Sound design is a fascinating business in that it is the perfect intersection between creativity and diligent task management. We must create new and interesting sounds and bring an intriguing creative perspective to our work, but we also often need to accomplish an incredible amount of substantive work each day. At Boom Box Post, we specialize in sound design for animation, and our workload is often immense. Every new episode can include vehicles, locations, and occurrences which would be cost-prohibitive in live-action (such as extended hovercraft chase scenes, alien marketplaces, or planet-sized robots wreaking havoc on other worlds), and that means our work is truly cut out for us. Animation is a creative playground, but it’s also a time-management nightmare.
In my past studio experiences, I often felt that I didn’t have time to be truly creative. I always did my best to make something that I could be proud of in the end. But, I often wasn't entirely happy with how I got there. Learning new plug-ins, trying new software synths, incorporating a new piece of tech into my workflow, and recording custom materials often fell by the time-clock wayside. In those situations, finishing my work on time was the only true meter of success from management's perspective, and finding time to be creative was my own conundrum to work out.
When my business partner, Jeff Shiffman, and I first conceived of Boom Box Post, we had one main goal: to integrate creativity into our overall business approach. We’ve seen other “creative” workspaces that have ping pong tables, communal lounge areas, and even designated nap rooms. But none of those things help with the question of being creative under time constraints. If anything, spending your time playing ping pong to “loosen up ideas” has the opposite effect. You may come up with something new, but then you also may be too behind on your workload to actually implement it.
Here are the five steps we took to create an environment conducive to allowing our editors to be creative in a time crunch:
Step 1: Create a Communal Culture
When I began my career over ten years ago, the prevailing culture was that each editor was an island. Each had his own library, his own methodology, and there was very little interaction with other editors unless you were sharing an episode. Even then, that interaction mostly focused on the simple exchange of time-codes. We did not watch each other’s work, everyone was intensely critical of new hires, and no one ever shared their secrets--whether that meant their go-to library sounds or how to use a plug-in. We even ate lunch alone in our cars. This kept everyone cut-throat competitive as well as fairly stagnant in their abilities and tools once they had settled into their job.
Jeff and I had a different idea of how a studio should be run. There is a famous poem by John Donne that perfectly sums up this idea:
No Man is an Island
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
We wanted to have Donne’s attitude, to make a communal space where it was understood that one person's strengths belonged to all of us, and one person's weaknesses as well. We wanted to cut out the newb-shaming and acknowledge everyone for their talents and distinctive perspectives. But, before we could even begin to ask everyone to bring that attitude to the technical aspects of their work, we had to create an general environment that allowed for it.
So, we started with lunch. Each day, we invited everyone to eat lunch with us whether at the local cafe or our communal patio table. The first few times, there were some awkward silences and shallow small talk. But after we got comfortable with each other, everyone relaxed and it started to be the bright spot in everyone’s day--a chance to stop thinking about work and spend some time socializing with good friends. It also paved the way for everyone to get comfortable being open and vulnerable with their coworkers. After all, if you can laugh hysterically about a Youtube video of a screamo band with a parrot as the lead singer, then you can definitely feel comfortable sharing your ideas on how to use elastic audio.
Recently, we’ve added Slack to our arsenal of ways to promote a fun communal environment. It lets us drag and drop audio files to each other in moments flat, share hilarious gifs for a stress-reducing belly laugh, and give kudos to members of our team where all their peers can see. To read more about our use of Slack, check out Jeff’s blog post about it.
Step 2: Encourage Learning and Teaching
After everyone got comfortable with each other, Jeff and I wanted to push things one step further and get our team on board with the idea of Boom Box as a “teaching studio.” We’ve all been trained by a more seasoned team member. But, we wanted to create an environment where everyone was comfortable being both the teacher and the student regardless of their rank within the company.
In tech-based fields such as ours, the tools are always changing, and we didn’t want to bog people down with the challenge of always having to keep up 100% on their own. Instead, we knew that our ability to meet new challenges head-on with the latest approaches and tools would increase exponentially if each of us shared our insights with the entire team.
This approach had two main pillars for us: company-wide Lunch n Learn meetings and an intensive team-lead internship curriculum. We schedule one Lunch n Learn meeting per month in which we buy everyone food and give them the latest news about the company. We give accolades for jobs well done, introduce new team members, and get everyone excited about upcoming projects. Then, we have one person give an audio masterclass on a topic of their choosing. They can teach us anything in which they consider themselves to be an expert. At first everyone claimed that they didn’t have anything to contribute. But, Jeff and I suggested topics in which we would consider them to be experts, and quickly everyone gained the confidence to be an authority amongst their peers. Jeff and I often suggest topics that we ourselves wanted to learn more about so that the team can see us as students in our own company. We wanted everyone to come to work every day feeling that they are a valuable team member who adds a unique perspective and skill set to our company arsenal.
Second, we implemented an intensive internship curriculum. Each week, our interns are taught a different part of our workflow by one of our editors. They receive a one-on-one lesson in the skill, then spot a mini project, work on it alone, and return to the same editor for notes. This gives our editors confidence in what they’re doing and the satisfaction of being seen as an expert. It also allows our interns to get individualized advice on how best to approach each part of our trade.
Together, these things help all of our editors to see themselves and their peers as creative assets, not competitors. There are so many payoffs to nurturing this attitude: peer-to-peer accolades, up-to-the-moment gear training, and always having someone (or many people) to whom you can turn when you have a questions without feeling like you’re admitting inferiority. We all have a lot to learn each and every day, and we do it together.
Step 3: Share Our Library
Before working at Boom Box Post, Jeff and I used the common practice of keeping our libraries entirely to ourselves. I had access a shared library that my workplace had purchased as well as anything I had purchased for myself. But beyond that, there was no exchange of ideas or sounds. If one of us made something cool, we would hold onto it as a secret weapon for later use. It was thought that our libraries were what made each of us unique.
But Jeff and I believe that our talent is what makes each of us unique and sharing our sounds is the best jumping off point for a group discussion of our latest creative endeavors. So, we have created a culture where were are continually bouncing down new design elements and recordings and sharing them with our team. And we expect the same in return. This has exponentially expanded all of our libraries and led to many creative learning experiences. Think about it: if you never hear the amazing things your fellow editors are making, you never have the opportunity to give them accolades and find out what new techniques they are using. We openly share our sounds and our techniques and believe that it makes us all better editors.
Step 4: Incorporate Recording
Recording sounds can be the bedrock of a distinctive palette in sound design. Unfortunately, it is often the first thing to fall by the wayside in a time crunch. Why record new underwater vehicle bys when you already have some in your library? Well, here are a number of reasons: you might discover a completely new underwater sound, you might get an amazing new texture that you can use for an application other than “underwater,” and you might reignite the passion that you brought to your job in the first place. All of those were true when I used a contact microphone to record in my bathtub, and you can read all about it in my Underwater Recording Adventure blog post.
Step 5: Diversify Our Team
In Frans Johansson’s book, The Medici Effect, he proposes that there is a point called the “intersection” where different disciplines, backgrounds, and knowledge-bases come together. This is the point where new ideas are made. He explains that when you “step into an intersection of fields, disciplines or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary ideas."
This is an important idea in the business of sound because we have long been a very homogenous group. In the past, studios have been largely filled with white men, often of middle age with a few “young guns” mixed in for good measure. There are many reasons why this was the trend in the past, but with women and people of color pursuing professions in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas at a rising rate, the candidate pool of qualified and enthusiastic sound professions has diversified greatly. But, inviting this newer, more diverse group into the workforce has been a slow slog. There are always these questions: will someone different make the team uncomfortable? Will they stifle creativity by creating an overly PC environment? Will they lack the skills necessary to be meaningful contributors?
The answer to all of those questions is a resounding no. Jeff and I can speak from experience when we say that a diverse body of employees in any creative field has immense benefits. As Johansson has proposed, when you bring a group of people with all different perspectives, areas of interest, and fields of expertise together, creative magic happens. While we see this happening every day in the casual conversations and the technical work at Boom Box Post, it can best be illustrated by taking a closer look at our blog.
When we began the company, it was just Jeff and me. We would take turns writing posts for our weekly blog. But, soon it became obvious that although we had plenty to say about our daily creative travails and general musings about sound, we could use some new perspectives. We had worked together for the past ten years on the same materials and in the same situations. We needed some variety.
As we added new team members, we slowly began to have them contribute to the blog as well, and we were very pleasantly surprised by how interesting and varied the content became. Our dialogue editor reviewed essential voice-over recording gear on a budget, one of our effects editors put together a field recording guide, and another of our effects editors wrote about how to use psychoacoustic theory to make mobile apps sound like they have a ton of bass. These are all topics that Jeff and I would never have considered writing, and frankly weren’t qualified to write. Harkening back to step two, this helped us to see all of our team members as vital sources of new information as well as new trainees. And not only did it make our blog better, but letting everyone write about any topic that interested them uncovered so many areas of expertise that we didn't know about in our own people. This meant that when any one of us has a design challenge arise in our daily workflow, we have an arsenal of people with incredibly diverse expertise on whom we can call to start a creative spitballing session.
Putting it All Together
So, how do all of these things come together to give everyone the ability to be creative in a time crunch? That’s easy. By intentionally weaving these practices of a communal and creative workplace into the fabric of our culture, we have allowed everyone free access to each other’s talents and expertise. Now we don’t need to set aside special time out of our day to do things that get the creative juices flowing. Instead, creativity has ample space to thrive in our everyday workflow.