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This blog has been dark for quite a while now, which is the result of my current research schedule. I haven’t been able to keep up with regular posts because the dissertation has been consuming much of my time lately. Part of my absence stems from a recent sojourn to Los Angeles where I was fortunate enough to spend some quality time with Hollywood sound professionals — from Foley artists to sound supervisors to final re-recording mixers — in an attempt to get a first-hand view of things.
Before I embarked on this massive doctoral project I had hopes of being able to speak with high level sound practitioners in order to bridge the divide between film theory and practice. But even my thesis committee doubted the degree to which I would be granted access to the production and post-production process of low and high budget pictures. But after completing dozens of phone interviews I was slowly cracking the once thought to be permanent glass that separated academic film studies from the world of modern film production. Right now I can’t go into any sort of detail about what I saw and heard, since I’m saving that for my bigger writing project (i.e. the thesis). But it’s safe to say that I observed some very creative people doing some very creative things with sound and picture. I probably learned more about the industry and the post process on this short trip than in my years of graduate study.
I’d like to thank everyone who invited me to spend time with them and observe their work. They could not have been more welcoming and generous to me. I appreciated all the candid conversations, the lunches, and the opportunity to sit quietly and observe it all.
One thing that does not get much attention in film criticism is the degree to which filmmaking is an intensely collaborative art. While the director is still considered the captain of the ship, he or she relies on a crew of imaginative and hard-working craftspeople who make large and small decisions with every cut. They live and breathe projects for months on end — some for even longer. It reminded me of a George Carlin line: “I’m never critical or judgmental on whether or not a movie is any good. The way I look at it, if several hundred people got together every day for a year or so — a number of them willing to put on heavy makeup, wear clothes that weren’t their own and pretend to be people other than themselves — and their whole purpose for doing all this was to entertain me, then I’m not going to start worrying about whether or not they did a good job.”
The access I was granted certainly showcased the collaborative nature of the industry. At one point I was asked for my opinion on some minor sound choices, presumably because I haven’t lived with the images and sounds for weeks or months. It was all fresh to my eyes and ears, and I soaked up as much as possible.
This whole experience emphasized once again one of the major problems with film studies today. Far too few scholars who study contemporary media engage with the filmmaking community. Even with hundreds of monographs devoted to specific films, filmmakers, cinematic movements, historical periods, and technical achievements — we know so little about how films are made. What fascinates me and other scholars such as David Bordwell are the ways in which decisions are made by directors, editors, composers, mixers, and designers. As Bordwell has put it: what are the constraints and possibilities that inform their work? How do they work with limited budgets, shorter deadlines? How does technology assist or disrupt their workflow?
These insights may not redefine how we analyze films as finished products, but they do afford us an opportunity to explore how they were finished. It also raises the question about whether or not films are ever finished, or if they are simply let go at some point. With more and more films being scheduled for release a year or more in advance, post-production crews are frequently in a race against the clock to complete a sound mix or prepare an editorial assembly for a preview screening.
By also considering the mechanics of the industry in which films are made, we can identify broader aesthetic trends that may not be limited to one or two films. My own experience is that Hollywood craftspeople are so fine-tuned to their work that they have a difficult time articulating particular aesthetic choices and ascribing a specific purpose to them. It would be like asking a lawyer — who is drowning in a massive criminal trial — what particular aesthetic informs their speaking style during their opening and closing statements. I believe this is where the historian, whose skills at observation and scholarship, can assist in filling out the details that the filmmaker is too close to identify.
The biggest advantage of studying contemporary works is that the filmmakers are still around to answer your questions. Instead of relying on trade press clippings or limited interview material, why not seek out the editor or composer or mixer yourself?
A former professor of mine would question the usefulness of interviewing filmmakers because there was the potential that they would confuse the film with their intention. As in, “I intended that shot to signify the emotional state of the girl.” In this way, the filmmaker is imposing a meaning on something that is not so arbitrary. This professor would argue that the film stands on its own, to be studied separately from its making and its intention. Which is a fair argument. But by excluding the artistic process from an analysis of the finished work seems highly problematic to me.
Sometimes it’s hard to be an academic in film studies who actually loves movies and the history of the movies. With all the snobbery, esoteric tastes, and glamorization of half-baked theories, I wonder if most film scholars are actually movie fans. There’s nothing quite like passing through historic studio gates, roaming around lots, chatting with feature directors and other crew members about their craft. On this visit I kept my enthusiasm in check, played it close to the chest, but was in total amazement every minute I spent talking Hollywood shop. It’s not every day that a kid from Toronto can do that. In the months to come I’ll be back to continue the fun and continue to peek behind the curtain.
The trip also afforded me an opportunity to be revel in some cineastic pleasures. I took in The Hangover at the Cinerama dome, now the Arclight complex. I’ve written about old movie theaters in Toronto here, but must admit that L.A. takes the cake for unique, historic, and technically proficient cinemas. That the Arclight has staff outside the doors ready to handle any audio or projection problems is pretty impressive. I should be posting a piece on The Hangover and its use of the 2.40:1 aspect ratio soon. It’s something that I noticed while watching it on the dome’s massively curved screen.
The Silent Movie Theatre is another gem, which showcases a diverse bunch of (mostly sound) films, in a facility that was built in the 1940s as a home for silent pictures. I avoided official studio tours, but did my own driving tour and came across a famous movie house that brings back more terrifying memories than Norman Bates’ house. And to think that it sits steps away from the hustle and bustle of Sunset Blvd. See if you can guess it…
So many other sights and sounds from the trip. I witnessed the taxing job of ADR (a.k.a. “looping”) on both the actor and supervisor. I found out that studio cafeterias have amazing food. I appreciated the honesty of filmmakers to share their thoughts on the state of the industry. I apparently avoided “June gloom,” which plagues the city with dreary days. Between all the real work I was there to do, I managed to take in a sunset in Malibu and a hike through the hills. I almost missed the elephant statues from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance at the Hollywood and Highland Center. Had several great meals with old friends. And to think all of this constitutes work. Alvy Singer had it wrong about L.A.