I went to an incredibly entertaining show last night at the North Carolina Museum of Art. And yes, it was technically a puppet show. But this was no ordinary puppet show. This troupe presented a mastery of techniques in a presentation that made children coo and adults gasp in awe. They’re going at it again tonight, so if you can, you should go see them (or if they come to your town).
They employed a mix of delightful costumes, giant cutouts operated with long sticks, lights and sound, flowing silk banners and a giant face hoisted up on a flagpole whilst a being of light danced into the audience. Words cannot describe how wonderful this show was. But I have to warn you in advance, the hardcore conservatives seemed a bit uncomfortable (a few families even got up and walked out). There was a thread weaved throughout the performance about the magnificent diversity of life on the planets, how it had adapted and evolved to survive, and how we need to work together to preserve the earth (now there’s a really subversive message if ever I heard one).
The MC was a person dressed in a tuxedo and wearing an oversized head resembling Charles Darwin. Various cutout puppets were paraded onto the stage from single cell organisms to various forms of sea life and then (gasp) a fish walked. And then dinosaurs and finally plethora of people dressed as cats, goats, pigs, monkeys and chickens came on stage to sing and play musical instruments (this had everyone on their feet). Since words really can’t do it justice, but I really wanted to encourage people to catch this act if you get a chance wither here in Raleigh or when they go on tour. See the brief excerpt from the finale I caught on my iPhone below:
As for the the musical accompaniment, the local musical ensemble Lost in the Trees composed original music just for this show and the music was tight and just beautiful. Ensemble leader Ari Picker (himself a veritable musical genius) has put together a group of extremely talented and well-trained musicians whose performances evoke feelings and images of amazing intensity (these guys should be scoring films). The musical vocalizations of Emma Nadeau were ethereal.
As for the Chang Scale rating: I give this one a solid 5. See it if you can. Drive an hour if you have to.
BC September 14, 2013
The Director’s Guide to Sound Part 3: Why it’s hard to find a good production sound mixer (who’ll work for food and credit)
Smalltime indie filmmakers seem to have less trouble finding a Director of Photography (DP) who will work without pay than a production sound mixer. If you think about this purely from an economic standpoint, then considering the DP probably has invested two-to-three times as much in his equipment, it makes one wonder why this is so. Naturally, I have a few thoughts.
Economics aside, DP’s are the rock stars of the crew (after the director at least). The actors and other crew members look on them and their SUV’s full of exotic gear with reverence and awe. Cinematography is high art. Audio is engineering. Everyone wants to be a DP. It’s the sexiest crew position. They meet with the director and producer in the preproduction planning of shots over lattes, and then they meet after the shoot to review the raw footage—while the sound guy is home testing his cables and adapters.
As for the finished product? People notice great imagery captured on perfectly lit sets. And all those exotic camera moves: the dolly shots, the jib shots, the steadicam shots, pushing in and pulling out, rack focus… Most everyone walks away from a movie thinking about how beautifully shot it was. On the other hand, aside from having a great music score, people usually only notice the sound if it was terrible. Frankly, being the DP for a movie shoot is a high honor and privilege. Being the sound mixer is—well a job.
Production sound mixers in the indie world are a rather mixed breed. On the one hand, you have those knowledgeable, experienced and well-equipped mixers who actually find decent paid gigs now and then. A serious sound mixer probably owns a formidable arsenal of audio equipment including a timecode-enabled multitrack recorder, plus a field mixer, maybe a backup stereo recorder, at least three boom microphones: a long shotgun for outdoor distance work, a short shotgun for close-up outside work, and a hypercardoid for inside work, plus maybe three or more wireless body mikes. Then there are the accouterments like sound blankets, stands, memory cards, shock mounts, cables and adapters, good headphones, and scads of other bits of gear to aid in getting the location sound recorded. All told, even a small-market indie sound mixer might have invested between five and thousand dollars in his gear bag.
And on the other hand, there are those eager newbies just starting out, with maybe a single economy shotgun microphone and a cheap stereo pocket recorder and a boom pole in their gear arsenal. They’re hoping with enough unpaid gigs that they can start building credentials, acquiring more gear, and eventually start getting paid gigs and maybe just make it into a career. These are the guys who will gladly work for food and credit on almost any production—even with the cheesiest screenplay and the most pretentious director. But they might not get you that pristine dialogue you’re hoping for though. In fact, you might find out after the shoot that all the dialogue needs to be dubbed in post, perhaps because there was just too much noise and hiss in the recordings, or maybe some dreaded echoes from using the wrong microphone for the situation. It’s like hiring a guy with a $150 Handicam whose credits include a bunch of funny/silly home movies published on YouTube and shooting his sister’s wedding, to be your DP and hoping for good results.
Everyone who invests thousands of dollars of their savings into an equipment arsenal plans and expects to pay it all off eventually, and once they’ve built up enough creds, they deserve to do so. So they can begin to pick and choose which projects they will work on pro-bono, and which ones they expect to be paid for. The sound guys I know who will sometimes work for free, typically tell me there are several things they look for before giving up a free weekend (or three) to work on someone else’s production.
- It’s for a good cause. Everyone has an altruistic streak in them, including the guys with big equipment investments. If some filmmaker is trying to create a film to bring awareness to something like child abuse, bullying, poverty, discrimination, corporate greed, and so forth, even people who normally would expect to be paid for their time and equipment usage, might line up for a good cause pro-bono.
- They have to know or at least have heard good things about the director. Face it, nobody likes to work for an asshole—not in the nine-to-five world in which most small-market cast and crew live and breathe during the week, and not during their weekends and evenings. Directors who take advantage of the kindness and generosity of the people who are willing to kick in their services for free, soon enough find that nobody with any skill is going to want to sign on to work for them.
- They have seen the script and feel it is a good one. Usually (though not always), the prospective sound mixer as well as prospective DP, want to know something about the production in advance. As director, you have to do a little pitch of your concept. Nobody wants to waste their time on a poorly scripted, ill-laid out film project. If any senior crew asks to see the script before deciding, think of it along the same lines as if some studio exec was interested in financing you and asked you to present to them enough information to make a decision. If a DP or sound guy are willing to work for you for free, then they are in fact making an implicit investment in you. Everyone who pours their heart and soul into a production, wants to believe it is going to be a good one, and maybe, just maybe one that will get recognized at a festival (or get a zillion hits on YouTube)
- The cast and crew on board so far are good. Just as nobody wants to work for an asshole, no one really wants to work side-by-side with lots of other assholes either. On the sets I’ve been on, the cast and crew tend to reflect the director to an extent, ergo, a skilled and affable crew don’t usually gravitate onto sets overseen by unpleasant and/or incompetent directors. So don’t be surprised if a prospective sound guy asks who else is already on board.
- It seems like it should be fun. This one applies to everyone on the cast and crew really. Twelve-hour days can grind anyone down. Many of the people you meet on set work at a day job to feed and clothe a family perhaps, and then work on filmmaking on weekends and evenings to fulfill their artistic passions and maybe find an opportunity to switch careers if things go well. If the shoot can be broken down into a few more shorter days, then make it so. If an expensive location has been secured for an entire Sunday from dawn till dusk, then the director and or producer needs to find ways (within the budget) to keep stress levels down and make things pleasant and even fun.
Craft services is one of those make or break niceties for the cast and crew that should not be overlooked. It is often in fact the biggest part of the budget. When people say they’ll work for food and credit, the quality of the craft services table is one of those things they’re talking about. One of my peeves is the pizza and soda for every single meal thing. Yes it’s cheap and easy, but after a while it just becomes a part of the grind, rather than a break from it. There are other cheap and quick ways to do meal breaks. And beyond bottles of water and bags of chips, you make things like tissues, aspirin, antacids, granola bars, caffeinated and un-caffeinated drinks, and other comfort things available. And where’s the frakking coffee? Most everyone likes to have a decent cup of hot coffee on set now and then. You’ll end up sending a production assistant out during the shoot anyway, so just plan on it. Have a big pump thermos or two of coffee available at all times! One thing that irks me is getting the munchies after lunch, and looking over at the table and seeing a couple of bottles of water and maybe one little bag of Fritos left over. You’re better off buying too much stuff and taking it home for your family, than having a poorly-stocked table. Trust me on this one.
Don’t skimp on taking good care of people who are actually saving you loads of money by NOT charging you. Some filmmakers provide little mementos of the shoot like keychains or tee-shirts to the people who slaved away for several days. Others invite the cast and crew to a pre-screening. This is a really nice touch. Whatever you do as a filmmaker, do not take lightly your implicit obligation to make the cast and crew as comfortable and happy as is in your power.
* * *
So to the question of how to attract a knowledgeable and skilled sound mixer with good quality equipment without paying him? Beyond the prerequisites: known/good director, quality screenplay, good bunch of folks also on board, etc. Here are a few thoughts gleaned from sound mixer acquaintances that filmmakers should pay attention to:
- Treat the sound mixer with the same respect as the DP. Treat him or her as a valued senior crew lead. Don’t treat him as you would the production assistants who move things around and fetch food and drinks. Don’t just send him or her a crew call sheet saying to show up at 7:30 a.m. for a twelve-hour day broken up only by a break for pizza and soda. Invite him to the preproduction shot planning meetings out of courtesy (or at least send him the shot plan so he can study them and prepare). Ditto if he asks you for an advance copy of the script. You shouldn’t even wait for him to ask for these, since it is in your best interest not to wait until just before calling “action” to have to tell him what the setup is: the lines, the blocking, that this is a dolly shot and the actor is walking left to right and whispering and then shouting. A good sound guy is going to ask for all this info in advance anyway, so if he doesn’t, he might not have all that much experience after all. Invite him to view the dailies if you show them to the producer and DP. Assessing if the production sound is good is just as important as the picture. Introduce him, along with your senior production people at festivals, if you get that far.
- Talk to him. Pay attention. When he shows up, go over and say hello and talk about what’s going on and where you need him. Let him know that just as the DP is the head of the production picture department, the mixer is the head of production sound. Don’t make him feel like a commodity. Unless you are behind schedule and very much need to deal with a crisis, at least take a few minutes to make the sound guy feel like an important senior member of the crew. Know that there are sound issues just as their are picture issues. While you’re asking the DP how stray light coming through a window might affect an interior shot next to that window, ask the sound mixer if any exterior sounds (distant dog barking, large air-conditioning unit, traffic, etc) will either. The dialogue can be dubbed in later if the shot is really needed, but the location sound is compromised. Ask the sound guy his opinion.
- Have a boom operator at his disposal. Mixing production sound requires a lot of focus on selecting the right microphones, placing them well, and then monitoring levels while the recording is in progress. Expecting the sound mixer to also hold the microphone boom pole really detracts from his other responsibilities and it shows. You cannot perform either task well if you have to perform both tasks. Those behind-the-scenes photos you see of an all-in-one sound man holding a boom and with the recorder in a bag over his shoulder are typical signs of an ultra-small crew production. Unless you’re doing a documentary or a guerrilla shoot, and intentionally need a very small crew, don’t take chances on this. Trust me again on this one: if he looks down to check his levels, his aim with the microphone may drift. And if he has to adjust a level, he needs to hold the boom with one hand. And if he doesn’t pay attention to the levels, then he might get some things recorded too hot (clipped out) and others beneath the noise floor. One more time: it is a risk to have one guy do both. And don’t just offer up a totally inexperienced and unmotivated production assistant merely because he or she is unoccupied at the time. If the sound mixer wasn’t able to bring his own boom operator, then find someone who really wants to operate the boom and learn more about production sound. There’s nothing worse on set audio-wise than having a first-time boom operator who would rather be on the camera crew, who doesn’t pay attention, and lets the boom mic drift away from the speaking actor’s mouth and face toward the wall (or worse).
- Offer him leading credits.The leading credits are where the important people go. Even the costume designers and production designers who invest little or nothing out-of-pocket, and don’t really have any more hard-earned skill than sound mixers, get leading credit. In a Hollywood movie, with the hierarchy and all, the production mixer gets lumped in on the final credit roll with the rest of the sound guys (and there are a lot of them). But in your little indie flick, you could just put “Sound………JOE BLOW” on the same page as the Costume Designer and Set Decorator. If you don’t want to put it in the leading credits, give him a static page by himself early in the trailing credits. Hey, he’s working for credit only after all, so try to give him better than you do to the production assistants who go out for the pizza. He wants to have his name recognition for the next prospective filmmaker looking for a sound guy.
Word gets around about various filmmakers and how they treat the crew. Directors who treat unpaid crew like day laborers eventually get a reputation, and find not many experienced and skilled crew willing to work for long unpaid hours for a person that doesn’t seem to care about anyone else. Realize that other than a run-and-gun or documentary, you really can’t make a film without a number of crew members. And you really cannot make a great indie film without having both a top-flite cinematographer and sound recordist on the team.
Consider this: a Hollywood sound mixer makes about $325 a day and then charges you rental on his equipment. This is likely to add up to around $500 per day to hire a sound mixer and his gear. An experienced Hollywood boom operator makes about $250 a day. If they opt to work for you without pay, these guys are literally saving you thousands of dollars for a short, and many thousands of dollars for a feature (even at a much lower non-Hollywood scale rate). Don’t take them for granted. Make them feel important. Don’t forget the little things like respect, politeness, a please and a thank you here and there. It goes a long way. If you take them for granted, then for your next production, you might just find yourself accepting that inexperienced newbie with his Radio Shack pocket recorder and $99 microphone and untrained ear, and wind up with dialogue that sounds like it was recorded over a telephone.
So after my recent letdown at a Dave Mathews Band concert where ten musicians on stage all bled together into a sonic stew, I was curious about Eric Clapton, since I had tickets for the April 3 Clapton concert in Raleigh, and I knew he would have a fairly large band on stage.
Clapton pulled it off right! First of all, despite Eric himself looking like a tenured English Lit professor, the man can still rock. He has lost nothing. I vaguely remember him from a front-row seat at a performance in Knoxville, Tennessee back in the early seventies. In the nearly forty years since I first saw him play on stage, he has become more well-rounded. His acoustic set was beautiful, especially Wonderful Tonight, but also Layla and Tears in Heaven. His tonal expressiveness on his signature Martin 000-28 acoustic guitar was impressive, and his vocals (the acid test of time for a musician) were still right on.
But when he got to the electric part of the performance, his nine-piece all-star band really pulled it together. Eric’s guitar virtuosity has just gotten better and better. His command of the fretboard both slow and fast was impressive. He even played slide on one tune (first time I’ve seen him do that). He is truly deserving of the accolades and the positioning at or near the top of nearly everyone’s top ten guitarists of all time list.
Doyle Bramhall II played aside Eric, and Doyle is no slouch either. Doyle is well-known among blues and blues-rock aficionados. His dad played with Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Doyle has played with Roger Waters’ band, and now has been touring with Clapton for while. He didn’t just stick to laying down a rhythmic backdrop for the master to play against. Doyle himself stepped out and proved he is a great guitarist as well. He too commanded wondrous tones and scintillating riffs. I was amazed when I noticed him playing his left-handed Stratocaster with it strung upside down (fatter/lower strings on the bottom) as he bent high notes down. I’d only seen him play before on the 2010 Crossroads DVD. He lived up to expectations.
Then there’s Willie Weeks on bass. I had remembered Willie’s impressive bass on a performance of Rocky Mountain Way from the Joe Walsh Live album. At the Clapton concert, Willie was animated and energetic and put himself on my personal top ten bassists list.
Chris Stainton on has had quite a lengthy career on keyboards, having had prior collaborations with Clapton, as well as Steve Winwood, George Harrison, Roger Waters, Joe Cocker…(he played piano on the Who album Quadraphenia). He got a huge ovation for one of his solos with Clapton.
Then there’s Paul Carrack on organ. Carrack also has had a storied career with the likes of Roger Waters, The Eagles, Elton John, and B.B. King. Paul sang beautiful lead vocals on Tempted, How Long and one of the encore numbers High Time We Went.
Steve Jordan was a maniac on drums. His mix of energy and temporal precision kept the performance moving and grooving (sorry – I had to say that once). Jordan’s cv includes working with Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, and being the drummer for the Saturday Night Live Band back in the seventies.
And as if two guitarists wasn’t enough, there was Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar as well as a lap slide guitar. Leisz has played with the Eagles, Jon Fogerty, Allison Krauss, Joe Cocker, Emmylou Harris, et. al.
Rounding out the band were the duo of female backing vocalists: Michelle John and Sharon White.
Overall, this was a band of accomplished and experienced musicians. So how did they sound playing together? Freaking fantastic. Compared to other megabands I’ve seen in the past, I could hear every single instrument at all times. The PNC Arena is a huge indoor arena, but well-known for having pretty decent acoustics.
The audio engineers and the mixer at the Front-Of-House console were all undoubtedly at the top of their game. But I’m also crediting Clapton himself for being able to come up with a musical arrangement that kept all the sounds from bleeding into a morass of indistinguishable tone, and yet allowing each musician to shine at the right time.
As a devotee of the local music grind scene, how often have you been to a bar or small club and thought that the band had great original material, played and sang well, and had the audience really going, but something was just really off about the sound that really took a lot away from the performance? Maybe you could barely hear the lead guitar (and the keyboards were hurting your eardrums). Or maybe the tone of the vocals was too flat. Maybe the sound was echoing around and blurring into a sonic stew. You may have chalked that experience up to poor room acoustics, or a lousy sound system, or maybe a bad “mix”. Maybe it was a combination of the three? But what does all that really mean?
Truth be told, unless a band is at the national tour level (where a crew of expert audio engineering professionals toils to get the best sound out using top-of-the-line equipment), they are going to have to address sound issues at nearly every gig. They will need to take responsibility not only for creating the sound, but for getting their sound off the stage and to the audience. Smalltime local bands typically face a myriad of challenges doing this. Let’s take a look at some of the main issues involved.
First off, the acoustics might really be bad. Live music venues run the gamut from neighborhood bar or coffee house to arenas, stadiums and gigantic outdoor fields. Sound reinforcement systems for the latter can become enormously complex. They need to deal with many complex issues that smaller club bands don’t have to—such as delaying the mix signal sent to loudspeakers farther from the stage, so that the audience doesn’t hear the sound multiple times: first from the nearest speakers and then from speakers positioned at regular intervals, all the way to the stage speakers. This is because sound waves travel much slower through the air than the electrical signals that represent them do on cables. I’ll touch on some of the more advanced features of larger sound systems, but have no intention of going into intricate detail on how the Rolling Stones’ sound setup works. In this blog, we’ll be looking more at what bands face when performing in smaller venues: like bars, coffee houses, and dance clubs, with the intent that live music aficionados reading this might gain a little more understanding of what local bands face on the grind circuit.
Most clubs that were designed with live music in mind have had at least some thought go into the room acoustics. Places like plain old bars, and converted warehouses and the like, might have been constructed with materials and surfaces that reflect, refract(break up) and/or absorb sounds at various frequencies such that some some of the sounds coming from the stage are a bit dead, while others reflect into uncontrolled echoes.
A club owner who is serious about converting such an establishment to make it suitable for live music, will have ponied up significant dollars for appropriate acoustic treatment. You can sort of tell by glancing around if the venue has been designed with music in mind. If you see a lot of bare hard surfaces (like concrete, glass, hardwoods, ceramic and metal) and things like industrial pipes and ductwork that are not covered with some sort of fabric, then you can probably expect there to be issues with the sound. Nobody is expecting a bar to have acoustic properties on a par with Carnegie Hall, but if having live bands is a staple of a venue, the owners should have invested at least a little in addressing the most blatant acoustic flaws. As a last stopgap, running the final mix through a graphic equalizer can allow the sound engineer to fine tune any offending frequencies.
As for live sound reinforcement systems (PA systems), they come in all sizes and types. And a system could cost anywhere from about just under a thousand dollars for the basics, up to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars (even millions for major arena events). Let’s consider what they need to accomplish by examining the needs of the typical performing band.
There are two types of sounds created by the band: electric and acoustic. The electric sounds are the electric guitars, acoustic-electric guitars (acoustic guitars with pickups installed), electric basses and electronic keyboards. The acoustic sounds are instruments like acoustic guitars, acoustic pianos, horns, strings, drums, and of course vocals.
The electric instruments are typically sent to a collection of amplifiers and speaker cabinets behind the performers known as the “backline”. In a small enough venue, these are usually adequate enough for the electric guitars, basses and electronic keyboards to be heard throughout the bar. The vocals and most of the acoustic instruments will need to be miked and amplified through a PA system. In a small venue, the drums are often loud enough on their own to not require any further amplification.
Some PA systems have more capabilities than others. The most basic operation of the PA system involves having vocal microphones on stands on the stage, plugged into cables that connect to a mixing console located either on the stage or in front of it, where somebody is tasked with mixing the levels and equalizing the tones that then get sent to an amplification system, and finally to the loudspeakers you see on either side of the stage. That’s a simple “vocals-only” PA system in a nutshell.
If the mixing console is in front of the stage (also known as front-of-house or FOH), there is usually a person dedicated to operating it. This person usually (but not always) has an understanding of audio engineering and/or acoustics. A knowledgeable and dedicated sound engineer is like another member of the band in that he or she can really make or break the performance. Bands know to treat the sound engineer with respect and courtesy. Sometimes however (especially in restaurants and small bars) there is no house PA system, and the band needs to bring and operate their own. If you see a little mixing console right on the stage that one or more band members keep going over to and adjusting, and two smallish loudspeakers on tripod stands, then you know this is the case.
If the club is big enough, then the drums and even the backline amplifiers may need a boost to be heard well. In this case, special microphones may be set up over the drums, and in front of the amplifier cabinets and run back to the mixing console. With more inputs into the console comes more control over the overall mix, but it also comes with a cost of more complexity and more expense. If the backline amps are not miked into the console, then each band member is responsible for setting his or her instrument level right on the amplifiers behind them. And that imposes its own set of issues.
In order for the musicians not to get into a competition to see who can play the loudest (not generally good for the performance), they typically rely on a friend (or friendly bartender or even the club owner) to relay to them that something needs adjusting. They just cannot tell from their unique perspective on the stage, what they sound like as a whole to the crowd.
And then there is a little problem with the drummer in that he has no backline amplifier. He can only modulate his loudness by attacking the drums harder or softer. Although drummers in local bands usually know to do this from experience, it means they have to impact their performances to get their sound at the right level in the mix.
To play well, each musician has to be able to hear his or her individual performance, but in a good combination with the rest of the band. And this is difficult (if not impossible) to do on a stage crowded with performers and a row of backline amplifiers and cabinets—each blasting out but one instrument.
Which brings us to one of the optional additional capabilities of a PA system: the monitors. Some PA systems can route a special variant of the house mix back to amplified speakers on the stage in front of the performers (known as monitors or wedges) so the band members can hear approximately what the crowd hears. Some mixing consoles can route more than one monitor mix back to the stage, so perhaps the front man (lead vocalist or lead guitarist) can hear a little more of his own performance over the rest of the band. On high-end tours, each performer is likely to be fed his or her own personalized mix.
In a very large concert venue, you might even notice some engineers sitting at a second mixing console on the side of the stage. This secondary console is dedicated entirely to providing individual monitor mixes to the performers. These engineers closely watch the performers for hand signals indicating what they need in their monitor mix.
Some mixing consoles can also feed a multi-track recording deck to capture the performance. Or there might even be a third mixing console just dedicated to recording the performance.
Sometimes (especially at higher-end performances on large stages), in lieu of the big monitor wedges scattered around the stage, you might see musicians wearing in-ear monitors. These sophisticated earbuds give the musicians a carefully controlled personal mix and (importantly) allow the musicians to move around the stage at will, without being glued to a spot in front of their own amplifier cabinets or behind a stage monitor wedge. The lead vocalist and lead guitarist particularly enjoy the freedom to move around at will. Vocalists can then use a wireless handheld microphone or wear an over-the-ear wireless microphone freeing them up from having to stand in front of a microphone stand. The guitarists and bassist might opt for wireless connections for their instruments to their amplifiers or even straight into the console. You won’t see the stage cluttered up by amplifier cabinets and floor monitors (unless a performer wants to show off his Marshall Stack as a prop). At a recent Buddy Guy concert I attended, Buddy walked slowly up one aisle of the theater all the way to the back, across and then back down the other aisle, all the while playing a guitar solo. He gave much of the audience a unique experience of being able to be right next to him as he played (a big roadie of course accompanied him).
In summation, there are a number of factors influencing the quality of the sound coming from the stage to the audience. First off (obviously) the band has to perform well. Then they need to have their sounds mixed, equalized and amplified properly to get a consistent (and good) combination of their instruments and voices projected into the venue. And lastly, the venue needs to have at least a basic acoustic treatment to ensure sounds aren’t either being overly soaked up or echoing around wildly. It doesn’t take much to detract from a band’s otherwise dynamite performance.
Like the music score for a film, you might not notice the background music at a restaurant unless it is a complete misfit. In a film score, if it fits, it propels the story along nicely. And though you might not have consciously noticed the nice background music, you might have enjoyed your dining experience a little better. In my mind, completely wrong music at a restaurant serving ethnic cuisine is as bad as having the wrong wine or beer with your meal (in a way, it’s worse, since you can send the wine back and get another, but you cannot escape bad music except by walking out of the restaurant). Imagine having a fine Cabernet or a rich dark ale with a tuna salad sandwich and fries.
This evening for instance, I had dinner in a small Greek cafe. The staff was almost entirely teenagers and the music seemed selected more for the staff’s tastes than the patrons. I don’t mind dining without a musical score in the background, but for god’s sake if you are going to play music either match it to the cuisine or play something classical or something very bland and at a low volume. Blasting out Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears hits while I’m dining on stuffed grape leaves and pita slices with hummus just plain annoys the hell out of me. Most of the patrons were thirty or forty or fifty-something’s, and I’m betting they didn’t find the music all that entertaining either. To me it was like fingernails scratching on a blackboard. Whoever owns that restaurant should make it clear to the staff that they listen to what they like on their own time.
So then we go on to have dessert and coffee at a little Italian place and guess what they’re playing? Italian instrumental folk tunes at a soft volume! And that went with the food perfectly. We lingered over the coffee and left feeling good.
Call me old fashioned, but if you decide to play background music at your restaurant, match it to the cuisine. I like to hear Japanese music at a Japanese restaurant, French music at a French restaurant, Russian music at a Russian restaurant, and so on.
My closing thoughts: Art is often about mixing various elements properly. Music is produced with meticulous attention paid to the levels and tones of various instruments and voices. Film soundtracks are mixed with the right combination of dialogue, sound effects and music. And the music in a movie is carefully chosen to match the visuals. You wouldn’t imagine having death metal as the score for a sensitive romantic scene in a movie, nor would you expect soft jazz as the backdrop for a violent fight scene (unless the director was intentionally making some subtext commentary with the mismatch). To me, food is art. So please don’t play background music that totally doesn’t fit the cuisine in a restaurant either. After all, all the world’s a stage.
That’s my short rant.
Art of course is in the eye of the beholder. Two people gazing at the same painting in a gallery will take away different experiences from it. One might love it, while the other might not so much. A violin screeching might move one person to tears and another person to want to leave the auditorium. There have been countless studies exploring the impact of various types, forms, genres and so forth on differing cultural groups, but they often seem to leave holes in their findings.
I remember quite a number of years ago, the first time I went to an opera, I had this thought bubble up from the depths of my mind that this would be a mainly white experience. But then the star soprano as well as several other singers, and a significant percentage (I guess, since I’m no statistician) of the audience were black. I kind of chided myself a little for having thought that only wealthy older white people would like opera. That was the image that Hollywood portrayed at least. I realized it wan’t so much the “liking” part that was the issue—it was the priciness of it. Things have changed now in that virtually any major live event requires you to hock a piece of your grandmother’s sterling silver set in order to purchase tickets.
I had a similar revelation years later, when a friend scored some free passes to a rap extravaganza. Those same neurons fired up a thought that we might be the only white people there. I was so wrong again. In fact I’ve had similar types of preconceptions at one time or other about jazz, blues, country, reggae, metal, the ballet, Shakespeare… And I learned the same about film as well. There are plenty of great foreign films that cut across cultural boundaries and have every bit as much visceral impact on me as anything Hollywood churns out.
We all might at one point in our lives believe that there are distinct cultural lines in art appreciation, but we learn as we get older and wiser that culture really has no absolute boundaries. It has only the boundaries we consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) place on it ourselves.
It is clear that we all have differing tastes in music, literature, film, food, and so forth. And it is also clear that those tastes are shaped by a mix of both innate and cultural factors. I personally have little doubt that our experiences in life shape not only our tastes and proclivities, but our perceptions as well. But my pondering here is about whether there are things an artist often consciously (or perhaps subconsciously) thinks about while working, with respect to how to reach (and appeal to) an audience.
Do you ever notice thoughts entering your head as you’re working on something to the effect of “how would this be appreciated by potential readers/viewers/listeners?” If you respond that that sort of thought never crosses your mind, I’m going to venture a guess that you may be deluding yourself.
When you compose a song, write a short story, make a film, take a photograph, paint or sculpt: who are you trying to please? Only yourself? Take some time to think about that. And let’s set aside the inherent imperatives and pressures of the commercial artist, for whom we already know the answer to that question.
As subjective as art may be, there are elements that appeal to the collective consciousness of large numbers of people. We know that ultimately what you create comes from your own heart and therefore is a reflection of your subjective sense of art and aesthetic. But most of us want so much to get our works seen and heard by more than just ourselves and our inner circle of family and friends—and this means we might just be flavoring our work just a bit to make it more appealing to others. We want not just to be artists, but to be famous (at least a little bit).
I believe there is a distinction however in the motive behind the endeavor. If the intent of a line of prose, or a piece of music, or a photograph, or a video clip is primarily to make a living, either through its direct sale or via its use in advertising to sell an article of apparel or a cosmetic product, or whatever, then clearly that work could be categorized as commercial art.
But how do you explain why certain pieces of music, certain visual images (both still and moving), and certain combinations of written words that were created without commercial intent, at some point find their way into advertising?
The answer is in my opinion quite simple: some works of art evoke a mood or emotion that Madison Avenue types believe they can take advantage of to encourage people to be receptive to buying their product or service. An exciting bit of rock music might be used to help sell a flashy new sport coupe. A piece of sombre music might be used to help sell life insurance. Or a photograph of an older couple strolling on the beach might be used to sell an investment service.
We see and hear this sort of use of well-known images and sounds virtually every day (Pachabel’s “Canon in D” comes to my immediate mind). It saturates our collective consciousness. We know that not all of these familiar images and sounds were created by artists with the immediate intent of profit. We might even curse these ad men for “sullying” the pureness of these lovely works of art—long after the artists have created them. But we also revel at the sheer power of these works that they would be so utilized.
So to my original point about the subjectivity of art, I contend that a work of art is no less magnificent for having been created with the tastes of the masses in mind, than had it been created by a recluse, truly without any thought as to how anyone else might perceive and/or judge it.
In fact, nature has created some of the most wondrous and magnificent works of art without a thought toward it. What makes art great or not so great is completely intangible and immeasurable. Its greatness is independent of the eye of the beholder or of the profit it generates. Art existed long before human beings started creating their own variants, and it will exist long after they’ve stopped.
Storytelling is at the core of all art forms. No matter how abstract that form is, there is still at least a basic theme behind it. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a film, writing a novel, composing a song, making carvings from tree stumps, painting a watercolor, or photographing orangoutangs in their native environment. If you are creating art, you are telling a story. And the better you are at the craft of storytelling, the better of an artist you will be.
Of course good storytelling is in the eye of the beholder. I have my own opinions about what elements of storytelling I consider invaluable to various artistic disciplines and I will talk a little about that here. However, I won’t go into too much detail regarding the classical methods and elements of storytelling. I am after all, a self-described jack of all trades and master of but a few, so while I consider myself a writer as well as a connoisseur of good writing, I absolutely will not be so sententious as to pose as a writing expert. It is my humble opinion that all artists should read a book or two on writing in order to gain a basic understanding of story construction.
Books on writing talk about various ways to categorize and classify stories. There are genres (e.g. comedy, action-adventure, horror, thriller, science fiction, etc.). And there are recognized archetypical themes (e.g. the hero’s journey, the coming of age, fall and redemption, etc.) And then there are also the aspects related to the length of the story and how that affects how the story is unveiled (short stories and short films have to tell the story more quickly, and therefore may gloss over or even skip entirely, certain elements that would be considered more important in a full-length feature film or a novel. But all storytelling has a few central tenets.
The primordial component of a good story is the theme. The theme is that central concern of the work of art that resonates with the audience. Writers know that every work of fiction has a theme and that theme should be clear in your mind before you start the process of writing. But other artists also should think (albeit sometimes unconsciously) about a theme when they pick up a brush or chisel or guitar or still camera.
A theme could be as simple as a feeling or emotion (pain, elation, anger, bliss, etc.) or it could be a more complex concept such as man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, or a warning about the oppression of the common man by the machinations of life, or it could be a moral adage such as do unto others what you would have them do unto you. But it is always there, even if only at the subconscious level. It is useful to pull it up into conscious thought when trying to create something meaningful.
Beyond a theme, stories have a plot, characters and settings. The plot (in a very small nutshell) is essentially the sequence of events in various settings, that shapes the characters as they encounter conflicts and work toward resolving them, from the beginning to the end of the story. Plots can be rather complex: there could be several subplots twisting and turning and intertwining in the story.
In literature and film, these three elements are complex and carefully developed: the story is laced with dialogue and narrative descriptions that help define the settings and the characters. In more static works of art, these are usually more subtle. A painting with people posed in a particular setting, going about their lives can evoke an idea about what’s going on, but to a lesser extent than explicit prose can. Much of the story must be inferred by the viewer, and clearly each viewer will come away with a slightly different take on it. Again, that is part of the pleasure of art: that part of what you take away from it is highly personal.
Of course, as art becomes more abstract, the story becomes more difficult to perceive. The more abstract the art, the more its interpretation is left to the imagination. But this too is part of the satisfaction and pleasure of viewing art. We cultivate our imaginations by attempting to see beneath the wavy lines, the rough textures, the vivid colors and the sharp borders.
A friend of mine was working on an oil painting a while back, and she asked what I saw in my mind when I looked at it. So I sat in a comfortable chair just looking at it for a while and thinking about it. And in a way, I sort of translated it into a little story in my head. Although a painting, by its nature is static (there is neither action nor dialog in a painting) and this one was a bit abstract, I saw distinct imagery and felt a certain feeling. I saw a savage city looming over the people who resided there, oppressive with its size and complexity. The city didn’t do this intentionally—it was just being itself. Yet the people seemed to be coping with it, and even thriving, as most life can thrive almost anywhere if it has the will to. So I saw a triumph of the will over oppression and angst. When I told my artist friend what I gleaned from her painting, she looked at me with amazement. She told me that lots of people saw the buildings and the people beneath them. But not many saw a story with a powerful theme (replete with conflict and resolution) in it. And then she told me that this was exactly how she had felt on her first visit to New York: that the tall buildings and bustling streets had seemed intimidating and even threatening—until she walked inside a few and found a friendly neighborhood bar, or a nightclub with a jazz band playing, or a market with shelves full of colorful and tasty things for sale. The feeling that she had was about how even the cold intimidation of the city could be overcome by digging beneath its veneer. I felt good for her (and a little for myself) that I had seen the same little story behind that painting that she had been thinking of when she conceived it.
And then there’s a great body of classical music from which you can glean stories without hearing any words or seeing any actions. There are stories of bloody wars, disaster and triumph, love shattered, and redemption from a fall. It’s all there in the sad violin solo, the cascade of horns, the crescendo of the timpani drums, the crash of the cymbals—if you but listen for it. You can hear the story build from movement to movement. And you can be driven to tears by the climactic ending.
With literature and film, the storyteller has more means to express the story through spoken words and actions and narrative descriptions than in other forms of art. And therefore, the pressure is on the writer or filmmaker to tell a good story to an audience that is expecting more than just mundane dialogue, funny jokes, exciting action, and stunning scenery. But every brushstroke, every bit of stone chiseled away and every musical note has a meaning too.
I’ve heard it said by a famous sculptor, when asked how he knew what to chisel away: “I see in my mind what it is I’m trying to say, and anything that doesn’t contribute to saying it gets removed, and then what I’m left with is pure meaning.” That was a bit of an epiphany to me, since sculpting is subtractive in nature—you start with all the material and remove that which shouldn’t be there, as opposed to building up a work piece by piece as happens in painting. By comparison, writers and filmmakers do both: they put together a rough work and then edit out what they then feel doesn’t add anything.
No matter what form of art a person is into, the common goal is to tell a story, no matter how short and sweet it is. All artists should think about this before getting started on something. What is it you’re trying to say? Your audience is expecting a good story when they sit down to read your novel or to watch your film, or listen to your song, or view your photographs, paintings or sculptures. When you fall short on your implicit promise to tell a good story, you let your audience down.
You’ve undoubtedly seen posts of the following nature all over the internet forums aimed at writers, filmmakers, musicians, etc. (Facebook is the worst offender):
“Hey everyone, I’m a new writer/filmmaker/musician and I just finished a short story/short film/song: could you all visit my page and read/view/listen to it, and hit like? It will help me with my career”.
Newsflash for all the fledging Stephen King’s / Marty Scorcese’s / Dave Mathews’s out there: posting links to your so-so stuff in Facebook groups and begging people in that group to click the like button isn’t going to help launch your career. It will only tend to evoke a bit of empathetic pity from other misguided artist wannabes—if anything. Personally, I’d be more inclined to view your stuff if you asked me to take a look and give you my honest feedback, instead of just “like me, like me…”. The reality is, these people probably don’t even care if you watch or listen to their stuff—they just want their view count and like percentage as high as possible. They subscribe the specious notion that if they get their numbers high enough that important people who can help them with their careers will magically call them to set up a meeting.
Well, the reality is this is not a game whereby the person with the most likes wins the prize of a lucrative contract with a big publishing house or film studio or record label. Social media may be good for contacting others just like you to talk and to bitch about stuff, but it isn’t some wondrous new invention that can instantly make stars out of you if you post enough drivel often enough. The only one thing that is going to propel you in a successful career as a writer, filmmaker, musician or artist of any stripe is to be both good and lucky. Nobody can help you with those—you have to study your craft and practice incessantly for that to happen. But regarding who can really help you, you have to make connections with the right people (not just other struggling artists in the same boat). You have to meet the people who can help you polish and distribute and sell your art (we’ll talk about who these people are in a future blog).
I commented in an earlier post about how technology has made it easier to self-publish. Whether you’re trying to sell a novel or collection of short stores on Kindle, or distribute a short film on Vimeo or YouTube, or sell your songs on Reverb Nation, it has unquestionably gotten much easier to get your stuff “out there”. But the flip side of that is that there is so much stuff “out there” that it is getting harder and harder to get noticed. It has really become a landfill on which you are tossing your little nugget of gold and hoping and praying for the best, if you only post enough “watch me/like me” messages.
So to start with, you need to learn your craft and practice until you really have come up with a gem. A work of art that is appealing, is what’s going to sell. Slapping together a poorly-edited novel with a weak plot, or a film with no character arc and trite dialog, or a song that just doesn’t hook you and get your blood pumping and then uploading it to one of those mass distribution channels and then begging people to look at it and like it, just isn’t enough. I went to yet another local “premiere” held by a local “filmmaker” recently, and saw a film that was not a story, just a recounting of some awful things that happened to the writer as a child, and then while I was waiting for some entertaining and/or enlightening climactic ending, the credits started rolling. I was expecting either redemption or poetic justice, but saw only the ending credits instead. It was yet another WTF moment.
If only your family and friends and cast and crew members’ support alone could propel you into stardom, you wouldn’t need to worry about little things like telling a good story. You could just string together a collection of scenes or beats or riffs, and use some pretty camera work and some catchy music, and you’d be all set. But don’t complain about the injustice of the “system” when you’re still making latte’s for your day job instead of moving to a new home in Bel Air. There’s so much of that kind of fluff out there that it has jaded the average person. And those people who can and might be trying to discover new artists and their works aren’t going to dig through that landfill looking for your nugget. Those agents, publishers, film distributors, and art dealers might or might not have assistants searching the depths and crevices of the net for potential new talent, but all the noise out there makes it all the harder for them to find you! As I said in a previous blog: the signal-to-noise ratio on the internet is near zero. And if they did by some chance come across one of your nuggets, you may only get that one golden opportunity to have it looked at with a critical eye/ear, so don’t blow it by putting incessant substandard junk out there.
What do you have to do to rise above the noise floor? In whatever art form you work in, you have to tell captivating stories. You have to both entertain people and move them emotionally with some message. And you must never confuse the medium for the message (read Marshall McLuhan). If you don’t know how to tell stories, then you are not there yet as an artist. Have confidence in yourself, but don’t act like a best-selling author when all you’ve written is a handful of unpublished short stories. Nobody likes a poser!
There are filmmakers who believe that great lighting and camera moves are the most important factors in creating a good film. I see these folks in pre-production meetings obsessing not over the story, but over lenses and lights and dollies and cranes. Most of these types of filmmakers came up through the ranks of cinematographer (camera guy). They possess all that lovely and expensive equipment and they so want to use all of it in every film they make to justify their expenditures. This use of technology sleight of hand to try to sell a film that is otherwise devoid of good storytelling isn’t just a small-time indie malady—it happens on medium-to-large budget films as well. It’s a hallmark of the so-called “B” movie. When a filmmaker has a weak story, he or she too often thinks that just lacing the finished footage with complicated effects, impressive stunts, cool sound effects, and other “wow factor” ingredients is all that it takes to bring the quality level right up there. Some people might buy that, but I personally do not think a whole lot of people do.
And while dedicated writers know a little more about the importance of story structure, they still come up short quite often. How many times have you writers had an inspiration for a really great story, but didn’t know how to end it (or even to start it)? Perhaps at some critical turning point you weren’t sure wether to go down one path or another, so you just slapped together something just to finish it? It probably would have been better to just set your script aside and worked on something else until that epiphany hit you (and it hits all good writers who have the patience to wait for it). But we all so want to have more immediate gratification and get more stuff out there faster. Art is not a competition or a race. It might be controlled too often by business interests. But at its core, it is an expression of the mind, heart and spirit.
I’ve dabbled in songwriting, and found similar urges to take short cuts to hurry up the process. I used to mock the old Beatle’s songs for the simplistic lyrics that mostly were variations of “she loves you” or “I love her”. Of course the Beatles franchise made billions of dollars with their “silly love songs”, so what’s wrong with that? Artistically-speakingm nothing really. But the Beatles went through several distinct definitive phases. They began with the commercial art phase where everything from their costumes and hair to their publicity releases, to their lyrics, was about creating fan buzz and satisfying the record label execs. I don’t think many folks would try to argue that their first couple of albums were beautiful works of art. And that’s okay in my book, because they did evolve over time, and then the art started shining through. The storytelling became more obvious by the time they got into their Magical Mystery Tour/Abbey Road phases. And since they were pioneers, people were much more patient with their evolution. Musicians today who try to make a lucrative career out of mere flashy appearance, ear-numbing waves of sound pressure and shocking lyrics, are more likely to be left in a perpetual state of wondering when someone is going to recognize their art and their careers are going to take off. Again (and I cannot stress this enough) whatever your medium is: you have to be good at telling stories. I’ve gone through this again and again. You need to know how to do this. And though the technique differs from art form to art form, you have to introduce and develop, create conflict and resolution, excite and deflate at the right times, have rising arcs of understanding and expectation, and an exciting climax. Your audience has to come away having really felt your work, not just glanced at it.
Truth be told, there is no absolute solution to creating great art that can also make money for you. There is no self-help book nor class that can teach you how to bare your soul and channel what comes out of your heart into beautiful works of art that other people so very much want to own and to look at and listen to and to touch (and to pay handsomely for the pleasure). Creating art is something no one can teach you. You can be taught about the tools and materials of the trade, the importance of good work habits, how to get started, basic technique and structure, and maybe you can even acquire some hints on how to unblock your creative juices. But no one can tell you how to create art. It flows out of you or it doesn’t. That is the intrinsic nature of art.
As for making a living as an artist: we all know it is very tough. With the exception of the most gifted (and lucky and also well-promoted) artists at the very top, it just doesn’t pay that much. At the lower levels, we do it for self-growth. There a lot of competition out there and therefore it is a huge challenge just to get noticed by the right people. I have a niece who is studying ballet. It is the love of her life right now, but she is fully aware that unless she lands a spot with one of the top ballet companies in the country, she will probably be fortunate just to make slightly less money than a secretary. Whatever career she might have in ballet will be brief, grueling, at times painful, and inevitably it will end before she would like it to. She would then try to find a job teaching dance and maybe eventually opening her own studio. It’s sort of a parallel to being a minor-league athlete.
You will inevitably face a decision point somewhere along the way regarding “selling out”. By this I mean becoming involved in commercial art. This is the world where economic and financial considerations weigh on the creation of the “art”. For filmmakers, it might mean literally making commercials. For musicians it might mean composing advertising jingles or it might mean working at a music store and teaching music to kids. For writers, it might mean writing (or re-writing or copywriting or editing) for a newspaper or magazine. It will almost always mean there is some business person looking over your shoulder telling what to do and what not to do.
But don’t feel like you’ve sold your soul to the devil if you follow this path. Everyone needs to make a living somehow. Some of the more interesting up-and-coming local filmmakers and actors I know have unrelated real-world jobs like teaching kids, writing computer software, managing networks, and waiting on tables. That doesn’t take anything away from them either as human beings or as artists. Just because you create your best pure art during your off-hours from your day job, that doesn’t invalidate it or dirty it up in any way. You just have to learn to separate the two worlds in your head. Don’t be thinking, as you’re putting the finishing touches on a watercolor painting you hope to have displayed in a gallery, something to the effect of “Hmm, this nice titanium white is rather expensive, so I can save maybe a few bucks by using that cheaper stuff they sell at Target.” Keep your two worlds separate and distinct in your head and you’ll be okay.
I’m pretty certain of one thing though: you cannot beg people to either look at nor to like your art. Your friends and colleagues will do that for you out of loyalty. I don’t believe that those view and like counts on your short film or novel or song mean very much (unless you get into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of hits, and then YouTube (or whatever) is willing to attach advertisements for cars or deodorants or baby food or whatever on top of your stuff. And generally those “high view” videos tend to be of talking dogs or boxing cats. The notion that all you need to do to be a success is to have your video go viral and that your Facebook buddies can make that happen, is a specious assumption. There are other, more effective means of promoting your work (more on that in a future blog). But you really should first focus on honing your skills before your start seeking out those people who really can help you.
It is narcissistic and fallacious thinking to believe you can cajole and plead your way into a career as a writer or filmmaker or musician or photographer or whatever, without having anything of quality to show. When you are really producing the good stuff, then and only then, focus on developing those valuable contacts who can help you. And after all that, if the fame and notoriety doesn’t follow right away, and if you have to wait on tables or give music lessons to kids, or make wedding videos for a living for the time being, you are definitely in good company. Most of us “artists” have to struggle to survive. In my humble opinion, that only makes us better.
Second day of shooting for this short in which I’m not only mixing sound, but also have a speaking part in, just went down. My respect for actors continues to grow. The sheer will to get into character, and to not only deliver one’s lines, but to also think about the mannerisms, hand gestures, vocal inflections and so forth, without tripping up, requires tremendous focus. For some actors, getting to that maximum level of focus (in the zone) requires impeccable timing. Not every actor can stay at that maximum level of focus and intensity all day long. Certainly not myself.
I had faithfully read the script again and again on the days leading up to the shoot. I was supposed to have a hint of a mysterious Eastern European-sounding accent, and come across with a certain nefarious flair. I thought I had it down pretty well. On the first day of shooting, I studied and practiced my lines like a maniac every chance I got during breaks from mixing. I walked around the set speaking them in my voice and with my facial expressions and it cracked everyone up (presumably with how good it was coming across). I kept getting told it was great. But when it came time much later in the day (evening actually) to let another person mix while I stepped in front of the camera to play my part, I was physically and mentally tired and found myself forgetting lines and not putting in the energy I should have been, despite the best efforts of the director (and an extra-large coffee) to get me back into it. I was told it was a good performance though. But talking with the director afterwards, decided for the next day of shooting to not expend so much energy on getting into character perhaps until I was in costume.
So, for the second long day of shooting I diligently avoided getting emotionally wound up, and working the energy level up for the character until I went into wardrobe and makeup. But that zipped by quickly and I was in front of the camera before I felt I was really in the zone. So for day two, I just didn’t feel I was prepared. I wasn’t delivering with the intensity I should have, and was occasionally even forgetting the accent: not because I was physically tired or emotionally drained, but because it took me longer than I had thought it would to get really ready. I think I did satisfactorily overall, but I could have done better. I realize now that I needed at least an hour of running lines right up until go time. Instead, I think I ran them with the actress I was in the scene with for maybe ten to fifteen minutes before the director called for us to get on our marks. It’s shoots like these where you are glad you were nice to the script supervisor!
I have some friends who have been acting for many years who confirmed my suspicions on how actors need a certain amount of time to prepare for a scene, and then can often only stay ready for a certain amount of time before the preparation wears off. It differs from actor to actor, but everyone has that “zone” they need to get in and stay in. I thought about the plight of relief pitchers in baseball who get up to start warming up, and then sit down for a while, and then get back up, and so on. Once you get to know what those timings are for you (and they can differ from shoot to shoot depending on the emotional requirements of the scene) you can better plan when you need to start “warming up”. It is always a good idea to confirm the call times and shooting schedule with the production manager or director to make sure you have ample time to get into character, but not so much time that the feeling starts to wear off and you come down too far from your peak.
I envy those actors who can get into character quickly and stay there for a long time. That is not me at the present though. But this was only my second acting role and I’m definitely learning a lot (I’ll write up my specific thoughts on working on set in all the roles and responsibilities I’ve undertaken some day in my memoirs). I can’t say for sure that doing sound is more or less challenging than acting. They are certainly different. And I certainly enjoy facing both of these types of challenges. Let it suffice to say that if I continue to be fortunate enough to land more roles, that I hope I can learn these essential lessons, such as on how to prepare. I tell you though, when I watch a film now, my mind sometimes wanders into wondering how the actor perhaps prepared for their role.
I got some positive feedback and also a little eyebrow raising from some of my director friends who read my previous blog entry “How much power should a director have over a production”. Now I have a vested interest as a writer and aspiring actor, as well as experienced sound guy, to maintain good relationships with local filmmakers, so I have to resist the urge to tone down my thoughts and opinions in order to avoid being ostracized. But I feel I can and must be honest and open in my blogging. To do otherwise would constitute a commercial sellout for which I would deserve to be completely squelched out by my readership here and on Twitter. How can I champion art over commerce, and then abandon my principles in order to land parts and and crew work? So I tell myself that I wouldn’t want to work for or with any local filmmaker who cannot take some constructive criticism and look in the mirror once in a while. I do it every day! And much of what I say here is tongue-in-cheek, and I will mock myself just as quickly and easily as I’ll mock anyone else.
One of my colleagues told me in no uncertain terms that until I’ve walked the walk, I should refrain from criticizing anyone else. Well, my first short is in post, and as soon as I finish the editing, I will put it out for the world to see (and criticize!). But as I stated in a previous blog, I do not believe that one needs to be an expert practitioner to be able to nor allowed to critique the work of others. And furthermore, there is a benefit to having one’s efforts objectively critiqued. A filmmaker’s close friends and co-workers are going to be hesitant to tell him what’s not right about what he’s doing or make strong suggestions for improvement (not if they want to continue to be friends and work on productions). That’s what the outside set of ears and eyes is for. That’s what I do. (takes a deep breath)…
Let me state for the record, that while there are some good indie directors who can also write, being a good director neither implies nor guarantees being a good writer. These guys need to study the craft just as we dedicated writers do. They need to read books and take classes, and practice just as diligently as any other writer. They should have friends review their screenplays and solicit honest feedback, just as any smart writer would do. And they should (if they aren’t already doing it) be reading lots of Hollywood screenplays and watching lots of movies.
I think I struck a few raw nerves when I insinuated that ego was possibly the reason many indie directors only want to direct their own scripts, even if (as I had originally put it) they were just so-so writers. And I think that is a shame, since there are a lot of great writers (who don’t pretend they can also direct) with some great scripts to offer up. It seems to be the nature of the (indie) beast though that most of the filmmaking is done by combination writer/directors.
There are a lot of brilliantly-photographed, wonderfully-acted, beautifully-scored films where objective viewers are left scratching their heads at vague themes, lack of character development and arcs, trite dialog, thin plots and predicable endings: the hallmark of poor writing. Now, it’s not all as bad as that. There are some great small budget indie films and web series’ out there (and I know some of the people who have made them and will interview a few of the top area filmmakers in the near future). I’m just saying that there is also a great deal of poor storytelling (yes even in Hollywood and even on Netflix): thinly-disguised with interesting camera work, sensational special effects, and catchy music. It’s pandemic though in the indie world. We should all strive to rise above that.
I wrote in an earlier blog about how indie filmmaking had become a much more accessible medium with the advent of inexpensive video cameras, and free or cheap distribution channels such as YouTube, but that this had created an over-saturation of mediocre quality material (what I, when wearing my sound guy hat, refer to as a low signal-to-noise ratio). I am a firm believer that for a film to rise above and apart from the noise floor, it needs to have more than beautiful shots, a lovely musical score, and photogenic and talented actors. It needs a great story. I can’t see anyone arguing with that point.
I sort of hope that one of the main outcomes of any constructive criticism, will be that the cream of the low-budget indie filmmakers would self-reflect more and would raise their own standards even higher. There are some really talented local filmmakers. A good screenplay is one of the things that a low-budget filmmaker can afford in the indie world (as opposed to helicopter shots, exploding cars, and shots of actors walking on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange at midday). I also would hope that those who are endlessly churning out fluff, and then begging incessantly for people to view and like their stuff, would be encouraged to put their inexpensive camcorders aside for a little while, and study and read and reflect, and pay attention to the good stuff out there. Maybe they should consider even hooking up in a supporting capacity for a period of time with a truly talented filmmaker to really learn what goes into the making of a good film.
My parting advice to everyone is to dial down the egos a little: there’s room for improvement for everyone. I know that my writing can certainly stand improvement. That’s one of the reasons I blog. And it’s one of the reasons I heartily welcome your feedback.