Lessons from SXSW: "The Emotional Language of Film with Skywalker Sound"

SXSW Synopsis:

"Through his work on both independent and studio films, Pete Horner has developed an approach to film sound that explores the unique language of each film. In this presentation, Pete will share clips illustrating the potential of sound to express underlying emotions, with the intent of encouraging filmmakers to engage the audience more fully through sound."

Pete Horner Bio:

"Pete Horner is an Emmy Award-winning sound designer and re-recording mixer at Skywalker Sound. He studied percussion and music recording at the Cleveland Institute of Music and discovered the musicality of film sound at American Zoetrope, where he worked on films including Apocalypse Now Redux and The Virgin Suicides. His work at Skywalker covers a wide range, from large animated features like How To Train Your Dragon to documentaries like Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure. In 2012 he won an Emmy for his mix and design work on Hemingway and Gellhorn; in 2013, he was awarded the first-ever Sundance Special Jury Prize for Sound Design for his work on Upstream Color."

This one is going to be a lot harder to explain without access to Pete Horner's wonderful sound design examples. However, his discussion did generate a smattering of interesting quotes and pieces of advice that I may be able to condense for the purpose of this blog.

He opened with a clip from a documentary film called "Hell and Back Again", which tracked the lives of Afghanistan & Iraq War Veterans. In the scene, a veteran was discussing his treatment with a doctor, and the dialogue faded away and the soundscape was bathed in more abstract sounds and effects. While this made the sound harder to understand, that was the point - it expressed the soldier's lack of understanding of perhaps interested ability to focus on what the doctor was saying. 

It was pretty effective, and it served as a good lesson on how sound - or really any aspect of the arts that comprise film-making - didn't need to be literally reflecting exactly what is happening diagetically in the scene, but can be manipulated and mixed solely to express the subtext of the story being told.

Sound is a dramatic element in the film, just like anything else.

The next story he told was about working with Walter Murch on a film. A sound from a clock-tower needed to be recorded, and the director & producers suggested that they send an intern. Pete was too inexperienced to protest, but fortunately, Murch jumped in and said:

"If you send an intern to go record a sound, you may get the recording... if you're lucky. But if you send an experienced sound designer, the microphone becomes a divining rod."
- Paraphrase of Walter Murch

There's more to being an excellent sound designer than simply generating accurate recordings of specific sounds. Ultimately, Pete Horner went to record the clock-tower and in the process found a range of new opportunities for recordings which ultimately made it into the film.

Happy accidents only really work if you have the skill and knowledge to know them when you see them.

Another excellent piece of advice from this session:

"Take advantage of a film audience's open-state when the house lights go down."
- Pete Horner

As a film-maker, you have a virtually guaranteed moment at the beginning of any film to have the audience's undivided attention. Exploit that opportunity by using that moment to set the tone for the rest of the film.

Pete turned out to be a fountain of interesting quotes like that. His approach to sound design is built around using sound to create auditory poetry.

"The beating of the glass by the moth (wings) can be the chattering of lips... I'm always searching for some kind of sonic metaphor."
- Pete Horner

At one point, highlighting this concept, we were treated to an example of Pete using rattlesnake rattles to replace the sound of rustling leaves outside the Dachau Concentration Camp in the film "Hemingway and Gellhorn". That rattlesnake rattle returns thematically over the course of the movie, wherever there's a need to subtly express violence and danger. 

It is sound design as leitmotif.

"Anger is like a cold front that moves into a human place."
- Pete Horner

Pete was a fantastic presenter and I will be looking out for his work from now on.

Lessons from SXSW: "Life Automation for Entrepreneurs"

SXSW Synopsis:

"Join Dave Asprey, Veronica Belmont & Maneesh Sethi as they discuss automating your life while running your business. Running a startup is an intense, all-consuming undertaking and new entrepreneurs have a hard time keeping up with the demands of their business and maintaining their relationships, social life, family, health, etc. 

In this panel, we'll be discussing creative ways to utilize technology to automate your life while you are running your business. Moderated by Stephanie Burns."

Dave Asprey - @bulletproofexec :: Veronica Belmont - :: Stephanie Burnes (Moderator) :: Maneesh Sethi -

Dave Asprey - @bulletproofexec :: Veronica Belmont - :: Stephanie Burnes (Moderator) :: Maneesh Sethi -


Mostly, this session was about finding ways in which to automate aspects of business and personal life in ways that save individual entrepreneurs - and really, anyone - from decision fatigue. 

The basic premise of this is that each time anyone makes a decision, it eats into a finite pool of willpower that we have in our reserves every day. The more we waste our time making little decisions - especially those that can, and should, be automated - the less willpower we have left to make more important decisions. So, part of the goal of automating parts of your life is to find ways to reduce the overall decisions made per day.

The panel recommended the following:

  • Delegate scheduling & calendar to assistant. Assistants also do not necessarily need to be expensive.
  • Schedule things that you normally wouldn't - like exercise, lunchtime, and other daily activities, so that you will stay on track and avoid unnecessary interruptions.
  • Pre-schedule long-term decisions like food (ie. make healthy food on the weekends and prepare to take it for lunch each day so that it isn't a unique decision on what to eat in the mornings or before lunchtime - this also cuts down on temptation to eat unhealthy foods); and recurring appointments for the doctor, dentist, etc.
  • Reduce scheduling decisions between multiple parties by reducing the number of available time options on your schedule, or using website to automatically align schedules.
  • Outsource travel arrangements as much as possible via secretary or websites like
  • "Anything you're not the best at" - Maneesh Sethi
  • Even gratitude...
  • Social media presence can also be automated through social media managers, and also:
  • Emails - Maneesh Sethi in particular has developed a system where nearly all of his email correspondence is run through an assistant. The assistant reviews all emails and categorizes them by importance and specificity. 

When asked if it's worth the trade-off to outsource personal information to assistants - especially internationally - Maneesh Sethi just considers it to be a cost worth bearing, noting that the worst things that can generally happen are "not that bad". Dave Asprey added, "Someone's already reading your email today. They're name is the NSA."

Things not to automate:

  • Sex & relationships (Belmont)
  • Mentorship (Asprey)

On internships, Dave Asprey also noted:

"There are people who will work for a surprisingly little amount of money, and they're not actually getting screwed out of the deal because they're getting an apprenticeship."


In the Q&A section, the panel answered several questions that I found relatively interesting. To the question of what we should do  if we don't have enough for our assistants to do to make a full time job, the panelists answered:

  1. Don't worry about it, they're there to assist you, not the other way around
  2. Add a constant job of ensuring accountability
  3. Work on forward-looking projects

To the question of how to start automating one's life, the panelists suggested that individuals start by asking the question, "What do you procrastinate on the most?" Whatever the answer to that question is, that's where you should start if possible.

Finally, to the question of what to do after college, the answers were:

  1. Eliminate debt as quickly as possible
  2. Look for the holes or what's missing in terms of what you currently don't outsource that you'd like to, and figure out how to automate those parts of your life
  3. Find great mentors & friends

All in all, this was a pretty informative session.

Lessons from SXSW: An Introduction

I was fortunate enough this year get to go to South by Southwest for work, and as it seems is usually the case with the event, I crammed an enormous amount of activity into about 4 days. In order to maximize the value I got out of the experience, I took notes (and photographs) at virtually every panel, event, and film screening I attended.

These events were, in order:

  1. Life Automation for Entrepreneurs
  2. The Emotional Language of Film with Skywalker Sound
  3. Premiere: "Chef"
    -- written & directed by Jon Favreau
  4. Narrative Shorts 1
  5. Documentary Shorts 1
  6. Premiere: "Space Station 76"
    -- written & directed by Jack Plotnick
  7. Austin Nightlife: The Broken Spoke & Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon
  8. Keynote: Jason Blum of Blumhouse Pictures
  9. A Conversation with Jon Favreau
  10. 5 Lessons from Movie Studios on How to Market Your Movie
  11. Deliverables Today
  12. Film & interactive Pary
  13. If Content is King, Who is Sheriff?
  14. A Conversation with Nicolas Cage
  15. Premiere: "A Night in Old Mexico"
    -- written by William D. Wittliff, directed by Emilio Aragón
  16. Premiere: "Doc of the Dead"
    -- directed by Alexandre O. Philippe
  17. How Crowdfunding Killed Hollywood with Adam Carolla
  18. Music Videos Program 1

A lot of the events I attended were filmed and will no doubt find a home on the internet in the coming weeks, but the lessons I took from SXSW are my own, so I figured that it would be worth copying my notes and sharing them here. It's a good way to keep my own records and maybe create some value for others as well.

Eventually, I might go back and upload music composition and orchestration notes from my years at NYU in graduate school and notes on music, film, writing and other creative pursuits from other conferences. 

With that said, I'm going to break this up into separate blogs to keep the notes easy to find. Check it out.

Reader Questions: Good Ways to Promote Your Blog

Isaac asks: 

What are some good ways to promote a blog?


Up-front, I should disclaim the fact that this really isn't my area of expertise. That said, I do have an answer.

Basically, it comes down to this. You need to learn to get really good at SEO.

Mostly this means you need to write great headlines that accurately describe the content of the post, and do a lot of targeted meta-data tagging.

But more than that, I think it's really just about having great content and updating regularly and often. The more content your blog has, and the more times people visit it per day, the better it does in everyone's search rankings... So produce content people want to read and do it every day. That's by far the best way to promote a blog.

Also, you can ask other - more prominent - bloggers to link to your blog on their blogs, if the content makes sense for their audiences, and there's always the option of just buying advertisements and promote it with cold, hard, cash.

Via Forbes, Cognito PR & Marketing recently created this infographic on SEO tips for 2013 that might be helpful (and confirms my point about frequently posting great content): 


I would add to this one important thing.

Do NOT just spam links to your blog on every other platform that's more prominent than yours.

It's super annoying, and it doesn't really help you get more blog subscribers anyway since it turns off potential readers and because the same IP address posting the same links over and over doesn't get you anywhere in search engines anyway. 

All that said, I probably have some friends who can offer a lot more advice, since this really isn't what I do.