28th Sydney Film School Keynote Address

28th Sydney Film School Keynote Address

The 28th Sydney Film School Keynote Address by Oscar-winning sound designer Robert Mackenzie

Good evening.
I am extremely honored to be speaking to you on such a momentous occasion.
I want to thank Ben Ferris and Cat Sole.  I especially want to thank Mr. Peter Galvin, whose penetrating insight is eclipsed only by his encyclopedic knowledge of all things cinema. He routinely amazes me by knowing so much more detail about films than I do, even when it comes to the films I’ve worked on.
You are leaving the safety and organization of formal education because you have completed all your course requirements and as such, you have been deemed “educated”. 
And as you have given the best of yourselves in order to achieve this honor, I will do my best to translate to you what I have gleaned from my 25 years of working in the film business by telling you 3 stories that I believe convey the most important lessons that I have learned.
This first story is a famous one, and the other two are from my personal experience.
Story I: The First Tightrope Walker
In 1859 the Great Blondin -- the man who invented the high wire act, announced to the world that he intended to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Five thousand people including the Prince of Wales gathered to watch. Halfway across, Blondin suddenly stopped, steadied himself, back flipped into the air, landed squarely on the rope then continued safely to the other side. During that year, Blondin crossed the Falls again and again -- once blindfolded, once carrying a stove, once in chains, and once on a bicycle. Just as he was about to begin yet another crossing, this time pushing a wheelbarrow, he turned to the crowd and shouted "who believes that I can cross pushing this wheelbarrow." Every hand in the crowd went up. Blondin pointed at one man.
"Do you believe that I can do it?" he asked.
"Yes, I believe you can," said the man.
"Are you certain?" said Blondin
"Yes," said the man.
"Absolutely certain?"
"Yes, Absolutely certain."
"Thank you" said Blondin, "then sir, get into the wheelbarrow."
First, there is going to come a time in your life when in order to succeed you will have to trust -- when you will have to make a big leap of faith -- and when that time comes I hope you will swallow your fear and get into the wheelbarrow.
Here’s a true story I call the Triangle Player;
While working on a battle scene on Hacksaw Ridge I came across an action where a soldier was pulling a pin from a grenade in slow motion. I thought it would be interesting to isolate and elevate the sound; as if it were the most pivotal moment in this soldier’s life, where everything else slows down and fades away. I created this by striking some light gauge metal and letting it ring out like a tuning fork. I dropped in my interpretation and handed over my sounds to the picture editor to cut into the Avid and gave it no more thought. 
A few days later the assistant picture editor came into my room and said that there was a mistake with what I had delivered and that Mel Gibson was wondering why I had added a triangle hit in the middle of the battle scene.  More accurately, he said; “Why is there a triangle player in the middle of the battlefield?”
Sometimes things sound entirely different to other people.
I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been on the mixing stage and the director is telling me how I should lower the sound of something that I just can’t hear!
When I started one of the first lessons I learnt was that there were essentially two ways of looking at soundtracks.
There is what we call the "see a dog hear a dog” approach, and then there’s the approach that I’ve always found more appealing, because it involves thinking more outside the box, whereby you see a dog, and in the case of this next director, hear a potato or a fire truck, or a potato behind the wheel of a fire truck.
This story I call Outside The Box;
Early on in my career I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with Wong Kai Wai. Now when I say "lucky enough" While using the bunny ears, it is because although it worked out to be great for me, there are many, many people that feel his demanding approach simply too much to take.
The first time I worked with him was on Ashes Of Time. I had been working on the film for about 4 weeks here in Sydney before I travelled to Beijing to play him the fruits of my labour.
As soon as I arrived in Beijing I went straight to he the studio where Director Wong was waiting for me. After playing through the film, and listening to all my efforts, he turns to me, in all seriousness, and asked if I had actually watched the film.  Naturally, I was shattered, but I kept it to myself, and kept going.
Once the initial awkwardness was behind us, and my murder fantasies had subsided we began working on the film in earnest.
Eventually, we came to a rather straightforward scene with two people sitting at a table in a dark restaurant. I had assumed that since the film was set in the desert, that the restaurant was also in the desert.
Of course, Director Wong had different ideas.  He explained that the restaurant was on the outskirts of the city. 
No worries, give me a few minutes and I'll make the scene sound as if it’s on the outskirts of the city. After I did this he watched the scene and then concluded that the restaurant was actually in a fishing village. As I’m laying up a fishing village, he says, “That's not bad, actually. I think it's a floating restaurant with boats all around.”
Now I'm pretty sure that a lot of people at this stage would say 'thank you very much but this is not for me.  For some reason, which I didn’t even really comprehend at the time, I knew that I needed to stick it out and that my work would be better for it. 
Twenty years later, I still work with Wong Kar Wai and it’s only slightly less maddening, but the results are always something I feel proud of and are always entirely out of the box.
I believe that as David Lynch says, “If you want the big fish you need to dive deep".   Indeed, Director Wong requires lungful’s of air, but the fish are much bigger and considerably, much more interesting.
For me these three stories demonstrate critical aspects of working in film in general and in sound specifically.
#1  - When the time comes be brave enough to get into the wheelbarrow.
#2.  Understand that people hear and see things differently, and that more often than not, there is more than one correct answer.
And
#3 – Recognize the times when the sounds are best left in or best meant to be outside the box.
Here is a list of 6 lessons that I have learned and I hope you will find useful;
1. Find someone you trust and admire to be your mentor.
After I graduated, I wrote a letter to every recording studio in Melbourne and Sydney offering my services as an engineer. I didn't get many replies, and zero offers of employment, however, I did get a response from a postproduction company called Soundfirm.
They thanked me for applying and said that they would keep my details on file, should a position become available.
I of course took this to mean, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you , LOSER”, and moved on.
About a year later they wrote back and said that they had an opening. I went to the interview, got through to be the final applicant, and eventually received a call from the boss, Roger Savage.  Roger was then and continues to be the most celebrated film mixer in Australia.
He mixed Mad Max, Strictly Ballroom, Crocodile Dundee, Shine, Romeo and Juliette, Moulin Rouge, and many, many more.
He offered me the job but it was for less money than I was presently earning.
This opportunity presented two very important things for me, the idea that I would take a pay cut now, with the hope that it would lead to better earning opportunities in the future, and the other was that this job would provide me with the opportunity to have a true mentor. I don't work for Roger anymore but we continue to work together on projects 20 years later, and I remain forever grateful to him for sharing his knowledge and wisdom.
2.  Commit to the journey instead of the outcome.
If you can honestly commit to this, you will have a much better chance at sustained happiness.  More often than not, things do not work out exactly as we plan or hope; yet the result can still be wonderful and entirely satisfying, and the whole experience is exponentially improved when you can fully appreciate the ride along the way.
3. Do whatever you have to do to find objectivity
You have to be a big boy or girl and step back and know that you are a part of something much bigger. Often your opinion is skewed because you have dedicated so much of your own blood, sweat, and tears to this one aspect.
If they hate it, it doesn’t mean that this creation is garbage and worthy of nothing but the bin, but rather something that you should put aside and hang onto because you never know when just the right project will come along that screams for something as wacky and self-indulgent as your “masterpiece”.  The other possibility is that you will mature and conclude that this “thing” that you previously thought was your personal statement; i.e. Magna Carta is actually, a hilarious piece of crap.  Be open to both.
4. Do not think that your status and or earnings allow you the right to treat anyone poorly.
Be a stand up guy or girl. Give credit where credit is due. The word will get out and you won’t be able to hire or work on a good crew. You are as strong as your weakest link.  Don’t throw anyone under the bus. I often hire people in entry level positions based upon how they treat wait staff. 
5. Give back - The world needs you. Teach, speak, and share.
Just like it’s really important to have a mentor it’s equally important to be one.  Once you get the experience under your belt.  Share the gifts that you have been given so freely.
6. Luck plays a huge roll in this business. 
I got lucky right off the bat when Rodger hired me.  I got really lucky again that Wong Kar Wai provided me an opportunity to learn how to think outside the box so early into my career.  I was the one that stuck it out and made the most of it, but, I got really lucky too.
The reverse happens all the time as well.  Sometimes people just get bad or no breaks, and it has nothing to do with their abilities, or smarts.
If you can really appreciate these things you will become better and more compassionate person.
CONCLUSION
Film is by far the most collaborative of all art forms. 
This is particularly impressive when you consider that some egos are the size of cathedrals, and more often than not, money tends to have the final say rather than the artistic aesthetic. 
But every now and then something magical happens and egos are dropped and the cinematic thread that connects every department’s contribution to the director’s vision is keen and pure, and the whole becomes much greater than the sum of the parts, and it sings harmoniously, in the same key, in tune, and 100% true to it’s message.
You've reached the wonderful and terrifying moment where you must be your own guide. Listen to the whispers inside you
You are too good for pettiness, gossip and snark.  You are too good for intolerance.
You are too good to think that people that disagree with you are your enemy.
Achieving success in the world of film almost always grants you access to a global megaphone.
So it’s important to remember what Aaron Sorkin says;
“Whatever you do, don’t ever forget that you are a citizen of this world and that there are things that you can do to lift the human spirit.  Things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do everyday; Civility, respect, kindness, and character”