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Of course every project and every client is different, but I'd like to know what tools/techniques people use when spotting projects with clients?

As a general definition here, lets define spotting as watching down a video or film project with the client/director/producer and taking time-specific audio notes because the director will then leave you to do your work.

Here's how I usually do it:

For all shorter video projects and some films I'm driving the session, which means I can start and stop playback as and ask questions if I need to. I try to keep the pace brisk though, as directors can devolve into long creative rabbit holes about their visions if you let them. Mostly I'm looking for specific facts that relate to the story (does that truck keep idling there or would she have turned it off?) type things. At the end though, I should have a solid feel of overall tone that the director is looking for.

In this situation I tend to just throw down protools markers directly into a session, and write my notes directly into the markers. After the spotting session I'll transfer those into region groups for export into other work sessions or into edicue, or if the project is smaller in scale I'll just work off of the markers.

For films I'll use the transfer process to work up a general list of things that I know I need to get out and record to get the project done the right way, and I often transfer that list to my iphone as a spreadsheet or just a raw email.

Our most recent film was spotted a little differently though, and this is where I'd like your input - if you don't have playback control and you're in a dark room, how do you take notes? For this film we played it down without stopping, and I took notes on a notepad while sitting next to the director. I was still able to ask her all of the questions that I needed answered, but when the lights came back up I felt fortunate to be able to read my few pages of blind handwriting and timecode notes.

In the end I felt the film was spotted about as thoroughly as it would have been otherwise. The process was more efficient but also a little more stressful, though not any more labor intensive (since I transfer my notes either way)

So when you spot, how do you do it? What do you think you could do better?

thanks! -Rene

  • Interesting post! A little off-topic but while it's in my head I need to ask; how do you transfer markers into region groups and whats the benefit in doing so? Cheers:) – Andy Lewis Dec 17 '10 at 23:10
  • i xfer manually and do it for a few reasons: 1)to imprint the notes in my memory and flesh them out 2)region groups are searchable and xferabble in pt 3)region groups are exportable to pdfs in edicue 4)region groups can be broken into depts and exported seperately eg foley, sound design, loop group, etc – Rene Dec 18 '10 at 16:01
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I think the first viewing is critical, as it is the only screening where you can truly be an audience member. So it should be about having honest reactions & solely watching the film, not distracted by any need to stop & discuss or take notes or answer emails or ichat or anything (and there is no need for the director to attend that screening) That first screening is a reference for your instincts for the rest of the entire process.

We then have a specific spotting screening - usually one for me (with the FX editor & Foley editor) and a seperate one for the dialogue supervisor & his editors... For a 90 minute film it would take 2-3 hours to spot...

Depending on the situation I write notes on paper and/or drop markers - in many ways writing notes is less obtrusive & disrupts the flow less, as you can write notes while picture plays... Eventually all notes end up as markers & are conformed as the picture cut changes - I use the markers description field to tag specific things eg that need to be recorded, or to discuss w dialogue or composer etc

On a number of films recently we haven't had the spot session until a few weeks into editorial (due to schedule issues etc) and I quite like it as an approach, as some questions/issues become apparent and/or are solved once you actually start work on it, and it sometimes means the spot session is more focused on deeper meaning rather than things which are more obvious, and chances are I've already tagged many of the aspects for discussion. It also means there are first versions of some FX to actually listen to at the same time, which is valuable. Spotting is about intent whereas its great to initiate the feedback & evolution process as soon as possible.... This process happens even earlier when supplying temp FX to editorial, in which case I tend to get given a cut on a scene by scene basis & follow my instincts & then get feedback for the next picture edit revision. It of course varies project to project, and on both the experience & preferred approach of each director...

  • thx tim! Agree completely about the first screening - though we usually do our initial watch through as part of the bidding process (its rare for us to be brought in earlier, which is a shame). During the first screening I don't take any physical notes, I'm just getting a grip how well the location sound was done, how much foley is needed, how much special sound design, etc. As for spotting, I think I'm liking the paper note taking process even more in retrospect. – Rene Jan 14 '11 at 13:30
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Whenever i do spots (and playthroughs), we watch through once, uninterrupted (and i encourage note taking), then go through and stop wherever we need to talk about something. I can see this not being very time efficient on longform projects, but it works great on shorts. I guess on features, everyone's already watched through for initial impressions and has brought some ideas with them. It is nice to have it fresh in your head, though.

I find that stopping and starting can upset the flow of the film and skew your perception. In the past, my opinions on certain points that i've noted down while stopping and starting, have sometimes completely changed upon watching through continuously.

Also, i am a fan of scribbling in the dark. I can do it without thinking, and can decode about 99% of what i've scrawled. If you write something down, it consolidates it in your memory, so i'll usually remember what i was thinking anyway.

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I agree with Tim, the first and second screenings are unique. Don't let your technical and practical hunger interfere in this situation; be as innocent and pure audience member as you can. Of course this is not as easy, but try to focus on the characters and their story. If there are no typical characters, as in documentaries or advertisements, try to get the feel and the rhythm of the audiovisual.

Fred Karlin, in his amazing "On the track: a guide to contemporary film scoring", dedicates a hole chapter about this. He focuses on music, but I think many of his ideas apply to sound design as well, at least from my personal and professional experience. As he had a terrific sense of narration, I transcript here some excerpts [page 17]:

"Remember that the composer [sound designer for us] is often the first person outside the production staff to see the film; consequently the producer, director and editor will be interested in how successful they have been in delivering their emotional message".

"What should you look for during this first screening? As an overriding principle, ignore the details and concentrate on the film's effectiveness and emotional impact [...] It is crucial or the composer to notice how he feels the first and second time he sees the film".

"Monitor your reactions to remember them, but with as much objectivity as possible so you don't lose emotional contact with the film. Look for mood, feeling, texture, and the overall nature of the film and its emotional impact".

"Things to avoid include spotting the film, making too many mental notes regarding technical matters, and intellectualizing. These distractions will interfere with your initial emotional response to the film".

I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in serious film scoring AND sound design. It's not a cheap book, but a really well worth reading.

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