Man of Sound: Interview with Sound Editor Woody Woodhall

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

When it comes to bringing a story to life with sound, there's more to it than meets the eye... or ear. 

Woody Woodhall, CAS is President of Allied Post Audio in Santa Monica, CA and is an award winning supervising sound editor, sound designer and rerecording mixer. He has sound supervised and mixed feature films, documentaries and for television he’s VO recorded, sound edited and mixed hundreds of episodes of programming for MTV, Comedy Central, Food Network, Nat Geo, History, USA Network and VH-1 to name a few. 

Current television mixing includes 11 seasons of the series “Mystery Diners” on Food Network, 2 seasons of “Museum Men” for History Channel as well as the first season of the series “A Wicked Offer” for the CW. Woody is author of the college textbook, Audio Production and Post Production, used at universities across the US. Woody also heads the Los Angeles Post Production Group (LAPPG) where he shares his filmmaking expertise alongside other working professionals on a monthly basis for the LA post production community. His latest venture is L.A. Post Fest, a worldwide editing competition - L.A. Post Fest - Create Your Story in Post.

Now, he shares his expertise on sound editing - how he got into the biz, tips for beginners, L.A. Post Fest, & more. 

ProductionHUB: What inspired you to become a sound editor?

Woody Woodhall: Sound has always been a big part of my life. I was a composition major at University of Miami and fell in with the theatre and film crowd. Eventually, I changed my major to Cinema, which was a double major in filmmaking and theatre. 

As a musician I was always looking at new ways to record, and I went from the early four track reel to reels to eventually learning digital audio as it grew as a technology. I mixed bands in clubs that my bands had played in, and when an opportunity came to mix professionally it was doing live TV newscasts. Not producing hit records as I had dreamed, but it was hands-on learning of sound for picture, and my audio career grew from there.

I mixed the news for a few years and then mixed live to satellite, or live-to-tape shows for Game Show Network, Travel Channel and others. The responsibilities of mixing large stage shows is quite a bit different than mixing post audio. When the opportunity came to make the switch, I embraced it and never looked back.

PH: What is involved in audio post-production?

Woody Woodhall: Audio post is an overall term for many distinct audio disciplines. It involves the recording, editing and mixing of sound for picture. There are, for instance - dialog editors and mixers, sound effects editors and mixers, sound designers, Foley artists, editors and mixers, dialog replacement recordists and editors, music editors and mixers, and there are rerecording mixers. These tasks can be handled by the many or the few. It depends on the specifics required for the soundtrack and the depth of the budget.

Audio post is both extremely creative and technical. It is often misunderstood as solely a technical process. This attitude negates the experience and expertise of sound editors, sound designers and mixers. When I'm approached about working on a film and the discussions are about "saving the location audio", "removing hums or noise", or other technical flaws, I know that there will be little or no time (or money) left for creative storytelling with the sound. Rather, the experience becomes about "saving" the audio.

We are experts at minimizing sound distortions and anomalies of course. But we're also film artists, who've done many movies and TV shows, and can offer ways to enhance the pacing, the story, and the overall "feel" for projects with sound. We are craftsmen and craftswomen, who are highly technically experienced, but we are also creatives who use sound to tell stories.

PH: How/why do you think it's important to tell a story through sound? 

Woody Woodhall: Unless its a silent film, you will, by the very nature of film, be using sound in the storytelling. Of course, silent film is not silent either, it always had some sort of musical score, creating pacing, creating emotion and creating moments for the enjoyment of the picture.

Imagine a horror film or a sci-fi film without the audio. The spookiness and the other worldliness do not only come from the images. Its the synergy, or the marrying of the sounds with the images, that creates the visceral response in an audience.

PH: How is sound editing / mixing different for fim vs TV? Is there a difference? 

In terms of craft, the processes are very similar. You will always need a clean dialog track, sound design elements, and a good musical score. The biggest difference is time and money. Feature films might come clean with only a dialog track, it is in the audio post process, where collaboration on the ultimate soundtrack happens.

In TV, because of the nature of its creation, sound and music elements are pre-built into the edit. In TV, a lot of shows come with music tracks, sound effects and narration, already cut in. This process allows for many hands to be a part of the edit and approval. Network execs want to hear the music and the sound effects (depending on the type of show of course) so they can make notes to the production company to finalize the edit. In this case, the work is more about getting the dialog tracks and the chosen effects and music to sound the very best that they can.

A typical turnaround on an episode of a series for TV is about 3 or 4 days for a half hour show. A feature length film can get 8 to 10 weeks or more.

PH: Do you have any go-to software? What is it and why do you use it?

Woody Woodhall: My main program is Avid's Pro Tools. Its the industry standard here in LA for TV and film. There are many great plugins available for it. Everyone has different tastes and needs for those. My personal go-tos are iZotope RX and Ozone and the McDSP software. For reverbs, I absolutely love Altiverb and I like Revibe for some things too. I use a lot of the Waves plugs for various things and their surround bundle for downmixing is good. I like Paul Neyrinck's stuff too. It's really about what tool best fits the needs of the particular audio I am working with at any given moment.

PH: What are some common mistakes that NEW sound editors make? 

Woody Woodhall: Probably the number one mistake is not thoroughly checking their work. After doing repetitive things, it can be easy to just trust that it's all OK, from past experience. But everything always needs to checked and QC'd before delivery. There can be a pop or click induced from a layback, there can be a typo in a track name, there can be an issue with a burned disk, its all about checking and rechecking.

As the boss, you never want to be in a position to have to redo work because of something that could have easily been nipped in the bud. Worst case is a pile of tapes coming back from a network because of a weird anomaly that could have been caught before delivery. (Yes, tapes are still in use...) No one asks who made the mistake. And it doesn't matter who did it. At the end of the day, it's my problem, and I'm responsible for making it right. An assistant may have made the error, but the fist shake is directed at me!

PH: What questions do you ask a client before getting to work on their project? 

Woody Woodhall: First off - have you locked the edit? Then, in no particular order... what is the shape of the location audio, do you need ADR, noise reduction, etc.? What is the turnaround from start to delivery? Do you have an audio deliverables doc? Will you require a fully filled M&E track? What is the total run time of the program? Do you have a composer, do you have cues written yet? What is the final delivery - 5.1, 7.1, 2.1 or all of the above? And always - what is your budget for audio post?

All of those answers will guide the next steps in the process. Particularly the cost. If they have a 110 minute feature that needs extensive Foley and ADR, lots of fancy dialog repair and a budget of 500 hundred dollars, I need to know that going in. So I can help them find the right person for the job. It won't be me!

PH: From the standpoint of a sound designer, what makes a particular rerecording mixer good to work with?

Woody Woodhall: Nowadays it's not typically broken up like that. These job titles are very fluid and overlap. Many sound designers and supervising sound editors are also rerecording mixers. These tasks get broken into different jobs depending on the work required, the time allotted and the budget. But you always want to work with people whose past work you admire.

PH: What does it take to be able to be a re-recording mixer and sound editor?

Woody Woodhall: It is a multifaceted job, so it requires a number of skills. You must know and understand how sound works, how to manipulate sound using the tools at your disposal. You must know how to read a spec sheet and understand the technical requirements of a delivery, from peak amplitudes and averages to LKFS meters, as well as how to properly route and split the audio into its discrete elements for delivery.

You must know and love movies and understand the role that audio has to play in telling stories. You must always stay ahead of the technological curve and see what's new, what's being updated and what new workflows are being created. Watch classic films, watch new films, see them in theaters, see them on TV, see them on computers and (gasp) on phones, and understand how each playback medium affects the audio.

The hardest thing, a thing that can't be taught, is to be able to work well with others. Film is a collaborative medium. You can offer ideas and insights but at the end of the day the final choices do not come from you. You must be able to check your ego at the door and fulfill the director's vision of the audio. Even when they are "wrong"! You must be patient and have a serious attention for detail.

PH: Do these two clash? 

Woody Woodhall: Audio post is an all encompassing occupation. You should know how to cut dialog tracks and use room tone. You must know how to record ADR, cut it to sync and mix it to match the location tracks. You must know sound design and understand how to manipulate sound libraries for what you need or record what you don't have. You should be able to record, cut and mix Foley to match the quality of the rest of the scene.

To work your way up and learn all of these skills, you learn to appreciate all of the craft and artistry involved. I don't think I've ever seen teams of audio pros working together that have clashed. That doesn't mean that there are not disagreements about things of course. But, they are all working towards the same goal, and always have something to learn from one another, be it technique or just having a good attitude.

PH: Can you describe the phases of mixing and editing?

Woody Woodhall: It all starts with the sound editing. Typically, it'll start with an AAF or an OMF of the audio from the edit session timeline, accompanied by the movie file for the project. The dialog edit is a huge part of the initial process. From there we can determine what, if any ADR (dialog replacement) is required as well as what hard sound effects need to be created to fulfill the storytelling. We'll spot through the entire movie, end to end and discuss what the director "hears".

Once we get a handle on that, we design the sound according to the demands of the program and the director or producer. For instance, we might add backgrounds, hard effects like door slams, design elements like drone sounds, or create sounds like a particular beeping assigned to a specific device.

The music usually filters in at this stage and we start adding the various cues and playing them back in sequence with all of the other sound elements. From there, the director might work with the composer to alter or enhance the music cues. Or work with the sound team to remove or embellish some of the sounds.

Once we have the main sound elements in place - dialog, music and effects, we start the process of mixing the elements into an amazing sounding track. We will also be sure to build the edit and the mix so that we can create whatever splits are required for audio delivery. Typical audio delivery is a full mix of the program that is then broken into separate dialog, music and effects mixes.

PH: What are some reasons to become a sound editor or mixer?

Woody Woodhall: Love of sound and movies. Don't do it for the glory or for the money!

PH: What is the hardest thing about mixing and editing?

Woody Woodhall: Nothing hard about it! Or all of it is hard. Take your pick, both are true.

PH: What advice can you give to those who are aspiring to do what you do?

Woody Woodhall: Learn about audio. Buy a recorder and a microphone. Learn digital audio but don't get stuck in it. Sometimes we can get caught up in operating systems, drivers, software updates and the like, and learning or using audio takes a back seat to that. Learn audio the old school way. Recorders, mics and mixers typically don't crash! 

Watch and learn the tools and techniques of location audio. Watch movies and TV for their audio. Listen to movies in theatres and determine how it was mixed, choices that mimic the action onscreen or go against it? What are the dynamics - loud to soft or all loud? How did that work to tell the story?

Learn to listen to the world around you. I have an article on ProVideo Coalition on just that. 

I might also suggest my textbook, "Audio Production and Postproduction." It is sort of an audio 101 book, in fact it's used in universities across the USA for just that purpose. It's also available on online. If you don't really know anything about audio for film, it might be a good place to start. It has an excellent glossary as well. 

PH: How did LAAPG get started?

Woody Woodhall: Los Angeles Post Production Group - is a networking and learning community for those who are interested in post production. We are in our eighth year and continue to grow. We are dedicated to sharing techniques, workflows, new technologies and networking for the post community. We meet monthly and with our other program called LAPPG Presents:, we do additional networking nights through the year. We've produced over 100 events at this point and feel like we are only just getting started!

We've had members who've been with us from the very first meeting and new members join every day. It's a great group of people who have all come to know one another and be resources together. We try to offer interesting presentations every month from top manufacturers like Blackmagic Design and Adobe, to real world users who talk about the particular work flows, challenges and knowledge gained from their own projects. We recently did a night with the Director and Producer of a feature called "Dinner With the Alchemist" that used extensive green screen to create turn of the century New Orleans. It was a fascinating night, peeking behind the curtain and seeing what he was able to do with a little money and a lot of creativity.

You don't need to live in LA to gain many of the benefits of membership. It's free and we offer discounts and lots of information on post. We also have a very handy jobs board, that is powered by ProductionHUB! It is a well worn page indeed.

As for the origins of the group - as owner of Allied Post Audio - I found myself talking about many of the same concepts over and over again with clients. Then I started doing audio post seminars for Filmmakers Alliance, the Producers Guild of America and other groups, speaking on audio. Then Wendy, my wife and partner, and I, decided that perhaps doing a regular meeting group might be a good idea. We started the meetings at our audio post facility in Santa Monica, and quickly outgrew that space, and the LAPPG just keeps on growing.

PH: What is the primary goal of LAAPG?

Woody Woodhall: In post, we are often working is very small teams and in rooms with closed doors. LAPPG brings us together as a community, and we can network and share ideas, techniques and workflows. I have lots of great friends from the group who I never would have met in other situations. We also allow companies to introduce us to their latest technologies and gain access to their exact customers, and get feedback on a personal/user level. Our members are from across the spectrum; from students and people just learning, to multiple Emmy and Oscar winners. Our more esteemed members have the same motivation as those new to post - to learn and to network. Technology in post is a moving target.

PH: Why did you decide to launch L.A. Post Fest?

Woody Woodhall: L.A. Post Fest is an offshoot of LAPPG.  The Fest's motto is - create your story in post. As a working post professional, I know first hand how different choices in post alter the final project. We found that there is a worldwide hunger for quality material to edit. We decided we'd shoot a short and offer the elements to editors to make their own version. Then we'd chose five versions and master them back to the original 4K footage and mix them in surround and show them in a theatre!

Although we just launched it, it has had a worldwide response. We've had entries from all across America and Europe, but also from Australia, the Middle East and South America. We closed the contest portion for our first year's competition in February. We recently completed the judging and have chosen the five winning films. The other component is the festival event itself. We are having that in Santa Monica, CA on May 14th, at the American Cinemateque's, AERO Theatre, where we'll show the final mastered films and award the prizes.

Long term, we plan on growing the festival. We've already created a series of tutorials with our amazing judging panel, which can be found on the website. Ultimately, we'd like to make the website a post production portal, that celebrates the art and craft of post production. 

Keep an eye on the website for our editing contest for year 2, which we will be launching this summer. Also, come and celebrate post at our event in May! Tickets will be available through the website as well.

PH: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Woody Woodhall: I've had the opportunity to work with a lot of very talented filmmakers. Some extremely experienced, some first time directors, but every collaboration was about learning how to tell their particular story in sound. Sometimes we got right to the heart of it immediately and proceeded forward, sometimes it took a lot of experimentation and trial and error to get a scene to play. 

These film artists are some of the smartest and most creative people that I know. Every project is a new experience with a unique set of challenges and the collaborations with these filmmakers has given me new insights into filmmaking and telling stories. I've been involved with lots of great projects and I get a chance to learn something new every time. It's an incredibly rewarding career.

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