A part-time occupation of mine for years was teaching media and television production to students. The area of teaching the course that always provided the most significant issues was Copyright and usage rights for the music. With MP3 players, iPods, and streaming services, students could orchestrate an entire soundtrack to their lives.
But the concept of ownership of that music was slippery for them. “Mr.C. I paid for that music when I bought it from iTunes. Why can’t I use it as the soundtrack?” “Because you didn’t buy the music; you purchased a license to a copy of the music. You can play it on your personal equipment. To use that music on your video, you have to have the right to do that.” After a while, the kids grasped the concept. And I introduced them to music in the public domain and fee-for-use music. So much for the kids.
Adults had some similar issues. I had been asked to help out a parent edit a company video. Helping him shoot the video was easy. But, editing took up most of my instruction time. He wanted to create a piece for his company using a popular tune as a background. It’s a standard editing style. You edit to the tempo, transitions, and beats of the music. I asked him if he had rights to the music. He looked at me as though I was unclear about who he was and what his place in the universe was. “The call is already into Disney.”
With the students, I could overrule a wrong call after sweet reason failed. However, I was doing this project as a favor. I couldn’t tell the client to get out of my editing suite. He explained that his company had already called Disney about the rights, and I shouldn’t worry. I smiled, knowing what the results of a request to the Mouse would be. I tried to tell him how hard it would be to get a reply from them and how persistence could be followed by a nasty cease and desist letter. I knew at once where his son had gotten the slight sneer he affected.
His editing progressed, and I gave up on giving guidance. People need to fail on their own at times. The tempo of the edit was snappy and appealing. But as time wore on, there was no response from the Mouse.
The panic was beginning to set in. Finally, I was approached with the problem. The video was only going to be shown at company functions. Would the company be safe in using it without consent? He should ask a media lawyer if he wanted a correct media opinion. I had no interest in making myself vulnerable to suit. But informally, I said things had a nasty way of getting out of control with unforeseen consequences. One individual innocently uploading the video to Youtube could create a cascade of copyright infringement issues. Is there a way out of the problem, he asked?
I thought about it. It’s common to edit to a piece of music. Some editors have tunes they like to use; others edit to music licensed for a video. It’s not uncommon for the ground to wash from underneath you when negotiations fail. You have various choices: re-edit, have custom music written, or find “Sounds Like” music. Sounds Like approaches the tempo and sound of the original but with relatively low-cost fees for use, without infringing on Copyright.
That was that answer here. For a modest fee, the video was completed. I revised my pro bono standards to exclude freebies for friends, and I was happy to return to just teaching students.
I saw the result yesterday of a job I had deeply desired fifteen years ago. It was a masterly success for the producer/director. I don’t know who got the job as a videographer, but I remember my two months working with that person and reflected on their snide comments and not-so-subtle criticisms of their crew. It was the sort of cavalier egomania you expect in multi-million dollar productions, not essentially backyard productions. But it all worked despite the contumely displays of the one in charge. Why did it work?
Video and cinema, of course, have reputations for overdriven ego. But you know, at the awards ceremonies where they thank “all the little people who made it possible!” it’s not just an empty figure of speech. It’s true.
It’s the guy setting up the lighting who quietly makes an adjustment that saves a shot, the gal at the audio mixer who knows her job, and the videographer who quietly alters the shot position to something more flattering. Then there is the editor who knows what the director wants and needs is not what the fool is nattering on about. A touch of the Stoic helps in this business, and you need a holiday in the everyday world when the shoot folds.
Here is something to think about next time you watch a beautifully done movie on Netflix, Prime, or Hulu – the art is not all in the direction. Much of the art comes from the “little people” saving the art from the artist.
Good quiet is getting hard to find. I’d not discounted the reports by people attempting to capture wilderness soundscapes- everywhere was contaminated by noise. It just hadn’t been personalized to me sitting on a rock on the coast of Maine, attempting to capture 45 seconds of uncontaminated waves lapping on the shore. The video was lovely, the audio, contaminated by the sounds of powerboats that were not even in sight. I eventually came back at about eight pm and reshot just for the audio. I planned to use the video track from the day with the sound from the evening. Of course, it was decided not to use the sequence, and the effort went for naught.
When I taught media, I would always remind my students to take the time to listen for the little audio contaminants that your mind edits out of your mental soundtrack, but which will be incredibly hard to eliminate in post-production.
That summer, I spent three weeks in production along the coast of Maine. The audio was the primary issue time and again: Chainsaws, the wind blowing right through my blimp ( a cigar-shaped device for eliminating wind sounds), or a bunch of seagulls fighting in the middle of interviews.
The worst, however, was an interview shot in a tranquil book-filled room. How could that be an issue? Rooms are not silent. The silence of a place is conditional. There is this thing called room tone. It’s the background environmental sound of the room before anything else gets added. Where I was shooting the interview had a very funky room tone, probably because the books and fabrics absorbed everything but the voice. I recorded the voice on a separate microphone, and audio channel than ambient sound. Thankfully. On playback that evening, I realized that the room tone was dead. I took a recording device to an office that had a warm room tone (utterly subjective on my part) and recorded background audio that I liked and added it behind the interview. Problem solved.
The next evening I was off. After dinner, I headed out sans camera, microphone, or tripod for a quiet walk over to one of the island’s marinas. There I sat peacefully watching the tide change and sunset. Then I heard it. The barely audible sound that the clams make as they clear their siphons. More a soft spitting sound, but called along the coast the sound of clams whistling. And me with no recording device.