At the Boards Summit’s Director’s Chair panel yesterday, we got to hear some of the biggest frustrations of the top commercial directors. Number one? Not being included at the edit.
This may be a bit shocking to those outside of the commercial production process, but directors are more often than not, not invited to the edit session. Now making a commercial is not unlike making a full length feature. Can you imagine the film producer taking your dailies and then saying “thank you very much, go on to your next project we’ll take it from here.”
This is the same way Composers feel when they’re not invited to the final mixdown. On most of the independent films I work on, I make it a point to be at the final mix. There will always be a minor issue that can be clarified instantaneously in the room. For example, an effect I used on a hybrid hip-hop/orchestral track that made things sound low fidelity was throwing the engineers into a huff. They were furiously trying to correct it. When I told them that was intended, they were sort of incredulous and then moved on.

I usually provide splits (also known as stems) for the final mixdown. This is in addition to a standard 2 track stereo final mix. The stems are basically submixes. For an orchestral score, this would normally be broken down as Strings, Woodwinds, Brass, and Percussion. For a pop soundtrack, this might look like this: Drums, Bass, Keys and Pads, Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals. Why would we need submixes? Dialog is the most important audio element in a film. If you can’t hear it or if it starts to get muddled underneath the sound effects and music, something’s got to go. Usually that means the music get pulled back. But, sometimes, the music needs to drive the scene. Solution? Take the competing audio frequencies down in volume and leave everything else up. For example, for a pop soundtrack, the electric guitar sits in a tonal spectrum that is very close to the human voice. If the lead guitar part is smoking out the dialog, perhaps just pulling it back would allow the scene to work whilst still having massive “balls” in the sound.
So why not bring all the separate tracks to the final mixdown? Post-audio engineers absolutely do not want to remix the entire music portion of the project AND the sound effects and the dialog. Giving them stems allows for some flexibility without a huge extra workload. By the way, 95% of the time, we never use them as the 2 track mix is just fine.

By the way, learned another interesting thing. Commercial directors charge by the amount of shoot days – generally starting at $10,000 (US) per day. So they’re not even getting paid to go to the edit and want to be there. It’s the same with Composers. It’s not about the money – it’s about following through on your work and ensuring a quality final product – the film.

Here’s an interesting article about perhaps the greatest commercial director in the world, Joe Pytka. Ciao.

Andrew Ingkavet is a composer with over 2 decades experience creating music for film, theater, advertising and new media.
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