Prompted by lunch with someone who just graduated from University, and the emails I get every so often asking advice, here is my second installment of career advice, as it pertains to my own experience. Part one is here and you should read it first.
So every few weeks I get asked variations on a recurring question:
How do I become a sound designer?
How do I get your job?
How can I get work in the film industry?
Inevitably the only way I can answer such questions is by asking questions back, as a means of establishing whether the person actually understands what it is they are asking e.g. what exactly do you think sound design is? What do you think my job is?
The next step tends to be about clarifying what research & steps they have already taken on the path to where it is they are aiming to go. It literally took me 20 years to get where I am now (30 years now!?!) and I know how hard I have worked over that period (very!) so I am always interested to have realistic discussions with people about goals & the possible paths to achieving those goals. But I do start to sound like a broken record, repeating the same anecdotes & philosophy…. Which is why I am writing this post, so that next time I can say: “go to my blog & read the two Career Advice links” – then get back to me…
A typical email often asks “How did you start out as a sound designer?” and while my immediate reaction might be seen as a case of semantics, the fact is I didn’t start out as a sound designer. I certainly had the goal of being a film sound designer but I have always considered the role of sound designer, as it pertains to film soundtracks, to be a senior role, one that requires a lot of experience. It is not a term to be used lightly or it starts to become like someone who cuts hair calling themselves a hair designer…
So first you start at the beginning, learn to walk etc. Now don’t get me wrong, every single person working in the film industry got there via a unique path – there aren’t too many rules, but the reality of history is a good guideline.
But what is a typical path to becoming a film sound designer?
step 1. do some film and audio education (one to three years)
step 2. do work experience (one week to one year)
step 3. attain trainee position (six months to one year)
step 4. become assistant sound editor on TV series (one to three years)
step 5. become sound editor on TV series (one to three years)
step 6. become assistant sound editor for film (one to five years)
step 7. become sound editor for film (three to five years)
step 8. become sound designer for film
Note: Some people never advance past being a TV sound editor. Some people never advance past being an assistant sound editor. Many people never advance past being a sound editor. It is VERY IMPORTANT to appreciate that none of these are judgments or criticisms. Anyone with experience will tell you every person in their team is crucial eg an incompetent assistant sound editor can do an awful lot of damage! But philosophically in many ways, it may be more beneficial to have your goal but keep an open mind, because you do not want to miss opportunities that arise simply because you were too single-minded.
But the most important aspect to note from that list above is this:
The majority of your learning occurs when working.
If you have just finished step 1 i.e. are finishing your studies, then really you are just out of nappies, you aren’t even walking yet. I cannot say this enough: practical experience is the most important learning you will ever do. And that learning process never ends – this is not hyperbole; after 20+ years of working I have learned so much this year from the two film projects I’ve been involved in! I’ve learned a phenomenal amount, but many of the things I have learned this year I could only have assimilated because I had already spent 20 years learning lots of other stuff. It is cumulative, but it never stops. And if you ever meet anyone who acts like they know it all, take a step back and make a mental note that you are dealing with someone with an ego problem. In my opinion, there are no experts, there are no masters. Everyone has different amounts of unique experience. Everyone has their own unique personality and natural ability.
Now with respect to different career pathways, I know of rare cases where someone went straight into a trainee assistant sound editor role on films, but the most important factor involved in the years of commitment to an art form such as film sound design is finding out what you are actually good at. It may turn out that despite your aspirations of wanting to be a sound designer, you are actually better suited to being an awesome foley editor & that becomes your art form. Or it may be dialogue editing that is the one for you…
This may be due to your temperament, style, mindset, personality, people skills etc… But it’s also worth thinking about how much responsibility you want. Being a head of department means the final responsibility lies with you. And that is not a responsibility some people want, need or are suited for. But the important point here is: if you are starting out, your job is to find out what you are best suited to in practice, not in theory.
Sound design, like mixing films, requires deep knowledge & experience of all the roles in film sound post and in film making itself, from screenwriting through production & editing, to post… This is why I believe Film School is the best training ground for film sound editors. I went to Film School back in 1990, with the sole aim of eventually becoming a sound effects editor. During that year I did a week long work experience with a soundpost company in Auckland, and after finishing film school managed to get a six-month trainee role at the same small company. And relative to those career steps listed above, seven years later I got to be sound designer on a feature film for the first time (Saving Grace 1997) During those seven years I was totally focused on becoming a sound editor i.e. I stopped all music projects, relocated cities twice to be where the work was… And I spent years working on TV projects as a dialogue editor, sound effects & ambience editor, ADR recordist, foley recordist, field recording etc…
A year or three ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and it really reinforced what I have outlined above about timeframes. I highly recommend reading it, but if you don’t, then the most valuable piece of information you can take away from it is the 10,000 hour rule:
“In a study cited by Gladwell, violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music were divided into three groups: the “stars”, who had the potential to become world-class soloists; the students who were merely “good”; and a third group who did not intend to ever play professionally, the “teachers.” All of the students had all started playing around age 5, and for the first few years they all practiced about two or three hours a week. After age eight, marked differences began to emerge in the amount of time devoted to practice, with the best students “purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better — well over thirty hours a week.” By age twenty, the total hours of practice were: Star Violinists: 10,000 hours, Good Violinists: 8,000 hours, Teachers: 4,000 hours
The same group studied amateur and professional pianists, with similar results. The amateurs never practiced more than about three hours a week, while the professionals increased the hours devoted to practice every year. Totals at age 20 – Amateurs: 2,000 hours; Professionals: 10,000 hours.” Gladwell sites many examples in many different fields but the conclusion is that it takes 10,000 hours to attain any form of mastery of a complex skill. If you work 50 hours a week for 50 weeks a year = 2,500 hours. Four years of constant work = 10,000 hours. But of course it isn’t that simple, more realistically it may take five to ten years of work to achieve 10,000 hours of experience in a specific role….
So the moral of this section is that becoming a sound editor and/or sound designer is a long term commitment. So you must think long term and acknowledge the commitment required. If your motives are unclear or misguided there is a fairly good chance you will not last the distance. Sometimes when I meet ‘normal’ people i.e. people with no involvement in the film industry, their questions can be very revealing. The illusion is that working in the film industry must somehow be glamourous & exciting, but if those were the primary reasons you wanted to work in the film industry I don’t think you’d survive the first week.
You need to love film, love it as an art form and as a means of storytelling. And love the role sound plays in that process. You can put ‘sound designer’ on your business card if you like, but there is a reason films have credits. Apart from acknowledging the contribution each member of the crew has made, it is also a part of history – your history. Credits are given, not taken. And people notice – IMDB is an important tool for the film industry because it is a reference tool. You cannot add fake credits to IMDB! And producers and directors rely on those credits to verify what experience a potential crew member has.
When I was at Film School access to gear was a real issue. I used to borrow a Nagra and a shotgun mic occasionally but when it came to manipulating sound, things got more difficult. Many things that people now take for granted, even on the simplest laptop setup, just were not possible. Now that access to gear is easy, people starting out have the distinct advantage of being able to learn & teach themselves basic skills. But gear does not make art. I’m old enough to remember when DV was released and all the hype of how it would ‘revolutionise the film industry’ and make it more democratic. So when DSLRs were released and the same hype was recycled I just had to smile… But here is why gear is important:
Like it or not, most professional sound editors are using ProTools. I know there are other programs that are capable, but I will repeat the fact: most professional sound editors are using ProTools. So when you finish your studies and you manage to get work experience or even just to sit in when someone is working, that is NOT the time to be learning the basics of ProTools. You must have already invested a serious amount of time getting familiar with it. Early on, you should consider getting work experience as a very valuable opportunity and you do not want to waste that time – you need to use it very carefully. You need to be learning why to do certain things, certain ways. Thankfully ProTools is reasonably affordable now, so there is no excuse to not have read the manual inside out, used it a LOT and learnt all the keyboard shortcuts.
But it raises an interesting subject of what are the pre-requisites to gaining work experience or a role as a trainee or intern. People can say what they like, but actions tend to speak the truth. So it is your actions that are interesting and will likely be the thing that sets you apart from all the other people who are after the same role that you are.
So what have you actually done?
– studied audio? ok, what aspects of audio? (I am astounded at the gaps in some peoples knowledge)
– studied film & film making? (that is WHY we all do what we do)
– technically experienced with computers & peripherals? (ie can you be trusted with them?)
– learnt ProTools? (best to be honest but humble with this, you will be talking to someone who has used ProTools 50+ hours a week for years and years and years… And having done a ProTools course does not make you an expert, or even experienced)
– What other programs?
– what projects have you worked on? student projects? in what roles?
– what field recording have you done? What mics and recorders have you used?
(subtext here: can you be trusted if I send you out with $20k of my equipment, so be very honest)
Any official studies or qualifications are only as good as what you did with them. What I am alluding to is your ability to show me actual evidence that you are already on your way and are committed to working. If someone told me they did even one year of study at a film school and they never worked on a student project I would be deeply concerned. Study is what is expected of you, what did you do for its own sake? Show me evidence that you have initiative.
Ok I’ll write part 3 when I accumulate enough ideas…
Here are some actual questions people have sent me via email, feel free to use the comments here or this AMA post if you have a question that hasn’t been addressed….
What does a Sound Designer actually do on a project?
As I’ve said above I consider the term Sound Designer to be one of the heads of department in the creation of the soundtrack for a film – the other HODs being the Production Sound Mixer, the Supervising Dialogue Editor and the Rerecording Mixers. (if its a large team there may also be a Supervising Sound Effects Editor)
So in the role of Sound Designer what do I do?
I read scripts, meet with directors and producers, pitch for projects, collaborate on budgets and schedules in association with the post supervisor and the post/mix facility.
I ascertain the practical and creative requirements for the film, and clarify who will be handing which aspects of each element. I supervise/collaborate with the foley team, sound effects editors and collaborate with all of the other contributors to the soundtrack ie along with the other HODs already mentioned I collaborate with the picture editor, the composer and the post/mix facility.
I work out what resources we need eg in terms of field recording, access to performers and props.
I help manage the budget and schedule for sound editorial throughout the entire project.
I check the work and offer advice to the sound editors I am working with, and incorporate their work into my master session so as to provide context when having run throughs with the director.
I record, edit, develop and create sound effects, ambiences and build elements of the soundtrack.
I provide temp FX and temp mixes to the picture editor and to the composer.
Prior to predubs/the mix I track what progress is being made with all of the elements, and which have been approved by the director.
I provide input on when conforms to picture changes should occur – during sound editorial and during predubs/mix.
During predubs I manage what material is presented in which order, and insure that the dub stage is never idle and the correct material is available & ready. I also keep notes of any feedback and requests for fixes/additions during the mix and communicate these to crew to be addressed or address them myself.
During the final mix I manage all the data and ProTools sessions feeding sound effects, ambiences, foley predubs etc and insure they are correctly conformed, updated with fixes (and track whether the fixes have been mixed.)
At the end of the project I archive the ProTools sessions feeding the final mix, so the project can be revisited at a later date if necessary. Depending on the delivery requirements of the project, I may have to deliver copies of every ProTools session for the project ie the predub source sessions, the predub stems, the final mix sessions and the final mix stems.
Thats most of it, but I’ve generalised/skipped details of lots and lots and lots of aspects of what I do as Sound Designer on a film. There are of course lots of important personal aspects such as making sure everyone involved in the project feels fully engaged and that their contribution is vitally important, and that the project needs their very best work. And that the director is 100% happy that the soundtrack for their project is being fully realised, that no stone has been left unturned or issue has not been addressed.
What was your progression like into the professional field? How did you get there?
I’m not sure where ‘there’ is, but if you mean here and now then my IMDB credits are a timeline of my work history.
Early on I did a lot of TV drama series and that was invaluable experience eg we did three seasons of a TV series i.e. 39 x one hour episodes and that got me fast at ProTools, editing ambiences and sound effects etc. The series was set in a rural area and there were helicopters, boats and cars so I got good basic experience editing vehicles.
TV is good experience because it is repetitive i.e. we had to do the sound editing for an episode in a week. So each week I had to do an ambience pass on a one hour show, every week. And one moral of post production is this:
It is not how good you are, it is how good you can be in the time available.
Your aspirations are secondary, because if you are given one week to do a certain component and you cannot deliver, then you simply won’t be working on that project by week 3.
As I gained experience my boss obviously noticed that I was keen as hell and also what I was good at (ambiences, sound effects, field recording) so when we managed to land a film to do, he encouraged me to pursue those aspects.
In 20 years of working I have never advertised because I have always believed your work is your best advertising – which goes back to my rant about credits and IMDB – people notice. I slowly met lots of the other people working in the film sound industry, so they knew I existed and what experience I was getting. Then as I said above, seven years after film school I got offered my first film to be sound designer on. I got the role because no one else with more experience was available, but also because I was hungry for it. I had to change cities for three months to do it, but there was never a doubt in my mind that I could or would do it.
What process do/did you go through to find work both now and in the past?
When I was at Film School, there was no IMDB. So I collected up a years worth of the local film industry magazine ONFILM, as it listed the credits of all the film and TV local projects. I made a list of who was doing all the sound work, and I noted every project they had done as I figured the best people to approach were the busy ones.
I went to Film School in Christchurch but there was no industry down there, so the choice was Wellington or Auckland. Wellington was closer so I wrote a letter to each of the five people in Wellington who were doing all the work. I waited a week, got no reply, despaired, went to the public library and got a book out on job hunting. I realised people often do not reply, that is to be expected, and that you have to be far more targeted and proactive than writing a letter and hoping….
So I targeted one person in Auckland, I researched every project they had done, I watched the films they had done and made notes about aspects I liked. I wrote them a letter. I waited three days. I called them, I asked the first question every person should always ask when calling someone: “Are you free to talk now or should I call back when you’re free?’ (that job hunting book taught me how to ask questions where ‘no’ was not an option.) He was free, second question: ‘Did you get my letter?’ His reply, ‘no, I haven’t been to my P.O.Box – what was it about?’ Gulp, OK… I had rehearsed what I was going to say, so I explained I was a film student and wanted to be a sound effects editor and his work on XX film was an inspiration to me and that I was coming to Auckland and wondered if I could come & meet him and possibly sit in for a few hours.
We talked about XX film for a bit and he agreed to let me come visit. So I went up to Auckland and ended up sitting in for two or three days as he was working on a TV series. In that time he worked out I was a friendly, open person who was keen to learn. And this is a simple thing, but its a good example of where actions speak louder than words: when he agreed to let me sit in for a few days I asked what time he started work. From that point on I made sure I was always there before he was i.e. I was waiting when he arrived and unlocked the front door of the studio. Without saying a word that told him I was keen as hell.
I went back to Christchurch after my work experience and said I would keep in touch, and I did. And when the year at Film School ended it luckily coincided with him landing a TV series and as I had been a student I was eligible for an employment scheme where the government paid half my $400/week wage for 6 months. So he took me on as a trainee for six months for a mere $200/week cost to him. And that was all the chance I needed.
Within six months I took over every bit of work that he didn’t enjoy, but he also acknowledged what aspects I showed promise with & encouraged me. So that was my first break, which was really the most important one of my career. And I will be forever indebted to him for giving me that break – thanks John!!
So working for a facility as I was then, it wasn’t my job to find work, I just did the work that he found. When we had gaps with no work for a month or so he had the great foresight to get me to work on his sound effects library. So I transferred his library from 1/4” tape to DAT, and logged it all to a Filemaker Pro database with timecode etc…
How do I find work now? To be honest work often finds me, I’ve been around long enough that people know me, know my work & have a feeling whether I am right for a project. But I also do a lot of research, constantly in fact, as to what projects are in development.
A producer told me years ago how it’s kind of funny that when a project gets a green light i.e. that it is going into production, they tend to get lots of phone calls from people wanting work. But the reality is that by the time a project is green lit, it has already been crewed – those people are about six months too late. That project will have been in development for years – films don’t suddenly appear, ready to shoot – they are written, and rewritten, and developed…
As I’ve gotten more experience I meet more and more directors and producers, and from the outset I’ve always had an attitude that when I do a project, no matter the scale, I want that director and producer to finish the project completely happy and my aim is that when they make another project that I am the first person they think of when it comes to sound.
Accordingly some of the first feature films I got was because I formed this collaborative relationship when they were making a low budget short film. Because I took it seriously & did my utmost to help make the project a success they remember, and eventually they return. It might take 5-10 years to get a feature film green lit, so (again) you must think long term. But being a creative, supportive collaborator is I think the most important part of how I get work now. I love working with directors and deeply admire their commitment & the huge range of skills required to successfully make a film, and I do everything in my power to help them achieve that.
Do you have a team of people that you work with such as a Foley Artists/Dialogue Editor/Composer Etc? If so how did this team come about? If not, does this mean you do all these elements yourself?
Of course yes. An example NZ feature film by a first time director might have say a budget of NZ$2.5 million. With that scale of film making, the minimum sound team involved would be myself for 3 months, dialogue/ADR editor for 3 months, assistant sound editor for 2 months, foley editor for 4 weeks, foley artist & recordist for 3 weeks.
There is no way I could, would or should try to do all of that work myself – that would be insane. Occasionally on a short film I have done all the sound editing but we still need foley – both creatively and because every film made in NZ must deliver an M&E mix along with the full english mix. Otherwise the film cannot be sold into non-english speaking territories.
But each person in a team is a specialist in their chosen field. I am not a mixer, I like to collaborate with someone who is a mixer and who is as dedicated and experienced at their role as I am at mine.
With regards to teams, like most people I am loyal. I have worked with the same dialogue/ADR editor on the last dozen or more films – he is a dear friend and the best dialogue editor I have ever worked with. There is only one reason that I would work with a different dialogue editor and that would be if he wasn’t available. The same is true of other members of sound editorial team. One you have done a number of films together, the shared experience is very important.
What is your workflow process entail when working on a film/television project? How do you approach it?
To outline this would take hours and hours…. It is way beyond the scope of writing a response here – it would fill a book!
2022 UPDATE: And now it’s going to fill this blog, over the course of a year!
Could you please explain the difference between working on large budget films as opposed to low budget independent films in your field?
A film with a larger budget means it will likely have a larger scope, more complex requirements and greater expectations. Accordingly the schedule and budget to achieve a great soundtrack for it must also scale and involve a larger team.
A large budget film will likely require multiple temp mixes for test screenings.
Picture editing will likely continue throughout the predubs and final mix, requiring multiple conforms.
If the film involves visual effects these will likely arrive late, no matter what anyone tells you. This aspect means that sound editors need to continue editing through the final mix. All of these factors must be taken into account when planning a larger scale project.
It is also worth saying, be careful what you wish for. A dear friend evolved to become a Supervising Sound Editor on large scale films, both here in NZ and in USA. He voiced his frustration many times, at the huge amount of administration that was required of him. He loved cutting sound, but as the size of his teams grew, so did the administration. And on large scale projects, ‘no’ is rarely a feasible answer. I know him and many others who have worked 100 hour weeks for months on end. For me personally, no amount of overtime pay compensates for such conditions.
In your opinion who is doing fantastic work in your field?
This comes down to personal taste and aesthetics, but three people who’s work I deeply admire would be:
Walter Murch, Alan Splet and Skip Leivsay But I could just as easily list many, many more.
A while back I ran a survey on my MUSIC of SOUND blog, where I asked people to chose their favourite films for sound – see the results here – I chose: No Country for Old Men + Inland Empire + Punch Drunk Love + Tony Takitani + Barton Fink + Damnation
Do you have any advice for me regarding how to layout my CV?
No, sorry – a CV is really not much use to me, so I do not feel qualified to comment on how you should lay it out or what it should contain. Credits are what I am interested in – what have you actually done? And where can I see & hear that work? If you were approaching me to do work experience a CV is not that important to me, other than to verify basic information.
My theory is also that people skills are one of the most important attributes and a CV does not convey that at all. You could have the best CV ever, but if you have an ego problem or personality problems, aren’t a friendly & open collaborator then we won’t be working together.
I would never, ever hire someone or have them be part of a team unless I had met them & known them for a while i.e. established what kind of person they are. There is simply too much at stake. I remember I had one young person come & see me and within five minutes they had stressed me out more than an entire film project does. Now why would I want to spend time with someone like that?
Do you have any advice for me as I am finishing my degree?
Get experience. When I see people complaining about how they can’t get a job because they don’t have any experience, but they can’t get any experience because they don’t have a job I think that what they are actually saying is this: I do not have any initiative.
If you are a student soundie, then go make friends with your fellow student writers and directors. If they are actually aiming to be directors they will be making little no-budget projects all the time, and they will need help with sound.
Do not let budget or lack of it be an issue. I take issue with people who say they will not work for free as though it’s a universal statement. I do stuff for free all the time, like writing this. If you do not have paid work yet, then the best thing you can be doing is be working on unpaid projects – you will learn lots, and who knows – you might form a collaborative relationship which years later will land you the best project of your entire career.
I’m currently trying to make my way into the TV/film industry after just finishing college. I’m more into the audio side of things and I’m trying to find out how to find experience as a sound assistant/boom op or something. Should I write to companies, producers or the sound recordists? On a TV or film shoot, who actually appoints the sound assistants and boom ops? I’m not quite sure where I go from here. Any advice welcome.
No one in their right mind will hire someone with no experience to go straight on to a shoot.
You need to approach sound recordists/production sound mixers and see if you can get work experience and/or be an assistant/trainee. The production sound mixer/recordist is the most senior sound person on a film shoot & as I understand it they hire/provide their boom and assistant.
But even more so than in post, allowing someone on to a shoot involves a huge amount of trust and will only come from an established relationship. It isn’t hard to research production sound recordists in your area and find out what work they have done. Then it’s a similar case as to what everyone goes through – making contact & establishing a relationship. If you are in it for the long term even if there are no opportunities with someone you may well still want to meet them, so eg five years later when you do have some experience they might remember you. But I repeat – I do not work in production sound, so you are asking the wrong person.