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.
There’s a well-known adage to not judge a book by its cover. But we all do it. And for writers, it’s good advice to think carefully about how your submitted work appears at first glance when you send it off to whomever you hope will read it and like it. There’s nothing that will get your manuscript or screenplay tossed in the circular file by an agent, a publisher or a studio faster than for it to be ill-formatted on paper, riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, and just plain unappealing in its structure. Put yourself in their place for a moment: professional readers who read maybe dozens of manuscripts or screenplays in a month, can easily develop a sense of fatigue, and that means they have pretty much zero tolerance for submissions that look like someone who doesn’t know how to write, sent it in. It could be potential New York Times bestseller material, but if you type it up hastily using Microsoft Notepad, and either omitted or prepared a cover page that doesn’t show what it needs to in the right places, they are very likely to just toss it out without even turning to page one—you might as well have written it with a crayon on the back of some napkins.
YOU NEED TO ACQUIRE A WRITING APPLICATION! I uppercase shouted that one for extra emphasis. Trust me, you don’t want to try to get an ordinary word processor to do all the intricate formatting—especially for a screenplay. There are reasonably good ones you can download for free, such as Celtx. Celtx was originally aimed at screenwriters, but now can be used to write novels, stage plays, and comic books. It has many tools that word processors like MS Word don’t have that are dedicated to writing manuscripts or screenplays. Formatting conventions for screenwriting are much more stringent than for novels. There are a half-dozen basic elements of the script that must start at and be indented and so forth in a precise manner. Even if you are struggling to put food on your table, there’s no excuse for skimping here. This bears repeating: if you misformat your work, you will be laughed at and dismissed as a rank amateur by most of the people who read your screenplay or manuscript.
And read books on writing, and maybe take a class or two, for goodness sake! I am surprised by how many aspiring beginner writers whose works I get a chance to see who don’t have the slightest inkling about the craft of writing. And as much as I hate the concept of formulaic writing, learning and adhering to the standard formatting guidelines is a must-do if you want to be taken seriously—not only in New York or London or Hollywood, but in small-town “indiewoods” around the world.
Now I know a guerilla filmmaker or three whose idea of a script is their notes on index cards. Sometimes they don’t decide exactly how they want the shoot to go down until they’re on set and ready to roll. Films made under these conditions tend to be more spontaneous and freeform, and have an almost documentary sort of feel to them. But it is a bit unfair to your actors under most circumstances to not give them a well-formatted script in advance that they can glean what they need to from. I don’t believe for filmmakers, that being good with a camera and having lots of contacts is a good substitute for knowing how to write.
So what can you tell when you read a draft a colleague or acquaintance has asked you to look at and give your feedback, before you even chomp into the meat of the story? Well, keeping in mind that every distinct genre will look and feel a little different, and every reader or viewer will differ in their desires and expectations, there are things that tend to turn you on and things that tend to turn you off.
A script can be too heavy on dialog. You can see that at a glance in a screenplay because of the indentation convention. Dialog-centric scripts might work well for touchy-feely dramas such as a story revolving around a couple of grandmothers recounting their early lives to each other (and the reader/viewer). But it can be an emotional anchor for an action-adventure or science fiction story. Think about the last time you got excited watching and listening to people talking for a very long period of time. Being too heavy on dialog means the story is too light on action or narrative. Narrative is what paints a picture in a reader’s mind of the locale, what the characters look like, and so forth. You strive to develop complex multi-dimensional characters, but dialog alone is not enough to accomplish this.
On the other hand, the story might come across as too light on dialog. Sometimes this can give a film something of a documentary sort of flavor as there is always something happening and only occasionally someone talking about it. For the most part, we look for dialog to give us a peek inside the heads of the characters that we cannot completely accomplish from their actions alone. In literature, there can be well-placed sections of lengthy narrative that work well, but eventually, we want to see and hear characters interact with each other, and this is where dialog comes in. There is a good balance between the various story elements, but it is not an exact science.
Screenwriting adds a few additional elements that aren’t of concern in writing novels or short stories (film is after all a visual experience, and even the script should convey imagery at all times). There are “directives” such as “FADE IN”, “PUSH IN ON”, PULL BACK TO REVEAL”, and so forth. And there are editing hints like “CUT TO”, and “DISSOLVE TO”. Some directors hate these. They think it insults them for a writer to suggest what a camera operator or an editor should do under his or her direction. But since not everyone who reads a script is a director, screenwriters use these anyway since they help convey the visual imagery of the as-yet unmade movie in the reader’s head.
And then there are the parentheticals laced occasionally into a block of dialog that are used to clarify how the line should be delivered e.g. (MUTTERING) or whom the line is being spoken to, e.g. (TO JOE). Again, some writing instructors advise going easy on parentheticals so as not to insult the director by implying he doesn’t realize who an actor is supposed to be speaking to or how he should speak the line. But sometimes it isn’t clear, and the writer really should clarify thee ambiguities. Directors can be very touchy people. If you’re writing for Hollywood, go easy on these add-in writer notes. If you’re writing for some local smalltime director, feel free to add as many directive notes as you want. It is better to give the director too much information as to what you the writer were intending when you wrote the script. But again, remember that directors aren’t the only people who read scripts. And since directors can and should have a shooting script prepared from the writer’s script anyway, and can potentially remove or change things at will, this is really just informal advice to go easy on them (too many parentheticals do sort of distract from the flow).
The balance of the different elements on paper is one of the things that defines the style of the writer. But it is also driven by genre. Horror, for example tends to have more staccato sort of flow to it to help build tension. Comedies might have more dialog, as the banter and kidding around may play a central role in defining the characters. How you write might also be driven by who you write for. If you write spec (speculative) scripts or a self-published novel or collection of short stories, you have more freedom to express your style. You have only yourself to answer to. But if you’re writing or rewriting for a studio or magazine, you may be required to comply with certain guidelines (such as a word count range, avoiding controversial issues, etc.). And the chief editor might tell you you need to adjust your style to fit the expectations of the readers. Welcome to the world of commercial writing.
With experience and with reading lots of other people’s works, you develop a sense of rhythm, pace and balance. The best advice I ever got from a writing instructor was: if you want to be a good writer, you must first become a good reader. I firmly believe you need to read a lot of existing novels and short stories (or if a screenwriter, read lots of scripts and watch lots of movies). Everyone has his or her own personal preferences, but we are all shaped by that which pre-exists all around us at all times.
On yet another drink-a-thorn with a few of my independent filmmaking colleagues (anyone see a theme here) an interesting topic for discussion was broached. The filmmaking folks in my circle of friends consist mainly of directors, producers and writers, so naturally the question revolved around the working relationship between the three. We talked a little about how things are done in Hollywood, but since most of us will never do more in Hollywood beyond taking the celebrity tour, we stuck mainly to how things are typically done and possibly should be done, and even could be done under various circumstances in the small-budget independent filmmaking world affectionately known as “indiewood”.
In that soul-crushing world known as Hollywood, the producer assigned by the studio exec is typically god on most productions. Only very famous and well-respected directors are allow “final cut” over a film they direct. Otherwise, they are just the person who executes the screenplay according to the wishes of the producer. And in Hollywood, the writer usually is long gone once the studio has bought the rights to his or her script. The final production shown in theaters could be something entirely different from what the writer intended. But unless you’re talking about an academy award winning screenwriter, the writer is generally considered just a provider of raw material for the movie and nothing more. If he or she writes a sensitive, heart-wrenching drama and it gets turned into a slapstick comedy, well that’s part of the soul-crushing aspect of Hollywood. Complications can rear up when say the director is also the writer, or the writer is also an actor and maybe an executive producer (or nephew of a rainmaker executive producer). Ah there are so many permeations. But for the sake of this discourse, we will stick mainly to talking about the low-budget/no-budget world of indiewood.
So in this beer-fueled discussion, I find myself the advocate for the writer. Two of my colleagues are directors who have also written and directed their own works. Another colleague is a producer. So I have this stack of screenplays I believe with all my heart are very good, but as an inexperienced director I want to shop them to a director I can work collaboratively with so as to make sure the intentions of my stories are faithfully put into a finished production, but without having to worry about dealing directly with actors, nor having to work out every camera angle and movement. One of my director friends says that I cannot have my cake and eat it too. If I hire a director to make my script into a movie, I must trust him or her and relinquish all my (as he calls it) backseat driving urges. There can only be one director and he makes the decisions on how to interpret the script.
Now hold on, my producer colleague says. The director reports to the producer and unless the director is Marty Scorcese, he doesn’t get the final cut power. My director colleague retorts that this ain’t Hollywood, and the producer is not the representative of the money people. The indiewood producer is just responsible for paperwork, and s hedging locations, and signing checks and arranging the food and coffee. At this point, I chime in with my own “this isn’t Hollywood” retort and express that the writer is the one who has slaved over every action and every word to get it all perfect. Since in indiewood, quite often it is the writer who funds the production, he should
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.
Learning is universally applicable. We apply it to everything in life. Some even say that death is graduation day. Some, sadly close their minds off at a certain age (Like after high school) or after infusing some dogmatic hyperbole (you know what I’m talking about brothers and sisters).
Part of learning is self-assessment of where we’re at and where we want to be. I have my own personal “Chang scale” I use to measure the value and quality (as I see it) of various artistic endeavors. In the formal education system, we have grades. If we pass the tests and do the homework, we get moved up to a higher grade. The grades not only act as a measuring stick, but also prescribe the type and level of knowledge to be imparted to us. Outside of the school system and its grades and diplomas, we have other, simpler ways of measuring ourselves (and others). Common methods of measuring skill level are things like high, medium and low levels of proficiency. And then there are terms like beginner, novice, intermediate and advanced. Some people add more levels like expert or advanced intermediate. Truth be told, these are all subjective. Smart-ness (I know) is in the eye of the beholder.
When I’m trying to learn something, mental or physical, and whether it be guitar, writing, mountain biking, hockey, surfing, or whatever, I tend to sense myself hitting walls and being on a plateau for a period of time before making some breakthrough to what is clearly a higher level of proficiency. However many levels you break the learning process down into, I have found myself usually having two or three eureka moments and facing two or three plateaus where I just seem to be stuck. For the sake of simplicity, I will stick to low-medium-high (beginner-intermediate-advanced) or whatever you want to call it, in my examples.
I remember when I started out playing hockey as a kid, I could barely stand up, let alone skate. This is rank beginner-hood. As my skating skills slowly progressed, I remember the hallmark of my playing ability was that as soon as I was in possession of the puck, I would take a quick look around and then push the puck in the direction of the nearest teammate (despite their shouts to “skate”). It was at that moment when I could actually skate and stickhandle the puck with my eyes up, looking around as I skated that I felt my game improved dramatically. I was actually seeing the game from a different perspective. I had made it past the first roadblock and into the intermediate level. I developed bits and pieces of advanced play before I had to hang up the skates due to recurring injuries: like being able to propel a backhand shot with velocity to the top of the net, being able to redirect slapshots from in front of the other team’s goal, being able to slam on the brakes hard when skating backward and the attacking opponent thought he could pull a fast one on me by slamming on his brakes. I never really got to be a seriously advanced player because I never was able to skate fast enough. But IMHO, I came close.
Surfing: (a big shout out to my bro Bert Mack out in Hawaii)
Starting to learn to surf, you find yourself endlessly paddling around looking for a wave you can take off on. There are little things you learn along the way to that first hurdle, like being able to duck dive out through a rip. But that first big eureka moment for me was the first time I was able to stand up and actually ride a wave (granted it was only knee-high) all the way until the wave closed out. I didn’t make any hotdog moves for sure, but at least I was able to steer the board away from other surfers paddling out (I’m certain that they appreciated that). I actually had a glimmer of advanced skill when I was able to ride an overhead wave in New Jersey after a nor’easter had passed offshore, without dying. Surfing an overhead wave without dying is always a good thing to accomplish. Again though, a spate of hockey injuries to knee, shoulder and back kept me from going much further. I have only surfed maybe twice in the past twenty years and probably will find myself back down in beginner land the next time I go out.
I remember getting that first guitar. The feeling is sheer exhilaration. But then you hold it in your hands and all you can do is strum a few open chords, and you wonder if you’ll ever be good enough even to say play in a garage band just for the fun of it. Thoughts like that alone can really hold you back. But I found as I studied music theory for guitar, played my idols’ riffs from tabs, and noodled around, that when I got to the point where I could play bar chords, power chords and other movable chords in all positions on the neck, with reasonable speed and timing, that I had passed my first hurdle. I had become a reasonably competent rhythm guitar player (note I did not say guitarist. There’s an implication of anything with “ist” at the end being an artist as well as technician). So now, my endeavors to take it to the next level involve learning speed lead (A.K.A. shredding), slide, improvisation and articulation. I figure maybe by the age of eighty I’ll be a pretty advanced guitarist (notice I used the superlative suffix this time).
When starting out in photography (and probably all along the way), you take lots of pictures every chance you get. You bring a camera everywhere and are always on the lookout for a great shot. As a beginning photographer starting out, you take snapshots (not to be confused with slapshots). For me, the transition to an intermediate level is somewhat still in progress. I am framing my shots in more interesting ways. I am a devotee of the eastern world’s view of background and empty space being of equal importance with foreground and objects. And I am gaining an understanding of how light behaves—how it is absorbed or reflected, refracted and diffused. My experience in sound engineering has helped me quite a bit in understanding how energy waves can behave and how you can capture them to your liking. I am carrying this into videography/cinematography, and discovering that the fourth dimension of time adds quite an interesting and challenging new set of issues. I’ve been learning that framing now involves knowing where a moving object enters the frame, where it exits the frame, and how long it stays in frame. Similarly, when camera and subjects are both moving, the angle of light hitting the subject and the lens changes. There’s so much to learn. I’m in awe of the very good cinematographers I know locally and have had the pleasure of working with.
When learning a foreign language, you typically start out memorizing phrases and carrying a phrase book when you travel. This works fine if the foreigners you meet always use the canned phrases. Of course this rarely happens. But they can look at your book and point to a phrase and let you know what they’re trying to say (like “don’t pester me”). When you are able to understand enough grammar and built up a reasonable vocabulary (say, a few thousand words), you have made it to the next level. You can construct sentences and understand what people are saying (for the most part—assuming the foreign speaker has mercy on you and sticks to basic simple language). Instead of a phrasebook, you probably will carry around a dictionary. And then as you might expect, the next level of proficiency is fluency. There are always levels within these broad classifications. Native fluency is a level that few can ever achieve in more than one language, save for children born into a mixed household or living abroad from a very early age.
In general, it is commonly believed that children learn things more easily than adults. The reason is not entirely clear. Some believe the brains of adults become less plastic and thus less open to reprogramming. Whatever the reason is, it seems evident that someone learning a skill from early childhood tends to gain proficiency faster and to a higher level than someone learning the same skill as an adult.
Abilities involving physical skills development tend to plateau at a point where only the development of complementary mental skills can carry the person to a higher level. Elite athletes know that the higher level you attain, the more the game becomes more mental in nature. Things like developing muscle memory, ignoring pain and fatigue, “psyching out” the opposition, and staying positive despite facing seemingly insurmountable odds, are all traits of an elite performer. The top hockey superstars talk about not just knowing where the puck is, but where the puck is going to be. I’ve read the same about good action photographers. There is a sort of instinct or “sixth sense” that develops at the highest most advanced levels of proficiency.
I have no doubt that learning itself, like any ability is something some people have more of an innate potential for. But like anything you strive to attain, hard work, dedication, perseverance and self-confidence can carry you over many of the obstacles that block the path to high proficiency. But one of the saddest things is observing how many people just plain give up on learning new things and improving their selves. For whatever reason, it seems a terrible shame to not care about being a better person in some meaningful way every day.
The comparisons are obvious. The sound mixer is responsible for recording the sound for a film just as the Director of Photography is responsible for recording the picture. There are similar technical issues involved. Whenever I have to train a new boom operator, I tell him or her to think of the boom microphone as a “camera for sound”—you aim it correctly to frame the sound properly. And you move in and out, sideways, up and down, back and forth, with the camera to match the perspective. You have close up dialogue and wide angle dialog. It might not be as technically complex as being a camera operator, but the finished film quality is very dependent on the boom operator doing his or her job well.
And just as stray light can ruin a camera shot, stray sound can ruin the dialog. The sound mixer needs to scout the set, listening for air conditioner rumble, refrigerator hum, exterior traffic noises, and so on, and then think up solutions using sound blankets, or perhaps attaching omnidirectional body mics to get a closer, cleaner sound than the boom could get. Sometimes the choice of microphones and microphone locations can be daunting. The sound mixer has to come up with a sound plan, just as the DP helps the director come up with a shot plan. Sometimes, the perfect shot would put the actors in a position where a sound problem cannot be fixed (e.g. in front of a window where there is a dog barking outside in a neighbor’s yard). The director might decide to move to a secondary choice or might opt to shoot as is and loop the dialog later in an ADR session.
When I do production mixing on an unpaid gig, I tell the director I want to be including in pre-production meetings, and I want to see the shot list and storyboards so I can prepare. I do not want to just show up at crew call time and then have to ask the director or assistant director or DP just moments before the director calls for quiet on the set, what the blocking is, who the principal speaking actor is for a particular shot, and so on. If I’m being paid, I politely suggest this, but in the end, my reaction will be yes sir/no sir. Money does talk.
And speaking of money, I hear all the time that one reason DP’s should be paid is because of the substantial equipment investment they have made. Now I don’t disagree with that one, but have to tell you filmmakers that the production sound guy is right behind the DP in terms of equipment investment. Here’s a personal short list of mine (doesn’t include the innumerable cables, adapters, sound cart, folding chair, etc., and expendables like batteries):
Ten grand worth of gear to do a good job recording production sound on a variety of production types. And as mentioned, this doesn’t include all the miscellaneous accessories, adapters, cables, stands, cart, chair, batteries, etc. So we’re well over ten grand for a moderately sophisticated non-Hollywood production sound setup. And you do need this stuff to do a decent job. And sound guys have a lot of technical details to learn and to take care of. So when I argue that the sound guy should be paid if the DP is being paid, there is a very good reason for it. Now granted, a good DP possibly spends 2-3 times that much for his cameras, lenses and all those lights. But the issue is the same, if to a differing degree.
My own personal rationale for doing production sound (and I tell everyone who asks if I’ll work sound for them) boils down to one of three reasons:
- (a) I’m being paid for it.
- (b) It’s for a good friend who has done favors for me in the biz (found me paid work, etc.)
- (c) It’s a great script, it tells a wonderful story and/or sends an important message, the director treats me as a respected senior crew chief, includes me in pre-production planning meetings, location scouting, shot planning and/or other creative capacity such as script review, or maybe throws me an acting part (I am an aspiring actor as well). The one thing I don’t tolerate well is a director who lumps me in with the guy who brings the coffee or the gal who moves the chairs around.
For this latter option, it sort of implies I know the director and know he or she is talented and respectful. I always ask to see the script before I decide. I don’t want to waste my time and gear on a crappy home movie-ish shoot with a crappy script. And I will send my comments on the script back to the director to see what his or her response is (I am a writer as well). I am absolutely prepared to have a director tell me that they just want someone to do sound only and nothing more. That’s perfectly fine with me, but I will generally pass on working for free under those conditions.
In essence, a director can pay me in one of three ways: cash; being a good friend who has done favors for me; or including me as a respected senior creative team member or giving me an acting part. I don’t work for free, but I do have alternative payment plans.
Truth be told, I do see the Director of Photographer as far more of an artist than the sound guy. The DP really creates the image the director is looking for in telling the story. He or she uses light, exposure, camera motion, focus pulling, and a myriad of other techniques to set a mood and evoke a feeling in the viewer. The production sound guy just works tirelessly to faithfully record the on-set dialog and sound effects. So the latter (though invaluable to the finished art form) is more technician than artist.
But my parting thought is that any director who thinks he or she can get good production sound by having an idle production assistant aim a $150 shotgun mic screwed onto a boom pole and plugged into a Radio Shack pocket recorder is delusional. You will get what you pay for. That beautifully framed and lighted shot, that acting moment that took twelve takes to get right, that touching story beat, might just be destroyed by having the dialog sound like it was shot inside a tunnel.
So many filmmaking folks feel that there is some kind of tall wall between those in front of the camera and those behind the camera. Many of the crew actually stand in awe of the actors for their ability to transform themselves into a fictional character. Often the feeling of awe is reciprocal. I notice on set actors sometimes gazing with awe at the jumble of cameras, dollies, cranes, lights, microphones and audio equipment. I think both are justified in being in awe of the other. To pull off a decent film requires dedicated teamwork under the auspices of the director (creative) and production manager (scheduling and logistics and so forth). It isn’t often you come across someone who is both comfortable and confident, both in front of and behind the camera. Sometimes directors write themselves into a part and try to do both. As I’ve learned from first-hand experience, unless you are both very good at directing and very good at acting, this can be a formula for failure.
Occasionally, I see someone else make the transition from one side to the other, and I find it interesting for various reasons. Firstly, a lot of people working crew just assume they can never be an actor. They assume (and rightly so) that acting requires some innate talent that while it can be honed with lessons and coaching, cannot be created out of nothing. But a lot of people don’t really know what latent talents lie hidden beneath layers of personality shaped by that dull grinding day job. There is often an actor waiting to be “discovered” and nurtured in that person who moves the lights around or decorates the set. And conversely, there are often actors who have a good eye for lighting or ear for sound, who when called on to lend a hand, can turn out to be quite proficient in helping out the crew after his or her’s parts have been filmed.
Some crew folks have great personalities, a fantastic sense of humor, and often ham it up behind the camera. Why shouldn’t they at least give it a whirl? And on low-budget indies, one would think directors would always be on the lookout for cheap (read: free) fresh new talent. But unfortunately we local small-time filmmakers tend to make this transition more difficult than it need be by insisting potential actors go through hoops before working for food. We too often require formal things like a headshot, resume, demo reel, and references even for someone being cast in a role with three short lines, before we’ll even consider auditioning them. It seems a tragic waste of potential to be overlooking those who simply never considered taking the time to put all those “hoops” together. But there are progressive directors who just seem to instinctively know they like someone for a part. And quite often these directors are able to elicit a more credible performance than they might from spending many hours reviewing paperwork and holding auditions.
I recently was working sound on a production, and had as usual been goofing around and hamming it up during breaks with my mates. I hadn’t realized the director had been watching. He approached me later in the day to ask if I was interested in playing a short role with maybe a half-dozen lines for a character that he thought I just might be perfect for. Needless to say I was a bit nervous, but also curious, so I jumped at the chance (fortunately there was another guy there qualified to take over the mixing). It was quite an eye-opening experience. I learned how really difficult acting is. It was not just about memorizing a script—that was the easy part. My bigger problem was getting heavily into the character I was playing and practicing it until I felt I was that character, and then staying there for hours as delay after delay in shooting pushed the schedule back. By the time they got around to shooting my scenes, I was rather tired and no longer “in the moment”. I had lost my edge. There was a huge lesson to be learned about peaking too early. I managed to fix this somewhat with an extra large coffee. If you’re wondering how it turned out, it’s still in post, but the director told me he was quite pleased with the footage.
I’ve heard other stories about astute directors noticing crew members and also guests hanging out on set, who were carrying on off camera in a certain way. After a brief discrete chat, and a script tweak, there’d be a newbie on camera as an extra or maybe with a small speaking part. Different people react differently when asked if they want to be on camera. Some are just not into it at all and run for the hills. Kudos to these directors who have open minds and aren’t afraid to take chances on occasion. It’s great for the local film community as a whole to give people an opportunity to contribute in different ways. But I’ve also known plenty of directors who won’t give anyone a chance unless they go through the official channels (acting agency) and jump through the formal “loops” (demo reel, resume with proper headshot, and references, etc…) And that’s a real shame since many of the best performances you’ll see in micro-budget Indieworld are pulled off by folks with little or no formal acting experience or training. Danny Trejo supposedly was discovered after he was released from prison and turned up on set as a guest of someone he was helping with a drug addiction problem as his sponsor. The point is you never know where the next new talent might come from.
Having myself directed several shorts, I feel it is not just my duty, but a smart thing to think outside the box and consider all possibilities. That tall geeky guy holding the microphone boom, clowning around—he might just be perfect for a geeky nerdy character who clowns around in the same way. In this small-budget indie film world, we have a golden opportunity to not be hampered by artificial lines of separation imposed by guilds and unions and studios. So keep your eyes and ears open all the time, because fresh, exciting, undiscovered talent might just be as near as your own set.
Freshly back from the highly entertaining Buddy Guy concert at the Progress Energy Center, I started pondering how the size of a rock band determines how the band has to perform in order to sound good. I specifically mention rock here since other mainstream genres such as jazz and country seem to have the group dynamics down pretty well—probably by necessity. I’ve been to some great rock/blues concerts lately and some pretty awful ones, and this issue perplexed me a bit. So I thought about it. How does a band get a great sound from either a handful or a stageful of performers?
It isn’t just by accident that a symphony orchestra pulls over a hundred instruments together into an intricate mixture that can move an audience deeply. It is due to the ability of the conductor to make sure each piece fits together perfectly. And the fact is some classical music just won’t work with a gigantimongus orchestra—thus the chamber orchestra, the string quartet, and the solo accompaniments. So if a classical symphony orchestra has a leader who arranges the musical compositions and then conducts the performance, why don’t all bands follow this successful formula?
The obvious answer is that they can’t afford it—aesthetically as much as financially. I can’t imagine seeing a rock band with someone in front of them waving a baton about. But on the other hand, they do have someone acting in that role for every song. Sometimes the member differs from song to song, and sometimes there is one prominent leader on the stage. But I don’t see a baton in anyone’s hand, you say? But you do. In fact you see two in the drummer’s hands. At key points in the song (especially for the ending) you probably notice the drummer making a flourish or rolls on the toms and cymbals. The he lifts his hands in the air in one final dramatic gesture and brings the sticks down in a final percussive explosion. Take a look at the other musicians at the end of a song—see how they look at the drummer’s hands. The drummer has just guided the band through various sections and brought the song to a rousing climax. Welcome to small-band conducting 101.
And it’s not just the drummer who can do this. In a band with a prominent guitarist, watch as he turns and looks at other band members and nods his head. He isn’t just showing contentment. He is indicating things to the other members: things like “four more bars on this solo”, or “your turn to step out”, and so on. And in place of the drummer raising his sticks, you’ll see the neck of his guitar rise up and then come hurling down for the climactic ending. Lead vocalists can do this too. You’ve seen them swinging a handheld microphone around, lifting it up, and then pulling it quickly down (watch Roger Daltry of the Who in a live performance).
So there is a sort of conducting going on onstage with respect to the timing of the performance. But what about for the relative volume levels of the various instruments? You see the symphony conductor point his non-baton-holding hand toward a section of instruments and then raise his hand palm up or lower it palm down. With this gesture, he informs his instrumentalists to play louder or softer. The result is a well-balanced mix of sounds. How does a small band accomplish this? For the most part, they have to rely on the sound engineer operating the front of house (FOH) mixing console for this. Most successful bands think of the person at the mixing board as another member of the band. They treat him or her with great respect prior to the show when setting up and then running through the sound check. A good FOH engineer knows music, knows the band and its repertoire, and is a master of setting and adjusting the levels of the various voices and instruments to create that perfect mix the symphony conductor accomplishes from his onstage position. If you’ve ever noticed how awful the sound can be in a bar or other small venue where the band tries to mix the sound themselves from the stage, maybe with “assistance” from a drunken buddy in the crowd telling them who to turn up or down—well you can chalk that up to that extra unseen band member not being there doing an exemplary job of riding the faders.
Then of course there is the arrangement itself. At the Buddy Guy concert, each musician had a role to play and knew when to step out with a blazing solo, and when to step back and lay down rhythmic textures as a backdrop for someone else. The prominent sound throughout the whole concert was the headliner himself—Buddy. But even with bands that don’t have a specific member who stands out as the undisputed leader, there are protocols and common sense to be followed. Much of the performance (but not all) has been determined prior to the performance in the arrangement of the piece. Buddy’s Damn Right Blues Band got it right! Keyboardist Marty Sammon, Drummer Tim Austin, Bassist Orlando Wright and guitarist Ric Hall didn’t just play well—they played well together—as if they’d been playing together for a decade or more (they probably have been). A band is most often guided by whoever composed the piece (in the absence of a strong band leader) and they make a mutual agreement as to who plays what parts at what volumes and for how long, and then they rehearses this until it sounds right. If they are smart, they will have someone with good set of ears listen to their rehearsal and let them know what sounds good and what doesn’t. What sounds good and what doesn’t differs by band size (among other things).
With a power trio like ZZTop, the big challenge is getting enough sound out of the band. Each musician has to be capable of soloing as well as laying down rhythmic textures—sometimes at the same time. Watch Billy Gibbons playing power chords while simultaneously playing lead on the higher strings, and maybe even a little bass line with his thumb (Jimi Hendrix was the undisputed master of sounding like three guitarists on stage. He was complemented by bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, rather than competing with them!). Another great power trio was Cream. The bassist in a power trio has to be able to play interesting lead lines as well as chords (Noel Redding and Jack Bruce were, and ZZ’s Dusty Hill is, more than capable of changing roles as needed to play off against the guitarist). And the drummer has to be able to both keep time for the band and deliver killer chops himself. Again, The Experience’s Mitch Mitchell, Cream’s Ginger Baker and ZZTop’s Frank Beard have been able to not only lay down a percussion backdrop, but also to stand out with remarkable chops of their own. The signature of a great power trio is having three amazingly talented musicians who know how to play together instinctively.
At the other end of the spectrum is the “big band”. The prototypical big bands were the swing bands of the post-war era, led by the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey… These were tight, highly sophisticated bands capable of filling a dance hall with some pretty amazingly good sounds. These days, you rarely see a rock band with more than six musicians on stage. Occasionally you’ll see two or three backing vocalists or a couple of horns. These are usually just sweeteners. They add to the cost of touring, so you rarely see them with any but the most successful touring bands capable of drawing big crowds.
My recent attendance at a Dave Mathews Band performance drilled home the fact that too many musicians on stage can be a very negative thing for a performance if not handled well vis-a-vis arrangement and conducting. The arrangements and on stage choreography must be perfect or else the result is a sonic stew. Rock violinist Boyd Tinsley was magnificent: for the ten seconds or so that you could actually hear him playing. The rest of the time, his performance was buried within a jumble of over a dozen instruments and vocals. Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross on horns – well I think I heard a little of them and they seemed pretty good. Tim Reynolds played guitar, and I’m still not sure I heard much more from his feed than one solo. The only instrumentalist that stood out was guest saxophonist Branford Marsalis, but that was an obvious decision. Branford would not likely want to be a guest performer if he couldn’t be heard above the din. And then there’s Dave Mathews himself, one of the better storytelling singer/songwriters who was up front banging away on acoustic guitar and belting out his already blurry style of vocals and he gave a totally unimpressive performance. The end result was one of the most disappointing performances I can recollect in recent times. Nothing about it was memorable in a positive way (save for the performance of the opening act: The Lumineers (more about this wonderful low-key folk/rock band in another review).
In fairness to Dave, some of the problem could have been the room acoustics (though I’ve heard some very good concerts at the PNC Arena). It could have been due to a poor mixing job at the front of house. But then Dave should know about these potential issues and stay on top of them by creating crisp clear arrangements that leave no room for errors of this type. The instrumentals were simply too busy, too muddled, too indistinct. I know that the big band sound is what Dave is going for, but in this performance he struck out.
My concluding thoughts: the challenge for small bands is to have highly talented musicians working together to create enough musical textures to keep the performance from sounding thin. The challenge faced by stage-filling bands is somewhat the opposite: keeping all those instruments and “textures” from competing and ultimately forming a jumbled morass of sound. Musicians in smaller bands need to put their egos aside and either let one member be the band leader or else trade-off as appropriate. Leaders of big bands need to take charge on stage, and they need to create arrangements that let each musician shine in their own time, rather than just generating a high-volume slop.
Cary really never was a serious cultural mecca, well at least not compared with places like Raleigh, Durham, Carborro and Chapel Hill. It seems though to sink farther into sterile suburban hell each year though, despite its growing size. The Indie film community was saddened last year when the Galaxy Theater closed down in favor of yet another Harris Teeter store taking its location. Gone are the opportunities to see independent films in Cary, along with the Bollywood offerings that had been crossing cultural boundaries. There was talk of finding another location when the theater owner was evicted, but that completely fizzled out. Now Caryons (I prefer that moniker) can feast on run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare unless they want to drive to another city. There are but a handful of good independent theaters in the triangle area, and it is unfortunate to see one die like that.
And then I stopped off at Fat Sound Guitars to look for a glass slide for my middle finger. After years of being able to drop in and buy my strings, picks, cables and other accessories there, I was shocked to see the place had closed down. The shelves were empty and there was no indication they had simply moved somewhere else. Fat Sound was a fantastic resource for boutique guitars and amplifiers and a convenient location for all the other paraphernalia. One of the Triangle’s best luthiers (Mark Kane) was based in a back room there (he has moved to a new location in Cary). Fat Sound’s loss now joins my list of sad reminders of what Cary is becoming.
And I still haven’t forgotten way back when Gypsy’s Shiny Diner was opening and the town elders were up in arms that a non-drab building was being placed within the city limits. I remember how they insisted that the owner’s plant shrubs all around it to “soften up” the shininess.
Then the Border’s Bookstore around the corner from Gypsy’s closed as part of their corporate bankruptcy. And then there’s the great wasteland at Waverly place.
So I find myself wondering what’s next for Cary. Perhaps an ordinance banning colorful clothing? Maybe a fine for driving a car with the windows rolled down and the radio playing? Or how about a regulation preventing people from flying colorful flags in front of their houses? I moved to Fuquay Varina from Cary years ago, and wondered at the time if moving out to “the sticks” was going to be a drag. It turns out I have to drive to downtown Raleigh anyway for anything smacking of culture. Rest in Peace City of Cary.