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The Zen of Production

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 wise guru on the mountaintop, “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 sometimes I feel old enough to be the geezer. If the answer doesn’t make sense, don’t worry, help is on the way. Let me ask, “How do you prepare to create a spot or promo?” Far too many dive right in. They get a script, have someone voice it, or possibly voice it themselves, and start cutting and pasting. Then they think about music and effects and grab whatever is handy to polish the whole thing up. I know all this because years ago, I did it that way all the time. What one gets when it’s “finished” is something they would never include on a demo reel, but somehow they think will be effective. Guess again, sinners! (I must confess that I am now hanging my head in shame…or something. Heh - see what I did there?) 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. If you wrote the script you can skip step one since you will have already done that work. 1. Take ten or fifteen seconds as a minimum to decide what the Unique Selling Proposition (USP - defined below) 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. 2. Before you crack the mic, make sure you know what the important words are so you can emphasize them to 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. (OK, sometimes you can’t edit the script because it’s somebody else’s pet project, but if you have the time, work with him or her to improve it.) 3. Select your music very carefully. Does it create the right setting for the message? Or will it become the message? 4. Decide whether sound effects would enhance the message. Or would they be distracting? 5. Where would the best place be for “pivot points?” (I’ll explain in a moment.) Make notes on the script. 6. 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. BONUS Step: 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 message. This can be helpful even if you’re not going to use that particular music or any music at all 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 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 Planaria, 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 at that point for marvelous emphasis. One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned about any kind of artistic expression is knowing when you have completed the mission. My 7th Grade Art teacher, an imposing woman with black hair and piercing blue eyes named Mrs. Silvestri at Stripling Junior High School in Ft. Worth, Texas, made this point emphatically. Once you feel the artwork is singing to you, stop working on it. Any little embellishment or touch-up you add will likely interfere with it and might even ruin all your work. When I asked her how I could know it was done, she gave me the advice our fictional guru on the mountain gave: “Know exactly where you’re going and you will know when you’ve arrived.” Look, I know that sometimes, you’re working in a sausage factory, grinding away at WAY too many pieces. Some days are just like that. I get it. Pick your battles. Experience with particular clients will often teach you what is expected and what is appreciated, minimizing the time you need to paint the picture in your head. You can pretty much make the “California Stop” in your head before plowing on. (I’ve often wondered how California police feel about that pretty widespread euphemism for rolling stops, or curtsies at stop signs.) Some clients really need the TLC you can give with those few moments of inner reflection. If you’re working on a station promo, that time spent is critical. THAT is your primary client.

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 sales person, as the PD calls your phone to scream “We needed this yesterday!” However, taking a couple of minutes up front will save you a TON of time in the long run, and you’re work will be so much more effective. When it comes time to review your employment, you will 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, have a little fun and tell him his tie has a spot on it. Definition – Unique Selling Proposition (USP) – The ONE thing that sets this business/individual apart from all others in that category. In any piece of production, there can ONLY be one. ANY more than that will confuse the message and dilute its impact on the listener…always.

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