Interview with Cinematographer Tristan Oliver (Isle of Dogs, ParaNorman, Fantastic Mr. Fox)

It was a true honor interviewing the extremely talented Director of Photographer Tristan Oliver. Every single film he’s worked on has turned out great. And there’s not many people you can say that statement about! If you don’t believe, simply go to his website and watch some of the short films he’s worked on and see his list of feature credits: https://www.tristanoliver.co.uk/

Matthew Toffolo: Where were you born and raised? Was cinematography something you always wanted to do as your career?

Tristan Oliver: I was born and raised in Gravesend in Kent. An unlovely and somewhat godforsaken town on the Thames estuary.

I knew nothing about films or photography as a child. My main passion was the theatre. I wanted to act (or be a doctor or something) My first real contact with the camera dept came when I was acting in a movie. It was something of a Damascene moment and I really threw myself into trying to get into that environment immediately afterwards. I didn’t even own a stills camera when that movie started!

What has been your most proudest work of your career? Or, what has been your favorite project to date?

In terms of feature films I would say ParaNorman. I had a fantastic time at Laika for two years and a very close, creative and rewarding relationship with the directors of that movie. I’m exceptionally proud of how it looks (even if no-one has seen it.)

Can you explain to us what an Animation Director of Photography does?

There is really no difference in being a DOP for stop frame or live action. The ultimate aim is to create something beautiful for the camera. To light and frame according to what you consider to be visually special. I wouldn’t want to make concessions to the medium of animation. That is by the by.

In practical terms, there are a few differences. We typically run a 50+ unit shooting environment which is an enormous amount of stuff to keep tabs on. That’s 50 sets, 50 cameras all running together. I need to ensure continuity and quality of look across that huge mess of stuff.

Other than that the main difference is working into the macro end of the lenses which can severely compromise the depth of field. We tend to work at very tight stops (16, 22) to compensate for this.

You just finished working on ISLE OF DOGS. Can you give us a sneak peak of what do expect?

Unique. Many of his tropes will be familiar to audiences. The flat lighting. The highly symmetrical framing. The art direction and propping. This particular movie is very busy and visually complicated. Compared with Fantastic Mr Fox for example it is really intense viewing. There’s an awful lot going on up there!

Is there a type of film/TV show that you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

I’d love to get my teeth into some American TV drama. The quality of work coming out of the States is astonishing. There’s so much of it and it’s nearly all really good. Well written, well plotted and edited. Everything.

In terms of movies, more live action please. I need a rest from the puppets!

What are you generally looking for in a director in order for you to do your job as best as possible?

All directors are different and as such, what they require from the DOP varies. Wes wants me to exactly put up on the screen what he has in his head. It is totally his vision so my role is very much reactive. With some other directors there is more of a creative collaboration, the role is proactive if you will. Neither is necessarily better than the other as long as you trust the director to bring the movie in.

What do you think a producer/director is looking for when they bring on you to DP the film?

I’d like to think that I’m the best at what I do. I have a huge amount of experience. I’m very professional and I bring on the best, most user friendly crews but essentially what a director needs is someone they can trust.

What is your passion in life besides cinematography and film?

So many. My daughters, my partner, beautiful Swiss wristwatches, restoring my 17th century house, good food, good wine , good company.

What movie have you watched the most times in your life (besides the ones you worked on?

There are lots but probably Kind Hearts and Coronets, the first Matrix and Ferris Beuler’s Day Off. That’s just for fun. In terms of cinematography, I think Conrad Hall was a genius and I can watch Road To Perdition any day of the week.

What advice do you have for young cinematographers who would eventually like to DP movies for a living one day?

Keep learning. Watch movies, read about movies. Who do you like? Why? Think about how stuff has been made. Don’t rely on your innate talent but keep building your technical knowledge, the two together will be very useful to you. And never ever send out a CV for a camera trainee position with your name followed by the letters DOP. It goes in the bin.

tristan olivier 2
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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every single month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 3 times a month. Go to http://www.wildsoundfestival.com for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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Interview with Supervising Sound Editor Donald Sylvester (Logan, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma)

Donald Sylvester has worked on over 100 films in the last 25 years and is considered one of the top people working in the craft of Post-Production Sound today. I asked him a few simple questions via email and he countered with some really insightful and meaningful answers. Enjoy it:

Where were you born and raised? When was working in the film industry start to become a career pursuit for you?

I grew up in the Garden State of New Jersey, where all my core principles were established. My father moved us to Atlanta when I was 11, and it was a wonderful experience during that period – both for Atlanta and for me. It was an unprecedented period of great growth for the city and the awakening of a progressive South – and growth for me personally as well. I dabbled in a lot of stuff, but always gravitated toward music. Frankly the film business didn’t come calling for me until a long, long time later after I moved to California. I reached some level of success before I realized that the music business was a bad idea. My wife, who was a film editor, suggested that motion pictures and I would be a good fit. My skills and instincts fit right in. She was right.

What has been your most proudest work of your career? Or, what has been your favorite project?

For a lot of my years I worked on other people’s films as a sound editor. I learned a lot and loved the people and the work, but I never really thought of those projects as “mine.” I didn’t start supervising in earnest until 2001. I could write a book about each one of those shows (and maybe one day I will!). I did two “Garfields” which were not great movies but working with Bill Murray was really unforgettable. And I supervised and mixed “The Fault In Our Stars,” and that was a wonderful and meaningful experience.

But the film I like the best is “310 to Yuma,” and I like it for so many reasons. I like it primarily because it’s a Western and it’s got guns and horses and spurs and all that good stuff that Westerns must have, but also because it is the kind of movie where every single sound is totally plot- or character driven. As simple as that may sound, it resulted in a very satisfying experience. Plus, it’s a good movie.

In your words, what exactly does a Supervising Sound Editor do?

A director once told me that he really wanted to do everything on his film himself, but now, as a director, he was only allowed to tell everybody else what to do. I’m very sympathetic to that and I try to help the director achieve his goals. I try to get to know him and what he needs and understand the vision of his film. Simply put, I see myself as the sound extension of the director. I make sure he hears what he wants to hear, communicates the story he wants to tell, as well as faithfully executing the sonic challenges he wants to express.

I often like to imagine I’m the creative force behind the soundtrack of these films, but honestly I am only a trussed-up worker-bee, taking directions and challenging myself to deliver something I think is perhaps better than what was requested, as well as hitting the target set forth by the director precisely on the head. There’s also a lot of management duties and schedule-making, but I seldom write about that.

Give us a breakdown of a big budget film like LOGAN. How many people are
working in the sound department in post-production? How long do you and your team have to complete your end of the film? Do you generally work with the same
team?

I am fortunate to work a lot at Fox, where we’ve established an enlightened work flow for me. Our method seems to get results and head off post sound problems as well. I start early on the show during principle photography and as the scenes are cut together by the picture editors, I fancy them up with sound effects and cleaned-up dialogue. Later, when the post editorial is in full swing, I’ll expand my crew to include dialogue editors and sound effects editors. A film like Logan had a healthy budget but didn’t have a long post schedule, so we were asked to work weekends and long hours. In the end, I had two sound designers, two sound effects editors, two foley editors, and four dialogue and ADR editors, not to mention two assistants. This is actually a small crew to bring this kind of film to the mix stage. Much of the work gets finessed at the mix, which is the battlefield trenches for getting all the ideas to gel and finished in time. There’s always a big chunk of the budget for looping, which can be extensive, as well as temp mixing and audience previews. Yes, I like to work with the same people whenever I can, but schedules often don’t permit that luxury.

Is there a type of project that you like to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

As I’ve worked on more and more films over the years, my goals have changed. There was a time I thought I’d like to do a big science fiction thriller, but I’ve actually learned that genres alone don’t make the most satisfying films. What tickles my fancy are films rich on character development with some insight into the human condition. Now, no one goes out and says, “I’m gonna make the greatest human condition film this town’s ever seen!” But if they’re relying on car chases or space battles and they’ve neglected depth of character, then I’m not gonna get too excited about it no matter how “special” the special effects are.

To be honest, I wouldn’t mind doing a war movie (mostly WWII for my taste) or even a musical. But musicals don’t spend any time on sound effects, so let’s scratch that one off the list and just say WWII. With characters!

What is your passion in life besides sound?

Sound is my passion, but if you take sound away there’s my great interest in music – but that’s sound too. I’ve often imagined going back into radio (I ran the college radio station WUOG in Athens, Georgia during my college years) but I would only do that if I could DJ a radio show that would blend music and sounds into a cohesive story – but that’s what I do now. So, what I probably like after all that is to travel, because over the years I’ve really enjoyed travelling and recording sounds and sound effects in interesting and distant locations. But … that’s sound again.

What movie have you watched the most times in your life?

I assume you mean what movie have I voluntarily watched most often that I haven’t worked on? Because when you work on a film you actually watch it hundreds of times until you memorize every frame of it. And that concept prevents me from watching most movies more than once or twice. However, my favorite movie would have to be “Withnail and I,” which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but ticks all the boxes for me.

What advice do you have for people who would like to do what you do for a living one day?

I would suggest that if you want to get into theatrical movie sound then you should make sure you’re ready for the long hours and hard work, and then you should find people who are currently making films (or shorts or TV shows or documentaries) and offer to work for them for FREE. Just get your foot in the door and do anything and everything you can to get familiar with the process and begin to focus on the area where you want to work. And one day (if you still like it and it likes you back), somebody will say, “Hey, you should be getting paid for this stuff.” Then you’re on your way.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every single month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 3 times a month. Go to http://www.wildsoundfestival.com for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Composer Alexei Aigui (The Young Karl Marx, I am Not Your Negro)

Alexei Aigui.jpgIt was an honor chatting with the multi-talented musician and film composer Alexei Aigui and chat about his one and only passion in life: music!

Listen to his music on Soundcloud

Matthew Toffolo: Where were you born and raised? Was music something you always wanted to do as your career?

Alexei Aigui: I was born and raised in Moscow, as they say, in an artistic family. My father was a poet, and was representing the so-called unofficial art – meaning he was under control of the Soviet authorities, and his works couldn’t be published, so our life wasn’t exactly an easy ride. When I was six, mum took me to an ordinary music school near our place, to play violin. Learning to play the piano was more prestigious and cost about 15 times more, so we didn’t really have a choice in the matter. God bless, accordion didn’t cost less than violin. I don’t remember if I wanted to study music, I think I didn’t even ask myself that question – it just happened. So I studied there until I was about 15, not reflecting a lot on why I needed it. However, in my teenage years, I became a rock music fan – Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, then quite quickly became interested in more complicated stuff like King Crimson, Frank Zappa, etc. Maybe then, through rock music, I decided to become a musician, form my own band. Or maybe it was already late to think about doing something else, after all the years of exercise? Through avant-garde rock, having played in my first bands and already starting to study professionally at the conservatory, I became interested in academic avant-garde – [Anton] Webern, [Gyorgy] Ligeti, [Pierre] Boulez, [Karlheinz] Stockhausen, [Igor] Stravinsky, [Sergey] Prokofiev.

Afterwards, I took to improvisational music and minimalism. In 1994, I set up Ensemble 4’33’’ in Moscow, and we performed pieces by John Cage, Earle Brown, La Monte Young, and others in that spirit. Gradually, mainly due to the fact that there wasn’t enough sheet music available [in Russia], I started to compose music, and turned out one’s own pieces were nicer and easier to play than others’. That’s how I became a composer. The band has existed for 24 years, we play 30 concerts a year, have released a lot of CDs, the band is my foundation for film work, with either the entire band taking part in soundtrack recording, or some of the Ensemble 4’33’’ members.

What has been your most proudest work of your career?

I’m proud of many works, when it comes to non-film-related music – the cantata ‘Salut to Singing’ to my father’s poems, almost everything I do with Ensemble 4’33’’. Of course, cinema works: my very first OST, for ‘Country of the Deaf’ by Valery Todorovsky, and for ‘Wild Field’ by Mikhail Kalatozishvili, ‘The Horde’ by Andrey Proshkin. Of my latest collaborations outside of Russia — ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ and ‘The Young Karl Marx’ by Raoul Peck.

Tell us about your working relationship with director Raoul Peck on “The Young Karl Marx”?

The work took quite a long time, the film was in all stages of production for almost 10 years, with the shooting taking part in 2 or 3 countries. The company’s office was in France, editing took place in Belgium, and mix in Germany. Raoul wanted the music to be, on the one hand, relevant to the demands of period drama, orchestral and melodic, on the other hand, to feel ‘uncomfortable’ and edgy. The first draft of music was far from what you hear in the film, there were a lot of corrections. There were some temporary tracks in the first cut, the scene of police chasing Marx had a Haitian folk piece that, surprisingly enough, worked very well, it wasn’t easy for me to compose new music for that bit, in ‘Irish style’. Raoul, along with the film’s editor Frederique Broos, came to Moscow for the orchestra recording, and made a few corrections during the recording itself. Our following project, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, was recorded without him, because Raoul was working on the final mix of ‘Marx’ in Germany. For ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, we recorded completely different music, with my band – we recorded a few semi-improvisational takes, and Raoul chose the most suitable.

What are you generally looking for in a director in terms of guidance and tone for your music?

When I was starting to work in Russian cinema, almost no one used references (temporary tracks), and you were, so to say, on your own. Director was only able to use words while describing what he wanted in terms of music, which isn’t always translatable from the director’s language to, well, human. These days the use of references is quasi-total. It makes the composer’s job easier and quicker, but also sets up some borders and limits the composer in his or her work. I’ve seen all sorts of director-composer relations – from close friendship to composing music without knowing the director, and I believe that there should certainly be personal contact, a sort of mutual tuning is supposed to happen. Often, the editor plays an important role, offering his or her opinion.

What do you think a producer/director is looking for when they bring on their composer to score the film?

Often, when I see the result (not in the films, on which I had the chance to work), it seems to me that producers and directors wanted to save money. Perhaps the perfect option is to find the music that would create a unique sound for the picture, the music that would add a dimension to the film, another layer, and wouldn’t just underscore the tension or hint that we should feel sad. Music can be omnipotent, it’s like an undercurrent, sometimes we don’t even realize that it exists side-by-side with the action and tells the story, accentuating some points and adding depth to the movie.

What is your passion in life besides music?

I’m completely handicapped in that respect – only interested in music. Well, maybe also alcohol. I can’t even normally rest or travel – every time I’m at a bar and I see a stage, I go, ‘Why haven’t I played here before?’ and ask the owner is it’s possible to perform at their place.

Anyway, I’m not purely a film composer, concerts take a lot of time, and if I don’t perform for a few weeks, I get a bit crazy. I also used to paint when I was young, but now don’t have time to devote to that.

What movie have you watched the most times in your life?

Usually, I don’t want to re-watch the films that made the biggest impact on me, I kind of want that first impression to stay as it was. So it’s most likely that the films I saw most times are those you come across while watching TV, and just don’t turn off. I can’t say I’m a cinemaholic, I’m not too eager to see everything people talk about, and I skip many films. And this huge pile of ‘to-watch’ movies is growing. Thanks to my 13-year-old son, I finally saw all the Star Wars movies (never watched those before, sorry to say) and the Harry Potter series. We watched all the films in strict order, spending about a week on each series.

What advice do you have for young musicians who would eventually like to compose movies for a living?

Forget about it. Okay, if we’re being serious (although ‘forget about it’ is also me being serious), it’s best if you’re primarily a musician, and then a businessman. However, I’ve always wanted to earn my living with music. A lot of people try to become film or TV composers, having failed at performing their music on stage. This phenomenon stems from how easily available the music-making programs are. Certainly, new talents can emerge, but these programs standardize musicians, unique and interesting sound in cinema has become a rare sight, irony intended. Everybody tries to copy copies, and you wonder where the search for something new is? Last but not least, entering the tricky and rocky path of a musician, be ready to die homeless and poor, how did the best of us composers.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every single month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 3 times a month. Go to http://www.wildsoundfestival.com for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Editor Tod Modisett (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Bachelor)

crazy ex girlfriend.jpgIt was a privilege to chat with the talented editor Tod Modisett on the art of editing.

Matthew Toffolo: You have edited many television shows. Do you have a favorite experience?

Tod Modisett: The best experience is when you understand the show you’re working on. You get the director or the producer, and he or she gets you. Then interesting things can happen pretty quickly. Some editors can talk articulately when they’re working. I usually can’t.

Sometimes I mumble. It’s great when a director can hear me mumble something and he or she knows what I’m saying. It reminds me of how some dentists can understand you even when you have all kinds of crap in your mouth. Jeff Schaffer, the creator of “The League,” was like that. Once I mumbled something as I hit command-Z to put the edit back to what it was before I started messing with it and he said, “It’s okay. I know what you were going for.”

I have to ask about the “Bachelor” experience as there are tons of fans out there who want to know. What was the process like editing an episode together? Was the episode already written and you simply needed to piece together the story with the hours of footage you had? How much footage did you (or your assistant) have to go through?

I had to look this up on my calendar program. I stopped working on “The Bachelor” in December of 2008 and my last “Bachelorette” was July of 2009. So it’s been a while! Back when I was there, the story side of the show was run by Martin Hilton, who is certainly one of the smartest people I’ve met in Los Angeles. Martin always had a strong point of view about how the storylines should unfold, and he wouldn’t let the actual footage stand in the way. I learned a lot from him about how to shape the footage to achieve the desired result.

More importantly, he helped me realize that an editor needed to have a perspective when cutting a scene. There’s no point in being passive.

Martin started as an editor at Next Entertainment, so he empowered editors there to work the stories out themselves and pitch him their ideas. The story producers were there to help the editors find the interview bites the editors wanted. Not every reality company worked that way.

There was, of course, a lot of footage on those shows. But usually I didn’t watch everything. If something amazing happened in the house during a down period, a field producer would note it for us. You can’t watch every frame on that kind of schedule.

Did the TV show “Redneck Island” actually happen?

Yes! But I wasn’t on it for very long. I think I only cut one or two episodes. I don’t know why they put me down as having worked on all of them in IMDB. I left that show to cut
“Burning Love” for Ken Marino.

What is the biggest thing you’ve learned working as an assistant editor early in your career that helped you grow as an editor?

Every show ends. No matter how bad it gets, it’ll be over sooner than you realize.

What makes a great editor? What skills does he/she need?

First, you need all the stuff people talk about in seminars, like sensitivity to performance, a sense of pace, etc. A lot of editors I know are former musicians, so they feel rhythm and dynamics better than other people. But that’s only half the battle. You also should understand how you come across in a room and how you’re best able to work with other people. You need to know how you can personally convince others of your ideas without being overly combative. It’s different for everyone, because what works for one guy might not work for another. In the beginning, I was too much of a push-over. I’d say, well, it’s your show, do what you want to it. I’m just the editor. But what happens is, after a couple of years directors and producers have a way of forgetting what it was they insisted on in the cutting room, and they blame the editor if the show is bad. So now I try harder to push back if I think someone is making a real mistake. I don’t always prevail.

What is an editor looking for in their director? What is a director looking for in their editor?

Just to be on the same wave-length. With comedies, we have to think the same general stuff is funny, otherwise it just won’t work.

Is there a type of film or TV series that you would love to edit that you haven’t edited yet?

So many! I like a lot of stuff.

What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

Through no design or intention, I’ve probably watched “The Godfather,” “Alien” and “Blackhawk Down” the most. The first two are kind of obvious. I don’t know why I find “Blackhawk Down” so watchable, but I’ve seen it five or six times.

What suggestions would you have for people in high school and university who would like to get into the industry as an editor?

I don’t know those people. Most kids want to write and direct. Or act. Usually if they’re in high school and they’re talking about wanting to edit, it just means that they lack the confidence to say they want to direct, because very few teen-agers know what editing is all about. So my suggestion is, don’t say you want to be editor. Just go make short films of your own. Write them, shoot them and edit them. And see how you feel after doing all of that. Maybe during that process you’ll find you have a comparative advantage in one area.

Where did you grow up? Was working in the Film Industry something you always wanted to do?

I grew up in San Pedro, which is the harbor of Los Angeles. I lived with my Dad. Every Friday night, he would take me to pizza and then afterwards we’d go to the Wherehouse and he’d let me pick out a VHS movie to rent. I was maybe 12 or 13 then. He never looked at what I picked, so I got all kinds of inappropriate stuff. After watching Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver,” I thought, wow, that seems like a cool job; I’d like to do that.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 2 times a month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Sound Mixer Tony Dawe (Return of the Jedi, Alice in Wonderland, Troy)

tony_daweTony Dawe has definitely witnessed a lot of things on set working sound, working on over 120 productions in the last 40 years. It was an honor to interview him after the craft of sound mixing on set and preparing the post-production sound department.

Matthew Toffolo: How would you describe what a sound mixer does in one sentence?

Tony Dawe: I don’t think you can describe it in one sentence, as the job encompasses so many different variables. To get the best sound really starts with reading the script, and then going on the recces to look at all potential problems on set, background noises, can we do anything about it, where the sparks want to put their generators, are we under a flight path etc. Talk to the director to see if they have any special things they want done with the sound. Go and see the costume department and find out if there are any potential problems with the artists costumes, as every artist now has to wear a radio mic on films and TV. Inspect the sets when they are built, and with all the props in, to look for squeaky floors and other minefields. Liase with the DOP, to see what he is trying to achieve, and how we can work with him on set without interfering with his lighting. There are many other things I could mention!

OK, in one sentence: Get the best possible sound under any circumstances that will enable the audience to follow the plot without saying “What did he say?”

MT: Is there a difference in your job description when you work on a drama like “The Hours (2002)” in comparison to working on a genre action like “Indiana Jones” or “Alice in wonderland”?

TD: If you mean, do I work in exactly the same way on both types of production, the answer is yes. Weirdly though in TV, my job credit is Sound Recordist, and in Feature films it is Production Sound Mixer; however its still the same job. Do I feel there is more kudos working on a large film rather than a TV film just because of the job description, no I don’t.

MT: You’ve worked on many Tim Burton productions. How is your working experience with him. How is he different than other directors?

TD: I have worked with Tim since “Batman” in 1987. I love working with him as there is always a great creative atmosphere on set, and I have learned more about film making from him than any other director just by watching my monitor. For instance, watching how a shot develops through several takes until the timing and the acting and everything else comes together in that magic moment, and then the reaction from Tim when he knows that is the best take. Incidentally, with all the directors I have worked with, Tim is the one I talk to the least. I just don’t like to interrupt his creative processes by talking about trivial sound matters. We both trust each other completely job wise.

MT: You’ve been nominated for an Oscar in the “Best Sound” category 4 times. How has the Oscar experience been like? Were you surprised that you didn’t win?

TD: I was delighted to be nominated each time and someone has to win, but that doesn’t make the others into losers. Every year there a lot of amazing sound tracks that never even get mentioned in dispatches. Validation comes from within, and having honesty about your own work. You have to ask yourself if you did do a good job; the best you could in fact, if so, there is the validation.

MT: You were nominated for “Return of the Jedi”. What was that working experience like? How involved was George Lucas?

TD: George Lucas was very involved in the making of “Revenge of the Jedi”, and spent a lot of time on the sets. I got on very well with George, and we had many discussions about the use of computers in film making and where that was going to go. Looking back, of course he was absolutely right. He is a most incredible person and visionary and I really loved working with him.

However, working on “Revenge of the Jedi” (which was its original title), was very intense and not one of my favourite experiences.

MT: You’ve been working in the industry for 50 years on over 100+ productions. Is there a film or two that you’re most proud of?

TD: I’ve been a sound engineer for 58 years, starting at Abbey Road (before the Beatles!), and ABC television (405 line B&W!) before I even got to work in film in 1967 at Shepperton Studios sound department, so there are a lot of projects to think about.

There are two productions that I’m most proud about, the first is “The Sweeney” TV series in the seventies, where all of us on the crew were pioneers in using small lightweight 16mm cameras and the Nagra tape recorders for the first time in drama’s and making it work. The rule was, there would be no ADR, so the sound had to be usable all the time. I did not use any radio mics on that show, but I always had the final word on what we could do or not do as the sound department. That concentrated a few people’s minds on the set! I learned so much from that experience over the 53 episodes.

The second project was very similar, and was series 4-7 of “Inspector Morse” in the 1980’s. Again, although the company would budget for small amounts of ADR, it was expected that all sound would be usable, so I was very proud when they did use it all, and the sound received an award from Bafta.

I’m not overly proud of any of my feature film work, as all of the budgets included a large amount for ADR, (the money for which always has to be used), and most of the time they would prefer to ADR something instead of spending time doing another take. This does not apply to the wonderful Directors who fully understand the role of sound in film, and will always go again when asked by the sound department. As the blending of my recordings and other peoples is usually very good, who knows then what has been recorded by whom?

By the way, one of my most favourite films to work on was “Dean Spanley” (As a movie it is an underrated masterpiece, well worth finding the DVD and watching it).

MT: Is there a type of film you haven’t worked on yet that you would love to work on?

TD: Yes, I’ve never worked on a cowboy film (and never likely to in the UK!). Also I’ve only worked on one film that had war scenes in it, and I would like to do another one sometime.

MT: How has sound mixing changed from a technology and creative point of view from the year you started to today?

TD: It has changed absolutely, but mostly in the last 20 years. When I started in 1967, we were still using 35mm full coat magnetic film to record on at Shepperton studios. They did not even have a Nagra recorder to do sound effects on, only very large Leevers-Rich reel to reel recorders which were not portable. When I recorded my first film in 1969 as a sound mixer I used a Nagra 4 with a small Nagra mixer, and that worked well. Microphones were all Sennheiser 805’s, with no radio mics. This type of equipment continued well into the 1990’s, except I had added radio mics (to be used mostly for wide shots!) Then came DAT, and the early machines which were not reliable, and ran very hot (and I didn’t adopt until later). Eventually the DAT machines became as portable as the Nagra’s, and they worked very well, except on cold mornings when the rotating heads stuck to the tape and had to be warmed up with a hair dryer.

In the last 12 years or so, we have had hard drive recorders, which again improved immensely very quickly. I started with an 8 track recorder which proved to be rather quirky and difficult to use, and for 7 years I had a Deva 16 as my main recorder, which was very good, but I now have a Fusion10, and Fusion 12 which have no moving parts, except the mixing knobs on the front and work wonderfully well. I hope to acquire a Deva 24 in the future. Just think of that, 24 tracks in a machine not much bigger than a Nagra!

I adore digital recording immensely as it is so flexible and totally transparent. On my sound trolley I still have a wonderful Coopersound analog mixer at the front end which makes it sound a bit like a Nagra.

Editing sound with Pro Tools is a dream, and I wish it been around when I was editing sound at ABC TV in the sixties.

Some of the magic from the early days has gone however, such as being able to do impossible mixes with only one or two channels. Today we just record everything in the hope that there is enough there to satisfy the sound editor. I still use open boom mics for most things, with the radio mics there as a backup. Basically what I am saying is that there is now very little creativity left in my job. What I used to produce as a finished track that would find its way into a film or TV drama rarely happens any more, as the tracks are dismembered and remade in post production. I have been asked quite a few times how I mixed a particular editors track on a feature film, so that post could undo it and re-assemble the track. What is the point in that? Because what I do is so instinctive, that I can’t usually tell them.

As for the profusion of radio mics on set, don’t even get me started on that one. Most other people on the set think that it solves all the problems with sound that can arise, but in practice it gives many more problems than it solves, and sometimes it involves fiddling about with the actors and costumes, which they hate, and so do I. Unfortunately we are not in control any more as we are beholden to other departments.

MT: What makes a great sound mixer? What skills does he/she need?

TD: Firstly I think that you need a great deal of patience, no arrogance, or the “look at me” concept that some mixers have. Know your place in the hierarchy, be very confident with your own ability, and sometimes exceed the boundaries to see if you can do it, and own up if you can’t!

Never argue with a Director, but reasonably discuss possible ways of getting round a sound problem with them. Always be as pleasant as possible, as it gets you much further than aggression.

Oh… and it helps if you know what you are listening for!

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to http://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Screenwriter Maria Nation (A Street Cat Named Bob, Salem Witch Trials)

It was an honor to chat with the very talented screenwriter Maria Nation. For any new or up and coming screenwriter, this interview is a must read as she gives a lot of insight on her profession and what it takes to succeed in Hollywood. Enjoy!

Matthew Toffolo: Tell us about “A Street Cat Named Bob”? How was the process writing a screenplay based on a best selling novel?

Maria Nation: How much creative control did you have? ** A Street Cat Named Bob is a true story about James Bowen’s unlikely journey from a vulnerable, homeless heroin addict to sobriety (and celebrity!) – thanks to the influence of a ginger street cat who refused to leave James’ side. It was a fun project to write, with interesting characters and the great challenge of creating a main character out of …a cat. I was brought into the project by the director, Roger Spottiswoode, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working many times. It was late in the game, meaning the film was about to go into production but the script needed work. I ended up doing a page one revision. As far as adapting the best seller goes – I didn’t treat it any differently than any other adaptation job. Best seller or not, I think it’s important to respect the original writer and story while adapting it to the needs and limitations (and advantages) of the screenplay form. The key to doing this successfully is to understand which of a book’s elements are necessary for the screen story, which of these beats are cinematic and, when they are not, how can they best be interpreted for the screen. How much creative control did I have? Within the relatively narrow parameters of this particular project (time was of the essence, it was based on a well known story, locations were already being scouted, the director already had an idea of the tone he wanted, etc) I had a pretty free hand. But the notion of “creative control” as it applies to the screenwriter fraught. Unless you write, direct, edit and produce the project single-handedly there are always other creative forces at play. You don’t fly solo. That is the name of the game and if a writer can’t be comfortable with this he or she might want to find another line of work. That being said, there is a moment in the process, when we writers have complete creative control. It’s when we’re alone with the blank page and we go to work on it. As soon as we write the beautiful words THE END, and hand it over to the rest of the team it becomes a collaboration. That’s just the way it is.

PHOTO: A Street Cat Named Bob:

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MT: What screenplay that you have written has been your most valuable experience?

MN: I must say they have all been valuable experiences. One of my recent projects, a script based on the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise liner, pushed me to figure out how to write way outside my comfort zone. It was an action/disaster movie set on a ship. And, because I knew nothing about any of those things, I was pretty sure I was going to get my ass fired. But I studied how other writers write action – how are the scenes constructed? What is the scene description like that sets up the sense of pace and suspense? Etc etc. It was an interesting process – and in the end I didn’t get fired. Valuable experience: “No matter how long you’ve been writing, you’re always a student. Go study.” One of my very first assignments was based on the fine novel, Blue River, by Ethan Canin. I loved the book and figured out how to crack the story and handed in my first draft. The producers came back with such extreme notes – changing who the main character would be, which upended the entire story – that I had no idea how to even approach my second draft. Being a novice, I wrote notes back on their notes, wanting to know what they were trying to go for, etc. In the meantime they had hired the wonderful director Larry Elikann and before I had to launch into the revision that would have ruined the story, Larry told them not to touch a word of the script, and they were lucky to have it. Thanks to him they shot my first draft and I got the reputation for delivering shootable first drafts. (Which of course was a bit of a stretch since it was my first script – but it made my career.) I guess the valuable experience in that one is “hope to god you get a director like Larry Elikann.”

MT: Have you ever been surprised after a production wraps on the success or non-success of a film/TV show you’ve written?

MN: I’m assuming you’ve experienced both pendulums – A film that you assumed was going to be a hit and the audience/critics didn’t respond. And a film that you assumed wasn’t going to do well and then ended up doing very well. William Goldman said it best: “No one knows anything.” So, yes, it’s always a surprise. The network had high hopes for a miniseries I wrote years ago. The Salem Witch Trials had a huge, prestigious cast, with Alan Bates, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Ustinov, Rebecca de Mornay, Kirstie Alley etc etc and the important subject had not been done on US networks, and it was a big deal. It died faster than one of the witches on the gallows. I recently wrote the Gabby Douglas story, which the entire world already knew thanks to the Olympic coverage a year earlier, and two unknowns cast as Gabby… and it has been a huge success – around the world. Go figure.

PHOTO: Winona Ryder in “The Salem Witch Trials”:

salem_witch_tirals.jpg

MT: How many uncredited “ghost writing” assignments have you had? Do you enjoy working on these assignments?

MN: Boy, I’ve done quite a few. Do I enjoy working on them? First, it’s important to understand that there is no such thing as a “ghost writer,” per se. When I am hired to doctor a script no one knows at the outset if I will get a credit – or not. The WGA has guidelines that define which writer or writers deserve a credit, and an arbitration team of fellow/sister writers makes the ultimate determination. On Street Cat Named Bob I was hired to do a small revision of a couple of the characters prior to casting. But the assignment snowballed and I ended up getting a shared credit. I actually love getting called to revise scripts. All screenwriters fall in love with certain scenes or characters (and if you don’t, god help you getting through your script.) The revision writer brings fresh eyes and there is no loyalty to any scene or beat or character. While I really hate knowing how painful the process is for the first writer (I was rewritten once – and it’s just awful) it is a fun challenge to make a script work; to see the weak spots and come up with solutions. It’s a different muscle than writing from scratch – even though very often the revision ends up being a page one original. But what I really love is that, generally speaking, I get called in to revise a script that is going into production. The pressure to perform is huge. There is no time for procrastination – or many notes from the network or producers. Often the director is already on board and I really l love working with directors (with some exceptions, of course). It’s all business; no nonsense and the entire vibe of the project is different than writing for development or on spec.

MT: What film, besides the films you worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

MN: Probably The Big Lebowski – which has zero influence on my work or career but I could watch it every day and be happy. Or perhaps Chinatown to be reminded of what it feels like to be in the shadow of Mt. Everest looking up.

MT: What makes a great screenwriter?

MN: A great screenwriter isn’t made; he/she is born. But, a working screenwriter? This person needs to build these muscles: determination, patience, imagination, curiosity, diligence, more diligence, humility, a desire to learn the craft, an understanding of human dynamics, human dysfuntionality, an ear for dialogue, a love of the art, a respect for your team – even when they drive you crazy, the art of collaboration – and did I mention diligence?

MT: When receiving notes from Producers and/or Production people on a screenplay you’ve written, what are you looking to receive to help you improve your story?

MN: And what are you not looking to receive? The best notes – rather, the notes I hope to get – respect the script but bring fresh eyes to my work. They show me the weak spots – and push me to try harder. Some of the best notes I’ve gotten are the ones that are the most difficult to hear because I don’t know, at first, how to accomplish them. They push me to dig deeper. The most fun notes to get (if any are fun) come from the production team, because they are 100% pragmatic: “We don’t have a staircase; rewrite the scene with a window.” “We’re over budget. Give us the same, rich story but lose five characters.” They aren’t easy to accomplish but they are pragmatic – not ego driven. The worst notes? The ones from frustrated writers who are directors or executives. Luckily these have been few – but they’re memorable. They aren’t pragmatic. They are completely subjective – and sometimes notes for notes sake.

MT: What advice would you have for people who want to be a screenwriter?

MN: Write. Watch movies or tv. Write some more. Read as many scripts as possible (there are a million online -no excuses). Write some more. Try to get a job as a story analyst (a reader). Do it for free if you have to. Out of college I was paid 50 bucks a script to read, synopsize and critique scripts for various producers and studios. I did this for years. Did you get that? For years. …Read. Synopsize. Critique… It forces you to think about a script in an entirely different way than watching a movie – and it’s better than any screenwriting course you can take. Finally: When you’re writing your script and you think it’s just too hard to go on and you’re tearing your hair out and you’re miserable… congratulations, you’re thinking like a professional writer. Except for, maybe, pouring cement, screenwriting is the hardest job out there. And there are days I’d rather be pouring cement. Good luck. Go tell a story.
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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Editor Allyson C. Johnson (The Get Down, The Wire, Monsoon Wedding)

allysoncjohnsonIt was an honor chatting with Emmy Nominated editor Allyson C. Johnson. She is currently editing the critically acclaimed series “The Get Down”.

Matthew Toffolo: You edited two episodes of “The Wire”. How was this working experience? Did you realize that you were a part of one of the great TV shows in history?

Allyson C. Johnson: The Wire was my first TV series so I didn’t know what to expect. I had been cutting features and docs and everyone kept telling me TV was soooo different but it was HBO so we didn’t have to deal with the commercials and other restrictions put on you by Network television. I think we all knew it was a really good series but when you’re in the trenches it’s hard to step back and actually see the bigger picture. So, no, I had no idea it was going to be as big as it is. It was a great experience because the Producers were smart, creative and trusting of the editors and it’s always a pleasure to work with a talented cast like the one on the Wire.

MT: What film that you’ve worked on has been your most valuable experience?

ACJ: I think Monsoon Wedding was my most valuable Feature experience so far. It was my first film and I learned so much from working with a great Director like Mira Nair. She has an amazing talent for making a performance as good as it can possibly and giving a film real heart.

PHOTO: Still from the film “Monsoon Wedding”:

monsoonwedding.jpg

MT: What is the art to being a great TV SHOW editor? How is working in TV different than working on a feature film?

ACJ: I really don’t think there is a difference between a “TV show editor” and a Feature or Doc editor. Now that there’s streaming and cable TV not all TV has the issue of having to stop the story every 8-12 minutes to add a commercial break. The big difference for me is that in TV it’s not a given that the editor will be at the mix. I still don’t quite understand why that is since the editor knows the show inside and out and can be a huge help during the mix. Network TV tends to want more close ups and to be on the actor’s face when they’re speaking plus having to find spots to put commercial breaks that will not be intrusive can be a challenge. Also, working on a series, although the director does the first cut, he/she doesn’t end up having the final say as they would in a Feature film because the Showrunner is the one who must make sure the series has one look and one feel.

MT: Have you ever been surprised after wrapping a production on the success or non-success of a film/TV show? I’m assuming you’ve experienced both pendulums – a film that you assumed was going to be a hit and the audience/critics didn’t respond. And a film that you assumed wasn’t going to do well and then ended up doing very well.

ACJ: I am ALWAYS surprised at the outcome. There are so many different opinions and tastes in this world. I think we just have to make sure we are working on a show or film we believe in and enjoy and not worry about what everyone else thinks. Unfortunately reviews can make or break a show and these days so can social media so I hope people will give a show a chance before they let someone else decide for them.

MT: What is an editor looking for in their director? What is a director looking for in their editor?

ACJ: Big picture? We spend so much time in the editing room together it’s imperative that we can laugh together. More specifically? I always hope for shots to cutaway to so we are not forced into performances that might not be the best and/or continuity issues. I would imagine a director would want an editor who is open to trying new things without complaining.

MT: Is there a type of film that you would love to edit that you haven’t edited yet?

ACJ: I was a musician in college and have always been drawn to musicals. Although I’ve worked on many Rockumentaries in addition to the NBC series Smash and The Get Down for Netflix, I still haven’t cut a musical Feature Film and would love to do that.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

ACJ: Aside from the films you watch a thousand times when you’re a kid I think I have probably seen Cabaret, Broadcast News, Sleeper, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harold and Maude, Minority Report, A clockwork Orange and The Heat. Sorry, couldn’t just pick one. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other films that I loved but some films you just can’t watch over and over again even if you love them.

MT: What suggestions would you have for people in high school and university who would like to get into the industry as an editor?

ACJ: Get a job in a cutting room, any job doing anything. It’s important to be exposed to the process as much as possible and to meet people in the business. If you’re an assistant already cut scenes on your own in your spare time using the footage for the show you are working on so you can get some practice and show them to the editor and ask for pointers. Learn the AVID.

MT: Where did you grow up? Was working in the Film Industry something you always wanted to do?

ACJ: I grew up in Great Neck on Long Island. I always wanted to be a musician and ended up going to college for that. However, I was very involved in Theatre at my High School too and I had a great love for film when I was growing up. Unfortunately it never occurred to me that I could do that for a living. We didn’t have phones that we could use to shoot our own movies and I didn’t know anyone who worked in the business so it seemed a little too out of reach until I got to college. I went to SUNY Purchase and it had a great film program. While I was there I took a few film classes on the side. That was the beginning for me.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go towww.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.