The COVID-19 outbreak could not have come at a worse time for one part of the audio post-production community. “We were gearing up for pilots all around town,” says Mark Lanza, a supervising sound editor and president of MPSE (Motion Picture Sound Editors). “All of those just evaporated.”
As the Los Angeles Times has reported, of the 56 pilot episodes ordered by the five broadcast television networks this year, only one, from producer Chuck Lorre, was completed before the country went into lockdown. According to the report, pilot season, which runs from late February through early May, is worth an estimated $500 million to the entertainment industry.
Lanza, who says he lost three shows because of the crisis, was still working on a stage as everything closed. “The only people there were the two mixers and the engineer. Everybody else was at home,” he says. The only network representative, an associate producer, watched, made notes and left.
Of course, we have the technology to work remotely in most areas of the audio post business. To support those efforts, manufacturers including Avid and Frame.io have offered accommodations such as free subscriptions or additional features and capabilities to professionals working during the pandemic.
In New York City, Goldcrest Post staff members were told to take what they could and head home when the facility shut down. “I’m in the middle of two shows,” says re-recording mixer Ryan Price, noting that many of the facility’s editors and supervising sound editors were already working remotely before the shutdown. “I grabbed an Artist Mix. I’ve been using that in conjunction with the Pro Tools Control for the iPad.” He’s more used to working on the facility’s Avid S6 desks. “I would love an S3, but here we are,” he says.
Price was freelance for two years before joining Goldcrest, working out of his apartment. “I would go in and do final mixes, but I would do editing and premixing at home—so I just had to pull everything out of the closet.”
Manhattan-based audio post house Hobo Audio, which focuses on TV and radio commercials, was ahead of the curve when the shutdown came. “Over the last year or longer, we’ve had our engineers set up remote spaces. If we got overbooked, they could work from home, so my guys were already pretty much set up,” says company founder Howard Bowler.
The work has continued to flow in, he says, although Hobo did lose one project. “We’re working on a radio campaign in the next two weeks. We can record that remotely. On the TV ad side, some of our clients are grabbing existing footage and creating spots. They’re improvising their way through. They’re going to need VO, music and a mix. Those elements can all be done remotely, so our side of it hasn’t changed,” he adds.
“We also do TV shows, which are in the editing process right now,” he says. “We anticipate [television] work coming to us over the next couple of months.”
Ron Bochar, founding member and co-manager of c5 Sound in Manhattan, said in early April that he was still occasionally traveling from the Bronx to work at the facility. “I had stuff that I had started before the lockdown, so I’ve had to go in to wrap it up.”
Working at c5 was his only alternative, he says. “I needed to be in a room that’s set up that way. I’m starting to explore other systems that are claiming they can do an Atmos mix on headphones—a viable option to rough something into shape.”
Working from home may take some adjustment, though. “Today, I tried to do some spotting on a project that’s coming in and my cat decided to sit on my keyboard every chance he got. I don’t know if that’s going to work,” says Bochar.
“At Goldcrest, we have 7.1 Meyer Acheron rooms and they sound amazing. Who’s got that at home?” says Price. He has a Focal monitor setup at home, and Sony MDR7506s he’s had since college: “I know how they translate.”
Goldcrest previously installed Vizio soundbars to check translation. “It’s a good, high-end consumer playback and probably what most people are listening on. I have one at home as well, so I can put the mix onto Plex, hook it up to my TV and watch the mix,” Price says.
Following the Sony Pictures and Larson Sound computer hacks of past years, security is paramount, of course. “As a facility, we’ve had to go through massive amounts of locking down access to the facility and the internet. I’ve always been suspicious of what would happen when it moves out of that realm,” says Bochar.
He says c5 has strict guidelines for working from home. “Whatever system you’re using, it cannot be on the internet. Every drive you have has to be encrypted.”
Staff members move files between themselves and clients via Signiant’s Media Shuttle, explains Bochar. Others in the industry use Frame.io, Aspera or other secure platforms. The problem is, he points out, a TV show episode requires multiple terabytes—too much for a home internet plan to handle. “Yesterday I drove out to my dialogue editor’s house in Brooklyn and we did an exchange outside my car window. I tried not to make it look like a drug delivery!”
As the pandemic tightens its grip, Bowler has been reading the writings of Winston Churchill, taking one quote to heart: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Hobo can stay the course, he reports. “Fortunately we run a very tight ship and have zero short-term debt, so we’re able to navigate with a little more comfort. But we’re headed for a pretty substantial trauma as people run out of cash, which is going to happen really fast.”
Hobo is helping radio and TV clients navigate the new environment by sharing workflows, he says. “The bigger thing we’re doing is using this time to build the entertainment company.” Bowler, who in a previous career was a singer and guitarist with The Marbles, says the property he is most focused on is the autobiographical tale of two brothers whose band found some success at CBGBs in the ’70s.
The industry—and the country and the world—will likely change once we emerge from this pandemic, says Lanza, whose wife is a nurse working on the front line. First, he says, productions have to resume filming before audio post pros can return to work. “The production mixers and boom guys will probably be running around like maniacs trying to get shows done. Then we have to wait until they edit and get it into post.”
More broadly, he says, “Will some of those shows that had a green light not have one anymore? How will it change the scope of what’s being filmed? Will they scale it back? Will they have smaller crews? The ramifications will be ongoing.”
Audio post practitioners are used to change, Lanza believes. “I think our members are ripe to embrace any change, move forward and sustain profitable, long careers, no matter what the new landscape might look like.”
“I imagine that mixes over the next year are going to be more approval mixes,” says Bochar. “People will come in for the shortest amount of time possible, we’ll all wear masks, we’ll hit playback, take notes, everyone will leave, and I’ll be alone in the room again to do whatever has to get done. And in many ways, that’s fine.”
Price, too, is fine working alone, especially when he’s deep into dialogue fixes, “but there’s stuff where you just have to get immediate feedback. It’s way more efficient to have everybody in a room for four to six hours to perfect something. There’s a lot of interpersonal stuff that I don’t think is ever going to go away.”