Sunday, December 16, 2007

Tom Curley asks "Would you pay for a great production sound crew?"

Tom Curley, a friend and fine production sound mixer in Hollywood recently asked some fellow film folks this question...

"Would you pay for a great production sound crew? Why or why not?"

Because I think this is a important issue and indicative of a larger cultural malaise, I thought I'd post his query here, add my reply and ask for your opinion.

Tom continues...
"This lament is not directed at any one person or company, but more of an observation of a trend...

"I am a professional location sound engineer who has years of experience, on films up to $70Million budget. I make my living doing this, and have spent [a LOT of money] on gear. I find it bewildering that a lot of production companies I run into are hemorrhaging money on the camera crew (A loader for an HD camera?) but offer me insultingly low rates, with equipment rental, and no boom operator. I might be looking at the wrong production companies, so if you know the value of a good sound crew, or the horrors of a poor sound crew, please let me know your experience?"

Here's my reply...
I most certainly would pay for a quality sound crew. I feel for sound guys! I have seen what you describe in practice as well. I've seen sound crews understaffed, run over, pushed around and left completely out of the loop even while shooting. "We'll fix it post" is something often heard by VFX Supervisors. Now, it seems the same is being directed at the Sound Mixer. I suppose when Producers and Directors hear films like Fellowship of the Ring were 98% ADR, they think they can do it as well. They don't consider the time and money involved in doing ADR nor the quality of the actor needed to at least come close to the moment all over again in a voice over. If you're not being forced in some way (like making a trilogy of three-hour films simultaneously) I don't see why this method would be preferable. Like VFX, many practicals can be faster to build, look better and are much cheaper than CG. Why not dab a little makeup on an actor's pimple in a few seconds instead of having a VFX Artist spend hours painting it out? For sound, why spend weeks fixing and re-recording when all the actors were right there on set? I'm a director who loves sound. I also like to get everything I can while in production. It just makes sense for the time and money and it's not difficult to include the sound department in the process. That process is of course the traditional process that I learned, not the contemporary process now taking hold. The rush of and for technology is widely to blame. Most leaders are informed by the hype around tech, but they lack knowledge to implement it properly. Additionally, when they defer such decisions to their "experts" many times those "experts" aren't informed about film practices. For instance, filmmakers who have been brought up on video have a simplified view of the process that does not match the nuance of true, budgeted feature production. To many of them, the sound department is a boom operator who plugs into the camera. This techno-phage of oversimplification is affecting every creative endeavor from advertising to web design. Many people are so worried about getting or keeping a job that they extend themselves beyond their knowledge and over-commit themselves instead of saying they don't know and need to ask someone who does. Worse than that perhaps are the people who simply refuse to believe or listen to more knowledgeable people. This is a serious problem especially when that person is a producer, director, CEO, CTO, manager etc-- the people who make the decisions. And they can get incredulous, mean and insulting about it; probably out of fear of looking they don't know something. That sounds backwards to me; I highly value of experts like yourself because I don't know much, let alone everything! This is a problem facing whole industries and if it's not fixed, I don't know what will happen. This idea that "a monkey could do it" could mean the fall of our economy and our culture entirely.

So, we've done a lot to define the situation and possible causes. What about a solution to this problem? I don't know. If a leader was unwilling to listen, I surmised they wouldn't be a leader for long, but I guess I overestimate the system and underestimate the abilities of these people to talk/convince/cajole/lie. I do hear some older film pros talk about bringing tradition back, but many are not in a position to make that happen (or they film overseas.) I guess we just have to continue whispering into the ears of those who will listen while we try to keep our standards as high as we can and still make enough money to get by. I still consider the sound dept a crucial part of a production. As I'm sure you know, the human ear can pick out audio mistakes far more readily than visual ones. Even with filmmakers like Lucas, Spielberg and Jackson who have proven time and time again how much sound is a part of the movie experience, many people ignore it. And the funny thing is we spend thousands on home surround sound systems! I guess they don't remember their Grandpa always saying "Garbage in, garbage out."

Thanks for asking, Tom! So what about you all out there...?

1 comment:

curleysound said...

Thanks for the kind words. I have one short thing to add. LOTR might have had extensive ADR, but that is not for lack of a very accomplished sound team lead by Hammond Peek, who has a career spanning over 25 years. The decision to use ADR is not indicative of poor sound, and is used for many other reasons, including script changes.