by Erin Hotchkiss
Editor’s Note: One of the side effects of working in the film industry is that you forget how exciting it can be for an outsider to get a behind the scenes peek at how movies are put together. It’s not until you get the perspective of a new comer that you’re reminded just how special an insider look can be. Fortunately, I recently began teaching at a university and now vicariously experience the thrill of discovery virtually every day. Here is one such experience as told through the eyes of one of my senior students. I hope she holds onto that sense of wonder and excitement a lot longer than I did. If she does, I’m sure it will make her a better filmmaker, one that doesn’t lose touch with the magic that is in the very nature of the art form. Or at least, it should be. Too many of us regular industry types lose sight of that, and that is probably exactly what’s wrong with the industry today – a lack of wonder.
Because of an extraordinary opportunity that reveled itself I got the chance to witness a professional sound designing session at a postproduction studio with two Academy award-winning directors as they worked on the final stages of their latest film. How I got there basically consists of being in the right place at the right time, seeing an opportunity, and volunteering for it. It could be a case of beginners luck, or just not knowing any better that I shouldn’t ask for such privileges. What did I have to lose? So, I asked if I could observe a part of the process of postproduction, and the answer was yes.
Upon first entering the studio, there appears to be a typical office-like desk at the front. There is a bunch of hustle and bustle as various guys are eating breakfast at the miniature kitchen off to the side of the place. When there’s a kitchen in the office, you know a lot of time is spent in that work place. So much time that breaking to go out for food would mean losing valuable time that could be spent at work. Yet another example of how time is observed as a commodity in Hollywood.
After wandering in my naive little intern way, I was able to find the two directors I was there to help. I was led into a large theater room, but this was no ordinary theater. There were five stations where in three of the positions sat sound designers. One was in charge of the background and the sound effects. Another was in charge of all the dialogue. The third was in charge of the music. For little me, it was a sight to behold the vastness of the surround sound that encased the room. The sights of the posh recliner chairs and couch made the arrangement that much more thrilling. Now it only took me a few seconds to realize why, although the splendor of it all might make it look good, those comfy recliner chairs that sat right smack in the center of it all actually needed to be comfy. Because those two directors sat there for hours knit picking at every single little minuscule sound you could possibly hear to make the film feel authentic.
At first, I was fascinated about the process and the reasons the directors gave the sound designers for the changes they wanted to make. However, after a while, I started to get irritated, like really irritated. They would go over the same scenes over and over again, making changes where I didn’t understand or even hear the difference. It was only when the scene played as a whole did I get it. I then realized from their nit picking that the devil is in the details. Academy award-winners don’t have special powers that mystically allow them to know what will be perfect. What they do have is the determination and confidence to know what they like, and they aren’t willing to settle – ever. Patience, endurance and, of course, persistence are key elements when creating a movie, in every single element. Those directors literally were giving their all to make this movie the best that they could possibly make it.
I was truly fascinated by the great deal of collaboration that was involved in the sound-designing studio. Yes, the directors definitely had their say, but once the team (the directors and the three sound designers) worked through a scene they would all meet in a circle and get out those old pads of paper and write notes on what they thought needed to change to improve the authenticity of the film. Everyone had a say and gave suggestions, valuable suggestions, which made the movie what it is today. I have to say that the sound designers are absolute artists. The film truly came to life during the sound design making a 2d surface spring off the screen as the sound enveloped me.
Once the directors had meticulously examined each section of the film, whether or not they were ready, the producers and sound-designing supervisors wanted to check on the progress. Yes, even Academy award-winning directors have to answer to someone. Right up until the end the directors were using every last minute, trying to make changes, asking for more time in the studio (which the producers inevitably said no to). The situation brought to mind the image of me asking my mother for more cookies after dinner. You’ve got to ask even though you know that more times than not the answer is going to be no.
At last the film was screened and I finally got to see all of the work come together as a whole. It was truly remarkable and the big wigs were satisfied. The directors were a bit disappointed that they couldn’t put in all that they wanted in the film. In those final moments, it was a bit bittersweet, as the directors basked in their complete project. They knew their movie was coming to an end, and endings are always difficult in Hollywood. What was most shocking to me was the directors were talking about how worried they were about getting another job. But this is Hollywood; I guess there really are no guarantees. All you have is the love of the craft, which pushes you from one project to the next. At the time, the team had the fortune of getting Lovelace into the Sundance Film Festival and they were eagerly awaiting the audience response. And then what after that? There are no guarantees in Hollywood, except the knowledge of knowing you either did or didn’t do your best. And in this case there was reason for great satisfaction indeed.