Cognitive - Sound for Moving Pictures

Cognitive Dissonance in film production… The danger of undervaluing sound and why some Producers shoot themselves in the foot.

In his 2015 best-selling book ‘Black Box Thinking’, author Matthew Syed made a comparison between aviation and healthcare; and the way in which these two safety-critical industries learned lessons from examining causes of failure in life-threatening situations. What Syed revealed about each sector’s failure rate was not necessarily news in itself – after all, we all know that modern aircraft still crash from time-to-time, even with skilled and experienced pilots at the controls; and tragically, patients still die unexpectedly, even under the care of highly-trained doctors and surgeons, in well-equipped hospitals.

What Syed did shine a light on however, was the remarkable difference in cultures that accompanied the subsequent investigations into catastrophic failure.

We’re familiar for instance with the concept of every commercial aircraft carrying a ‘black box’ recorder (albeit that there are actually two and that they are painted Day-Glo orange) so that in the event of an accident, these virtually indestructible units may be interrogated to reveal not only recordings of voice signals and cockpit sounds, but also the data sent to and from the aircraft’s operating system. All of which facilitates a forensic opportunity for crash investigators to examine available evidence, establish likely causes and identify inadequate procedures that may be changed, so that such errors can never be repeated.

It’s a ruthlessly thorough and transparent process that has served aviation well: Syed tells us of a 25% fatality rate in US military pilots in 1912; a time when eight out of every fourteen pilots died in a crash. Flying through the sky was – and remains – an inherently dangerous occupation. But by 2013, more than 3 billion passengers had made well over 36 million flights and today, the jet-accident rate has fallen to a ratio of around 0.12. In round terms, that’s one human fatality for every 8.3 million take-offs. That huge reduction has clearly been driven by the aerospace sector being open to ‘learning its lessons’. (Syed, 2013)

Meanwhile, despite considerable advances in medical science, Syed reports that Harvard University Professor Lucien Leape estimates that a million patients a year in the US are needlessly injured whilst in hospital; with 120,000 of these patients dying accidentally, whilst under medical supervision. These figures, alarming as they are, may be underestimates though; Syed goes on to describe how in 2014, Peter J. Pronovost MD, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Medicine, appeared before a Senate committee and suggested that premature deaths associated with preventable harm amounted to 400,000 per year in America – the equivalent of two Jumbo jets a day, every day, falling from the sky and killing all on board. (Ibid.)

It’s no plot-spoiler to reveal that in his book, Syed goes on to brilliantly illustrate how the discrepancy in safety performance between two sets of people intrinsically committed to safeguarding human life, is down to a considerable difference in their respective professional, institutional and cultural approaches to accountability. Whilst pilots are considered fallible, doctors and surgeons enjoy a higher esteem amongst the general population; as well as amongst their peers and the administrators who may well be called upon to judge the action of a colleague.

As Syed succinctly puts it –

‘When our professionalism is threatened, we are liable to put up our defences. We don’t want to think of ourselves as incompetent or inept. We don’t want our credibility to be undermined in the eyes of our colleagues.’ (Syed, p.64)

For those professionals who have reached a senior position after years of training, admitting to serious mistakes of judgement can be hugely traumatic. Yet even this does not fully explain why it is that avoidable mistakes happen again and again and again in medicine. Why is it that even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, experienced professionals hold fast to a point of view, or take a stance, that to others simply defies logic?

Way back in 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger coined a phrase for this phenomenon: he called it ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ and Syed not only proposes that this is at work, but also describes the inner tension that is felt when professional or personal beliefs are challenged by evidence –

‘[…] When we mess up, particularly on big issues, our self-esteem is threatened. In these circumstances we have two choices.’ (Syed, p.81)

He goes on to explain that the first choice is to accept that our original judgement may have been at fault, which is personally threatening; this requires us to admit that we were not as smart as we thought we were. Which is professionally challenging. The second choice is to deny the facts –

‘We reframe the evidence. We filter it, we spin it, or ignore it altogether. That way, we can carry on under the comforting assumption that we were right all along. We are bang on the money! We didn’t get duped!’ (Ibid.)

Now far be it from me as a sound professional to suggest that film production is more important than life or death (to mischievously quote legendary football manager Bill Shankly when asked the same of his beloved game, ‘I can assure you it’s much, much more important than that’) but with a working lifetime’s experience in film and television production and post-production, I’ve come to realise that Cognitive Dissonance – and its disastrous consequences for those inadvertently caught up in its effects – is not just the preserve of medical clinicians. It is also widespread in the film and television industry; particularly when it concerns the allocation of resources for the capturing and crafting of 50% of any film: the soundtrack.

In 2014, I was offered the position of Supervising Sound Editor (the person in charge of every element of a film’s soundtrack, from editing to mixing, after it has been recorded on location) on a theatrical release, low budget feature film that was part-funded by private investors and part-funded by one the UK’s major screen industry boards. (Films are categorised on their production budget, with BECTU – the film and television technicians union – classifying a ‘micro’ budget film as being anything made for below £1 million; a film costing between £1 million and £5 million to make is called ‘low’ budget; a ‘medium’ budget is £5 million to £15 million; ‘high’ budget is set at £15 million to £30 million; and a ‘premium’ budget film is planned to cost over £30 million to make).

The film in question’s script read well and although I felt that the audio post-production budget was tight rather than comfortable, with a fair wind it was just about do-able; and so I said ‘yes’, but with one nagging ‘what-if’ doubt rolling round and around in my head: the budget allocated for recording location sound was implausibly low. I’d also been offered the position of Production Sound Mixer (a.k.a. the location sound recordist, the person responsible for heading the team that captures the on-set dialogue) on the film, but I reluctantly had to turn this role down when the Producer and I couldn’t get our respective numbers anywhere near close; and with a concerned warning to the Producer that anyone prepared to work as the location recordist for such an unreasonably low fee, compounded by unfeasibly cheap equipment hire rates, was unlikely to be someone who had the level of proficiency or experience that feature film sound recording requires.

It gave me absolutely no pleasure to be proven right regarding the quality of the location sound. The first Recordist was sacked after two days, the second was kept but was equally inept, over the remaining weeks. After filming, it became apparent in audio-post that there was no option but to re-record every single line of dialogue spoken in the film; a process called Automatic Dialogue Replacement (‘ADR’, or ‘dubbing’. This is when an actor watches themselves in the film and repeats their lines in time with their on-screen performance, scene by scene.) Now this is fine if you’ve planned and budgeted for this approach, as some Hollywood movies do. But it’s disastrous if you have no contingency; because it takes a good deal of time and money to complete a painstaking, emergency rebuild of the soundtrack, one artist at a time, line-by-line, in a sterile voice booth.

The storyline was a coming-of-age romance, yet the two sweethearts ended-up never being in the same room to speak their lines of love to each other. As for any lofty ideal of re-capturing the ‘artistic truth’ of their beautiful, original performances, this was without doubt lost as the actors worked hard to re-voice and breathe life into the on-screen mime artists.

It took an extra ten months for the film to be released, mainly due to the actors not being readily available for ADR, but also for the extra time required to rebuild the dialogue; yet it was also delayed by the bitter wranglings and withholding of stage-payments by stakeholders, who weren’t confident that the effectively mute footage would ever become a viable film.

Artistic integrity aside, other collateral damage included me re-recording the film’s entire dialogue track for no extra post-production fee – the Producer’s ‘get out of jail card’ being a contractual catch-all clause that I had naively glossed over; the one saying that audio post-production would also include any required ADR. It was a cost to me that was double what I was eventually paid. (However, I now read contracts and any accompanying codicils and appendices more hungrily and thoroughly than an ambitious, litigious lawyer.)

Fortuitously, the film turned out better than it was reasonable to expect given its troubled birth; and when it eventually made a public appearance and became somewhat of a minor triumph, the Producer felt totally exonerated. Indeed, after the premiere, there was neither relief nor thanks expressed; instead, a whiff of arrogance hung in the air that symbolised: ‘We were right all along. We were bang on the money! We didn’t get duped!’

If from time to time, in the wee small hours, that Producer ever does look back and reflect on their own performance on this film, I hope that they realise what a ‘near-miss’ they survived, caused fairly and squarely by them undervaluing sound; and I also hope that they remember for future projects what the implications were and are for any independent filmmaker who bears the financial risk of failure.

Many distribution deals are structured so that the advances for a film are paid only after delivery, inspection and acceptance of the master materials; and these distribution deals naturally weigh heavily in favour of the distributor. In this model, the distributor is exposed to no financial risk whatsoever – by the completion stage of a production, the distributor knows precisely what they are getting and whether it’s worth paying anything for. So when a film doesn’t meet the stringent requirements of a commercial distributor, the advances that would normally be used by the Producer to pay outstanding production expenses, any accrued debts or to repay investors, fail to appear. And it follows fairly obviously, that this can be disastrous for any filmmaker. (Litwak, 2013)

My work as a consultant to Producers and production companies begins in pre-Production (or ideally, some time before that) and amongst other things, it involves me establishing realistic, below-the-line budgets for production and post-production sound and ensuring that my recommendations equate to the best possible ‘bang for your buck’. Which means not only taking care of maximising the return on investment in the two sound departments, but also safeguarding audio quality as well.

For instance, when discussing production (location) sound I start with some simple messages, such as:

Recording good location sound is not simple and it’s not easy.

Good sound recordists sweat the small stuff – and it’s all small stuff when you’re working to capture the vocal subtleties and nuances of a perfect on-set performance from the actors.

Good sound requires meticulous planning to avoid abject audio failures, but the good news is failure can be avoided.

Whilst you can’t cheat the laws of audio propagation, or the physics of acoustics, a skilled professional knows what type of microphone to use – and the optimum position to place it in – for any situation, and for any shot size.

With regard to sound crew sizes, one person working alone as a recordist cannot possibly hope to cover dialogue scenes when it clearly requires two boom operators and a recordist.

Allowing for the use of boom microphones will also give you three times, maybe even more, usable sound than reliance on radio microphones will.

Never, ever, budget for paying less than the union rate for a sound grade.

My Consultancy work also includes the post-production process. This is the stage where amongst other things, those audio raw materials from location, the diamonds of dialogue, are cut, polished and set in place amongst the richness of a full and enveloping soundtrack.

As a rule of thumb, in any initial discussions with a Producer, I suggest that it’s not a bad starting point to consider allocating 10% of the film’s production budget to cover the total costs of sound, for both production and post-production; and that this ball-park figure should cover most things such as crew fees and vehicle costs, kit rental, editor’s and mixer’s salaries and studio hire. Remember, that 10% of the budget will deliver 50% of the finished product. When it’s done properly, sound is the most impressive return on investment achievable on a feature film.

That 10% is merely a starting point though; because from this, working with a cooperative Producer and Line Producer, it’s then possible to carefully mould, shape, prune and arrive at a meaningful budget that truly suits an individual production; because each film has subtly different requirements. It’s a formula and arrangement that has worked well for many of my client’s films, and I refer to this as our ‘collaborative cash-accounting’ stage. But whilst it’s a crucial ‘pre-flight check’ that covers all eventualities, not every Producer wants to be open or collaborate on their budget; nor have their sound departments organised in this way.

Here’s such an example: with a heavy heart (but with complete peace of mind), I’ve recently had to walk away from a project that has the best script I’ve seen in years. From a sound point of view, it’s a gift from the film gods; it’s challenging, it will be extensive, and it will definitely be exciting. Honestly, it’s a cracker. But then that troublesome Cognitive Dissonance appears again…

For more than two months over the summer, e-mails went back and forth as I tried to open a meaningful conversation about budgets for production and post-production sound with the film’s Producer. Now, if I tell you that it’s a £1.2 million budget film with the money raised from private investors, you’re ahead of me on the starting point for the sound budget; it’s 10%, right?

Well here’s the thing. I make that starting point to be £120,000 overall, yet the Producer insists that they will only allow £9,000 for audio post-production; and my sending detailed explanations, and line-by-line breakdowns of the required costs for sound, failed to make any impression. Our last contact came in a punchy e-mail to me that simply said:

‘I’m afraid I really need to stick to my figures. If you don’t think these are achievable for you then please do let me know – I shall totally understand.’

But I’m pretty sure that they don’t understand; just as I’m pretty sure we won’t hear the Producer exclaim: ‘I was right all along. I was bang on the money! I didn’t get duped!’ anytime soon.

Having been shown the door (I can take a hint) and knowing that I’ve already shared more with the Producer than perhaps it was commercially prudent to, all I can do now is wish them well. I’ve been here before, you see; and on this showing, I think they’re going to need all the luck in the world to get this film over the finishing line.

The references for this article are:

‘Black Box Thinking – Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance: The Surprising Truth About Success’ by Matthew Syed (2013)

‘Distribution and the Indie Filmmaker’ by Mark Litwak (2013) at https://www.marklitwak.com/distribution-and-the-indie-filmmaker.html

Rates – BECTU (2019): https://www.bectu.org.uk/advice-resources/rates and https://www.bectu.org.uk/advice-resources/library/2452

© Dr. Neil Hillman.

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