Thursday, January 15, 2009

An Argument For Reinventing The Term "Sound Design"

Below is an email Randy Thom is sending to people who work in film sound.

In his own words: "My previous post on the list about "Dialog As Sound Design" is related to my interest in broadening the scope of sound design to encompass all creative work in sound. I don't expect this little piece to change people's minds, but I hope it will help start a dialog."

[via Sound Article List]

Hi, All, and Happy New Year!

I'm sorry for this mass mailing, but I couldn't think of a better or less intrusive way to air some ideas I've been puzzling over, regarding issues we all know about, but rarely get to discuss in a formal way. At the center of it is that relatively new, controversial and ambiguous term "Sound Design." To begin to frame some of the issues I want to say something about another historically controversial screen credit. I don't bring it up to suggest that it is an exact model for our current situation in Sound, or a predictor of how the credit Sound Design will eventually be seen, but simply because there are some parallels between the two that are interesting.

In 1939 William Cameron Menzies was the first Art Director to receive the screen credit "Production Designer" on a film that made a rather big splash. The film was "Gone With The Wind." Many other Art Directors were appalled at the new credit, and the acrimony over the "Production Design" continued for several decades. Why, some said, is this new title necessary? Menzies is doing exactly the same job he did when he called himself an Art Director. Is he trying to aggrandize his position? Is he trying to make himself seem better, more desirable than we mere Art Directors are? In other words... Is this a scheme to steal our clients?... some wondered.

In the mid 1980's Richard Beggs and I (presumably because Murch and Burtt weren't available : ) were asked to come to a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Academy's Sound Branch so that we could explain what a sound designer is. I honestly don't remember what we said, but I suspect we did an appallingly bad job of it. What follows is something close to what I think we should have said...

The credit first appeared on a film, actually two films, in 1979. On "Apocalypse Now" Walter Murch took the screen credit "Sound Design and Montage." About the same time Ben Burtt got the "Sound Design" credit on the sequel to "American Graffiti." But they weren't the first to get that credit, they were just the first to get it on a film.
Earlier, some sound people working on Broadway plays in New York had received the credit "Sound Design," and Dan Dugan, who was doing the same kinds of work in the San Francisco theater scene, took that credit as well, before it appeared in the world of film.

Contrary to what many people think, the work that "Sound Designers" do is not new. It was being done long before anyone called him or herself a "Sound Designer." People in film had been doing what "Sound Designers" do at least two generations before "Apocalypse Now." The crucial question then: what is that work? What does a Sound Designer do? Well, we know what sound is, and we know what design is, so shouldn't it be clear? Maybe, but it's not.

When Walter and Ben took that credit they saw it as something very similar to what a few Supervising Sound Editors and Mixers had indeed already done... work with the Director to shape the sound of the film beginning very early in the process, as early as production or even pre-production, and continue that work all the way through post production. Since those opportunities to work on a project from pre-production through post were very rare, they thought it deserved a new name, and Sound Design seemed appropriate. Among others, they used Orson Welles and the way he worked with his sound crews as a model. The idea was that if sound was to be a full collaborator somebody was needed to work with the Director from nearly the beginning of the project so that sound ideas could influence creative decisions in the other crafts before it was too late, so that Sound could be a driving creative force rather than a band-aid. That was the grand theory in a nutshell, but it didn't catch on.

The "sexy" term Sound Design caught on in the movie biz, but with a very different and unfortunately much narrower meaning. Somehow Sound Design in film came to be associated exclusively with things "high tech," with using 24track tape recorders and midi in the early days, and a little later plug-ins. Basically the grand notion of a sound collaborator for the Director morphed into "gadget specialist."
A Sound Designer became something like a high tech audio grease monkey, a nerd you hired to electronically fabricate sounds you couldn't find in the effects library. Lots and lots of people started calling themselves Sound Designers. It quickly became an easy way to get cheap attention, whether the attention was deserved or not. Established Supervising Sound Editors and Mixers, especially in LA, justifiably saw many of these newly minted "Sound Designers" as con artists out to steal their clients with a few slick techy moves.

In my view, the word design applies to all the creative work we do in sound. Fabricating and manipulating sounds is sound design. Editing existing sounds is sound design. Brilliant sound design can be done using unmodified sound effects from the most basic commercial library. Breathtakingly beautiful sound design can be done and has been done with dialog alone, no sound effects at all. Supervising is also design. It's a crucial kind of sound design in my opinion because it consists of guiding the creative process. And finally, Mixing is design. Despite the sometimes questionable use of the term by "wannabees," I think Sound Design is a credit very worth preserving. The "grand notion" is worth preserving and spreading as well. We should all be pushing, to the degree we can, to make Sound a full creative collaborator in the storytelling process.

The most important part of the work that Editors and Mixers do is making creative decisions. The word "design" makes it easy to distinguish us from engineers and administrators, whose work is extremely important but not focused on artistic creativity. Oscars in the Sound categories are awarded to those people who make the final creative decisions for the Director's approval. If someone has acted as a creative supervisor for sound all the way through post production until the end of the final mix I feel strongly that he or she should be eligible for Oscar nomination regardless of whether the person's screen credit was "Supervising Sound Editor," "Mixer," or "Sound Designer." The borders between editing and mixing are rapidly disappearing as technology allows both kinds of work to be done with nearly identical machines. Given that "mixing" and "editing" are becoming one thing, wouldn't it be better if the people supervising the creative decisions in Sound were called "Supervising Sound Designers?"

Randy Thom
January 13, 2009