LAPPG: As the Director of Cinema Sales at ZEISS, Americas you’ve been so busy over this quarantine helping to create some amazing educational content for the community. What were some of the highlights and where can we watch some of the webinars?
Snehal Patel: Yes thanks for asking! Our cinema team felt that the best way we could do something for the industry, was to offer education and conversations at a time where people were stuck at home or unable to do their regular gigs. That was the onus behind creating the #LearnFromHome hashtag and Conversations playlists on our regional YouTube Channel. To let people know we had stuff for them to watch and participate in. The main activity is a series of Zoom conversations with renowned cinematographers like Matty Libatique, ASC, Nancy Schreiber, ASC, Mihai Malamaire Jr., and many others. We schedule the conversations once a week and allow participants to join the call and ask questions during the Q & A. The quality of participants is very high and we always have lots of great questions asked to our guests. Anyone can be listening, by the way. It’s always surprising and nice to see some other “celeb” cinematographer listening in to the convo because they like hearing their friends talk about their work. It’s a lot of fun and very informative. Our team learns as much from the convos as anyone else.
Additionally we have a series of videos available to learn about topics like cinematic look, and a presentation about the new ZEISS Radiance lenses & the development of custom flares.
LAPPG: What’s some of the feedback that you’ve been receiving about the new ZEISS Supreme Prime Radiance Lenses?
SP: Cinematographers (DPs) that have filmed with them, really love the look the provide. You can see the results with shows like Fargo, Season 4 with Chris Rock. DP Dana Gonzales, ASC and other DPs that worked on the show, used the Radiance Lenses as the primary set for the whole season. Jon Joffin, ASC utilized the Radiance on the last two episodes of Freeform’s Motherland: Fort Salem. This show can be streamed on Hulu. Quite a few other DPs have used the lenses for feature films, television shows, music videos and commercials. These lenses have the beauty and pleasing characteristic of the Supreme Primes, but with the added flare characteristics that were scientifically designed to match amongst the set of seven focal lengths. There will be more exciting productions to come and we have extended the sale of the limited-edition Radiance lenses for a bit longer.
LAPPG: How have the Supreme Primes been doing over the last year – being used on various film and TV projects?
SP: The Supreme Primes are doing quite well as they are a popular choice for those that are utilizing ‘full frame’ type of sensors in cameras like the Alexa Mini LF, Sony Venice, RED Monstro and other cameras such as Panavision’s DXL2. The lenses are available in PL or LPL mount, making them compatible with not only the new sensor technology, but also for Super35 style cameras, both digital and analog. In terms of productions, the Supreme Primes are everywhere. There are plenty of feature films, television shows, commercials shot with these lenses. Our rental house customers are happy with the response from the market. You can catch a lot of trailers on our YouTube playlist. Be sure to check out HBO’s upcoming series Lovecraft Country, which was filmed with Supremes by Robert McLachlan, ASC and the other DPs on the show.
LAPPG: Aside from your day job, I know you’ve helped produce some exciting projects including the SXSW 2020 Special Jury Recognition Stucco. What was your biggest highlight for that project; and what other projects do you have on tap when production gets back in full swing?
SP: Stucco was certainly special for me because I got to work with an old friend. Janina Gavankar and I go way back and she had recently helped produce a short film for the ARRI Alexa LF camera. Since we had done projects together in the past, which were well received, I knew she probably had some idea up her sleeve. For ZEISS and RED, we needed a short film to highlight the in-camera recording of ZEISS XD lens metadata. It was a new feature for RED DSMC2 cameras, to be able to see and record extra information about lens shading and distortion characteristics for Visual Effects and other applications. Producing the short for both ZEISS, and as a personal passion project, was challenging for sure because I was much more involved than normal, but it was well worth it in the end. The film has a fantastic look, thanks to cinematographer Quyen Tran, and both the practical effects (that got us the SXSW award) and digital visual effects are seamless and quite well done. But nothing is important without a good story and that is where Janina and Russo, the writers and co-directors, really nailed it. Plus, Janina’s performance as the lead was quite good. The reception has been excellent at film festivals, and by now it has multiple features on streaming and online platforms. You can watch the film on the ALTER YouTube channel for free.
For ZEISS, I get to participate in multiple production projects when we create content to help promote our cinema lens solutions. I’ve worked with a lot of great directors and cinematographers in the past like when we recently produced a short film with Rodrigo Prieto, ASC for the Radiance lenses. A new, upcoming short this is really exciting for me is one created for the CP.3. It’s one that shows how these lenses can capture beauty and will be released soon through our marketing team. The film was shot by cinematographer Beth Napoli, who I have been trying to work with for a long time!
LAPPG: Although you’ve been working lots from home over the last few months, have you had the opportunity to explore or work on any side projects, or learn any new tools or techniques to help you as a filmmaker?
SP: Yes, one cool thing I did while at home is pick up my old Canon Super8mm camera and shoot a short film at home. Luckily, I live with an actor, so we put our ideas together and came up with a one minute short film called DateNite with her as the lead. It was like being back in film school because I limited myself to one roll of Super8 film from Pro8mm in Burbank. The film stock was Kodak 500T, cut and spooled into a Super8 cartridge. At 18 frames a second, you only get three and a half minutes of footage. Every shot had to be well planned and practiced before taking. We couldn’t afford to do more than two takes most of the time, as the film gets used up quickly. I took time with lighting and metering, as well as checking the focus like a million times. Using a tripod for most of the shots helped a lot. I used tungsten Fresnel lamps and a soft box for lighting. We shot over three separate days and took our time with the setups.
Pro8mm processed and scanned the film in 4K quality. I asked for ProRes files, but you can get uncompressed image sequences if you want. Editing was done in Adobe Premiere. The scan was not in log but a low-con version of Rec709. Which was great because I was able to add tone and contrast with the Lumetri color plugin. The colors came out nice in the end and I’m happy with cut, music and storytelling. It was such a great exercise to do because creating a short film from concept to reality with only yourself and one other person is challenging but so rewarding. It reminded me why I love this vocation so much and why I am in this profession.
LAPPG: You spend a lot of time with Directors of Photography in the business. What do you think are the attributes and skills that make someone successful in that field?
SP: Perseverance and endurance are the two qualities that I see in a lot of successful cinematographers (Directors of Photography). They are always trying to one up themselves and make their next project better than the last. At the same time, they know how to survive problems and keep going. They work hard in the trenches and oversee multiple teams on set and continue the fight for their vision in post-production. All this must be wrangled with finesse, while keeping an eye on the creative storytelling. It’s a tough job and takes quite a bit of energy.
The ones that keep at it, no matter the odds, will have more chances of success due to their sheer willpower. Plus, cinematographers are always learning. Their job is a combination of technical know-how and artistry, and they are always straddling the analog and digital worlds when combining lenses and cameras to form a package. They have a lot of choices to make when it comes to equipment, application and technique. In the end, nothing is done without people power, and the top DPs are great managers that follow their artistic instincts and know how to manipulate complicated equipment to get what they want.
LAPPG: What’s your advice for DP’s just starting out?
SP: Shoot stuff! Anything and everything. You must learn and practice for lifetime to be a cinematographer.
LAPPG: Where can the LAPPG community follow ZEISS on social to keep up-to-date with everything?
SP: You can find us at:
It has been a true honor getting to know Victoria Sampson over the years as both an LAPPG member and a master presenter. Vickie’s enthusiasm, her interest in sharing her expertise and her drive to continually learn is inspirational for us all.
Los Angeles Post Production Group: First, let me say how much we appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and insights with us and how much we appreciate having you as both a LAPPG member and presenter. To start things off we should probably find out how you began your long career as an award-winning sound editor and what influence your talented mother, Kay Rose (the first woman to win an Oscar for sound editing) had on your decision to get into sound.
Victoria Sampson: Since post-production involves many hours of work, I never saw my mom during the week when I was growing up. Her work (as a sound editor on such TV shows as The Rifleman, The Big Valley and others) kept her from getting home before my bedtime during the week. And because my mom loved movies, she instilled that love to me. We often went to screenings of old films at the museum. Story was always the most important part of a film. When I was about 15, I started hanging around the studio after school and got to understand what my mom did; how she created mood, tension, comedy, drama all with her sound choices. I got to apprentice with her and editor Verna Fields (Jaws editor) in the pool house at Verna’s house in Sherman Oaks. I loved sitting with my mom, feeling the film go through my fingers, learning the process. I loved listening to her stories and learning about the famous directors and producers she worked with. Then I got to work with them too! I realized that I loved films too, though I saw myself wanting to be a writer and director. I always wrote stories from the time I could write and my mom’s love of films and stories influenced me a lot.
I had a chance to work on a show that would get me into the union as an apprentice when I was 20. When I realized that in addition to being able to work with my mom, I was also making a whole lot more money than my friends! It’s one thing to go through a door that opens for you and it’s another thing to be good at what you do, enough to go through doors on your own. My mom had an uncanny way of allowing young people the chance and support of training them without judging them. She took many people under her wings and was always positive about them being their best selves.
After apprenticing for about 3 years, I went onto being an assistant editor and then an editor. It took years! My first union film was Cinderella Liberty directed by Mark Rydell. I would learn that Mark hired my mom on ALL his films, often before he even knew who the actors were going to be. She worked on his first film, The Fox and continued on all his films, The Reivers, The Cowboys, The Rose, On Golden Pond, The River, (for which she got her Oscar) For the Boys and the last film she did with him, “Intersection.” She had that kind of relationship with other directors: Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Alan Pakula, Richard Brooks, Martin Scorcese, Peter Bogdanovich. I was privileged to be around these truly remarkable filmmakers and learn from all of them.
LAPPG: For the past 40+ years you’ve worked in sound editing and now with the new documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound people can get an up-close look at this world you’ve lived in for so long. What was it like participating in this incredible film and then getting the chance to sit back and see it and not only know that you were a part of it but knowing that many people will now get a look at the often misunderstood and overlooked part of filmmaking that you’ve dedicated so much of your life to.
VS: Since Midge Costin, the director of Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, is the Kay Rose Professor at USC, where George Lucas and Steven Spielberg donated an endowed chair in my mom’s name, I’ve been a part of this film for the 9 years it took Midge to film and finish it. I’m happy that now, finally, movie lovers as well as filmmakers will be able to understand and appreciate what it is we do. There are filmmakers who don’t even know or understand our jobs. My mom-in-law, whom I have known for over 30 years saw the film at its premiere and said, “I’ve never understood what you did before!” She was very impressed. I’m very happy for the success of Making Waves and can’t wait to be able to get it to more people. Every student of film should see this film. It’s now available on Amazon Prime and in DVD and Blu Ray at Amazon.
LAPPG: Because we are all obsessed, can you tell us about the type of work you did on Star Wars?
VS: I supervised the ADR of all the English actors in London for Return of the Jedi. I was in London for a couple of weeks recording Ian McDiarmid (who played the Emperor) and Sir Alec Guinness and a few others that I don’t remember! We ADR’d in an old cow barn across from Hyde Park which was the recording studio! We broke for tea and toast with marmite at 4pm everyday – no matter what! I edited in San Francisco during the week and Lucas would give me vouchers for flights back home to LA every Friday night so I could be with my family. I’d be back in San Ramone, at my editing room, by 10am on Monday!
ADR back then was a bit different than it is now. It was done on 24 track tape. The recording started only AFTER the 3rd beep. So if an actor inhaled in order to speak his line BEFORE the imaginary 4th beep, it wouldn’t get recorded. It’s very hard to get actors NOT to inhale before the line and you can’t really program them to hit an inhale and then have their line be in sync. So I made notes about anywhere I heard the actor inhale DURING the take but none could be found.
There was an actor, in a medium shot, who clearly inhales before he says his line, which we were looping. His shoulders heaved up. When I couldn’t find an inhale to steal, I requested that we program and then record the inhale in order to give the ADR’d line more validity. The director said, “I don’t hear his inhale in production and we’re in this big spaceship hanger, there’s going to be lots of noise. No one is going to notice an inhale!” I “argued” gently, that even though we may not hear the production inhale, when you ADR something, it already has an artificial feel to it so having an audible inhale at the front of it kind of takes the curse off of it. Then I said, “Trust me.” And we recorded it.
A few weeks after I was already back in LA while they were doing the final mix, I got a phone call from the director telling me that no one could believe the line was ADR…all because of that inhale! Success. I also learned on Jedi, that if an actor uses any prosthetics that he or she should use them while doing ADR. Like prosthetic teeth. It affects how they speak. We also didn’t have Pro Tools so everything had to be the right sync, close enough to cut it by a frame, no time stretch back then! It had to be the right projection, the right performance, the right levels, the right sync. It has to fit in and around existing production lines, unless you need to ADR a whole scene.
Of course, the most famous story of my time on Jedi, was that the film boxes I was taking with me to London, were stolen out of my car the night before I was to be on a plane to London! I had to call Lucas Film at 10 pm to tell them. They sent detectives down from San Francisco to search through the trash bins in Hollywood, where my car had been broken into. They had to send an assistant in to work to DE-CONFORM a version of the 35mm dupe prints we had BACK to the version I had programmed the ADR to (otherwise, it wouldn’t have sunc up) Nothing was on computer. All my programmed cues were hand-typed. I was met at the airport the next morning with a very tired assistant editor handing me two boxes of 35mm dupes. Such a different world now.
LAPPG: Your work has spanned the market from big blockbusters to indie films and everything in between. Is the quality of the sound recordings that you receive at all proportional to the size and budget of production?
VS: Certainly, lower budget productions tend to not be able to afford a top-notch mixer. However, there are things EVERY filmmaker can do to insure that their sound is the best it can be no matter what the budget. I actually teach a workshop on that for film festivals and did one for LAPPG! [View highlights from her presentation here.] I have seen that the quality of feature film production recording has gone down. I don’t think production mixers are being taught the tried-and-true techniques as much as they were in the past. I also see that hardly any production mixers ever follow through with how their sound recording worked for the sound editor. I’ve received some great production sound from very low budget films because they cared to find out how to do it right. You could have the best equipment in the world but if you don’t use your “sound sense” you will have nothing usable.
LAPPG: Of all the films you worked on, which ones were the most challenging for you?
VS: I talk about the challenges my mom and I had working on Ordinary People back in 1981 in the feature documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound. Basically, they chose locations which weren’t the best for recording sound. As in an aluminum warehouse near an airport for the psychiatrist office, where delicate dialogue scenes took place. So the production mixer turned down his recording volume in order to mask the noise of the warehouse/airport. So when we were editing the production sound, we had to TURN UP the volume by 13 db in order just to hear the dialogue! So it revealed all the noises even more so! And in that movie, there aren’t explosions or car chases or anything that you can “hide” behind. So it took a lot of time to clean up all the little revealed noises that appeared once we turned up the volume.
Today, of course, we have lots of tools (like iZotope) which would clean up production sound problems that we encountered on Ordinary People in a jiffy! But back then, we had to edit out the little clicks, pops and noises and of course, FILL them with the same ambience sound so there wouldn’t be drop-outs. With iZotope, I would just highlight the area that had clicks, pops, etc. and tell it to “repair” it and boom, bang it’s done! Amazing what we can do now.
Each film has its own challenges, which is why I like to preach “PREVENTIVE” sound techniques so that an editor can devote their time more to creating rather than triaging! One of the most common challenges is at the film editor’s level. If separate lav and boom mics are not ingested properly, then it doesn’t trickle down to the sound editor. Then an investigation must ensue! I have to track down to see if separate mics were part of the recording. Then those must be sunc up again in order for them to be included in the OMF (or AAF) so that it will come to me in a proper Pro Tools session. As in production filmmaking, one must know where things are heading. For some reason, sound is left out of that part and it costs the production more money down the line.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was challenging because of the amount of lavs and booms that were used and because of all the noise-making machinery (pulleys, wave-making machines etc)
The most challenging project that I supervised myself was probably the film Ironweed with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. It was set in the depression in upstate New York. I had to find recordings of steam trains and non modern environments (backgrounds) to create that world. I found a photographer named O. Winston Link who knew that steam trains would be disappearing and he went out to both photograph and record them before they disappeared. He did large format photography. You’ve probably seen his photos of a train whizzing by a drive-in theater, for example. In addition to the photographs, he recorded the sound of these trains! My Foley editor tracked him down for me and we secured all his recordings to use in Ironweed only!
The other “hard” thing about that film was a scene where Nicholson and Streep are walking down a street but since they didn’t want to record modern traffic, the mixer pointed his mic up from the street so their footsteps were just the grittiest things you could imagine! It was only about a minute scene so I programmed it for ADR because their gritty footsteps were louder than their dialogue in their walking/talking scene.
When Nicholson came in for the ADR session, he was very upset when he learned he had to ADR that scene. He told me, “That was the best work I’ve ever done! It was my 50th birthday and I was drunk as a skunk and I was brilliant I’m not going to do this.” I explained the issue with the gritty footsteps and struck a deal with him. I would do my best to get rid of the grit if he would also ADR it.
Of course, he didn’t do a very good job of ADRing which he knew that if he didn’t do a good job, it would force me to have to use the production sound. I spent hours (again, not in the digital world yet!) making little cris-crosses with a degaussed razor blade in order to reduce the volume of the grit while retaining the word. This is what it looks like.
Imagine that I would have to do that for every footstep! I ended up with a little roll with lots of white tape (if I had to cut out snaps/pops) for that minute and a half sequence. If I messed up the scratches and took too much off the mag, it would make the word sound funny so then I would have to order a reprint of that take, wait for it to be transferred and start all over again. Nowadays, I would use Spectral Repair in RX 7 by iZotope which looks like this:
Click identified in region:
Click identified in spectral repair:
Click repaired and rendered:
LAPPG: What type of person do you think succeeds in the sound editing world? And what aspect of sound editing to you enjoy most?
VS: The type of person who is best able to succeed in sound editing is a person who loves films and stories and working with some people who are egotistical! The emphasis is on the story. The best editors think outside the technical boxes. Yes, you must be technically savvy but more importantly is that you know how to use sound to best tell the story. The sound follows the story. Is a person sneaking down a hallway to get away from the bad guy? Then why would we want to hear his/her footsteps? Or do we? Does hearing them support the story or detract from it? You need to develop “sound ears” – how to listen and what to listen for.
When I first learned how to listen it was sitting with my mom and having her play parts of the scene over and over until I FINALLY heard what she wanted me to fix! A little click or pop that isn’t part of the scene – it’s an off-stage sound that shouldn’t be there. My mom believed that these kinds of non-diagetic sounds subconsciously take you out of the film because it’s distracting on a non-conscious level. But you first have to hear them in order to take them out!
Directors need to hire good production mixers and take an interest in the sound recording as well as understand what a good sound editor gives to a film. You, as a sound editor, have to have a personality that can deal with immense egos both of directors and from actors you may have to work with on an ADR stage. As a “line” editor, you may never have to interact with the director. Like a Foley editor (or Foley artist/walker) or an editor who cuts backgrounds. You also have to be willing to give your all in order to get and keep work. By that I mean, be willing to work overtime, weekends for weeks at a time. You may not see your family much. If you’re a woman editor, it’s all the harder because you won’t see or be able to be involved with your children if you have them. Sound editing is very hard on relationships!
Editors must be able to think ahead and be a “sound detective.” You must be somewhat of a self-starter but also be a team player. But I think what will set you apart as a good editor is showing how passionate and committed you are to your craft. That may mean working extra hard and long in order to deliver. That passion does not go unnoticed. In fact, for me, when I hire editors for a project, I’d much rather hire someone who may not have the experience yet but who has passion and commitment. I know that person will work really hard to deliver what I’m asking for.
My favorite part of editing is editing the production sound and making it work. I like the challenge of solving the problems that invariably come up during shooting. Is something off- mic? I’ll look in other takes for an alternate that may not be off-mic but still retains the performance. I may program it for ADR after I’ve exhausted all other production sound options. I like solving problems because most directors prefer the production sound and usually don’t want to do a lot of ADR so I’ve become known as someone who can pretty much fix all the production sound problems without ADR.
I like preparing the edit session so the mixer can mix it easily, using techniques I learned when we worked on 35mm film. Because mixing is more expensive than editing, it’s better to use my time laying out an edit session than it would be for the mixer to use stage time to move pieces around in the session.
I also love ADR because I love working with the actors directly. Sometimes, I’ve even “written” lines of dialogue that end up in the film because I’m always thinking of the story. Yes, I’m usually just a go-between on the ADR stage between the actor and director but often, especially on foreign films that I work on, the director isn’t available so it’s just me, the re- recording mixer and the actor. I also love directing ADR groups and shaping all the off-stage performances of the group in a film.
LAPPG: What advice do you have for people wanting to break into the field of sound at this point in time? Are there resources that you think are important for people to know about?
VS: First of all, watch Making Waves! It’s an excellent documentary feature showing all the different aspects of sound. Be hungry to learn all aspects of sound editing and mixing. Be persistent. Be passionate. Put yourself out there. Learn and practice all you can. If you have to edit for free to get more experience, do that. Talk to re-recording mixers and ask to sit with them. They can teach you more about how to lay out a good edit session. Apprentice with a sound editor. But make sure you’re learning from good, experienced “in-the-field” editors. Take classes if you can.
Filmmaking is about relationships. Most successful sound editors have developed relationships with directors, some from college, that have continued throughout their careers. Think of Spielberg and Richard Anderson. George Lucas and Ben Burtt. Francis Coppala and Walter Murch. Mark Rydell, the director of On Golden Pond, The Rose, etc. always called my mom first to do the sound on ALL his films since his very first feature film The Fox. This is what the business is all about – relationships. Alan Murray has done all of Clint Eastwood’s films for over 30 years. We all tend to want to work with people we’ve worked with before. There’s a shortcut to understanding – dialogue that doesn’t need to be said because each knows what the other wants from him/her.
There’s a great book that I use for my dialogue editing classes and it’s one I would have written myself but John beat me to it! It’s called Dialogue Editing for Motion Pictures 2nd Edition by John Purcell. The 2nd edition has some quotes by me, which was awfully nice of him to include!
For people wanting to do more sound effects and sound design:
And this one: Sound Design by David Sonnenschein
There are many people competing for a smaller amount of jobs now because we can all edit so much. A lot of jobs have been combined so there are fewer job slots available. There used to be an assistant editor PER FILM. Now, assistant editors are often working on more than 1 film at a time. We used to have apprentice editors. The ADR Supervisor used to have his/her own assistant editor. With digital technology, we get by with using 1 assistant editor for the whole film!
Think about what sets YOU apart as a person, as a worker, as an editor. What do you offer? A good personality? A team player? Are you a good listener of both sound and people? An excellent technician? A film lover? Always talk to the creatives (i.e. film editor, composer, director, producer) about the STORY first. Always use the CHARACTER names, not the actor names. Talk about the story – and how the story inspires you to add some fx no one thought of. For example, I was just editing a little 2 minute piece about a woman remembering her old horse. I added a distant train to the backgrounds. The director loved it and I explained it as the train may have helped trigger her memory of her beloved horse from long ago. Think outside the box but think within the story.
LAPPG: Have you seen any kind of shift in the sound field in terms of opportunities for women and what was your experience as a woman working in a male dominated industry?
VS: I’ve actually seen less women getting into sound editing, though it seems that there are more visible women re-recording mixers happening! Most of the women sound editors I know are not married and if they are, they have no children. As I said before, it’s VERY hard to balance the intense schedules we have in post with family. I had the experience of working with my mom, who was the first woman sound editor to win an Oscar in 1985 for The River. We had many women editors who worked with us. I wish there were more women editors but unfortunately I’m not seeing that! Women do have better hearing! But I really think it’s the long hours that is keeping women away. As a woman editor, I’ve been passed over a lot by my male colleagues. They’ve made almost twice as much money as I did AND I usually ended up fixing their work. I even lost out on receiving an Oscar for my work on Speed because the male supervisor didn’t want to share the on screen credit even though the Academy thought I deserved it! It’s been frustrating to say the least.
LAPPG: What was your journey like for you going from the world of sound to the word of directing?
VS: I was accepted as one of 12 out of 600 applicants for the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women back in 1987 where I made my first short film Last Chance Saloon. Back in 1987, I thought my directing career would take off but alas, no! I continued pursuing my sound career in addition to trying to direct when I could. I also started teaching post sound in 1992 at UCLA, then at Video Symphony and AFI and USC. Since 1974, the Workshop has “graduated” hundreds of women from their program, many of whom have gone on to have very lucrative careers. The program has changed over the years, of course, and it still is one of the best programs/workshops for women wanting to be directors. And anyone wanting to be a sound editor should contact AFI to work on the sound on one of their projects! It’s real world experience and good for developing relationships, which is what this industry is all about.
It was 5, almost 6, years ago that I officially retired from UNION sound work in order to pursue a possible directing career and that’s what I’m doing now! I have made 4 short films and about 20 spec ads and commissioned commercials. The DWW also birthed the Alliance of Women Directors, when, in 1997, a group of us from the DWW decided it would help us as women wanting to be directors so we met at homes in order to encourage, teach, advocate for women directors. We’re still going strong and remain the ONLY group dedicated to women directors. We are officially a 501.c3 group and have a paid CEO. We offer workshops, Works-in-Progress screenings twice a month at both Foto-Kem and Canon, shadow and mentoring as well as film festival discounts and special events. Our biggest contribution in getting women directors work is our CAP – Career Advancement Program. We also offer the database of our directors so that production companies can find us and hire us!
As a director, I’m able to utilize my years of experience working on and watching films in order to craft good stories.
LAPPG: Now as a director, do you have any more empathy for tracks that you received that weren’t high quality over the years or do you feel that directors just need to be more cognizant of sound in their filmmaking?
VS: No! I don’t have empathy for badly recorded tracks! Just the opposite. Why weren’t/aren’t more directors like Mark Rydell who knows enough about what everyone does on his set and in post so that he can encourage his crew. When a director respects the contribution of each and every member of the crew, he/she will get better work from that crew member because they are respected and appreciated. If a director respects the production mixer, he/she knows that the director will understand “holding the roll” as a plane goes overhead. He/she will give the mixer a rehearsal take so that sound levels can be adjusted and planned for. He/she will not yell at the production mixer when the mixer asks to move the generator away from where the actors are talking! A good director honors all the aspects of production in order to have the smoothest, happiest of working environments which, I think, makes a better film.
LAPPG: What were the biggest mistakes you heard over the years that could be rectified if a director was more conscious of sound?
VS: A great thing I learned from working with Mark Rydell on all his films from 1973 to 1996 was he would always say, “And………………………..ACTION!” and “And…………………CUT!” When you edit production dialogue and you find a click or pop or need to replace an eventual ADR line with “fill” (ambience from that particular scene and take with no dialogue in it) you can only find it when someone pauses in between words of dialogue. His answer to that was to separate “and” and “action.” That pause of maybe 5 seconds was often enough for us to use and duplicate over and over when we needed to fill a line of dialogue that would be replaced with ADR. ADR has no background ambience at all so you can’t just put in an ADR line without using what used to be in that particular take. Maybe it’s traffic or room tone or the beach – whatever ambience lives under that dialogue in that particular take. You have to find the exact same ambience to replace that line of dialogue otherwise it would stick out like crazy. Recording “room tone” after every take is impossible. No one wants to hold still for 30 seconds while the mixer records room tone that nobody will use till 2 months down the road! But when the director says “And……..action!” you get precious seconds of clean, (no dialogue) sound that is indigenous to that scene and take without making anyone feel anxious. In fact, it really helps the actors, especially at the end of the take. When they hear the director say, “And……………..cut!” They freeze. Everyone on the set freezes until the “Cut” is heard. It’s a great thing for us dialogue editors. How did Mark Rydell know to do that!? He never edited his own production sound!
He was so conscious of how sound adds to his films that he sent my mom and another recording mixer to Tennessee while they were filming The River (the film my mom won her Oscar for) so that they could record a library of sounds that were exactly indigenous (and fresh). They recorded the corn fields, the farm animals, the machinery, the trucks, the smelting plant, the sounds of the river and water. This was so crucial because it gave the film the real feel of the actual place. Not every film can afford to do that but there are ways to do that on a budget. It’s called consciousness and inventiveness!
Anyone can record environments with a $200 ZOOM digital recorder. Just takes thinking ahead and providing resources.
LAPPG: I think one of the things that sets you apart from most directors is the sheer number of films you’ve worked on. With 220 sound department film credits under your belt you’ve seen and heard more than many. How has your work in sound impacted the way you direct?
VS: I think the way it impacts me the most is just from story telling. Yes, I think about sound – mostly to get the best sound recording possible. I think about the locations when I choose them. I shut my eyes and LISTEN to what’s around. I think some directors get too impressed with the visuals of a location or set and forget that they will be stuck with their sound in the edit bay for way more time than they shot on the location or set! When you shut your eyes, you can really hone in on what’s around you. Is there an airport flight path overhead? Is there a school that lets out at 3 pm everyday? Are there lots of dogs in the neighborhood? Or lots of traffic just outside that cool building you want to shoot in?
I’m also aware of how costumes affect the sound. We always say, “Silk is your enemy. Cotton is your friend.” Barbra Streisand wore a leather skirt and sat on a leather couch. You do not want Barbra Streisand to sound like she’s farting every time she moves! Think about how the recordist is going to plant that mic in your actor’s clothes! Does the actor gesture with his/her hands a lot? Will he/she be hitting their lav every time they talk? If you shoot two cameras – a master shot and a closer shot – be aware that the boom mic (which is the preferable one to use) will have to accommodate the WIDER shot – meaning if you use the closer shot, your shot will be off mic! I think about where the generator is pointing. I think about the shoes the actors are wearing and if we don’t see them in the shot, why should we chance hearing them mess up the dialogue! I remember that I can always ADD sounds later but I can’t always take them away. If my mixer says, “We need to stop.” I listen to her. I don’t yell at her! I know he/she is looking out for the quality of the film. It’s like if an actor is doing a great performance and the focus puller messes up, you cannot use that take at all! There is no program for making out of focused shots in focus. NONE. Thank goodness there are options if someone is recorded badly. (ADR!) But that is never preferable. The more time you can put into your sound in pre-production, the more money and time you will save later.
I’ve also learned, as an indie filmmaker who relies on the money of family, friends and co- workers, if you make a fundraising video, put a mic on whoever is talking! Don’t rely on camera sound! You’re asking for money to make a professional looking and sounding film. You cannot use camera sound! Even if you’re shooting on an iPhone, you can record professional level sound. Bad sound makes good images look bad. Good sound makes images look better!
LAPPG: We loved your films Shelby’s Vacation and You Drive Me Crazy, the later of which you shared at one of our LAPPG meetings. Both have garnered lots of awards on the festival circuit so congratulations! There was a substantial amount of VFX involved with You Drive Me Crazy. Are there any key takeaways or advice that you can share about working on a VFX heavy project on a budget?
VS: Yes there was a ton of VFX on YDMC! I knew we were going to have some because we had to use green screen so that the actor wouldn’t be in any danger driving with his hands not on the wheel! We had multiple cameras set up as well which involved using VFX to get rid of visible GoPros that got into the shots. I also used my iPhone to film all the slo-mo parts of the film as well as filmed scenes in the car where the phone was actually mounted in the car. So anytime the phone was mounted, it was recording “Glen”, the character, as he drove. So we had to replace all of those shots with actual GPS map footage, via VFX.
Note the GoPro mounted on the left and what is on the phone that is mounted on the right.
Here is the shot in the film. It’s blown up a bit and the map is on the phone screen.
All the shots done with green screen were replaced with “plate” shots that my DP and I went out and shot after I had an edit of the film to know what angles we had to capture.
Original shot in my driveway with green screen. I learned that the closer the green screen is, the more spill there is on his face!
This is the final color corrected shot with plate. This is a combination of both visual fxs work and color grading.I knew that I could help with the truthfulness of these static shots with green screen using sound effects! Knowing that you will be using visual effects means you have to plan ahead WAY in advance.
This is the actual angle from the iphone which was recording every time he was driving. Note the camera on the outside window over his left shoulder. The white spots on the backside of the steering wheel (visual fx took them out)
Here is the finished color corrected and visual fx work.
I also used miniatures for the car crash sequence. That was challenging as well. Since this is a dark comedy, it’s okay if people think it’s a cheesy miniature sequence!
Here’s a shot of what’s in the movie as the car goes off the cliff. You can, of course, see my head in the shot as I just threw the miniature car off “the cliff”!
It’s all about perspective!
Los Angeles Post Production Group: Where do you want to head next in your career. Is there a feature maybe in the horizon?
VS: I am hoping to do at least one feature before my time is up! It’s all about money and timing of course. As I write this, we are in the midst of the coronavirus lock-down. The time doesn’t feel very inspiring to be creative but I’m trying! For over 5 years now, I’ve actually been attached to direct a $10 million feature film, “Revolutionist“, but we’ve been stuck on getting the right star power for it despite having already attached Sally Kirkland, Dennis Haysbert, Erica Hubbard, Beth Grant, Virginia Madsen and others. The sales agents have all said we need bigger name actors!
I am working on a few screenplays. One I’ve been working on for over 15 years that I want to direct. We’ve got a proof-of-concept short to film in order to raise funds for the feature but all that’s on hold for now. Hopefully with this imposed distancing, we can finish writing the feature script. I love doing shorts since they’re relatively easy and lower budget. I figured that even shorts are about $1000 per screen minute to shoot. At least, that’s what it’s been costing me and I get a lot of stuff for free or that I don’t have to pay for! (Like film and sound editing!)
My dream is to get into the Directors Guild and have someone else pay me to direct something! I have a lot of projects to make! (I have a great Christmas story that I will present to Dolly Parton’s company when all this virus stuff calms down.) I just wish I had endless money so I could just make whatever I want, whenever I want!
Although being cooped up at home for weeks is necessary right now, it is far from ideal. But it does give us an opportunity to check in with some busy members of our community to discuss their careers, their advice for filmmakers and what they are working on now. Next up, please meet Cirina Catania!
Los Angeles Post Production Group: Thanks for taking some time, Cirina. You’ve had a nice
long career and have worked in a variety of roles in the film industry. Can you share some of your favorite highlights with us?
Cirina Catania: Life has been an incredible journey so far! And I’m still traveling that winding road.
Looking back is not something I do often, but as I turn in that direction I realize that there have been many highlights:
– At the still awkward age of 16, standing in front of a table of stern-faced judges at the Conservatoire Nationale d’Orleans and watching them as I sight-read a song a-cappella I’d never seen before and as I sang another number, also unrehearsed, while an accompanist played the piano. I can still smell the wood halls, see the light reflecting from the windows on to the floor in rays and feel the parchment in my hands a few days later as I claimed first prize.
– In Munich, Germany at the fashion houses, modeling wedding gowns for buyers, a tough thing for me, as I’m 5’4 1/2” and the gowns were all made for tall women! But it was fun, for the very short time it lasted!
– Working in Salt Lake City on the crews for independent films, later as the owner of a talent agency (SAG, AFTRA and AFofM franchised), then on the Utah Film Commission and then on the first years of the Sundance Film Festival as co-founder and executive director. Spending a few days with Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra is indelibly etched in my memories.
– My first day on the MGM/UA lot, ensconced in the famous Thalberg Building with a huge rolodex from my predecessor, two awesome secretaries and a star on the door. I still wore Laura Ashley long dresses with white crinolines underneath…and couldn’t pronounce the name of the James Bond film I was working on because it was named after a part of the “female anatomy.”
-Years later, I had survived the Hollywood Jungle, lost my shyness and the warrior came out as I took the reins in the Worldwide Marketing Department of the theatrical division, reporting to the President and the Chairman of the Board with sign-off on a $200 million dollar a year budget.
– Standing in a dark open field in the middle of the night somewhere in middle America, directing and shooting “Chasing Lightning” for National Geographic and pausing to look up into the black sky. It was the one time I have felt so utterly small on this great Mother Earth.
– Getting up at four in the morning during a major snowstorm in June Lake, California, so that I could join the other members of my Ski Patrol on a ride in the dark up the lift to clear the slopes from avalanche danger. Woo hoo! First powder!!!!
– That time I was shooting the final few moments in Durban, South Africa, looking through the lens of my camera and running alongside of Danny Glover (his legs are much longer than mine)! I ran right into a concrete pillar, smashed to the sidewalk, and landed unconscious on the ground. Did you know your head makes a watermelon thump when it hits a hard surface? Next thing I know, I wake up and Danny is leaning right over me, “Are you alright, are you alright?!” To which I reply, “Where’s my camera?” (p.s. it survived the long arch to the concrete, but my arm…not so well…it was broken).
– Traveling on the Amazon River, shooting in Prague, Paris, Berlin, Sicily, Belgium, all over the United States in remote areas I didn’t even know existed and in major cities…. It’s a dizzying dream when I think of it all.
How did I get so lucky!
So many more!
LAPPG: Wow, what a incredible life you are living! I’m exhausted just hearing about all these highlights. What’s currently on the agenda for you these days?
CC: I have three documentaries in post production (one full-length, one 1/2 hour short and the other a pilot for a series).
I am a partner in Lumberjack System, where I serve as tech ambassador and trainer. Proud to be associated with Philip Hodgetts and Gregory Clarke! They are geniuses and two of the nicest people I know.
I am getting more and more into training/teaching/mentoring. I just got back from Flagstaff for Blackmagic, where I taught several media classes at the Coconino High School bordering the Hopi and Navajo Nations, taught a master class in film at the PBS Station in Duluth, and joined the dynamic duo, Sam/Aubrey to help teach Smart Phone Studio here in San Diego.
And, I am the proud host of the podcast, “OWC RADiO,” where I absolutely LOVE to interview interesting, intelligent and creative people. We are sponsored by Other World Computing and I can’t thank them enough for giving me a venue within which to run!
LAPPG: With three docs in post production I think it’s safe to say you are passionate about documentaries. What is it about documentary storytelling that speaks to you?
CC: I am, above all, a storyteller. Fact or fiction – I love the beginning, middle and end. And when it inspires or entertains others, I am grateful. The world is full of incredibly interesting people and telling their stories give us an excuse to stop, get off the treadmill and spend time together. I am never alone, never bored and always grateful.
LAPPG: What advice would you offer to people who have a story to tell and want to tell it via a documentary film?
CC: If someone wants to get into documentary films, I would ask them…why? Know what your end goal is with the stories you want to tell. Do you want to help others, raise money for a good cause, make money selling your film to distributors, or just enjoy the process as you unwind the mysteries that lie before you? Be patient. It takes time for most stories to unfold. You don’t always get the ending you anticipated, but I guarantee you, it will be a better one than you could have imagined.
When Kionte Storey didn’t make the Paralympic Track Team (and I’d been following him around for five years)…he was very disappointed. But, two weeks later, he called me and said, “Cirina, I’m going to climb mountains now.” And I had a new sixth act!
Documentaries take patience. They require deep respect on our part for the people whose stories we are telling…and they take time and money. Be ready to sacrifice.
LAPPG: Let’s switch to the tech side now. What gear do you like to use? Camera, Lenses, Lights, Drives, EditIng Platforms, etc.
When I travel, I also shoot a lot with my iPhone 11 Pros. (I have two, an A-Cam and a B-Cam). They are perfect for much more than you can imagine!
OWC drives, including the Thunderbay series, the Thunderbolt 3 Pro Doc, the Envoy Pro, and the amazing Thunderblades, are in my mind the most reliable of any drives out there and their customer service is reachable and you get a human being on the phone who is vested in helping you. Oh, and did I mention that they are FAST.
I’m very excited about my new MacPro and am about to add 128 GB of memory that I bought from MacSales. I have a 27’ Apple 5K Monitor for now but am hoping to get the Pro Display XDR (32” retina 6K) in the next few months.
The iMac is still a wonderful workhorse and when I have an assistant in the studio with me, that is what they work on (if they don’t bring their own laptop).
My NLE of choice is FCPX because that is the language that I speak and I am comfortable. Although I would not call myself an audio editor (Woody would surely shake his head!)…I now have Logic Pro and will use it for rough edits.
Although I do have the Apple wireless pro iPods, I use the Sennheiser Ambeo 3D earbuds for a lot of my field videos, particularly if I’m shooting my granddaughter rockin’ it on the stage belting out “Stairway to Heaven” from Led Zeppelin.
Gear is everywhere in my life. Surely, there is something I am forgetting – drones, action cams, tripods, sound gear, LIGHTS, more lights, more tripods, grip equipment and … gaffers tape (my all-time fav).
LAPPG: About 3 1/2 years ago you were so generous by coming to LAPPG to discuss the significant storage loss disaster you had. Looking back on that situation. what practices or things do you warn people about in terms of storage and archiving of projects?
CC: That was a tough time. It took over two years from the time I was hacked until the media had been recovered and I had culled through and reorganized what was left. Then there were re-shoots and we continue to dig into files that have no names, just numbers, and no metadata. Kind of like a treasure hunt!
My advice to all of you reading this is to make copies, keep at least one or two of them offline and….log your media so that you know what you have. If you are not using files, place them in semi-permanent or permanent storage, on whatever medium you are most comfortable.
Use Lumberjack System to log as you shoot, Builder to keyword using transcripts, or backLog your legacy footage before it is “stored.” That way, you have the equivalent of an “index “of all your footage.
Buy SoftRAID and use it every day!!!
The other suggestion is that you keep your media and drives organized by category. I have mine organized by:
– Financial and legal (on a separate system)
LAPPG: Speaking of storage, can you tell us about how you handle your storage requirements now?
CC: I am in the process of organizing and backing up my library, and plan to move to LTO tape in the very near future.
LAPPG: Speaking of storage can you tell us about your radio show for Other World Computing?
CC: Thanks to Other World Computing for sponsoring me as host of OWC RADIO! I’m very excited. I am about to post my 54th interview and plan to listen to a new one every week. Last time I looked, I had over 4,000 current contacts in my address book, so there is always someone incredibly interesting to speak with and our audience seems to be enjoying it.
I do hope you take a moment and check us out at http://www.OWCRADiO.com. Please subscribe, share it on social media and help us get the word out so that we can help other tech and creative people have a voice.
LAPPG: Is there a good place for our readers to follow you online?
CC: You can go to @Cirina on Instagram, OWCRADiO.com, or Cirina’s Journal on Facebook (or my personal page on Facebook, Cirina Catania, if you want recipes and family photos). Or visit: http://www.cirinacatania.com.
If you want to know more, Google has lots of “stuff” online … You’ll probably find out more than you ever want to know.
Thanks for asking me to participate, Wendy. It is always nice to speak with you and I hope to make it from San Diego to Los Angeles when the “isolation” is lifted!
If you are a fan of VFX and the amazing work being done from ILM, then we’re excited for your to meet Charmaine Chan. She kindly took time out from her busy life across the pond at ILM London to talk to us about her work as a VFX artist on some of the world’s biggest movies, as well as her own project, which highlights women in the VFX community.
Interview by Wendy Woodhall
Los Angeles Post Production Group: When people find out you work at Industrial Light & Magic I’m sure they are impressed as well as curious about what it’s like being part of the team there. So starting off, you came out of college and ILM was your first job. Were you a big Star Wars fan and did you think as a young person that you would have the opportunity some day to make serious contributions to this legendary franchise?
Charmaine Chan: So surprisingly, I got introduced to Star Wars much later in life. I saw most of the films during my high school years, and thoroughly enjoyed them, but it wasn’t my original inspiration into loving films and visual effects. It was actually Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park! I remember watching them as a kid and thinking they were all real life! So I had no idea that it was a profession I could get into, I just thought they were documentaries! But growing up, I had a strong love for both art and technology. I wanted to get into something that incorporated both and visual storytelling. I had no idea the giant breadth of work that ILM did, I had an inkling, but when I first started my first project was Transformers, and I had NO idea what that franchise would become. So being able to work on that, Harry Potter, Mission Impossible, Jurassic, Star Wars, and all the new Marvel Cinematic Universe films has been an absolute dream come true, and I am so grateful for those opportunities.
LAPPG: I know one of the things that most excited you was that you got to be part of the creation of the porgs (wide-eyed avian creatures native to Luke Skywalker’s planet). What was it about these little creatures that you think connected to the audience and what criteria did you consider when you worked on creating them?
CC: One of the most fun things about the Star Wars universe are all the creatures that come out of it! When I first saw the concept artwork for Last Jedi, and saw all these creatures, I ran immediately to my coordinator and pleaded with her to give me at least one shot of each of those creatures. I definitely can’t take the credit creating them, we have amazing artists who worked on every little detail you can think of for the porgs. But I think there’s something to be said for them, whether they be droids or creatures, they have just as much heart and characteristics as their human counterparts.
LAPPG: When we last spoke you were at ILM San Francisco working as a Lead Compositor and now 6 months later you are living in London working at ILM London and as a Lead Compositor. Firstly, congrats on this exciting move and secondly, how was the adjustment living and working in a foreign country?
CC: Thank you! One of the things I love about this industry is how international it is. I’ve had the pleasure of working with people from so many different locations in the world. And being able to combine all that culture and history and experience into one collaborative environment is such a treat. ILM opened its London offices around 5 years ago, and it has thrived in so many ways. With our new TV/Streaming division being headquartered in London, it felt like a good opportunity and shift to try something new. I’ve worked with quite a number of our London colleagues, so it’s been a pretty easy shift and it’s very exciting what we have in store!
LAPPG: What skills do you think are important for a compositor to have, aside from being able to sit for long periods of time working at your desk?
CC: [Chan laughs] Yes, as visual effects artists we do work at our desks a lot. But whether you’re trying to become a compositor, software engineer, or producer, there’s many different aspects of visual effects you can get into. And you can come from any background. But we’re all very passionate about filmmaking, about visual storytelling, and finding new and exciting ways to create worlds you never thought existed.
LAPPG: I saw a statistic from 2016 that every single motion major picture released in 2016 contained visual effects, yet only 17.5% of the people creating VFX are women. That seems pretty astonishing but I’m curious now on the wake of the #MeToo movement are you seeing the tide changing?
CC: I think it’s very important for us to discuss the need for greater diversity within our industry. There’s been more conversations happening at companies and we’ve been seeing more active outreach, but it’s not quite the huge tidal change one would hope. We still have a long way to go, but there are a lot of engrained biases and societal “norms” we need to break through first.
I think we need to keep having these conversations, push for action, and never give up. Sometimes things will take time to change, but we must work as a community and industry together if we want anything to happen.
LAPPG: Being a compositor (the person at the end of the pipeline putting the last touches on to what you see on the screen) you had said the work you do is sort of like doing “fancy advanced Photoshop layering things together from all different disciplines.” How do you stay on top of changes to the technology?
CC: Technology will always change and evolve. I think a lot of people get tied up on needing to be on top of the latest and greatest software, but software is just a tool and people can always learn new tools. But at the basis, the fundamentals of filmmaking are still there and using those fundamentals and combining it with the ever-evolving technological landscape can make for exciting new ways of visual storytelling.
LAPPG: Can you go through a typical day from start to finish about what might come across your desk and how you keep yourself sane while working very intense, long days?
CC: For an artist, a typical work day revolves around working on your shots, submitting them for dailies so that they can be reviewed and critiqued, and doing iterations. During dailies, there may be discussions on how certain looks can be achieved, or discussions on how to help push a story point through the visuals. It’s actually a very collaborative environment, and while you maybe focused in one discipline, you find yourself working with all the other disciplines as everyone wants to make sure the best image comes across.
I think since most of us are so passionate about what we do, and love what we do, sometimes those long hours go by very quickly. However, there’s a strong need and awareness for people to have a work life balance and know what their limits are on working. A lot of young kids come into this industry thinking that working long hours is the only way they can prove their worth. It’s horrible, and should be stopped. Doing your work efficiently and quickly with results is what people should be aiming for. No one does their best work when it’s the 15th hour of the day. Keep yourself mentally and physically healthy and your work will reflect that.
LAPPG: One of the exciting projects you’ve been working for the past two years is a video series called Women in VFX. What is so valuable about this series that there are some stories that one can really relate to and it’s an amazing platform for voices that aren’t often heard. To date it looks like you have upward of about 50 interviews with women in VFX from around the world. And the series celebrates the many women working in the industry by sharing their stories sand experience. What gave you the impetus to start this project and beyond the series can you talk about the community you are building and what the goals are for it?
CC: When I first started in the industry, I couldn’t help but feel slightly out of place. But as I worked my way through, and met even more amazingly talented artists, I soon found that there are indeed women, people of color, and LGBT folks in our industry as well. But the thing is they were rarely the ones highlighted or given the chance to speak publicly about their experiences working on some of these big blockbusters.
I dabbled a little in photo and video documentary in the past, and always understood the power there is to having stories heard. So, I knew a video series would be a great medium to finally get the experiences of women in visual effects out there.
It was very important to me to get as many stories documented as possible, and from all over the world. The reason being is you start to notice the same topics, issues, and themes being brought up. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or when you started in the industry, the issues are there and the need to want to change them are there.
I just want their voices to be heard, and I want people to be aware that these talented women exist, and we should be giving them just as many opportunities and chances as everyone else.
LAPPG: In the last 12 years of being at the forefront of major motion picture and amusement technology what are some of the changes you’ve seen for better or worse in terms of collaboration.
CC: I think we’re at a very exciting time for visual effects. There’s been so many advancements both in technology and creative ideas. I think there’s definitely a shift in bringing some old school film methods together with new school technology that’s giving us some exciting results. And I think we’re seeing a lot of different people with different backgrounds (whether that be film, games, VR, etc.) coming together and finding new ways to take on storytelling. It’s a promising time to be in visual effects.
LAPPG: What 3 pieces of advice would you give to someone fresh out of school ready to get out there who may not have booked a wonderful opportunity at ILM?
CC: – Set your goals and never give up on them. You may need to perform roles or work in companies that aren’t exactly what you want at first, but if you keep at it, you’ll eventually get to it.
– Know your worth and know what you can do.
– Always keep on learning. You never stop learning.
Interview by Wendy Woodhall
We had the opportunity to sit down with the very busy, award-winning editor and director and LAPPG member Greg Hobson to discuss his work in television. Greg shares insights on some of the popular shows he worked on, as well as how his career has unfolded and what advice he would offer to those looking for longevity in this industry.
Los Angeles Post Production Group: Thanks for speaking with us Greg! Let’s jump right in. Upon looking at your IMDb what immediately jumps out is all the different hats you’ve worn in this business. From editor to cinematographer to the music department to even writing! Can you share with us how you started and got interested working in the film and television industry?
Greg Hobson: I went to Iowa State University to major in theater, even though I had music scholarships to two other colleges, because if I couldn’t be the trombone player in the rock group Chicago then I couldn’t see myself as a professional musician. My freshman year at ISU I took the basic theater classes and I worked on the lighting crew for an upperclassman’s TV production project and I thought that was way more fun, so my sophomore and junior years I completed the whole TV curriculum.
After Iowa State I moved to California. It took me 7 years to get my master’s degree in film production from UCLA because I kept taking leaves of absence to work on film projects and one two-year stint in Austin, Texas editing two PBS series. Some of my earliest IMDb credits are from this seven-year period.
In my 10 years as a professor at Chapman University I taught 18 different classes, from technical classes including editing, cinematography, and audio techniques, to film aesthetics, to basic/intermediate/advanced screenwriting. Plus, I created a directing actors class, two genre studies courses, and every January I supervised a student production on location. So, by the time I left teaching to go back to work in the industry full time, I had a lot of varied skills that helped keep me working.
LAPPG: A lot of your work includes television series for children. Was this a specific choice?
GH: Children’s television was definitely not my career goal. When I was planning to leave teaching, I called a producer friend to see if he might have a job for me. He was producing a sci-fi action-adventure movie called Galaxis. They had already hired an editor that the director really wanted to use, but that editor was only available during production. So, when they were through with principal photography, I took over the editing of that feature. Next, my producer friend was going to produce a “family” film that was being directed by Sean McNamara. That film, P.U.N.K.S., had five kid protagonists, but also starred Henry Winkler, Dennis Quaid, and Cathy Moriarty. My association with Sean and is partner David Brookwell and their BME Productions led to me editing other family movies for their company – Treehouse Hostage, The Trial of Old Drum, and Wild Grizzly.
Then, the brand-new cable network Disney Channel was forming and looking for original content. BME became the first production company that Disney Channel hired, and the first show was Even Stevens. For the next few years I was primarily editing Disney Channel shows and pilots, and shows for Nickelodeon, The N, and Cartoon Network, and during hiatuses I was editing reality shows or TV movies or indie features.
LAPPG: What was it like working on those popular Disney shows like Even Stevens, That’s So Raven, Zeke and Luther and the Amazon Original show you are working on now, Just Add Magic?
GH: My experience of working on children’s shows has been generally pretty great. Because of strict labor laws that limit kids work hours, production days are scheduled extremely carefully. There are almost never Fraterdays. A five-day week with 12-hour days is the norm. Even Stevens and Just Add Magic were the best experiences of my professional career because of the people running those shows. When the producers are positive, caring people who keep the actors and the crew happy, there is nothing better. Those two shows in particular were wonderful because the writers were constantly striving to deliver quality content. On Even Stevens, we were literally the first original Disney Channel show, so we were given pretty much carte-blanche to let our freak flag fly and our imaginations run wild in the way we staged, shot, and edited the episodes. We were making it up as we went along, and it was a fantastic creative environment. Just Add Magic was a much more mature show in that it was smoother, slicker, and had more serious and twisty long-arcing plots. But both of those shows were blessed with young cast members that showed up every day with their lines memorized and worked their butts off, yet also laughed and goofed off and had fun.
LAPPG: Speaking of Just Add Magic, the new season Just Add Magic – New Protectors has recently been released. Many fans are waiting to see how they will be handling the original cast aging out and the bringing in of a set of new, younger characters. Do you have any insights?
GH: I never thought of the young cast as “aging out.” Perhaps that was Amazon’s logic, I don’t know. But the actresses didn’t seem to be getting bored with the show or too old to play those parts because the writing kept advancing with them as they grew up. I replaced another editor toward the end of the first season on that show. I was immediately impressed with how spot on and consistent those three girls were. During the second and third seasons they just kept getting better and better. I think the most noticeable jump, in terms of growing up, was between the end of the first season and the beginning of the second. Not only did all they seem to grow about 3 inches, they went from being tween kids to young ladies.
LAPPG: As an editor on this popular Amazon Series what is the relationship like between you and the director.
GH: From my experience on several TV series, the show is run by the show runner(s). There may be a main recurring director for a series, but most directors are just hired guns who come in and direct an episode or two, then go off and direct on some other show. The interaction between the producers/show runners and the editors is the constant and sustaining relationship. Per DGA rules, a director only gets two days to work with an editor on a half hour show, four days on an hour show. Then they are gone, and the rest of the decisions and shaping of the show are the responsibility of the show runner. When I first started working in television, I was surprised at how few directors even come into the editing room or take their full two or four days. Most of them just email their notes, because even though they want to deliver a good show, they know they can’t get too out of the box creative because they will be overruled by the producers who try to maintain consistency from episode to episode.
LAPPG: One of the things that you shared with us at an LAPPG meeting was that although Just Add Magic was a VFX heavy show, many of the effects were done practically. Can you detail one or two instances of this and how they helped tell the story?
GH: In the season one finale, the girls cook a spell that freezes the entire town, right during a big town fair. Rather than create a freeze frame (which always looks like, well, a freeze frame) the director simply had the dozens of background players stop moving. That allowed the natural breeze to blow scarves and flags and spin the pinwheels, but the people did not move. Our three main girls had taken a counter spell, so they don’t freeze. A couple of fairly long scenes play out while everyone in the background is frozen. With the foreground girls moving and talking normally, and the camera dollying back and forth, it’s incredibly effective and believable. Yes, we did have to digitally fix a few eye blinks in the frozen people, but it’s pretty magical!
Another technique that was used on a few different episodes where characters supposedly appeared differently to the characters than how they appear to the TV audience was by the simple “Texas-switch,” where we see the person on camera talking, then the camera pans and lands on the same character only now they are in a different body. Or possibly when a character walks up to or past a mirror, but their reflected image is of someone else. No VFX, just camera and character movement.
The one I showed at the LAPPG meeting was my favorite. In jumping back and forth in time from present day to the 1960s. The girls eat one of their magical recipes, but they also have to all three tap the walls in the room for the spell to transport them back in time. They shot the scene in Corky’s Diner (in Sherman Oaks, which hasn’t changed its décor in 50 years). We show a wide shot of a dreary diner with almost no patrons except for our three actresses, then tilt the camera down to their hands as they simultaneously slap the wood, then pull out to see a bright and shining diner full of people in 1960s wardrobe and the signage has all changed to that era, with a 1960s tune playing on the jukebox. At the end of the scene we reverse the action and when they tap the wood we are back to the present day. No VFX, just seamless editing.
LAPPG: Since this series, like so many nowadays, stream all the episodes at once, does this allow for changes in the story as you work through editorial? Do you ever go back and unlock prior episodes?
GH: On Just Add Magic, because we had season long or several-episodes long story arcs, if something seemed like it needed more of a setup or clarifying detail, then small adjustments could be made to previous episodes – but these adjustments were made BEFORE the episodes were locked. A finished, on-lined, color corrected, mixed episode would most likely NOT be unlocked unless something major happened, like a character was recast of something like that. But most TV today seems to be done way in advance of when it airs – not just streaming shows. I’ve heard editors of network shows like Glee and Breaking Bad and others talk about being halfway (or completely) through editing a season before it starts airing.
LAPPG: Can you tell us what a standard schedule for a television series looks like?
GH: A typical half hour episode shoots for 4-5 days, an hour show for 8-10 days. (Game of Thrones shoots for about four months!). The editor puts together the episode by himself/herself, usually by the third day after they finish shooting. That’s the editor’s cut. Then the director gets his/her two (or four) days with the editor to create the director’s cut. Then the show runners get their pass to create the producer’s cut, which goes to the network or studio executives. The network sends their notes and when executed, this becomes Network Cut 1. Depending on how in sync the network is with the goals and storylines being developed by the writers there may be some pushback on the network notes and one or two more versions may get sent back and forth before the network gives the official Locked Picture decree.
LAPPG: With such an expansive career you’re obviously doing something right! How have you gotten your work?
GH: The simple answer is: People who know me, or people who know people who know me. In other words, recommendations.
Right out of college I took a job as a grip on a movie – for free – for a schlock producer because I just wanted to work on a real feature. A handful of guys I met on that crew, who were also just out of college, became my good friends. Whenever one person from that group heard about the next film, he’d share that info and we’d all get jobs on that film (for $$ after the first one).
Right after I moved to LA, I also got a job at Disneyland as a stage lighting and sound technician – my college theater technical training paying off. Because most everyone on those crews came strictly from stage, I became known as the “film guy” and whenever there was a commercial film shoot in the park, I would become the gaffer on those shoots. After I left Disneyland as an employee, they hired me back as an independent lighting director for several years, where I would be in charge of lighting special events
in the Disneyland park or souvenir films that were sold in the gift shops. That led to me starting my own company and editing many of those same projects.
On a whim, I answered an ad in the back of the Hollywood Reporter looking for editors willing to relocate to Austin, Texas. That 8-month job turned into almost two years of editing PBS series. One of the editors I met on that job came back to LA and started a feature film sound editing crew and hired me on a few projects before I got the teaching job at Chapman University.
One of the friends I made on that first freebee film right out of college became the producer I mentioned earlier that introduced me to the BME peeps which got me hooked up in children’s TV. One of the producer’s assistants at BME went to work for another producer who was producing low budget horror films and she recommended me to them, which is how I ended up editing four horror features in a row. One of my former Chapman students, who was producing music videos, hired me to edit the first feature his company was producing. Another one of my former Chapman students, who was writing Lifetime movies, recommended me to a company who was producing those movies and that has been a very good hook-up for editing gigs.
LAPPG: Do you have a personal mantra or a motto in terms of editing or your editing work?
GH: When I was teaching, I would always convey my personal motto to my students: Editing happens in that space between your ears. It does not matter which hardware or software you use.
LAPPG: The end goal for a lot of people in the entertainment industry is to become a director. Can you talk about how your directing opportunities came about?
GH: My last three years at as a student at Iowa State University I was also a member of an outside theater group (not the university’s productions) and we did three shows during the school year and a five-show summer stock season. Through that company, I did a lot of acting and singing, played trombone and guitar in pit orchestras, conducted some orchestras, and directed my first two musicals.
While I was teaching film classes at Chapman University, I was also privileged to direct two of the theater department’s mainstage productions, the Lanford Wilson play, The Hot L Baltimore, and the musical Man of La Mancha.
When I started working with Sean McNamara, editing his BME company films, I told him of my theater acting and directing background, which it turned out was very similar to his. I also told him of my desire to direct films. As part of the first film I edited for them, P.U.N.K.S., we needed a massive weekend of pickups and inserts for this technically intricate kid’s movie. Sean put me in charge, and I directed 140 shots in two days. On his next feature, Race to Space, I was editing the film, but also was able to direct a couple of days of 2nd unit.
I guess those were my test runs because even though I was a full-time editor on Even Stevens, the producers gave me my shot at directing network TV with three episodes of that show. My second of those episodes was nominated for a DGA award for Children’s Television – a great honor. The head writer of Even Stevens went on to co-create and was the show runner on Zeke and Luther. I edited the pilot for that show and edited several episodes, but also ended up directing 12 episodes, more than any other director. Through BME I also edited and directed shows for Nickelodeon, The N, and Cartoon Network.
LAPPG: As the technology has changed over the years can you discuss how that has impacted your work?
GH: All editors of a certain age can attest to the fact that in the good old days of film, you used to cut with only the picture and a single dialogue track (and maybe add some music for test screenings) until the movie was completely finished editing. Only then was it sent to the sound editors, composer, colorist, etc. But now, because non-linear editing system have the capability of endless video and audio tracks, and plug-ins for every conceivable process, producers and network execs and even most directors won’t watch a work in progress without complete sound and music scoring and possibly even a pass of color correction and temp VFX. They EXPECT everything they watch (even the first cut) to have that level of polish, like it’s ready for air. If it doesn’t have all those whistles and bells, they often don’t seem to be able to concentrate on the actors’ performances or the pacing of the story – they feel the show is undercooked and not good.
I don’t mind putting in all of that extra stuff. I actually like finding just the right piece of temp music or sound effect. It’s just a matter of having the time to search for those things. Since most indie projects I work on are low budget, I don’t have the luxury of an assistant editor to help build the soundtracks, nor do I have a music supervisor or music editor to share the workload. On a TV series, I generally am blessed with those asst editor and music people, which allows me to go home and sleep every so often.
LAPPG: Can you offer any words of wisdom on how to have a long and successful career in this business?
GH: a) Say yes to almost everything, high paying or low paying, and no matter what the pay, always do your best, because you never know where the people working on that project might end up.
b) Get involved with organizations like Film Independent or the Sundance Institute, and work on one of the films that their members make. Many of them end up nominated for Independent Spirit Awards.
c) Learn After Effects & Photoshop. Really learn them. You will become more valuable to every show you work on.
d) Have the mindset that you’re in this business for the long haul. Forever. If you give yourself an exit, or a “if I don’t make it by such and such a time I’ll quit”, then when things get tough, you’ll take that exit.
e) Fill in your breaks on larger projects by cutting short form content – commercials, music videos, short films, trailers, anything that keeps you working and keeps you sharp.
f) Join organizations like Los Angeles Post Production Group and attend the meetings for networking and learning about new technologies. If getting to meetings is difficult, watch the videos on their Youtube Channel. Also, watch free webcasts from Adobe, Avid, Apple, Boris FX Mocha, MotionVFX, Ripple etc., and learn all about the latest and greatest toys and techniques.
LAPPG: With so many long hours in the edit bay, how do you de-stress?
GH: About six years ago, after coming off of back to back to back editing and directing jobs, I was feeling pretty blah and out of shape. So I started hiking the canyons and trails around LA. That quickly led to longer hikes, which led to higher and higher peaks. After a few years of that, hiking had lost some of its luster for me, so I started road biking. I guess that means my method of de-stressing (besides going to movies) is extreme physical challenges. It really clears my head.
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