How to keep yourself from killing the director

This is a post with the collaboration of my friend and director Sérgio. We will both share our thoughts on our process creating and communicating between a sound designer and a director.

This idea came up long time ago when we were both whining about the people we were working with and for; and the realisation that there was a level of unfairness from our part, and that all the whining probably goes both ways and it can be avoided.

Sérgio´s views present what he expects from the sound designer and how he likes to collaborate:

There isn’t a magic formula, or a methodology that will work every time in a process of collaborative work. Fundamentally, I think that we have to find a common ground where communication may flow without major troubles and where no one wants to strangle the other.

As a director, there are a few basic aspects that I expect from the sound designer, and also other ones that he (or she) shouldn’t expect from me.

I do expect a clear understanding of the narrative and of the theme of the film. I mean: if the sound designer doesn’t know what is happening on screen how can he/she create a good work?

Usually I have a clear idea of the atmosphere (mood) I want to print on film, but on an emotional and sensorial level; hopefully the sound designer will offer solutions to create that and/or correct me if I’m not on the right path. And here we might have a problem because I’m stubborn as hell but I guess if it’s shown how the alternative works I can agree with the alternative. Sometimes we need to “see it” to believe…

I like to think that I give creative room so other team members can develop their own ideas, but that can actually be very tricky. Sure a story being told is the major gold but as I director is my decision on how that is made, and for me a film should have a certain unity where everything is in the right place and if everyone starts to put their own thoughts unfiltered film can result in a big messy thing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that everyone should know their role and accept that, in the end, is the director’s decision on how things are done.

So, I can retain a very important factor from what Sérgio wrote and from the experience working with other directors: the film is theirs. And this I need to remind myself constantly. Ultimately, they know what is best for their film (before you raise your eyebrows on a “yeah right”, we will discuss this a little more later on in the post).

The parallel should be that directors trust our work and trust us that we are not trying to misrepresent the film, but make the best out of it. So if for example they ask for cliche sounds and cliche approaches to sound, I will use them, but I can try to chime in a special touch. Or tweaking the rest so that these elements come in with more strength.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to talk to your director how he feels about the film and their motivation. If they have an idea I don’t agree with (or understand) I ask about their reasoning – and I don´t mean to put the idea down but actually to understand the idea. There will be one.

A very valuable lesson I learned so far was that meetings in person are more important and productive than emailing even if everyday. We speak different languages and misunderstandings will be quite common. A director if not very fluent in sound, might suggest dozens of silly options to try out if the only intention she / he has is to enhance something. So, always speak on an emotional level. What are the characters feeling / thinking? What about the audience, where is the audience place within the narrative? There is no reason to speak on a sound language level and much less to suggest the use of specific effects (and usually the main sound effect people know of is one they like to call echo) as it will only write a big question mark until the director hears it done. Even if she / he has some notion about the sound process and tweaking, it´s hard to say yes until it´s accomplished.

Not only asking for references as actually showing our own references and pointing out specific examples has revealed to improve communication and even our professional relationship.

For some creative key scenes it’s a very good ideia to have the director sit with you, once the main pieces and edited dialogue are already in the timeline. This is a golden opportunity to show our ideas if they drift a little bit from the initial path. If the director hears and sees things happening before his / her eyes, there will be freedom for him / her to think of how to enhance certain elements and how efficiently sound can bring up the film to a higher level. Think this as opposed to communication via email, trying to write down ideas with timecodes all over. This can move us away from the sensorial experience and if possible I think this method should be used mostly for placing events and marking scenes.

BUT, one needs to organise the session in a way that the director´s attention won´t drift. This is, if you are working over atmosphere and the dialogue is a mess, it might be difficult for the director to ignore that as we are able to. This is the same for sending versions over just for a check up. Of course, this can vary, so get to know your director and keep her / him well informed of your process.

Another important aspect of working with a director that requires some organisational skills is the amount of information going back and forth. There are ideias, notes, changes, dislikes, guidelines, and changes again. I’ve seen instructions being taken down and later put back just because someone forgot that there has been a change in the process. Keep a log with the notes, the changes the director asks along with the dates they have been asked or talked about, and if you want to go geek-organised add links to the emails (if that has been the case). This will also help you immensely with budgeting. Read a great article about budgeting your post-production work here. Analysing this article will also help to organise your entire work-flow and to tame your director. If you as the sound supervisor (even if you are a one-girl / boy band) clearly show that you have a specific amount for revisions beyond which there should be an extra payment, I bet with you that the director will decide things a lot faster than if you just let it roll…

As far as what I expect from the director, is mostly respect for my work and time and trust on my skills. I can, perhaps arrogantly, say that I prefer not getting advice of how to get something done, but I realised that if this happens is likely that I failed to show I am able to do the job.

Refusing to comply with something the director wants? Well, long time ago, in a far away land, one film maker wanted the post sound team to raise the volume of a short dialogue line so much that it would sound like a bad sound job; we had to understand the intention behind this and it was to “increase intensity”. So here is something that might be very common amongst young directors and film makers which is to expect the post production to solve any faults or loose ends that occurred during the shooting. They still know that something is not working and needs to have a solution, but their hopes might be in the wrong place. I believe it´s important to be honest and be able to say that we cannot fix an actor´s delivery or erase the sound of the garbage truck passing by. I have been in the situation of going after what the film maker wanted for the sound, even knowing it felt purely wrong; during the premiere in this particular scene a lot of people in the audience started to turn their heads to each other and whispering that there was something wrong with the sound. While this taught me not to judge other sound people, since we never know the circumstances and context, I also understood that there needs to be a line where one stops to make concessions. Of course this was an extreme case, but when a mistake like this is made, no one is gonna be there to defend you. Anyway, no matter the circumstance, we try to keep the diplomacy up.

Regarding the title, just take 10 deep breaths. Or leave in the comment section below what you think about this subject and how you manage these issues.

Happy sound supervising and hang on in there! We feel you.

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