This subject has been of particular interest to me and has sparked a lot of interest among my colleagues in Post Production. Discussing spotting is a subject unto itself. But are there advantages to spotting a project with the Composer AND the Sound Designer present with the Director? Sitting down in a room—all together—with the same goal in mind: helping the Director tell the story. On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer. Why NOT do this? Save time and energy; reduce the classic ‘conflicts’ during the final mix; The left hand knows what the right hand is going to do; Efficient; Cost saving; Keeps the creative focus; Ah, if it were only that simple.
I had the chance recently to talk with a few Sound Designers, and the results were sometimes surprising, though overall very encouraging. As varied as the personalities are, that pretty much tells the story: There is no ONE WAY to spot, design sound, compose music, or approach a project. The common thread through the discussions was always positive. I hope we can all share some gems in the end.
One of the most common challenges we encounter during a final mix, whether it be a film, television show, or any sound for picture project, is the time when all the faders are open and we run all the sound elements to see what we have. It is right then when it can be revealed that everyone has tried to do the same things- playing the action, playing the drama, tension, etc, all at the same time. Action scenes are loaded to the brim with sound effects-everything that moves gets a sound. The orchestra is playing right along with our characters on screen as they fly through the air. The aural spectrum is full to the brim with high end, mid range, and sub harmonics. And of course, the sonic result is usually undefined, muddy, and way too loud.
It is at that moment that we all turn to each other with the knowing glances of trepidation. Who will say it first? “Clearly… we need to sort out the material and our approach!” The process continues in whichever order is decided upon, each element being explored and sorted through. Discussion of which elements will take the lead ensues, necessitating listening to everything presented so that a creative decision can be made based on the materials provided. The score is played solo, and the arc of the music is analyzed, with each special interest listening, looking for places to trade off for the material they have brought to the game. Experimentation follows (which of course, is not a totally bad thing… and can be VERY good for the creative process). Then, a game plan begins to form, getting mapped out, and executed.
Projects have been mixed like this with great success, obviously. But in these days of shrinking budgets, less mix time, and other pressures, is this really the most efficient/best way to approach our mixes? All the hard work done by sound editors and mixers and composers can get ‘covered up’, never really presented as originally intended. Potentially, no one could end up truly happy with the final result, because it ends up to be a series of compromises. Or, sound elements can get ‘dumped’ completely before even being given a chance to breathe life into a film. I’ve heard it all—”We paid a lot of money for that score, and we’re gonna hear it!” “I’ve spent weeks designing those sounds, and we HAVE to hear them!” These days, synthesizers are not strictly in the realm of the composer. Nor, are ambiences or sound effects off limits for the music department to use. Tonal ambiences, pads, winds, backgrounds, eerie or calming effects are fair game for anyone with a Protools or other workstation, to be modified or altered ad infinitum. The creative choices and possibilities have never been as exciting.
There is no one answer, and no one single approach. In a bid to bridge the gaps between our perspective areas of focus and expertise, we find much to discuss. Factors such as ego, collaboration, team work, confidence, and just plain doing the right thing for the film all come into play.
I posed questions to some friends over these past few weeks, and I’d love to share their insights with you. I asked them about spotting with the director and the composer—pros and cons. Is it better to be working separately or together? I asked for anecdotes, stories they were willing to share (there were a few that couldn’t be published!). How often was the spotting actually followed through to the final mix? Do the benefits outweigh any negatives? What about file sharing during the editorial process?
Here are their thoughts:
Sound Designer and Director of Sound Design—Skywalker Sound
(The Last Airbender, War of the Worlds, The Simpsons Movie)
“I think it’s always a good idea to have a spotting session that includes the Director, Picture Editor, Composer, and Sound Designer or Supervising Sound Editor. It’s the best way I know to avoid a train wreck of uncoordinated sound in the final mix. Too many Directors misguidedly think the best approach is to simply tell the Composer that it’s 100% his/her job to make the scene work sonically, and in a separate meeting they tell the Sound Designer the same thing. They think that by having both departments “go for it” they’ll get the best of both worlds, and that they’ll be able to cherry pick the best stuff in the final. What’s more likely to happen is that when all the faders are opened on the first day of the final mix it sounds like you’re standing next to Niagara Falls. It’s just a bunch of uncorrelated noise that you have to spend hours and hours if not days and days trying to make sense of, and it often winds up with nobody being very happy with the result.
Occasionally the music and effects departments can divide up the spectrum… score will be all high strings and woodwinds while sound effects will be the bass end of the spectrum… but in my experience, the cases where that kind of arrangement is possible are rare.
Robert Zemeckis has always been great about making sure from early on that the score and the sound effects complement each other instead of detract from each other. Alan Silvestri and I have often spotted with Bob together, though it isn’t really necessary now because we’re so used to handing the sonic baton back and forth that it comes naturally. There is this tenacious myth among many Directors that it’s desirable for huge music and huge sound effects to play simultaneously in action sequences. If they would take the time to analyze the great sequences in film sound they would quickly realize that in almost all cases either the music or the sound effects drives a moment or a sequence, and the other is either clearly subordinate or isn’t there at all. That is actually the case regardless of whether it’s loud or quiet, action packed or simple and slow. You have to make choices. Simply pushing all the faders to the top and hoping it’s going to sound good isn’t mixing. Making those crucial choices should begin in the spotting session. Ideally you then have some time to try that approach with mock-up score and mock-up effects, because you never know what’s going to work until you try it.”
Supervising Sound Editor
(Ali, Friday Night Lights, Hancock)
“Spotting with both the composer and director is very positive. It allows me to hear the comments and thoughts the director is passing on to the composer. As a sound designer, I am trying to build a track that elicits an emotional reaction from the audience. This emotional reaction can be fear, anger, happiness, sadness or anxiety—any emotion really. The composer is trying to do the same thing, so by hearing the requests the director is asking of the composer allows me to interpret this information and apply it to my work. And I believe the same could be said for the composer hearing what the director says to me.
Spotting together is good for an almost real time run through of the movie with discussion as we go. To both be together for a detailed spotting would be very time consuming. I don’t need to know exactly when a cue is starting or ending, and I’m sure the composer can do without hearing about specific sound effects. But mood, feel and general orchestration of a cue within a particular scene or sequence is valuable.
This works on an individual film basis. In movies like big action films or romantic comedies we already know what the other guy is going to deliver. It’s different with dramas, thrillers and mysteries where moods and subtleties play a much bigger role. Animation is a different beast altogether, generally both the sound designer and music department are creating and delivering tracks to the picture department sometimes years before the film mixes, so we’re always aware of what the other guy is doing.
In my experience, the spotting notes are followed through to the end fairly often. Of course there are always changes to the way we may handle an effects driven scene and the composer changes the context of a cue, but generally things seem to stay pretty close, at least in concept. I have been involved with films where the score will take a radical departure from what was originally discussed, but that is typically a result of the filmmakers wanting to dry a different overall approach.
I think the benefits of spotting with the Composer outweigh any negatives. We are all trying to achieve the same goal of helping the director tell his story as best he can. Interaction and discussion between all of us involved can only be helpful. At the very least, you get to meet some very talented and passionate people working on the same film as you. At it’s very best you help elevate the film to a higher level.
John Powell and I did this, and collaborated on “Hancock”, and I think it helped a lot. I also visited the scoring stage wherever possible and John came by the dub stage often. This was one of those films where the concept of the score and overall mood of the movie was constantly evolving, so it was very necessary to stay involved with what each of us was up to. Typically though, with schedules as they are, both the composer and the sound designer are in full hustle mode. We have our heads at our desks, keyboards, and computer monitors… just trying to get the thing done. Most often the scoring stage starts while we are pre-dubbing, so prior to the final mix we can only exchange mock-ups which are usually in a state of flux due to picture changes, or new visual effects, or the joy of all joys… another temp dub.”
Supervising Sound Editor
(Alpha Dog, The Notebook, The Perfect Storm)
“I can’t say I really see any downside at all to spotting with the composer. It doesn’t work anymore to be separated. Years ago, we had a lot more time on the stage to sort situations out that didn’t work sonically with Sound and Music, but that luxury is not available to us anymore. We need to be very specific now about how our time is spent on a mixing stage. Every time a music cue changes it changes the entire feeling of a scene and we have to remix—and sometimes redo—the sound design to get it right. Having said that, the more we are simpatico with the composer, the more focused our tracks can be. I transfer files back and forth all the time with composers so I can stay in sync with them. It works great. I am in a situation right now on a temp dub where they changed a music cue and didn’t tell me and now all my sound design isn’t working… so much that we had to go back to the old music since we didn’t have time to redo all the design. I don’t see any good reason not to blend together all music and sound since it ultimately needs to be one feeling for a scene.”
Supervising Sound Editor
(The Blind Side, Grey Gardens, The Last House On the Left)
“It seems to be a great idea, in theory, to include Composer and Sound Supervisor during a spotting and is a great way to save time for the Director and the Picture Editor. It’s been my experience, in the three or four times I’ve been included in this type of spotting, that it could also have the potential to waste an inordinate amount of time for either me or the composer. The majority of my spotting time is to clarify and connect real world aspects, such as A.D.R., off stage sounds, foley discussions, and those areas seem to be unwittingly compromised with the composer in the room. The general intent, in my opinion, of the music discussion with the composer is about dramatic intent and timbre of desired emotion of a scene and film, and, unless there’s a production musical piece involved, requires a much different shape of creative sense to discuss the musical themes and resultant dramatic resolutions through the movie.
It works, however, if all involved realize that this spotting session is the beginning, and will continue to evolve. If it’s viewed as the only time that all hats will be in the same room, it’s trouble down the road. Furthermore, whenever I’ve adhered copiously to the notes taken during sessions, I’ve sometimes had to go against my intuition to cover an event as I would have been inclined to, as the combined spotting notes were implicit in the overall sound being a musical moment only. Unfortunately, that previously “music-only” scene was lacking in dramatic finish and I looked to be unprepared. Why? Because the idea of rigidity in intent is not necessarily what a good mix should be.
A much better arrangement, in my experience, is having the composer screen the temp version film with the Dialogue and Effects track open and the Music track available for his/her use, if and when he/she wants to hear it. Christopher Young did this with the film “Unforgettable”, which had a large section of chase and sound design moments, and he did a brilliant job of weaving percussion and handing off hits in sound effects moments. Richard Marvin is very good at this type of arrangement, also. Rick and I were subliminally communicating well enough that I’d remembered a cue that was tried and abandoned that during the mixing of the scene in “U-571″, that lent itself perfectly to a new direction that the movie mix needed to go in. It went back in. Rick paid me a fiver and the movie improved immensely for the change.
The ability to listen to the direction of a mix as it shapes itself is what a good film mix should be. Mixing a movie is a process, not a ‘to-do’ list. I’ve seen more good ideas and improvements gone by the wayside during a mix because of a subtle narrow mindedness of schedule, rather than being open to opportunity.
As you can see, I’m sometimes hesitant to spot with the composer, BUT… I’d be a fool not to try it again and use the shortcomings learned in previous combined sessions, increase the communication avenues, and continue to find new ways to make things better and improved. That success has been by screening of temps, previews, and in the least, communication via the OMF by temp mockups supplied by the composer.”
Supervising Sound Editor
(Terminator Salvation, Live Free Or Die Hard, Mr. and Mrs. Smith)
“It is always valuable to know firsthand what the filmmaker imagines their track to sound like, both from a technical aspect (problems with production) and creatively (what best tells the story they are trying to tell). Often times they know what they want to lead with in any given scene; music or FX. (Given the fact that dialogue always needs to be in the forefront). Although, typically a composer knows that gunshots will be in the gun battle and the sound designer knows that the gun battle will have music. Typically they will play together in the mix and likely trade off moments. The other scenario being that the filmmaker knows up front exactly how to play the scene, choosing one over the other. For example, a car chase can feel more realistic without music (check out “The French Connection”).
I have spotted in what I believe to be, probably every possible scenario. The picture editor has always been present and the rest of the players revolve. On my current film “Due Date”, I spotted with the picture editor and the producer. On “Live Free Or Die Hard”, I spotted with the picture editor, director, and composer… and on other films there have been times that I brought along a large portion of my crew.
As long as the ideas are conveyed, it’s all good. So many sonic moments in a movie are developed during the actual process of scoring and sound design, that only after they are reviewed and discussed do we really know the final course the track will take. The track can even change direction. I do believe that in regard to spotting, “Plan A” is a good place to start, and we all know what happens to “Plan A”! Good thing that there are 25 more letters in the alphabet!”
Supervising Sound Editor
(Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, National Treasure, Gone In Sixty Seconds)
George and I discussed this topic during a phone conversation, and he had some great input for us. He welcomes this concept as a great idea, and shared with me some of his experiences.
During “Pearl Harbor”, director Michael Bay, composer Hans Zimmer and George picked areas in advance where music would be predominant, and others where sound effects would take the lead. For this film, it worked marvelously. The impact of all the sound elements was heightened by the pre-planned use of music and effects. Music was much more effective when it wasn’t ‘wall to wall’, and effects drove some scenes taking the lead with full force. By planning and leaving room for effects, the film’s story arc was enhanced, and not derailed. The plans made during spotting followed through to the final mix.
All of this was possible because it was the right combination of people. Everyone had the same mission. Even during the final playback of the finished film, there were areas that needed to be thinned out, and modified. It is during playbacks that the thread of music can be experienced, and more creative possibilities can be explored—areas to lead with Music, or to lead with Sound Effects, and lose Music. The fine tuning never stops, but it all begins in the spotting sessions.
Although it is a bit much to expect both Composer AND Sound Designer to sit through spotting in extreme detail together (due to the amount of time required), the process is invaluable for exchanging concepts, and game planning. Discussion can evolve during a spotting session such as this, so that all present can “plead their cases” with the director. Maybe for comedies, this would be less of a factor, but certainly it is helpful for action films. We can save the discussion of how LOUD music is played for another day! Many times, unfortunately, the temp dub serves as the ‘spotting’. Decisions are made to get the early versions done, and then ‘temp love’ sets in.
While George has not seen this process work on every film, he again stressed the PEOPLE aspect. The more open discussion there is, the better the final product will be.
Sound Designer and Supervising Sound Editor
(Saving Private Ryan, Finding Nemo, Minority Report)
“I don’t see any cons to spotting with the Composer and Director. Too often, the composer and sound supervisors don’t get to sit together and hear what the director is thinking. Together, the composer and sound supervisors can help work out where score should be, where it should start and stop, where the music should carry the weight of a moment, and when FX can. They can hear what each other is thinking in terms of types of sounds, frequencies, orchestration. They can point out potential conflicts.
In my experience, I like sitting in on the music spotting. A separate FX spotting would happen, and I don’t know if I’d want to subject the composer to that! On “Backdraft”, we had Hans Zimmer’s full-sounding mockups of the score available before we cut SFX, and it helped up make and pick sounds that worked with the music. Conversely, on “Jurassic Park,” I played early takes of the SFX for John Williams, and he was able to orchestrate the music, to some small extent, with the pitches of our FX in mind.
The most perfect blend of music and FX I experienced was on “A.I.” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” “A.I” was scored by John Williams early enough that we had the final score to cut SFX against—that allowed us to use tonal, overtly musical sound SFX and blend them into the score. For “Punch-Drunk Love,” Paul Thomas Anderson wanted a seamless blend of SFX and music, so we shared sounds with composer Jon Brion—he even used bits of production sounds and dialogue as part of the score.
I can’t think of a film for which communication between the music and FX departments wouldn’t greatly help the mix. Things always change, but in my experience, an early collaboration helps smooth the final mix, and results in a more emotional track. These days, sharing is easier than ever. No excuses for not sharing. Always good to meet in person and discuss approaches, but after that, or in place of that, sending music and sounds back and forth is incredibly inspiring for both the composer and sound people.”
In conclusion—Ah, if Sound People could run the world…it sounds like we have some potential answers to help world peace! These issues are some of the toughest we face in the sound community. Sorting through all the possibilities, being respectful of the talented artists around us, and doing the right thing for the film. It appears to me that there is a common thread and desire for collaboration throughout all these insights. And again, the people skills we need to have in our business pay off in spades when it comes to the creative process.
In my world of post-production re-recording, I would love to be able to have more access to the spotting sessions. All too often we are the last to be involved in the process, and we play ‘catch up’. The discussions about concept and creative ideas are invaluable to the final product, as we have seen. We, as mixers, need to adapt quickly and accurately to get onboard with everyone else, as well as to offer our own input. We don’t “paint by numbers”!
This is why I try to make it to spotting sessions and scoring sessions. At the very least, I try to meet with the Sound Designer, Composer and/or Music Editor as early as is practical. The Temp Mix is where the Mixers have been ‘traditionally’ brought in to the creative process. It has proven to be invaluable for solidifying the team, adding insight, fine tuning and experimenting. Temps are not as prevalent as they once were, mostly due to financial concerns, and THIS is yet another topic for us to look at!
So, we must constantly strive to evolve and adapt; re-inventing ourselves and the ways in which we work. Not a bad thing, really, in the end. Most times, we don’t have any control over who we work with on a project, and people from all corners are thrust together for several months to become a team. We owe it to our directors to keep our eye on the ball, and be true to our craft.
I would like to thank everyone who participated in this topic. It is encouraging to me to see so many (busy) people willing to find ways to improve the process, but also, to discuss solid methods of working, and learn a few things from each other along the way.
COMMENTS are open below this article. Add your insight, and participate in this talk. It can only lead to better movies!