What I meant was…

how to communicate with the director during the design process?

“…judge by results, not intentions.” – Cicero

Directors, designers, help me out here. I have questions. First I’ll tell some stories.

1) I was cutting footsteps for a film where the main character is kept in the dark, off balance, isn’t sure what’s happening. I “walked” the character tentatively, avoiding heavy, deliberate, determined footfalls, thinking I was serving the character by doing so. The director looked at the scene.

“He sounds like he has really tiny feet.”

Somewhat defensively, I explained why I had cut the feet the way I did, talked about the character, the feel I was going for.

“Yeah. He sounds like he has really tiny feet.”

In retrospect he was right; I’d gotten a little carried away with the thematic approach and went too far. It was an experiment that didn’t work out. We went with heavier footsteps. More realism, less film-student thematics.

If I’d told the director in advance, “I cut the feet this way because blah blah,” would he—having my intention in mind as he watched—have been more likely to let the original, wrong footsteps stay in?

B) I was reading about the sound design for Watchmen, and how the film’s sound guys decided that they’d already mixed two big fight scenes in a row with huge up-front effects, and that for contrast and to give the film some dynamics, they’d favor the music for the third fight sequence, and turn the effects down. Director Zack Snyder saw the cut and his response was: where are the effects? The sound crew explained their intention, and Snyder’s response was, “well, we’ll just have to undo that.”

When I read that I first thought, well, there’s an example of a director not trusting or listening to his sound team, going for the obvious cliché choice to have big thwack-y punch sounds like every other fight sequence in every other action movie.

Then I started to wonder: what would have happened if the Watchmen sound team had set Snyder up for it in advance?

“Here, Zack, we thought we’d do something different in this sequence. We’ve gone ‘big-effects’ on the last 2 fights, why don’t we make this one a little more oh-I-dunno-balletic-or-abstract-or-whatever and favor the music in the mix instead?”

“Huh, interesting idea,” Snyder might say. “Lemme see it.” …roll the scene. Snyder watches.

Now, he can either say, “yeah, you know what? That works; let’s do it that way.” Or he can say, “No, I really wanted the big punch and kick sounds, bring the effects back in.”

Which way would things have gone?

iii) I’m about to start working on a short film where the two main characters fall in love over the course of the movie. I want to draw the audience’s focus tighter on the couple as the story progresses, partly by stripping away the ambient sound over the course of the film: as they get more into each other, the rest of the world falls away. Not in a Bergman-abrupt-dropoff way, not playing scenes with no ambience or diegetic effects, just subtly turning stuff down over time. But I envision playing that mix for the director and hearing “why is the fireplace not louder here?” Should I explain in advance what I intend to do? Will that bias his reaction to my choices in favor of them, when those choices may not be the right ones? Will playing the mix without any explanation cause him to over-react to those choices?

Part of this, of course, is: maybe if the sound designer is making big thematic design decisions, he should discuss them with the director before putting a bunch of time into developing them. In theatre design we talk much of this stuff out in pre-production meetings, and the tech process is such that you really can’t position the director as “first-time audience member” and surprise him/her the way you can with a film mix. But without making the director approve every one of hundreds if not thousands of individual effects…I mean, at a certain point in the process the director has to be able to trust you to go off and do your job for awhile, right?

Is it reasonable to assume that if a particular design choice takes the director out of the film, the audience will react the same way? Or is the director’s perception different because of the nature of the job?

So my questions:

Designers: how do you present your ideas? More specifically, when you have a design element prepared, and are ready to show it…do you set the director up for it or just hit play and see how s/he reacts?
Directors: how do you want design ideas presented to you? Do you want to know up-front what the intention and approach are, or do you want to see the moment as the audience will see it, with no preamble and no explanation? Are you perhaps never in the position to ever see anything as the audience will see it, since you are the director?

And of course, the flip side, the unnerving, insecure question: as the designer, am I prone to be more in favor of a design choice because I thought of it, and I know what my intention was? Will I fight for a bad idea simply because it is mine?

Chime in, please.

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About toxicbag

Toxic Bag Productions, Inc. provides sound effects and music for independent films, animated shorts, theatrical productions, dance performances, podcasts and video games. They work out of their studio on the north side of Chicago.

Posted on September 8, 2009, in Film and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. As a designer and a director, I think that Zach Snyder is a baboon and should be prevented from ever making movies again. Ever!

    Zach Snyder = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baboon

  2. Here’s my rambling reaction, for what it’s worth.

    Just my personal philosophy as a director: my task is to do my best to be the eyes and ears of the audience encountering the piece for the first time as it develops- while it is difficult to accurately enter that mindset of ‘as if was the first time’ after the umpteenth time you’re watching a scene unfold, that mentzl zone is still one of the most important things a director can strive for.

    When I listen to a soundscape or am confronted with any other design choice, I do my best to mentally weave that in to the other elements- to create in my mind the effect of unexpectedly encountering that element that as part of the experience on an audience member. If I were in the audience watching or listening to this, would it confuse me? Does it jolt me out of the action? Basically, does it make my inner audience member murmur dubiously, “…I dunno…”- or does it make me say “yes, exactly!”

    I have had situations occur where a design choice trips my “this is an unfortunate and/or confusing design choice” alarm even though the designer was really in favor of it. It’s a delicate situation- every designer takes their creative process just as seriously as you take yours, and can very easily beome defensive or huffy, which helps no one. I try to be nice, but finally there has to be a captain to the ship, and a director’s ultimate responsibility is to the intended audience (admittedly something of an imaginary construct) and not to any individual designer (or performer, for that matter). That said, there are ways to lay down the law about something like this without being a total asshole.

    But does explaining it in advance stop a director from having the “I dunno….” reaction? I would say not, unless the explanation is freakin’ genius. Directors (or, at least, this director) tend to go with their gut reaction to a design element, not the choice that’s the most rationally defensible. And some designers really don’t do themselves any favors with their sales pitch. I’ve had situations where a designer’s attempt to explain a choice to me at length before showing it to me has actually turned me off to a choice- it sets off my dubious alert before I even see the element (in the case I’m thinking of, the explanation was scaring and frustrating me (‘What the hell is this guy thinking? We aren’t on the same page at all. Am I going to have to fire him?’), but then I saw the actual element, instead of just having it described to me and was all like, “oooooohhhhhh– yeah, that will work fine.”)

  3. ahhh..interesting….
    As an artist, I just ‘hit play’……up to *you* to soak up all that’s there — and if you ask, i’ll fill in the blanks. I like this method best. Same goes for sound, hit play, be creative…if it doesnt work, you’ll hear about it. Because you’re intermixing art formats: visuals and sound and text/words — i think you have to just hit play and see if it translates. I dont think design-wise you need to explain yourself — see if it translates first.
    Personally….and this may be due to the blonde..films go wayyyy too fast for me to absorb every freakin’ artistic element anyway — so having a “thwacky” (good choice of word) in-your-face sound element, is necessary for some of us 🙂
    T.

  4. Ed–all good points, and I completely agree that the director has to be the last word on design choices. It’s up to the individual designer how much to fight for ideas s/he really thinks are going to work, but ultimately what the director says, goes, whether the designer agrees with it or not. I tend to go into tech assuming that a certain percent of the cues I’ve built will be cut, and try to go in with some detachment.

    The only time it really bugs me is when directors kill an idea before actually hearing what it’s intended to sound like, either because the cue was fired at the wrong time initially, or the balance wasn’t just right quite yet. That can be frustrating.

    T–you’re probably right, either it works or it doesn’t. And the audience isn’t going to be able to hear my brilliant explanation in advance. Just hit play–I like that.

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