Here’s the full interview with sound editor Joseph Bonn (Godzilla, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), conducted and transcribed by Tim Hare B.M. ’11:
Take us through your day-to-day process.
Let me preface by saying there are two phases to the process in terms of being a music editor. There is the temping process and the scoring process. I am usually involved in both and I love doing both. For the temping process generally what will happen is the film editor and the director will be dealing with dailies early on in the director’s cut. By the time I come on the editor has assembled a rough cut of the film, we call this the editor’s cut; this is the longest version of the film until the director can sit down and see what they need to polish up. Sometimes I come on early, specifically with the editor on Last Jedi who brought me on very early into the process, so I can get the movie in as good a shape musically as possible. A scene will be handed to me, say a 4 or 5 min scene, and I will play the scene a number of times and make notes. Then I will go through the scene in Pro Tools and make a marker on every beat where I think there will be a change in the music. Every marker that I make I will write tonally what I want to be doing and what I am trying to say musically. I like to have a clear path of where I am going to make my quick turns so before I audition any music I know what kind of length I am looking for in a piece that is going to fit the picture. This is doing my homework basically (laughs). Then the fun part starts. At the beginning of every film I build my palate. I’ll go digging through my massive library of film scores, and start by looking at composers that I think will work in terms of instrumentation and arrangements. Then I’ll go by film or characters and tone and I’ll audition a bunch them and put them into a binder. From the scores I feel will work I’ll start randomly playing the ones I chose against the picture and see if something is outlandishly wrong or linking up with the picture it helps point me in the right direction right a way.
Do any of the composers or film scores you choose to audition come from conversations you have early on with directors before you start to edit music for the film?
Sometimes it will. On Godzilla with Gareth Edwards when I sat down with him to talk about the film early on he had a very specific notion of what he wanted. He wanted aleatoric, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ambient aleatoric stuff from Alien—that kind of classic 70s score. He had a road map of what he wanted so I just went and pulled as much of that stuff as I could. Normally though a lot of directors don’t speak a musical language and they don’t know how to express what they want until they hear it. So I just start building my palate and pull a bunch of scores into Pro Tools and based on the scene I mapped out I’ll dig a few pieces out and I’ll start sliding them in and listen to them against the picture. The minute I hear it I know if it’s working. I’ll manipulate the audio as much as possible to fit the dialogue inside that section. Sometimes what happens is called “God Cutting” where the cues you pull in turn musically right where I had a marker that I needed to make a musical change, it actually happens more often than you think. When that doesn’t happen I’ll go searching for another piece. Let’s say the music I have in place turns into a key I don’t feel fits the change I have marked down I’ll think, “OK am I coming off of a dominant? Do I want a modulation here? Do I want to stay in the same key as before?” That’s the general temping process I go through. After I have a version of a scene I will bring the director and editor into my room to look at it and have them give me notes. Other times if we have to move really fast I’ll put a bunch of scenes together and hand it over to the cutting room. They’ll block everything together and we will all sit there and take notes from the director and editor at once. This is the production temping process and the goal many times is to prepare a screening cut of the film to show test audiences or focus groups and get feedback. The music is integral to developing the tone of the movie. Sometimes if the tone of the movie isn’t working based on test audiences, even if the music is fine, they will pull the rug out from under us and want to start fresh. So then I’ll have to start over to match the new tone of them film.
Do different genres of films affect your workflow process?
Good question! Yeah it would actually. It might be more of a state of mind than in terms of an actual process, but if I am working on an action-oriented film I am usually working much faster and much more on intuition. The longer I sit with something the more I over think it and I can make the music less exciting. On a dialogue heavy film, or a thriller, or a drama I end up spending a lot more time watching a scene and the scenes that come before or after it. I do this instead of just trying to audition music on one specific scene and just focusing in on that one scene. I learned a lot from a seasoned music editor named Ken Karman and he said, “It is worth taking your time to back up as far as you can before you make your changes.” For instance if you make a musical change in Scene B it’s worth backing up well into Scene A and play through the whole thing to see the anticipation of what you are planning to change in Scene B. So in a movie where the music is less flashy, but more the heart and story I am spending way more time developing the build up and backtracking, sitting with it longer, than in a fast paced action film.
What was the biggest wall you hit in your career early on and then how did you break through that wall?
The biggest wall I hit was figuring out I didn’t want to be a Sound FX editor. Out of college I was doing the “music thing”, I was helping run Beige Records an electronic music label with a friend. I got an offer for an internship at a Sound FX studio called Weddington, the fabulous facility run by Mark Mangini and other sound supervisors. I just knew I wanted to be involved in film somehow so I got the opportunity to be an intern at Weddington and I moved out to L.A. and worked there for free for a few months. I was just busting my ass trying to learn the ropes. I had no idea what I was doing. At Oberlin I studied music I didn’t study film at all. I got picked up by Howell Gibbons a sound supervisor. I did a number of films with him and just got thrown into the fire. Over the course of a tough few years I ended up becoming a sound FX editor myself working with another sound FX editor named Paul Ottosson. We were cutting sound FX for the third Spider-Man movie and I realized I was completely in the wrong place. That was a big wall because I knew I needed to get out, but I had invested the greater half of my 20s into sound FX editing and I had sort of made it. I had already established a career and I was really doing it, but I took a big risk in just stopping… I was basically starting from Ground Zero again with the exception that I had a musical background from my studies at Oberlin and I knew the film technology from being a sound editor. So the wall was making the transition happen. The next challenge was leaping from assistant to the actual music editor.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten in your career?
Oh wow, the best piece of advice I’ve gotten in my career is when I was an intern at Weddington and I think it was an assistant editor I think, told me “If show people what you want and you work hard enough, you will get it. If you don’t commit to something than there is nowhere to go.” You can’t take strides towards a goal if you don’t know what it is. A lot of people come to the creative business and they think, “Well I could do this or I could do that.” The sooner you latch onto something and you show people you are determined everyone recognizes that. Just set a goal and let people know that is your goal. People are generally good people; of course there are some really bad people, who won’t help you at all out of fear, but there are generous people and if you work hard and tell them what your goals are they are happy to help you succeed.
Do you have a favorite piece of gear or software?
Haha yes and it’s new. I know it is a little bit clichéd to start with your newest purchase, but it has changed my workflow process quite a bit. It’s a system that comes from a French company called Trinnov it’s called the D-Mon 6. It’s a rack mounted computer that gives you room correction for frequencies and time-domain. It is corrected the phase and delay as well as the EQ. It uses what they call the 3-D microphone that has 4 or 5 capsules and one of them is elevated to measure height. You ping your room with their own proprietary version of Pink noise and it sends noise out of every speaker and based on the location of the 3-D microphone and the time it takes to it can figure out the exact distance and height of every single speaker in the room as well as the frequencies and the phase. It figured out right away that my center speaker is however many inches above my left and right speakers and that my surround left and right speakers were in close based on where they should be. So long story short what the computer does is creates a perfect room response based on the anomalies in the room and corrects them. It also acts as a monitor controller as well so what this does for me is it removes all questions of translation in the mixing process. When I am mixing something I know that what I am hearing isn’t being affected volume wise by frequency response or phase response in the room. So this has taken a large amount of time out of my working process. Now when I mix a cut a piece of music and mix it to the dialogue and hand it to the cutting room I know I won’t have to mix it again because of time domain, phase, or EQ issues.
So essentially you are mixing in a vacuum, so when you hear your mix and it works you know it will work on any system. You don’t have to worry about it. Did this blow your mind when you first started using it?
It’s absolutely incredible. I mix songs on the side and it works amazing for that too. You’re not worried about having enough low end in the track. Before you would do the “car test” and then try it on a different pair of speakers, but now I don’t have to worry about it because it’s correct. The first time I heard it I was listening to a 5.1 stem of a recording on a string section. The sound stage recording set up is pretty specific; the violas to the center, the violins to the left, and the cellos are to the right. When I was listening to it without the Trinnov engaged, the violins were sort of left and center, the violas were spread across the field, and the low end of the cellos was creeping out of the left and right. As soon as I engaged the Trinnov everything immediately spread apart. It was like I got put into the middle of an orchestral hall. It was incredible. Unfortunately it’s pretty expensive, but it’s fantastic.
What advice would you give to students or someone who wants to make a career change into becoming a music editor?
It’s an interesting question because there is no real set path to get into it. It’s such a weird industry, but I would try to start out as a composer’s assistant. You can try to get into the cutting room as a PA, but with the way the union works there are a lot of walls and obstacles to overcome. So I would go to a composer because most composers, especially the more successful ones are usually in need of a good assistant. If you have a musical background I would absolutely recommend this because you are going to get exposure to that composer’s music editor and you are going to work hand in hand with them to prepare the scoring materials, work on the sessions, get the click tracks set up and you can ask them a lot of questions and see what they do. So the music editor could probably hire you as an assistant after that. Becoming a music editor’s assistant directly before working in the field before can be difficult because of the Union. There’s way to do it but it can really be difficult to figure out. Music editors—we are an odd bunch [laughs]. We are all over the map and most of the time we don’t have budget to have an assistant. Even for me there are so many films I wish I could have hired an assistant, but the studio won’t hire one because they don’t want to pay for it. So becoming a composer’s assistant will be a much more direct route and you’ll learn much more about the process. If you work in the cutting room it won’t teach you much about music editing process except for the actually editing to the film process. As far as scoring is concerned and learning how a composer’s vision comes together from beginning to end becoming their assistant is the way to go.
Is there a skill set someone needs to have before starting out on becoming a music editor? Something to focus in on as a starting point?
I would say the most important skill to becoming a music editor is being able to recognize when music is functional and when it isn’t against picture. That is abstract, but being able to put a piece of music against picture and to know when it is right and when it is wrong and that just comes from practice. Constantly throwing things against picture and being able to navigate the tonal landscape of a recording and working out your gut instincts. That is the most important thing and everything sort of falls into place after that. Being able to pick something that you know works and make it better. Maybe you pick something and it works with the tone of scene or you know the scoring is working, but they makes changes to the picture you have to know how to properly manipulate the music so it is still working with the picture. You have to be adaptable and know how craft the music and keep it in sync. Basically being adaptable musically [laughs].