This week I have gone back to school, kind of. The world-renown Vancouver Film School has invited me into their Summer Intensives classes, which are brief crash-courses, each representing a slice of a full multi-month program and course load. The intensives run for eight hours, five days this week and should they desire, students can then sign up for the full program in the fall. I’m getting a sneak peek (a few hours a day) in a different Summer Intensive each day this week. My first course on Monday was Intro to Sound Design.
It was the start of the week for every Summer Intensives student so there was an orientation at VFS’s campus on Homer at Hastings. There, students from around the globe (South Africa, Venezuela, Australia, and some locals) were welcomed to their programs and introduced to some of the impressive work that VFS alumni have done within the last year alone.
We were then carted away to the Sound Design campus which is located at 1380 Burrard (at Pacific) while other programs stayed at either 420 Homer or walked over to 198 West Hastings. There I met Shane Rees, Head of Sound who gave an overview of the week’s course content and introduced a few of the department’s faculty who in turn touched on their courses offered throughout a regular school year. Seated in a theatre with a large mixer across the front floor, students introduced themselves and shared a bit of their backgrounds. Some had sound experience in film, others were musicians, gamers, or business students looking to change things up. Previous experience with ProTools, microphones, or foley sound editing not required. You don’t even need to know how to play a piano to take this course.
Shane explained that they focus on post-production sound for television and film, and game sound design. You don’t attend to learn how to compose or record for musicians. As for games, he said to keep your mind open to it as a medium, “it’s such an interesting and dynamic industry that is so young, it’s going to be challenging.” Gaming is also the reason that PC software is still prevalent, even though it’s a Mac-based campus. Shane then told us all that we were going to learn some physics and I immediately though of that glint my husband gets in his eye while wearing his Nikola Tesla t-shirt as he tells me about kilohertz and frequencies.
Sound is Energy
Instructor Gary Bourgeois pulled up the whiteboard and attempted to explain what he covers in a full course of Physics & Psychoacoustics within a 40 minute time frame. He then asked us a question that hovered like a cloud over our heads for a good half-minute: “What is sound?”
To know how to make sound, you need to understand how it’s heard. Sound is energy + the sense of hearing. “Your primary audience we be human,” Gary asserted then he followed up with a great “if a tree falls in a forest…” scenario. He explained the basics of sound — how it cannot move through nothing (like a vacuum or space). However for the sake of entertainment, you’ll watch a sci-fi movie and there will be a loud explosion in space. That’s “psychoacoustic” — the sound we have been trained to expect to hear.
Using another series of fantastic analogies, like a ripples from tossing a pebble in a pool being compared to plucks of a guitar string, we moved on to Frequency & Amplitude.
I learned that Hertz were cycles per second, that a decibel is not a unit of measurement, and that the range of frequency perceptible to the human ear is 20Hz to 20,000Hz. My brain was being packed with information at an alarming rate, and I loved it. I sit next to a microphone and a mixer in my home office everyday, relics from our old podcasting days. I thought to myself, I might actually learn what the other 90% of the knobs on the mixer do now!
Every few minutes Gary would stop and say, “that right there is a whole other 2 hour discussion,” and he’d move onto the next mind-blowing scientific tidbit.
When it came to Analog & Digital, Gary was clearly a fan of digital and lamented the fact that “we’ll never hear was Shakespeare sounded like.” Another quick history lesson about the birth of the phonograph and recorded audio, then we moved briskly onward to the explanation of sampling rate and bit depth. From the sign wave (imagine that 1Kz test pattern tone) to white noise (static) and everything in between — actually all sounds are in fact, everything in between.
Film Sound = Music, Sound Effects, Dialogue
Curtis Wright was the next instructor to introduce his quick course that would be coming up later this week (and his fully expanded program throughout the year). Bringing along microphones and field recorders, Curtis spoke of original sound gathering, sampling, and the extensive clip library that is available to all VFS students both past and present. “You’ll be reading, watching, and be hands-on all year.” Real sound, layered sound, pumped up sound, samples from the real world and field trips to Playland or the Aquarium. Capturing the sound of the SkyTrain leaving the station and sampling that later in footage of a space ship. Curtis takes you ‘behind the curtain’ to capture and create sound that gives the audience that music, dialogue, and effect that makes film, television, and gaming so captivating.
Later in the afternoon the class received an introduction to ProTools and I embarked on my next adventure. Today I head to “Voice & Movement for Actors” — hopping onto the other side of the microphone.