Written by Doug Siebum, photos courtesy of Leo DeAsis
DS: Can you tell us about your background? How did you first get involved with sound for television and film?
HF: My background started in high school, believe it or not, because we had a TV station at my high school. I took that course because I lived in Florida and it was air conditioned. That was my reason for taking it. From that, I learned more about what it takes to produce a program. Being in a smaller market like Jacksonville, Florida, you do everything. That’s the way to learn as far as I’m concerned, understand all of the toys in the sandbox, before you decide which one you like shoveling with the best. I was going through camera work and technical directing and all of the skills that are necessary for a smaller market, I finally settled on editing.
By that time, editing gear had evolved to where it was finally using an intelligent interface, it was tape to tape and then eventually digital. Within that editing platform, the thing that stuck out to me the most or that I was most interested in, was the audio. I learned early on that you don’t ever want to use the excuse “it’s not going to look like that or it’s not going to sound like that”. Even my VHS to VHS system was A, B, C roll because I didn’t want to have to explain to a producer where the dissolves would be.
The same sensibilities went towards my audio work. I never wanted them to say “that’s not really the way it’s going to sound”. That meant that I took great care in the offline process to have the product be as representational as possible so that the producer would not be surprised in the online. Also, so that they would have a clear understanding of where the creative part was going to go. I didn’t put in sound effects and swishes and swooshes, that’s what the audio post part was, but at least the audio and visual content were there enough for decisions to be made on how we were going to enhance this moving forward.
DS: Herb, with a background as a picture editor why did you decide to start your own business? And why did you choose to start a business doing sound?
HF: Moving into 950 Battery Street in San Francisco, the facilities that surrounded me were all picture editing facilities and I filled a niche. Also, because of budget. At that time a Digibeta machine was $30,000 and you needed 3 of them at minimum, in order to do an edit and be a high end post production facility. I wasn’t going to put $90,000 into 3 tape machines and that’s not counting all the other things that surrounded it, the time based correctors, the audio board, the screen, the console, all of that stuff. For me it was economics, it filled a niche, and it was an interest. Sound was the missing link to any reasonable production.
At the time, the field cameras were just starting to be more prevalent. So people actually were doing more remote recordings and more ENG (Electronic News Gathering) style documentary editing. It wasn’t just film anymore, it was video tape. When the evolution moved towards video tape, the same production techniques that are inherent to a film production are also inherent to a video production, but it was scaled back because it was cheaper. The same discipline that the sound recordist used in film technically could have been used in ENG, but in ENG it wasn’t always double system.
Sometimes the microphone would be on the camera or the camera person might also do the audio. Those kinds of shortcuts started happening. For the quality of productions that I was trying to attract, that wasn’t good enough. It was all about filling the niche. That’s what was necessary at the physical facility that I was at, and it was a personal choice of my own in moving towards audio. The insight that I would give people is that “even if the Russians took over, there would always be TV.” I was trying to guarantee myself a job. Thinking about audio economically, it was a more affordable business to get into at that time.
DS: Coming from a background in picture editing, did that let you bid on projects where you could do the picture editing and also the sound editing?
HF: In the beginning, no. It was one or the other. As I continued to become more well known in the field and with my craft as an editor, I was able to, in some cases dove tail off and allow First Generation to take over some of the audio part. For the most part, the audio marketing had to be a separate animal. I can’t do all the work. I’m not trying to be a one person band, even though that’s what the average video editor is now becoming, because of the computer.
The ideal thing is for your business to run while you’re on the beach in Kauai, not to do all of the work.
A job that was once done by 3 to 5 people, those expectations are now on one person. Also, audio is becoming more and more a part of that tool set. And we can evolve that to, how I think that has compromised the average editor. From a business stand point, I don’t want to do all of it. The ideal thing is for your business to run while you’re on the beach in Kauai, not to do all of the work.
DS: Can you talk a little about the early years of First Generation? What year did it start? Did it take awhile to find your place in the post production world?
HF: At Battery Street, the business started in 1989. I was moved there right after the earthquake, because my original site was compromised by the earthquake. So the State of California moved my business because they needed the building that I was in, in order to stage their gear so that they could repair the freeways. That was a stroke of luck because just one day of the cost of the toll going over the Bay Bridge was what it cost to relocate me to 950 Battery Street.
Unless you have the good fortune to work for a Google, or a Yahoo, or Apple, or Facebook and then walk away from that job with the client base of a Google, or a Yahoo, or a Facebook and also the ancillary businesses that are attached to it, it is a hustle for a physical business like post to survive and be successful. One thing that’s important is that everybody has Pro Tools, everybody has Avid, everybody has Premiere. The take away from that is that everybody doesn’t have the talent that runs that gear.
The thing that allows post facilities to exist, in the beginning was because you had a Digibeta. But once people got there, it was because you had Jane or Jim as the editor or as the mixer. So the talent attracts the business, not the tools. The tools get the producer in the door because they say “do you have Pro Tools?” and you can say “yes” or “do you have Premiere” and you can say “yes,” and then at that point it’s Jim or Jane being the one that they want to do the job. So it’s all about the talent.
DS: At the time of inception and up to now, how has your business model differed from the larger post houses like Sony Picture Studios, Warner Bros., or Skywalker Sound? What’s different about your business model?
HF: What’s different about the one’s that you just mentioned is that they are a self contained unit. Their business model is they are a one stop shop. They can write the film, they shoot the film, they market the film, they make the residuals off the film, they do all of it. So that’s that example. Being out in the cold cruel world of an independent person or facility, my job is to try to find those films and television shows of other people like myself, who are independent, who don’t want to invest a quarter million dollars into a facility. It’s beneficial to them because they only do eight films a year or one film a month, so they don’t want that capitol investment.
So finding those people is a struggle always with someone like myself, an independent person. They’re the ones that you’re constantly finding and constantly selling. So if you didn’t have the good fortune of working at a major Fortune 500 or a Skywalker Sound where you’re able to establish your reputation and then take that reputation with you to start your own company, it’s very tough. That is what allows you to be successful in the beginning.
Just opening a shop without having any type of clients or any place to sell your product is hard. It’s very hard. I don’t recommend it. You always have something you want to accomplish. You buy a car because you want to drive. You go to the grocery store because you want to eat. You build an editing system because you want to edit. Once you’ve done your personal project so to speak, then unless you are lucky enough to be independently wealthy, then you need to continue to feed the beast. That is where the business takes over. If it’s a hobby, it’s one thing. If it’s a business, it’s another thing.
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DS: What did you want to try differently from the traditional business model?
HF: One thing, because I am small, I know that I can’t attract, at this time the Foote, Cone, and Beldings of the world or Apples of the world. My bent has always been towards the 3 – 5 person independent shop that invests all their money into their RED camera or their new cheese grater Macintosh computer. They put their money into picture in other words. They didn’t want to spend the money for a Neumann microphone and all of that, for equipment for field, or they didn’t want to invest in the audio part. So my focus is towards the client base of the small independent film makers.
The second thing is that I wanted to design a system that is more for the operator as opposed to the producer. In other words, instead of having a leather couch, I had an ergonomic chair. I wasn’t as concerned about the creature comforts of what it took for a team of five to show up to your audio post house when you do a typical advertising job, but more for Jim or Jane who’s actually sitting at the console doing the work. I wanted that to be a thing. Because here you are, Jim or Jane, you have Pro Tools like everyone does, and you’re doing this at your house in your pajamas, and then all of a sudden you attract a Google or Yahoo or someone else. Are you going to bring them to your house to show them the final product? No, you’re not.
So I wanted to have a facility that had all the things that allowed you to have a place where you could do the last part of the mix. I wanted to have an environment that you could bring a client into and have that client feel that you are legitimate. Yes, there are people that have crazy studios at their homes and things, but that’s not who I’m going for. I’m going for the people that are still building up to that point where they have the crazy studio, but at the very same time, they have clients, but not the physical environment that allows them to accommodate clients being with them at the critical last part of the mix.
The other thing about a facility as opposed to your home is that I do spend money on it being HD as opposed to native, I do spend money on Izotope 7 and higher end software that the average person isn’t going to spend money on right away. So that also differentiates me from them. I will have 8 microphones in my studio as opposed to just one. One microphones isn’t appropriate for every voice. A Neumann may not be the right microphone for certain voices. Therefore, having a compliment of gear to allow someone to come in and have a choice to where the engineer can then tailor, not just “we have a Neumann,” but “we have X mic”, whatever that might be, that really does sound best with your voice because maybe you sound like Mickey Mouse and we want to put you on a microphone that shrills it down.
Yes, we can EQ it and all that, but the way we mix at First Generation is, we want to make a good negative. We want to record it right as opposed to try to “fix it in post”. Auto-Tune is a new invention, the way of Auto-Tune was done for all the years before that, was vocal training and mic placement. It’s things like that. Good recording technique. It’s not “fix it in post” as much as record it right in the field. That’s my philosophy, do it right, get a good negative. Ansel Adams didn’t have Photo Shop. So let’s just do it right, capture it right, then your post process can be done to take it to another level, as opposed to using that time doing trauma surgery to fix what you didn’t do right in the recording.
DS: Can you tell us about your workflow?
HF: Because I started in TV and not for profit land, which means no money, I respect the budget in a way that’s different than having a Rolls Royce client that can just throw money at it and it doesn’t really matter. In other words, doing things like having an assistant editor take your project in, in the beginning to organize the files. Also, before we even get the project we talk with the producer and the offline editor in the video world, let’s just limit this to video acquisition for now. We talk with that editor so that as they start their edit, they know about track layout. They know to put all this person on one tack, and all sound effects on these tracks, and all music on these other tracks. Time is money.
If we spend all the time organizing something that you as an editor could be doing from day one in your offline world and keep it organized, so that when it gets to the post sound world, which is when all the money has been spent, it’s ready to go. I have to pay attention to that, by the time projects get to me, unless it’s an Oracle or Lucasfilm so to speak, they’ve spent that money. So post sound is last on the list, no matter how important it is to the actual production process. So getting involved with the offline editor early is important. Then when it gets to First Generation, in theory, the track layout is more or less where it should be.
Starting with an assistant editor. The assistant editor is the one that will bring it in and track manage it and they’re at a lesser rate. Then it goes to a first assistant, who is really critical, because I have them do all of the dialogue editing. Dialogue for me and also in film is the first thing to approach because everything is mixed around the dialogue. So having the dialogue consistent is key. That again can be done with a first assistant, who is at a lesser rate than a major editor would be. And then when everything is organized and edited, and the dialogue is perfect and that level is set, then bringing in a mixer. That person only mixes. Of course they might add some things that may not have been added, or because you’re adding a gunshot, they need to tweak something, but at that point, they can focus on only the craft of audio mixing and producing.
It’s all about process in how we let labor save money and getting involved early so that we can create the team that keeps this linear flow of information consistent enough so that the producer, the bank, the person paying for this, isn’t paying for the organization of the tracks. That’s a waste of money, you don’t want us spending hours of time organizing something that the offline editor can give to us organized, because once it hits First Generation, they’re on the clock. So I’m very astute and I’m very conscious of talking to producers so that they’re looking at it holistically and not just giving it to us in any form like “here it is.”
This example is obviously for long term projects and things. Of course, there are some things that just come in off the street and we do the work. There are also things like a commercial that’s only a day of work and we don’t need this ladder, this long hierarchy of people in order to allow it to be more efficient. The time of a project does also determine the approach. Shorter projects, of course, maybe the assistant brings it in and makes sure it’s right and then the mixer does it all. Longer projects, documentaries, reality TV shows, then more labor is more efficient than one person doing all of it.
DS: Right, because you don’t want the mixer to have to take the time to organize the project or do the dialogue editing.
HF: Of course not, because they’re at $50 – $70 an hour. Why do that?
DS: What are some of the shows that First Generation has done? Do you have a favorite?
HF: A lot of them have been for Hoff Productions, Big Table Media, MSNBC, we had a couple of documentaries in the past that were for them. As far as independent projects probably the one that was the most fun that we did was one that’s called Love Hurts. They described it as a karate, love story, mystery. It had over 3,000 sound cues because every time someone got hit or they grunted, it was an edit. It was the most fun, but it was one of the hardest one’s that we’ve done. It won several awards as far as the film goes.
What’s important about that is you don’t notice the audio because you expect it. You don’t want the audio to draw attention to itself. Obviously, there are times when everyone gets to be a lead, everyone gets to have a solo. In every band, everyone gets to be the one that shines for a moment, but it’s still a band. So yes, the audio does stand out in the sense that you get immersed, but the job of the audio is to not be front and center. It is as if it’s a part of the band as opposed to being it’s own thing.
This is a broad stroke statement, as opposed to those times where everyone gets to have a solo and then the audio stands out. The majority of shows that First Generation did were for medium level production houses, especially Hoff Productions, MSNBC, and Big Table Media. They were the most fun for the mixers that worked on them.
DS: How big is the typical crew size on one of your shows?
HF: 2 – 3 people for post sound.
DS: Can you talk about building relationships with clients?
HF: Two thirds of it is personal. The other third is your creative input. The relationship with the client is being able to allow them to trust you. You build that trust because the proof is in the pudding. You do a good job and you get their trust. So we need to build that relationship by your work. The better you do your work, the better the relationship is. That’s really the number one thing. How do you develop trust? That usually starts because someone recommends you. Word of mouth is the best way to get a job. It’s not through Facebook and LinkedIn. I’m not saying that doesn’t contribute, but word of mouth is the best way.
Then having a reel or representative samples to show them that you have the ability to do the work. That’s the other thing. How do you create that audio visual resume that enables you to be able to be given the opportunity. Then once they see that visual resume through your website, then it is all about you having the vocabulary to meet them and give them the confidence to believe that you will shepherd this project through to the finish.
Word of mouth is the best way to get a job. It’s not through Facebook and LinkedIn.
DS: What was the hardest thing about starting a business?
HF: Financing it. It’s all about the money. The hardest thing is always the money. How do you pay for it? If you don’t have deep pockets, you can’t start it. It’s not going to happen.
DS: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
HF: Working independent is how the majority of things, in my opinion, start. Then developing relationships with someone that you can share responsibility with is second, because you can’t do it alone. While you’re working, you can’t market. You’re business may start out as an independent thing that you do, but it’s quickly going to evolve once you’ve done your first project or once you’ve had your first job for X, Y, and Z client. You have to feed the beast. You have to pay for the gear you just bought or you have to pay rent, so you have to keep it going. So how do you keep it going?
The way to keep it going is, again as people may say a one person band, that one person band has to evolve into a two person band, because while you’re working, how can you make phone calls? In other words, relationships also involve business partners or people you can partner with. So that you can compliment each other. So there needs to be that yin and yang, because you can’t do it alone. It’s not going to happen. If the equipment breaks, who’s going to fix it? All those little things that happen because you have a business. If you are your own person, and it’s your own edit, and you do things on your own, and it’s just a project that you personally work with then this isn’t true. And yes, that does still count as a business.
But if you are trying to get out into the world to where I can be on the beach in Kauai and the business is feeding me because I built it up to be an income stream, then you do need relationships. You need someone that manages that business while you’re on that beach in Kauai, because the goal of a business is to create financial independence.
That is the secondary reason for doing it. A) it supports a passion that you have or a behavior that you have. B) so that you can gain some sort of financial independence so that you can live life. You work to live, you don’t live to work. That is eventually what one evolves towards. You like what you do, but what you do should support what you like. You have to get back to how it benefits you, so that you can do other things besides the job.
A big thanks to Herb Ferrette for sharing some tips and thoughts on running a boutique-sized post production facility.
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