I recently had a chance to sit down with Dale Price from Electric Canyon and Vince Nelson from Gearmark Pictures to help shed some light on their respective industry experience and how they got there.
Price is the owner of Pro Sound Audio and operates Electric Canyon studios in Chico, California. He’s a seasoned veteran with over 20 years of experience in the audio industry. Nelson is a developer and producer at Gearmark Pictures in Los Angeles. He’s part of the new generation of video and content producers and has walked the path from freelancer to full time over the last six years. I am fortunate to count both as friends and fellow collaborators.
The benefit of experience is getting a chance to make and learn from past mistakes and to reflect upon and analyze trends both past, present and future. It made sense to offer a combination of both new and seasoned perspectives.
Nelson has been in the video and production field running on six years with Price providing over 25 years of experience in audio engineering and production.
From the time that we get our start in the audio-video industries, we all ask ourselves the same question: How do I make it? With time you come to realize there is no single answer to that question, yet for a lot of us it will continue to buzz at the back of our minds. I know that I’m my own worst critic.
From the time that we get our start in the audio-video industries, we all ask ourselves the same question: How do I make it?
What does this have to do with budgeting a project? Everything! Having to budget and balance a project’s resources is a good indicator that you’re doing something right by playing a part in larger productions. There is a relationship between a lack of experience and a distinct lack of budget.
To that end, you should focus on developing and gathering experience. Nelson started out, as he describes it, “making terrible little videos” that he could show to his parents. As a child, Price developed an early interest in music and recording. This lead to being in bands, more recordings and being one of the first to graduate from the Chico State Recording Arts program. You never stop to think as a child that you might be answering your future calling.
In some cases, your starting point will be just that: a starting point. Nelson had his beginnings as a comedian and has played the role of camera operator and editor. Ultimately, he made his way to the role of developer and producer and being part of the content creation phase. Having a long term goal will allow you to maintain a sense of perspective, especially when life decides to take a less direct route.
Price cut his teeth into the audio industry much in the same way during the late 1980s, starting first as a musician then embracing the recording and live sounds demands that bands face. This eventually led to the founding and first iteration of Pro Sound Audio. By 1996 he had the chance to work on the audio production team of a CBS production of “The Siege at Ruby Ridge.” It was an invaluable experience that allowed him the work and experience that only a major studio production could offer.
The Joys of Work
It’s important to remember that in the middle of all the deadlines, the stress= and demands that we should take the time to have fun and enjoy our work. These are occasionally on or off screen moments or the experience as a whole.
Nelson looks back fondly on his experience with Adam Carolla and being part of his movie “Roadhard.” The budget eventually saw that a particular featurette he worked on dropped, but that did nothing to diminish the humbling experience of getting to work with someone that he admires.
For Price, “The Siege at Ruby Ridge” would be the first of many memorable film and television experiences. He later went on to work on productions with PBS, in particular Sierra Center State and Music Gone Public. As a musician and an engineer, the chance to work with artists like Bella Fleck, the Brubeck Brothers and Tommy Emmanuel was definitely an experience to remember.
Getting the Job
The innate potential for unpredictability in this field will have you picking up a wide range of jobs during your early days — mainly because we all need to eat and pay bills. Assuming you’re diligent in your work and continue to gain experience, you’ll find yourself at the point where you discover that ideal full time job or you realize that you love being self-employed and decide to run with the idea.
In Nelson’s case he went through the motions that provided the experience and portfolio that warranted a full time position. One of the biggest changes was in the number of contacts and connections that you end up making working in that environment versus working for yourself. It just made him realize even more the importance of those connections and putting yourself out there to meet more people. Nelson stresses the value of film competitions and putting your work in front of people. You never know who you are going to meet or when you will be in the right place at the right time.
Price summed up self-employment with the following. “Working for yourself is working for everyone who pays you. Make sure you meet their expectations or they won’t hire you again.”
Being hired again is important, but so is a client referring other work to you based on their experience. The best problem in these situations is to have more work than you can handle.
That does not necessarily mean that you’ll spend all your time working alone. It’s important to have a network of people you can reach out to and collaborate with. You’ll find yourself working with and for larger organizations. When you do, Price reminds us, it is important to know your place and role within those projects and to do those jobs well, regardless of whether you have experience in other aspects of the production.
The walk-before-you-run approach is a good one to adopt during the planning phase. Establishing the size and scope of your project will help you come to grips with any potential pitfalls. Nelson tells us, “Once you start moving, getting you pre-production right at the start can take care of 90 percent of the work.”
Good documentation is crucial in making a project successful for yourself and those involved. Go through the motions and cover the project from beginning to end. The last thing you want is a scheduling conflict or to come up short on personnel, forcing you to bring someone in at the last moment. Getting your pre-production right will take care of most of the work with everything else falling in around it.
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment in order to get your idea in front of an audience. You should aim to write out the general pretense, concept, and to provide some light research before getting other parties involved in the planning phase.
If you know that other parties will be involved, try to anticipate their needs. Consider details like file formats, naming conventions, sample rates and any special requests they have. Price recommends including a readme file when handing over work. You don’t want to end up wasting their time or tying their hands. Involving others is also a normal part occurence — if you find yourself double booked have someone that you can outsource to.
During my time with Nelson he shared that by not working with others you’re hurting yourself, summing it up with “The better the help, the better the outcome.” He’s right; With the right people, you find yourself pushing others and being pushed in a direction that lets you do your best work. It’s a powerful and rewarding feeling.
Early on in your career, it may seem like a good idea to try to do all the work on your own, getting to keep more control over the project in order to take home a larger share. Not every situation will require an all hands on deck approach, but knowing when to bring others in and more importantly, how to work with others will be one of your greatest assets.
Going back to my earlier statement, you want the problem of having too much work. Your success will depend on how well you can work with others and choosing the appropriate times to do that. I will always remember the early days of scrambling to find new clients. The turning point for me came when clients started coming back for more work while also referring friends and business associates. Several years down the line, I find myself gravitating towards more collaborative work because it raises the stakes and offers a higher rate of returns because we can consider bigger projects.
So when should you ask for help or seek out a fellow collaborator? Nelson ended up answering that question during a reality television project in 2013, “I reached out to Robert Koenig, who just received some recognition for ‘100 Years Behind a Telescope.’ I realized I knew nothing about production and wanted his directorial help.” Since seeing the advantage in reaching out when in need of help, he’s been a firm believer in the power of collaboration.
Price will bring on outside help when certain tasks exceed his skillset, such as higher-end video editing, working on larger projects or needing to meet tight deadlines.
When it comes to input from the client, Price tends to bring them in at around the 50-75% mark, “Collaboration is best when you can focus on the meat of a project, for example during the mixing stage and even then after you have a good foundation to work with.”
The take home here is that collaboration is a healthy and natural part of the process. It’ll more often than not increase your chances of profiting from a project, both financially and on an experience level.
I remember first hearing this in reference to band practice, you don’t show up to rehearsal to learn the song. That is something you do on your own time. The same approach applies to the concept development stages, whether it is writing a pitch, editing a project or setting up for a recording session.
There are moments where you need some clear headspace to work through and distill an idea. Nelson said, “There is nothing worse than having your idea shot down because you jumped the gun.”
During a project, Price likes to set up the session and signal flow on his own time. This is something I can completely relate with. I would try to arrive around two hours before any of my studio sessions just so that I could take my sweet time setting it up. Why? Because it was my studio and I found that part of the process relaxing. What isn’t relaxing is realizing you missed something because you were in a rush.
By nature, both video producers and audio engineers love their toys because both work in very hardware driven professions. The current rate of technological advancement, particularly in video, just makes it harder to sit on an inventory. Audio is a little different since the fundamental design of microphone has not changed in over 50 years, and vintage equipment still is still highly sought after.
The saving grace to any production budget is knowing how to control your costs. The ability to use every bit of gear in your inventory to its maximum potential is key and a testament to your skillset. Ultimately, there are only two options available: rent or buy.
“Renting is useful when you need to have the latest and greatest, but also don’t need it on a day to day basis,” Nelson advises. “That way you can focus on owning the essentials.”
If you find yourself renting a piece of equipment enough times you might as well purchase it; don’t spend the cost of the item by renting it 10 times. Renting equipment is great for when you need the special touch of a high-end cinema camera or a particular lens, for example.
Other rentals, like wireless microphones, can be wholly appropriate on account of how quickly the model ranges and standards change. What use is a wireless rig that’s illegal to operate because the frequency regulations changed?
The equipment you do own should reflect your daily needs. Nelson swears by always having a couple of Panasonic GH4s on hand. When it comes to buying, you should always research your selection and make the decision on whether it is worth the purchase. Check on forums to see whether reliability is an issue, sometimes newer generations of products don’t perform as well as the outgoing model. Price talked about knowing when not to buy, “Learn to use what you have well and know when not to buy. A lot of people did not start asking this question until 2008.”
What you absolutely want to avoid is hoarding a bunch of unused equipment. Price explains that it’s important to know when you sell or give stuff away. “Hoarding equipment will cost you because you’re paying the tax on its depreciation. Not to mention that the equipment is wasting away.”
Price also rents his own gear out to augment its cost. He says that if you’re renting out equipment to others, the gear should pay for itself within 20 to 30 rentals. If you can find ways to save money or make money back on your gear, there’s really no reason not to.
High Definition and Fidelity
The move to high definition was a big change for everyone and required major changes in both the production and post production line, but we already knew that. Fast forward to today and every high-end phone has at least a 1080p screen with a camera that can capture 4K.
Price uses portable cameras to good effect during tours to achieve multi camera setups that deliver a good result. Touring budgets can be tight and it often falls to people to do multiple jobs. Price usually ends up managing the tour in addition to providing sound and video. Having a simple and effective video setup that does the job is invaluable.
The other big changes were on the post production end. Price had to make the move up to the next version of Sony Vegas in order to work with newer file formats. Audio engineers are creatures of habit. If you have a setup that works you don’t try and break it by upgrading your software unless you absolutely need to.
With the increase in video quality, it's natural to expect a reciprocal bump in audio fidelity, but audio quality is still plagued by the same problems introduced by point and shoot and cell phone cameras in that they yield tinny, wide angle audio. While their microphones have improved, they are nowhere near the level of clarity provided by dedicated mics. It is still true that a video, regardless of quality, will be ruined by poor audio.
Good audio has always been important and and always will be. Nelson describes sound as being everything and that it requires significantly more knowledge than the knowledge required to operate a point and shoot camera.
Price recalls projects where film producers that particularly recognized the importance of audio that they would make time for the sound crew to test shots in order to get the best capture of a scene. The more usable audio you can capture on set the less work that needs to be done later in post with ADR.
Price even recommends that if you are going to work in the film industry as an audio engineer, you should learn the lenses. This will help you work out when to use certain microphones and being able to capture the spatial aesthetics of a scene. Price recalled a scene centered around a dining table. They ended up using a blend of lapel microphones as well hiding an omni-directional microphone in the décor at the center of the table in order to capture a real room sound. The raw cut immediately drew compliments from the director.
In today’s world we have grown accustomed to the wide angle audio from smartphones and handhelds, but Price also sees the progression where podcasters, for example, will transition to better equipment and the increase in audio fidelity.
“What now?” you may be asking, “How does this affect me and how do I use this going forward?” Audio and video are art forms, and like other arts, they involve just as much formal training and understanding of theory and technology while also requiring a strong sense of artistic direction, intuition and talent. Practice your craft and never treat yourself as being above certain tasks. You can learn something new in the most unexpected of settings.
What advice would you give for up and coming engineers, producers, and screenwriters?
“Produce every day. Write every day. Work every day. Practice, practice, practice. The best resource for screenwriters are competitions. Read the scripts that have won in the past and see what the judges are looking for; many of these Oscar scripts are available online. Read them and see what goes into a script. Many scenes get cut from the movie, so don’t look at the script and think there is nothing to gain by reading the original story. Then try your hand at writing a script and submit it to some competitions. This is the best way to get your stuff out there, and see how your work holds up to the competition.”
“Also never be discouraged. Just because your script doesn’t make it into a competition doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good script, and it definitely doesn’t mean it won’t make a good movie. Sometimes it means you didn’t get your point across and your script needs a rewrite. Sometimes the person reading your script makes a mistake and doesn’t give your work the proper time it’s due. I always encourage people to be open to criticism, but if you know that you have written a masterpiece then try and film it yourself. Never give up on your dream.”
“Try to do a little audio every day and give yourself little audio chores. Be on the lookout for information and resources, lurk in forums. Network and build connections, tradeshows can be a good place for this. Don’t sell yourself short. Be collaborative, and be prepared to learn.”
“Don’t put yourself above or below work. Always be prepared to work and learn!”
Blag spends his time between web development, IT and writing music. His backgrounds is, oddly enough, in those fields. Blag is a contributing editor at Videomaker where he mainly focuses on audio columns.