Category Archives: soundpost

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.