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.
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.
Second day of shooting for this short in which I’m not only mixing sound, but also have a speaking part in, just went down. My respect for actors continues to grow. The sheer will to get into character, and to not only deliver one’s lines, but to also think about the mannerisms, hand gestures, vocal inflections and so forth, without tripping up, requires tremendous focus. For some actors, getting to that maximum level of focus (in the zone) requires impeccable timing. Not every actor can stay at that maximum level of focus and intensity all day long. Certainly not myself.
I had faithfully read the script again and again on the days leading up to the shoot. I was supposed to have a hint of a mysterious Eastern European-sounding accent, and come across with a certain nefarious flair. I thought I had it down pretty well. On the first day of shooting, I studied and practiced my lines like a maniac every chance I got during breaks from mixing. I walked around the set speaking them in my voice and with my facial expressions and it cracked everyone up (presumably with how good it was coming across). I kept getting told it was great. But when it came time much later in the day (evening actually) to let another person mix while I stepped in front of the camera to play my part, I was physically and mentally tired and found myself forgetting lines and not putting in the energy I should have been, despite the best efforts of the director (and an extra-large coffee) to get me back into it. I was told it was a good performance though. But talking with the director afterwards, decided for the next day of shooting to not expend so much energy on getting into character perhaps until I was in costume.
So, for the second long day of shooting I diligently avoided getting emotionally wound up, and working the energy level up for the character until I went into wardrobe and makeup. But that zipped by quickly and I was in front of the camera before I felt I was really in the zone. So for day two, I just didn’t feel I was prepared. I wasn’t delivering with the intensity I should have, and was occasionally even forgetting the accent: not because I was physically tired or emotionally drained, but because it took me longer than I had thought it would to get really ready. I think I did satisfactorily overall, but I could have done better. I realize now that I needed at least an hour of running lines right up until go time. Instead, I think I ran them with the actress I was in the scene with for maybe ten to fifteen minutes before the director called for us to get on our marks. It’s shoots like these where you are glad you were nice to the script supervisor!
I have some friends who have been acting for many years who confirmed my suspicions on how actors need a certain amount of time to prepare for a scene, and then can often only stay ready for a certain amount of time before the preparation wears off. It differs from actor to actor, but everyone has that “zone” they need to get in and stay in. I thought about the plight of relief pitchers in baseball who get up to start warming up, and then sit down for a while, and then get back up, and so on. Once you get to know what those timings are for you (and they can differ from shoot to shoot depending on the emotional requirements of the scene) you can better plan when you need to start “warming up”. It is always a good idea to confirm the call times and shooting schedule with the production manager or director to make sure you have ample time to get into character, but not so much time that the feeling starts to wear off and you come down too far from your peak.
I envy those actors who can get into character quickly and stay there for a long time. That is not me at the present though. But this was only my second acting role and I’m definitely learning a lot (I’ll write up my specific thoughts on working on set in all the roles and responsibilities I’ve undertaken some day in my memoirs). I can’t say for sure that doing sound is more or less challenging than acting. They are certainly different. And I certainly enjoy facing both of these types of challenges. Let it suffice to say that if I continue to be fortunate enough to land more roles, that I hope I can learn these essential lessons, such as on how to prepare. I tell you though, when I watch a film now, my mind sometimes wanders into wondering how the actor perhaps prepared for their role.
I got some positive feedback and also a little eyebrow raising from some of my director friends who read my previous blog entry “How much power should a director have over a production”. Now I have a vested interest as a writer and aspiring actor, as well as experienced sound guy, to maintain good relationships with local filmmakers, so I have to resist the urge to tone down my thoughts and opinions in order to avoid being ostracized. But I feel I can and must be honest and open in my blogging. To do otherwise would constitute a commercial sellout for which I would deserve to be completely squelched out by my readership here and on Twitter. How can I champion art over commerce, and then abandon my principles in order to land parts and and crew work? So I tell myself that I wouldn’t want to work for or with any local filmmaker who cannot take some constructive criticism and look in the mirror once in a while. I do it every day! And much of what I say here is tongue-in-cheek, and I will mock myself just as quickly and easily as I’ll mock anyone else.
One of my colleagues told me in no uncertain terms that until I’ve walked the walk, I should refrain from criticizing anyone else. Well, my first short is in post, and as soon as I finish the editing, I will put it out for the world to see (and criticize!). But as I stated in a previous blog, I do not believe that one needs to be an expert practitioner to be able to nor allowed to critique the work of others. And furthermore, there is a benefit to having one’s efforts objectively critiqued. A filmmaker’s close friends and co-workers are going to be hesitant to tell him what’s not right about what he’s doing or make strong suggestions for improvement (not if they want to continue to be friends and work on productions). That’s what the outside set of ears and eyes is for. That’s what I do. (takes a deep breath)…
Let me state for the record, that while there are some good indie directors who can also write, being a good director neither implies nor guarantees being a good writer. These guys need to study the craft just as we dedicated writers do. They need to read books and take classes, and practice just as diligently as any other writer. They should have friends review their screenplays and solicit honest feedback, just as any smart writer would do. And they should (if they aren’t already doing it) be reading lots of Hollywood screenplays and watching lots of movies.
I think I struck a few raw nerves when I insinuated that ego was possibly the reason many indie directors only want to direct their own scripts, even if (as I had originally put it) they were just so-so writers. And I think that is a shame, since there are a lot of great writers (who don’t pretend they can also direct) with some great scripts to offer up. It seems to be the nature of the (indie) beast though that most of the filmmaking is done by combination writer/directors.
There are a lot of brilliantly-photographed, wonderfully-acted, beautifully-scored films where objective viewers are left scratching their heads at vague themes, lack of character development and arcs, trite dialog, thin plots and predicable endings: the hallmark of poor writing. Now, it’s not all as bad as that. There are some great small budget indie films and web series’ out there (and I know some of the people who have made them and will interview a few of the top area filmmakers in the near future). I’m just saying that there is also a great deal of poor storytelling (yes even in Hollywood and even on Netflix): thinly-disguised with interesting camera work, sensational special effects, and catchy music. It’s pandemic though in the indie world. We should all strive to rise above that.
I wrote in an earlier blog about how indie filmmaking had become a much more accessible medium with the advent of inexpensive video cameras, and free or cheap distribution channels such as YouTube, but that this had created an over-saturation of mediocre quality material (what I, when wearing my sound guy hat, refer to as a low signal-to-noise ratio). I am a firm believer that for a film to rise above and apart from the noise floor, it needs to have more than beautiful shots, a lovely musical score, and photogenic and talented actors. It needs a great story. I can’t see anyone arguing with that point.
I sort of hope that one of the main outcomes of any constructive criticism, will be that the cream of the low-budget indie filmmakers would self-reflect more and would raise their own standards even higher. There are some really talented local filmmakers. A good screenplay is one of the things that a low-budget filmmaker can afford in the indie world (as opposed to helicopter shots, exploding cars, and shots of actors walking on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange at midday). I also would hope that those who are endlessly churning out fluff, and then begging incessantly for people to view and like their stuff, would be encouraged to put their inexpensive camcorders aside for a little while, and study and read and reflect, and pay attention to the good stuff out there. Maybe they should consider even hooking up in a supporting capacity for a period of time with a truly talented filmmaker to really learn what goes into the making of a good film.
My parting advice to everyone is to dial down the egos a little: there’s room for improvement for everyone. I know that my writing can certainly stand improvement. That’s one of the reasons I blog. And it’s one of the reasons I heartily welcome your feedback.
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.
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.