Scene: I’m sitting on stage in a room full of professional sound designers, about to play for them the worst approximation of a trumpet fanfare sound I have ever created, after running about 12 blocks from my hotel in 90° heat. Why did I sign up for this, again?
Procrastination is the tried-and-true method of getting work done under pressure, in a way that completely eliminates any chance of sleeping the night before a deadline. Unfortunately, it’s often noticeable that only a few hours were spent on a project that was supposed to be developed and perfected over the course of several weeks. There’s no easy way to overcome habitual procrastination (or if there is, I haven’t gotten around to finding it yet), but what happens if we purposefully exaggerate the effects of time pressure on creativity? As it turns out, it’s kind of like a fun version of being on a fast-sinking ship: you’re forced to take a close, panicky look at your creative process and quickly decide what stays, and what gets tossed overboard. My first encounter with limited-time create-a-thons was the Guerrilla Sound Design Challenge at the USITT conference. The rules: in three hours, create a sound design piece that is at least one minute long, based on a secret stimulus, without using any pre-recorded sounds. It’s a nearly-yearly tradition that was started in 2005 by David Smith (faculty at NCSA) and Bill Liotta. Curtis Craig, who teaches sound design at Penn State, was one of the first participants: “I remember the pure shock when we walked in and the room was completely full of people wanting to hear it. Drew Dalzell and I agreed onstage before we started that we had had OK careers, so if they ended there, we would be fine with it.”
Curtis hadn’t even brought a portable recording device – he had to use the mic built in to his iBook. At one point, he started recording without having headphones plugged in, and instantly started getting feedback. Everyone’s done this by mistake at some point, but Curtis realized he could use it to his advantage. By setting up some EQ automation and changing the angle of his laptop lid, he created a “feedback theramin” and was able to record a simple melody to use in his design. The first time I participated in this challenge, I immediately started recording sounds around the convention center that ultimately turned out to be useless, aside from some dialog that I had gathered by bullying other conventioneers into reading parts of the script. I also spent way too much time doing this, so by the time I got back to my hotel room with mostly-unusable sounds, I only had an hour to cobble something together and try to manufacture the other key elements. As it turns out, downtown Houston is not a place where you’re likely to run into giant chickens or hear a fanfare of trumpets, so my final piece included my less-than-stellar chicken and trumpet impressions, which I then had to play for a room full of respected peers and complete strangers. Embarrassment level: 9 out of 10.
The next time I participated, I had a partner in crime: Chris Rummel, self-proclaimed tallest sound designer in the world. Instead of jumping straight into recording, we dedicated the first part of our time to analyzing the 10-page script, and coming up with some general concepts, making a list of sounds that we knew we wanted. This process was much more efficient, and even though it sometimes felt like the organization work was wasting time, it was critical to develop a plan for dividing up the work according to our strengths. Being able to think fast on your feet is particularly important to theatrical designers, for those situations where there’s a last minute change an hour before the house opens, and the entire cast and production crew are waiting for you to reconstruct the transition sequence so that it can last twenty seconds instead of five. It’s not just about knowing all the keyboard shortcuts in your favorite software, though that certainly helps; it also requires that you immediately know what resources you have available, and how much time you will need in order to take advantage of them. Sound designers have a lot of options when it comes to tools, and each one has strengths and weaknesses. It’s good to get a feel for the different tools that are available, but time-constrained challenges highlight the importance of knowing one tool really, really well. If you can spend less time figuring out how to accomplish something, you can spend more time on the actual design content itself.
It has allowed me to write, record, and install entire pieces of music during a coffee break.” -Brad Berridge, sound designer
Brad Berridge is a sound designer who has also participated in the Guerrilla Sound Design challenge, and has even recreated a similar challenge to a couple of his students. His experience helped him to approach designs with more flexibility: “I spend more time researching, then planning out what I need, and less time creating. I find that keeping my brain in a ‘unlocked’ state makes tech go smoother, because I am not locked in to something. I know the show, but allow for changes in my design when the full scale model is finally coming to life. I also keep all of my tools refined and easy to use. It has allowed me to write, record, and install entire pieces of music during a coffee break.” In the end, though, these kinds of challenges are all about making a lot of discoveries in a short amount of time, whether it’s revealing key skills and styles of fellow designers, or coming up with new ways of recording interesting sounds by only using materials commonly found in hotel rooms. One year, David Budries (faculty at Yale) had a piece that featured this otherworldly dissonance, which sounded like a cacophony of long shrieks and violin chords. We were all certain he had cheated, until he revealed the secret: Splash a bunch of water on the mirror in the bathroom, then slowly but forcefully drag your fingers across it. You can try it yourself at home! So, when was the last time you had an idea for a project, but didn’t think you had enough time to do it?
Photo credit: Richard B. Ingraham