Discussions covering film and television.
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- Posts: 412
- Joined: June 6th, 2013, 4:15 pm
- Location: Los Angeles, CA
- Occupation: Sound Designer
Jamey has had the privilege to live life on both sides of the fence. Having worked on AAA game titles such as Gears of War and big budget, blockbuster movies like Total Recall (pictured above), he is the envy of many audio professionals. As of late, he's even been working on the popular Marvel TV show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Jamey was nice enough to answer a few questions on how he got to where he is and how someone interested in a similar career might be able to achieve it.
I've talked to a lot of sound designers in the games industry that want to eventually transition towards a career in film. Coincidentally, I've also heard from a lot of film vets that are interested in games. For you, what are the most rewarding aspects of each industry and is the grass always greener on the other side?
I loved working in games. In the early days, I really thrived on the fact that the work I was doing was always a new opportunity to break new ground, which in general, meant making game audio feel more film-like. My greatest thrills are always seeing things come together in a great way, which I've experienced both in the game industry and the film industry, so that reward is the same for both. One thing that I really cherish about working in films is being able to hang out with audio legends on a daily basis. To have direct, casual access to all of the war stories on all the movies I loved growing up is priceless to me. I didn't get any of that in games, but one thing I do miss about the game industry is the technical camaraderie. I used to love struggling through a script routine or whatever and then showing my co-workers what I did and we'd all high-five and then they'd take it to an even cooler level. That sort of stuff was great. So in general, the big thrills that I get out of this work usually have to do with some sort of personal interaction.
There is most definitely a "grass is greener" thing going on, as there should be. Both industries have very exciting aspects about them. The technical challenges of sound integration for games would be a challenge for a lot of film sound people whereas the understanding of how sound functions on a deep emotional level would be a challenge for game sound folks who are used to dealing with sound on a dominantly technical level. In general, I think it would be technically easier for game sound designers to switch to film than vice versa, but I think that anyone considering a switch should really examine the non-technical realities and hard facts of each field before deciding to make a move. I started in the game industry in 1994, so I have really no concept of what it would be like to break in now, but since my experience is of the reverse, here are a few hard facts about working in the feature film realm that should be considered before contemplating the move from games to films that I made:
1. You must live in LA.
With a few exceptions in NYC and on Skywalker ranch, studio film sound largely takes place in and around Los Angeles. It is a collaborative endeavor and for the most part, you work on a studio lot or at a post facility. It's easy to fantasize about working on a film from home anywhere in the world and technically, it's true that it is possible, but practically, this is far from the reality. From my perspective, studio lots do not let picture off of their servers and the security concerns of sending picture to a remote facility in the Midwest would be too much of a consideration for the security of the film. Beyond that specific practical consideration, you need to be in a scene to network and work with the people who are making the opportunities happen. Film sound folks are deeply interconnected and if you're not in the scene, you're just not in it. You have to be a known commodity to attract peer-based work and you can't just friend the big dogs on Facebook and expect to become that. Unless you're working with the big dogs and proving your worth in person, under pressure, and on a daily basis, you're just another name in the crowd of dreamers. You work your way up the ranks through reputation and that reputation cannot be created through Facebook. Not yet, at least. With games, you can live wherever there is a game company. Though the shrewd person would choose an area with a high concentration of developers so that if it doesn't work out, you don't have to uproot your whole existence to get another gig.
2. Joining the union.
There are no exceptions to this rule. If you want to work on studio features, you have to join the union. Here's a little insider info: Joining the union was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. You have to spend years building up a resume of independent film work (game stuff doesn't count) and be able to prove 175 days of paid work on films that were publicly screened over the course of 3 years. That is not as easy as it may seem, particularly if you've got a gig in games and have mouths to feed, because to get paid work, you have to work for free a lot. It took me 8 years to achieve this goal.
3. You must work primarily in Protools.
A lot of game guys who work in Cubase or Nuendo like to bash Protools, but for better or for worse, that is the platform of film sound. And you can't just have working knowledge of Protools; you need to be blazingly fast at it. You need to know all of the key commands on instinct and be able to navigate massive sessions under intense pressure all day long. I've run into a lot of folks who judge people on their protools skills alone; and if you're not up to snuff, it can be a real source of contention with a lot of people, and it can get you replaced. And this isn't just about speed, it's about an intuitive understanding of the unspoken layout practices that you deliver with your sessions. In many ways, you communicate with other sound people on the team with how you present your ideas in protools, and you're going to be judged every time someone else opens one of your sessions. I've worked with a lot of guys who I do not respect as sound designers but who are considered great editors because they have great protools etiquette. These are not things that you're going to learn in the manual or on YouTube. They're just known and until you know them, you can easily get yourself fired from a gig for not being good enough. All of the design chops in the world won't help you keep working if you're delivering your work in a sloppy jumble of regions and associated plugins that nobody knows how to deal with.
4. You have to be a socially savvy person with a personality that attracts opportunities.
Film sound is as much of a social endeavor as it is a skilled one. You have to hang with high caliber, seasoned and knowledgeable people all day long and you have to fit in with them. That means you have to be positive and not socially awkward. You have to speak the language of film and its associated history. The little things like being punctual, clean, respectful, hard-working, etc are a given; nobody makes it to the studio level without those basic skills. The people who work consistently are the people who are not only amazing at what they do, but are cool people who others want to hang with. Your co-workers become your compadres and you need to have positive relationships with a lot of people if you want options. It's a gig to gig existence and if you have trouble getting along with people, then it's going to be a struggle getting called for the next thing.
5. It's not all robots and monsters, all of the time.
A career as a film sound editor is mostly just that… an editor. There is no actual distinction in the union for a sound designer, so if your notion of what working in films is about sitting down and creating new, unique sounds all day, then you're gonna want to stay in games. That happens on the big tentpole features that require the design of new material but there are very few who work on those all of the time. You're gonna have to work your way up to that chair, and even then, there's a lot of editing, conforming, and track prepping to be done. In contrast, everything in most games need to be cool, new designs, so there's a lot of the cool stuff to be done in games.
For me, switching from games to films was never a decision I had to make; like everyone, I can only follow where opportunities take me and for a multitude of reasons, many beyond my control, those opportunities showed up for me in film and declined in games, so my transition into films from games was just something that happened based on the projects that were coming through for me. I'm sure that my curiosity of the unknown probably influenced a lot of decisions along the way to create that momentum, but in general, I view it as a "just meant to be" kind of scenario. Regardless, if my experience says anything, moving from games to films will be a significantly tougher thing to accomplish than the other way around. I've seen a great many instances of people with very little experience landing big gigs in the game industry so I don't think that breaking into games with a big film resumé would be nearly as difficult. There just aren't as many barriers as there are in films.
I would think that having a solid credit list and a network of close friends would make a transition easier. Do you have any tips for someone looking to make that leap and “start over” in a new industry?
I was really surprised and frustrated to find that my game resumé made no impressions and made very few in-roads for me in the film industry. I had some of my best work on the hugely successful Gears of War on my resumé and a reel full of cinematics that had just taken all of the awards in 2006 and it meant squat to the film industry guys I was trying to work for. Fortunately, if I was finally able to get them to check out my reel, they would come around, but only because I was doing new stuff that they'd never heard before. Film sound guys aren't really on the lookout for new talent. They're on the lookout for new work, so you have to be really good to get someone's attention; particularly someone who can make a difference in your career. It really comes down to being able to do things that blow people away. That and being persistent are the only real ways to get people's attention. As far as having a network of close friends, I suppose that could open doors for you, but if all of your close friends are in the game industry and they're all wondering how to break into film too, that's not going to be really helpful at all. If you have a lot of close friends in the film industry who are willing to hire you, then you wouldn't be reading this right now, so I don't think answering that question would be very helpful. It all just comes down to whether those close friends are willing to hire you or get you hired.
My path was much different than most who work in the film sound industry. From what I've seen, most people working in film sound originally got a job getting coffee for a post house and then eventually rose up in the ranks by learning new skills as an apprentice. My first 10 years as a sound designer started out in games, so by the time I wanted to start transitioning into films, my skill set was already very evolved, but I had no connections or ways to prove myself to people, so breaking in was much harder for me; hence the 8 year plan. I was in a catch-22 situation with a game-centric studio facility to maintain and a family to feed, so I had to take baby steps. What I ultimately did to succeed required a level of stamina that somehow I was equipped to endure, but I believe most would not be. I worked on games as a freelancer to make money for 10-12 hours a day and then would spend 4-5 hours in the rest of the days and weekends working on short films, independent features, advertisements, whatever I could get my hands on (mostly for free or low money) to build a reel with live action footage and meet people who were going places in the film industry. I rarely slept during those years. I worked constantly with laser focus and I created systems for myself so that I could work extremely fast. I worked myself like a dog for 8 years doing this before I landed my first major studio feature. I was literally running two businesses simultaneously. It goes without saying that anyone looking to make the jump from games to films will have the same reality check to contend with as I did. From the mouth of someone who pulled it off, I can say without reservation that it is extremely difficult, but it can be done.
You also do a lot of freelance work. What’s a piece of advice you can give to an aspiring freelancer? Maybe there’s a mistake that you’ve learned from and have avoided going forward.
Freelancing is not for everyone; you have to have the right kind of personality disposition or it's a really tough road to travel. I'm an easy-going person and I get along with most everyone which works highly in my favor. If you're an introvert and have a tough time interacting with people and don't have a lot of friends and associates, you're honestly better off getting a job. My ability to maintain a fruitful run as a freelancer has a lot to do with having an accommodating natural disposition in combination with a highly zealous passion for the craft of sound. Working as a facilitator for artists, which is essentially what we do, is not easy. They can be very temperamental and well… artists. As a service vendor, you're basically in the position of being a concierge and while you have to have highly evolved artistry, you don't have the luxury to act like an artist; that entire conversation with yourself has to take place "under the hood". You have to become both a master of diplomacy and a master at working with and relating to people socially and professionally. You can never let difficult situations evolve into bad situations where a client leaves and picks up the phone to start talking trash about you to anyone who will listen. You have to be able to diffuse situations as they come up and that typically means doing more for the client, earning less, and doing it with a smile. The bottom line is that old adage that you have to be awesome at customer service if you're gonna build a business based on serving customers. Lastly, it goes without saying that you have to be able to hustle to get work. This was hard for me because I'm the anti-salesman but I've evolved to a place where I can get work by doing good work and now 100% of my new freelance work comes from either return clients or referrals from clients I've worked with in the past.
You’ve spoken out about the struggles of trying to manage a healthy work and life balance. How do you know when to say “stop” and go home? It’s something a lot of people struggle with when they are so passionate about what they do.
There is no doubt that you have to be passionate about this work to endure the challenges inherent in making a living at it. I've come across people on all spectrums of this continuum from people who live it with every bone in their bodies to folks who are only doing it for the money. I'm definitely in the former group and firmly believe that you have to be extremely passionate about it to survive the long haul of an esteemed career. With that passion comes the tunnel vision of daily focus, where you look up and the day has passed in what feels like an hour, or a week in what feels like a day, and years pass at an exponentially faster pace. Add to this a fairly common expectation from employers that you commit every waking hour to their project, this kind of work can easily become a conflict to having a family or even relationships. I'm not a perfect example on how to balance the two, but I do work hard at trying to keep my work in perspective and spend time with my family. When I'm working on a big movie, particularly when there is a commute across town (like the one I'm doing now), it becomes challenging to stay connected with my family just due to the fact that there aren't enough hours in the day. My solution which seems to work pretty well is to commit to an hour walk with my wife every night. An hour a day helps us stay connected. I try to help out with the kid's homework whenever possible and play games or just watch a tv show with them when I'm home and not crunching on a side project. I allot an hour a week for yoga. I practice my karate kihon several times a week during playbacks or when copying big files. And most importantly, I eat healthy, avoiding the bad stuff. Health, wellness, and stable relationships are a big part of being able to maintain the stamina required, so staying aware that one feeds the other forces me to take breaks and fill up the gas tank on a regular basis.
Alright, favorite sounding film in the last ten years. Go!
Excellent interview, very insightful. Thank you!
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- Posts: 23
- Joined: August 21st, 2013, 4:36 pm
- Location: Los Angeles
- Occupation: Sound Designer
Wow awesome interview! A well detailed description of your transition that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Thanks for sharing, and providing some quality advice!