Things haven't gone exactly to plan...but what have we learned and where do we go from here?
To check out last year’s look ahead, read our Industry Roundtable: Industry Trends for 2020 and Beyond.
To say this year has not gone exactly as planned would be a dramatic understatement. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Every wall is a door,” and while we’ve certainly been shown the door a few times this year, I feel as though 2020 has been an epic showing of humanity’s will to believe and make that statement true.
Despite all the difficulties we’ve faced - between the threat of a deadly virus, the ensuing lockdowns and social distancing, and the unprecedented social unrest that’s boiled over this year - there have been some real bright spots in creative fields and by humanity as a whole.
So what do 10 incredible sound artists, including Oscar, Emmy, Golden Reel, and GANG award winners, have to say about The 2020 Experience so far? (Besides that I think we’re all ready for this season of EarthTV to be over?)
Read below to find out what the following distinguished panel of artists had to say:
|Mark Mangini||Supervising Sound Editor
Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner 2049
|Paula Fairfield||Sound Designer, Eargasm Inc.
Game of Thrones, LOST
|Richard King||Supervising Sound Editor
|Tim Nielsen||Supervising Sound Editor, Skywalker Sound
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Moana
|Ana Monte||Founder, Delta Soundworks
Spatial/3D Audio for AR/VR
|Mark Kilborn||Senior Lead Audio Designer, Certain Affinity
Call of Duty, Forza Motorsport
|Abby Potts||Post Audio Supervisor
|René Coronado||Lead Sound Designer, Dallas Audio Post
Host, Tonebenders Podcast
|Matt Carlson||Sound Designer & Audio Curator
|Micah Berry||Technical Director
Arts & Letters Creative Co
They say necessity is the mother of innovation. What’s a new move or skill you’ve developed this year?
Mark Mangini: How to work remotely, right? Having been spoiled for decades with help at the push of a button, learning to be more self-sufficient has really been exciting. Oddly, too, because we have not been able to record ADR and GROUP WALLA for months, I’ve been re-voicing characters and doing sync ADR (some just temp til we get the actor for ADR, others permanent). I’ve always loved voice work and this has given me a chance to flex my vocal chords a bit.
Richard King: I discovered Soundminer’s RADIUM, great sampler.
Paula Fairfield: I have been focusing more on mixing this year. I have done a lot of pre-mixing and sub-mixing in my work over the years, and have mixed the occasional project completely, but now I’m focusing on this as a natural extension of how I’ve been developing on my own sound journey. It’s exciting.
Tim Nielsen: I think in this current situation, many of us are learning to be more flexible and creative in how we approach a project. We’re all doing our best to just keep working, and by necessity we’ve had to learn to adapt to new working situations, technologies, workflows. I think a lot of us were and are faced often with the question, "Hmm… how are we going to DO this?" So I think that creative flexibility has become very important.
Ana Monte: Since things slowed down a bit I have used the project break as a “learning time” for new skills - I’ve been working on learning Nuendo, which is a new DAW that I hadn’t used before. We bought a license for the company to use with VR projects. I’m more of a Pro Tools girl myself, but I must say Nuendo is growing on me ;)
Mark Kilborn: This is not a new thing to others, but I had to get my head around making creature sounds this year. It's something I've never had to do professionally before. It was an adventure, and staring down a deadline was intimidating and helpful with it.
Abby Potts: Managing a remote team is definitely a new and different skill I've had to develop during these covidtimes. For my team, sharing sessions back and forth hasn’t been a big issue, but communication is much more challenging now that we aren’t meeting at the water cooler anymore. We were already using Microsoft Teams for shared documents etc. but it’s now basically our virtual office with channels for each show and task lists for the assists so that everyone can see what is going on with all of our shows at all times. I’ve also found that working remotely it’s harder to have a casual drop in conversation, but we do a daily video call check-in with everyone in the audio department that allows us all to catch-up and discuss common issues etc. together.
Working from home has become the new normal and surely none have benefited more than our furry friends.
René Coronado: I’m certainly not alone in this, but we’ve really refined our remote voice cutting and mixing workflows. For in-person VOs I have a talent isolated in a booth with an ipad running a camera to a zoom connection, I have my personal phone on my console putting a camera on me, and I have a third connection just feeding audio and a video feed of my edit window.
As people connect I’m able to push those cameras over to the talent in the booth, and everyone can smile and still have lots of non verbal communication during and after takes. Producers can also watch my timeline and even though I’m still slating whether we’re hearing new takes or playback, they get additional visual reinforcement of what they’re hearing, so the flow of communication is at least as fast as it was when everyone was here in-person with me. This is especially helpful for the producers to see as we comp edits together from various takes.
Of course, the vast majority of my VO sessions are done with talent over source connect now, so that workflow plugs into this setup seamlessly as well, with the one omission of the talent camera.
"We’re all doing our best to just keep working, and by necessity we’ve had to learn to adapt to new working situations, technologies, workflows."
— Tim Nielsen
Matt Carlson: Collaborating remotely - We’ve been slowly gaining the tools for remote collaboration over the years but it has always been an option or preference but we have always preferred to do things in person. Now it's a requirement. The show must go on despite being in isolated quarantine. All the regular difficulties of work are exponentially escalated by being separated. Managing the transfer of large files, differing software versions, relying on explaining things by seeing or doing are all challenges that come with working remote. Adapting to these challenges and overcoming them makes us all much stronger in the end.
Micah Berry: For better or worse, necessity and invention have both been big parts of 2020. I started with Arts & Letters Creative Co as Technical Director early in the year; just a few weeks before the shift to working from home. For a good portion of our staff, working from home meant more of a shift in where they work, but not so much a shift in how they work. Many folks were able to simply take their laptops home and continue working, business as usual. But for our post-production operation, this was an across the board shift in how they work. The big question: How do we take a team of people that are used to working on a high speed media server and put them all in their spare bedrooms with a wide range of consumer grade ISP connections?
In addition to leaning on some Google Drive infrastructure that we already had in place, we added some new tools to the arsenal that really made the experiment come to life and got us closer to the "in shop" experience we were all used to. We picked up Frame.io as our tool for collaborative review and approval. Not long after, we added Iconik.io as our cloud based media asset management tool. Google Drive handles the backbone for our collaborative workspace, while our VPN from Studio Network Solutions keeps us connected to our EVO server from anywhere.
So, to make a long story short, our new skill has been to develop and maintain a remote post-production pipeline that continues to function and evolve eight months into the work from home experiment.
What do you think the future holds for your industry? Are there any aspects of this year's adaptations that you’d like to see made permanent, and how would you like things to evolve?
The author acknowledges the re-use of this image from last year's Industry Roundtable post, and does so unapologetically because Minority Report rules. (©2002 Twentieth Century Fox)
Mark Mangini: Besides washing your hands? Yes. Let's make permanent our increased awareness of the value of collaboration, which has been strained dramatically when working remotely.
I think there will always be a hunger in a community for gathering in the dark around a flickering light to be transported from the tedium of our everyday lives. Whether that means going to a cinema, as we know it today, I can’t say. I see my peers, in sound as well as in the other arts, working more than ever and the pandemic has only increased the importance and the value of entertainment. Will people still go to movie theaters? Today, the outlook is bleak but we’ll get past COVID and have an even greater hunger to gather again. I think the future is very bright.
Many of my peers are not being compensated for the real costs of building and running the home studio we must now work in because of COVID closings of their previous place of employment. I’d like to see sound artists talk and share stories and create some solidarity around this to see us all compensated fairly.
Richard King: Too early to tell. I think the ripples from the industry shutting down for so long are still playing out. I hope theaters can hold out.
We learned that it’s possible to prep a big film remotely. We all worked from home on TENET for five weeks, also doing temp mixes remotely before returning to Warner Bros. Stage 9 to final mix for two months, under very strict safety protocols. We suspected the shutdown was coming so we did a lot of planning ahead of time. It all worked incredibly well, but I prefer working at the studio and having the crew all together. Communicating through devices is tiresome.
Like everyone, I hope the industry comes roaring back. The tools we use get better and better, it’s an exciting time to be involved with film sound.
Paula Fairfield: I think the industry will become more globalized, less centralized in Hollywood. I don’t think that’s a bad thing … more opportunity for those who aren’t living in LA.
Tim Nielsen: The industry will rebound. It may take a while and it may not look completely the same on the other side of all of this. But it will rebound. I suspect the ability for remote workflows will be the lasting impact of this. As people decide to move out of the cities, as we see happening, I think it will simply be more common to see crews with members in various locations.
Ana Monte: As far as the VR industry, the whole Covid thing helped a lot with developing tools to connect, while also shining a light on VR as a resource. I think we all know at this point that conferences as they have worked so far, aren't sustainable. There have to be virtual options for people to be able to participate. Through Covid, people have offered more events using VR (Altspace, for example) and it’s been pretty cool! I have participated in some of those events and it’s a great alternative to Zoom meetings on a flat screen. I’ve also done video calls using XR glasses like Magic Leap and it’s amazing! To have a person’s avatar walking around in your living room is SO cool! I can’t wait for XR and VR glasses to make it to the general public and spread as much as smartphones have. I also can’t wait for XR tools to be integrated in the audio world. Imagine Minority Report but with audio tools!
Mark Kilborn: I think there will be more opportunities for game sound work as our industry shifts more towards games as a service, whether it be individual evergreen games or services like Xbox Game Pass, where there's a drive to get more and more new games on the service. Games have been very resilient during the pandemic, and I'm very optimistic about the future of our industry.
The pandemic has forced game studios to adapt to remote work, and I think it's been a very positive thing for our industry. I know this will persist with some studios, including my employer, but my hope is that it persists industry-wide. Game studios are often positioned in very expensive areas to live, but the salaries don't allow for a great quality of life. This is a good solution for that problem.
René Coronado: Interactive and spatial still look like the broad horizons to me. I recently got the new apple AirPods that can do spatial audio from the Apple TV app, and it was pretty amazing. It’s not just a binaural decode of the Atmos mix, but something that actually tracks head movement relative to the iOS device and does a truly beautiful pan as you move your head. Apple is doing some heavy gatekeeping on that technology at the moment (probably due to the amount of technical wizardry required to pull it of), but I can only imagine that if spatial audio can get more universally distributed to headphone based playback it will create a big wave of spatial deliverable requirements across a lot of different formats that currently max at stereo - things like podcasts and Spotify/Pandora ads. The reason I’m so bullish on this is because it’s something that can get pushed out to the end user almost without them knowing it. With just a generation or so of hardware and software updates it can ‘just work’ on all new consumer level headphones - eliminating the requirement to set up and run lots of speakers in the living room to achieve spatial playback at the end user level.
I also think a lot of talent have really stepped up their home recording games - both in terms of room treatment and mic setups. I obviously much prefer the sound when people come to the studio, but the drop-off to a lot of talent’s home setups has been lessened dramatically in the last 6 months.
"The pandemic has only increased the importance and the value of entertainment."
— Mark Mangini
Abby Potts: Remote work is here to stay, at least in some capacity. I can see sound editorial becoming a primarily remote thing. It’s relatively cheap/easy these days to have your own home system and we’ve gotten used to not sitting in Los Angeles traffic, it’ll be hard to go back! Mixing will return to the stages I'm sure, but I can see more directors/producers being willing to have pre-dub done from their mixers' homes, particularly on independent projects that are usually quite tight on budget already. I think the thing I’m most excited about keeping is just the flexibility that the pandemic has opened up for us. It’s shown us that the traditional model where everyone HAS to be in the same location just isn’t necessary and that allows us to potentially tap into more talent and clients from around the world.
Matt Carlson: First is increased home media creation. Since we’re not able to go to studios physically or collaborate in person, along with an increase of free time, more and more folks will need or want to create from home. From professionals who are suddenly displaced from their ideal working environment to folks who are picking up media creation for the first time as a hobby, we will all need equipment, environments, and new skills to make things work in less than ideal conditions. Home studios will become much more prevalent. We’ll also need tools to be able to fix some of the issues that occur in less than ideal conditions. There will be a need for tools that are lighter, faster, easier to use at a reasonable price for a broader range of users.
Second is remote streaming of live shows. The live industry has completely come to a halt. Our ability to want to feel connection, express emotions, and simply be entertained will never stop. Our current life has shifted to remote online services and it’s likely that live entertainment will follow suit. Charging admission to a live stream performance or show is a natural transition to make. Throw in some innovative merch options or exclusive content and you’ve got momentum. In some ways, performances could become more accessible than ever. Location is no longer a limit. Perhaps immersive audio at home will also become standard. There will still be the need for high quality production value in these new performances and the logistics of how to do that safely is still to be seen. We are not that far off and I’m confident the live industry is motivated and smart enough to make it happen.
Micah Berry: I think the future holds a lot of promise for our industry. Especially if we are willing to evolve with the changing demands of the landscape. With many people spending so much time at home, content consumption has become an even bigger part of our daily lives. The lines between the "show" and the ad are starting to blur even more. We are beginning to see more long-form content in advertising and I think it's a neat trend. From tailored podcasts to mini-documentaries, it's not just about the 30-second spot anymore and I look forward to seeing where that road leads.
What has been the most positive thing to come out of The 2020 Experience?
Mark Mangini: Spending time with my family and how that’s changed my work approach. Working from home has allowed me to see my wife and son every day for lunch because I just walk out of my home studio and into the kitchen! This, in fact, has allowed me to work in a way I’ve always done pre-pandemic but with greater effect: Rather than put in a solid 9 and then head home, I can get up and wander around the house, hang with the family and return to the task at hand for an extended period of time. This gives me some really valuable mental breaks and perspective. I may not walk out of my home studio till 9 or 10 pm, but I’ve taken some critical breaks in between to just hang out, jam with my son and chill with my wife. I get a solid 9 in but it’s more spread out and…more humane and effective, I think.
Richard King: I’m finding it hard to detect any bright spots frankly. I’m tired of the masks and the social distancing. I’m tired of not working. It’s all absolutely necessary now but I’m looking forward to when that will not be so.
Paula Fairfield: I think work life balance is something we all struggle with in this industry and I’m glad the work from home stigma is now gone. I have worked remotely my whole career but I have been punished for that by some who wouldn’t want to hire me remote. As a woman, the studio system never worked for me. But my remote work game is strong, as is my studio. I’m frankly happy that working from wherever is no longer a big deal.
Tim Nielsen: I think the technology, because it had to, has really stepped up and enabled remote workflow and collaboration in ways we didn’t have available to us before. Technologies that allow clients to review remotely, editors and mixers to collaborate remotely, this technology can only benefit us going forward. The sad truth is, we’re likely to have lasting impacts from Covid-19 and we’re likely to see something like this happen again. I expect that we’re now in a much better position to transition into alternate workflows. Also the ability to work safely, quickly, securely and remotely will open up new possibilities for collaboration. So to me that is the biggest benefit, is the emergence of exciting new remote-collaboration technologies.
"People have shown that they care about the health and well-being of one another in a new way through this, and I think that’s fostered a lot of new collaborations that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. "
— René Coronado
Ana Monte: The development of virtual tools for connecting. A lot of tools are being developed for online conferences and events and I think it’s long overdue. Irrespective of Covid, there are tons of events that happen around the world that people want to participate in but cannot because they don’t have the time or the money to travel. This year’s AES convention called “Virtual Vienna,” was totally virtual and we got a lot of compliments from Japanese participants who were able to participate in a European convention without having to fly across the world. Event planners need to stop fearing this format and thinking that people just won’t come to the events if they are offered online. This is BS. Nothing beats meeting your fellow colleagues and friends at a convention!
Mark Kilborn: It's strange to talk about positive things coming out of the pandemic, but if there's a silver lining for me, it's been more time with my family. The work I do can mostly be done from home, so I've really enjoyed the freedom to work from here. Whenever our studio reopens, we're talking about a hybrid approach going forward, and I'm planning to work 1-2 days in the office and 3-4 days at home every week.
Rene Coronado: We’re all in this together and there’s a real sense of camaraderie amongst everyone that I’m working with right now. On big projects and small, every person I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with has been very forward looking and hard working. People have shown that they care about the health and well-being of one another in a new way through this, and I think that’s fostered a lot of new collaborations that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
One example of this was Al Sirkett’s Ambient Isolation Project. He got a bunch of us field recordists from all over the world to record that unique moment in time when everything stopped moving, and then managed to create a package that raised a bunch of money for the UK National Autistic Society with the sounds that were captured.
Abby Potts: As humans when we face adversity we tend to band together and this pandemic has definitely created some adversity, but everyone is rising to the challenge and coming up with new ways of doing things that are sometimes even better than the traditional ways. I continue to be amazed by the adaptability of the people I work with, from my sound team to our post supervisors, assistant editors, and producers we’ve all figured out how to make this thing work and continue to deliver shows on time to air. It's different, but it works and that's something that flexibility and ingenuity is something I hope we keep with us whenever things get back to "normal."
Matt Carlson: Empathy - The one thing that brings me hope from this whole experience is a resurgence of empathy. In all my daily correspondence, whether its email, text, chat, video or phone calls, there is a moment of genuine human connection that re-frames the context of the interaction. Checking in to make sure people are healthy, safe and that their circumstances are not absolutely terrible is usually the first thing brought up. It feels like there is substance behind it instead of just being polite. It’s a reminder to take things less seriously and that there are more drastic issues out there. Everyone knows we’re all affected. It changes the context of communication from a terse business meeting into a more empathetic and less stressful conversation. People are nicer to work with. Things aren’t as rigid. We all kind of need that right now.
Micah Berry: I would say that it has been watching our team grow and work together under such difficult circumstances. It takes a determined group of people to figure all of this out and it has been rewarding to watch my friends rise to the challenge!
This has been the Year of the Hobby for many - have you cultivated any passions outside of work in 2020?
Mark Mangini: My youngest son and I have a tradition of giving each other a musical instrument for Christmas and our birthdays. This year he bought me a Sousaphone and a Didjeridoo. So I’m working on my embouchure and learning how to blow hard…something I’ve been accused of for years.
Richard King: I started drawing again, after many years.
Paula Fairfield: I’ve started a personal claymation film project which has been fun. Mostly I spend my spare time playing with my dogs in the pool…not a bad way to spend one’s time and be reminded of the simple pleasures, which is all we can hope for right now.
Tim Nielsen: I’ve been a bit obsessed with the Great British Baking Show, and so I’ve been enjoying learning to bake! Now that flour and yeast aren’t as rare as gold, as they were at the beginning of all of this, I’ve been enjoying learning to bake. It’s a calm respite from the continual demoralizing news of the outside world. And there isn’t a nicer smell to have around the house than baking bread!
Ana Monte: I’m part of a choir for which I helped create practice tracks so that people could continue singing from home. I also play badminton twice a week and I also used the Covid lockdown to develop my cooking skills and try new recipes! :D
Mark Kilborn: My interests are pretty laser-focused on sound, but with the new free time afforded by working from home and working at a place with such an anti-crunch culture, I've had time to pursue some other audio-related interests. I've been doing some film sound work, and I've been writing music again for the first time in many years.
René Coronado: I’ve been working hard on my poker game lately. Poker is the opposite of production - its competition instead of collaboration, but it also develops a set of skills that are broadly applicable in life.
This includes deeper logic trees and deductive reasoning, seeing things in probabilities instead of black and white, interpreting physical and timing tells, study skills, retaining presence in the moment, holding emotional stability when things break against me, patience, data analysis, and all kinds of other things. It's great fun. :)
Abby Potts: Like many others I’ve gone through a puzzle phase, a sourdough bread baking phase, and a home decorating phase during my stay at home time. None of them have really stuck though!
Matt Carlson: Home Improvement and learning to cook have become new regular things this year. With a lot of extra time and not being able to pursue a number of my regular hobbies, fixing and cooking have opened up a whole new paradigm. Learning how to do things like painting, electrical, and plumbing the right way has not only improved my engineering mind but made me highly productive in the process. Cooking has immensely helped with my mixes for clients. I’ve been complimented on my work now more than ever. The ability to try new ideas or add in something different while sticking to what you know is an artful skill that translates pretty well from food to music.
Micah Berry: I have become a committed student of baking and eating deep dish pizza. I started off with your run of the mill Chicago style and have worked my way through recipes made famous by some great pizza spots across the USA. My favorite? The Detroit Red Stripe. It may seem simple but when you get the dough just right...boom. Look it up. If it's not taking you 2 days to make, you're doing it wrong.
Is there anything else important to you right now that you'd like to call out?
Mark Mangini: I’ve never understood why documentary filmmakers working in vérité (or any documentary filmmaker, for that matter) shoot using monaural sound. Doesn’t the word vérité itself have its roots in the Latin for truth? We hear in 360 degrees, right? I’ve been working with some smart new filmmakers on docs and we’ve been experimenting with Ambisonic microphones for original capture and with great results. Worth opening this discussion with your filmmakers in preproduction. Hearing the “truth” in 360 is an overwhelming benefit to the impact the filmmakers want to have on their audiences.
Paula Fairfield: VOTE. PLZ JUST VOTE. Wear your mask. Support one another through these crazy times. I wish peace and love to all…we are all struggling in our own unique ways and I have hope we will all get thru this and on to better times. Plan your vote here.
Tim Nielsen: One project I’ve been working on is a world-wide ambience crowd-source project, of people recording 5 or so ambiences of where they live. Be it their backyard, neighborhood, city, etc. Wherever it’s safe to record. It’s running until the end of October, and if anyone is interested in going, follow this link and watch the short introduction video, and read the ReadMe file for more information on what we’re doing. We will use this money to raise some money for charity as well, a way for the sound community to do something positive!
Ana Monte: We’re currently working on a really powerful project called “Razing Liberty Square,” (Website | Facebook). It’s a movie about the demolition of one of the country's most historic African-American public housing projects in Miami, FL, and we’re doing the audio for both the doc and the VR experience.
Mark Kilborn: Nothing specific to plug, just GO F'ING VOTE. PLEASE. VOTE. Plan your vote here.
Abby Potts: With all the fires we've had in California this year I'd like to call attention to the Red Cross. When I was in high school my dormitory burnt down and the Red Cross was on site within hours with goodie bags of toiletries and other essentials. Whenever we face these kind of natural disasters I think about the work that they did to make me feel safe in one of the most traumatic moments of my childhood and am thankful that they are always there to help others in similar situations. You can donate to Red Cross Wildfire Relief efforts here.
Micah Berry: There is so much going on in our lives right now that it's easy to forget that there are still a lot of people in the world that don't even have clean water. Something like COVID would seem trivial if you didn't have water. The Water Project is an amazing non-profit that sponsors community water projects in Uganda, Kenya, and Sierra Leone. Even a small donation can go a long way to helping some good folks stay clean and hydrated!
The author with his pandemic-born baby girl Maeve. Increased family time has been a common thread in the positive column this year and I shall wholeheartedly concur.
I want to give a big, HUGE thanks to the amazing artists who contributed to this roundtable. We asked some pretty personal questions and I really appreciate that everybody was gracious enough to share their insight and give us a glimpse into their lives and spirits through this really challenging year.
And I will personally echo the sentiments of many - this experience has really put a spotlight onto what matters most in life, and helped me (and hopefully many others) to filter out things that don't bring joy to life and double down on those that do.
Here's to finishing off this wild year as strong as possible and hoping for some smoother sailing in 2021 and beyond.
- Jeremy & Team PSE