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New Demo Reel for Sound Editing in Animation

Working as a sound editor can be an amazing way to make a living but there are a few parts of the gig that I really don't look forward to.  Certainly making demo reels falls in this category.  Making a demo reel is not easy.  Producing a coherent, tight reel for myself is one of the hardest jobs I've been tasked with as a sound editor.  Demo reels are a major time commitment - from tracking down copies of projects I've worked on, to picking good clips and then editing them together - the process seems unduly laborious.  I bring all this up because I have recently embarked on updating my demo reel for the third time in my career.  

I put together my first reel in my last semester of film school in ’97.  In retrospect it was pretty easy, but it seemed like a pain even then.  I only had student films to use in the reel and to pick clips from, so rounding up the content was easy - I only had a few credits to my name.  I also had access to video editing equipment through my college.  After all the effort to put the reel together, I got hired at the post audio house where I interned and never really had to shop around that version of my reel.  I don’t even have a copy of it anymore.

After working at that facility for 6 years I moved to a different studio for a year and then decided to go freelance full-time.  In order to secure some new clientele I needed to put together an up-to-date reel.  By then I had quite a bit of material to draw from after 7 years in the business.  The problem was actually tracking down copies of the material; this took weeks and a lot of phone calls.  Also, I had to figure out a way of editing it all together.  This was in 2004 and home-based video editing was not as cheap or accessible as it is now.  Suffice it to say I did not enjoy the experience.  

Now, eight years later, I need a current reel and I can't put off the big job any longer. I am again going through the process of updating my reel.  Updating is not really the right word since I am basically starting from scratch.  Since I'm approaching this as a completely new project, I have been doing a lot of research online.  I've watched a ton of other professional sound editors' reels and read a bunch of articles on how to make an effective reel.  The information I have collected with all this research has not been very conclusive.  Just about everyone offering advice online has a completely different  take on the best way to go forward.  There is no consensus on how long a reel should be or how many clips should be used. 

There are smart arguments for both longer and shorter reels.  Shorter? Ah, but if you want to show multiple clips with any kind of context you need time let them play out. OK, then - longer... Yeah, but seriously, what prospective client is going to take the time to watch 7 minutes worth of material for every editor they are considering for a project?  Is it better to show 2 or 3 clips in longer chunks, or go more of a montage route and throw a lot of short clips together?  

I guess the answer is that it depends on the situation for the person making the reel and to a larger extent the person you expect to be watching the reel.  After a lot of thought and discussion I made a few decisions that I hope will work for my situation....... but first off, a little background.

Early in my career I did a lot of post-production work on corporate videos.  Then I moved into documentaries and lifestyle/reality programming.  Then when I went freelance I changed my focus to concentrate on animated series work.  Finally in the last few years I have been doing some feature-length projects.  Obviously no single demo reel can cover off all these bases.  So I am making 3 different reels.  I am not looking hard for corporate work these days, so I am going to focus one reel on animation, another on documentaries and the third on live action/scripted programmes.  

The one I'm starting with, because it's currently the most important for me, is the animation reel.  I've been lucky enough to work on a lot of animated series over the last few years.  In fact, to date I have cut SFX,  and sometimes Dialog, Music or Foley as well (in some cases all of the above on one project), for 393 half-hour episodes of animated television series, plus a bunch of animated features.  With this bulk of work I have a lot of clips that can be showcased.  In order to convey the amount of work I have completed I am opting to go the montage route for this reel.  Each clip will be around 20 seconds long and feature the standard labeling convention of a lower third graphic listing the show’s title, production company, my credits on the production, and how many episodes I worked on for the series.  I also decided to give myself a 2.5 minute limit for the final running time.  

One of the main reasons I settled on this format is that I feel that for animated series at least, post-production supervisors are looking mostly for 2 things: quality audio work  and a track record of accountability.  Obviously they are looking for someone who can make their show sound great, but I think they place a lot of value on knowing they are getting someone who can handle the pressure and scheduling demands of the animation world.  So I am hoping to walk that fine line, showcasing some of the stronger work I have done and at the same time giving a strong impression of the volume of work I've completed - hopefully letting prospective clients know that I have been through the wringer many times and have always delivered.

This Graph show the number of episodes I have cut SFX for on various series.

Once I decided how I wanted my reel to look (i.e. montage-style and 2.5 minutes), I had to pick the best clips to use.  With around 200 hours of footage to potentially choose from, this is a bit of a daunting task.  First thing is to get copies of the shows.  Some of the shows I've collected on commercially-released DVDs, others I received as screeners from the production companies, most I still had on drives from when I was working on the projects.  An element complicating this process is lost data.  2 years ago my studio was broken into and cleaned out (you can read about that experience in this post).  Lost in that robbery was my archive of finished work.  I know it was stupid to have the archives on-site but there's nothing I can do about it now. (Let my mistake be your warning, get a bullet-proof back-up and archive protocol.)  Since I had no access to my original edit sessions for anything done prior to the robbery, my options started to narrow.  I got DVDs of some of the shows but I found a lot of the final mixes have music mixed loudly and I couldn't really showcase the SFX work I did with the music competing for the listener’s attention.  I wanted as often as I could to use clips without the music stem.  In some cases this was not possible, so I'd pick a sequence where there was no score or where the SFX were mixed prominently.

Some of the commercially released DVDs I have done Sound Editing for.

Once a bunch of clips were picked and I'd made a first assembly of my reel, I was faced with a couple of problems.  First, I was way over my 2.5 minute self-imposed limit.  It was coming in at 5 minutes.  Secondly, when I played it for a select few people they all had a similar response:  it was too aggressive.  I had picked a lot of showy clips featuring huge action sequences with explosions everywhere.  I had done some good work on all those explosions, but when they were all put together it was too much to watch all together.  It was like being hit in the face with a frying pan for 5 minutes. I had to find some peaceful moments to slip in to give the listeners' ears a rest.  I also cut out a lot of material to get it down to my 2.5 minute limit.  That is always a difficult task for me.  I put a lot of work into each of these projects and deciding that a bunch of shows were not going to make the cut was tough.

Now that the reel was down to my desired length it was time to polish it up.  I added a few subtle transition sounds to help move from clip to clip. To give it a little extra twist, I called in a big favour at one of the studios where I often freelance.  The studio has a visual effects department and I was able to convince one of their best graphics guys to animate my logo, something to jazz up the opening of the reel.  What he delivered was above and beyond my hopes and expectations.  I now have a really cool motion graphics intro that I love.

So now after way too much thought and effort, and without further blathering is the premiere of my Animation Demo Reel:

Let me know what you think.  


Visual Resume For Sound Design??

Recently on twitter @colinhart, the man behind HartFX, threw out the following tweet:

This peaked my interest because I had never heard the term “visual resume” before.  So I googled it and got back a lot of different sites with a lot of different definitions of visual resume.  Some were for paper resumes that conveyed relevant information through charts, and images.  Others were for essentially elaborate powerpoint presentations to get across everything a resume needs to convey ( ex: Slideshare).  Really after spending quite a bit of time researching this topic, I still have no clear idea what the class Mr. Hart was attending was teaching him.

During this google roaming I came across a site that lets you make interesting animated presentations, called, and started fooling around with it.  Before long I had made a little video that I thought might make a good intro presentation to put on the “About” page on this website.  So I captured the animation as a quicktime and started the process of doing a soundtrack for the thing. 

First up the video needed music.  I can play a few instruments, but I know my limitations as a composer.  While in college I scored a few student films but I am much happier doing effects editing.  So I reached out to my friend Jim Guthrie, who is a very accomplished musician and composer and asked if I could use a piece of his music for this little video and he graciously gave me permission.  The song is called “Popcorn pt 2” and is on his Children of the Clone album.  If you like it you can find it at Jim’s bandcamp page.  

Once I had edited the song to match the video, I started getting together the VO script.  I called in another favor and got a friend and colleague, Jason Charters, a television producer who also has lots of VO experience to come in and record the script for me.  We had fun getting a little campy in places and in only a few takes I had my VO in the can.

Next up was sound effects editing.  At first I tried some standard whooshes and swishes, but they quickly got annoying with so much visual movement happening throughout the video.  I needed to have sound effects that complimented the music track with out being a distraction to the narrative of the VO.  So I opened up the Stutter Edit plug-in made by Izotope and started playing around with Jim Guthrie’s song routed through the plug-in.  After trying a bunch of different settings I was able to find a few cool effects that twisted the song into cool synth-y whooshes, wind downs, bleeps and blops.  Here is a quick sample of the original song followed by some of the sounds that were made from it with Stutter Edit:

Once I started cutting to the picture with this new library of sounds I had created, they blended perfectly with the music (obviously since they were derived from the song to begin with).  Now I was able to add some audio movement to match up with all the crazy animated movement going on in the pictures.  

Next I did the final mix and added some cliched delay effects to the voice over for some comedy relief. 

Now here is the final version of my little promo video:


In the end I still have no idea what a visual resume is actually supposed to be.  I guess this was where my research lead me to and what I have done with the concept.



UPDATE: Jim Guthrie just won the Canadian Video Game Award for best Video Game Music, on the game Swords & Sworcery, beating out heavy hitters Dues Ex & Assassin's Creed.


The Five Stages of Grief while making a Demo Reel

For the last few months I have been working on a new demo reel on and off.  I have found it to be an overly consuming project.  After all the effort I am finally starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel as I near completion.  There will be a few blog posts in the coming weeks about the whole process, but for now here is a quick run down of what to expect from the experience borrowing from psychology's Kübler-Ross model of the Five Stages of Grief. 

Stage 1 Denial - When is it time to update your reel?  In most cases if you are asking that question you are well past the time you should have started the process of cutting a new reel.  But since the process is such a pain in the butt, we all tend to go into denial for quite a while.  I have been putting off updating my reel for 8 years.  An absolutely ridiculous amount of time I admit.  So now I have finally zipped past denial and admitted to myself that a new reel is a priority.

Stage 2 Anger - Making a demo reel can be a really heavy undertaking.  At first you think you will just slap one together and it won’t be a major bother.  Then the road blocks start piling up left, right and centre.  

• Suddenly you can not get access to any footage from a certain project.  

• Every clip you do have is in a different aspect ratio.  

• Your first cut of the reel is 9 minutes long.  

• There is no real consensus as to what a reel should look like in terms of length and style.  

Soon you are so angry and annoyed by the whole process that you are ready to give up and move back to the denial stage mentioned above.

Stage 3 Bargaining -  Once you have calmed down and taken a deep breath you can power through the anger stage and enter into the bargaining stage.  Here you start making deals with both yourself and others.  You make promises in your mind that you will finish the reel within two weeks, or you will make it a priority once you finish another project.  Plus you start making deals with other professionals that can help out with your reel.  You can mix a short film for an editor if he helps cut your reel, or you can do some free sound editing in exchange for some graphic design.  You have to take advantage of all the relationships you have built up over the years.

Stage 4 Depression - The reel is never going to be as good as you had hoped when you began the process. You will always be wondering if what you have produced is good enough to put out as a representation of your work.  You are a sound editor not a picture editor damn it!!  Was all the work on this thing worth the effort?  It is easy to start second guessing every decision and that will get you no where.

Stage 5 Acceptance - Once you have all your clips whittled to to a manageable reel length.  Take a few days off away from the whole thing so you can come back to it with fresh eyes/ears.  You will find you like what you have more then you had expected.  Sure you will see a few things to tweak, but all the things that were bothering you before show themselves as being smaller issues then you thought while you were in the thick of it.  Show the reel to some trusted friends, take in their ideas and then put the reel to bed.  You are done....for now, soon it will be time to start all over again.


A Visit from Noah & Some Memories

In the midst of all our deadlines and daily workload it's not so easy to remember that - to some people - what we do is pretty magical. I say "to some people" because I suspect the only thing that my mom, for example, thinks is magical about my job is that someone actually pays me money to sit in a dark room and make weird noises. But I digress…  I was reminded recently that there are people who think sound work is cool because I recently played host to a 10-year-old boy named Noah who came for a studio visit.  He is the young friend of a director I have worked with frequently and he was very interested in coming up with sounds for animations he makes himself.  I went through some of the gear and the tricks of the trade with him.  I got him in front of a mic and got him to scream, and with some plugins and editing we worked to transform his screams into monster vocalizations . I was told he had a good time.  

A week later I got a package in the mail: a thank-you note from Noah and DVD copies of two of the stop-motion short films he had completed.  They were 'Indiana Jones' type popcorn adventures. After watching them I realized how jealous I am of the technical access kids have today.  Noah was able to shoot the movies on his own digital camera and edit them in iMovie on his laptop.  This was not really an option when I was growing up.  When my friends and I made movies we were doing the edits in-camera while we shot the video in chronological order.  To think that ten-year-old kids are doing what people my age had to wait until college to learn… scary!  These little buggers are going to blow us away.  

Spending time with Noah reminded me of two interactions I had with media pros when I was around his age.  The first was when I was in middle school; I was walking home from school one afternoon and spotted something in the ditch on the side of the road - it was a plastic Pelican hard-case. I climbed down into the ditch and pulled it out. A business card was taped to the outside identifying the owner of the case… and that he worked at CBC radio.  CBC is the national broadcaster in Canada, and known for it's documentary radio programming. I popped open the case, and inside were a couple of hand-held mics, a lavalier microphone and a portable DAT recorder. Holy crap!!!!! There's not much else I could have discovered in that case that would have been more exciting to a kid like me.  I was thrown into a huge conundrum: obviously these were not mine, and because of that business card I knew exactly who the real owner was.  But on the other hand, this was a super-cool find, the kind of thing I figured I could never afford on my own.  What to do?  WHAT TO DO????

This would have been in the late Eighties when portable DAT machines were bleeding edge technology. Also in the case were a bunch of blank DAT tapes and the instruction manual. 

As best I can recall this is the DAT machine I found that day.

I looked both ways up and down the street to see if anyone else had noticed the case at the side of the road.  No-one seemed to be paying any attention to me, so I closed the case back up, put it under my arm, and quickly walked the rest of the way home. Once I was safe inside the house, I pulled all the contents out of the case, turned everything on and started looking through the manual to try to figure out how to get the recorder running.  The first thing I did was press play on the tape that was in the machine.  It sounded like a recording of a press conference or something.  All I can remember now is that I didn't find it interesting at all, so I ejected the tape and inserted one of the blank ones and armed the recorder.  Nothing... I looked over the connections I had made with the mic and the cables and tried again... still nothing.  Frustration. I dove back into the manual to try to figure out the problem and soon enough I had the thing going.  

I was so absorbed by my new-found tech that I didn't even notice my mother coming in the front door.  It didn't take her more than a moment to see that, whatever this gadget was, it was certainly not something her little kid could have bought or borrowed.  After telling her what it was and explaining how I came across it she pressed me with a string of pointed questions… leading me to admit that I should be calling the number on that business card ASAP.  The equipment was not mine and keeping it would have been stealing.  This seems like such simple logic to me now of course, but to an eighth-grader holding onto a windfall he might never see the likes of again, it was a painful decision and it took some persuasion for me to really get it.

When I called the number and told the man on the other end that I had found his case, he sounded like he had just won the lottery. Apparently it had fallen off the back rack of his motorcycle and he was not looking forward to telling his boss he had lost the expensive gear.  My mother's idea was that she could drive me downtown to the CBC headquarters to return the case -  and maybe the man could pay back the goodwill by giving me a tour of the radio station.  I was excited at this possibility, but no - the man instead came right away to pick it up from our house. He promised he would get in touch soon to arrange a time for me to come down to the CBC to see how a huge radio station worked. Then he sped off on his motorcycle with the Pelican case re-secured on his bike.

Sadly, that was the last time I ever heard from him. He never followed through on his promise.  But playing with that DAT machine for that brief time really put the bug in me to want to get into media production in some way.  (I have certainly never read a tech manual with such curiosity and excitement since.)

The CBC broke my heart!!

My other brush with a media pro happened just a few months later.  There was a day in my school where all the kids in grade eight spent a day at work with a parent, to see what the real work-world was like.  My father traveled a lot and I was not very interested in his line of work anyways, so I got the idea to follow Dan Woods for the day.  Mr. Woods was a morning DJ at a local radio station and an actor as well.  His main acting gig was playing Mr. Raditch, a teacher (and later the school principal) on the show Degrassi Junior High.  I had met him doing the sound for a fashion show/charity fundraiser he had hosted and he agreed to take me on for the day.

Dan Woods in all his glory as Mr. Raditch on Degrassi

I met him at the radio station as he was wrapping up his morning show.  He gave me a tour of the station and showed me how various things worked. It was a small station but this tour was a big improvement on the tour I never got of the CBC.  Next we were off to the set of Degrassi.  Mr. Woods showed me around the house that was used as every kid's home in the show.  Everything in the house was modular, so when the script called for it to be Wheels’ house they moved in all his furniture and then for the next scene they dressed the same room completely differently to become another character’s home.  The next stop was a post-production studio. Mr. Woods went in to the recording booth to read the school's morning announcements that would play in the background while the kids roamed the halls of Degrassi.  Finally we headed to the production offices of the show for a table-read of the next episode's script, and there I met all the actors from the show. This was all very cool.  I was fascinated by all these processes.

The one little problem was that I was not really a fan of the show at all. I had only ever seen one episode.  It was a popular show at the time in Canada and has now become virtually a cult phenomenon, but for some reason it had never struck a chord with me.  I was excited to go see how a TV show was made but I realized once I got there that most kids that visited the set would be excited to meet the cast...  I was more interested in watching the camera crews and soundmen than in talking to actors whom I didn’t know anything about. I tried to act like a thrilled loyal viewer; I got caught a few times on my fandom embellishments, but all in all I got by unscathed.  

I think that day was one of the best days of my life up to that point.  I learned so much about how both radio and TV shows were made.  The day Mr. Woods took the time to hang out with me and show me around really did have an important and lasting effect on my life and future career path.  With any luck, maybe I had 1/1000th of the impact on Noah, the ten-year-old who visited me, that the whole Degrassi experience once had on me.  


March 4th Memories

March 4th is a date of special note for me.  It's special for two reasons.  The first is that it is the birthday of my first boss in this business and one of my favorite people, Patrick Spence-Thomas, who passed away a few years ago.  The second reason is because it marks the anniversary of when my previous studio space was broken into and cleaned out. I wrote a piece about both Patrick and the robbery last March 4th as one of my first posts when this site launched. Please feel free to read them to get the whole back story.

Patrick Spence-Thomas was a pioneer and giant in the audio post industry in Canada, and once again this year a bunch of Patrick’s colleagues, friends and family gathered at his favorite watering hole to celebrate his birthday and tell all our best Patrick stories.  The hard part about telling stories involving Patrick is that he was one of the best story-tellers I have ever met.  Every tale seems a little lacking simply because Patrick is not there to tell it.

Patrick was so devoted to telling stories that he left some behind for us.  Knowing he was not going to be with us forever he was gracious enough to record, with his son Richard, his renditions of a few of his favorite stories.  By far my favorite of these recordings is his reading of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child's Christmas in Wales”.  Since Patrick grew up in Wales, the poem was naturally particularly special to him, and his reading is both comedic and sentimental - everything the story merits.  You can hear his reading for yourself here.  It's now a tradition for me and my family to listen to it every Christmas Eve.  So Patrick is still very much with us. 

This year at Patrick's birthday party, I made sure to wear a t-shirt that he gave me many years ago. It has on it the penny-farthing logo from the late 60’s British television show “The Prisoner”.  If you have not seen this series you should go out of your way to check it out. It is a very bizarre spy/escape/sci-fi show. It is set in an island town/prison called “The Village” where the crazy architecture gives the island the look of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It turns out that the show was not filmed in a London studio but in a real town in North Wales designed in the 20's and 30's for holidaying tourists. You can get an idea of what the town is like from this clip from the show:

I found out that Patrick had spent time in this town when he was a child, his family having fled there during WWII. In the 90's he made a pilgrimage back to his Welsh homeland, and brought back for me this souvenir of his visit. The shirt is pretty old and beat-up now, but I still keep it around to wear to the bar every year when we toast (and roast) Patrick's memory.

A great thing about gathering with Patrick's old friends is that, even in his ethereal state, he manages to teach me new things.  After we had all had some dinner and drinks, the owner of the bar brought out a round of Patrick's favorite dessert for us, on the house.  It was something I had never had before - crème brûlée... but - with with a shot of whiskey poured on top.  It was delicious.  I mean really, really good.  Please make an effort to try this concoction as soon as you can.  To me, this was another perfect example of how Patrick always found a way to bring an unexpected smile to people. Cheers, Patrick.


On a different note, March 4th, 2012 marks the third anniversary of the robbery of my studio space.  Happily, I don’t think about this event very often anymore.  It was stressful at the time, but things worked out pretty well in the long run.  I still hate being the first person to unlock the office door in the morning; it gives me a weird stress attack until I am through the door and see that everything is fine.  

Insurance covered all the gear that was stolen that day, but of course the data that was on my hard drives was gone for good.  I had my SFX library backed up in multiple places, so I didn't suffer there. That was a major life-saver.  If I had lost my library, it might have been a career-ending type of situation.  All my current and on-going projects were also backed up so they were fine too.  What did vanish along with the hard drives was my archives.  I had been operating with the knowledge that all my work for various animated series was getting backed up with the master sessions at the theaters where they had been mixed.  So when a series was put to bed, I retired the hard drive and shelved it in my edit suite.  With no other back-up.  Yes, this was stupid.  Bad planning and a lack of foresight for sure.  It's rare, but I do find every now and then that I need to get access to these sessions - only to remember that they're all gone.  Completely enraging. 

The upshot of this oversight is that I now have a much more reliable back-up routine.  But there are still times when I am not up-to-date with my back-ups, so apparently the lesson has not fully sunk in.  I've done a lot of research on various archiving schemes but I still don't feel like I've come up with a great solution for both local and off -site back-ups. If you're in the same boat as me, I recommend checking out Chase Jarvis, as they seem to have the whole process worked out really well, but my operation is not quite the well-oiled machine that they are.  I don’t have the infrastructure to go that far down the rabbit hole. I've been trying to follow the path laid out by Noise Jockey in this series of posts.  Another option is a Drobo, covered in a useful review on the Airborne Sound Blog.

Is anybody out there using an archive system that they find especially workable?  I find that my brain is the weak link in any approach I try. I need something with a lot of automation, so when my head is in the clouds I can trust that things are backing up anyway.