As per the title, what tactics have worked for you when dealing with difficult directors? Most directors I’ve worked with have been great – creative, collaborative & supportive… but a couple (not recently) made me learn some difficult lessons… I’ll provide a few examples & tactics I have had to resort to… Many, many years ago I worked on a short film about a boys perspective of his mother dying from cancer and the boy would retreat to this old tin shed to process what he was experiencing, so the director wanted a very special ambience for this shed… It was beautifully shot with tiny shafts of light from holes in the tin roof etc.. and I tried a lot of different approaches but nothing would be right as far as this director was concerned – after trying everything in our library, the closest I got was suspending sheets of roofing iron in the foley studio and gently scraping & tapping them, recording the gentle resonant sounds very close up… but what i recorded & edited to show the director still wasn’t right – he liked the approach but not the specific sounds I had chosen… eventually I came to the conclusion the guy was a complete control freak – he worked in advertising and was used to splitting hairs/doing a million takes of a voiceover etc so I decided it was all about him and changed philosophical tack by transferring the creative process to him. He put on the headphones & moved the mic around the roof iron, he performed the scrapes & tapping until he found a sound he liked. I made notes (this was back in the Nagra and 416 days) and then loaded the recordings, seperating out his favourite parts. I showed those to him isolated, then he directed me where to place them…. and within an hour or so the problem scene I’d been struggling with for days was solved. Afterwards I came to the conclusion that what I had done was make him own his decisions and choices. The results were very very similar to what we had previously, but his involvement was what had changed.
Another director I have worked with a few times and I find the process easier now as I am prepared for their approach, but the first time it drove me slightly crazy. I have always been someone who likes to be very well prepared – I would rather turn up to a mix deprived of sleep but with great material, that the director has signed off on etc.. But half way through the final mix this director started having new ideas – like totally different to anything we’d ever discussed for the scene over the previous 3 months. Of course part of the job is to be open to collaboration, no matter when it occurs so I would implement what i could then & there on the dub stage, and/or prep new material at night… But every day i would go home from the mix feeling frustrated – why hadn’t we had these ideas when there was plenty of time to prepare them?? At the time i had a friends drum kit at my studio and I would come home in a slightly foul mood, jump on the drum kit for 15 minutes and it altered my mood completely, the meditative act of pounding out some beats erased my bad mood & I could get to & do the fixes (I’ve owned a drum kit ever since!) The mix eventually finished brilliantly & on schedule, but the second time I worked on a film with this director I knew what to expect – no matter how well prepared I was, or how much exploring of alternative approaches we would try at least once a day in the final mix there would be a brand new idea, requiring new material prep. This was before i had done any studio and/or VFX films, where late changes are not uncommon and its a matter of expecting it to be that way eg having a sound editor on the budget during the final mix to cut fixes etc… So the only thing that changed was my attitude – the director was still the same, but I altered how I perceived new ideas, that maybe this director needed to hear the context of the final mix to have those new ideas, and that they weren’t due to a fault of mine – it was simply their process.
Also like example director #1 this person also would often not sign off on a subjective element unless they saw how I had arrived at it. Often I would have to walk them through all my elements, what I had tried that didnt work etc… and then show them how I arrived at my final version which they signed off on but again the only difference was that i had taken them on the journey of finding/designing that sound – they now understood & owned the decisions involved – it wasn’t me presenting a fait accompli, it was ‘our’ work
So who has driven you crazy & what tactics did you develop/learn from it?
Most of us working in sound post spend a lot of time and put a lot of thought into what we do. Every sound we select to use in our session and each idea for a theme or a creative element that supports the story gets given a LOT of thought. We go through this own personal creative process of thinking of ideas, trying out things and ultimately getting to a place where we have the right sound for elements that hopefully are thoughtfully supporting the story. Once we arrive there at the end of our creative walk through this idea (which can take weeks or more) we are usually quite satisfied and happy and most of the time (hopefully) have contributed something to the film that really ties in with the story.
However so often we do all of this and then the first time the director hears that moment of sound design is in some temp mix or review or even final mix! They have not been with us on that creative journey of thought, experimentation, trying out options,etc… So they might just go “what is that sound? take it out”. Even though there is something to be said for a fresh ear reacting to something for the first time I do believe that if we make an effort to get the directors on board our creative thought trains and processes to as great an extent as possible we will be able to do much more interesting things which will make the final mix as the directors will not only feel part of the process but will really understand why this idea is there. Also it definitely helps in showing the director how deep your thinking is going on his or her film!
As in so many other aspects of life, communication, teamwork and collaboration is one of the biggest areas in the film world where there is still a lot of room for improvement and progress!
About 3 months ago I was working on an indie short film whose director was also a cinematographer. The film was very well structured and it had an interesting idea but the visuals weren’t able to convey the message by themselves. In spite of that, the director was already working with the composer when I joined the team and I was supplied with some temp tracks to get the creativity going. In essence the sound needed to be light and subtle, consisting of ambiences, foley and general SFX where necessary.
When there was around a week to completion, the director came up with a new idea for the first scene, which began with an external shot of snow falling at night, then transitioned to an internal shot of a woman getting up from bed and looking through the window as though something very odd had happened — it wasn’t snowing anymore. She checks the weather forecast on her phone and looks back to the windows, though now there are strange people walking by the street and stopping in random positions. The director wanted to add a sort of alien communication between the people and the woman. He wanted it to be very discreet and to work subtly with the music. It didn’t make sense to me as what we had discussed at the beginning of the project was that the entire film was meant to sound tenuous, but I went with it and began experimenting.
More than 10 revisions were made and no attempt was close to what he’d imagined. I was getting frustrated and didn’t know what else to do… until I asked him to record himself doing the voice so I could get into his world. Tim pointed out that getting the director involved gave him new perspectives about the project, and that’s true. It works brilliantly! In the end I realised that I was too hooked on my ideas of how should the movie sound like. Letting my ego go away was essential for the project’s sake.
Anyway, we tried adding his own recordings but the results were of absolute clutter and we decided to abandon the idea and finalize the movie as it was before. Something my father always say is that we’re always producing something for someone, be it in sound, health, engineering, etc. In our case, we’re creating and telling stories to an audience, so what matters most is the communication between the project and the audience, and us and the director are responsible of making it happen as best as possible.
Tim is speaking to perhaps the biggest part of the sound designers / sound editor /supervisors job- which is simply NOT about sound.
its about communication, and being able to understand both the creative brief, and the principals behind it-
In many, and most cases, we are trusted to bring our experience, talent and intuition to the process of the “finish” of a directors story telling- and ideally the expectation is that we wil use our tools and sound library magic to take the sound beyond the vision of the director, picture editor and producers expectations- in some cases, the “picky” creative partners we work with will demand a more hands on part of the creative process- and to effectively satisfy, and take advantage of their vision we are compelled to have them join the creative process when we might be otherwise protective of our methods and resources- To be overly protective of our contribution usually works out badly, as the human interaction side of the equation often times ends up in frustration and mistrust-
In the end, we are ALL story tellers, and sometimes we lose sight of the greater objective of effective and efficient story telling to selfish “naval gazing” that can occur in our side of the intuitive pursuit of sound selection and design- but ultimately, we are helping those who hire us to tell THEIR story as efficiently, and eloquently as is possible in the time constraints they present.
Great topic and there’s some great answers here. I’ve certainly had my fair share of frustrating experiences, but I’ve found 2 things help immensely, meditation and perspective, ie stepping back and looking at it from at project view and not the myopic “it’s my audio” view.
As others have mentioned, what we do is a collaborative process. I find that the more I bring the director into my work, the smoother things tend to go. I have an old Zoom recorder that I love to hand to directors to allow them to go out and record their own sfx. I’d say about 50% of the time what they come back with isn’t usable, but I’ve brought them into the process and as Tim said, I’ve “made them own their decisions and choices”. It is far too easy to let your ego get in the way and I think the best sound designers are the ones allow other people to have a stake in the final product… the audio doesn’t belong to you or even really the director, IMO. It belongs to everyone. That’s not to say you shouldn’t fight for what you believe in, but like anything you have to pick your battles.
For me, difficult directors are usually just the ones that are micro-managers. I may have a moment or two with a non-micro-managing director where we get stuck on a scene or element, and need to find the sound they’re looking for, requiring them to possibly get their hands dirty. I don’t usually think that’s a director being difficult however, I think they just know what they want, and we’re not there yet.
The difficult director to me, is a micro-manager that needs to have their say in every sound, level of volume, etc. Even if they like what you’ve done, and will eventually go back to it, they’ll say “Can we try this other sound?” on every sound that comes up. Or “Raise this 1dB. Lower this 2dB”. It’s just a controlling personality, and this film is their baby. They’re not wrong in wanting what they want, they just sometimes don’t understand that they’re in the minority, and their approach to the process requires a lot more time and money. I try to read as much as I can about the director when we first discuss the film, to find out what kind of personality they have. I also try to talk through a set of goals. Priority, secondary, and tertiary. Stating that we will hopefully hit all of them, but the budget, time constraints, etc, may only allow us to hit priorities. I’ve found that with most directors, preparing that list usually begets the best results, hitting the priorities to exactly what they want, and having enough time to get the rest. If we’re not able to hit every goal, they at least understand we can if they’re willing to contribute more financially. So if the director is a micro manager, they understand, in order to hit all of their goals, it may take more time, and more money.
If I feel in the initial talks, that the director will be too difficult to work with, has a very limited budget, but wants to sit with me for the entire process, and have their say in each element, then I will respectfully decline the project. It’s not worth the trouble.
Here are two tactics which may sound odd but definately help in difficult situations. First, every director is different so you need to get to know him and his workflow.
Some directors will always criticize something because they feel they need to bring in their expertise.
That’s why for scenes I know will be criticized, I don’t always present my best draft straight away. I either have added a bad sound or I will have prepared a better alternative. When the criticism comes, I just mute the sound/ unmute the alternative and most of the time the director is happy (because his criticism made the sound better).
Other directors may not be able to abstract a sound design layout. If you present them an unfinished layout (e.g. for a sfx) and mention that it will sound better when you keep working on it, no matter how good it will turn out, they will be biased and won’t like it.
This leaves me three options:
– invest more time trying to make a great sounding layout for this effect (which isn’t far away from the final product) and save time on other things I can do later
– preapre a bad layout I know will be discarded, so I don’t invest too much time on it
– don’t present a layout at all saying that I haven’t started working on it
Nevertheless, often the director’s criticism is right but you don’t realize it right away. So always remember not to think of the sound design as your property. Be willing to discard sounds and try not to feel offended when your work is criticized (which isn’t easy all the time).
I’ve only had one very trying experience on any of my work. Lots of little ones, but that’s just par for the course, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who…while having a clear idea of what it is they want…were patient enough and invested in process for us to work through those in a positive way. Even in this one case, the overall experience was generally positive. We did have a few very tense moments though.
I dealt with that one situation in much the same way you did. There were two sonic elements that the director was extremely invested in, and rounds of design sketches were getting “close” but not where it was desired. In both cases, I literally just handed it over to the director. For the first element…the one that was actually “very close:…I gave him the component sounds, plus a few extras, and he took a pass at creating a rough sketch. This was a recurring element, so I took what was sent back, expanded on it, and created variations for the other occurrences. And while there wasn’t really anything different than I had done in the past, the director was very happy with the results, because the core that he had developed could be heard in each instance.
The other element was a simple case of temp love. He ultimately decided that he wanted to go back to his Avid tracks and stick with those. The mixer and I weren’t exactly keen on the idea, because it was basically just a wall of pink noise where any defining or characteristic elements were immediately swallowed up in the cacophony of all them components combined. We did what we could to carve something interesting out of it all. The director wasn’t really happy with that moment during the mix either, because it didn’t sound the way it did on his machine (no surprise there, stereo speakers in a tiny room vs. full range 5.1 system on a mix stage). In this case though, we had the tracks and original automation from the OMF to show to him. We didn’t fight or argue, we just did what we could with the material we had. We basically became supportive button monkeys for that one element, with occasional forays into the realm of design coaches. He may not have been happy with how it was going, but our approach left him with very little room to complain. Kelly Pieklo used to say, “Default to yes,” within reason of course. Knowing when to pick fights and when to just let it roll while detaching from that process (if you have to), can be the most effective way to deal with problems sometimes.
I’ve had only one negative experience but luckily it was 5 years ago when I did some of my first projects. Since then I’ve learned to set ground rules with the directors, establishing how our relationship will go. In essence, I make it clear that it’s their film, so I’ll do what they want me to do sound wise, but I will occasionally insist on some aspects as I haven’t spent months editing the film and thus I’m a new pair of eyes. I believe that part of the service I provide is being objective, as I am not emotionally involved in the film, thus I can see it the way an audience would.
My bad experience was on a student film. The director sent me the final cut, I worked for a couple of weeks on it and a few days before the deadline I receive an e-mail titled: New Cut. They didn’t understand why it was such a big deal and why I couldn’t just ‘move the sounds around’. Bare in mind, it had a lot of new cuts, things moved around, new scenes entirely, etc. On the same project, I needed to request something from the editor, but I couldn’t get through, so I e-mailed the director. The director then phoned me to say that ‘the editor has done her job, now it’s time to do YOURS’. I seem to recall that I needed some audio files, but the director just wouldn’t have it, and kept saying that I need to do my job. Bare in mind, this was after weeks of constant work on their film. I vowed never to work with that person ever again, as you might imagine, but only after I finished the film.
In essence, I would say that the best tactic is to discuss things with the director before hand and establish how the relationship will run. Also, as Tim mentioned, we need some sort of stress release. Mine is going to the gym, doing some lifting and just generally overworking myself. It seems to work best for me.
Tim, great question and really interesting to read your examples. Being an academic I don’t have lots of examples with professional directors. However, having read your accounts two things come across as being really important in respect to question posed and working with people in general. First, is that as a creative process, it should be a collaboration between the sound designer and the director. At the end of the day, the content comprises of both visual and sound and these need to work together for common aesthetic goals. The second thing that comes across is your wonderful personal reflection of the situations. In all walks of life you will come across many different personalities and it is important to not take things personally (not always easy, especially in the heat of the moment – time ofter helps here), and also seeing a ways forward rather than being stubborn and putting up barriers. I particularly like you example of handing back the creative process.