by Jeremy Rogers
Films are a hugely collaborative undertaking, often requiring dozens of people from different backgrounds and with hugely divergent skill sets to work long hours finish their film on time. One of the less glamorous yet still vital roles in film production is that of the sound editor.
To get an idea of what it is like to be a sound editor, we got some insight from Vickie Sampson. Though she has recently turned to directing, Vickie has spent over 40 years editing audio for Hollywood hits like Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Donnie Darko, and The Fifth Element. The Ball State Daily News interviewed Vickie when she came to campus to screen her newest film Shelby’s Vacation this past September. We got a hold of her to ask her about lessons she has learned over her 40-year career.
Q: How did your experience editing sound and dialogue affect the perspective that you brought to your directing?
Vickie: Dealing with all the sound problems in post definitely gave me some valuable insight as to what to do on set. It taught me to make sure to give your sound person a rehearsal; make sure that everyone is miked properly; be aware of the lens length and whether or not you’re using more than one camera. Using two cameras means you can’t put the boom in closer than the widest camera. So you end up getting long shot sound for close up images. Not good! Also, I’ve noticed that actors tend to project more when the camera is physically farther away from them! So when you shoot a master shot, actors project a little more. When you go in for coverage (medium shots, close ups two shots, etc) they tend not to project because the camera may be physically closer to them. I think it’s just a muscle memory thing when you know the camera is closer to you! So I’ve had to counter that in working with the actors. I use a very helpful document called “A Letter from your Sound Department” that talks about how to make your set “sound friendly.” It addresses about knowing where to put the generator so that its noise doesn’t get picked up on the microphone.
What are some common misconceptions that people have about the nature of sound editing and directing? What do you wish people knew about your line of work?
Vickie: I think a lot of people think that when you shoot the movie, you’re recording all the sound effects and music! And that a few months after that, it comes out in a theater! Films take a while from shooting to being released! Recorded sound needs to be as separate as possible. We can always ADD sounds, we cannot always take them away. The most important thing to record well is the dialogue. That is where the story is. If people can’t hear what the actors are saying, that is not good! Sound fills up the senses and we have all the speakers in the theater at our disposal to create the feeling of being immersed in the story. Everything in a film is supposed to be there to support the story. Anything more than that is showing off something! If the visual effects don’t support the story, then they shouldn’t be there. If the sound design draws attention to itself, it shouldn’t be there! Good sound editing is an invisible art. Yes, it’s also a technical craft. My mother, Kay Rose, the first woman sound editor to win an Oscar (for The River) wanted sound editors and mixers to think of themselves as filmmakers, not technicians.
Part of my mission in my life and career is to enlighten directors about how valuable knowing about sound is. If you’re on a set, listen through headphones just as you look at the video assist monitor. Educate yourself about sound as a director just as you would for camera, lighting, script and acting. It truly is just as important, if not more! When you know the production value of sound, you will be amazed at what you can add so easily to the palette of your film. It will give your film a true, professional feel to the film, more than any other thing! If your sound editor down the line can spend his or her time on creating great sound layers instead of fixing badly recorded sound, that will add value to your film and cost you less money. If you know the value of WILD TRACKS as a director, you will know that if you have VOICE OVER in your film, record it as a “temp” track to use for editing purposes. This way, you will not have to bring in your actor and pay them more, to record this voice-over. ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) lines will need to be done later, once your sound editor has exhausted their search for any alternate takes that may work if there’s a problem with a line or a word.
We (sound editors) have access to many clean-up programs now-a-days that would have only been accessible to re-recording mixers. But wouldn’t you rather have your sound editor working on the creative aspects of sound, rather than “fixing” what never should have been broken. My teaching now is “don’t fix it in post when it could have been fixed on the set.” WILD TRACKS are also helpful for capturing sounds to use for sound effects – background sounds such as fields of crickets indigenous to your film; vehicles that you may not have access to after you’ve left the location. It is pretty much useless to record “room tone” as it is very hard to have everyone stay still when there’s so much to do to get ready for the next take! To capture the best room tone efficiently, is to say, as the director, “And…………………….ACTION!” and the same at the end of a take: “And…………………….CUT!” This way, the air between the “and” and the “action” is usually free of noise; it has the room tone one would need and no one has to wait. It’s like a free, collective inhale that is great and loop-able room tone! I learned that trick from my favorite director that I worked with, Mark Rydell. But remember, you cannot say, “Annnnnnnnnnnnnd – action!” There must be air and space between the “and” and the “action.”
I wish directors would be more open to what we sound editors can bring to the table. All we’re trying to do is to enhance their movie, not to create a whole different thing.
Wild tracks may need to be recorded by a separate recordist if need be. On The River, the film that won my mom her Oscar, Mark Rydell, the director, sent my mom and another recordist to Tennessee to record the ambiences, machinery and locations that gave the film its unique and fresh sound. Mainly, being a sound editor is a pretty thankless but necessary part of the film process that too many directors don’t know enough about. And directing is so all-consuming and people expect you to know everything about everything (except sound!). I wish directors would understand how hard it is to create a flawless and contributory sound track. We spend countless (and often unpaid) hours of doing things that most people have no idea we do. Taking out extraneous and distracting sounds from the production recordings. Choosing the best mics to use. Most of the time the film editor may use a “combine” track and not want to take the time to find which lav might be the best quality.
Choosing the right sound effect takes time; to comb through our vast sound effect libraries or deciding to record fresh sounds; making sure that the FOLEY (Footsteps and prop handling movements) sounds right and sync is perfect; ensuring that ADR recordings match the lips, have good projection, right performance; cast the GROUP ADR (all the extras in scenes like in restaurants, airports, where adding specific background dialogue helps to enhance the scenes with realism; choosing and possibly recording all the stereo and/or 5.1 background ambiences – wind, rain, air. Backgrounds give the film its spatial feel – these are where we make you feel like you’re IN the movie. Dialogue will always come out of the center speaker. Foley also usually comes out of the center speaker. Backgrounds will use all the speakers! Including, now, the new Dolby atmos speakers that go overhead in Dolby atmos equipped theaters. Choosing sound effects (gun shots, dog barks, doors opening/closes, cars, a hawk – is not an easy thing. Everyone has a different feeling about sound. We sound editors try to choose what we think the director will want. Often directors don’t know what they want until they hear something. Directors and film editors also get so used to hearing their production track in the edit room that they cringe when they hear something new, whether it’s a new sound effect or an alternate production piece. Directors need to keep their ears open to new things before just throwing them out. Adjustments can always be made. Nothing is set in stone. I wish directors would be more open to what we sound editors can bring to the table. All we’re trying to do is to enhance their movie, not to create a whole different thing. Just to add dimensions that it needs!
What effect have technological advancements had on your job?
Vickie: Besides going from analog film to digital, which was a big thing, film sound is continually growing and changing. Trying to keep audiences going into a theater is on everyone’s mind. Hence, Dolby Atmos, IMAX, and 3D. All of these innovations help to keep people going into a theater to watch a movie instead of watching it at home. So many people have great home systems but movies are meant to be a community experience. We sound editors also have many more tools that used to belong exclusively to re-recording mixers. Sound editors often do their own pre-mixing, noise reduction, EQ and other sound enhancements that used to be a mixer’s job. Mixers also now are also doing some of their own sound editing. So our job is a true merger of both editing and mixing and it’s caused sound editors and mixers to work more cooperatively than we used to when we were on film. I think the other thing that has changed is the expectation that because we use computers to edit that we can do our job any faster. Faster doesn’t mean better. It also gives directors and producers the illusion that we are more technical than creative, which is not a good illusion! Directors also have much more at their disposal – like using a drone to capture some pretty amazing footage which is a whole lot cheaper than using a helicopter!
The other thing that I see happening because of technology is isolation. Many editors are working from home (which is good to be able to see your kids once in a while!) but it promotes isolation from the other editors. Even at studios, we’re isolated, working in our little rooms for 12-14 hours a day. We used to at least take an hour lunch break and go out with our colleagues. Now, people grab something from the commissary, go back to their rooms and eat while they work. Mainly, because we all want to get home to our lives! We also used to work more closely with the director and the film editor. Usually they would be right down the hallway from us or at least near us on the studio lot. We could go down the hall and talk about sound things – “Listen to this alternate. Do you like it? Should we ADR it?” Now, you’re lucky if you even meet with the director! It’s sad what it’s become. But only those of us who knew it to be different know this. The rest just take how it is as “That’s just how it is.” They don’t know what it used to be like.
With streaming options like Hulu and Netflix being so popular, many people are choosing to stay home instead of going to the cinema. Are they missing some of the experience by doing so, especially in regards to sound?
Vickie: Yes! Most feature films are made specifically to enjoy in a well-equipped theater with good and properly working speakers. Even for me, as an Academy member, I get most of all the year’s films on DVDs or Blu Rays in order to nominate films for Oscars. I’ve noticed that when I watch a film in a theater, I am doing so with no distractions. If I watch it at home, I can still look at my phone if I get a text, [get up if]a dog needs to be let out, or a hundred other things! I also don’t get the same all-encompassing feeling at home as I do in the theater and it does affect how I relate to the film. I’m less inclined to vote on a sound job if I only get to watch it at home. So, for me, I try to watch films where I need to evaluate the sound, in a theater! You also miss the collective audience reaction to a film if you don’t see it in a theater. Being immersed in the sound of a film cannot be replicated in your home unless you’ve spent about $100,000 to trick out your “screening room.”
What are some things that employers look for in new hires coming right out of university? What can students do outside of class to make themselves more competitive?
Vickie: I know what I look for in up and coming editors is an enthusiastic attitude. Technique can be taught but someone who is eager to do well and learn, that is the person I’d want to hire! Sound editing (and directing) is too narrow a field to not want to do it enthusiastically! And it’s also too hard a job. It takes pretty much 24/7 to do it well. If you want a 9 to 5 job with two weeks off for vacation, don’t go into anything in filmmaking! You need to be prepared to be immersed. It’s hard on family units and relationships. But that’s getting better as more people are demanding to have time with their loved ones!
You can make yourself more competitive by having a “can-and-will-do” attitude. Get experience by working on as many student projects as you can. Listen to films more than once. Contact the supervising sound editor through the Editor’s Guild (www.editorsguild.com). Ask him or her if you can take them out for coffee or have a phone call or come visit them where they work. Ask them questions. Ask for internships. Malcolm Gladwell said it takes about 20,000 hours to get really good at something. Practice, practice practice.
How many students typically try to get into the type of audio work that you’ve been so successful at? Has this number changed as time has gone by? If so, what may have caused this change?
Vickie: From my teaching at Video Symphony for over 15 years, I think the ratio is about 1 or 2 students out of a class of 10 to 20 who go on and actually become Local 700 card carrying members of the Editors Guild! (Ok, some stay non union!) And those students succeeded because they were the ones who always volunteered to be a PA on one of my shoots, or edit some foley or sound effects on any non-union films I did; three of my former students because production sound mixers. In fact, I try to always hire one of my former students who was my production mixer on my film Shelby’s Vacation! Sound is a pretty small field compared to most jobs. And the amount of jobs has changed over the years. We used to have at least two supervising sound editors; a supervising ADR editor and also a Supervising Foley Editor. The Supervising Foley editor is pretty much gone as a separate job category; being absorbed by one of the two supervising sound editors. Often, the two supervisors are divided by Effects including foley, and Dialogue including ADR. So often, to reduce the post production budget, the sound supervisor for dialogue will also be the ADR supervisor. There used to be many editors too. Hiring editors is really about deadlines. The tighter the deadline, the more editors are hired. The longer the deadline, the less editorial staff they need. A friend of mine just spent over a year working on the latest Planet of the Apes film, and he was editing sound effects pretty much by himself for months and months and then near the end of the schedule, other editors were hired. This is becoming more typical today.
Is sound editing still a male-dominated industry? Is that changing? How has that change affected the industry?
Vickie: Yes it’s still pretty much a male dominated industry. Many of my male colleagues got much more money than I did and more opportunities. Sad but true. It’s hard for me to see it changing. There are only a few more women sound supervisors since I retired. I can count them on both hands. I’m still often the only woman on the dub stage. And so are my women supervisor friends. There were two films that another woman supervisor and I did together and we were told by the composer that, “Women can’t edit sound effects.” I don’t think it’s a matter of gender about what makes for good sound design! I hope it will change. Meeting some of the women students at Ball State who want to be not only production sound mixers but sound editors gave me hope! They’re eager, they’re hungry to do it. That’s what it takes. One woman is 4’11” and she was doing the boom operating! And she was good at it too. People may tease her about that, as I’ve witnessed and heard that harassment from listening to a group of women sound persons called LA Sound Sisters. Women up on a ladder holding a boom or doing utility work that their male set mates would slap their butts – that kind of thing. And if you complain, you don’t get hired. This is what women face when they bring it up. I can’t go around saying, “Boo hoo. I get paid less than Joe and I do my job better than he does!” All I can do is keep doing my job the best I can and have hope that a rising tide lifts all boats.
What are your predictions about the future of sound in film production as well as the future of directing? Are trends like binaural audio or intentional ASMR stimulation here to stay?
Vickie: The trend I see approaching is almost doing away with all sound editorial. I think that film editors will be doing more of that in their edit sessions and hand to over to a mixer/editor who will be able to solve most sound issues pretty easily within their platform. I hope that’s not the case but I see that happening more and more.
Directing I think will always be an auteur’s type of job. Hopefully, with the awareness of the lack of parity between women and men directors, that statistic will change and many more women will be directing.
Sound envelopes us with the environment of the movie; whether it’s space, or water or a cave or a deserted island or prehistoric times or future times we don’t yet know what they may sound like.
And I must confess, I had to look up what ASMR was! We’ve been doing things like that in films since forever! I just didn’t know it had an official name! We have a whole palette of tools at our disposal to get the audience’s “buy in.” Reducing the background sound when we want you to pay attention to the words. We will put the words in different speakers or move the sounds around all the speakers. We decide what we want you to see and hear in any given frame of the film. The great Marshall McLuhan who wrote about “the medium is the message” and who predicted the world wide web 30 years before it became part of our daily lives, knew the importance of each frame in his great study of inserting a frame of popcorn every so often during a film which encouraged the audience through subliminal messages to get up and buy popcorn. Sound editors do that with what we want you to hear and when we want you to hear it. We do it as directors by choosing what angles and size of shots; where we place the actors; where we choose locations; what clothes they wear; what their rooms and homes look like. It’s all created to support whatever subliminal and subconscious messages we want you to have.
Video gaming is a very active field to go into. It relies heavily on the use of sound for the games and is often more elaborate to work on than a feature film. Sound has many layers. It is the first sense we develop in utero. Play any film without sound and it will seem like it takes forever! And yet, we spend so much time on what we see in the film’s frame. Sound envelopes us with the environment of the movie; whether it’s space, or water or a cave or a deserted island or prehistoric times or future times we don’t yet know what they may sound like.
Dialogue is the basis of a film. It is like the foundation of a house. Sounds are layered; production sound (dialogue) foley, sound effects, background sounds and ambiences, ADR and Group ADR, sound design, speaker designation and volume decisions. Since filmmaking is all smoke and mirrors, we have to keep doing whatever we can to keep audiences going to a theater. A while back, people thought that “smell-o-vision” would keep people in the theater! That proved to be quite difficult and pretty smelly! What keeps people in theaters is state-of-the-art equipment, good films (meaning films that can tell a good story), good snacks, good and comfy seats, non-sticky floors and the collective, community experience that a theater can offer. Even during the great depression, people paid money to escape their everyday woes. My mother, Kay Rose, always told me that no matter how bad the economy gets, movies will always be there. I hope she’s right! Even with some huge budget films, it’s always all about the story. If the story isn’t good, it won’t matter how much it cost or how many visual effects are in the film. No amount of visual effects can make a bad story good. It’s like putting varnish on dog poop! It may look prettier but… well, you know.
Images from Vickie’s website
You can see her full filmography on her IMDb page.