Recently the Sound Designer Tim Prebble wrote an article on his blog offering some blanket advice for students and upcoming “soundies”. If you have not had a chance to check it out, please do so before reading anything further here. It is great writing, useful knowledge and far superior to what you will find in the following paragraphs. I just wanted to take a moment to add my two cents and reinforce some of his points with my own examples. I am by no means as successful as Mr. Prebble (I recently saw an excellent example of the work he has done in the somewhat overlooked film “Warrior’s Way” - this film sounds fantastic), but I am someone who is working my way up the ladder and have 13 years of my own experience that is both vastly different and remarkably similar to the path of Mr. Prebble.
One point of focus Prebble mentions is that “the majority of your learning occurs when working” and “practical experience is the most important learning you will ever do”. These are very important points. School and book learning are great starting points, but all they really do is give you a language. In school you will learn the concepts of time code, decibels, signal routing, frame rates etc. Knowing these terms allows you to have conversations with professionals at a basic level, but just because you know the definitions it doesn't mean you know what they are all about. The only way to really learn the trade of sound post production is to get your nose in there and work on projects. Richard Spence-Thomas, a former boss and great influence on both my career and my life, told me once that “all finishing an audio or film education program proves is that it is what you want to do with your life. It does not mean you know anything about the actual profession at all.” Meaning you had the perseverance to meet the demands of multiple years of schooling, dealing with the educational bureaucracy, and the late nights of homework while juggling part time jobs (not to mention all the classmates and the egos the film world tends to attract). If you had the fortitude to keep your focus through all that, it normally demonstrates that you want to be in the game for the long run. The film program I attended in the mid 90’s accepted 88 students to start the first year. Three years later, when diplomas were handed out, less then 10 of those original students actually graduated. In many ways the education system can be looked at as a way of culling the herd down to those who are really focused.
The final semester of my three year program was a work placement, or work experience. At the time I did not have any idea how big of a decision I was about to make. I was lucky enough to be in Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, and one of the hubs for the industry in my country. I had a lot of options on where to apply. There were massive facilities with multiple large mix theaters and huge sound editorial departments, as well as smaller one studio shops on the other end of the scale.
I set up a meeting with one of my favourite teachers to seek out any advice or leads he could offer me before I started my search. He answered my questions with another question - I had to ask myself what I wanted out of my placement, did I want knowledge or did I want a job. If I was after a job he suggested focusing on the large facilities. If accepted I could get a placement working in the machine room or dubbing department and at the end of my placement, if things went well, a job could be waiting for me. On the other hand if it was knowledge I was after he suggested targeting the smaller shops. Since a smaller studio is normally only staffed with a few people they can use any free help they can get. They will put you to work and teach you everything they can so you can actually help them out. Another advantage of a smaller studio is you will get to try lots of different areas of audio post production, as everyone has to wear many hats. But the downside is, in the end they might not be able to take you on as a full time employee.
Later that day I blasted out faxes (remember faxing?) to about 10 of the smaller post studios in the city, and started working out my plans for follow up phone calls and visits. Then my phone rang. It was one of the studios asking me to come in for an interview. It turned out the owners of this smaller studio were having a conversation about how they were getting busier and it might be a good idea to take on a college student at the exact moment my letter and resume was coming in on their fax machine. A great example of how timing is everything and luck helps out a lot too.
The next day I found myself in an interview at the studio and I was asked a very difficult question regarding mic technique with multiple actors in a small area. I was immediately deflated because I had no idea what the answer was. After a few moments of panic I sheepishly admitted I did not know the answer. Their stern faces slowly started turning into warm smiles. The question was a trick, there was no right answer. It was a small test to see if I was a know-it-all bullshit artist or if I was able to admit I did not know something. If they were going to take on a student they wanted one that they could teach and did not think he already had all the answers. I had accidentally passed the test by admitting my own lack of knowledge. I started my 3 month work placement with them a few weeks later.
I quickly realized I knew basically nothing, and had a whole world of new processes and concepts to master. In the end I struck gold, as I learned a lot during my time there and was hired on to work the evening shift at the studio when the placement was over and I had graduated.
There are 2 main lessons from this story. One is that timing and luck play a part, but your ability to take advantage of them play a much bigger part. Stumbling into an opportunity is useless if you are not ready to take the next step. Secondly, leave your ego at the door and never pretend you know things you don’t. Professionals would rather teach you to do something right then waste time re-doing something you misrepresented your knowledge about. As a student you are not expected to know everything, but you are expected to learn fast and not make the same mistakes repeatedly. Simply put don’t make promises you can not keep, it wastes time and quite frankly is unprofessional.
Also when deciding on a path to becoming a professional put a lot of weight in a school program that offers a work placement or co-op as part of the curriculum. They are great ways to dip your toes in the real work world. You might be working for free, but you will get a whole lot out of the time you spend that will be worth more then money over the long arc of a career. The knowledge, experience, and contacts you gain will give you a massive head start over people that attended an institution that does not offer work placements. Almost every gig and client I have today can be traced back to connections I made as a result of that first work placement I did.
Here is an answer I wrote on social sound design in the summer of 2010 that also deals with the subject of getting started in this business. A question was asked for advice on how to impress an employer during a work placement.
There are two things I find extremely important in perspective interns/trainees
1 The ability to observe in silence. It is very difficult to mix or edit content when there are constant interruptions with questions. This is especially bad if clients are present. Take mental notes (or actual pencil and paper notes) of questions you have and wait for the appropriate time to ask them. You will find many of your questions will get answered naturally through observation and those that don't give you a lot to talk about over lunch or at a slow point in the day. It is very important to ask questions and learn as much as you can. After all you are possibly offering your time for free with the expectation that you will benefit from knowledge and experience. But remember the studio has obligations to clients and deadlines also. So it is important to know when to ask and when to simply observe. I have had bad experiences with interns that never stopped talking all day and they never made it past the intern stage as a result.
2 Don't under any circumstances pretend to know more then you do. I would rather teach you how to do it right then waste time re-doing something that was done improperly. It can be true that there are no dumb questions, I am much more impressed with someone willing to learn to do it right then someone trying too hard to impress. Every studio does things a little differently so figure how things are done where you are and try to meet those standards.
Keep your head up and if you want bonus points treat any client you encounter like gold. After all, the ability to get a client to trust you and your work is equally as important as your technical skills. If they don't trust or like you they won't come back with their next project, and it is their money that keeps the studio in business.