Hello ladies and gentlemen, Muldoon here with another interesting edition of MEET THE CREW, a column reserved specifically for the artists out there who bring us our favorite films, but typically aren't contractually pushed into the spotlight during press tour time - the passionate folks who love what they do and aren't put in a room full of strangers asking them the same questions all day. We all love film, that's why we frequent sites like AICN, so when an opportunity to speak with a creative individual who's work might not be as obvious as the lead actors or director, I'll always bite. Shawn Duffy's latest film, DARLING (Written and Directed by Mickey Keating) has just premiered at this year's Fantastic Fest, so I was sure to reach out for our AICN "master class" here and pick his brain a bit. Shawn is incredibly talented and seems like a genuinely good guy. He's provided some pretty informative answers for my slightly broad questions. Hopefully you fine folks enjoy his answers and find them as fascinating as I did (and still do). So before we jump in, I’d like to truly thank Shawn for his time and for giving us a little insight into the art of Sound Design. I’d also like to put it out there – if you work in Film/TV and feel like sharing your experiences here in the heart of Ain’t It Cool, I’d genuinely love to hear from you (Mike@aintitcool.com). So without further ado, let’s get to know Shawn and get the unique perspective of a seasoned Sound Designer.
SHAWN DUFFY - SOUND DESIGNER
What are the principle duties of a sound designer?
The answer to this depends on who you ask. I think to most sound people, a sound designer is someone who creates the sounds in a film that don’t currently exist in reality. Some examples are Ben Burtt creating lightsabers, Gary Rydstrom making the dinosaur vocals in Jurassic Park, or David Farmer making the dragon sounds for the Hobbit films. Another element of this could be things like whooshes, impacts, jump scares, etc., which are created by manipulating synthesized tones and/or real sound effects to create something new. This is the way I tend to think of the title.
Another interpretation of the title would be someone who designs the overall soundscape of the story. This interpretation is often used in theater, where a sound designer helps to create an immersive world using sound to match what the set designers and costume designers create visually. It has become a more common interpretation of what someone like myself does on films, especially on projects where one person handles the majority of the sound duties (dialogue and effect editorial, sound design, and mixing).
What stage of a project are you typically brought in on? Are you consulted during production or are you typically monitoring from a distance until something hits your desk? How and when did you join the crew on DARLING?
Typically, I start work after the film is locked, meaning there are no more anticipated changes planned for the film in terms of picture. I try to be involved in the film as soon as possible, so that I can hopefully be involved in the pre-production, giving input on possible problems in shooting or on things that the production sound mixer might be able to record for me cleanly, without dialogue. If I’ve worked with the filmmakers before, this is usually the case, but often I'm brought on some time after the film has been shot. I’m given a file containing all the sound that the editor has used in their cut of the film, as well as a Quicktime video for reference (and if I can get them, the raw production audio files from the shoot, including unused takes and wild recordings (audio recordings made without filming).
If I am onboard from the beginning, I’ll sometimes listen to examples of production dialogue tracks as the shoot is going on, mostly if there’s background noise on a take that the director loves and wants to know if I think I can salvage it.
Mickey [Keating] and I have worked together on two other films, RITUAL and POD, so I was reading the script for DARLING before we’d even finished POD. Similarly, I read and started thinking about our next film, CARNAGE PARK, before the mix for DARLING had been fully completed. Mickey is constantly working, which is really great because we never really fall out of the rhythm of working together.
What would an ideal situation be for you in terms of how much time you have on a project, what you’re able to do, and who you’re able to get answers from? This is only a hypothetical if you’ve not yet had a “perfect” gig and while 99% of filmmaking involves compromise – could you describe the absolute best working scenario for what you do?
In a perfect world, I’m on the project as soon as the script is finished. The audio budget is set and allows for at least hiring a really good foley studio to perform the foley and to rent a dubbing stage for final approval of the mix. Production sound is handled by a great recordist (which is honestly probably more important than anything else in the sound chain). There’s a schedule laid out for post-production, with some flexibility built in, and the schedule is kept to. The director has a clear enough vision about what they want to steer the audio towards a final goal, but with enough openness and flexibility to allow for creative input. The picture editor cuts with sound in mind, leaving some space for sound to play out, and also keeps everyone up to speed on any problems with the production audio so we can plan solutions ahead of time. The composer is great and there's room in the budget for a score mixer to handle the music mix (I’m okay at mixing music but I can’t hold a candle to a specialist in terms of skill, experience, and time). The producers are confident in the filmmakers and their choices, especially the director and his/her control over the process. There's a kick-ass poster (and I get a copy to frame and hang in my studio) and trailer for the film. The entire crew enjoys the experience and plans to keep working together in the future. The film gets released and the audience enjoys it.
Oddly enough, the length of time I have to work with is almost the least important thing to me. I’ve managed to accomplish some pretty ridiculous tasks in short periods of time and I’ve managed to get bogged down in little details when given tons of time, so there are no guarantees. Ultimately, you’ll always want more time at the end no matter how much you’re given (art is never finished, it’s abandoned), so to me, just setting a timeline and sticking with it is really more important than how long that time period is.
Why do you do what you do? What’s the most enjoyable part of your job? On that note, in regards to DARLING – what element of that gig did you have the most fun with?
I enjoy the work and I love movies. If I’m not working on them, I’m watching them. If I’m not watching them, I’m thinking about them. If I’m not thinking about them, I’m probably asleep.
The best thing about my job is the first time I play a finished mix back in surround sound for a director, especially a first-time director. By that point in my process, they’ve heard versions of the mix in stereo, usually multiple times with small revisions each time, but the difference between stereo and surround is so profound that it’s usually like showing them the film for the first time. It’s magical.
For DARLING, I had an idea early about having the house whispering things to the main actress, getting progressively more intense as the film goes on. I wanted a foreign language, but I don't really speak one and we had no room in the budget to hire someone professional. I eventually settled on doing it myself, using Google translate to read me the enunciation of some stuff in Latin so I could pronounce it correctly, and then I stalled on actually recording it because like most people, I hate the sound of my own voice and couldn't stand the idea of cutting a bunch of that into the film. With about a week to go, I happened to have a couple of house guests fluent in French. I checked with Mickey, who loved the idea of French whispering, so we came up with some things for the whisperers to say, and then recorded my friends saying them in French. Then, my three year old daughter showed some interest in the microphone, so I had her whisper some things, the creepiest of which she came up with herself. Then, because why not get everyone in on it, I had my wife record some of the things in English and a few of the Latin lines that I'd planned for myself. It all cut together in this great sort of schizophrenic/ghostly way and Mickey was so happy with it that we kept adding more and more of it and now it's all over the movie and in the trailer. It went from the thing I dreaded most to one of the more fun and successful pieces of sound design in the film.
Other than a film’s director, whom do you collaborate with the most on a given project? Do you typically have assistants? If so, what are some tasks they will handle for you to make your job easier?
On films, a producer or two may be occasionally be involved, but I mostly deal with the director, the editor, and the composer. They make most of the creative decisions that involve me and my work and so they have most of the relevant answers to any questions I might have.
As far as doing the actual work, so far I tend to be a one-man crew. This is partly due to budgetary limits, but also I just enjoy the different aspects of film sound and I like having the opportunity to dig into them myself.
A more typical audio post-production crew for a film would include (as budgets allow):
- sound effect editors (and sometimes recordists)
- dialogue editors
- ADR (replacement dialogue for unusable or non-existent production dialogue) editors and recordists
- foley (sound effects involving performance on a stage, often to picture) artists, recordists and editors
- and sound designers
Usually they all work under a hierarchy of supervisors. This team then passes their work to a re-recording mixer (or team of mixers) who combine everything into one smooth soundtrack.
What path led you to where you are now? Did you go to film school? Was there anyone along the way who gave you a shot when no one else would? A mentor or someone who recognized your skills as raw, but genuine?
I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I majored in film scoring. I never really felt like I was a very good composer, but I got really into Pro Tools, which is the prevalent digital audio workstation. After graduation, I went home to Chicago and kicked around there for a bit until my best friend Matt Berling got me a job as a production assistant at a company he was editing at called Creative Domain (now Trailer Park). I was very lucky and moved pretty quickly from the P.A. position to editing audio commentaries for DVDs. I never thought I was qualified to be a mixer, but I was encouraged by my bosses Kaethy Kennedy, Michele Ryan and John Ryan and the head mixer Mike Rodriguez to give it a try, and I guess I turned out to be good at it because eventually I became a sort of audio jack-of-all-trades, handling sound design, audio editing, and mixing for a wide variety of project types. As Trailer Park grew (I’ve been there for ten years), I worked on larger and larger projects (things like the special features for films like Jurassic World and the three Hobbit films) and met a lot of people who went on to work on other projects. Eventually, I mixed a documentary on the side called REMEMBER WHERE YOU ARE for a good friend, Wayne Watson. That led to mixing a television show DRINKING MADE EASY for another editor and friend Eric Grabowski, which helped me get a full Pro Tools set up in my home, which made it possible to take on more projects. I've been working on various side projects that have come my way since then, but working with Mickey and Val on their film RITUAL was really the biggest step in my freelance career, and one that I consider to be one of the luckiest things that's happened to me in my professional career. Mickey's been a champion of my work since RITUAL and any chance that he gets, he's always giving me far more credit than I probably deserve. I really can't say enough about how much my collaboration with him has meant to me.
With DARLING, is there any moment that you’re incredibly proud of that turned out significantly better than you thought it would? As opposed to my earlier question, was there something you were handed and responsible to fix and knocked it out of the park?
I’m incredibly proud of how the sound turned out as a whole. I’m fairly confident in myself and my work, but Mickey and Val left so much space for the sound to take the forefront, and they trusted me so completely to fill that space, that it froze me for a bit. There’s usually a bit of time between when I first see a rough cut and when the film locks, and by the time I get materials to work with I have a rough plan laid out for the sound of the whole film. In this case, though, I had some ideas, but nothing cohesive. Things didn’t start to really come together until I’d finished my dialogue edit/mix and started in on editing the background sound effects. In hindsight, it’s a haunted house movie, so the backgrounds laid the real foundation of what’s happening in there and fleshing them out gave me a real feel for what could go on top of that.
As for knocking something out of the park, there are several sections of dialogue in the film that required some serious but subtle editorial finessing (pulling words or even just syllables from completely separate takes) due to noise outside the house or noise on the wireless microphones and I’m pretty sure that nobody in the audience will ever be able to pick them out. That's one kind of thing that I really enjoy, making those little fixes that nobody will ever know about, but that I know are actually pretty sophisticated and really very important to the overall quality of the soundtrack of the film.
What are a few odd choices you’ve used in the past in terms of foley? I fully understand if you’d prefer to not give away any trade secrets, I’m just curious if you have any thing like a go-to for head smashes (squishing a melon), breaking bones (snapping celery), and so forth? What have you snuck into a film that worked, that no one would ever guess where the original sound came from?
Any time I need sexual noises, I use a recording of my dog eating peanut butter from a Kong dog toy. Works perfectly. I also have a recording of a "thunk" noise that the rubber seal on my washing machine makes when you pluck it that I like to use in a lot of different ways, usually by filtering out the upper frequencies and adding it as a low end enhancement to things. I like layering in a particular tesla coil discharge underneath gunshots. It’s from a Tonsturm sound library and it never fails to make me jerk in my chair when I play it back at an adequate volume, so I started adding it to gunshots to try and get that same reaction. Another favorite is the title sequence for Mickey’s film POD, which includes a layer of sound that is one of the previous temp mixes for the entire film, minus music, sped up to fit the length of the credit sequence. It’s just a blare of noise, but it suits its purpose.
As for gore, I’m partial to the sound libraries from a few independent sound designers. I'm really into Tim Prebble’s Hiss and A Roar vegetable destruction library, Coll Anderson's gore library, and Timothy McHugh's Gorification library. I'll record things on my own when I need a more specific timing or something that just seems like fun (one 4th of July I destroyed several watermelons in various ways around my house and yard because they were on sale and my family was out of town - my dog was a big fan of the aftermath), but these guys put a lot of thoughtand time into recording these libraries. They have exceptional equipment and taste, so it would bearrogant of me to think that I could record anything better than what these guys (and others like them) are putting out. I'm really a big proponent of using these smaller independent sound effect libraries whenever I can, and not just for gore.
What else are you currently working on?
I’m actually just winding down after a very busy summer. A few weeks ago, I finished mixing all of the extra content for the Extended Edition of the third Hobbit film (which includes Quint's introduction to the 2011 Butt-Numb-a-Thon, coincidentally), as well as finishing the mix for DARLING for Fantastic Fest. I also just finished mixing a really cool music documentary directed by Jason Pine called DESERT AGE, about the Palm Springs music scene in the eighties and nineties, which gave birth to bands like Queens of the Stone Age and The Eagles of Death Metal. I’m hoping that one will get some attention on the festival circuit, because it’s really well done. The people they interviewed were quite interesting and the music is really great. I’m also finishing up some short films for festivals directed by Chelsea Peters, one of the producers of RITUAL and an up-and-coming director in her own right. After Fantastic Fest, I’ll be starting work on CARNAGE PARK, Mickey’s next film, and then HEARTLAND, a film by Maura Anderson, which are two very different films but both will be great.
What kind of advice would you share with the AICN audience for those out there who dream of doing what you do? For the filmmakers, what are some crucial things that would make what you do easier? Is there anything to avoid during production that you see causing problems down the road, any warnings from your point of view to scream out to those looking to create something great?
The first, best and easiest tip is to watch a lot of movies and cinematically-inspired television. A lot of what I do depends as much on taste as anything else, and the best way to develop that is by listening to as many things as possible. Do your best to learn the technology and the concepts behind the plugins used in sound work, because at some point, someone will be sitting right behind you, waiting for you to do what they've asked for and they don't want to see you fumbling around in the menus trying to figure it out. It's also very important to remember that everyone has to pay their dues. Everyone starts out getting coffee or running tapes or ingesting media into servers. If you aren’t ready to do that, and do it well and with a relatively positive attitude, for an extended period of time, then getting into post-production will be difficult for you. You also need to be able to focus, often intensely, for long periods of time. The hours in post production can be long and brutal and it’s possible to go over the same small section of a film over and over again for hours. Maybe most importantly, you need to be someone that people want to work with. I’ve known lots of talented people who are just unpleasant, unprofessional or any number of other things that are just unbearable in the fifteenth straight hour of working on something. Those people may get work, but they’re also always right on the edge of replacement the second someone with a better disposition (and maybe even a little less skill) becomes available.
For filmmakers, especially on lower budget features, get your post team involved as early as possible, whether it’s the sound team, or your picture colorist or online editor, or your visual effects people. Get them in on your preproduction meetings and listen to their concerns. Keep them in the loop and keep them connected to your production team. If they ask your production sound mixer to catch some loose things on set, do your best to make time for that to happen. Keep them involved as the edit proceeds and let them know your concerns. Show them the film as soon as possible, even maybe the assembly cut, because they can call out problems that maybe you aren't thinking about or suggest spaces where sound might need some space. And "we'll fix it in post" is something that you probably shouldn't say too often, unless you're on the level of Peter Jackson or James Cameron, because fixing it in post is a budget killer.
My two other favorite bits of advice, which apply to anyone really, but especially filmmakers, are these.
The first, which I believe I heard from producer/musician Rob Arbittier on a podcast called the AudioNowcast, and I’m definitely paraphrasing… Your responsibility is to put out the best work you can every time, because the average listener (or viewer or reader, etc.) doesn't care how much you got paid to do whatever you're doing. They don't care what fancy equipment or software or techniques you used, or what you wish you’d been able to use. They only care about the end result, whether it reaches them in some way or not.
The second is my own personal belief that because this is a collaborative art form, and it relies on so many people to bring together the end result, any chance you get to promote others and the great work they are doing, you should take it. I personally don't like talking about myself. I'd much rather let my work speak for me and then tell you how great Mac Fisken's cinematography is, or how awesome Mickey Keating is as a writer and a director and as a person to work with and how knowledgeable and in control of his films he is, or what a genius Giona Ostinelli is and how great his music is, or how great Val Krulfeifer's edits are and how she's really the unsung hero of the DARLING team, or how great the performances of Lauren Ashley Carter, Brian Morvant and the rest of the cast were, or how perfect the production design is, or how hard any member of the crew worked, or how the production team brought it all together. So go see the film for them and if you like the audio, that's just gravy on top for me.
Well that's it, ladies and gents. Sincere thanks to Shawn for his pretty in-depth answers and providing some interesting images. It's always great when individuals (in whatever profession) don't try to "hide" their methods, or don't share what they've learned with the rest of the class. Shawn's dropped some genuine advice and some legit words of wisdom in the above Q&A, which to me comes across that he's the real deal - a person who is confident in his skills while trying to help other filmmakers out, so we all can benefit from better movies. No word yet on ditribution for DARLING, but I have a feeling that information will come out sooner than later, so keep your eyes peeled!
If you work in film or television and feel like shedding some light on what exactly your position entails, then please feel free to shoot me an email with the subject line "MTC - (Your Name) - (Your Position)." I'm not here to get scoops or dirt on anyone, simply here to educate and ask for advice to any of our filmmakers in the audience.
If you folks are interested in finding out what other positions on a film are like, then check out any of the links below:
- Mike McCutchen