Author Archives: Tim Prebble

EDU14 Analysing a Script for Sound

So here is my approach to analysing a script, prior to meeting with a Director to discuss their project.
Having to improvise makes me nervous, so I like to be very well prepared & have lots of specific ideas to discuss.
Having been sent a PDF copy of the script, print out a copy. Yes. Print out a copy on paper.
We do not want to be looking at screens when reading it. A paper copy will also serve another purpose.
Print it out.


Pass 1:
Read the script in one pass, full immersion, no distractions.
Phone off. Read it in real time.

There is a saying which I will be repeating more than a few times:
You only ever get one first impression.
A lot of your instincts and feelings about the project are formed on that first pass.
So it is important to place a lot of value on that experience.
Don’t write notes, just read it.

The general rule for a shooting script is a page a minute.
So a 120 page script equates to a 120 minute, 2 hour film.
A 90 page script equals a 90 minute film.

It’s good to allow some time to think about what you have read.
So maybe it makes sense to open a nice bottle of wine in the evening.
Read the script & then go for a walk or sleep on it.
The next morning reflect on how the script & story made you feel.
How did the arc of the story affect you?


Pass 2:
Ok so this time you will re-read the script and get very specific.
You’ll need a pack of coloured post-it notes.
I prefer to use the narrow Page Marker post-it notes, like these ones:

You’ll want lots of different colours as we’re going to use each colour as a ‘food group’
Step 1 is to stick one of each colour on the front of the script.
Let’s say we start off by assigning blue to AMBIENCES, so I’d write AMBIENCE on the blue page marker on the front of the script. And I’d turn to page 1, and I’d put a blue post-it by the Scene 1 description:

SCENE 1 EXT. CORN FIELD – DOPE PATCH – DAY

I’d then re-read that scene and if there was a specific sound event, I’d tag it with a colour coded post-it.
In BOY, a few scenes later the kids push start the Aunties old Humber 80 car.
I decide to assign vehicles to green, and go back to the front of the script and write VEHICLES on the green post-it. And I stick a green post-it beside the part of the scene where they describe the car action. A while later Boys Dad turns up in his V8, so every time it occurs in a scene, I stick a green post-it beside the action.

If you have watched the film, at one point Boy makes a microwave oven break down. OK so lets assign that to general sound FX and the colour yellow. So I go back to the front of the script & write SFX on the yellow post-it. And every time there is a significant sound effect mentioned in the script it gets a yellow post-it. The scene where the Dad is trying to dig up the buried loot? yellow post-it. The scene where the Rory skateboards up to his Dad, while holding a sparkler? yellow post-it.

The number of post-it colours you will need really depends on the film. For example, there aren’t really any monsters or creatures in the film BOY.
Whereas another film I did, BLACK SHEEP, had many creatures. So when marking up the script for BLACK SHEEP I had a category assigned to CREATURE VOX. On some films you’d need a WEAPONS category etc etc…

Now some common sense is required. For example, I don’t need to tag every single ambience as some will be recurring throughout the film.
The main aim is to identify change. So maybe the first time we see BOYS house it is morning. Tag it! Maybe later in the film we see BOYS house at night – Tag it, as it’s a new occurrence.

On some projects I also tagged specific cases of foley.
For example, on the film THE ORATOR, I tagged foley so we would discuss the surfaces inside a Samoan village fale/house.
For example, on the film EMPEROR, I tagged foley in places so we would discuss the contrast between traditional Japanese footwear like gita, with the footwear that the US military would be wearing.

The aim is to quickly try to identify all of the potential for interesting sound.
I would also tag DX/CROWDS sometimes eg if there was a bar scene or a concert scene.

This process might take another 2 or 3 hours, but by the end of it you will have a script covered in post-it notes.

Before I get into how use this resource we are creating, I wanted to make a point about NOT doing this virtually.
I very strongly advise you to not be sucked into marking up a PDF with virtual post-it notes.
Yes printing out a script wastes some paper. And yes buying post-it notes costs a little.
But there is a MASSIVE benefit to doing this process in the real world.
Bear with me, you will see why.

OK so what have we achieved?
We have basically created an analog database, and now we want to extract some totals.

One by one I’d do a quick total up of how many of each tag there is in the script.
So I can now quickly skip through the script and find every vehicle.
Depending on the film I might decide to document how many occurrences of each vehicle there is.

BOY VEHICLES = 18
Humber 80 = 3
Hero V8 = 12
Second V8 = 1
School Bus = 2

See how we’ve already gone from ‘there’s some vehicles in this film’ to ‘there are exactly this many occurrences of each vehicle in this film!’ That’s a major step to being specific about working on this project.

Depending on the project, it may be worth doing an Ambience scene count. To accurately assign signifiance, how many times are we in that corn field?

For some projects you might end up with a quick list:
EXT SUPERMARKET – 10 scenes
INT SUPERMARKET – 12 scenes
INT PRISON – 32 scenes

By noting such specific examples, we can start to think about how we will approach the ambiences. Which ambiences will be easy, which do we already have great material for? Which ambiences do we need to record? Also, which ambiences are purely functional & which play an emotive role or are critical for story telling.

The same applies to the sound effects. Some sound effects are played as real and some are imaginary eg Rockys magic. Subjective sound effects might get their own category.

As a final step, sometimes I will tag moments as SOUND DESIGN eg a scene or moment where the script motivates us to consider the entire approach to the soundtrack including score. As an example, in many films I have been sound designer on, I like to find a moment of silence. This has to be motivated by story & character, and sometimes it’s not applicable at all. But I want to show I am thinking about the entire soundtrack, so I might tag a bunch of scenes in the film which will be serious fun to mix, and think about their significance..

So now we have

– a script that is colourfully marked up for sound.
– a list of categories weighted by their occurrences.

Now why do I insist on doing all of this in the real world & not on your laptop?
I can only write this from the benefit of hindsight, having completed this process many, many times and observed the reaction.

So let’s say the day comes to meet up with the director & producer to discuss the possibility of you working on their film. Usually, after polite introductions and some small talk, the Director may like to outline their vision for the project. This may or may not get into specifics.. but sooner or later, the question will be presented to you: “You’ve read the script? What did you think of it?”

So all of this time I’ve had my marked up script with me, out of sight in my carry bag. I’d usually talk generally about how much I enjoyed the script and its themes, the characters and story arc etc… Then I’d start to discuss the specific elements of the soundtrack, by saying I made some notes… And I would pull out my marked up script and put it down on the table in front of me. Every single time the reaction was palpable.

When you think about it from their perspective, a director has spent years working on that script. They poured their heart & soul into it. They have revised it, had it critiqued, and workshopped it. They have done read-throughs with the cast. And they have some ideas about sound. But OMFG when someone turns up to a meeting and drops an analog database on them, they almost explode with joy!
I used this method when pitching for a US horror film years ago, which the very experienced producer & newish directors were hoping to shoot & post in NZ. When they asked what I thought of the script, I said something like ‘OMG this script is a sound designers dream job! There is SO MUCH potential for awesome sound!!” And I pulled out their script covered in post-its and dropped it on the table. They laughed for like five minutes! It was beautiful! The director insisted on taking a photo of my script and the producer said to me ‘No one has ever done this, on any project I’ve ever worked on!’ All for the price of some post-its and some time & thought invested.

Now this might seem like silly theatrics or smoke & mirrors, but it isn’t. It is genuine as all hell. I am not only showing them that I care about their film and want to work on it. It shows them I have a creative process and I have already started working on it!

And once the reaction subsides I get to show them what I have identified, and I can ask specific questions. It’s important to remember Directors like to direct. So it’s important to not overstate your ideas. It’s not that I have the solution, it’s that I have the details so we can discuss how the director wants to play a certain moment or scene. Hopefully your ideas align, but if they don’t then those are specific mental notes you want to make for future reference. Hopefully for when you are on the project.

By this stage I will have created some lists on my laptop, but compare the reaction to the reveal of my homework. Pulling out a colourfully marked up script that is covered in scribbled notes has an instant effect. Every film maker knows what that means with one glance. Now compare that with having done the same process all virtually. Even if printed out, it would be like handing over some financial documents or something. Despite conveying the same information, the analog method creates a beautiful visual artefact, which is evidence of your creative process.

So depending on the project, discussion about specific sound elements & the overall sound design of the film might continue for half an hour. Without my marked-up script I might feel nervous about remembering everything I want to discuss, but because I’ve done my homework I can confidently discuss every aspect of the soundtrack, and often in ways the director may not have even considered yet. It’s important to be humble & friendly, because this is also a test run for you & the director collaborating for the very first time. Its almost like a first date – is this someone I want to spend a lot of high-quality time with?

There is a aying by Maya Angelou “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” and I think this also speaks to what our aim of pitching for the film is. We want to shake hands with that director at the end of the meeting and them leave excited! Excited for what you can achieve together, and what that means for the film.

What else is important to discuss when pitching for a film?

– Incase it turns out you only have five minutes to discuss the film, you still want to get across the essential information about your approach. So it’s worth prioritising what you consider is most important about the film and how you work.

– When you think about film making, it is very important to think of the relationships involved. The most important relationship is between yourself and the director, producer & picture editor. And of course all of your other important relationships – with the production sound recordist, rerecording mixers, the composer & dialogue/ADR, foley and all the members of the sound team.

– It’s very important to make sure that you get across that you love collaboration and are totally open to input and direction – from the first spotting session, through all the run throughs, through the predubs and final mix and throughout final changes. Explain how you like to evolve the soundtrack under direction, to find the voice of the film, via receiving feedback of work in progress. I have always believed that by the time predubs start, the director has heard and signed off on all content for the soundtrack. So they are then focusing on how they want the material to play, scene by scene and they don’t have to worry about individual elements of the content itself.

– It can be invaluable to offer temp FX and ambiences to the director, during picture editing… It depends on the style of the film but eg a horror film will want stings and tones etc while cutting picture. Identifying such needs and offering them unprompted shows you understand their process. And it can also help avoid the use of tired old sound effects that the editor might have on a hard drive somewhere.

– They may want to see a show reel, in which case you will want to select a number of scenes from projects you have done, that illustrate your best work. Context matters. If it’s a sensitive drama that you are pitching for, they won’t appreciate seeing scenes from a horror film. So its on a case by case basis, and I ended up with multiple versions of my show reel, so I could provide one that is appropriate.

– I usually print out a copy of my CV with each film listed with director, producer and film studio listed. While indie films often have autonomy and can make whatever choices they like, studio films will often have someone verify all roles. But if you are 100% convincing on the main pitch, this shouldn’t be the main focus: they wouldn’t ask you to pitch if they didn’t consider you a contender. So if you really want this project, it is your job to do more homework & put more thought into pitching than anyone else that they might be considering….

– Remember, you aren’t pitching for just this film. You want to do ALL their films. You want to become the first person they think of, when it comes to sound design for their films.

Inevitably some of the homework you do, you won’t need or get the chance to show them (eg they probably don’t need to see your ambience list breakdown) but by having made it and thought about it, you have a deeper insight as to whats involved….

So have I ruined it by sharing this methodology? I doubt it.

Most people won’t bother doing all this work. Every so often I see people state ‘you should never work for free’ and I always think to myself ‘bullshit!’. No one is paying me to read the script (2-3 hours) No one is paying me to mark up the script & make notes (2-3 hours). It’s part of my creative process that transcends mere money. It’s also an investment that may or may not pay off (eg that US horror film I mentioned never got funding) But all I know is that when I am given an opportunity like this, I am going to work as hard as I can to make it happen.

It’s a discussion for another day, but towards the end of my film career I also came up with three criteria for taking a project on. I think most professional working sound designers have had an occasional ‘less satisfying’ experience on a film. And sometimes the hardest learned lessons are the ones you never forget. Over the 40 feature films that I worked on, there were only a couple which in hindsight I would now have turned down. From such experiences, my decision making considerations required meeting three criteria:
1. They have to be nice people.
2. The film must have good ideas with the potential for great sound.
3. They must have a realistic budget, scaled for the project.

1. No amount of income is worth losing your mental health over. So that first criteria is crucial. Despite the power imbalance, when you meet with a Director & Producer, you are also auditioning them. If they are toxic or denigrating towards other people, then they will likely also treat you that way, sooner or later.

2. A film is a major creative commitment. If the story doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how great your sound is… Having said that, I have worked on a few failed films where the sound was complimented most. So even if a project does not succeed by usual standards, it may still help your work by being seen & heard. And one thing is true: directors watch other directors work. And they notice what people contribute.

3. Budget I discussed in EDU12. Getting burnt or burning yourself out, trying to achieve great work without enough budget can be a frustrating experience. And under-achieved work can reflect badly on you. No audience looks up the budget for a film before they see it. But some projects are worth investing your time in, and my only advice in such circumstances is to gently make sure the director & producer know what you are contributing, beyond what they can afford, and why it is important. It is a chance to educate them and to hopefully increase their standards, expectations and future budgets. If they under-budget once, that sucks. But if they do it repeatedly then it shows a pattern of behaviour.

Finally, please appreciate any of the more philosophical attitudes I have come from having spent 25 years working on films. When I first started I would have crawled over broken glass to get the opportunity to work on a film, any film. But being keen is only part of the equation. The real work occurs on the job, and there is no shortcut to gaining experience. But I hope these articles help you form ways of thinking about such work.

One of my favourite sayings ever is by haiku poet Matsuo Basho.

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise.
Seek what they sought.”

Matsuo Basho

I had many heroes as a young sound designer but I did not seek to follow them. I relentlessly challenged myself to learn and apply their ideas and techniques and attitudes, filtered through my own psyche, experiences, taste and aesthetics. That’s the aim. To bring your own sensibilities to the beautifully profound, collaborative art of film making!

EDU13 Field recording for BOY

Some photos & sounds from my recording trip to Waihau Bay, in late April 2009.

This bridge & riverbed were a location in the film, so I did quite a bit of recording here, from many different perspectives & also walked up the riverbed to get near rapids… Later when I edited the ambiences for these scenes I of course used recordings from a dozen different rivers, but one wide recording I did at this river I really liked for its ‘thin-ness’ and used it in wide shots & as layers in the surrounds. Back in 2009 my field recording setup consisted of a Sound Devices 722 and a Sanken CSS5 stereo mic.

I also did some recording close up by this small stream in the river…

Way further up the river I came cross this stand of Toetoes which is a native plant, so I recorded a lovely ambience of rustles & crickets

Ah the corn! It was unreal to walk 100m into this corn paddock – the corn was 8 foot high, and when there was a wind gust you could hear it travelling through the corn….. I must have spent an hour or two in this paddock – it was like an ocean of rustles & this recording doesn’t do it justice…

This was a location in the film where the kids play and it was close to the corn paddock, so I did record some nice roof iron rattling in the wind but didn’t end up using it in the film as the scene played as a montage driven by music….

This beautiful old church wasn’t in the film but I just had to take this photo as it was so beautiful as the sun set…

What do you do for a living? Me? I record the sound of empty paddocks, the sound of one cricket chirping, well maybe not one…

Another roadside paddock recording:

Midday recording near the pub in Waihau Bay

Now the above car, a Ford Fairlane 500, was one of the meanest sounding V8s I have recorded & I would have liked to record for hours with it & get complete coverage for future use, but this car only featured in one shot in the film and it had over heating problems so the vehicle wrangler wasn’t keen for us to use it too much before they got the scene shot…. but just listen to it:

This Valiant Charger V8 did appear in the film a lot, so I did quite a bit of recording with it – you can see my exhaust mic gaffer taped to the rear bumper…. It was a far more ‘normal’ sounding V8…

And this is the kids Nans Humber 80, a classic 4 cylinder car in great condition. It made me smile to hop in & drive it after roaring around in those two V8s!

These are the two dynamic mics I wrapped in cloth and gaffer taped to the rear bumper for exhaust & in the engine bay.

As so many of the locations in the film are coastal, I also did some recording of beaches – close up:

And also wide & diffuse for more general ambience use…

A week or two after I got home from this trip, I spent a weekend staying in Ngawi (2 hours from Wellington) to do more beach recording as I knew it would be useful, especially a range of wide diffuse ambiences

I love doing specific field recording for a film, as it is such a pleasure to edit sounds you recorded specifically for locations… And it makes it easier in many ways, for example with ambiences you have a real reference and can build up layers for surround etc while still retaining authenticity. It also reinforces what material is useful when cutting ambiences for a film, and has been the prime motivator for each HISSandaROAR library.

The only difficult part with recording vehicles before you have a cut of the film is that you have to capture enough coverage to hopefully cope with everything that happens onscreen in the film. But it saves a lot of hassle trying to find a car that matches the make & model of each vehicle later.

Of course all of these recordings become part of my own personal sound library, and are an invaluable resource for future use. Whenever possible I would always do new recording for local films, which was easier when it was a local film shot in or near Wellington but having learnt to appreciate the positive impact it has on the end result I also began to budget for such work on other film projects.

Field recording trips for films that I have done include:
2010 SAMOA for the film THE ORATOR – IMDB
2010 PAPUA NEW GUINEA for the film MR PIP – IMDB
2011 JAPAN for the film EMPEROR – IMDB

Of course overseas travel with gear takes a bit more planning & refinement, as you can’t just load up your car with everything you might need. Excess baggage costs and the need for constant travel within a foreign country mean you have to plan accordingly.

 

 

 

 

EDU12 Pitching for a Project

When you first start working, any work is good because experience is invaluable. Getting to witness and contribute to something as complex as the soundtrack to a film is the best learning you will ever do, as it is when you discover which of your skills have practical use. It might be fun & impress your friends making robot sounds or whatever, but if you never work on a project with robots in it then later in life you might wonder if that really was the best way to invest your time. When you’re working on an actual project, everything you do is specific to making the project better.

Also when starting working, often HOW is the main focus. If your boss or supervisor assigns you a task, how that task is achieved is very important as doing it wrong can waste time & resources, but there may also be non-obvious reasons for doing some task a particular way. One simple example is to consider accountability. If you get to the end of a task to discover you have done it wrong, can you back track to when the error occurred, so you can remedy it? This is why version control is so important. More on that later (also discussed a bit in AMA001 here) but thinking about WHY a task is done is also important.

Over the decades I pitched for many film projects, and towards the end of my film work I was often pitching for larger budget projects, and I developed a technique for pitching which was always very well received. Directors and Producers would literally LOL when I showed them my method, and more than one US Producer said ‘no one else does this!!’ A few times they even took a photo of my work. But it’s not some silly novelty approach. When I explain it (post to follow) you will see how and why it is a very helpful approach.

So let’s start at the beginning.

What do I mean by ‘pitching for a film’?
And who gets to pitch for a film?

That second question is almost more important because it’s no use having the skills if you never get to use them. As a young sound editor I never even considered how or where work came from. I just knew when my boss landed a project we celebrated, as it meant a combination of getting to do some great work, and for a small business it meant cashflow was reliable for the duration of the work. I think I’d been working as a sound effects editor for a few years before someone approached me, about the potential to collaborate on a short film project. At first I was a little dumb founded, as in ‘why me?’ But they had somehow seen I had ideas and an aesthetic interest, which was different to my boss. That project never got funding so it didn’t happen, but it was the first time I was given a script to read.

Who gets to pitch?
Depending on the scale of the film, usually only a few options are considered. A Producer once told me, when a film project is ‘green lit’ (ie publicly announces it has funding and is happening) soon after they receive a big influx of people wanting to work on it. But for all of them it is way too late. To get a film funded, the Producer must have established budgets for every aspect of the film, and that requires getting quotes from facility providers and heads of department. They don’t want 20 quotes for sound design, they want to find the right person & team to do the work and discuss the budget and schedule with them. So to be approached was always exciting, even though it required considerable (unpaid) work and a little stress. But whenever someone got in touch with me about sound post, and their film had already been shot, my heart would sink. My internal thought process was ‘these people don’t know what they are doing’ because that is not how great films are made. Sound should never be an after thought.

“A motion picture must be the most effective combination of both image & sound. Cinematic sound is never merely accompaniment, never merely what the sound machine caught while you took the scene. Real sound does not merely add to the image, it multiplies it.”

Akira Kurosawa

For all of these reasons – creative & business – I always aimed to be involved with a project early, and with the film BOY I can provide some excellent examples of what that enabled. At such an early stage, the film company does not consist of many people. They will usually have their cast, DOP and Picture Editor confirmed and after discussion with the Director usually one or two people will be suggested as the potential sound-post HOD.

The first feature film I got to do, with my own studio & team, was a film called STICKMEN in 2001 – IMDB. I was invited to read the script, meet with Hamish & Nick, the Director & Writer and then if all went well, meet with the Producer and discuss budgets. I knew the Producer, we got on well & she trusted me but I was still a bit nervous meeting them all & discussing the film, simply as I had not developed the skills that I have now. But I got on fine and enjoyed hearing the vision they had in mind, and offered up some ideas I had after reading the script.

Having survived that stage, I then had to pitch a budget to the Producer. I thought hard about how to approach this, I had a rough idea of the budget of films I had worked on as a freelancer, but I was not sure what their expectations were and I did not want to blow my chance by handing in an inappropriate budget. What would you do in this situation?

I decided to take three budgets to the meeting. I called the most expensive budget my ‘dream budget’ and the lowest of the three my ‘bottomline budget’ as in, I am not sure how we can achieve great work for any less. And the third budget was in the middle. Guess what happened in the meeting? I did my little song & dance routine, explaining my thinking & said I had three budgets. I hand over my dream budget and literally called it that. One glance & the response? “We don’t have that much” OK, next I handed over the middle budget. And before they could reply I handed over the third budget, while saying I felt this was our bottom line. Their response? “Well, we have a bit more than that!”

So in a round about way, I found out what I suspected all along – that they already had a figure pencilled in for sound editorial, and the game was finding out what that figure was. But a second aspect to always keep in mind is that, film sound is scaleable. The sound post team on Lord of the Rings would have spent more on coffee than I have completed entire films for. But that’s a meaningless comparison, only meant to illustrate scale.

Over the years as I did more films, I started to track what our sound post budget was, as a percentage of the films total budget. So that gave me an indicator as to what to expect and it helped set alarm bells off if someone had unrealistic expectations. If you’re working professionally on films I highly recommend you spend some time to do this. I made a simple spreadsheet, with project, total film budget, total sound editorial budget & noted the number of weeks of sound editorial and the number of weeks of predubs & mix. Having a precedent to refer to when negotiating means the budget is not abstract. Reducing a budget, or increasing it has real ramifications. I also began to work on projects where I knew the post supervisor & trusted them, so I knew their budget advice was realistic.

But there is a far greater danger than budgeting too much for a project, and that is under-budgeting.
The success and progress of my career is dependent on (1) completing each project on budget (within reason) and (2) the process being creative, and enjoyable for everyone involved (3) creating a soundtrack that means the film is fully realised (‘no stone is left unturned’) and finally (4) the film having critical and box office success.

If I seriously under-budgeted a project there are only three possible outcomes: (1) I burn myself out trying to do great work without the time required (2) I am continually asking for extra funds or overtime (3) doing a half-arsed job. None of those will see you succeed.

So how do you prevent such situations from occurring? Prevent is the key word in that sentence. One of the aims of post production is to prevent problems before they occur. This requires experience, foresight & eternal vigilance. You have to learn how to assess a script and learn how long it takes to complete each stage of work. A simple, obvious example:

If I read a script and it has a major VFX component, alarm bells start ringing in my head. It does not matter what anyone tells you, what the budget is or who is doing the work, VFX are always delivered late. And they change without much notice. And they keep changing right up until the very last day of the project, and sometimes afterwards too. So if I see significant VFX in a script, I instantly know I need to keep the team on to the very last day. Compared with when a budget is tight, a sound effects editor will attend their predubs to locked picture and then be off the payroll. They of course will be invited to the mix test screening and provide feedback on final mix fixes, but there isn’t a budget for their continued constant involvement. Whereas, if VFX are arriving during the final mix, I cannot be on the dub stage managing the material there while also cutting fixes and doing conforms for late arriving VFX. So presenting a budget for a VFX film will look very different to a non-VFX film. And if it didn’t, a good Producer would ask why, because the last thing they want is a panic in the last days of the project, putting delivery deadlines at risk.

So when I was asked to pitch for my first feature film, Stickmen, that was in 2000. I had attended Film School in 1990 and started work as a trainee sound effects editor in 1991. So thats ten years of continuous work in the industry before I had enough experience, reputation & connections to be asked to pitch. This is why film sound design is not a hobby or casual occupation. You have to be committed and play the long game.

When I read the script for BOY, I made notes on many aspects to discuss with Taika. Some were interpretative eg how did he want to play Rockys magical abilities? Did Rocky fully believe he had these powers and therefore when we are in a scene with just him, the magic is real? But I also noticed some practical aspects that made me ask a more urgent question: when was the shoot?

The script I read was the shooting script version 12. At that stage the film was called THE VOLCANO.
The opening scene?

EXT. CORN FIELD – DOPE PATCH – DAY

From the very first scene I was wondering about this corn field. If you look at any photo of a corn field, your sonic imagination should go hmmmm… What birds & insects live in that field? And what happens when a gust of wind travels through it? By this stage I knew who the production sound recordist was going to be, Ken Saville, who is very experienced, and always excellent to work with. And I knew I could ask him to record some ambiences in the corn field for me. But I wanted to hear it with my own ears. So as part of our early discussions I asked if I could visit the set to do some recording myself, for the simple reason that by the time we work on the film, six months will have passed, we would be in winter and that corn field would be long gone, with no ability to capture the natural ambiences of that season.

When raising such questions I have often found it useful to take the money out of the discussion. So it was never a question of, ‘can you fly me and my gear there & put me up for a week?’ My attitude was more: this would be invaluable for the film and has many added benefits… And I’m happy to swap it for ‘time in lieu’ later on (eg. if I spend eg 3 days recording, I’ll take 3 days off as payment, later on in the schedule once we are on the project). Investing some time early & swapping it for eg 3 x 3 day weekends is great contra imho!

This turned out to be such a benefit to the film, but to give some idea of whats involved here is the drive I took to ‘visit set’ – April 20, 2009.

I knew the area as have driven a few times around East Cape, and it is a beautiful, remote part of Aotearoa. But you can imagine if a budget is tight, spending funds on what could be deemed a non-essential might result in a negative response. So I avoided that issue by self funding the trip, loading up my 4WD and heading off on a road trip. I stayed in a beach house where the Picture Editor, Chris Plummer was staying & where they had the Avid set up. And I spent three days racing around visiting every location from the film, recording anything that looked or sounded interesting. I’ll share some photos & recordings in a following post.

A few other aspects benefited from my visit too.

First was vehicles.
I realised that they would have all the vehicles in the film there. So I put in a request to have access to them for recording, and I took mics and gear ready to rig those.

Second, I visited the shoot one evening. It was such a joy to sit beside Ken Saville & listen as they shot a scene. During downtime as we chatted, I joked to him that every sound editor should visit set, as its very easy to sit in a nice warm studio & complain about something from the shoot without having an appreciation for what was involved. He joked back, the same is true for production sound and how invaluable it would be to sit in with a dialogue editor, and then visit the dialogue predub, to hear what survives and what doesn’t etc.

That night they were shooting a scene where BOY is sitting in a car outside the pub, talking to Chardonnay. I was amazed to see how they were getting such clean dialogue, with his boom Jo Fraser crammed into the backseat of the car. Ken and Jo would talk between takes, on their private talkback system so Ken could offer advice if a word or phrase was missed, or if there were any other issues.

Listening back to the wildtracks Ken recorded for us, I had to smile when one of the recordings was a dawn chorus. Kens slightly sleepy voice IDs the track and it rolls for a few minutes before a rooster crows. Ken is the kind of conscientious recordist who would have noted what time that particular rooster crows & knew he had to be out there beforehand, to get it too.

A less obvious benefit of visiting the set was the awesome people. It was so great to see how all the crew work together, and in this case the local community were very involved. After I came back from recording one of the cars, an older woman from the local marae wandered over for a chat and after discussing what I was doing, she told me a tiny part of her history, which for me resonated strongly at the time but with real significance some years later. She told me she was born & raised in Waihau Bay, but her family moved away, inland to Rotorua for their secondary schooling. And she said she never felt right until she moved back, to live by the sea.

I agreed, having grown up on a farm that was close to the Canterbury coast and thought nothing more of it. But only a few years later, my apartment was forcibly bought out from me for some new proposed motorway (which still hasn’t happened) and for six months I was happily homeless as I went off and did two Artists Residencies. The first residency was on Shodoshima, an island in the inland sea of Japan. The house that was provided for my stay was right on the coast and Setouichi is so beautiful. The second residency was in Little Huia, in Auckland NZ and the house I was provided was about 20 metres from the beach – I would sometimes wake up late at night as high tide was so close and loud.

After those two experiences I realised I too could not live happily without being near the sea. And when I returned to Wellington I managed to buy a house in Karehana Bay, a short walk from the beach and not an area I might have ever considered if it hadn’t been for that conversation.

OK so next I’ll share some of the recordings I made for BOY, and then get into how I analyse a script for sound.