Compression Wars, Dynamic Range, and the Importance of Sound: An Interview with Filmmaker Morgan Honaker

Two Fridays ago, my colleague Joe and I sat down with Morgan Honaker to discuss her recent career in filmmaking. An alumna of my video production class, Morgan had just given the current class an excellent tutorial on the importance of sound in movies, mentioning sound cliches like the Wilhelm scream and the Eagle sound effect. She also pointed out some egregious examples of weak sound work in major movies, such as in this clip in The Great Gatsby. Here is a transcript of our discussion:

FD:What are the newest interactions between the Internet, social media, apps, and filmmaking techniques?

MH: The amount of people who see your movie is dependent upon your presence in social media. It's hard for people like me, because I don't have a great Twitter presence, but we funded our movie from Kickstarter, and we got the money we need in four days. And that was pretty cool, being able to fund a short film, that wasn't supposed to have a budget, really quickly. Still, usually, I have to get the producers to get the word out, because I just don't have . . .

FD: It's not your bent.

MH: Yeah, I don't spend a lot of time on social media.

FD: Are you noticing this amongst your peers, though?

MH: Oh yeah.

FD: Is there a social media form that is well-suited for filmmaking, especially for promotion?

MH: Kickstarter and GuFundMe are probably the two where a lot of filmmakers search for stuff, but Twitter is the easiest, the fastest, and the most accessible, and that is where a lot of people are linking their stuff for other people to see, especially because you can tweet @ a celebrity and be, like, go watch my movie, and they might do it. Others might have a bigger Twitter presence than you do, and hundreds of people may see it from their site.

FD: Just now, you came up with Drained. That was a class project, right?

MH: Yeah.

FD: How do you see a movie like that as a selling point for your work?

MH: I'm going to submit to as many festivals as I can afford. Usually, they have 10-20$ entry fees, so it's just a matter of what I can submit to under a $100. That always helps. People always thought of me as a sound person, so that they know that Morgan is good at more than one thing. I do like directing (I liked directing in your class), but I think my strengths are better in sound. It does help to show people that you can be diverse. I'm getting into color correction right now, too.

FD: Right. One of the things they say about modern day job market abilities--the more technical stuff you know, the more likely you are to be hired.

MH: Exactly. I'm getting a concentration [at the University of Texas] in computer science because I feel that pressure.

FD: This relates to the video game work that you've been doing?

MH: Yes, and also just being able to manipulate software to your needs. One of the guys I work with--he's supposed to only do audio, but he also works with After Effects. He programs stuff for us, because we need that. We need diverse people, so I should do the same. I'm really good with sound. I'm very specialized, but I can do other things.

FD: Now you're work for a studio in Austin, right?

MH: It's a studio that's paid by UT called the Liberal Arts Institute of Technology. We do a lot of live mixing, so I have those huge controller boards that I work with. We do a lot of in studio recording, film recording. The coolest thing we did recently was an interview with the director of the CIA.

J: Is this apart from the film work? A separate sound studio?

MH: Yeah, we do a lot of podcasts. We create everything there--sound effects, music, podcasts, dialogue editing. There's one podcast called Mere Rhetoric, and there's 15 Minute History that's really popular on iTunes right now.

FD: How did you find out about this job?

MH: I saw a posting over spring break when I was the only person on campus in the film building. I was the first person to apply. They had like 50 applicants and 2 of us were picked.

FD: Do you have some sort of demo reel for sound?

MH: Some people make reels for sound, but since demo reels work better for visuals, I keep an on-line portfolio, a log of all of my work. I'm working on a website that will include links to all of my work, my music, sound design in movies, foley work. I'm probably going to make a minute and a half reel eventually.

FD: Prospective employers seem to be very impatient, to see in one minute, all of your best work.

MH: Exactly.

FD: O. K. Keyes has developed hers quite a bit. I've noticed that directors' reels tend to have more suspense and drama on display that the beautiful shots of a cinematographer.

MH: It's more common for those who specialize in sound to have a website. Sound reels are usually for music or strictly sound effects, so they'll make a little animation to go along with it.

FD: I find it interesting that you look back on some of your earlier work with great horror and loathing. I'm proud that you did such good work in my class. How does that change over time? You become more sophisticated and sensitive to things?

MH: Also, instruments have gotten way better now. Your sound equipment in your class today is way more sophisticated than what we had [about 5 years ago].

J: The introductory filmmaking class is a chance to make all of those mistakes. That's part of the point of it.

MH: Exactly. I'm really glad we got to do that.

FD: What would recommend for a filmmaking class now in terms of sound equipment?

MH: You definitely need a separate recorder, so you can practice syncing, which is really easy if you have a good slate. The Zooms are fine. They are not my favorite, but the Zoom H4n and the H6 are pretty good because they have 4 channels. It's small, just a little bigger than a cell phone. The best are Sound Devices, the 744, 788, and 702 lines. Those are amazing.

J: What makes them better?

MH: They have better noise canceling, so it's a cleaner recording. They have more channels, more features that allow you to manipulate the mix on the fly. You can name the track inside, so it's easier. You don't have to take a separate sound log to match the sound file with the video file later. You can just name the sound file shot 1-A, take 2.

J: In order to really exploit a piece of equipment like that, you'd have to have a crew with a dedicated sound person, it seems.

MH: Exactly. The Zoom is definitely better than recording through a camera, because you can do levels while you're there. I would say, a good recorder, 3 or 4 really long, 50 feet XLR cables, zip ties, a shot gun microphone, a dynamic microphone, a wind screen, a boom pole, and a blimp.

FD: Thanks. Do you think that perhaps someday you might work with Linklater or Wes Anderson?

MH: Terence Malick shot one of his films near Austin a little while ago and some people I know worked with him. Linklater is much more of a possibility than Wes Anderson just because Anderson has a very specific group of people he likes to work with. One develops a network of people what one tends to work with. If they do something, I'm going to be working on it, which is nice to have, because unless you really screw it up, you are going to have a job with them.

FD: What do you think of the fact that so often, people make movies that nobody watches?

MH: That's definitely true.

FD: What do you think about that? When we asked James [the Hollywood producer] about that, he mentioned that, increasingly, everyone's watching movies on his or her phones, which means a lot more close ups, more simplistic cinematography, because you can't see the detail of a good shot on such a small screen.

MH: Right. What's worse than listening to sound through earbuds on your phone?  That's why the compression wars are happening, because everyone is getting on smaller mediums. People are not going out to orchestras to listen to music.

FD: What do you mean by compression wars?

MH: This idea that in order to get music as loud as you can possibly get it, you compress it as much as possible, so they'll compress it a little bit, come back, compress it some more to get the music as loud as possible for consumers, which is ridiculous, because that also eliminates dynamic range. I particularly love classical music, because I was trained classically in piano. Part of the beauty of classical music involves crescendos and lulls. Modern music's losing that in the compression wars. Everything's kind of just one bar of sound.

J: I remember when CD's first came out, that was the big complaint. They didn't know how to work the CD technology, so they just compressed everything to hell. Eventually, they started learning how to use CD's well for classical music, but in pop music . . .

FD: So, there's this sense that modern technology tends to flatten everything out?

MH: It does.

FD: The image gets smaller, the sound cruder, which seems ironic given the greater sophistication of the technology and the possible technique.

MH: Definitely. [to be continued]


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