Production 212: The Zen of Production

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

I never talk about politics or religion with people I don’t know. It’s a rule in life that I follow, well – religiously. But I figure most of you who are reading this, are pretty much cut from the same cloth as me, so I’m breaking that rule this month to talk about the first tenet of the Holy Church of the Workstation. Don’t worry, we don’t take collections and you’ll never hear a sermon filled with fire and brimstone. Uh, make that almost never.

The weary traveler asks the guru on the mountaintop, “So how do you know you’re done with a piece of production?”

The wise old man turns his head to the east and replies, “If you are prepared, you will know when you are there.”

I’m the guy asking the question, mind you, although I feel old enough to be the geezer. If the answer doesn’t make sense to you just yet, don’t worry about it, we’ll get there.

Let me ask you, “How do you prepare to create a spot or promo?” Many of you dive right in. You get a script, have someone (maybe yourself) voice it, and start cutting and pasting. Then you think about music and effects and often grab whatever is handy to polish the whole thing up. I know all this because I used to do it all the time. What you get when it’s “finished” is something you would never include on a demo reel, but somehow you think will be effective. Guess again, you sinner! (Maybe we should consider bringing back the practice of scourging in this church.)

You must first contemplate what you are trying to accomplish. I don’t mean you should stare at your navel for two hours, pondering the inscrutable, or the lint. Take ten or fifteen seconds (minimum) to decide what the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is before you reach for the record button. As you peruse the script, think about ways you can reinforce the USP, using music and sound effects. Before you crack the mic, make sure you know what the important words are and how they support the USP. If there are words in the script that don’t push the right message, change them or get rid of them completely. (Okay, sometimes you can’t edit the script because it’s somebody’s pet project, but if you have the time, work with him or her to improve it.)

Select your music very carefully. Does it create the right setting for the message? Or will it become the message? Would sound effects enhance the message? Or would they be distracting? Where would the best place be for “pivot points?” (I’ll explain those in a moment.) Make notes on the script. Invest a little thinking time in the project, before you record anything. Try to “picture” what it will sound like before you even fire up the workstation. If you do, you will not only know when you are done (because you’ve heard it in your head already), but you will also know exactly which path to take along the way.

If possible, record the music first. When the voice talent is doing his or her part, make sure it’s playing back in the headphones. It sure makes it easy to capture the mood of what you heard in your head. It also helps keep the voice track “in sync” with the rhythm of the music. This can be helpful even if you’re not going to use music in the final mix. The read ends up being well paced throughout, and again, will give the voice the right “feel.” (Up music will give an up result. Somber music will give the VO track gravity.)

Once you know what the USP is, you have to develop the thesis. Just like a paper on The Dynamics of Thermonuclear Fusion or The Translucence Of The Derma Of An Albino Planarian, each sentence in your spot or promo must support the thought behind the paragraph and each paragraph must support the finished piece. If everything is pointed in the right direction, the message becomes crystal clear. When you’re writing a paper and you need to introduce a new idea, still in support of the overall thesis, you simply make a new paragraph. When you are producing a spot or promo, the beginning of a new paragraph becomes a “pivot point.” This is where you should subtly, or not, change the music. (Promos would tend to be not so subtle.) If there’s a certain word or phrase that the entire piece revolves around, you might want to consider losing the music completely.

To serve as an example for this article, I’m putting a track on the CD promoting Z100’s $100,000 Shopping Spree. We wanted to give our target listener (23-year old female professional) the chance to do something she has never been able to do: go on an extravagant shopping spree. We thought she would probably go to Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Tiffany’s and Prada. Well, musically it had to sound very upper class, thus something classical. Once I introduced the concept, I dropped in an effect for the pivot point and explained the basic “how to” to them over a more rhythmic bed. Put a big, splashy effect at the end and say, “details soon,” – end of promo.

The best part of it is, this extremely effective promo, based on phone and email response, took me all of 15 minutes to produce. The first 3 minutes were spent deciding how to get there from here. The rest of it flew together, almost by itself.

Thus, the first tenet of this religion we laughingly call work is “Know where you’re going before you start moving.” It gets hard sometimes when orders are streaming through the door, which is being pounded on by an insistent salesperson, as the PD calls your phone to scream “We needed this yesterday!” However, taking a couple of minutes up front will save you so much time in the long run, and your work will be so much more effective, that when it comes time to review your employment, you’ll be the guru. The GM will make the climb up the mountain you’re sitting on and make an offering you will think is pretty cool.

Hey, tell him his tie has a spot on it.

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