Category Archives: Music
Both making it and listening to it.
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.
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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.
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.
Before you get your flamethrowers out, let me tell you I play both guitar and bass equally well (or equally badly perhaps). For me personally, there are distinct advantages to playing both. At open microphone nights and at jam sessions, there might be four guitar players but no bass (or conversely two bass players and no guitar). So I like that I can tuck my little Steinberger Synapse into its gig bag and easily fit it into the back of my Prius, and voila: instant choice of bass player or guitar player.
But there are of course disadvantages too. The obvious one is you don’t get really good at either one. Since I also dabble in analog synthesis (not to mention all my other pastimes), I know I spread myself pretty thin. In all honesty though, I cannot blame my persistent musical novicehood on trying to play numerous instruments. No, in fact I believe that’s pretty much backwards: I play around with many instruments to make up for my lack of mastery of any one of them.
Well, anyway, back to the question. Some of my friends who just play guitar, believe the bass is where aspiring guitarists wind up when they discover they are in over their heads. They consider the bass to be something of a “guitar lite”. To a non-musician, how could you argue? The bass looks like a big guitar with two strings missing, therefore it must be easier to play. When you go to a club gig, the bass player seems much more laid back and his playing seems sedate by comparison to the guitarists who are playing exotic chords and shredding lead riffs with lightning speed. It’s hard to argue against the role of the bass player in the average club band as much more than an accompanist for the guitar players. I’ve heard it argued that a person could learn bass well enough to play in a band in maybe a year or two tops.
I have to agree, but only to an extent. I was indeed one of those guys they are talking about. I got my first guitar maybe when I was ten years old, and for years never got past simple barre chords and slow melodies. I got discouraged easily. Then I got a bass and found I could actually sound good on it rather quickly. I can see why some could make a causal connection (albeit a shaky one) in that regard.
But after letting my old Stratocaster sit in its case practically untouched for many many years, I became newly determined to play the damn thing. So I started studying and practicing, and listening closely to some of my favorite guitarists’ handiwork (we’ll talk about my guitar favorites in another blog). And now that I’m actually starting to dig my own playing for the first time in my life, I believe I’m good enough to be playing in a drunken garage band just for fun. And believe me, that is quite something to aspire to.
I remember picking up a friend’s violin once and after ten minutes of making horrible screeching noises, wondering if I’d ever be able to make even a simple nice sound out of it. I have a Shakuhachi flute I bought about ten years ago, and to this day cannot get a sound out of it beyond my breath rushing out of my mouth! So I am aware that there are musical instruments that seem to have a steep learning curve right off the bat. Bass is definitely not one of them. One could pick up a bass with no knowledge of music theory and incapable of even reading tabulature, and still figure out how to sound like a bass player very quickly. And that’s where it gets its bad rap from. But like most things that appear simple on the surface, there is a deepness to the instrument that can take many years (even a lifetime) to really master.
I’ve kept up with my bass playing too though, and I even acquired a six-string bass to fool around with. But it was when I got turned on to the likes of Marcus Miller, Jaco Pastorius, Steve Bailey, Bootsy Collins, Geddy Lee, Victor Wooten, and their ilk, I came to an understanding of the true nature of the bass. It was the easiest instrument to play just okay. But when you start listening to the really good bassists out there (note my use of the superlative “ist” ending instead of just player.), I comprehended really how anything, even the most simplistic seeming things, could be taken to very high art forms. Some examples that came to mind were the Japanese arts of flower arranging, paper folding, and of course the tea ceremony.
And then there’s poetry. We all learned as children how to put together simple rhymes and limericks and such. For us young writing newbies, simple poems were so much easier for us to master than say, writing a novel. But at higher levels of artistic expression, that formula changes. A masterful poet has the ability to create intense imagery and moods in a relatively few lines of prose. Poetry is to me, the most difficult and highest literary art form, and not coincidentally, one that is difficult to understand until one is able to peer beneath the surface and see the subtleties and nuances that define all of the arts at the finer levels. Yet to those who tend to just see and hear the superficial aspects, these subtleties go unnoticed.
As for the bass, I think it might have been John Entwistle with the Who, who changed the role of bass from simplistic oom pah pah background to a bonafide lead role. In my humble opinion, he overshadowed Pete Townsend’s guitar playing. Pete had flash and sizzle, and was a good songwriter, but John had substance. Listen to “My Generation” if you don’t believe me! Even Townsend said pretty much the same in an interview: that Entwistle was leading Townsend through their back and forth trading of riffs in a point-counterpoint sort of exchange.
Only a handful of bassists before that had taken the initiative to step out with lead riffs. Jimi Hendrix’s bassist Noel Redding did it sometimes. Cream’s Jack Bruce too. But for the most part, it wasn’t until a more recent crop of bassists (many hailing from the jazz world) created something of a small revolution in music, whereby the background accompaniment instrument of bass turned into a spotlight instrument. I pay attention now to the bassist when I go to concerts. In fact my wife even got the bug after seeing Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller and Steve Bailey on stage at the same time, and went out and bought herself a little Squire Bronco to learn on. Now she insists when we get concert tickets, we try to get them on the right side of the stage (where the bassist typically hangs out).
So I’ve become more determined than ever now to practice both guitar and bass as often as possible. And I’ve developed a respect for all musicians, no matter what they play (be it violin, mandolin, harmonica, voice, or whatever). I strongly contend that the bass is as complex and entertaining an instrument as any, and that while it is easy to play satisfactorily when you are first starting out, it can be taken to a very high level of mastery. Maybe in a future lifetime I will be at that level. But in this one, I relish listening to the great bassists we are privileged to have in our midsts.
This topic came up as a result of a question from a friend at a local pub with a bunch of other friends, after a reasonable yet significant level of inebriation had been achieved. My friends are well aware that I’ve started a blog that does quite a bit of analysis under the guise of being a “critic”. So the question posed was, “Boris, you’ve done production sound, hell you even worked in a real recording studio, you’ve written and directed a short film that’s still in post, written several novels and screenplays that are just sitting on a shelf (albeit several of the screenplays have been registered with the WGA-West—for what it’s worth), you’ve cooked for your friends a few times, shared some interesting photos you took whilst galavanting around the far east, you play a little guitar, ride a Ducati… Yada yada blah blah blah—so how does that qualify you to be a critic of people who have been producing art, music, food, film or whatever for years? What gives you the %#$@ing right to write about other peoples’ blood sweat and tears, in areas you’ve only dabbled in?
In a sense, I can see the logic in that. How could I possibly know what goes into making a feature film, or putting on an exhibit of paintings or photographs, or a piano recital (when I can barely play chopsticks on the ivories), a dance performance (when the best I’ve ever danced is to wave my arms around like a chimpanzee, whilst my wife pulls her hair down over her face to hide her identity). But then I remembered that there are very good art, film, music and food critics out there who never mastered what it is they critique. There’s even that old saw that if you can’t do it, you teach it, and if you can’t teach it, you criticize it (actually critics critique stuff, and only occasionally when it is really bad stuff do they criticize it—there is a bit of a difference you know).
So to be honest, I think that you can never know what goes into an artistic effort of the magnitude of making a full-length feature film, or publishing a four-hundred page novel for real (on real paper, and sold in real bookstores), or performing in a musical or dance recital, if you haven’t done it. But if you are a serious artist, you wouldn’t be critiquing it. And if you had mastered the art, but then had to retire early for some reason (such as a career-ending injury or old age for a dancer) you’d probably be teaching. Only the lowest of the bottom feeders attempt to make any sort of career (paid or unpaid) of critiquing other peoples’ work.
But someone has to do it. If you hear the friends, family and close colleagues talk about someone’s artistic products, they will gush with praise (and hit that “like” button” in a heartbeat) even for something that is absolute and obvious rubbish. So it falls on the likes of those of us who operate at the periphery of the art world and hang out in the shadows of artists both great and mediocre, to take on the sometimes not-so-well-received task of telling it like it is.
So does that make me qualified? My short answer is yes. My long answer is hell yes. And if you don’t like that I referred to a home movie a friend of yours shot with a $100 camcorder, out of focus, and that sounded like the on-screen characters were in a tunnel, and like the lighting was done using a flashlight—that’s just too darn bad. That’s just what I do. And if you put some tune you created out on Reverb Nation that I feel sounds like a two-year-old vomited her strained peas onto a $100 Casio digital keyboard—again, too bad. That’s what I do. And if like a certain English professor at a certain local major university, you run a writing Meetup group and boast about your self-published novels on Kindle that had all the plot and character development of a child’s finger painting and I said that here (I have not!)—you quite possibly deserved it (but I’ve heard plenty of other people say similar things about your work in the Kindle review section sir).
I call em as I see em. If you don’t like what I have to say, and you really want to beat the crap out of me, I’m the guy at the exhibit/show/concert/recital who looks like an English Bulldog. But conversely, I will give kudos to someone who has worked hard to improve with each new work they put out there. After all, we should all strive to be better at whatever we do every day. And I recognize good entertainment value, even if as an art form, the work has come up a bit short (like if you posted a YouTube video with two cats boxing). Stand-up comedy is in fact a high art form and a difficult one to do well. And done well, it is highly entertaining—so much so you might accidentally tear a muscle in your side from laughing.
But fair warning: the thing I will most tear into is posers acting like accomplished artists. At least I’ll be the first to admit that my guitar playing qualifies me for playing in a garage band with four other significantly inebriated grown-up adolescents. I have a good friend who plays a little better than I do and is waiting for Eddie Van Halen to return his calls (you know who you are). Go figure. And then there’s my cooking. While my wife says it is very good, a professional chef would probably mistake a plate I had prepared for one needing to go into the dishwasher. And then there’s the photography. I get laughed at for having one of the nicest DSLR’s available (a 5D3) and not knowing what 90% of its capabilities are. But I’m learning. And then again, I never pretended to be the heir apparent to Ansel Adams, as a few photographer acquaintances of mine seem to think they are.
So what I do think really about the necessary qualifications to critique some form or other of art? In my humble opinion (hopefully that word humble will make you back down a bit on your anger level) to be a critic, you need to have had some basic exposure, and a little education (even just reading a few books I think counts), maybe have an aptitude of an advanced amateur, and definitely a sincere interest in and respect for the art form. You can’t be a good critic of country music for example, if you think that every country music song is about a guy’s wife taking the dog and the pickup truck. So I will recuse myself from critiquing that particular “art form”. I love to recognize artists who really produce fine work and put on a great show. And I will recognize a great effort that falls short in some area. But I will just as quickly come down hard on the posers who think because they are a little more talented than Joe The Plumber, that their work should be on exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Seriously, I will always accept an invitation to get a personal demonstration and education as to what is involved in creating a form of art (as long as it doesn’t take place in a secluded alley late at night). I want to learn more and to understand more about what you professional artists really do in your studios and on your stages in your professional artistic endeavors. I definitely make every effort to improve myself every day by practicing a little guitar, shooting some pictures or video footage and editing it, and writing novels, screenplays and of course this blog. Hell, I’ve even helped a neighbor with his home brewing. It is all both fun and very educational. Life is a mega adventure to me and like a shark, I need to keep swimming in order to breathe. But please don’t take it too hard if I didn’t gush with praise over something you spent all of a week working on during breaks from watching South Park reruns. It’s all part of the game of life.
I am reminded of Rod Stewart’s old song “Every Picture Tells a Story”, every time I read a screenplay (or listen to a song a friend is composing, or gaze at a collection of photographs in an exhibit at a gallery). It is true—to an extent for every artistic endeavor, that there is a story behind the work of art. Sometimes you might have to squint hard to find it, but that’s part of the joy of art appreciation. Every movie, every stage play, every painting, sculpture and photograph, every novel, short story and poem, and every song and dance should tell some story. That’s what art is all about after all (save for purely and intentionally abstract art). Sadly though, it seems of late that story telling, if not dead, to paraphrase something Frank Zappa once said about jazz, smells funny.
There are a lot of business-minded folks (as well as skilled technologists) out there, in places like Hollywood and New York, as well as in cities and small towns the world over, who seem to think that storytelling is secondary to having exciting action sequences, dynamite special effects, gratuitous violence, and frankly, as much as we try to believe it ain’t so: lots of T&A. And the problem isn’t just an issue of quantity over quality, or ultra-tight schedules and budgets. I truly believe the fine art of storytelling has been lost to many people—especially in filmmaking, where sophisticated computer-generated imagery, dazzling visual effects and sensational high-dollar action sequences have supplanted good old storytelling. As long as the film does well at the box office, it doesn’t matter to producers how artistic a film is. Getting back to Frank Zappa, I remember at one of his concerts way back at the dawn of heavy metal, he wheeled an air raid siren onto the stage, donned ear plugs, and then activated the siren. While he was making a not-so-subtle statement that rock fans were becoming more interested in loudness than in the quality of the music, the fans in attendance cheered wildly, in essence validating his statement.
While Hollywood is often thought of as a soul-crushing machine where nothing but the almighty dollar matters, I’m seeing a lot of locally-produced micro-budget independent films (both shorts and features) — where you would think good storytelling would be used to make up for lack of budget, but in fact where it seems storytelling has taken a backseat to getting something (anything) out there on Vimeo or YouTube as fast as humanly possible, and then begging anyone and everyone across the blogosphere and Facebook and MySpace, who will listen to their incessant rants to watch and like it. The signal to noise ratio in my humble opinion has dropped to near zero in the indie filmmaking world. (At this point my colleagues would remind me to breathe).
But the truth is, cheap camcorders and cheap editing software along with free and easy distribution models like YouTube, has made moviemaking into a much more democratic process where the studios don’t control everything. But this has brought with it the dramatic lowering of quality of the average independent production, as everyone and their kid brother records some trivial stuff on the family camcorder or DSLR and then posts it. Facebook groups dedicated to local filmmaking endeavors have turned into bulletin boards where the mediocre hawk their stuff, and beg people to view and like. If it’s goofy enough, it might end up getting more hits than an entire season’s worth of NHL action.
A similar situation exists now for literature with the advent of self-publishing models such as Kindle. While it makes getting one’s novel out in the public eye far easier than it used to be (no dealing with agents, editors, and publishers who won’t give the time of day to anyone who isn’t already a well-known published author) it has lowered the bar to the point where the bar is practically underground. And while user ratings and reviews can sometimes help guide a reader through the morass of junk masquerading as literature, the ratings systems can and have been gamed. I heard recently that a writer who penned a scathing assessment of the Chinese penal system had found the fury of the motherland released when in a single day a huge number of negative reviews (some calling her an outright liar) appeared virtually overnight. And that’s why purveyors of low-quality movies on mediums such as YouTube go on a campaign of begging other filmmaker wannabe’s to give them a “like” to support their “career”.
I joined a couple of these local filmmaking Facebook groups to try to network with other serious filmmakers about techniques and maybe find people for cast and crew (or who were looking for cast and crew) but found they’re mostly of the “watch and like my home movie” variety of posts (with an occasional religious sermon thrown in by a fanatic). I rarely take a look at their news feeds anymore. I guess there’s a supposed implication that if enough people view and like someone’s hastily slapped together home movie on a site like YouTube, it will propel the filmmaker into a great filmmaking career. The fact is, all it does is pull the signal to noise ratio even lower than one would think possible (can it become a negative number?). The chuckles I hear from filmmaker acquaintances of mine who have actually won awards in local film festivals is that these pleas to “watch my video and like it”, as opposed to “give me your helpful feedback either way”, are a somewhat pathetic embarrassment. The really good local filmmakers seem to have abandoned mainstream communication channels like Facebook (other than private messaging), due to the high level of noise bombarding these groups on a daily basis. It has become like trying to hear the music above the air raid siren.
In all fairness, YouTube was never really intended to be a distribution mechanism for quality entertainment. Everyone knows it’s mainly where you can post your cell phone video clips of dogs gone wild, or babies vomiting up strained peas. It’s a video bulletin board. The fact that you can monetize your YouTube channel if you get enough views and likes, and actually make some money from it, doesn’t make the dog chasing his tail into an artistic work. The universal maxim that “you get what you pay for” has already moved the more talented and serious filmmakers into outlets like Netflix online and the festival circuit. Anyone willing to shell out $1,500 up front (or whatever it’s up to) to get an aggregator to screen your film to determine if it’s got any redeeming quality worthy of being potentially seen by millions of viewers on Netflix online is generally is a more serious filmmaker. It’s not that everything on Netflix is really good——on the contrary, much of it is rubbish. But it is far more likely a filmmaker will be discovered there or at festivals than on YouTube.
The small local film festivals usually charge a modest entry fee and at apply at least a little bit of pre-screening before they will show a film. Again, much of what you see on the local festival circuit is of dubious quality, but at least some of the absolute rubbish gets weeded out. I didn’t intend to get into too many details about film distribution in this particular blog. I have acquaintances who are far more knowledgeable about distribution than I am. And a man needs to know his limitations. But it bears mention that YouTube, while a good place to post and look for very short documentary-style clips of real world shenanigans, and the “peoples’ news”, it is not where people in general go to watch an entertaining movie. But I have digressed. Back to the almost lost art of storytelling.
The essentials of good storytelling: complex plot development, a central theme, character arcs, rising conflict and resolution, and maybe a moral delivered by the end, have all become afterthoughts (if thought of at all) to just cranking out footage as quickly and cheaply as possible, and maybe glamming it up a little with software tools like Aftereffects (or not). A good writer researches the subject area a little, maybe even interviews certain people to try to write with more authenticity. Coming up with an idea for a story is just the beginning of a long journey that can take months for a short and a year or more for a feature. Then comes the hard part of developing the story. Most good writers rely on trusted friends to read their scripts with an objective outside (read: critical) eye. They can take (or not) that feedback and use it to strengthen weak areas of the story. Sometimes, a friendly table read with local actors can let a writer know if dialog is working or not. The writer needs to let go of his or her ego as much as possible throughout the process.
I recently read a script that was sent to me by a local beginning writer I had worked on set with before, for an action-adventure short film that started off with a boring office conversation and then went downhill from there. The person who sent me the script seemed offended when I asked if anyone else had read and commented on the script before me. This aspiring writer told me a local director and a few actors were already on board and that they liked the script (in other words they were desperate for work). I suggested that maybe starting with a more intense dramatic scene than having two cops passively discussing the bad guy at the police station would be a good hook. I even gave notes and an example I came up with, starting the story in the midst of a crime in progress, and the local police foiling the crime, yet not catching the criminal. I explained that starting off with a tense bit of drama and as much action as the budget would allow, would make a good lead into the office scene. For my troubles, this writer acquaintance no longer talks to me, I guess for my attempt to help, I was seen as showing disrespect or something. I simply figured that the concept of putting in a hook in the first few pages, and then keeping the audience involved vicariously and/or voyeuristically, and on and off the edge of their seats throughout, as characters were developed and a plot unwound, and then bringing it all skillfully to a climax, was good storytelling technique. But good storytelling seems to be something a lot of folks who call themselves writers, seem oblivious to. I think this is the ego getting in the way. I look forward to seeing the finished production (which to the best of my knowledge is still in preproduction). I am after all, a curious person.
Many films coming out of “indiewood” suffer from the same malady. They seem to just be mere collections of scenes that the writer and director (often and unfortunately the same person) thought up and jotted down. Maybe someone thought of an interesting thing that could happen to someone and made that the centerpiece of the story, and then slapped a bunch of disjoint scenes together in front of and after it almost as a filler, and then thought they had written a good screenplay worthy of producing and distributing. I can’t imagine these writers having started with a log-line, then a synopsis, and then an outline, and then laying out color-coded scene cards on a table and arranging and rearranging them, carefully thinking about story threads interweaving across locations and between characters, as a complex plot emerges and colorful dimensional characters are shown evolving—all leading to a satisfying climax.
I get the feeling most of these “writers” have never read a book on writing nor taken a single writing class. It’s blatantly obvious when their script doesn’t even follow universal screenwriting conventions. But even if they’ve read one or two books, they still don’t seem to understand what they’ve read. When I was learning the craft of screenwriting, I was advised by my instructors and in countless books and articles I’ve read on screenwriting, to read as many scripts as I could get my hands on, in multiple genres, to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and why. I found after I’d read maybe a hundred different screenplays, that I was just starting to get an idea of what flows well and makes a good and entertaining story.
If I could give these aspiring writers one important bit of advice, it would be if you want to be a decent writer, you should first become a reader. Read, read, read, read—everything you can get your hands on. “Elements of Style” is a must-read. There are a number of good books on screenwriting out there, but my personal least favorites are the “Save The Cat” series (for promulgating the Hollywood formulaic approach to writing (find a successful story and “write the same thing only different”). The advice to read lots and lots and lots of screenplays bears repeating. You can get them for free from various sites on the Internet.
And for god’s sake, master the English language—strengthen your vocabulary and knowledge of grammar, syntax and usage. Even if you’re writing a down and dirty street story full of slang, you want to use the slang and idioms and “street talk” in the right places and in the right way. If you are not reasonably competent with the language you are writing in, you probably shouldn’t be a writer until you do become so. You don’t want to negatively impress the world with poor language skills when you’re trying to sell the idea that you’re a writer. Now, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a mis-spelling or three in this blog that the spellchecker missed, and maybe got the grammar wrong somewhere, but this is blog of the kind that gets cranked out in one sitting. Hopefully there was nothing too distracting. In the blogosphere, there is no luxury of passing work onto an editor for prior review. So forgive my petty sins fellow writers. I am of course always looking to improve myself, so fire away with your salvos if that makes you feel better.
To conclude this rather verbose entry, it’s a darned shame that moviemaking has become so easy that people have gotten lazy with respect to the demands of good storytelling. Reliance on just on having a decent camcorder or cheap DSLR, and a few willing friends to stand in front of it and monotonically read a script you slapped together with all the reckless abandon of a blog, might be a good practice exercise, but it is not a formula for making a good film. If you want to be a successful screenwriter (or novelist, musician, photographer, painter, sculptor, dancer or whatever) you have to be able to tell a good story folks. And I do believe that like any talent in any area of endeavor, some people are born with innate skills and others have to work very much harder to come close to the same level of proficiency.
To answer my own question: no I don’t think storytelling is dead. There are some great storytellers around. There are great small-budget filmmakers (I hope to be able to interview one from time to time), just as there are some great singer-songwriters amidst a sea of kilowatt amplifier stacks, tight spandex, and high-speed guitar shredders. You just have to look harder for them. And when you find them, make sure you let them know in one way or another that you do like to hear or see or read a good story.
In a future blog I will talk about what happens when the writer and director are not the same person, and the director misinterprets the story but insists he or she has the sole authority and responsibility to manipulate the story for the film medium.