Big, complex, and messy problems provide rich learning experiences for students, but can be overwhelming if not properly scaffolded. In this episode, Jeff Bradbury joins us to discuss a semester-long sound-replacement project that his students complete in a course on Sound for Television and Film.
- BRC 308 – Sound for Television and Film – course description
- BRC 3089 – Sound for Television and Film II – course description
Rebecca: Big, complex, and messy problems are rich learning experiences for students but can be overwhelming if not properly scaffolded. In this episode, we’ll focus on how to organize a class around a single big project.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Jeff Bradbury. Jeff is a Visiting Assistant Professor at SUNY Oswego. He teaches classes in audio production.
Rebecca: Welcome, Jeff.
John: Welcome, Jeff.
Jeff: Well, thank you. Glad to be here.
Rebecca: Today our teas are:
John: Ginger peach whole leaf tea.
Jeff: I missed that one, but I got some really delicious black raspberry green tea that I’m really digging..
Rebecca: I’m drinking exotic mango and ginger green tea.
Jeff: That’s impressive.
Rebecca: From Twinings.
John: Oh! Twinings, okay, okay.
Jeff: These people are serious about their tea here. It’s…
John: I forgot that we had that.
John: What classes do you normally teach?
Jeff: Well, I teach a number of different audio classes here at SUNY Oswego. The most basic class I teach is a class in radio production, and that I treat more or less like a basic audio production class. Just the real basics of which end of a microphone to speak into… just basic broadcast performance stuff. I’m not an on-air broadcaster myself, but just basic things like how to sit up straight, project your voice… this kind of stuff makes a difference when you’re recording your voice, and then I teach my signature class here at Oswego… a course called BRC 308, and that is Sound for Television and Film. I also teach a successor to that one, which is BRC 309, which is very creatively called Sound for Television and Film II.
Rebecca: Yeah, we have similar classes with Graphic Design I and II.
Jeff: Yes, yeah.
John: So when we talked about your work in these classes earlier, one of the things you mentioned is that you have a project where students rescore cartoons. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Jeff: Yeah, definitely. The course I teach… BRC 308… some students do cartoons… more or less these days you have these all the animated films… the 3D animated films that are so popular… and a lot of times those work really good for… basically what the project is, is a sound replacement project. So, they take a scene probably anywhere from a minute and 30 seconds to three minutes, and we dump all of the sound, which includes dialogue, sound effects, music, ambiance, all that kind of stuff… They dump all that, and they recreate everything themselves from scratch… and it isn’t actually just cartoons, or animated stuff — they can do live-action TV shows or films as well. I always tell the students probably one of the biggest things that you’ll take away from this class is how much goes in to the sound side of any…even just dramatic television shows, episodic television, especially films… I mean there’s there’s so much to it… If you can imagine in your mind’s eye, when they mix the sound for a major motion picture, they’re sitting in what looks like a movie theater, and they’re sitting in front of a console that is generally about… probably anywhere from fifteen to thirty feet long… and there are anywhere from two to three to maybe even four people sitting at literally hundreds of faders mixing every single little element… perhaps different instruments from from an orchestra… from a score… or you have… every time somebody sets a coffee cup on a table… and every little sound and dialogue and clothing movement and stuff like that that they have to reproduce. So, when you say a semester project replacing the sound for one minute and 30 second clip from a film sounds like: “Oh, that’s gonna be a snap.” …actually it’s not. When there’s so when their sound is that dense, I have students who who end up with projects with anywhere from 25 or 30 to up to 60 or more tracks of audio that they’re mixing all simultaneously with different processing and all this kind of stuff to make this work. So, there’s there’s a lot to it, and they learn really quickly. They’re like, “Wow” …because I always tell them… I say: “Can you imagine doing this for the full two-hour film?“ …and they just shake their heads. Because they spend about about ten weeks working on their final project.
Rebecca: Is the goal of the project to respond to what they’re seeing, and make the soundtrack? Or is it to replicate what was there before?
Jeff: Since this is their first stab at this, I have them bring into their project the original audio from the film, that’s what I refer to as the reference audio. Usually what they try to do is replicate what they hear and what was done before, but I always try to tell them “That is an interpretation of what the sound should sound like, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be that way.” …and I show them examples… that you can take something …an explosion or something… and you can have two completely different sounds and it’ll still work. The viewer, or the the audience member, will accept what you give them as long as it’s within a certain realm… and you can really, really affect the feel and the outcome of a scene… even just what sound effects you choose. But yeah, I always tell them: “Don’t be afraid to try something different than what you hear.” What’s amazing about major motion pictures and television shows and whatnot is that they don’t always represent everything… so, I tell them: “Look what’s happening there.” …or even better yet… a lot of times there’s things that probably are happening but you don’t see it in the plane of the screen. For example, on a city street… and you see a certain view of a car parked on a city street and there’s dialogue happening or something… there could be a truck backing up behind you and if you put that sound in the scene, it’s completely believable that that’s there. That’s one of the things about sound that I teach them and show them… it’s so awesome… it’s 360 degrees wherever you believe you are in this motion picture there’s also any sound from anywhere even if you can’t see it is acceptable… and a lot of times you need that. When you’re in city in the distance… honking cars and sirens and that kind of stuff. You can’t see them, but hearing those make that seem believable.
Rebecca: That’s a big project, you’re talking about all the layers and the complexity of it. How do you help students scaffold something like that, and guide them through that process? At first it seems like: “Oh, it’s a small project… we have all semester to do it,” but then I’m sure very quickly it becomes very apparent to the students that: “Oh crap, this is a gigantic project and I have no idea how I’m gonna get this done.”
Jeff: There’s perhaps two answers to that question. Oftentimes, students when they pick their projects, they immediately go for the most climactic scene of the movie. And so I tell them… and I hold the veto power and I always jokingly say… and it’s a joke now but I had a student present… wanted to do… I haven’t seen the movie in some time but there’s the movie Gladiator, and I think an opening battle scene of Gladiator… “No… No. You’re not gonna do that… at the end of this class you’ll understand why, but that is way too complex. There’s too many layers of things going on. You can’t do that. I try to tell them so that they don’t bite off more than they can chew. I say: “Okay, if you want to do a scene from your favorite movie or something like that, that’s great. That’s a great place to start.” I tell them: “Try to find those moments in the film that are in between the most climactic parts of it, because you may watch it… and you may listen to it… and you may say: “Well, this is kind of simple.” Trust me, there’s a lot more going on there sonically then you know about… So, that’s one way… I try to coach them so they don’t bite off more than they can chew. Then, from there what we do is I have them fill out what’s called spotting sheets. So, let’s say they choose a two minute piece of a film. I capture that film piece and then give them what’s called a window dub… and the window dub has, and you may have seen this… if you’ve ever seen behind the scenes videos and stuff… it basically has the timecode – hours, minutes, seconds, frames – burned into the actual picture. This gives them a reference. I have a copy of this… they have a copy of this. They work in teams or sometimes even groups of three on these projects. They all have copies of this. They carry them around on their phone. They can communicate with each other and say: “Well, there’s that punch at one minute thirty:two seconds and four frames and I’m not really sure what to do with that.” Everybody else can look at the same video and know exactly what they’re talking about. But what they start off with is… they go through their entire project and they list according to that timecode the sound, then what the timecode is, and then some notes on how they think they need to acquire that asset. Do they need to go out in the real world and record it with a portable field recorder? Do they need to do that in our Foley room – which is a quiet space that we have to record? And a last resort… because I prefer that the students record everything themselves… when they do that, I think it’s something that they’re very, very proud of when they do it that way… but sometimes they have sounds that it’s not feasible for them to acquire themselves, for instance, any sort of firearms. So we have an extensive sound-effects library that they can go in to capture some sound effects. Some people think that’s cheating. It’s not really because the sound effects never fit… just plug and play… There’s always some sort of editing, manipulation, chopping, multiplying, that has to be done to make them fit.
Rebecca: Encouraging students to pick those in-between spaces also seems like a good opportunity for them to be a little more creative than they would be able to otherwise. Those climatic scenes people have specific expectations because they’ve seen the movie, but those in-between spaces are probably ones where they can be a little more experimental and try some different things and feel safe doing so.
Jeff: I think so, yeah. What’s interesting to me is that I’ve found so many cool TV shows and films that I never heard of or seen before when students bring in some of their ideas… and I think you’re right. At first, they want to do something really big… and more is more… but when they do search and find these these moments in between the climactic scenes, I think that… yeah, it does give them a chance to… actually what I think works best is that… because there’s not so much layering going on as when you’re doing a climactic scene… there’s always tons of sound happening all at the same time. You have more individual sounds happening, and so they can focus on this.
One of the best projects that a student has done yet was a student… if you’re familiar with the film The Breakfast Club… there’s a great scene in The Breakfast Club where they’re all at their first day of Saturday detention or whatever it is there… I guess the whole film is one day… and they’re eating their lunch. There’s this great moment where they all sit down and one student brings out all this different stuff… one girl making her lunch… and there and there’s very little dialogue. It’s perfect for this class… it’s like a three-minute thing… and this student who did this… it was an immense amount of work, but it was so great because each sound that happens is… one thing happens… then the next thing… then the next thing… then the next thing. So it really allows them to focus on the individual sounds… how they capture them and stuff like that.
Rebecca: That’s interesting.
John: Do you have the students record the dialogue as well?
Jeff: I do. One thing that a lot of people don’t know about major motion pictures is that a lot of these big-budget major motion pictures, even television shows… most of the dialogue is typically replaced… The principal actor shoots a scene on location and unless it’s an environment where they can get a boom mic or something… or a well-hidden lavalier microphone… unless they can get it recorded really clean on set… they take that same actor and they go in to a quiet studio later on… and that same actor re-does their lines to get them clean. They refer to that as ADR. And ADR stands for Automated Dialogue Replacement.
Rebecca: Doesn’t sound that automated…
Jeff: I know.
There’s parts of it that can be automated, as far as they the start and stop of when they do it… and a lot of times it’s also referred to as looping, and so what they would do is the actor gets several tapes and I think that’s where they get the automated from, I’m not really sure. So that’s a part of it… replacing dialogue. So, I have them do the dialogue. I also try to coach them to not pick scenes that are really dialogue heavy because that can be a challenge, because you have to find somebody who can say those lines convincingly.
John: When you first started teaching this class, was this something you introduced right away, or did this evolve out of some earlier work?
Jeff: The first time that I taught Sound for Television and Film I did teach it this way… with this project. When I was in graduate school at Syracuse University, I was one of two students who were teaching assistants that helped in the audio classes. My main background with audio is on the music recording side. So I started off recording bands and all that kind of stuff… and I was the the TA for the music recording class. The other class that was also offered was this sound design kind of a class and that’s basically the project that they did… so that’s where I got the ideas. I knew that they did this sound replacement, but I had never taken that class. I just figured well that’s probably the best way to go about it. So, I just kind of started off…I just… “Let’s do this.” It’s been far too many years that I’ve been teaching this…. I’ve taught this class here at Oswego, I have taught the class at Syracuse University, I also taught a version of the same class at Ithaca College. So I’ve been honing, and perfecting, and altering this for many years.
Rebecca: What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve made to the class from this trial and error revision process?
Jeff: I would say the big things are the guidelines that I impose on how they choose a project because when I first started doing it, I had no idea… and then what I noticed was happening is students were choosing the most climactic moments in the films. I think the lightbulb went off for me when a student tried to do the scene from Titanic where the ship hits the iceberg, and unfortunately their project went the way of the Titanic…
…and I thought to myself “Okay, did this student really fail or did they just bite off more than they could chew?” And so I think that’s probably the big one there. I’m trying to think other things that…
Rebecca: Have you added more check-in points or things like that?
Jeff: Yeah, I have. Because one thing that I’ve found over the years is that if you just give the students an open-ended: “Okay, start now and it’s eight weeks from now or ten weeks from now the project is due…” You know where this is going… they’re gonna wait until a week before it’s due and try to finish it all… And that just will not work with something like this… they’ll die. About four weeks before the end of the of the project… before the end of the semester… I say “Okay, give us a progress report.” That’s worth twenty percent of their grade. The final project is worth forty percent… this is worth twenty percent… and I say these are the following things that you have to show if you want the twenty percent in your progress. There’s a laundry list… so, you have to have all your sound effects at least basically recorded… you have to have all your dialogue done… So, that helps immensely… because it forces them to get started on it rather than just waiting until the end.
John: So if someone were to stop in on one of your classes what would it look like, or what would it sound like?
Jeff: So, that’s really interesting… and it varies every single day. The first six weeks of the class, of the course is really a boot camp… for recording… using Pro Tools… I mean… Pro Tools, the application we use is an extremely deep robust program. I’ve gotten pretty good at sort of boiling it down to the need-to-know basis… like “Look, this will get you started, anything else you need to know, just ask me and I’ll show you on a need-to-know basis.”… and that seems to work pretty good.
So, gosh, what would somebody see if they walked in my class? The first six weeks when we’re just sort of in bootcamp mode, it looks like a regular class… I’m teaching them stuff, I have structured lectures… I have them try things like, “Okay now I’ve showed you” or “I’ve given an example, now you try it” …then I walk around and make sure everybody’s getting the basic set of skills. Once we get to the midterm, the second half of the class is basically class time…. it’s just work time. And so usually students work in pairs on a project. So, you might see one group of students sitting there making notes, looking at the computer, sort of figuring out what their game plan is… another group of students working on headphones across the hall from the classroom… we have our basic production studio where they can go in there where they where they manage recording. Then there’s a quiet space on the other side where they have a screen. It looks very professional… It looks like it’s done in the industry… and they’re in there recording clothing movements… or dialogue… or all this kind of stuff to the moving image… and me, I’m generally just running around answering questions… a lot of times putting out fires. Thank God, my previous existence as far as career-wise, I was a computer consultant, because I’m really adept and knowledgeable of computers… hard drives… when things go wrong… because that’s the space we live in. The students have to buy their own hard drives. They’re constantly having file management issues…
Rebecca: …sounds really familiar.
Jeff: Exactly, right?
When you work in anything creative these days, you know the more about computers and hardware and especially file management… And honestly, can I just say on a side note, I’ve noticed that it’s so much more difficult nowadays to teach that stuff and I think the main reason is… look at what most technology the students have nowadays. Phones, there’s no file management to them, right? Basic… like what folder… what directory… and if you don’t know that stuff cold… in the world I live, anyway, it’s like you die. I swear to god, that’s one of the hardest things I deal with… is having to teach them that basic stuff and when they screw that up, it screws everything up. They spend a whole day working and they didn’t import something the right way, then they come back the next day… it’s all missing.
John: Smartphones are getting a bit better than that. Android had a file structure from the beginning that was somewhat transparent although not easily accessible, and now there is a files app on iOS 11.
John: You can access things but it’s not a very easy-to-use file…
John: …it’s not very hierarchical.
Rebecca: It’s not like when you were using older operating systems where you were actively getting into directories and out of directories, right?
Jeff: Right, yeah.
Rebecca: So, if you come from that perspective, it’s a lot easier to know how to file manage, right? Whereas a lot of our students I think, rely on searching… Like, “I don’t know where it went, it just went somewhere magically and I don’t remember what I called it… so, can you wave your magic wand and find it for me?”
Jeff: Right. Right, one of the things that I do out of necessity is I spend a number of classes in the beginning of the semester, and I apologized to all them up front. I say, “Okay, look, I don’t want to treat anybody like a kindergartener, but we’re going to kindergarten for a couple days, okay? Lesson number one: this is a file, this is a folder, this is how you look at your folder and file management in a hierarchy way.” All this kind of stuff …and ‘cause some of the kids know it and they get it, but others have just not. For us too, because we’re working on Macs, there’s a certain number of students who are PC-based in their experience and so they’re trying to wrap their head around using a Mac. But, I wish they could all come in just knowing all that stuff cold and we could just jump right into it. But I’ve found, and that’s another thing perhaps in the question you asked earlier “what have you changed,” is I found, that if I don’t spend a certain amount of time back in kindergarten (I know that’s probably not the best way to talk about it) we all really pay for it later.
John: But that’s a realistic learning experience because these are issues they’d face when they’re out there doing this type of job.
John: …and it sounds like they’re getting us some background in all aspects of the job that they might have if they were going to work in this field from recording to mixing.
Rebecca: The reality is you got to meet students where they’re at.
Rebecca: …and so, if they have no idea how to structure their files, and that’s key to what you’re doing, you got to start there.
Jeff: Yeah well, and I do explain to them too, I say, “This may be very simplistic to you,” but I’d give them sort of the story of like, “okay, let’s say that you’re gonna go and actually break into this field and do this for a living. Generally speaking, the way people start off, if you’re gonna be working in post-production sound, is you start off as an assistant.” …and assistants, basically what they do is they work in 100% file management. They take recordings that were done in the field… they do like a basic chop and an edit… and they’re given what’s usually referred to in the industry as a “Bible,” and they have naming conventions: this is how you name it, this is where you put it, this is the metadata information you’re to put with that. Because on a typical major motion picture, when the sound team is going out and collecting sound effects in the fields like that, they’ll have, a lot of times, a database of over a hundred thousand distinct audio files that the senior audio designers are gonna try to call from to build these scenes and stuff. So, I tell them that, “that’s where you start… so, even though you might look at it as a little bit boring, you’re gonna be doing that for a while before you’re ever gonna become the sound designer guy.
John: I know you got a license for a set of royalty-free sounds some that have been cleared of copyright. Are there any copyright issues with the project?
Jeff: That’s an interesting question. Basically, the students are grabbing a scene from a film or a television show, something that’s copyrighted, but for learning purposes… So, I think it’s really a fair use example. We’re stripping the sound and then they’re doing the best job they can to recreate the sound for that scene. There have been a couple of times the student has tried… they’ve been so proud of their work, they’ve tried to upload their project to YouTube and of course, I think automatic filters that they have… they say, “uh-uh, you can’t put a scene from such-and-such a film” which actually surprises me because I never realized this until the students do it… When I have them look and suggest to see possible scenes that they might want to pick for their project, you can basically just go on YouTube and you can search for like, oh the “dinner scene of Shrek…” it’ll come up. Somebody put it up there… it’s there. It’s kind of interesting that all this stuff is out there. But I’ve never had any issues with copyright and I tell the students, I say, “look, the final product that you’re gonna end up with here is a portfolio piece… and so in other words, it’s not something that you’re going to be trying to sell or trying to put out into any sort of public domain in any way… any shape, anyway. If you want to get a job in this field, you’re gonna show this to somebody in an intimate setting.” Say, “I did the sound replacement for this” and they’re hopefully gonna be impressed and so it’s not going to be a copyright issue I think per se.
Rebecca: So, it might be like a demo reel or a demo behind a password or something like that anyways.
Jeff: Yeah, exactly.
John: So, how have students responded to this type of project?
Jeff: Students absolutely love doing this. I mean, it’s the one thing that gets me out of bed and keeps me doing this kind of stuff. Because I witness a transformation. Now I sort of enjoy the fact that there’s a bit of a reputation that the class is cool and it’s fun and maybe even a little bit that the professor is kind of cool, I don’t know. It’s a difficult class to get into… it fills up really really quickly. But I see so many times like students I think, were kind of interested in the topic… But by the end of the semester, I think every semester, every section I teach, I have at least one student is who’s like, “this is what I want to do with my life.” …and I think that’s really cool… when they get into it. When you go out… a lot of times, what they have to do is they have to get like one of the portable recorders… I see that you have a zoom recorded on the table. We have something similar to that. We have some Tascam recorders… and then, of course, they have to go out in the field and… a lot of times… record sounds in the real world that they’re gonna bring in and edit and then put in. I cannot explain to you how rewarding it is when you go out and you spend a lot of time getting just the right sound that you capture… you bring it in… and you spot the sound …which basically means you just put the sound on the timeline and you line it up in the right timing and you play it and it works. It is so satisfying, it is so satisfying… and I see them the first time they’ve done that, the first time they’ve recorded their own sound and they put it into the project… they’re giddy… For a lot of students, once they do it once, they’re hooked and so they can’t wait to go grab the recorder, go record some more sounds, and put them back in. …and yeah, it’s one of those things where it is a lot of work, but the pride they feel in the finished product… I don’t know if it’s maybe because students are just getting better… or I’d like to think that I’m getting better teaching the class but I think semester after semester after semester and the projects keep getting better and better and better.
I actually had a student who did a scene from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and I initially told this particular student: “I don’t know, that’s some dense sound.” It wasn’t the most climactic scene, but it was there was a lot happening. He said, “no, I can do it” and I always tried to defer to their judgment when that happens. I’m like, “if you really think you can do it, I’ll let you do it.” He did such an exceptional job. This was the my favorite story and I always tell this to the students. He took the project home after the end of the semester and he said he played it for his older brother. He said, “hey, check this out, I want to play something.” So he did the right thing, he didn’t tell him what it was, he just played the scene with his sound replacement and it was the ultimate compliment when he said, “yeah so it’s the scene from… that scene from Pirates of the Caribbean.” He’s like, “you liked it?” He’s like, “well yeah, I mean I like the movie” and he’s like, “I dumped all the sound and replaced everything” and he’s like, “No way.” He couldn’t distinguish it from the original film and I thought that’s an accomplishment because there was some complex sounds that were going on in there and this student just really busted their you-know-what to do this. One of the things that a lot of students want to do is… if I had a nickel for every time they want to change the little girl in a scene’s voice to a big burly man, right? Isn’t that funny? The big burly man sounds like a little girl and I tell them “no, I’m not gonna…” because they think it would be funny… I say, “well here’s the deal, ultimately I want you to try to make something that will not fool, but just like that last example I played, you want to play this for somebody, you don’t want them to to know about it.” As soon as you do something in the scene that doesn’t fit, it immediately calls the listener or the viewer to the fact that something’s been done with the sound so you break the…
Rebecca: The smoke and mirrors, right?
Jeff: Right. Right, you ruin it for them. So I tell them, “I absolutely forbid that from happening. If you can’t find a little girl to replace that dialogue with, don’t do the scene.” Just a little side note.
Rebecca: So, you’ve talked about revising how you teach, so what are you gonna do next?
Jeff: One of the things that, in the successor to this class, it’s Sound for Television and Film II… Basically, that course is… students take what they’ve learned from doing it the first time… choose another scene… and do it again. But this time, they choose a little bit longer scene, and they get to start right out from the beginning and have a lot more time to work on it. I’ve had, a few times… students actually were able to pick actual short animations from real creators and have a chance to do it for real. I’d like to be able to find ways to do more of that, but it’s really challenging to try to find original work that needs this level of work… that’s not too much… it’s really kind of a hard space to grab.
What’s next for me is to really try to figure out how to get students to do it for real. I’ve got one of my students from years ago who is now working out in Los Angeles and doing this for real… and I keep threatening him that I’m gonna send him a student or two too as an intern… and where he works, they actually they have a formalized internship process… but it’s funny, it’s hard to get students who are willing to go out there… be able to live…and be able to start at the bottom. Because basically you have to start as an unpaid intern at a place like this… and start from the bottom… and move their way up.
John: Okay, well thank you, this was fascinating.
Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for sharing your story.
Jeff: Yeah, thank you for having me.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.