In an earlier contribution to The Post Lab, I spoke in detail about Monkeyland’s approach to the sound editorial and design on SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden, which premiered last November on NatGeo. The project, which is currently available on Netflix and Blu-ray, has been very good to us, having resulted in an MPSE Golden Reel win (Television Long Form, Sound Effects and Foley) this February, and most recently, a Primetime Emmy® nomination in the Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or Special Category.
I’ve completed about ten feature films and a handful of short films since working on SEAL Team, and though I’m super excited that Monkeyland is contending for an Emmy®, my real reason for this blog is to impart some new filmmaking knowledge that I’ve acquired since then. Some of these insights aren’t directly related to what we do in post audio per se, but they are important observations which can hopefully help save you some time and money (and maybe even a little wear-and-tear on your artistic spirit).
Tip #1: Fix it in the Script
So your script is finished. It’s chock-full of fantastic and high concept goodies that are guaranteed to make Michael Bay’s mouth water. The grand finale is Avengers meets Evil Dead meets The Hobbit, and you can’t wait to begin shooting. One problem though: No money to make it at that grand a scale. Not to dampen anyone’s spirits, smote creative juices or squash the vision for your film, but if you don’t have (or won’t have) the funds necessary to make the greatest zombie apocalypse ever, then simply don’t write it.
The art of writing is essentially the art of re-writing, and there’s nothing like a cheap eraser and a little brainstorming to fix story issues. Work and re-work your characters. If a plot point doesn’t work, make it work. If it means reshaping other areas of your script in order to do so, do it. If doing so causes disaster for your story, keep going! You’re testing your story to see if it holds water before committing your script to celluloid. Make the story airtight, the characters vibrant and the pacing dynamic. I’ve seen too many indie projects get thrashed by critics and audiences alike because the script demanded Dom Perignon and the filmmaker delivered Two-Buck Chuck.
Write outside the box, but think effectively and efficiently on how you’re going to tell your story in a strong, organic, compelling and unique way. Do you really need to see 10,000 CG zombies tearing across a wheat field, or can you successfully convey that same terrifying idea via other means? Can a car chase be 10 minutes shorter and still be effective? Is an intricately planned Ocean’s Eleven-style scheme necessary for a simple one-man car heist? Or is smash cutting into the aftermath Reservoir Dogs-style a more powerful approach?
Having a soggy script and a sub-par production can result in lots of additional money (that you may not have) being spent on reshoots and new scenes, as well as on all the extra hours needed to craft a sensible picture cut from hole-filled footage. On the post sound front, oftentimes hole-riddled films can result in lots of added Voice Over to help sell the wobbly story a bit better, but again, that’s extra cash being used to fix something that could have been fixed up front.
Tip #2: Respect Your Budget
You’ve got a team of producers whose job it is to handle the financial elements of your film, but knowing and respecting those financial parameters should definitely be high up on your priority list, particularly if your project will be relying heavy on the CGI, sound design and sound effects. With a little insight from your production team, some effective planning and creative producing, your unique and organic script can become a refreshing film, with solid production value across the board.
It is really disappointing and discouraging when an independent filmmaker blows his or her entire budget during production and then heads into post as an afterthought looking for favors and extreme discounts. Sculpting gunfights, designing creature vocals, and shaping complicated car chase sequences are all extremely labor intensive, requiring an appropriate amount of time to ensure that every nuance and detail is addressed to the filmmaker’s liking. Again, if there aren’t sufficient funds for this sort of design, be proactive with your scriptwriting and be cognizant of where you’d like to flex your budgetary muscles.
On SEAL Team, the script was written, the film was shot, we spotted the film and were given the general note to “make it big.” That loaded bit of direction was backed up by a meager, yet reasonable audio post budget, and an equally meager, yet feasible amount of time in which to accomplish our mission. Director John Stockwell knew the kind of film he was making, but also had his finger on the pulse of his budget.
Tip #3: Commit to the Spirit of your Film
Once written and shot, it is important to let the story continue taking shape organically. If you’ve adhered somewhat to the first two tips, then the rest of the filmmaking process could potentially be paint-by-numbers (I say that tongue-in-cheek, of course). With a solid picture editor guiding you through the technical stuff, you might be able to successfully craft an airtight first cut of your film without too much hassle, leaving you with ample time to devote to finessing the aesthetics of the cut and really flushing out the heart of your film.
Please note: If you’re a tinkerer and have Final Cut on your laptop, please resist the urge to slice and dice every single frame of your film in an effort to enhance a scene or performance. Making these microscopic tweaks oftentimes does nothing spectacular to move the plot forward, nor does doing so really have any considerable effect on the film’s outcome… particularly if the issues with your scene were unresolved at the script level. Commit to the spirit of your film during picture editorial and let the story emerge organically. If you’ve shaken the foundations of your script and emerged with a spirited, honest and compelling story, then ideally the footage should reflect that. Be bold, let go of the miniscule, and let your film spread its wings!
Tip #4: Review, Review, Review!
Allow time before the mix to review all cut and prepped sound elements with your sound supervisor. Day One of your final mix should NOT be the first time you hear everything put together, especially if it’s a design-heavy project. You want to walk on to the mix stage confident that everything is there and to your liking, and that you’re going to walk away happy, with a tight, professional mix. The mix stage is also not the best place to spend time auditioning ADR alts, etc. If you’re unsure of certain lines (or as I’ve seen in the past, ALL the lines), it is suggested that you arrange to review your ADR prior to the mix so as to ensure that all allotted mix time is adequately utilized.
If it is logistically impossible to be around the sound house during editorial, it isn’t too difficult for your sound editors to bounce quicktimes of their work and upload them somewhere for your approval. Keeping a good, open relationship with your sound supervisor and the editorial team is imperative for a successful sound experience.
On SEAL Team, our director was splitting his time between finishing the film in Burbank and scouting locations for his next project up in Canada, so having John come in for a full complete sound review was a real challenge. Despite the film being extremely heavy on sound design, the stressful and potentially disastrous experience was successfully averted by a healthy back-and-forth of Quicktime videos and emailed notes. We hit the mix stage running, with a big approval on our weapons design, background layers, sound effects and Foley. In the end, John Stockwell, Voltage Pictures and the Weinstein Company went away content, with a beefy, richly developed and tastefully nuanced soundscape.
Wrapping It Up
Though great sound and flashy visuals can truly enhance a project, they can only do so much to sell your film if the story isn’t its absolute best. Everything stems from the script, and the tighter the prose and more compelling the story, the more likely you are to have a winning project on hand that both critics and audiences will enjoy. I wish you lots of luck in your cinematic journey. Thanks for reading and Happy Filmmaking!
Peter Lago is a sound editor and designer with extensive experience in feature, television, documentaries, and new media projects. A staff editor at Monkeyland Audio since 2003, Peter has developed a strong reputation for delivering high quality, well detailed and expressive tracks in a timely and efficient manner. Nominated six times for a Golden Reel Award, he won his first in 2012 for his work on the webseries, “Aim High.” Check out Peter’s blogsite to read more about his experiences in the sonic trenches at www.lagosounds.com.