Filmmaking (Actually) Ep. 17 "What Do You Need to Know About Sound in Film, Actually??"
Join Koura on Episode 17 of Filmmaking (Actually) as she learns and discusses sound in film with Mac Smith, Sound Designer and Supervising Sound Editor at Skywalker Sound, the sound effects, sound editing, sound design, sound mixing and music recording division of Lucasfilm Ltd. Mac has been working on films since 1999 and has worked on such projects as the Disney+ series Marvel's "What If...?," "Cast Away," "Toy Story 3," "Tron: Legacy," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "Little Evil," "Transpecos," and one of Koura's favorite films, "Columbus." What's the difference between sound design and foley? What's the best way to work with a sound team? Should sound be an important part of your film's pre-production, even during the writing stage? Where does the score come into play? Listen to this to find out, and you know, you might learn something (actually) - ta-da!
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Below please find a transcript of this episode. Episodes are also available as audio-only podcasts here or with subtitles in this video:
What Do You Need to Know About Sound in Film, Actually?? With Mac Smith of Skywalker Sound
KOURA LINDA: Hello and welcome back to our podcast, Filmmaking (Actually). Today I have a very special guest here to talk all things sound when it comes to film. He is supervising sound editor Mr. Mac Smith of the one and only Skywalker Sound. As some background information, Mac Smith was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, and studied film at the University of Iowa and USC. Both music and film have had a strong presence in his life from a young age and his musical performance talents took him on tour across the United States. He's made sonic contributions to over 90 films and has been nominated for 13 Golden Reel awards. He's worked with filmmakers such as Robert Zemeckis, Gore Verbinski, and Guillermo del Toro. His filmography includes "Up," "Enchanted," "Tron: Legacy," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," and one of my favorite films, "Columbus." He's also an award-winning documentary producer and director, and he's been a part of Skywalker Sound since August of 2000. So, welcome! MAC SMITH: Thank you so much! I'm very pleased to be here. This is so much fun! KOURA LINDA: I figured I would just start with some kind of basic questions. We have a mixed audience as far as there's, you know, fellow indie filmmakers. I know there are a bunch of film students that listen to the podcast. But for me, the sound is like the least talked about part of film, at least in my experience on panels and going to festivals and stuff. So, my first question is, basically, what is a supervising sound editor? MAC SMITH: Well, I often think of the supervising sound editor as kind of like the sound producer. So, they're the one that really, sort of, sees the sound job from some point in post through the very end. They're the ones that help usher it into whatever facility, whether it's approving the budget, scheduling, crewing up, who's going to work on the project, and then talking to the client to figure out what they want for the sound for their film. And then really seeing it through the very end until it goes out the door to make sure everything is just right. KOURA LINDA: So you're like a film producer but for the sound part. MAC SMITH: Essentially, yeah. KOURA LINDA: [laughs] That is pretty cool. And then with that, I know when talking about sound there are a few kinds of different sort of umbrellas with many, many specifications within each umbrella. But how would you articulate the differences between audio mixing, sound design, score, and foley? I know this is super basic but I just wanted to start with something simple so that anyone who's listening who's not familiar, a couple of minutes of what we're talking about, and then we can dive into more. MAC SMITH: And you can even start from production sound. You know, that's the first thing that usually happens was all the recording on set to try to capture clean dialogue and everything that was happening while the camera was rolling. So that's essentially the first part, and all of that stuff goes to the picture department and they're working with all that sound and they're adding in, you know, temp sound effects and temp music and all those things to craft it into a movie. And then when it transitions to the sound team, generally we're kind of divided up into groups of dialogue editing, sound effects/sound design, foley, and then there's the music department. And then all those things come together for the mix. And while, yes, they're different departments, there's a lot of overlap. You know, the dialogue department is trying to clean everything up to make it sound as good as possible. Cutting between different camera angles where the noise on that day, you may have shot that scene from two different angles two hours apart, and the background sound changed between those two parts. And every time you cut between the angles, the sound changes. Well, the dialogue editors will clean it up to make it sound smooth between those transitions and they're taking out mic bumps and cloth rustle on lavalier mics and as many of those things as they can. Whereas the foley team is sort of analyzing everything that the characters are doing. So foley is a process where there are foley artists, who are very specialized, and they perform character movements to picture, so they often work in a foley stage that has different surfaces on the floor. They might have carpeting, wood floor, gravel, dirt, and grass, and they have usually hundreds of pairs of shoes to make sure that they're getting the right kind of shoe that the character is wearing. But they're not just doing footsteps. They're also doing prop movements. So think about somebody sitting at a table in a restaurant and they're eating, and their knife and fork, and all those movements. While they may not be super important to the story, it's one of those things that if it's missing and you're not hearing it, it'll take you out of the movie. I'm kind of jumping ahead, but when we finish the mix, we oftentimes have to create an M&E, which is a version that takes all the English out, so even if there's a knife and fork, stuff recorded on set that you're hearing, if somebody's talking over that and suddenly you take out all that English, all that sound is gone. KOURA LINDA: What does M&E stand for? MAC SMITH: Music and effects. KOURA LINDA: Okay, perfect. MAC SMITH: So we do try to do a full foley pass, and it's very important in live-action, like I said, because of foreign language versions. But also for animation, because you think of a movie like a Pixar animated movie, those characters aren't really walking around. They're not really grabbing each other and doing things, so all those sounds have to be recorded and edited and crafted. The sound effects and the sound design team are working to fill out everything, from doors opening and closing and phones ringing, to explosions, fire, and just backgrounds: morning birds, air conditioning that's maybe off-kilter and making a weird sound in the character's crappy apartment - not just there to put cool sounds in but sounds to elevate the story and help the storytelling. The music department with the composer is crafting a bunch of score based on what the director wants. Sometimes it's based also on what the picture editors put in the temp cut and then they record that with an orchestra or MIDI samples or a combination of things or a small ensemble. And then all those things come together for the sound mix. So it's kind of like everybody's in the pool jumps in at once. And oftentimes, it's a little bit of a mess at the very start because there's too much stuff. And so a lot of what mixing is, is getting rid of things from moment to moment to focus the story. What is important at this moment to tell the story and where does it need to have more reverb, more echo? Are we in a cave? Are we in a very quiet place? Are we in a noisy place with moving sounds around the sound field? So if you're in a movie theater, it's filled with speakers and the mixers can move sounds between speakers to really make you feel more immersed. And then everybody's happy with the final track, and it goes out the door and gets married to the picture. That's what you hear in the movie theater or at home on your streaming service. KOURA: Yay! That's awesome. It's definitely a lot of pieces. I know that one of the first things that I actually learned from you is how vital it is to include sound in the prep stages of production. I will just say that saved me more than once. The example that you gave me was like designing a room. Like, you have all these different pieces, even just putting the sound together in the end. But when you're starting, you said that if you look at sound like the curtains in a fully decorated room, you shouldn't paint the whole room and then wallpaper it and put in furniture and hang paintings and put up shelves and then you have no room for the curtains. You have to make the space for sound kind of early in the production process. For me personally, that's translated to things like adding in moments to a shot list to allow for recording enough visuals to fill with sound in the first place. So like, if an actor hears something and reacts to it, or the sound is going to carry on for a moment, sometimes you might not naturally, or at least I might not naturally, run the camera as long as I would if I was planning for beats in the film to then fill with sound. But if ahead of time I'm like, "Okay, this is where he hears the cat in the other room," and then I make sure to roll for just a few extra beats longer past where the action stopped, just to, kind of, give a moment on-screen that we can then add in the cat sounds. Too much time on the internet, cat sounds. [laughs] But I mean, that's kind of like what I've taken away from earlier conversations with you. But maybe if you could speak to that for a moment. What is the best time for a filmmaker to start to plan the sound? It sounds like I kind of answered that already, but like, how would you say the best process would be for a filmmaker to plan the sound of their films? And kind of what are some good ways that a director or producer or someone can start early enough in the process to not find themselves standing in front of a fully decorated room holding curtains with no place to put them? MAC SMITH: It's a great thing, and it's often something we talk a lot about. It's never too early to start thinking about sound. So from the writing stage and the script, I mean, sound is such a key sense as a human being. Walter Murch, who's famous for his work on "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now" and "The English Patient" talks about how sound is the very first sense that we have when we're in the womb. You know, we can't see but we hear. And it's very noisy, you know. We hear our mother's heartbeat and the blood flowing and the fluid in the womb and some sounds from outside, and suddenly we're brought into the world and it's very quiet and unsettling. And then our eyes start to come on and things like that. And if you think about it, I think this is another possible Walter notion, is that there are thousands and thousands of ways to describe visual things. Our visual language is huge, but there aren't that many words in the English language to describe sound. So it becomes a challenge when, you know, people have something in their head and the way to translate it. But I'm going back to that primal sense of sound. It is something that we react to instinctively, and it's underutilized when it comes to filmmakers. Like you were talking about before, about a character hearing something that can tell so much about that character, or the story, or how they react to a sound. We're used to seeing things happen, and then a character react to it. But what if they hear something? If somebody's in a dangerous-sounding neighborhood, but they don't, they're not reacting, that tells a lot about that character. Maybe they've grown up there and they're used to hearing stuff that somebody else who comes from a very quiet neighborhood might get freaked out and scared about. So it's a really powerful tool. It's also a powerful tool, as far as, you can get into a character's head with sound and filter what is the world sounding like at a specific moment. You know, are they getting so stressed out and overwhelmed that suddenly all the sound gets pulled away, layer by layer by layer, and you really get into their mindset? Well, you can't do those things unless you think about it from the writing stage, and the planning, and the way you're gonna shoot it, and the shot list of, "Okay, here we need to get focused into this person's inner feelings." So it's never too early to get started. And not like you have to, in the script, write in specific sounds. But you have to be thinking about using that important sense that we have and how it can be a really powerful storytelling tool for the story that's going on the screen. KOURA LINDA: So basically, before you write your script, work out - no, I'm just kidding. [laughs] MAC SMITH: [laughs] KOURA LINDA: I will say that, as a director, there are times I've been given scripts to read, or even as a producer, and the script is so overwritten with, like, every single detail. There's a part of me that wants to be, like, "Okay, we're gonna have a good sound team, I promise!" Like, sometimes it's important to have a certain song playing or something like that, but... Yeah. MAC SMITH: Sure. I think you just have to be clear of, you know, this is something that the sound is driving this moment. And it's not a bad thing to get someone like a sound designer or supervising sound editor involved early on where they can read the script and they can give you their thoughts and say, "Oh, you know, this might be more interesting if you think about it in this sense, or if you hear a really loud truck cruise by and screech around the corner." And sometimes it's things you don't even have to shoot, you know? These characters are inside. You've established there's a busy road outside earlier on in the movie, and then later on, if you leave space for those things, you can sell something without even having to shoot it, which producers love because, hey, I'm saving time, I'm saving money. But oftentimes they don't want to get the sound people involved early enough who can help them with those decisions which would save them money. It's kind of funny. KOURA LINDA: No, that's actually a good point because I know, like, I did an episode called, "What Belongs On the Page, Actually??," for scriptwriters. And for me, and obviously, everyone has their creative process, but for me, I found that if it's something that's going to be very important for the story, like, if we don't have that specific sound or if the actor doesn't move their hand in this exact way, it does change the action or changes the mood or changes the plot or whatever. So for me, the things that belong on a script page are the things that are the benchmarks, if you will, of action and dialogue. But I never even - I'm embarrassed - I never even thought about having a sound person read a script before it goes into production. Because you're right. There are moments maybe a screenwriter didn't think of that the audio person could put in before we even film, or ways to approach a scene. MAC SMITH: Also the production sound mixer is a great person to utilize, too, from a storytelling standpoint. They may be seeing something that the prop department is doing or not doing that lets them have a moment where they can talk to the director, or whatever, and say, “Hey, have you thought about doing it this way? Because that could be really cool later on if we shoot that thing and then the sound team can sort of take it to the next level." KOURA LINDA: Yeah. I was on a shoot once where we had the character waking up in the morning and, like, just going through his really trash room and drinking old bottles of beer and opening and closing the fridge and everything, and we had him do the action. And even though we did, like, 23 setups that day, even with that crazy day, we took one of the setups and we literally, just, like, everyone cleared out and it was just the onset sound tech and the actor just walking around the room doing stuff. And he just followed him with the mic and recorded him opening and closing the fridge a couple of times, picking up bottles, picking up bags of chips, rustling around, and just went through and recorded in the room all of the things he was doing. What was that? [someone speaking in the distance] Yes, Scripty did help direct that moment, thank you, Scripty. [laughs] MAC SMITH: [laughs] KOURA LINDA: My husband was script supervising for that. Yeah, he went through - and it actually was a big help to have the script supervisor because he had all the notes of all the things the actor had done and he just went through and was, like, you know, he picked up this bottle, he picked up this pair of jeans, he did this, and the boom op just walked around the room following him doing that. And even with the insane amount of setups that we did that day (and I think we did go about an hour into overtime), but 23 setups, I was pretty proud of us. It did give us that full, all the authentic sounds right there, to use. So yeah. Anyway, just adding to what you were saying.
MAC SMITH: Yeah. And that's something, too, that can be super valuable. People are trying to get a certain number of pages in the can per day or a certain amount of scenes, which I totally understand, and, you know, you have locations and permissions and all these things. But taking five minutes or ten minutes at the end of that scene to gather some of those sounds can be huge. And also, like, you know, imagine you have a cafe scene where you have 16 people in the background, but they're all being quiet but they're acting like they're making sound, but they're not making sound on the set because you need to get clean dialogue. Take five minutes after you got all the shots, and have those people talk like they were talking in the shots and you're getting those people and those sounds in that location with that specific character of that room, that same echo, and it's going to be huge. I mean, you are going to save money in the long run. Yes, you may still need to record actors later to fill in some of those bits, but the re-recording mixer will definitely use that stuff. Absolutely. Because if it sounds authentic, and it sounds great, then we'll put it in. KOURA LINDA: And that's one of those things where, like, my great-uncle used to have the saying, "If you do what's hard, life will be easy, and if you do what's easy, life will be hard." Sometimes those extra five or ten minutes really do make a big difference in the end. And maybe it costs a little bit of extra time or money to have an advanced meeting with your post team, but I personally have found that it's been a huge help, and I know that isn't something that I used to do. That's something that, after I met you, and, like, kind of had, like, the curtains were drawn, and then the light came in the room. But I, personally, as a filmmaker, I'm really passionate about it. But before I turn this into a whole PSA about why you should have meetings with your sound people early on, I know we talked about on-set having your recordist a part of the conversations and everything. At what point would you say to start getting those audio files? Like, I know people always talk about, oh you should have your editor on set, and if you can have your editor starting to do a rough cut immediately it'll show you what shots you're missing. What about the audio files? Like, for me, I always worry about getting the edit locked so that it can get colored and scored and have the dialogue mix and the effects and all that. And for our effects guy, like, we've gone so far as to, if we're on a really short turnaround, we'll lock an effect scene first so that he can get started on that while we cut around it. And sometimes it sucks if, like, we've already locked the scene, and then when we've cut around it we're like, crap, I actually want to change it. But for the most part having the kind of, like, heavier effect scenes locked first so he can get started. I've done that with dialogue before. Like, if the dialogue was really bad, I'll get it cut, and get it sent over to Ryan so he can start on it. I have the idea that you can't do sound until the picture is locked, but is there anything you can do before the picture is locked? Is that just a bad idea? MAC SMITH: That's - KOURA LINDA: Sorry, it's a long question! MAC SMITH: No, it's okay. It's usually, like, a lot of the indie low-budget films that we say, you know, don't give it to us until it's locked because otherwise it'll cost you more money. Because we're having to then chase the picture at it, but on, I'd say, every studio film, they are changing the picture for weeks and months while we're on it which is okay. You know, they're tweaking things, they're having audience previews, we're doing temp mixes, you know, doing a quick version so they can, you know, marry back with the Avid so they can put it in front of an audience. So it's very common when it comes to studio films. Indie films could benefit from having the crew start early because if you still have the picture not quite locked there might be something that we see that's like, "Oh, is there any way you can pull this out another 10 frames because I can do this, this thing with the sound to transition out in into the next scene." So the movie in the end could benefit from, you know, being able to have those back and forth in those conversations. Yes, it'll cost more money because we're on longer so it's definitely a consideration to weigh. It's also, you know, one of those things too where we want to try to get the sound early enough that we can sort of scan through the dialogue and figure out what needs to be done with ADR with the actors coming in, and if it's, "Uh everything's locked and the deadline is," you know, "two weeks from now," oh crap! "I didn't know we had to ADR that actor. We don't have time, they're on another show, we don't have a studio," so having those conversations earlier definitely will help the end product. KOURA LINDA: As soon as you said that I was, like, wait, yeah. Because if you are listening to the dialogue and if something is just completely beyond repair, if you're still on location and you still have the actor, you could just put them back in the room and say, "Hey, just get some wild lines real quick and we'll just have you do those." MAC SMITH: It's pretty rare that we get involved at that level during that time, but it's not a bad thing to, you know, have somebody, whether it's a picture editor or a picture assistant or somebody, you know, watching the dailies as they, you know, from the day, and listening to the sound and making sure there are not problems. And I've also heard of, um, you know, a fairly big company that I won't say who it is (not the one I work for). But they demand from just a managerial standpoint from their big post department that they're hearing, you know, dailies, you know, day two, even if it's being shot on the other side of the world. They want it sent to them so they can watch and hear it to make sure that, that there's nothing wrong. So it's good to have those, you know, sort of check marks in place. KOURA LINDA: Yeah, and I mean, I guess, like, one of the joys of being an independent filmmaker is, like, we can do whatever we want. It really is just, you know, who's willing to either work with us or what we can afford. One of the reasons I personally like understanding the way it's done, if you will, making air quotes with my fingers, um, is because a lot of times you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Like, it was, there is a working system in place. There is a technique or some sort of method that works, but then, as an indie filmmaker, like, we get to do crazy stuff. Like, you know what, I'm gonna have my dialogue mixer be sent the files every day and he's just gonna listen to them, and if they suck then we're gonna fix it right now instead of fixing it later, or whatever. MAC SMITH: Well, that's happened on some big studio films, too, where they hear something, you know, it's some giant action movie where there are, you know, giant fans or explosions. Or there's some weird prop on the character that they're like, "Oh, um, this might be an issue. Send that to the sound team and see if they can make it work. We have to make them make it work, otherwise it's gonna cost us, you know, another, you know, two million dollars to redo all those scenes that we've already shot," or whatever. So yeah, those things happen on big studio films, too. KOURA LINDA: Well, I mean, that makes sense. If I was putting, like, 700 million dollars into a film, I'd want to make sure that I could hear the actors. That's a big movie. [laughter] We were at a panel - sorry, this is a total side note. We were at a panel. It was about, um. indie filmmakers that crossed over into the Hollywood film. So, it was like, Catherine Hardwick, Tycho Itd, and Justin Lin because they had started in these, like, indie films and kind of crossed over into these big huge blockbusters. And Justin was talking about how there was one shot where he wanted to flip a bus and the producers were like, "Well, what's that gonna cost?" And he was like, "A million dollars." And they gave it to him! Like, a million dollar - sorry - two million dollars, excuse me! Um, it was two million dollars, and this is at Sundance. It's like a room, is it the Egyptian, so it's like, you know, all these independent filmmakers and you can just feel them, like, "Do you know how many movies I could make for two million dollars??" And the moderator, like, totally picked up on it. He was like, "Yeah, you know, okay. We're all over here like, two million dollars!" But, um, but yeah. I think about that sometimes. But anyway, I totally digressed there. Um, my next question. Obviously I'm, you know, a director first and foremost, so this question is a little close to home. How would you describe the best, like, the best possible working relationship between a director and the post team? Like, what advice would you give both for directors working with an audio crew and then for audio crew working with directors? And obviously you're also an award-winning director so if you want to put any of your own perspective on as a director as well. But, like, I find that, especially in collaboration, really understanding the best way to work with different members of your team is really important. So yeah. Just, um, that. MAC SMITH: Sure. Um, well, oftentimes, early on in the process before the crew gets started, myself and maybe a sound designer will go generally to where the picture department is located, whether that's LA or New York or somewhere else (sometimes it's just over video conference, but it's always better to do it in person), to have a spotting session and to, um, watch the movie. Not the first time for us to watch the movie. It's good to get it, you know, a few days before so we can watch the current cut, make notes, kind of wrap our head around it, and then show up, um, with the director, the picture editor, sometimes the producer's there or a post supervisor, and, um, really walk through the film scene by scene. You know, in a two-hour film could take seven or eight hours to do that. But really, you know, talk about, you know, philosophy and sound, why is like is this? You know, more of a documentary style feature, um, is it hyper real, is it surreal, you know, what is, sort of, the approach? And not that a movie has to be one of those things or the other. Sometimes it's from scene to scene or moment to moment. But then, really think about, you know, kind of pick through every scene and go, "Oh yeah. This, you know, we got this line on set but we really want the actor to say this instead." "Okay, I'll write that down for my dialogue ADR editor so they know those things." You know, just ask a lot of these questions. And sometimes a lot of things that come up that's like, "I don't know what I want this to be, but I really like this scene from this other movie and it does something similar and evokes a certain kind of emotion. Can you play with something like that?" So that's sort of a flag right there for me of, like, that's something that I need to go back when I get back into my, um, creative space to play with and try things and send them off to the director and the picture editor early on. And say like, "Hey, this is just my first draft of this. You know, what do you think is this going in the right direction is it not?" And Randy Tom, who was my mentor who got me into the business, talks about, "We need time to be able to make mistakes as sound people and sound designers to try, you know, unusual things because if we're always playing it safe then it's, you know, not going to be interesting anymore." So we need to experiment and try things and make those mistakes early so we can kind of figure out the right direction. So sometimes I might send something to the director and it's not even close to what they wanted. I mean, hopefully it's not, you know, so bad that they're gonna let me go from the show, but, um, those early conversations and sort of throwing things against the wall can be a good sort of a barometer of like, "Okay. Are we going in the right direction? Are we not going the right direction?" You know, I don't often want to send the whole movie to, um, the director because it's, there's, you know, they could, it's, it's gonna be a bit of a waste of time for both me and them to go through and make, you know, hundreds and hundreds of notes of these little things that are going to be ironed out later on when we all come together for the sound mix. Oftentimes, young filmmakers, too, will, uh, will come and sit in the sound mix right when it starts and the mixers are just trying to, sort of, wrap their head around all the material they have and they're just throwing out like, "Oh, that's too loud," or "This is that," or, like, and it's like, hang on! Like, give, like, can you give me, like, an hour or two and just, like, I'm gonna iron this stuff out. And the reality is that they're gonna get 85% of the way there just instinctively off what the scene needs. And, you know, let them have a first pass and get to where they are and then come in and talk about, "Oh yeah. That's great, but I really, you know, can we try this other thing or can we make that softer or more echoey, or, or more brash or, you know, very quiet and then loud?" And, and we'll work through those things together. Those things that we may not have known instinctively, but I'll also get some of those, um, ideas from the spawning session. Early on, those conversations then I can help direct the mixers of this is where we need to go with things. There are certain people that I work with closely who've had, you know, 20+ year relationships with filmmakers and those filmmakers trust them so implicitly that they only show up maybe once a week for a few hours for the mix to review things, give notes, and then leave because they trust the sound team. They know what they're going to do. Not that they, you know, are letting the sound, just. having the sound team do whatever they want, you know, they give them very specific directions, but they know that they're going to get most of the way there. KOURA LINDA: I think it definitely helps. Like, I know, like, for me, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to, like, relax and let someone do their job. You know, because, especially if you know if it's a project that I really care about, or that it means a lot to me, it's not, it's not, you know, just a job. It's, it's, it's my voice and it's, it's my story and it's something that I'm telling and, and um, I know personally, like, as a director, it, it's been a road that I'm still walking as far as finding like who are my, my people if you will. Like, you know I've got my amazing dialogue editor Ryan Kota who will forever get shout outs. But, um, and obviously I married like a whole post-production house when I married my husband. Um, but, that's what you gotta do. Just find a guy like my husband to marry him and then you're all set. [laughter] But it, it um, in, in my experience, part of being a professional is allowing other people to do their jobs. And it is like, either you trust someone to do it or you don't, and if you don't trust them, they shouldn't be working for you, you know? MAC SMITH: Well, they might also bring something to the table that you never thought of.
KOURA LINDA: Yeah, exactly .
MAC SMITH: That you go, like, oh wow! Like, I would have never come up with that myself, but that's what it was missing! That's the right thing. KOURA LINDA: Yeah. And that's, you know, there's definitely been times, like, um, obviously my closest collaborator is my husband and there are times, uh, we'll use the phrase, like, I want to audition this for you and like, we'll throw something out if it's like, like one of our projects and the other one has an idea. And then it'll be like, you know, that's a really awesome idea but that's totally not what I wanted to do with this. Or it'll be like I never would have thought of that ever, like, hey my brain wasn't even remotely wired to begin to think of that. And it's like a perfect idea and it totally like, elevates, um, and more often than not that is the case we find something, uh, in each other that enables us to do something we wouldn't have otherwise thought of by ourselves. So yeah, I guess I'm just saying that that element of collaboration of allowing, giving people the space to do their job. Um, yeah. I think, I think that's really good advice. MAC SMITH: At the same time, you don't want to show up at the sound mix and suddenly everything is completely different than what you anticipated. KOURA LINDA: Sure! MAC SMITH: So it's important to have those early conversations, you know, to check in with your sound team, you know, to see if they can send you little snippets of something. Just so you know that things are moving down the right path. So yeah, I mean, it's definitely like walking that tightrope. You know, it's not micromanaging, but at the same time, you know, to make sure they're doing what you're, you're hoping they're doing and trusting them. KOURA LINDA: Yeah, and I think that's what I was hearing when you were saying, like, you have that initial spotting session. So like, you let them watch it, have the time, and as, you know, someone working in sound, you make sure you have the time to watch it and come up with, um, some ideas or whatever. Then you sit down, have that spawning session, and then basically get to work. And even if it's, you know, even if it's checking in every day, you don't, like, I mean, I know with me, like, the best collaborators that I work with, like, as the director, I don't feel like I have to literally sit there next to them. Like you were saying, like, "Oh, can you make that louder? Can you make that like that?" MAC SMITH: "That coffee cup down there. Are you going to get to that coffee cup?" Down while they're trying to like, clean up, you know, a piece of dialogue and try to make it clear. "Yeah, but what about that coffee cup?" Like, hang, on hang on. We'll get there. I have to do three more passes on this piece of dialogue. KOURA LINDA: [laughs] Yeah exactly! Um, and that actually is funny. I did have a, one of the next questions, um, that I had kind of, like, in, in that vein of, like, allowing people to have the space to collaborate. I did see that there was an article about, um, doing experimental audio for film and, um, like, for me, I think the true kind of like woof and warp of filmmaking really is thinking outside the box and coming up with, you know, new and unique ways of doing things. Not, not like some obsessive compulsive, like I have to change and reject everything that's ever been done before because like the wheel has been invented. You don't need to reinvent it. But like, um, in other episodes I've talked about, like, when you're working with a composer or even like when you're editing, like, don't use the scratch score of, like, drag and drop fight sequence number 173 that you downloaded and you just let go and then you like cut your film to that and it has to fit that because, like, you want to cut the film to the story, and then if you can, compose music to the cut. I mean, that's a lofty goal but like, as much as possible within the realm of possibility of, you know, the limitations of a project, what would you say just about both allowing for that experimentation as a director and producer and then also, like, how to think outside the box as an audio engineer? Like, I saw in the article that talked about, like, the, the tin cans that like, accidentally got blown down the street and then that didn't work for what that one film was, but because you saved that it, ended up being used like a year later in a completely different project. Um, right, yeah, so... MAC SMITH: Yeah. I mean, we're, we're often going out into the real world and recording new sounds and finding things. And oftentimes we have a very specific list for a project. "Oh, we need to get this, this," and we figure out where that is and we talk to the right people and get permission and we show up and that thing is terrible. It, like, doesn't sound good at all. But there's something else that has no relation to that thing we went there to record which is really cool which we go ahead and record, but we have no idea where it's gonna go. And it probably won't even go in that film but we build up this sort of library, um, for ourselves and/or for the facility of interesting sounds. And oftentimes, you know, we're not thinking about sounds. Literally we're thinking about sounds emotionally, like how does that sound make you feel? You know, does it make you feel uncomfortable? Does it make you feel warm and cozy? Is it just something weird and unusual that, you know, catches your attention? And so often times, you know... I was talking about making mistakes early is, we're often early on the stages not looking for the literal sound for, you know, whatever the action is. We're, we're trying to think of, like, well, what other things are like that that might give it a unique characteristic. Which, it's funny, you know, a lot of times we'll be in a mix and a client will say, "Oh, what is that sound?" And, and I have to, like, stop and pause and think in my head, "Do I really tell them what it is?" Because if I do, they might suddenly hate it because they, they realize like, "Oh, that's not at all what I thought it was. That doesn't work at all." You know, so... It's like, um, so it's, oftentimes I do be, I'm a little mysterious about, sort of, the combination of, of sounds, um, because if it works, it works, and, and I don't want to, like, reinvent the wheel if, it, if I don't have to. But I'm, but, you know, going back to that emotion, you know, it's, sound is such a powerful emotional tool and I often think about a scene emotionally. Like, you know, and it will change from the beginning of that scene to the end of the scene. Like, where is the emotion going? And then what are those things in that realm of possibility? Like, you were talking about being in that apartment or that hotel room or whatever with, with all the things going on. You know, what are, what are some of the things that an audience would buy that are happening outside, that maybe they don't even have to see but can create those emotional tones which can change over the course of the scene. To, you know, maybe it's noisy and chaotic. There's something happening outside but by the end of the scene it's, it's, all that stuff is fizzled away and you're only hearing a mini fridge or something like that. And, and what, what's the right emotional direction to go from, from a scene. And often times it's like, something, you know, you have a loud busy scene and then you have a very quiet scene. So thinking as a filmmaker structurally like, "How can I make those things so it's not all the same?" Going back to music, there's a lot of filmmakers who just want wall-to-wall music, which I totally understand because there are, you know, a lot of films like that. But is it really, you know, serving the story to have, um, wall-to-wall music? And after a while, the music is not going to be effective anymore if it's just constant and non-stop, you know? The first movie that I ever got to work with at Skywalker Sound with Randy Tom, I was his Sound Design Intern way back in August 2000 on Cast Away and that Tom Hanks movie. Part of the reason it works so well is for the 45 minutes to an hour that he's on the island, there's no music. And not only that, but, um, Robert America said he didn't want the sound of any birds or bugs or anything that made it sound like a tropical paradise. So he really limited what could be used sonically. You know, it's really, it's waves and, and palm trees creaking in the wind and foley and there's not much dialogue. There's probably, you know, 25 words during that 45 minutes. Not to spoil the movie, but I think, I think if you haven't seen it by now, I don't know if you are going to see it. But, he does finally get off the island. You know, he had a failed attempt earlier where he's, you know, trying to construct a raft and is fighting the waves and can't get over but then finally later on when he does get over then the music comes up. And Alan Silvestri is just a gorgeous scorer and it is so extremely effective, partially because it's been gone for so long. And there was no way that sound could evoke that same emotion, but the music just takes it to another level. Oftentimes, things that we, we try to tell filmmakers, too, is when you're crafting a story and crafting, you know, the structure and the sound and all those things, try to to not use music and get to story-wise. Try to get the audience to that emotion you want and then have the music respond to that emotion and elevate it even further than they could otherwise. Otherwise, if you're just telling the audience how to feel with music, you know, they, they know they're being manipulated. Oh, here comes sad violins. Guess we're about to, we're about to, you know, something's happened and we're supposed to feel sad. You know, get the audience there naturally, so to speak. I mean, and we can do tricks with sound and sound design that, that people don't know that we're manipulating them to, you know, get things in that sort of sad vein. But then have the music come in later and, and take it to the next level. KOURA LINDA: Yeah no, that's, um, it's definitely true and I have had more than one conversation with a composer where I'm, like, “I really want the audience, I want their heart to break, but do not use sad violins”. I think that's the music direction I really appreciate. Um, yeah, of course, for what it's worth, I know I don't have, like, some hundred thousand following. The people who I have gotten feedback from like, a lot of times, like, I said it's film students or it's independent filmmakers or people who, like, I'm trying to cover topics that I don't see being covered widely in the independent film community and people have been really thankful for it so just know that. MAC SMITH: Good, excellent. KOURA LINDA: Like, hopefully this is going to be helpful. MAC SMITH: Well, you know, young filmmakers and film students, this is where, you know, sometimes we can have the most effect on early on in their career instead of later on when, you know, they're like, “Oh no, that's not the way I do it.” You know? KOURA LINDA: "Film industry sucks! I don't know why I have this job, I'm gonna go work at Walmart!" [laughs] MAC SMITH: [laughs] KOURA LINDA: I will never forget one of the first film sets I ever worked on. I was day playing for a week on, uh, it was CSI: New York and they had actually won an award for like, the best locations team and they really were. They were the coolest set. And I was so, like, just doe-eyed and like, the whole time and, um, and like, later I was on another set and they were like, just, he's kind of like, you know, the union guys that are like sitting there over here, you know. And I remember looking at them and thinking to myself, "You live in magic," like "How can you not appreciate, like, you're literally getting paid to be here right now." MAC SMITH: Yeah. KOURA LINDA: Like I would like so I… MAC SMITH: It's sad seeing those people just get so cynical about what they do. Because it's like, you know, tap into, like, what is that thing that made you want to get into it? KOURA LINDA: Yeah I remember reflecting on, on that tv show and thinking to myself, "I never want to forget this feeling. I never want to forget waking up right before sunrise and arriving to location for a breakfast burrito as the sun's coming up." And just that feeling of the magic of going into a space and changing it into a whole new world and then putting it back to the way it was so no one even knows you were there. And then you, like, have this thing that lives forever afterwards of this magical thing that you created. And I don't know, I'm digressing but I and...
MAC SMITH: We all get, we all get to play.
KOURA LINDA: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, um, so speaking of playing, um, when it, when it comes to sound design, obviously, you know, you've given me tons of incredible advice as far as using sound to create the scenes, um, as you've said where it can't be done visually or where the budget just isn't there to do it visually. Even just to add in, like, a layer of storytelling to the film itself using sound. Like, I see sound is the moment that a film, like, has an extra layer of life, kind of, imbued into it. Like, pretty shots are great and lens flares and all that. And good acting obviously is key, and witty dialogue is always incredible. But so much of the film happens in what's unfortunately called silence. Like, I've actually gotten a little bit of a Twitter tip with somebody because I objected to them calling these powerful moments of film the silent moments because there was no dialogue, but everything they were talking about, like the core of the shots they were referencing was the actual sound design and what was happening with the audio without the dialogue. I know, like, you've suggested things. Like, if you need to show it's raining you can just use the sound of tires passing on the road outside and have that, like, wet tire sound that everybody recognizes for the traffic passing outside the window. I did a little short, uh, in Texas a couple years ago and the film ended with a car accident. So the director used some really awesome sound design for the sounds of the accident. Like, you never actually see it. They're walking and their body kind of, like, shakes in this wave as you hear the sound of a crash. And then he cut to this really tight shot that looks like a patient on an ambulance, but it was actually just a construction goggle, like, turned sideways over the mouth and nose so it looked like an oxygen mask. And then there's, like, a red gel over a light that was just being moved away into camera to make what looked like ambulance lights. And then he had the sirens and all of these sounds with the voiceover of a 911 dispatcher, and it was really intense. But, like, on set, it was just the actress laying on the floor of a room in his house with the camera and this mask. And, um, so yeah. I, that's a little bit of a, of a tangent. But like, I guess, how would you, like, encourage filmmakers to consider sound for storytelling? Like not, not everyone has access, you know, to amazing companies like the one that you work for. Like, how would you, like, encourage filmmakers to consider sound for storytelling aside from just the usual, like, "Okay he picked up a cup. You really get to that coffee mug. Are you gonna do the coffee mug?" Yeah. MAC SMITH: That example you gave me was, was fantastic about, like, you know, shooting the woman on the floor of, you know, wherever with construction goggles and her gel. I mean, that right there shows you the power of, of filmmaking. You can shoot something for nothing and then leave room for sound to tell the story of, you know, the ambulance moving and the sirens and the 911 dispatcher. So it's, I think, just, you know, using your imagination and and really trying to sort of think about those things before too long. Because if you plan those things out from script and pre-production and shooting, you know, and talking to the, the DP about, you know, how can we shoot these things more effectively, you know, more inexpensively. And then have sound help tell the story later on. I think that's huge. But I think, you know, other inspiration is, is, you know, just watching movies, you know? Go back to the movies that you love and watch them again, and really pay attention to the sound and what's going on with the sound. You know, a lot of times I get sucked into great filmmaking, and I'm not paying attention to the sound the first time because I'm just, like, I'm buckled in. I've got my seatbelt on, and I'm going down that train of the story. And I think it's, it's amazing. So oftentimes I'll go back, and I'll listen to movies and, and pay attention to the sound and the score and hear things that I never heard the first time. Not that they - I wasn't hearing them subconsciously, um, but they were having an effect on, on me as an audience member. But there, you know, there are more and more resources out there too, um, where people are trying to sort of give a little more attention to sound design and storytelling. There is some good Twitter accounts and Instagram accounts and things like that. There's one, I can't remember what it's called, but I think they actually take sound from panels that people have given about sound design, and somehow they get a hold of the stems of a scene. Say, like, Jurassic Park, and they sort of show layer by layer and then have Gary Redstone's commentary talk about that. So there are great examples online. I'm sure there are tons of YouTube videos, too, to really show how people did things and use those things to get inspired, to think about, you know, how can I do something interesting with sound and not to just grab attention that, "Oh, this is a cool sound," but how I can elevate my story based on audio and sound design and, and things. And, oftentimes, it's taking things away. You know, silence is incredibly powerful. And there are a lot of people who are scared of silence getting too quiet but, but it can be very powerful in moments. And especially, you know, something very loud juxtaposed against something very harsh and brash and, and shrieky versus something that's soft and soothing and pleasant. So those, those dynamics, you know, can, can have a huge effect on, on audiences. So think about - think about your story from that way. You know, one of my favorite movies, uh, one I did not work on, um, but my friend in Denmark did. This beautiful track for this movie called "The Idealist," which is a Danish movie from a number of years ago. And they're just so many creative, crazy inventive things that I never would have thought of, and they're so outlandish that if you saw them on paper, you're like, "No way this would work." It just works, and it's incredible. And it's like that scene in, uh, "The Godfather" um, which is a classic Walter Merch story and, and probably one of his most famous scenes of being an Italian restaurant. And Al Pacino's character Michael, you know, is, he's the one in the family who hasn't gone off into the, you know, the family of crime. He's sort of, like, trying to be more legitimate. But, um, he, he's fighting that impulse and goes up into the, the restroom and, and grabs a gun that was stashed there. And through this whole scene you're hearing this elevated train go by the restaurant. Um, you're hearing the tracks go by. You never see it, but you hear it, and just sort of, the audience just sort of instinctively, like, buys, "Oh yeah, there's a train that's nearby." And by the time he comes out of the restroom with the gun, all the neurons are firing off in his brain. And you hear the elevated train shrieking around a corner like metal against metal squealing, and he pulls out the gun and shoots them dead and then drops the gun and runs out. And the score doesn't come in until after to respond to what happened. And it's, it's a brilliant moment and it's like, you know, how on earth, you know, did Walter think of of using that as a, as a sonic palette. But it is so effective, and like I said, you never see it, but it works. KOURA LINDA: That's, that's incredible! I definitely, um, one little film called "Columbus" um, that has these, like, I remember there's a scene, uh, where she's dancing in front of the headlights and, just, the way, like, I almost expected it. Like, I wasn't sure where it was going because, you know, sometimes films at Sundance, like, you're not sure, like, they haven't been rated yet. They're, you're not really sure what's gonna happen. But like, I wasn't really sure because there was, like, this really, like, heavy breathing and, like, kind of like, these like, limbs in front of a light and I was like, "What's going on here?" And then you realize that it's this girl just like spinning in front of these headlights. Like it was just so beautiful and very, like, human. And, you know, there are so many other sounds that could have been put into that moment. That was really the first one where I was like, "Whoa!" And really, like, wanted to ask my sound question afterward. MAC SMITH: Well, that one I have to give total credit to Kogonada the director. I mean that's how he envisioned it and that's, you know, the way that he had prepped it, uh, when he was cutting the picture together. And, uh, that's what he wanted and so that's what stuck. So, I'd love to take credit for that but it wasn't me. KOURA SMITH: Well, that's incredible. And that actually kind of leads into my next question, which, having this moment to speak to independent directors and producers, what kind of, like, advice would you give them just kind of in general when it comes to doing sound on their film or thinking with sound and planning their film? We may have already covered everything but if there's anything kind of nuggets of wisdom you wanna... MAC SMITH: I'd say don't be afraid to think about sound and music for that matter early on in your process and how it's gonna, and what you wanted to do to serve the story. And don't be afraid to find people and ask them questions because, and the last thing you want to do is, have all these ideas, but not know how to execute them, and then it's too late. You know, you've, you've already shot the movie. You've already done all the editing and now you want to put cool sound on there. But you never really got, you know, good advice of like how to make that work. I have heard stories of young filmmakers who, you know, the movie is wall-to-wall dialogue and they're like, now put cool sound on it! It's like, well there's not really, you know... You didn't really, you know, set up the movie for that. You didn't, um, incorporate those areas or think about how the sound would help move the story forward, you know? So you have to really think about how I'm going to incorporate those moments and the best way to do that. So yeah. Um, reach out to people. I've found, you know, sound for film people. You know, game audio people are really lovely and giving people. We love to talk about sound and, and how it can be a powerful creative medium. So yeah, don't hesitate to find people and reach out. KOURA LINDA: Awesome. Well I cannot thank you enough for your time! Um, I'm super thankful that, uh, you were willing to come on the podcast, that you're willing to share your incredible knowledge, um, and advice with random indie filmmakers. And for what it's worth, your advice has definitely helped me in my career greatly and I really hope that by being able to share it, it'll be able to help more people and that, who knows, maybe one day down the line there'll be some random filmmaker that shows up at the ranch that is, everything's, like, perfectly in place and ready for you and they're like, "I heard your podcast ten years ago." MAC SMITH: Well and I'd say if you can wrap your head around, you know, using sound as your secret weapon early on in your career, you're going to be way ahead of so many other filmmakers because it is a great thing to utilize and think about and there are a lot of filmmakers who don't take advantage of it and some who do. And you know, I won't name any names but there are definitely some out there that you can go like, "Oh yeah, they get it. They understand it. KOURA LINDA: Yeah, that's awesome. Thank you again for being here and thank you for listening! 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