audio & music

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: 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.

Welcome to CitizenA Media: How To...

Hi everyone.  

In the past few years, I've increasingly been asked to do a lot of training, classes, workshops, and more recently even some panel discussions aiming to help other people get better at producing high quality media.

The more I do this, the more I find that there are a ton of people out there who are really clamoring for this kind of content.

And while there are a bunch of great websites out there that can help you learn specific techniques with hardware & software, especially if you want to get better at Hollywood-style narrative film-making and visual effects, there are almost no sites out there offering to help people get better at producing professional multimedia content in every-day environments.

It's hard to find answers online to questions like; "How can I get decent audio when filming an event in a hotel ballroom?", "What's the best way to get an interview with a person I've never met?", or "What equipment am I absolutely going to need to start a high-quality podcast but cannot afford a whole recording studio?"

As someone who has built a multifaceted production business and who has spent many years acquiring a wide range of professional skills in media production, including:

  • narrative & documentary film-production
  • event videography & electronic news gathering
  • music composition
  • audio recording, mastering & mixing
  • video & audio/music editing
  • photography
  • graphic design & animation/motion graphics
  • story development & script-writing
  • (...to a lesser extent) social media, blogging & website development

...I can answer those questions, and more!

To make this blog as effective as I can, I'll make sure to tag each post in appropriate categories, so that they'll be easily searchable, and you can find answers to your questions quickly and efficiently. Eventually I may re-organize the posts into proper lessons and post them via a professional educational platform.

I want this blog to be as helpful to as many people as possible, so please ask me anything you want to know, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can with answers.

So... Please e-mail citizena.media@gmail.com with your questions.

Let's get started!

-Sean