It’s not hyperbolic to say that COVID-19 changed everything. Live events and entertainment took particularly heavy hits — major motion pictures were delayed or scrapped altogether. Some projects transitioned to digital-only releases. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe was derailed from its schedule.
All of these things added even more pressure to the people working in film production. And while Hollywood continues to search for a “new normal” for the future, it’s hard not to notice the industry-shaking changes that it will have to contend with.
Now, more than a year removed from the onset of COVID, the world is starting to rediscover its equilibrium. Film and TV production has finally begun to return, but things may never go back to how they were before the nightmare that was 2020.
Production and business models — the building blocks of this industry — have shifted. Things that used to be unchangeable standards are open to adaptation because they already bent once, and in very public ways.
Most areas of film production will continue to evolve in the coming months, and possibly even years. And one of the groups at the forefront of this movement is the sound department. From audio engineers to production sound mixers to Foley artists, film audio departments are influencing the evolution of the entire industry in a post-COVID world.
Sound design in a remote work world
People outside the industry assumed that certain jobs would become remote in a seamless transition. Like, why can’t post production roles just work from home? Why can’t editors and sound mixers work in isolation out of a home studio?
While those things can be true, film studios weren’t built for that situation; the transition was a last-ditch effort to avoid indefinitely freezing huge productions. And the main focus became continuing to produce films and TV at the same standard of excellence.
Production teams and studio bosses would rather spend extra time and money to maintain the level of quality, and that meant leveraging remote workers and outsourced contractors. In an interview with CNBC, Frank Patterson (CEO of Pinewood Atlanta Studios) made this very clear: “We are not going to compromise the quality of work…There won’t be any shot that we can’t get, it’s just how we get it that’s going to change.”
And you can find countless stories of people who had to find remote solutions in the early stages of COVID-forced quarantine. Some films were close to wrapping and needed to finish production before going into lockdown; others were just picking up steam and needed to transition to remote collaboration to cut down on the size of production staff.
Regardless of the situation, everyone had to make some sort of adjustment to how they did work. And the majority of those changes took place in home offices and studios.
Home production studios and tools
Doing audio work from home is possible, but it can get expensive — especially in 2020. As the world transitioned to remote work, we saw a shocking amount of equipment scarcity as hardware disappeared from shelves and warehouses closed down for months on end. Even in normal times, anyone in post production would tell you that that efficiency directly affects the cost behind a project, and the sort of equipment to streamline things will cost money.
But building a home studio was a requirement for many people. That meant investing into a powerful PC for video playback, a 5.1 speaker setup, sound baffling, a lot of hard drive space and software licenses for every program you may use between projects. And then there’s treating the room, calibrating the speakers and all the extra steps to mimic a dedicated studio fit for film audio production.
Another alternative that rose in prominence was outsourcing. Even with more 5.1-tier home studios in use, there are some aspects of sound production and mixing that require specific equipment not available in most homes. That became an advantage for companies that specialize in sound design or support and already functioned as remote teams. Suddenly these contractors became hot commodities; they also served as proof that remote audio production can be a viable path, regardless of where the team is based.
So much of film audio revolves around last-minute changes and quick thinking. These are the exact skills needed for remote work, as well as collaborating with contracted help. And for many people, COVID-19 simply proved that this was proof that the industry can — and should — change.
Focus on collaborative tools for remote production
While there was no perfect solution for people during quarantine, it’s clear that the ideal fit is somewhere in the middle of “on set” and “at home.” Specialist roles (like Foley artists) can still get time in a studio, but most of the film audio workforce can transition to working from home when possible or necessary.
Another advantage for remote audio teams is the variety of remote collaboration tools available. While outsourcing became a popular resource, it’s always had a role in Hollywood. That means many of the tools were already in place to help transition to remote work.
Source-Connect and Frame.io have become household names in the film world. Dropbox, OneDrive and WeTransfer are simple (and safe) methods for file sharing, regardless of file size. And things like captioning, ADR and Foley could be managed by syncing up via Zoom or FaceTime.
Are these perfect solutions? No, of course not. But they helped the industry replicate a lot of the collaboration that drives the creative engine of film production. Being able to do audio work and still deliver elements daily just helped to simplify that process for everyone involved.
These cases quickly went from “unique” to “commonplace” because of COVID-19. The only way for film production to continue was for the industry to make a big shift. And in the wake of the pandemic, many publications and critics have pushed for these short-term adaptations to become permanent evolutions for the good of everyone in the industry.
And we are just now seeing that remote workers can still create amazing films, as many of the post-COVID productions are starting to release. A remote post production future is, at least temporarily, a reality for many people in the film audio space.
Drew Gula is the copywriter at Soundstripe (https://www.soundstripe.com), a company that helps filmmakers find royalty free background music by providing resources like documentary music.