On Movie Soundscapes & Growing to Trust Ourselves: A Conversation with Ray McFarland

Ray McFarland is many things.  He is an award-winning, beloved faculty member.  He is an accomplished actor and singer.  He is keeper of our beautiful Center for Performing Arts. He is the first to remind colleagues that “our St. Andrew’s community is a family.”   But one thing he would be the first to point out is he is not a lover of all-things technology.  Nevertheless, it has been positively inspiring to watch Ray’s evolution with these tools we love-hate during the past year.  It shouldn’t have surprised me that when we recently caught up about a fabulous newly-designed assignment the theme of the day would be the importance of “learning to trust yourself.”   Of course, Ray sang the theme in relation to one of his burgeoning students.  But we faculty could all use a little extra dose of that self trust after the year we’ve had.

Ray, I heard you created this totally new assignment for Theater Tech because of all of the things you can’t do this year that you normally do . . . what was it? 

Well, basically I’ve had to completely “overhaul” the Theatre Tech curriculum this year  , because most of the time [in normal, non-covid years] we’re constantly designing and building sets and hanging and rehanging theatre  lights  for the multiple Middle School and Upper School plays and musicals  we produce every year.  Most people do not realize it, but the CPA is truly a working Theatre…there are very few weeks during the school year that we are not actively building sets on the stage.   Of course we do spend a couple of days  prior to the beginning of a build in actual “classwork”… looking at videos or photos of set designs for the specific show from Broadway and/or Regional theatre productions, talking about the  needs of the play regarding the historic period, doing pencil sketches and then mechanical drawings with measurements that we refer to during the build.  Sometimes it feels like a “you learn by doing it class”  but that is also part of the fun of the class…very few days are ever the same.

    For example…recently  we have been  working on a unit about how sound effects can be used to enhance a production….and specifically  how by  sampling and manipulating even one or two specific sounds  you can strongly enhance or literally change the audience’s feeling about and understanding  of the story being told. Creative sound manipulation is done all the time in movies and television and I’m trying to get them to see that the same process can be used effectively in  “live “ theatre also.  Sound in modern theatre is much more than just basic voice amplification and the occasional sound effect  like  gunshots or dogs barking. Over 60% of what an audience “gets” is what they see…so the 40% of what they “hear” has to be very specific.  Humans react to sound cues from the time we are born… certain sounds cause specific reactions… therefore we can “control” to a certain extent how an audience will react by selecting, producing,  and highlighting those sounds.

Oh that’s so lovely: a study in sound.  It has so much relevance for all of the digital media we are consuming right now!

And it’s basically the same thing I work on with the actors. We experiment with the way you say  a word or line…. the pitch you use, the force you use.  It’s these fine little differences that we make in how something sounds that insures that each individual audience member is going to react to it in a particular way…hopefully the way  the author intended. But you have to learn to be specific in your choices by thinking  through multiple options centered around the idea….” this is how I need you to react…so “THIS” is how I can best lead you there with the way I make it sound.

Okay so give us all the details.  How did you engage students in this study of sound? 

Well in non-covid times,  we would have talked about the basic “needs” of the show…the sound effects that we have to have and occasionally some music that we could play before the show and during Intermission…and MAYBE some background music to use during a scene. But now that we have the luxury of additional study and planning time ….we have been looking at various scripts and examples of scenes from movies and TV shows and talking about how sound is used, almost constantly, in these productions to enhance the emotional content being presented…by creating an almost continuous “soundscape,” which is comprised of not only the dialogue, but also background music, environmental sounds, special effect sounds, etc.   The additional sounds are  there.. you hardly even actually notice them…but they are just as important as the dialogue in some cases….they don’t,  as such, “stick out”….you are just affected by them.

    So… the assignment  was to make a maximum of a two minute video, about any subject matter,  and put your own  original “sound-scape” to it. Lots of students do this all the time with their phones, taking pictures and making little short films…this assignment is just more focused…the sounds chosen were to enhance the understanding of the video.   A major point of this assignment was also that it be done as a collaboration…so….the students were divided into groups of three.  My reasoning for this is a point that I continually talk about… that no matter what  profession you might be  going  into… you’ve got to be able to work as part of a group… doctors, lawyers, any profession….  you’ve got to be able to collaborate and work “with” people… to really succeed in something. Your individual effort must be 100%, but it’s about the group working together. 

Oh that’s fabulous . . . love how you set the stage for the importance of collaboration.  So what kind of things did they end up creating?

In one group  two of the students were on our school  basketball team. So they put together  a video of them playing in actual basketball games and added sound effects…some they created themselves (Foley sound effects) and some they found on line or from recordings. Another group created a story using one of their  little brother’s army men and a pet turtle that became “the monster attacking the troops”.  Action adventure was sort of a common theme. 

     I was very pleased with the work each one of the groups did…videos were clever and the sound selections were interesting. The “yes they really got it !!!! ( a.k.a. “ teacher moment”) came from a group comprised of three students that had been in the class last year also…two strong “Techies” and one that was not so strong…he always did what was asked of him but he never went beyond the required. This one particular student, “J”, is a sweet guy, nice guy, always so polite. He sits and listens to everything being talked about , always tries to do whatever I ask him to do… but whenever I  call on him and say, “what do you think about this” . .or ..”how would you suggest we try to do this.” [he would say] “Oh… well… I don’t know….”  then he would look away, almost seeming to be embarrassed.

We all have students just like this.  So much potential just waiting to bloom!

There are always students that, as a teacher, you know  that they have the ability to do something, but  they just have not learned to trust themselves yet…they haven’t learned to trust their own creative thinking and have not developed the courage to express it.   To me, this is something that the study of Fine Arts can really help a student  with…thinking creatively and working together as a creative team toward a common goal.  As in anything you do…. you don’t advance until you learn to trust yourself. 

Beautiful.  Well did he get excited about the assignment right away? 

 Not really… He did the camera work, but did not want to be “on camera” acting in  it. He participated in finding the limited number of sounds they initially added…but mainly  he just agreed with what the other team members found to use.  On the due date the group submitted this video;  originally  it was very average… Semi cute…  a semi funny little chase scene  around the CPA, back in the workroom, coming out on the side, playing like they’re climbing fences, shooting guns at each other.. That was it. It hit the marks of the assignment…just average in creativity.  Honestly I was disappointed..I hate “cute.”

Click HERE to view the original video composed collaboratively by J Walters-Demerritt, Burkitt Anderson, and Jasper Jones.

At this point  the individual work began.  Each member of the group had to  take the  original video and adapt  the sound effects.  Maybe it was  by adding  background music  or changing the music that was originally used. Maybe  it was finding some different or better  sound effects…like  …rather than using a  “Star Wars” space age gun shot sound,  maybe the better choice would be the  sound of a real machine gun… or in order to create a  contrasting effect,  by using the sound of a child’s pop gun…. something that’s unexpected…maybe it’s intended to create humor where humor is not expected… Basically…. use sounds  that will  totally change “the feel” of the original film..

Whoa okay now this is getting seriously interesting.  You are pushing them to consider just how central revision as a process is!  What did each student in the group come up with?

    One of the students  added  continuous  background music, which they did not have originally.  It gave the video a very energetic flow. . .much more of a true  action adventure feeling.

Click HERE to view the revised video by Burkitt Anderson. The addition of the action adventure music and sound effects made the original movie much more enjoyable.

 Another student added  different gun sounds and little bits and pieces of different music throughout the video….some action adventure sounds, some sad music sounds for  when her character “got killed” in the video.  It was interesting but it made the video rather choppy. ..the sounds dominated rather than enhanced the story being told 

And then we had J’s movie.  

Click HERE to view J. Walters-Demerritt’s video, which had powerful impact with just a few creative choices.

NOW THIS IS CREATIVE THINKING. What he did  not only changed the “feel” of the piece, he created a completely different idea. First …  the film was no longer in color… It was in black and white. He took out all of the original gun sounds.  Now, I don’t know where he found  the background music he added, but it sounds exactly like somebody sitting at a piano back in the early 1900’s playing music as an accompaniment for a silent movie….which is what his video truy became. To me, he took a very average short video and created a fun and interesting “silent movie.” Now, my point is …this kid  really used his IMAGINATION….and he took a huge chance.. He (somehow) knew about silent movies. He knew what the music they used back then sounded like. He knew that the tempo of the movie was faster because of the cameras that they had back at that time.  My point is….he knew about the genre, saw a potential connection,  and  he finally trusted himself enough to go out on a limb and do this. And, it reaffirmed in my mind, that they know so much more than they think they know, if you can just find the “avenue” that will give them a chance to express it.. He was SO PROUD of the reaction the entire class gave his work…they totally flipped out…he literally beamed !

Ray, I’m tearing up.  What a powerful shared classroom moment.  

 To me, it is  a good thing even if it is only for that wonderful moment when  the other members of his group  and the class looked at his film and said   to him “How did you do that?” and  “I  had no idea you could do this”, and  “I never would have thought about that” ….,BUT HE DID.   He created a truly original project.  Again….it’s back to the trust factor.  It can seem so daunting until you finally let down your guard and try… and you have those little increments of success…but  soon you learn that success comes when you learn to believe in yourself.  

You’ve said something to this effect several times in this interview.  Why is instilling a sense of self confidence such a theme in your teaching philosophy?

I was that little boy soprano, you know, growing up,  and everybody said, “Oh, your singing sounds so pretty,” ….and that was great, singing in the church and school choirs and musicals…but I was scared to death every time I had to perform…I was so afraid I would make a mistake.  It was not until a teacher in High School helped me see that I did have strong natural abilities but I needed to develop them. So I started studying voice and  not only did those natural skills develop but  mostly my self confidence grew also.  Then every time I had the opportunity to perform it became “Yes, I can do that.. Yes. I can stand in front of a bunch of people and be absolutely comfortable with letting them hear what I can do.  Now ….I’ve been doing it for years …but  I still get nervous before I walk out on stage , but I have learned to trust myself and the talents I have….so as soon as I step out on stage the nerves go away and the fun for me begins.

I can’t imagine you NOT being utterly accomplished in all things!

I was the world’s worst actor. Oh my God. I have a review of a musical I was in when  I was in high school at Jackson’s Little Theater, where New Stage is right now.  The reviewer said ““Ray McFarland is quite a talent, he’s quite the singer. The acting is not  there yet…  But BOY CAN HE SING”. ok… I’ve got to work on that acting thing.” So I did.

But again, back to the student …when I told him how proud I was of his work,  he was like, “really?”  I replied “Dude, do you have any idea what you did? I mean, all of the different choices YOU made and the clear and precise steps that YOU took?”  He said “Well, yes, but I was afraid I was making a mistake. . .that  I was going too far.”  I told him “it’s not about possibly going too far. It’s about what you did. You trusted yourself, you decided that “this is what I’m going to do” and  you did it. I added “And by the way the  technical work is great and would do you mind if I share it?” His face lit up and he’s said, “Oh, absolutely, please do.”

  So …that kid now has reached a HIGHER level. My goal or my hope is that this confidence level that he’s reached right now will allow him to take another  step, not only  in this class, but in anything else that he’s doing. Because you know, the important thing is we’re all working toward the same goal,  no matter what class you’re in.  We really don’t teach them  what to think, but really how to think, how to feel about learning, and hopefully about trusting how they really feel about things around them.  Chances are, it’s probably going to work out to be a pretty good thing… if you trust in it. 

The other piece that I think is genius is how you narrowed the scope to “ this is a unit about sound.”  That’s something we can all do in all of our classes, right?  Do one thing at a time because as a novice, I can’t handle thinking about 16 different things, right? Design, lighting, construction,  and dialogue. And I really think that’s a powerful takeaway for all of us in terms of like, how much do we ask students to do at a given moment? 

I think it’s one of those things that we as teachers forget, because if you look at any profession, it’s specialization, any doctor in the operating room, his thing is making the cuts. That’s all he does. He’s got an anesthesiologist that handles something else,  a respiratory therapist , he’s got nurses that are standing there and assisting in the room; the radiologist that’s going to be watching. It takes a team doing what each one does best. So in an assignment, you know, like you’re saying, be very specific, let them have this moment of, of absolute success within this realm. They made the movie together. Now you are the sound engineer. How can you make it even better? 

When you got my attention and showed me Jay’s movie in the library that afternoon, there was like a gasp .. . like, and I don’t even have the tools or the knowledge base to really know why that other video was so distinct. And it just felt right. Like what I saw his video, but you have at least the tools to explain, like, here’s why, right? 

Thank you very much. And I agree with that on a level, but my point in a class like this,  YES YOU DO have the tools . . . you HAVE experienced it before…It is in your head… and what we have to learn as creative people is to realize that  “It’s there”,  maybe not all of the parts needed, but I CAN USE WHAT I KNOW,  and figure out the rest..  It’s focusing your creative abilities…focusing that incredible IMAGINATION we all have.  “J”  probably saw a silent movie at some point in his life…and liked it.  When presented with a creative outlet he thought, “well, let me use that.”  Maybe it was watching the TV show Beverly Hillbillies where, you know, he saw a silent movie, and  he thought, “that’s funny, look how they are jumping around”  And then he, when he had this assignment to deal with, he looked at it and decided “well, you know, what would it look like IF I TRIED TO DO THIS?”  And that’s the step that’s important .It’s those little  steps of CREATIVE growth. And for him, this was a huge step…and a successful one. 

    You know, maybe this will be that first  step for him. Maybe this will be the step where he goes, “Well, I did it there….  Now I can do it here.”  We all love those moments….it’s why we teach.

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