Interview with Tom Efinger from Dig It Audio

Dig It Audio, founded in 1991 by Grammy Award winner Tom Efinger, has been a creative audio post production studio for film, gaming, and television. With a new merger agreement in 2014, Dig It has widely expanded its post production capabilities. The recent merger with The Music Playground, The Station, and The Diner, has provided the opportunity for Dig It to now offer comprehensive music services, VFX and motion graphics, and color correction and video finishing in addition to its well established audio post services.

We spoke with Tom about his work and he shared with us his insight into the art and craft of sound design for films and the future prospects of storytelling with VR technology.

Tom, can you talk to us about how you first got interested in music and how your journey progressed to sound design and mixing?

Sure, I became very interested in music at a young age.  I started playing saxophone when I was seven years old and I did quite well with it, so much so that the school recommended I get a private tutor.  I played saxophone pretty seriously all the way up through high school and I was able to play in a seventeen piece jazz band.  Also, in high school I took guitar and played in a couple of new wave/punk bands and then in college I started getting into electronic music.

I did get into acting as well, my father was in the Community Shakespeare Company when I was a kid and would watch him rehearse Macbeth.  He was always memorizing lines around the house.  I pursued music throughout my college years and I was in Burlington, Vermont which had a big music scene and I majored in English literature but minored in theatre in German.  I spent my junior year abroad in Austria and traveled around Europe and went to Berlin and sort of did the kind of things you should do when your twenty-one.

I had an electronic music group in Burlington for a few years called Commodity Fetish and we were very serious and made some records and played at the New Music Seminar in New York.  I eventually decided to continue on with music in New York, which when I arrived I didn’t have a job but was working with a guitar friend of mine painting apartments.

I kind of fell into doing audio engineering. A friend of mine new some people who were shooting videos and they needed someone to record voice-overs and sound effects.  I began working on corporate videos and began meeting lots of interesting people, many of which happened to be filmmakers who were making money doing videos for Meryl Lynch, Met Life, American Express, some of the clients I worked with and I would also begin getting requests from filmmakers asking me if I could work on their film, write music, record voice-over and dialogue, animation pieces, sound effects.  It didn’t take long before I was working out of my own studio apartment working on films and short films.  At this point in time I was doing music and audio engineering but then I realized that it was really impossible to do both and I decided to take the fork in the road which seemed best for me and that was to focus on sound design and mixing.  I became part of the indie feature film business doing sound and I got a call from Good Machine founded by Ted Hope and James Seamus.  Ted Hope is now the head of Amazon Studios and James Seamus went on to run Focus Features for about the last twenty years.  So I got onboard with their company Good Machine during the 90’s and doors opened up where I found myself working on a series of different projects.

What are some of the high points working with independent filmmakers?

One of the best things about working with independent filmmakers is that you tend to have very tight knit relationships. You usually tend to work very closely together. There’s usually not as many layers as you would get, meaning less people and a more creative collaborative process and that has really been the best part of the job for me over the years.

What is it about independent film that gets you excited working on projects?

The key thing is that most of the time in indie film the director is also the writer and alot of times they are the producer or one of the producers.  The project is really there baby and they pitched it to producers and they’re making the movie.  In Hollywood, the studio will find a script that they like and they will go out and find a director to direct but alot of the times the process is driven from the studio executive than it is by the director.  In indie film it’s really completely the opposite, the director is really central to the creative process.

So, when I work on an indie film I like the fact that I am working with the person who is delivering their project.  My job is really understanding what the director is trying to say and then helping them say it.

When we talk about sound design for a movie, we think about the sound effects for it and I tend to look at sound design as a more encompassing conversation for a film in terms of designing an aesthetic.  Not every film wants a special aesthetic, if you have a dialogue driven comedy it may be very straight forward.

In the case of some of the films I work on there really is oftentimes something that can be brought out more with sound.  What we had talked about with your project, ’98 ST – Playland’ was the fact that your main character is introspective, thinking about what’s happened to her in the recent past, thinking about what’s happening to her body and mind internally and then she has these experiences with the outside world and we kind of wanted to make a contrast between this more introspective, quiet contemplative space and and this more brash, noisy city outdoor world for example in the night club.

We chose moments when we can pull things away and create a space that was more internal to her emotional state and then we have other moments when we have more external and we hear everything like the business of environments.  Once we started to zero in on that as a concept, then it started to dictate how we could treat certain moments to play into a more internal space for her or a more external space.  For instance, when we did the walking sequence in your film by the subway, what we did was pull out all the ambient sound, except for a very basic layer of what I would call rolled off, taking off the high end and leaving almost this dreamy bed and then we would highlight certain sounds that had an emotional quality that could help us transition in and out of this more introspective space.

What would you say are some of the challenges you’ve had working on projects?

People have been amazed that I’ve even been able to make a business last these past 25 years doing indie film.  New York real estate is expensive.  If you do good work and keep going you can make ends meat and I think that’s the thing for all of us that work in this field, it’s a passion project.  I won’t be buying an island anytime soon but I really love doing what I do.

When it comes to ADR with actors, are there some highlights you can point out for us when it comes to that kind of collaboration?

Many independent films have challenges with sound.  When you have a challenging production budget and can’t shut down whole city blocks, you will most often have challenges recording the sound as clean as possible in some cases.

I’ve heard of two definitions for what ADR stands for, Automatic Dialogue Replacement which makes us laugh because there is nothing automatic about it.  And the other one is Actor Dialogue Replacement, which I personally prefer.  That’s basically what ADR stands for and it’s the process of re-recording an actor’s dialogue usually to picture.  There are cases when an actor is off-screen or could be a voice-over when you don’t need picture.  But usually there is picture, a beep tone sequence and in some cases there is a streamer, a visual white line that scrolls across the screen matching the beeps.  The whole purpose of the streamer is to clue the actor in on when to start.  There is a three beep sequence and you speak on the fourth one.  I joke and call it the one, two, three and go method.  it’s crucial to start in the right place in order to keep things in sync.  Then it’s a matter of creating the tone, energy and pitch of the performance so that it can get in clean and be used in the mix.

In addition to the technicalities you just mentioned can you talk to us about where you’ve had to give the actor direction in regards to their performance?

Absolutely.  It’s really a collaboration between the director, the engineer and talent.  If you have a talented engineer, they are understanding the mechanics of of how these lines are going to fit back into the movie.  Even though the performance may sound good on a given line if the tone is too low or too high or the projection didn’t match or it sounded good but wasn’t right for sync, the engineer needs to speak up and say whether or not it’s right.

Its a tricky process but my hope is that actors understand that this is an important part of the job when it comes to working in movies.  To be able to come back into a studio to recreate your performance in sync, pitch, projection and emotion is a real skill.  Some actors have a more innate ability to do that but it is a skill that can really pay huge dividends when you get into post and want to come out with an excellent mix.

You shared a really wonderful story working with actress Naomi Watts during one of our sessions that I think is important for actors as it relates to dubbing.

In the case with Naomi, we worked with her on a smaller independent film and she was extremely good with ADR.  She not only could nail the sync, performance, tone, emotion but she also really understood the mic. In order to get ADR to sound natural, you kind of have to match the miking to sound the same way.

There was a scene where she came into a 7-Eleven and she turned and said something to the counter person and she went into the back and made some comments in back of the store and I asked her if she could throw her voice off to the left, turn her face away from the mic and then step back for two feet to deliver the next line and then step forward for two feet and deliver the next line and she totally got it.  So, she would actually come in and there was almost a choreography to her movement with the microphone to try to simulate the way that dialogue was working in that space. Now, that’s kind of a next level example but actors that are truly skilled at this understand that the miking is a very important part of how that performance is nuanced and how it is going to fit into the scene once you get it in post-production.

I think actors should always be very opened-minded of the process.  If an actor does get into a studio to do it, it’s a great opportunity to learn the process.

How do you feel about VR cinema and its role in the future of storytelling for films?

VR is taking off where surround sound has sort of taken us to, I wouldn’t say left off because I don’t think we’re done with surround sound in movie theaters but in the newest iteration of that really is Dolby Atmos which is essentially a playback system that has speakers along the ceiling, walls and back of the room and represent the full range of base through treble.  In theatrical we are getting into an era where there is more complete 360 degree realization of sound. VR is kind of the next frontier of that, alot of it is done inside a headset and we do have special software that can do spatial placement of sound in the 360 degree arena.  It is even possible for this software to simulate sounds where they can feel like they are above or below as well as being in front or back or of course side to side.  It’s alot of fun for us as we take everything that we know about doing surround sound for theatrical and applying that to the new tools for 360 degree spatial audio.

Creatively, it has huge potential, I think it’s going to be interesting to see how storytelling can progress in the VR world.  Right now, it’s really at the very beginning stages and I think the storytelling talent is just beginning to find VR as a medium and starting to play around with saying what they want to say with it.  We’re really at the absolute infant stages of where this technology is leading and it’s good to point out that there’s live action VR and there is CGI driven VR and I’m sure in the future we’re probably going to see a mixture of live action and CGI but the people who are really comfortable with the CGI aspect are really comfortable with the video game kind of things and the people who have been making movies and are familiar with live action are coming into VR with that experience under their belt and approaching with the new cameras that can shoot 360 degrees.

Dig It Audio has been working with both live action footage and CGI VR driven and it’s really fun and just beginning to become more viable and exciting.

What advice do you have for emerging sound design mixers that want to have a career in the business?

The best way would be a couple of things: one way would be to intern at a studio where there is alot of work to gain experience.  Interns also don’t have to necessarily be young adults fresh out of college, I’ve had interns in their forties want to make a change and see what this side of the business has to offer.  Many internships are usually a three to four month period generally part time.  Doing an internship is usually a great way to get your foot in the door.

The other thing is working on short form stuff, specifically short films.  Contacting the film schools in your area, colleges and universities that have film programs. Volunteering to work and help on those projects and post-audio.  That is a great way. When projects are short in nature it is also less in time commitment as opposed to a feature which can take months to do, a short film project can be one to three weeks.

Tom, thank you for your time and insight into the world of sound design for cinema, gaming and VR.  It was a pleasure talking with you.

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Joseph Arnone

Joseph Arnone is the founding editor-in-chief of Monologue Blogger. In addition to running MB, Joseph is a filmmaker/producer who has had his films premiere at Festival de Cannes - Court Metrage and Tribeca Cinema's Big Apple Film Festival.

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