How to Rock Your Film's Sound Design

Build on these valuable production & post sound insights from a freelancing legend.

 

Break Into the Film Industry & Manipulate Sound

Lights Film School sat down with Ric Viers – a professional sound designer and recordist who’s worked with Universal Studios, Walt Disney Studios, and major television networks, among others – to discuss his long and successful career in the film industry to date.

Ric is the world’s largest freelance provider of sound effects to the film and television industries. When he’s not producing sounds, he dons the mantle of “Rock and Roll Professor of Sound” and teaches in his high-energy books, lectures, and videos, both independently and in collaboration with companies like Rode Microphones.

In our interview below, Ric shares smart sound-related strategies and lessons learned.

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Sound Professional Ric Viers On Set.

Hello, Ric! I stumbled across your work while scrambling to brush up on my production sound skills a couple of years ago – thanks for writing The Location Sound Bible; it’s an excellent resource!

There’s a lot of knowledge within its pages, the accumulation of your years of experience. How did you first find your way into sound? Film is a collaborative, multi-departmental craft, so what inspired you to choose this one and stick with it?

Thanks! It was really just a matter of doing whatever it takes to get started.

When I graduated from Full Sail University with a degree in Film & Television Production, I moved back to Detroit and started looking for work. I wasn’t really keen on the idea of finding a “real job”, so I began freelancing as a location sound mixer.

I fell in love with sound immediately. I love everything about the filmmaking/storytelling process.

Us too! Here at Lights, we often receive messages from our readers asking how to launch a career in the film industry. From a very practical standpoint, how did you get started? Once the ball was rolling, how did you source work, and how did you scale?

The film industry, like many other passion-driven artisan industries, is a challenge to break into. There’s a lot of competition and the work is seasonal, so it’s a matter of the strongest surviving. Those who roll up their sleeves and are determined to never quit will eventually find a career working in the industry.

However, the challenge doesn’t end there. Once you’re in the club, you still have to work hard to stay in the club. The freelance market is flooded, so talent and equipment are cheap commodities. Production companies are looking for people to hire that will show up (on time), have a great attitude and can play well with others.

The first thing I did when I got started was purchase a big box of business cards. I handed them out to every person I met. I spent time developing relationships with other crewmembers, especially those who were responsible for hiring crews for other shows. Relationships go way farther than resumes.

Well said! More generally, what does the day-to-day of a freelance sound professional look like? What do you do?

Freelance work can be a lot of fun, but it’s very unpredictable. You never know where the next paycheck is coming from or what your schedule will be like next week.

However, there is a tremendous amount of freedom and satisfaction from being your boss, so-to-speak. It’s very useful to use your downtime wisely. Make regular calls to local production companies to let them know your availability. This helps by reminding them that you are still alive and kicking, but it also keeps you fresh in their mind. I’ve landed tons of gigs simply by calling production companies and letting them know my availability.

You can also make good use of downtime by maintaining your equipment, researching new gear and technology as well as brushing up on your techniques and watching vids on YouTube to see what other sound mixers are doing on location.

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Paint a picture of a sound professional’s life on a Hollywood film and television set. What are the workflows, joys, challenges?

A good set is like a well-oiled machine. There are systems and protocols that make it easy for a crew of total strangers to quickly come together and work smoothly throughout the day. It’s important to know your stuff as well as have a good understanding of the other departments’ responsibilities.

Once you arrive on set, the goal is to be ready as quickly as possible. There’s a lot of moving parts that need to integrate quickly and efficiently. The bottom line is don’t be the crewmember that everyone has to wait around for.

Personally, I love working with gear. I love the cables, the knobs, the connectors, the cases. I love all of it! So, I always enjoy chatting with other crewmembers to find out what kind of gear they’re using, where they buy their gear from, special techniques they’ve discovered and trading war stories of other productions. You can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes!

How do you create a sound effect, Ric? Walk us through the life cycle. How do you decide what to record? How do you do the actual recording? Once the sound is captured, what happens next? How do you organize, and ultimately, how do you take an effect to market?

That’s a pretty big question!

Typically it starts off with an idea or need for a specific sound. Once I know what I want to create, then I try to figure out how I can record it. This is not always as easy as it sounds, because you also need to find a quiet place free of background noise to record the sound.

I try to record as many variations of sounds as possible (e.g. different speeds, durations, intensities, etc.). Once I’ve recorded the source material to use, I then edit, design and master the sound effect.

The next step is adding appropriate and useful metadata so the end-user can find the sound as quickly as possible. If I’m working on a collection of sound effects, I will create a demo of the sound effects. For me, this is the best part. This is where I get a chance to sit back and listen to all the hard work pay off before the sounds are released through various distribution channels such as Blastwave FX or online stores like soundeffects.com.

Speaking of which, I understand you’re making your archive of sound effects available for everyone at soundeffects.com! What inspired this move?

I’ve always wanted to have an online store where people can sell their work. I wrote a book about how to make sound effects, so it only made sense to also have a place where the readers can showcase and sell their creations as well as learn more about the creation process. The site is scheduled to launch in August 2015 and we have some big plans for the site including tutorials, interviews with other sound designers, future sound design competitions and more, so stay tuned!

A film professor once told me “sound is 51% of a final product.” What do you think, Ric? Why is sound so important? How and at what point should filmmakers think about sound in their productions?

I’ve heard many different theories on the percentage that sound plays in film. If there is a real percentage, then it would be 50%. Period.

A film consists of two things: sound and picture. Both elements need to work together seamlessly in order for the filmmaker to be able to communicate their story to the audience. Sound is just as important to a film as picture. In my experience, the single biggest technical issue with independent films is the soundtrack, specifically the production sound.

If you’re an independent filmmaker, remember that the three most important positions on your crew that will have the biggest impact on your film is the camera operator, sound mixer and boom operator. To hire an inexperienced crew member for any of these three positions is a recipe for disaster.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between production and post sound. What is the interplay between sound recorded on location and that added in post via foley, ADR, and effects libraries? When and how is post sound introduced?

Every project is different, but typically the post sound team is brought in after the film has been shot.

Filmmakers who bring the project to a sound designer prior to filming understand how important sound is to their film and try to give the sound team as much time as possible to work on the project as well as coordinate with the editor and location sound mixer to determine the technical needs of the project as well as establish a workflow. Skipping this step allows for complications in post and limits the post sound team.

Typically, sound effects libraries are used only when necessary. Whenever possible, given time and budget constraints, sound designers like to produce new and original material for the project and use sound effects libraries sparingly to cover whatever sound effects are still needed.

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What guidelines do you follow while creating a project’s sound design? Ie., what assets take priority, and what workflow do you follow?

Personally, I always start off with editing the dialog. All of the sound elements are important, but in my opinion, the dialog needs to be intelligible. In a sense, the rest of the soundtrack needs to be built around the foundation of the dialog.

After that, I focus on the backgrounds and room tones, then the hard effects and Foley. If possible, I try to find out what role the score/music will play in a scene before designing it.

I’ve done tedious Foley work on projects that simply cranked up the score throughout the scene and virtually buried the Foley work in the soundtrack. So, it’s nice to know where the music is going to sit in the mix before you breakout the shoes and coconuts.

In your experience, how long does it take to sound design a short film? A feature film? What about a half-hour television episode? An hour-long episode? Any words of advice for creating estimates, meeting deadlines, and performing under pressure?

Time estimates really depend on the project.

Obviously, a drama will be easier to design than a full-on action film, but in general, I usually budget two to three hours per finished minute of screen time for an average film. Action, science fiction and horror genres usually need more time than that, especially if the sound team wants to create custom sounds for characters like aliens and monsters or if there are crazy car chases or spaceship battles.

The deadline is both the enemy and friend of the artist. Without a deadline, the project would never get finished, because the artist is usually reluctant to release their work due to endless tweaking and finessing. At the same time, the pressure of the deadline keeps the artist focused and ultimately forces creativity. Some of my best work was created under-the-gun of deadlines. It’s a necessary evil.

As a rule of thumb, always overestimate your time. Projects always take longer than expected. Plan ahead for this. The last thing you want to do is come back to the director or producer and ask for more time.

What are some of the technical developments you’ve seen in the world of location and post sound since the publication of your latest book, The Location Sound Bible, in 2012?

The tools of the trade change year-to-year and even month-to-month. There’s always new gear to play with. It’s like a toy store with an endless supply of new shiny things to get your hands on.

However, the techniques used in production haven’t evolved much. My advice to beginners is to focus on the fundamentals of their craft. Techniques always trump technology. Technology changes often. Techniques will always survive the trends and fads of gear.

A truth we tell often here at Lights. Any closing thoughts you want to share with beginning filmmakers? With aspiring sound professionals specifically?

As simple as it sounds, the best way to get better at your craft is to work hard at it. Experiment. Play. Have fun. But, always be moving towards becoming better. Never stop learning and never think that you know it all, because you’ll only be fooling yourself. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Just because everyone has always done something a certain way doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it.

Thanks for taking the time to share your experience and perspective with us here at Lights, Ric! We appreciate this window into the worlds of sound and freelancing, and know our readers do, too.

For more from Ric, check out his website.

 Michael Koehler, with


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