can I help develop these characters with their sounds?" These kinds of questions speak to a creator's strong suit of story development and overall aesthetic choices.
While spotting another pilot a few years ago, I asked this question and got an amazing answer. The pilot was also a sci-fi space concept centered around a family's futuristic adventures, but when I asked them to describe what they were hoping to achieve with the sound, the creator responded, "I want it to sound the way an iPhone looks."
Are you rolling your eyes? Well, roll them right back to where they belong, because this was an amazing nugget of information wrapped up in a stupendously succinct statement. How would you describe the way an iPhone looks, especially how it looked to all of us when it was first released: futuristic, rounded, sleek, simple, unadorned. I especially thought about how the white iPhone changed everyone's perspective on what looked "high tech." Previous to that, all new tech was black. Apple managed to make something light and airy and fun that also screamed PHONE OF THE FUTURE without looking so serious! So, when I designed their hover board, I created a new pulsating synth steady. Nothing had a rocket thruster, even the giant space ships, because I imagined that they were all operating with green technology that is yet undiscovered in our time. The sounds were simple, understated, and clean. They were rounded and a little playful. There was no grit, no distortion, and certainly no throw backs to the 1970's. They loved it.
3. Take copious notes with TIME-CODES.
The note-taking process seems like it should be the most intuitive part. But, over the years, I have learned that taking good notes is not necessarily in every editor's wheelhouse. So, here are a few specific pointers:
- Take notes during the previous two sections, and keep those at the top of your notes. Mark them as general, and refer back to them often to help you mold your overall concept.
- You do not need to write down things that are not sound-related or are obvious from watching the playback. When a character opens a door, you do not need to write down "door open," or when the camera angle changes and we are now outside a house, you do not need to write down "exterior of house." Doing so is simply busy work and is no help to anyone. You should be taking notes on the sound, not transcribing the screenplay.
- For all notes taken during the playback, include a time-code. I'll say it again, WRITE DOWN THE TIME-CODE. Even if you think that you can remember, you never know when you'll be under a tight deadline and need to ask another editor to help out. He or she will need the time-codes in order to know what the notes are referring to. Sometimes I spot a show, work on several others episodes, and then return back only to have a very vague memory of the spotting session. Those time-codes are key even for me.
- Take the time to write everything down, even if you feel slow. You will get faster with time, but the important thing is to record all of the information given to you. That's why you're there! You are only wasting the clients' time if you don't write down what they're telling you.
4. Don't be afraid to stop the playback to ask specific questions.
Always ask questions. Maybe there are visual effects missing, and you're wondering what they will look like. Maybe you want to know if a super hero's powers are conceived to be made from ice or electricity. Or, maybe you are just wondering how busy they want the neighborhood to sound. I've never regretted asking too many questions. I have often regretted not having asked enough.
5. Chime in with plenty of ideas throughout.
Often rather than asking a question, I'll instead offer a few ideas. "Would you like this train to sound like an old clackety rail line, or a high speed maglev?" or "I could put reversed whispers in the background of this dream sequence to tie in with the idea that the characters are being stifled by their own secrets. How does that sound?"
These sorts of ideas not only show that you're paying attention, but they also position you as a contributing member of the creative team. You always want to add something to the project--that's why they hired a sound professional rather than doing it themselves! Show that you were listening when they told you about their concept and creative intentions by suggesting ideas the tie in.
BONUS TIP: Have fun!
I have to say that my spotting sessions are always the highlight of my week. I get to catch up with my clients and hear about their weekends, their family milestones, and what new exciting creative adventures they have on the horizon. Don't get too caught up in the note-taking process that you forget to have a good time. Sometimes the most important thing you can gain from the spot is a new friendship.
QUESTION: What is the best note you've ever received at a spotting session?