Soft shoe shuffle

With global advertising campaigns come similarly sized budgets and headaches. Richard Buskin discusses suicide with sound designer Jeff Payne


THE SETTING is the high school gym and the coach is putting the girls' basketball team through its paces. As the pretty young things run up and down the court Mr Sadistic is barking orders. These gruelling workouts are known in America as 'suicide drills', and, in a series of US TV commercials, we see the girls progress from the preseason team trials to the practice sessions, the 'suicide drills', the games and, yes, the championship. Still, never mind all of the sweat and skill. Just put it down to that trusty Nike footwear.

Jeff Payne is a sound designer and mixer at post facility POP in Santa Monica, where he works on an average of three commercial spots everyday, sometimes as many as five or six, and it was he who got the assignment relating to the Nike Suicides advertisement. Just for the record, the ad agency in this case was Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the agency's creative director was Jeff Goodby, the production company was Propaganda, Jan O'Malley was the producer, Antony Hoffman the director, with Emily Dennis and Michael Elliot taking care of the editing.

'Initially I met with the people from Nike and the people from Mad River Post who, as the editorial house, are my clients,' Payne explains. 'They came to me with the dialogue from the shoot, and they also brought me music which had been scored by Michael Boyd Music in San Francisco together with some sound effects; mainly crowd noises. Basically, what I then did was to go back and take some of the effects supplied to me by Mad River Post as well as some of those from Michael Boyd, added a lot of my own stuff, manipulated theirs, and pretty much created our own sound design for it.

'The dialogue that had been recorded while they shot the film mainly consisted of the girls yelling as they went through their drills. So, I took those voices, placed them accordingly and manipulated them by slowing them down, pitch-shifting them and adding all kinds of strange delays, flanges, reverbs and other weird stuff. There were also some wild lines from their coach, and I threw those in at strategic spots. Then I took all of those elements along with the music and ran them through different kinds of processing; the Lexicon, the Eventide and so on. I turned a lot of sounds around, played things in reverse, slowed them down, flipped them around, sampled them, and basically just created a lot of interesting, more mood-provoking noises. Even with the music, I slowed that down and played it in reverse in one section, and added all kinds of weird processing to it. They really wanted a surreal presence to the sound in the middle of the spot. For the most part, however, I was working with the actual dialogue from the shoot and manipulating it.'

Payne asserts that Emily Dennis and Mike Elliot are among the most creative editors that he's worked with, and they were around nearly all of the time when he was doing his own job. 'With a lot of the spots in this Nike campaign we didn't know that we were going to be sound designing them or changing things until we actually got into them,' he says. 'So, we'd end up saying, "Well, wouldn't it be cool if we tried this here or tried this here," and it was a much more collaborative effort than normal, where I just get the effects and mix them. This was a unique spot and I was a lot more involved in the sound design portion of it. That happens, but it's rare.'

The 30-second Suicides spot--probably five or six months in production from conception to selling the idea to the client, producing and shooting it--ended up taking Payne between four or five hours to sound design and mix. 'This one took a little bit longer and that's always the case when you're creating effects,' he says. 'That's as opposed to me just receiving them and mixing them, EQing them, panning them and putting some reverbs on or whatever I do. In this case we were doing a lot of sampling and we were finding sounds; real sounds. There were some basketball sounds and foot squeaks that I had to find off the DATs, as well as all kinds of weird things that I had to put in to make it work. I took some elements from sound effects libraries, but I would say that 90% of these sounds came from the actual shoot... The finished spot was a pretty intense 30 seconds.'

blutagThe Nike ads aside, among the more complicated spots that Jeff Payne has worked on recently were a couple for Lexus, one called Capture and the other titled Escape. High production values and surreal effects amounted to plenty of sound design, and Payne was more than up to the task.

'In one of the spots they're chasing the car through some weird circus and there are all of these guys throwing knives at it,' he says. 'That was a lot of fun. I got the effects from a company called Primal Scream and the music was done there as well, and I had all of the elements split out. In other words, all of the effects are split out having been prebuilt and prelaid down for me, and with all of the music being split out I've got control over the oboes, the woodwind, the percussion and all that kind of stuff. So, that was a pretty complicated mix, because there were a lot of elements going on, a lot of dialogue that ran through it which needed to be understood, and very dynamic music and sound design. It was a challenge.'


HELPING PAYNE to meet that challenge was an AMS Audiofile together with a 96-input Logic II console, and he is quick to state that he is more than a little appreciative of the state-of-the-art gear that is available to him at POP.

'As far as audio goes, ad people fortunately have always been the first ones to jump on the train,' he says. 'They were the first to really use workstations--way before film and television got into them
--and so I was able to get in on that boom ten years ago. Furthermore, the production values have gone up and up, they're spending so much more money on commercials now--it's not uncommon for a spot to cost a million dollars plus--and the great thing is that we get to work with people who are the tops in their field, whether they're composers or sound designers. They're real together. They've been doing this for a while and they really know what's going on, so that's the nice part about doing commercials.

'The Logic is plenty large and now that I've been using it for five years it's almost like playing an instrument. I mean, you learn the subtleties of the console, you learn how to do things quickly, and it's just a really nice working surface. You see, a commercial's got so many quick cuts that in 30s you've got track after track after track of effects, and that's another benefit of having automation. I don't have time to lay them out like a film mixer might, laying out all of these split tracks onto different channels. I'm not dragging three 24-tracks with me. I may have 15 to 20 frames between the sound effects that the editors have supplied me with, and because I'm using automation I can go in and completely change my EQ, my aux sends and everything else on one channel 15 different times. That makes a big difference.

'The technology has changed so much over the years and that's given people more options. As a result they don't necessarily finish their sessions any quicker, but they do tend to try to do more during those sessions. Likewise, the clients' expectations have become greater, quite a few people have systems where they can listen in Dolby surround at home, we do some spots in surround, and so they're more sophisticated and used to hearing better quality stuff.'

gabbyppBut while a few people may have surround systems at home the majority still don't, and Payne therefore has to bear that in mind when it comes to monitoring the commercials that he's working on.

'I only really use my large monitors for my EQs and for getting my basic levels,' he says. 'Almost all of my mixing is done with the Auratones and then final approval is always on a TV set. I run everything back through a tiny little speaker on a little Sony monitor, and it's kind of sad and it's unfortunate, but those are the limitations of what I do. I sometimes get to mix stuff for theatrical release, but in the main it's got to sound great on a really shitty TV. Ultimately that'll change and I'm sure that the ad people will roll with the punches, but in the meantime the advantage is that, listening to this crappy TV at low levels, I'm still going to have my hearing in ten years! The other mixers will all be deaf!'

Being that Jeff Payne only sound designs about 20% of the time--normally he mixes things that have already been pre-sound designed--he usually pulls material out of effects libraries. At the same time, having learned the ins and outs of his profession over the past dozen years, he is more than familiar with what does and doesn't work, and so he will often revert to the tried and the trusted.

'I'll know that if I manipulate something in a certain way, play it in reverse or change the pitch and slow it down it will give me this effect,' he says. 'That just comes from experience.'

However, what with all of that experience, derived from working on so very many different commercial spots, isn't it difficult to retain interest and objectivity on the job?

'No, actually I think it's almost the reverse,' Payne replies. 'The nice thing about it is that the turnaround is so quick. You work on something and then it's gone, and in the afternoon you're working on something else, and the challenge is to be able to focus and to give the clients what they're looking for while also trying to take it in the direction that you feel it needs to go in. That's the challenging part and that's the part I like about it. It's fast paced, it moves, and in my end of the business people tend to come very prepared.

'Like, for instance, this Nike job. It wasn't that these people weren't prepared when they came in to the session, but they just wanted to be creative in the session. A lot of times they come in and they basically have laid everything out, and you're set to go and ready to mix, and your job is to give them what they're hearing in their heads. Don't forget, by the time they get to me they've probably spent a week with the sound designer and two weeks with the composer, and they've really had a lot of time with this. On the other hand, I'm seeing it for the first time and then I'm mixing

it as I'm looking at it. So, I really thrive on the pace of things; I've got to learn it fast, I've got to quickly get a feel for what they want and then deliver it before the session's done.

'What makes the whole thing a little scary is the fact that, by the time it gets to me, it's the end of the line. This is the last process; dub 'n' ship time. There are many, many times when I'm finishing and the spot's going out on a satellite to New York at 8 o'clock tonight. That seems to happen more often on the higher-end projects, and I can't tell you how many times I'm trying to get it over to FedEx by 8 o'clock so that they can get it on the air. They therefore don't have the time to make any changes, and so it's got to be right by the time it comes to me. I remember, when I first got into the business that was the part that had me thinking, "Whoa! Hold on! I'm not that bright!"'

Why work to that kind of deadline with the devil?

'Well, I've asked my clients that, and Ithink the reason's simply down to economics. They're giving them shorter deadlines now and they have less time to post. Whereas normally they would have four weeks to do all of their post work they're squeezing that down to two weeks and they're squeezing their shoots down to less days. That way they can sometimes spend less money, and I'm really, really noticing a difference in that. Another thing that I've been noticing more and more during probably the past year and a half is that I'm finishing spots before the picture is finished. So concurrently, while I'm doing the final mix, they're bringing me the work picture, and I may or may not lay back to the final picture at the end of the session. It may not even get to me by the time I've finished my mix, so they may lay it back somewhere else at a later date or they'll get me the final picture right as I'm finishing and I'm seeing that when I lay it back. It's crazy!'   
         Free Learning Space for Film Sound