Jay, Jay, Jay ...
Remember when we were all "sound editors" and proud of it?
Remember when that meant knowing how to cut sound FX, cut dialogue, cue and cut foley, cue and cut ADR, conform pre-dubs & stems? It meant knowing how to do it all. I now know fx editors/designers who have never cut dialogue (and don't know how), dialogue editors who can't do FX, foley editors who only know foley. ADR editors were always a little different and have been specialized for a long time.
We all know the Sound Designer jokes - "A sound designer is someone who has never cut on film", "Sound design is sub-rumble and rubbery sync", "Sound design is something that can be moved a foot in either direction and still work", "Sound Editors became Sound Designers around the same time Foley Walkers became Foley Artists" ...
Way back when it was microphones, razor blades and tape. Next most places had one or two guys who had a Synclav or the like and could actually manipulate sound. The rest of us became friends with the transfer guy and with a little sweet talk we could get them to transfer something backwards, slowed down, cel side down (for underwater or distant sounds) or physically put their hand on the reels on the transfer machine to create drag. We could also ask the Synthesizer guy to create specific things then spin them off to 35mm which we would then cut on film.
None of us "just pulled from the library to cover the sounds". I've always hated that narrow minded view that always seems to come from people who never really did what we did. We would search for the right sound, combine sounds to get what we wanted. It was much more difficult as you could only hear one sound and have to imagine what things would sound like together. You could play multiple sounds on your synchronizer using your hand to turn the wheel and approximate the correct speed. For a while I had an "over-under" moviola where you could actually hear two sounds at once (WOO-HOO!)
I work on a crew that for a long time never credited a "sound designer". The reason being was that it would artificially elevate one of us above the others. Most read the credit "sound designer" and think that this is the person whose vision we followed to create the whole audio worldview of the film. The person we went to for ideas and approval. You and I know that this is rarely true.
Once we went digital we all started manipulating sounds more and more. I think it was WaveFrame first although at times I have also used Fostex, Fairlight and finally the new industry standard ProTools.
On our crew it is always a team effort. We spot the film together and everybody's ideas are encouraged.
"Gladiator", "Braveheart", "The Bourne Ultimatum ", "Seabiscuit", "Hannibal", none of them have a "sound designer" credited. We all did sound design. I remember "The Devil's Advocate" where the music editor complained that with my weird otherworldly FX we were crossing into music's territory. Taylor Hackford loved and defended our stuff (it was his film) and my sound lived. Listen to it. It IS sound design although no sound designer is credited.
It seems that this new generation of digital sound editors all wanted the designation "sound designer". We all thought and said, "pretentious assholes".
As the credit "sound designer" became more common film-makers would come to us and ask, "Who is your sound designer?"
Our supervisor (Per Hallberg that blonde guy at the Oscars) would always answer honestly, "All my people are sound designers."
They wanted to see that credit so we gave in. The people responsible for the big ticket sequences, the strange sequences, flashbacks, transitions, monsters aliens & creatures, weapons, big chase scenes, vehicles (flying & earthbound, old, new & from the future) would now be credited as "sound designers".
People who cut the more real life everyday sounds would still be "sound editors" even though they put as much care, thought and creativity into what they did. The next time you hear someone refer to sound editors as someone who "Just pulls from the library to cover stuff" tell them that they are full of crap and speaking from inexperience. The arrogance of that thinking has no place in the films I work on or the crews I work with. Nobody talks like that. Everybody knows.
"Sound Designer" can mean everything and it can mean nothing. I worked on a "walk and talk" film where the supervisor's regular sound editor was credited as "sound designer" because that was the deal they had worked out. There was no sound design (in the way that the title implies) in that film.
These days with digital editing and all the sound manipulation tools readily available we do a LOT more than we used to do. I don't know a single "editor" that does not use these tools. Some more than others.
I am a "sound designer" and have been for a long time although not credited as such until the last few years. What makes me a sound designer?
In "Gladiator" listen to the fireballs coming in where I used fire, jets, human voices and outboard gear to create those sounds. Was it "sound design"? I think yes but my credit was "sound editor" and I was happy with it. I was one with my fellow editors like Dino DiMuro who did all that wonderful slo-mo fight stuff. All those "Bourne" car chases where I used different cars, recordings and gear to create a "new" car. Sound design? You decide. Those weird-ass futuristic military vehicles in that first "G.I. Joe"? Maybe. The many flashback and dream sequences I have cut are probably most identifiable as "sound design" because of the strange sounds involved. People hear a whoosh and think "Sound Design".
Listen to the new "Blade Runner" mix where I had to recreate the "spinners" so that we could bring them in from the surrounds, listen to the new guns, punches etc. Listen to the new 5.1 all enveloping atmospheres that Dan Hegeman created. "Sound design"? Our credit - sound editors.
The sound world has changed. It has become more sophisticated and so have we.
The first time I sweetened a carby with an animal roar or a jet fighter and I took a sound not associated with the real-world to create drama, excitement or tension, that was sound design even though it was physically cut on film without any outboard gear. When Dan slows down and treats a fetal heartbeat and bakes it into the backgrounds to create a sense of unease or anxiety that is sound design. When one of our dialogue editors takes alternate takes to create new line readings or change the emotion of a line is that sound design? Perhaps. Maybe that's the next new credit we will see "Dialogue Sound Designer". It's valid and kinda makes sense. When our foley guy manipulates objects and signal on the Foley stage to create something brand new is that sound design? It kind of is and in it's purest form. "Foley Sound Designer", I like the sound of that.
Whenever some new fresh-faced, bright-eyed and shiny new person right out of school comes aboard and proudly proclaims "I am a sound designer" we all just roll our eyes and leave unsaid, "pay your dues, embrace humility and team play". Just because you know what buttons to push and have the latest gear it does not make you a sound designer. There's talent, creativity and the ability to know what to cut and what NOT to cut, the ability to see how what you are creating fits with dialogue and story. Some of these things cannot be taught. Some of these things are just part of who you are. I've seen "designers" with all the coolest and newest gear who create big ambitious sound that does not glue to the picture and kind of floats above it waving it's arms shouting "I'm Sound Design! Look how cool I am!"
I think you are going to see the credit "sound editor" slowly disappear and be replaced by "sound designer". All you new "sound designers" should remember where it all started and how difficult it was to do with just a microphone, a razor blade and tape.
The next time you think you are better or more creative than a sound editor because you are a "sound designer" remember this - I will be waiting for you at the bike racks with a broken rewind shaft in one hand and swinging a Finley-Hill by its cord in the other hand ready to talk sense to you.
My new favorite credit is "Supervising First Assistant Sound Editor". Who made that one up? I'm sure it does wonders for self-esteem.