I am working in the world of low budget features and documentary and I am in search of ways to alleviate some work flow problems. At the risk of sounding bitchy and ungrateful, I having some serious grievances with how my studio does business (dont fire me!, I swear that I am coming from a good place!). I am trying to approach this in a way that, above all, sends clients away happy and wanting to continue doing business with us.

The first problem is that the most senior person is kept SO busy mixing that he does not have the time to properly supervise his jobs. This leaves me, the sound effects editor (and designer, but I am not getting credit for that) cutting/designing FURIOUSLY on things that the director did not want in the first place. I have very little creative direction or supervision at all. It is VERY gratifying when I pull off something that no one expected, but for the most part, it is a HUGE waste of energy.

So the question is, how can I get the client (or ANYONE) to actually tell me what they want, creatively, BEFORE I spend a week cutting? Because most of the stuff they REALLY wanted was never talked about. All the pre-production talk was about money and nothing else.

Am I crazy? or do I just expecting too much from this stratosphere of the film world?

2 Answers 2


Its a little hard to say without knowing how experienced you are: "cutting/designing FURIOUSLY on things that the director did not want in the first place" - are you sure it isn't your priorities that are wasting time? I only ask as I have met people who talk about all the abstract design they love & want to do, but when I ask them about cutting basic stuff (eg ambiences with correct perspective cutting, cutting basic FX for M&E coverage, cutting vehicle effects etc) they aren't very interested.

You can effectively divide the required material for a film soundtrack into either real or subjective. Real sounds are the essential 'real' coverage - every scene needs ambiences, real sound effects, doors, vehicles etc... The only ways to go wrong with them is due to taste, lack of experience, limited resources etc. Does the door sound effect you just cut seem real & normal? Fine, move on...

Subjective is more interpretive, and if you do not have any clear direction (from the director) whatsoever then unless your taste & the directors intentions are magically the same, then it is likely you will waste your time. When time & budget are scarce this is not the best way to work, and you need to have direction ie be briefed, even if its only a ten minute phone conversation or an email of timecoded questions.

One aspect to consider, and I have struck this before, the senior person at the company may be the one who wants to retain the primary relationship with the director. They may not want you contacting the director discussing things without them in the loop. If they dont have time to sit in on a spotting session, or to be contacting the director, then make a short list of what you NEED to know, with timecode & scene #s, and send it to your supervisor. Ask them if either you can send it to the director or can they send it. If they want to retain control they will send it, if not & you can send it directly (& cc them) then you have a direct line of communication.

Randy Thom said it once & it is incredibly good advice: (i'm not quoting verbatim) it is cheap to experiment at the start of a project, and it gets more expensive as deadlines approach. So if you are going to go down blind alleys etc, better to do it at the start, & show a rough mix (even just for a scene or moment) to the director & get their feedback, than to do what you describe of putting lots of work into something they don't want.

Also remember: low budget films are often made by first timer directors. They may not know what they want until they hear it. They may not have the language or experience to describe it. But they will know it when they hear it - even hearing the wrong thing can make them clarify what they think the right thing is. Directors like to direct. Give them something to direct! & early!

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    Can't really say anything to be on par with or top what's already been said Tim. Great answer, I agree! Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 3:36
  • @timprebble , you are the man! Thank for taking the time to give such a detailed and informative answer. As to my experience level, 5 years as an editor(DX, FX, Foley) with an Emmy nom under my belt and Sound Design aspirations. I am a permanent freelancer at the studio that I interned for. My basic workflow has been to power through the film and cut a full 5.1 capable set of BGs, take notes of anything that needs work in FX and Foley-type sounds (there often is not a foley artist so I cut & sample what I can. Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 12:31
  • @timprebble I am often cutting full BGs, FX and Foley-types in 5 days or less so it is already pretty tight. Yes, they are insulating me from the Director and I get why it is done that way. But I am constantly getting emails at midnight asking for this to be re-done immediately, while I am already onto the next project. Just looking for a way to alleviate that un-needed chaos. I will definitely be sending out a list of Directional needs ASAP and see if that helps. Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 12:45
  • Thanks, that gives a bit more context with what you're dealing with (wow!) - I guess the only other advice is to provide options (muted) eg split across stems/sets of tracks so approach A is your preferred, but if they want it more aggressive or unaggressive then they can unmute approach B
    – user49
    Commented Feb 23, 2014 at 5:16

I suggest a spotting session with the client before you cut anything. Sit down and go through the material with pen and paper in hand. Other than that, clients really do change their mind a lot.

Having no supervising sound editor is not unusual in low budget features. But in your case if the bureaucracy is keeping you from getting in touch directly with the client in the absence (or lack of presence thereof) of the supervisor, then there may be some structural problems in the way your studio does business.

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