Any good engineer knows that what we do is less about technical skills and much more about how you deal with the clients in the room with us. With ADR recording, my job always means keeping everyone calm, happy and relaxed in order for us to get the job done. But as a Dubbing or Re-Recording mixer, it’s a slightly different ball game. Not only do you still have to do all of the above, you also need to handle any insecurities your director and producer has as they start to reach the end of their project, when in theory, changes can no longer be made. After months, or possibly years, developing a project, sound post is their last step and can be when all the self-doubt and worry about a project shows itself and then sometimes get projected onto us engineers.
Requests From Directors
Over the years I’ve had experiences ranging from directors only wanting to listen to their mix back in mono on the TV or small speakers (because that’s how everyone at home listened to TV 20 years ago, apparently) through to a director who specifically requested a 5.1 mix but on our final mix days refused to sit in the room with me to listen to the mix and instead wanted a stereo fold down of the 5.1 to listen to on his headphones in the VO booth, his hotel room and the coffee shop down the road, even though this mix was meant to be for theatrical festival release only with a TV safe mix being completed later. He then sent me notes over email that could have quickly been resolved in person and some of which wouldn’t even be relevant had he been listening to the correct mix in the correct environment.
The best one has to be after recording VO for a show with a high profile actor, the producers then decided they no longer liked the actors performance as this was a high profile show and it needed to be right. Instead of telling the actor this (which actually would have meant they’d have to pay them more) they decided to lie to said actor and say my recordings were so badly done that they needed to redo them and told both the facility and myself that they would be telling the actor this and we were to go along with it. Just for clarity, the recordings weren’t bad and there were no technical faults. They were pretty bloody good.
The Customer Is Always Right?
As mixers, although our job is also creative, we can often be treated as glorified button pushers, which we do with a smile and to the best of our best abilities. But when those buttons don’t get pushed in exactly the way the client expected or had envisioned then the bigger problems start, mostly as a result of a lack of communication on their part. Schedules are extended but budgets aren’t, and an agreement made at the beginning of the project suddenly changes and you’re expected to work extra days for the same money originally agreed.
Another challenge we face is the blame game. For example, a director who has given you no notes or direction on how they want a soundscape on a project, instead tells you to “do what you think is best, I trust you” who then turns around during the final mix and says that you haven’t delivered what they wanted and asks why have you not done what they asked (the logic in this one always astounds me). The blame game trick is usually to avoid paying for the overrun they know is coming their way for the extra work needed to be completed outside the original agreement, all because they have run over as a result of their indecisiveness.
Having faced these situations and many more as both staff and a freelancer I was always faced with the same issue. At the end of the day it’s the clients project so I’m there to facilitate their vision, not mine, so keep my mouth shut, smile and get on with the job if I want to make sure I stay employed and get paid.
But what about when the blame game starts to affect your reputation? Do you stay quiet, keep the client happy and work with them again, which is usually the route you have to take being staff anywhere. As a freelancer you need to make a similar choice in order to keep working because you are only as good as your last gig.
Or do you stand up for yourself? That options is always the less appealing.
What Can We Do?
So how do we combat this and not be labeled as trouble makers? How do we find a solution that helps stop these repeat problems from happening in our industry? How do we get clients to understand…
That we are not just glorified Button Pushers.
If you change the goal posts on a project or you are indecisive on a mix then that extra time and hard work needs to be paid for.
Before Christmas I hosted an event for all AMPS members on negotiation skills and financial well-being from an incredible woman called Emily Man. After twenty years producing films, TV and advertising and coaching across the creative industries, Emily retrained in financial advising in 2016. She is passionate about using her understanding of the industry to ensure creatives, executives and managers are better equipped to improve life for themselves, their families and businesses.
Get A Contract
Emily’s biggest piece of advice to all of us at this AMPS event, was to have a contract! The idea of having to write up a contract terrified me at first. Where do I even start? I don’t know legal terms! What the heck do I put in this?
But her advice was simple. Basic contract templates are on the internet. Use them as your starting point and adjust them on a job by job basis. This at least, would give us some security if the goal posts are moved during a job and we need to negotiate an additional fee.
As a freelancer it’s always scary asking a client to sign a contract before a job starts because what if they decide to not use you for asking this? Well if they aren’t willing to sign it, then chances are they aren’t the person you should be working with. In my limited use of contracts so far, I’ve found my clients don’t even bat an eyelid at me asking. This however has been with independent productions and not jobs through facilities.
What About The Unions?
If we look at our American counterparts who are unionised, they still may not have it easy and their union system is slightly complex, but they certainly have it easier than us here in the UK. As Cameron Combe, who is a member of IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees that representing over 140,000 technicians, artisans and craftspersons in the entertainment industry, including live theatre, motion picture and television production, and trade shows.) explained to me…
“I cannot say enough good things about the union. I feel like they are really looking out for us, really on our side. It doesn't matter who you work for, the union is getting you some of the best health insurance out there (which is even more vital in the US), and the dental is ok too.
When the company I worked for closed suddenly in April, we never got paid for our last couple weeks of work, and haven't received severance pay. The union are ON IT. They are negotiating, they are litigating; they are aggressively pursuing everything that all of us are owed.
My union rep, she got me contacts for other studios. I had interviews within a week, and started a new position within a month. Plus, union minimums meant I never had to question how much money I'd be making, even for training.”
In the UK and Ireland the rates are all over the place. From personal experience I had no idea what to set my rates at entering the freelance world and I know from speaking at Universities, many students don’t know what they should be asking for once they leave and this completely feeds into the undercutting nature of our industry.
What about schedule changes? When they happen we’re asked to work past 6pm or at the weekends and it's fully expected we just do it out of the goodness of our hearts and love of the project to get it completed. And if we’re all honest, we all do it because at the end of the day it’s our name on the end credit roller and our reputation at stake. Maybe we don’t do this all of the time, but a lot of the time, and this needs to stop. We ourselves have helped create this monster.
I know a lot of people have strong feelings for and against unions and I’m somewhere in the middle but I am happy to see people trying to make a change here in the UK. Certain members of our industry approached BECTU to try and change things and put a formal agreement in place for post production to make sure that we are always paid for overtime, weekend work and some form of pay is made when a project suddenly goes on hiatus. But, the only way they can make this work is if the sound community sticks together and if an agreement does get put in place with BECTU, that everyone follows it.
Steve Little is one of the people leading the charge on this and he told me…
“A large group of freelancers and facility staff from across all grades in the post-sound world felt a real need to form a community to better support each other, with the aim of improving working conditions for ourselves. We decided that because BECTU had just signed a Major Motion Picture agreement with PACT (to add to the already existing TV Drama agreement) the best place for us would be within the BECTU structure. From our position within the Post Branch we’re now able to represent our specific concerns and influence the yearly contract renegotiations with PACT. We put together a small list of basic Ts & Cs, and we’re in the process of producing an advisory rate-card based on grade and budget band, so people are better aware of a starting point for their wage negotiations.”
Steve Little and the Post Production & Facilities Branch of BECTU has set up The Rough Assembly website and the good news is that on the Resources pages there is now a draft Post Sound Rate Card in addition to other info and rate cards like the Major Motion Picture and TV Drama agreements that Steve refers to.
It Affects Our Mental Health
Another big problem with allowing this to continue unchecked, is that it can have a detrimental effect on our mental health as well as our confidence in what we do. I’m not afraid to say that, even though I knew my recordings were good, when the VO situation happened it knocked my confidence. What made it worse was that, when I stood up for myself and I asked not to work with said clients again unless no other options were available (a fairly reasonable request I thought) I was branded a troublemaker, causing issues for my colleagues and “cutting off my nose to spite myself”. It really made me start to feel like I was all of those things, when in reality I wasn’t but I didn’t realise this until I left that company.
I had simply asked not to be put in a situation where mine or the company’s reputation could be damaged. When I was faced with a director who was not only asking me to work a lot of extra hours outside of my agreed time and calling, emailing and texting outside of work hours, which I was expected to answer at all times of the day and night as well as being sexist towards me, it took its toll.
To the extent that I was afraid to go near my phone in case another barrage of “your work is shite” started. I was not sleeping, constantly down and feeling negative and it made me question my abilities as a mixer. It filled me with self doubt and I even had the “I can’t do this job, I’m crap, maybe I should just change careers” moment(s).
Day after day I see colleagues suffering from depression, exhaustion and stress related illness due to the hours we’re expected to work, the treatment we receive from clients and sometimes employers and money worries due to undercutting and being underpaid. No job is worth that.
We Need To Get Organised
I’m not sure if sound departments here in the UK will get themselves organised, unionised and get better working conditions for all of us but I do think, at the very least, we need to start helping each other and working together to create a better support system for all of us.