By Dave Foxx
I remember reading a science-fiction novel when I was young (I wish I could remember the title, or even the author) about a super-computer that was running the galaxy. Everything was humming right along until it got a question from a user that forced it to shut down. The question in the novel was “Why?” When it was grappling with all the day-to-day stuff, it was fine, but when somebody asked it to explain the purpose of life, it simply couldn’t come up with any kind of meaningful answer. Now, I’m not going to try to answer that question here. I have a hard enough time trying to figure out how to get my audio on the RAP CD. (More on that later.) However, I got the BIG question from a fellow producer last week that I’d like to tackle.
Scott Kessler is the imaging guy for KLSY in Seattle, Washington. His email asked, “You’ve heard a lot of my stuff. When I hear other producers imaging, their stuff seems to more or less ‘sparkle’ to me. My stuff sounds ‘flat.’ Any idea…or am I dreaming?”
Scott… you’re not dreaming, although we DO tend to be our own worst critics. So let me qualify that… you’re dreaming ‘a little.’ Those of you who have heard Scott’s work I’m sure would agree that his work is excellent. To use a popular nomenclature, he’s dealing straight flushes pretty much all the time, and a straight flush almost guarantees a winning the hand. Almost because there is always that pesky Royal flush that beats everything.
Well gang, the Royal Flush is probably why most of you ever read this magazine. I know (from all the critique requests I get) that almost all of you are technically proficient. I also know that most of you totally understand the concepts we all talk about in RAP Magazine. So what sets one producer apart from another? What makes one piece ‘sparkle’ and another not? I’m not talking about EQ or compression, although they can enhance the sparkle that IS there. I’m talking about that certain something that makes most of what you’re hearing on this month’s RAP CD stand out.
The short answer is “It’s the underlying emotion in the piece.” I’ve often been caught up in the idea that production is about the editing/mixing and designing of any piece, but when I stop to breathe, I know that it’s so much more than that.
Seeing the difference between one person’s production and another’s is a lot like seeing the difference between movie directors and their films. Some directors like Scott Ridley or Wolfgang Peterson are considered masters of their craft because they have snappy, believable dialogue, settings that feel true-to-life, scenarios that are not impossible, however unlikely. Their characters develop from scene to scene and the overarching storyline flows to a natural ending that gives a sense of a story that is well told. This doesn’t mean there’s always a happy ending, because few things in life DO end that way, but it has a satisfying ending. You, as the viewer are willing to suspend disbelief while you are watching and become emotionally involved.
So too must you, as a producer, get the listener to become emotionally involved. (DING-DING-DING!) Obviously, you don’t have two hours to tell your story. More likely, you have 30 seconds. You also don’t have the likes of Russell Crowe or Jody Foster to deliver the words, but often have to rely on a local somebody to do that job for you. None of those things matter though… IF you can touch an emotion in the listener.
The keystone to any “Royal Flush” production is that emotion. Can you make tears well up? Can you make someone laugh out loud? Can you make someone remember his or her past?
Roy Williams writes about an area in the human cortex called Broca’s Brain. He didn’t make this up. It’s a real physiological portion of your brain. It sits right next to the speech translation area of the brain. It is the emotional traffic light for everything you hear, see, taste and touch. It colors everything your senses pass along with the emotional memories you carry with you. It’s the part of the brain that can make you ‘smell’ bacon frying when you only hear it. It’s the part of the brain that makes you cry at the movies because it takes the data your senses are passing along and equates it to something sad that happened to you. You don’t flash to the sad event in your own life; this little emotional well just tells your body that this moment in time, you should cry… and you do.
If you can get Broca’s Brain to react, your production will ‘sparkle,’ because it feels true-to-life. Once Broca’s Brain kicks in, you can deliver a neat little package of information. Until then, everything you do is just noise to the listener and will end up having little or NO impact on their intellect.
Too much verbiage makes Broca’s Brain shut down. You will never reach a listener once that happens. All the whiz-bang-pop stuff in the world will never get the message across by itself. You MUST get Broca’s Brain to alert the listener that something worthy of their attention is going on. Whether you’re using humor, pathos or some other emotional wedge, Broca’s Brain will recognize it and open the vault door of the mind to accept whatever the message is that you’re trying to impart.
Mind you, it has to be a message that’s congruent with the emotion. It’s been several weeks now since the Superbowl. This year’s crop of commercials was less than stellar, in my opinion, although there were a few standouts. Do you remember the one where the Physician’s Assistant killed a fly with a defibrillator paddle? He said, “That sure killed him,” just as the wife and daughter of the patient walked in. An awful moment… made a very funny and entertaining commercial, but not a good one. Question: Do you remember what the advertisement was for? If you do, I’m amazed. If you don’t, I can assure you that you’re in the majority. It was a great emotional wedge… with a non-connected, stupid message. What a waste! The key to ‘sparkly’ production is that emotional wedge, but it has to be the right emotional wedge. It has to fit the message.
So, how do you learn to sparkle? Make your production with all the attention to detail that Scott Ridley uses to make a movie. Make sure the writing is clean and clear and draws a straight line to the emotional wedge early on. Make sure the production supports the emotional wedge. I would strongly advise against using rock to drive a spot promoting a Funeral Home, even if the client is a Funeral Home for bikers. Likewise, don’t try to use humor.
Maybe you’re not the writer. That’s OK. Talk to the writer and try to create an emotional wedge for you to use. Maybe you’re not the VO person either. That’s OK too. Talk to him or her and make sure they understand what you’re trying to do. If he or she can’t deliver what you need, you need another VO. Then, when you’re about to sit down and assemble everything, make sure YOU support the emotional wedge and simply connect the dots. If the message is clear and concise, it’ll be like a bell ringing in the mountain air, full of sparkle.
Look, I know this is a really difficult concept to wrap your head around. I’ve been teaching people this idea for many years now. Some people get it right away, but most struggle with it for quite awhile. I promise you this; if you can get a handle on it, you will start dealing Royal Flushes all the time.
Please allow me to apologize for not having this column’s audio on last month’s CD. It has since been posted on the RAP Magazine website… just in case you’re curious. OK? Because this month’s CD is all spoken for with RAP Awards nominees, this month’s audio will be posted there as well. Just check the Highlights page.
The emotional wedge for this piece is embarrassment caused by parents — something we’ve all felt before. The connection to the product or service (video on demand at our website) is readily apparent because it’s dear old dad, using it. Add a little twist with the son’s interest sparking in spite of how embarrassed he is, makes the whole concept come around and finish very nicely.