The Art of Sound Design
By Ande Schurr
Sound Designer Tim Prebble is a great catch for my freelance series.
He has an office across the road from Peter Jackson's Park Road Post, is a thrice finalist in this year's Qantas Film and Television Awards for Best Sound Design and has a fan base that only a genre director could rival.
Tim epitomises many of the things that could be classed as best freelance practices. His developmental and DIY attitude with social media, websites and e-commerce; his emphasis on collegial rapport and being in good standing among colleagues; his efforts to map out the territory he wants to play in - exploring his passions - and turning them into viable sources of income.
A recent graduate of an Auckland audio school told me that that his home page is Tim's blog. The Music of Sound covers it all - from comparing the major audio editing software packages to crowd sourcing sound fx to methods of creating great SFX (Sound Effects).
Packed full of ideas for people in all film and TV departments, Tim Prebble is a freelancer who has raised the bar for those of us wanting to make our passion our work.
Ande Schurr: Describe your job
Tim Prebble: I work primarily as a Sound Designer and Supervising Sound Editor for film, and love the role sound can play in story telling. I've always loved music but as a sound designer I relish the blurry line between sound and music, and the evolution involved in creating a plausible sonic reality that may well have been highly manipulated and constructed, but comes across as real and emotionally engaging to an audience. It is very interesting territory to inhabit.
Ande: What is the transition between sound design and writing music? Do you often blend the two?
Tim: The two fields of course inform each other in my work, as a sound designer I often pitch shift sound effects to work with score, and I borrow musical techniques when creating more subjective textures... But for film I think the two roles are very different in their approach & what they aim to achieve. Composing for film is a very complex, poetic art. Accordingly it is very rare to see the same person fill both roles on a film. One of the joys of working as a sound designer is getting to collaborate with composers, and seeing all of our work mesh in the final mix to create something far more than the sum of its parts. No one can ever 100% predict the final context of our work, but it is a joy to see it take dramatic shape.
Ande: Your 'Why Use High Sample Rates' post was a revelation to me in seeing how you turned ordinary sound into evocative FX; stretching out the sound of the high pitch of fireworks, for example, and turning them into deep long bomb dropping sounds. What are some other sound design techniques you use?
Tim: The most important sound design technique is finding the 'right' sounds as a starting point, which might seem obvious but sometimes can require a fairly lateral approach. Having the right resources is important, whether its working with my sound library or field recording, both of which can involve happy accidents. Keeping an open mind is very important, for example while out recording a steam train I might also record some great metal groans and coupling impacts which turn out to be perfect for another project in the future.
Then there are two discrete stages of manipulation, the first is in my sound editing studio where I can alter sounds to help them work with the film. The most important is syncing, editing & layering of sounds, so that many different elements combine to create a composite sound that feels appropriate & complete in itself, relative to picture. Other means involve pitch shifting, reversing sounds and more esoteric processes such as convolution, doppler and granular processing.
The second stage of sound design is the mix, where all the elements are combined and dynamically shaped to create the best means of story telling. In many ways this is the most important phase - it doesn't matter how interesting the sounds you make are or what you went through to make them, if they do not contribute to the story they don't get used! I do not mix, but I thoroughly enjoy this stage and working with great mixers.
Ande: You have organised your work beautifully online. Not only do you have NZ's only serious sound forum for film and TV sound recordists NZ Sound but you have a blog Music of Sound and a great site with superbly edited videos of your exploits capturing sound FX of vegetables being chopped, explosives and more at HISSandaROAR.
Has there been a purposeful unfolding of your extensive online presence or did this just 'happen' when you get time in-between films?
Tim: It has been a constant evolution and learning process. I've always believed in keeping the same email address, so I've owned a domain name & website since the mid 90s. My first web 2.0 project was in 2006 (nzsound.net) & really came about to help share information between production sound and post production, motivated by the fact that location sound was suddenly being recorded to hard disk & the workflow and transition of material through picture editorial to sound post became very, very important.
In 2006 I attended the Berlinale Talent Campus where I did a workshop with Peter Broderick who specialises in online marketing for indie film makers and that was a revelation! His experience & advice helped me form plans and inspired me to start my blog The Music of Sound. At first it felt like I was shouting into an empty hall, but a few years later over 1000 people turn up each day to read it and a great international community has formed. This also forced me to learn how to use wordpress and after hosting the site on a friends server for the first year the traffic became too much and I moved to my own hosting at hostgator.com, which was another whole learning curve.
By 2008 I felt I wanted to expand and leverage my online presence by creating content, so I formulated a development plan for three new sites and in hindsight one thing I did early on which proved formative was hiring Andrew Dubber as a short term consultant. It was vital to be able to brain storm with someone who understood what I was trying to do & could also challenge my assumptions...
After a lot of research & development this year I launched the first two new sites: Dub45.com which is a little record label releasing virtual dub 45s and HISSandaROAR, an Ecommerce site selling sound effects. So it has been a continuous evolution from a static website to a forum, then a blog, and more recently niche ecommerce and creating virtual products that have very real value.
Ande: Do you enroll others to help you maintain and develop these sites so you can get on with your sound work?
Tim: All of the development & updates of my sites I do myself. There are a few reasons for this; first take HISSandaROAR, if I had hired someone to develop that site it would have taken me a year or two to just break even and pay for the development. Whereas I enjoyed learning about it and have done it in my spare time, so there is no monetary cost - just my free time and the energy and focus to do it. Whats that saying: 'Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and he can feed himself' Part of the endless learning experience of doing these projects has also helped define what the projects can become, now and in the future. And I always have felt that it's not the launch of a site that is the most interesting part, it's what it will become a year or two later!
Ande: How useful is Twitter in keeping you in the minds of your fans and colleagues?
Tim: In the early days of Twitter I found it odd to read of people with strong opinions about it, who had never actually used it. Like anything with depth you have to engage with it for a while to appreciate how and why is is interesting. I really like Twitter as its an open discourse and depending who you follow, you get to share & learn from individuals in many different creative fields. And it was true long before 'social media' became a buzz word but the great thing about the internet is it enables one to one communication. A friend asked me how I stay inspired and I could only conclude it was because I don't wait for inspiration to come to me, locally. The internet enables me to feel an active part of a global community that I can engage with. But apart from the social media sites I believe its important to constantly work on your own virtual quarter acre: all my primary content is on my own sites....
Ande: We are just over the half way mark of 2010 and already, this year alone, you have been the sound designer on eight feature films including The Warrior's Way, Boy and Russian Snark. How do you get so many? Are your competitors sleeping or is it your good reputation at work?
Tim: Work comes via many different means but I guess the common aspect of them all is a combination of experience & having ongoing creative working relationships. I do also think a lot about the kind of work I want to do, for example most of my peers disappeared for three years while working on Lord of The Rings. I declined a sound effects editor role on those films as I wanted to gain more experience working as a sound designer. So over those three years I did seven NZ films and built creative relationships with those directors & producers, many of whom I continue to work with. At most I only ever manage to do three films in a year, so the eight you refer to will be based on release dates as opposed to when I worked on them. For example we worked on The Warrior's Way back in 2008.
Ande: What is the state of the NZ industry in general in terms of sound design for film?
Tim: I think it is in great shape at all levels of the industry. The work Brent Burge, Chris Ward, Dave Whitehead, Mike Hedges & Gilbert Lake & team did on District 9 last year was up there with the best of any Hollywood action/scifi film. And when you look at the fantastic, diverse collection of NZ films made in the last few years it really shows the benefits of supporting local film makers past their first film. The maturity of their ideas is directly reflected in the role sound can play in their projects. If you ask me, I think funding for the Film Commission should be increased - I honestly believe film is such an important permanent contributor to our culture.
Ande: Can you describe the rapport and connections you have with other sound designers in NZ? Is there an annual gathering or other events that sound designers go to in order to network and up skill?
Tim: New Zealand being a small country means everyone in the film sound community tends to know each other and/or have worked together at some stage. Communities also form around the two feature film Dolby mix facilities; Park Road Post and The Inside Track. And we all help each other out whenever we can, whether its with a complex recording session, loaning gear or just needing a specific sound....
Ande: Can you break down, step by step, the sound design process you undertake on a film, from the first phone call to the final edit? Perhaps you could use a recent movie as an example.
Tim: The starting point for me is usually the script, which I tend to read and make notes on before funding for the project is in place, as I also have to provide input on budgets for sound editorial, and that varies a lot depending on the style, subject matter and content of the film. At this stage I also tend to meet up with the director and get a feel for their vision & ideas for the film.
Another important part of reading the script is also identifying any sounds that will be difficult to recreate, for example with Taikas film BOY I noticed the scenes set in the paddock of corn. While they were shooting in summer, it would be winter by the time we were working on the film and the corn would be long gone. So I made a trip to Waihau Bay to record ambiences and I was so glad I did as it gave me a real reference of how the locations actually sound. I also recorded the vehicles used in the film while I was there, which saved us having to access them later.
I help out in a small way in the next stage, picture editing, by providing any sound effects the editor may need, so with BOY I output my ambience recordings for them to use and any other sounds they requested. Checking my email archive I also gave them: wood chopping, thunder, interior car driving on gravel road with skids, stones thrown into water, sparklers, car doors, shop door buzzer, native birds, various goat bleats and eating, sounds for the microwave sequence....
The next stage is when sound editorial starts and the first thing myself & the team do is watch the film. One thing I learned from Gaylene Preston many years ago is that the first screening is very important, because it is the only time we ever get to see the film as an audience and all of our first reactions and instincts are formed from that screening. We receive a copy of the film split into 20 minute reels as Quicktimes and dialogue editor Chris Todd receives all the sound recorded on location. We then tend to have a spotting session with the director and scene by scene discuss what's required; specific notes (eg possible ADR, specific sound effects etc) as well as the overall mood and feel.
I tend to then start work on the most difficult material for the film, because that is the material that benefits the most from evolution - the sooner you make an attempt at it the sooner you can revise it! And sometimes it is not apparent what you will need until you have actually tried to create sounds for a complex moment. For example the microwave scene in BOY I would have done five or six versions of before it started to feel right for Taika. Had I left that late in the schedule to attempt, it would have been stressful, but it wasn't at all... So at this stage I am also doing a lot of recording; locating props that we might need or visiting locations.
By mid way through sound editorial, the foley team at Park Road Post will have started and they will record all of the footsteps and all the performed spot sound effects in the film. Robyn McFarlane & Carolyn McLaghlan do excellent work and we've collaborated on dozens of films so we tend to just discuss the unusual elements and decide whether they will be dealt with by sound effects or whether they will record them as foley.
At this stage Chris will also be recording ADR with actors, redoing any lines that are not useable from the shoot or need alternate performances. He will also organise and record a loop group for any crowd scenes eg for the party scene in BOY.
Eight weeks from our start date we are near finished the editorial phase and each of us has had run throughs with the director to make sure they are happy with all the material before we start mixing. Although we've had many run throughs before, the last week of editorial is when a lot of critical work is done. I tend to receive guide mixes of music by this stage so we can also start to get a feel for how everything is going to work in context in the final mix, and whether any further revisions or additions will be required.
Then the mix starts - we take all our material to Park Road Post, and spend the next two weeks premixing groups of elements into self contained units. So for example we spend two days balancing & premixing all of the ambiences for the film. Then the foley is premixed, followed by the dialogue & ADR, the sound effects and the music. So for example while I may have used 96 tracks of sound to create the car driving and hitting the goat, that material will be premixed down to three or four groups of elements as 5.1 audio tracks.
Then the final mix begins; we start with Reel 1 and work through the film scene by scene, moment by moment, balancing and mixing all the elements into the final soundtrack. After the first week of final mixing we have a good first version of the soundtrack and then go and screen it in another theatre, in a continuous run, to see how it is working as a film. This is a vital stage for objectivity as it is often the first time the director is seeing and hearing their film near to its finished form.
Everyone in the team attends this screening and afterwards discuss any issues there may be, from tiny individual issues (eg the footsteps are too loud at one point) through to larger scale ideas (eg there's too much music in Reel 3 etc) and then head back to the mixing theatre for 2 days of final changes. Once all the changes are made we screen the mix again, and once the mix is signed off by the director we celebrate! The mixers continue on and create the final Dolby sound print master as well as the M&E version, which is a Music and Effects only version for dubbing into other languages.
After 3 months of hard work the soundtrack is finished and the following week we get to check it with an actual print of the film, which is always such a pleasure! We often work to unfinished pictures and to finally see the film as a beautiful 35mm print and appreciate all the work from every department is incredibly inspiring!
Ande: How do you find work? Do you have an agent in NZ and overseas?
Tim: Unlike composers or picture editors there are no agents for sound design so we all rely on word of mouth, referrals and people seeing/hearing finished work. I try to keep my show reel current and always keep my IMDB credits up to date. Sometimes work comes via direct contact from the director or producer, other times via a post supervisor or the mix facility. Being freelance means always having a lot of irons in the fire! I'm currently working on a short stop motion film with a French director and Danish producer that I found via the Kickstarter website.
Ande: What percentage of your income comes from selling your sound FX vs freelance sound design on films vs other initiatives.
Tim: Apart from films I also do short films, documentaries, installation work, music remixes (eg recently one for John Psathas new album) and very occasionally ads, although those tend to only be on large scale ads where they want to take a more cinematic approach. My sound effects site has only been online for four months so its early days for it but back when I was planning it, my initial goal was to shift my income over a 5 year period, so that 50% came from online. So year one the goal was 10%, year two 20% etc... The site has been up four months now and I've already passed the 20% mark, so I'm having to shift the goal posts and have started planning phase two of the project!
One idea I am pursing is the concept of crowd sourcing. I always hate hearing generic sound library doors in films, so I proposed a group library called THE DOORS with each recordist contributing ten doors. Within three days I had 147 recordists signed up from all over the world and so far we've collected up 638 doors and 88.3GB of sound! So that will be a big release for the site with ongoing rewards for the contributors. The next crowd sourced library will be THE DOGS and I have some ambience libraries planned too.
Ande: Your studio is located across the road from Park Road Post. How perfect is that! Is location important for a sound designer?
Tim: I've always believed you have to go where the work is. I grew up & went to Film School in Christchurch but I knew I couldn't live there & work on feature films, so I moved to Auckland for the first five years and then to Wellington. Being so close to Park Road Post works very well on many levels. Often the director is also working on picture elements & grading at PRP, so it means if they have an hour free they can just walk across the road. It also works well with regards to collaborating with the other contributors to the soundtrack - the dialogue editors are upstairs from me and Park Roads foley team are across the road. Another important advantage is that my studio is on the Park Road Post fibre network, so when I am across the road mixing I can directly access my sound library.
Ande: How easy is it to find quiet locations in Wellington to record your FX?
Tim: Having lived here for 15 years now I have a good list of quiet locations, especially for recording vehicles which is required on most films. Any exterior location is of course weather dependent and the wind in Wellington can be a curse, (although it also means I have a fantastic collection of wind recordings in my library!) But like any shoot, you just have to plan for weather cover. Film Wellington & the Wellington City Council are incredibly helpful, for example the last recording I did was a big fireworks session and Nicci at Film Wellington helped so much by suggesting locations, providing permits and putting me in touch with the right people for fire permits and police notification. Another time we gained access to the Happy Valley rubbish dump & totally destroyed an old car, recording fantastic metal impacts & car crash sounds at the same time!
Ande: What was your pathway to becoming a sound designer for films?
Tim: I sometimes get emails from young people saying they want to be a sound designer on films and I almost have a standard reply now: no one starts off as a sound designer! You start off as a trainnee, then become an assistant, then a sound editor and maybe then a sound designer. That process took me seven years and I know how hard I worked in that time!
Back in the late 80s I dropped out of university as I was studying the wrong thing (Electrical Engineering) and was having more fun hanging out with friends at Arts School. One friend was taking a German Film paper and suggested I come along & see a film called Wings of Desire. Until that point I thought film equated to Hollywood, but that film changed me forever. I was also playing in a band back then & we got a recording grant and I became really involved with recording & mixing music, but sooner or later realised I couldn't earn a living from it so I decided to go to Film School, to combine my love of film with that of sound & music. I remember during the interview for Film School, that of 400 applicants I was the only one who wanted to be a sound editor. I took that as a compliment!
Film school was very important grounding as sound for film is as much about film as it is about sound. You need to understand all the other departments and the process of how films are made. During the year at film school I did a week of work experience with John McKay in Auckland, who thanks to the Government funded Job Plus scheme took me on for six months as a trainee. I spent that six months trying to make myself indispensable - learning as much as I could & working very hard to prove I could develop the skills to be a sound editor.
Luckily, John kept busy with TV series and kept me on and I got invaluable experience in all aspects of sound post; sound effects editing, ambiences, foley, dialogue editing and ADR recording as well as sitting in on mixes. After a year or two I got to work on my first feature film; recording foley for End of the Golden Weather. I just totally loved the attention to detail and the larger dramatic scale of film compared to the TV series I had been working on.
My next lucky break was The Frighteners: sound editor Mike Hopkins was tied up on another film for a month or so, and they asked John to fill in. He didn’t want to move to Wellington to do it so I instantly put my hand up! And that was a fantastic experience, getting to work with such great sound editors as Brent Burge. I also overlapped for a few weeks with Randy Thom, who came out from Skywalker to sound design & mix the film. Randy became my role model & is still a constant inspiration.
Then in 1997 I was asked to be the sound designer on Costa Botes film Saving Grace which meant spending three months in Wellington and for the next few years I was living in both Wellington and Auckland at the same time, until in 2000 I made the permanent move south to do the film Stickmen, and haven't really looked back ever since.
As a sound designer & supervising sound editor I collaborate with everyone in the sound team so it is really important that I appreciate why & how they do their job. Accordingly I am very thankful for all the great experience I've had, right back to those early days."
Ande: What three pieces of advice can you give aspiring sound designers?
Tim: 1. Never stop learning.
I still learn lots on every project and sound design for film means it is not just sound you need to be learning about; it is also film, story telling, performance, music/score, art, everything!
2. Be tenacious & determined
I am borrowing this advice from the actress Patricia Neal who recently passed away. It is so important to work out what it is you want to do and pursue it tirelessly. Be committed & in it for the long term. Action is rewarded, so it is very important to take action, even if they are tiny steps on a very long journey.
3. Be humble, open minded & most important: know when to be quiet and listen!