PROBLEM:

Sound designer Barry G. Funderburg had to edit music to a tight cue sequence for a fight scene in Moby Dick at the Milwaukee Rep. “I could only see so much while watching it and taking notes,” he says.

Bruce Richardson had to do a complex sound design for a scene involving an actor with a knee problem. Would the actor have to repeat a difficult physical scene over and over while he set cues?

SOLUTION:

“Videotaping saves wear and tear on actors and gives you a definitive look at the energy in a scene,” Richardson says. When he did In the Belly of the Beast at the Kitchen Dog Theatre in Dallas, he had to score a slow-motion fight scene. “The actors fought on a floor surface covered with a bark-like substance.” Videotape enabled him to “score” the way the fake bark landed on the stage with sound, and without putting actors through a terrible tech.

When designers work out of town, videos are invaluable. Tom Mardikes says seeing a video before flying in to see a run-through can remove uncertainties and is particularly important before a recording session with musicians. “It allows the sound designer and composer to go off and get a rough edit.” Even when he works in his hometown, “I can work in a studio for three hours to get it sequenced or take three hours of tech time,” Mardikes notes.

PROBLEM:

Some sound designers prefer stopwatches. Guy Sherman, for instance, would rather take good notes and clock two things at once, partly because cues can't be set too early, partly because he feels videotaping spoils the purity of an art that is about working in real time. “But we all know it's intrusive to keep working on sound in the room,” he concedes.

Mardikes says videotaping the coronation scene in Richard II helped him see the hit points the director had in mind. There were changes when the show moved from the rehearsal hall. “But you know you have a cue from point A to point B and another from C to D and you get an idea of rough timings. I've found that dialogue in a rehearsal hall rarely changes timing effects, even when the actors or director shave three or four minutes off a performance.”

Scott Stauffer says even though cues change once scenery has to be moved, he values approximations. “It would be wonderful to sit down with a sound engineer when that engineer has off-hours and observe a video of a run-through together.”

But he doesn't even try, and here's the reason:

PROBLEM:

(You thought we were finished?) In an attempt to protect its members, Actors' Equity Association has a policy that inadvertently makes unnecessary and uncomfortable work for them. The actor with knee problems, for instance, had to do many, many takes during techs because the stage manager on the show invoked an Equity ruling that made it impossible for Richardson to videotape. “Had I been allowed to videotape that scene and score the design directly to the actor's own rhythm, I would have been able to design the cue points into the sequence in such a way that it would have probably worked perfectly the first time through in tech.” he says. Other sound designers report similar obstacles, but most ease potential tensions with Equity most of the time.

SOLUTION:

Equity press rep Marcia Somma says you must ask the producer to approach the union. Equity requires “a written concession request stating very clear and concise reasons why such a taping should be allowed and any documentation or information that would support such a request. The concession request is brought to committee. It is reviewed and ruled upon and the decision is then given.”

Several sound designers say when a request reaches an Equity committee, responses can be slow and impersonal. The ideal solution is to get actors on the show to take a vote and approve your request so it doesn't move up the ladder.

But how do you persuade the acting company to let you videotape them? Here are a few pointers:

  • Reassure actors who may feel exposed when they are not yet in character. “Always promise that nothing's going to happen with those tapes,” Mardikes says. “Be specific about your reasons for videotaping,” Richardson says. “Videotaping only the specific amount of a scene you need, perhaps doing it in work light, or out of costume, all reassure the actors involved that the situation is okay.”

  • Don't be a stranger. Typically, the stage manager makes a request to the Equity deputy and the cast votes. “The sound designer has to lobby. If you've never been to a rehearsal, sometimes they'll vote it down,” Mardikes warns.

  • Be up front with the stage manager. Richardson, who has not had a problem before or since one stage manager refused him, says when he is transparent about his intentions, he gets a green light. “It's really just a negotiation with stage management,” says Funderburg. On Moby Dick, for instance, the stage manager set up the camera, taped the specific section Funderburg needed, and allowed him to view it in the building; Funderburg returned the tape to the PSM when he left.

ALREADY SOLVED?

Tony Meola says taping seems to be less of an issue with Equity than it once was. He uses video to reference sound effects timing, and he is not alone. But back in 1983, when working on My One and Only, director/actor Tommy Tune wanted to videotape his scenes. “They were so strict,” Meola recalls. “We got an Equity person to attach a VCR to our front of house camera. There was one tape, and it had to be used over and over. And because I was the sound man and responsible for video equipment, I had to personally give it to Mr. Tune [and get it from him later].” Now, there are three-camera videos done for every show for promotion purposes.

Another sound designer notes that advances in technology may make videotaping a private matter; “you can tape off your cell phone,” he says.

MORE PROBLEMS AHEAD?

David Smith read about a related problem in the January issue of Keyboard Magazine, which reports a recent ruling by the 6th circuit U.S. Court of Appeals: Any use of a digital sample of a recording without a license is a violation of copyright. “I think a lot of sound designers used to operate under the minimal use provision that can be applied to all forms of copyrighted material, but now digital sampling has been singled out and a much more strict rule has been applied,” says Smith. “It will be very interesting to see what the effect on our industry is.” We'll keep you posted.

If you've met a design or technical challenge, share your solution by writing to davi@comcast.net.