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An Interview with Ian Armstrong of Wolf Willow Studios

How did you get into doing post-audio?
It’s kind of an interesting path. I first began doing sound for theatres. We would build music cues, sound effects, and sound design. We would create reels, doing sound cue reels for an entire theatrical production. As time moved on, I moved out of the theatre and realized that I had better control over what I was doing if I was doing sound for film and television.  

How did this theatrical background impact how you design sound today? 
Whoa, that was a long time ago. It helped me understand what the purpose of the sound in the production was. Was it moving the story forward? Was the sound helping to tell the story? 

Do you have any memorable projects? 
I’ve been working in sound since about 1986, so there have been many, many memorable projects from music and film to television. To me, they are all memorable. That sounds a little cliché. Every project has its own challenges, rewards, and experiences. One memorable project was from a year ago. I did audio post-production and composition. That was a little bit different for me because those are two entirely different hats that you have to wear at the same time. 

Since you compose music, what musical instruments do you play?
I play a few musical instruments … keyboards, bass guitar, and the drums.  

How does that impact how you do post-audio? 
Having a musical background really does impact one’s ability to do audio-post. I’ve always said it’s easier to train someone who has a good ear to do a technical process than it is to teach someone who’s good at technical process to have a good ear. Musicians have that sense of timing, rhythm, tonality, and so know what works and what doesn’t. For example, if you were cutting in a sound effect into a show that has a steel door, it doesn’t work to cut in a sound of a rickety screen door. I often find musicians have a better capacity to get there quicker. 

What are your pre-production tips? 
One of the best tips I can give for sound is to literally have a pre-production meeting. Work through the script. It’s one of the things I ask a producer for. If I can get a script, I can give feedback and say where the challenges will be. We can plan to capture certain sounds. The pre-production shouldn’t just be with your location sound recordist, which is very important because they interface with the DOP & Director, but also with those who are doing the sound edit or mix. They can also troubleshoot and ensure adequate support. 

Often location sound is where things really hit the ditch. If the location sound is challenged or bad, typically the audio-post people end up spending all their time fixing the sound, as opposed to moving the project forward to create a better sound design overall. 

Can you tell me about some of the people who have recorded at Wolf Willow Studio? 
We’ve had many interesting and different people over the years. I’ve recorded a lot of actors when they were in town for something else and had to do ADR. I recently recorded an actor named Liam Hemsworth, who did the opening narration for his film, Paranoia. I’ve recorded the rapper Nas. Two verses from his relatively famous rap, First Black President, were recorded here. He happened to be on tour when it was projected Barack Obama would win the election, so his record label wanted it. I did interviews with Taylor Swift. I had an actor named Nathan Fillion here, he is relatively successful and had a T.V. show called Castle. 

What should a filmmaker look for when hiring an individual to do sound design? 
There are several things to look at. Hopefully, they have experience. Experience isn’t the be all end all. You don’t necessarily need to do something a thousand times to do it well. When troubleshooting it is good to have someone experienced. I would talk to them about their sound philosophy. What they bring to the production. What do they do? Do they have the infrastructure, support, and resources to do the job? Do they have a place to record foley? ADR? Do they have sound effect libraries? Can they integrate sound quickly? 

How do you make the decision to record your own foley versus a premade sound effect? 
We do a dialogue assessment. If a filmmaker has done their job, held pre-production meetings, and hired the right people, this goes well. Then we move through the sounds. Larger effects, like a car exploding, we won’t get ourselves. I like to record the foley for what is inconsequential, the subtleties, like the way the clothing moves, the footsteps. These things aren’t special effects, but if it isn’t natural it will distract the viewer from the film. I need to film my soundscape, so the viewer is not taken out of the “suspension of disbelief”. As you’re watching a project, if everything is done right – the shooting, dialogue, foley – you enjoy the show. When something is not done right, you notice. There was a movie called Gremlins where the green hills of California were in the middle of a winter wonderland. You lose the story. These subtleties you can do much better live as a foley artist, than you can taking from a library. 

How long does it take to do post-audio?
It varies greatly. For some documentaries it’s just talking heads and a little bit of music; that goes very quickly. Some documentaries have reenactments, which is treated as a drama. Then there are dramas. For a half hour of television, I’m looking at about a week. That’s to do sound design, edit, cut, and mix. Every 5 minutes of video  is 6 or 8 hours in post audio to do a really good job. 

For a short film, how much budget should be allocated for sound? 
All of it, haha. 

Well, there are economies of scale. The longer the film the greater the economy of scale for any process. We often go at 5%  – 10%, which can look steep on a $10,000, but all things being equal and if the budget is funded correctly it could be between 5% – 10%. 

For a feature-length film how much budget should be allocated for sound? 
When we make films in Alberta, there are two kinds of budgets. There is the actual cash budget, how much money the producers have. Then the budget for which they’ve written their budgets. This is based on grants, tax incentives, and so on. In the past, I’ve felt good with 5% – 6% of the total budget with a larger production.  

What would be your final advice to burgeoning filmmakers when it comes to sound? 
The best piece of advice I can give to filmmakers who are starting out is to plan. Have pre-production meetings. Pre-production meetings are free, as opposed to fixing problems later. Don’t be afraid to, during production, take time to respect the sound. During any part of filming, the shooting day is the most expensive. Sound guys will say things are fine, and the director may say “I’ll fix it in post”. Empower your sound people to have input. Take a few extra minutes to make sure everything is put in correctly. I just worked on a film where I got all the field sound in, but as I was listening to it, it sounded like the actor was only coming in on the other actor’s microphone. I asked one of the production staff and she said they did not have time to mic him up. I thought “wow, okay, it only takes about a minute”. Basically, you need to plan, make sure your sound people have enough time and empower them to speak up.