A powerful collaboration between technology and talent
Chris Doucet is in the enviable position of working a real job doing what he loves. As a film composer, and co-owner of Strawberry Sound Studios in Salt Lake City, he has composed powerful scores for award-winning films, TV spots and commercials and worked as a session musician and arranger for artists from around the world. His unique partnership with sound engineer Jake Proctor enables them to work together creatively on films as a ‘package deal’, combining their talents to blur the lines between sound and music. Doucet is a passionate advocate of Video Slave, describing its elegance as an absolute must-have for anyone writing for media. We catch up with him to hear about his work and why Video Slave has made all the difference.
So how have you ended up following this dream career doing what you love? Was it intentional or completely accidental?
"Well, for as long as I can remember I’ve been playing music. Though my parents weren’t musical: music skipped a generation in my family, my grandfather and grandmother were both opera singers. My grandfather sang ‘Oh Canada’ for the Montreal Canadiens at the Forum for 25 years, and as hockey fans will know that’s the ‘cathedral of Canada’, the biggest stage. He even released a platinum album. So there were always instruments around that I would pick up and teach myself. When I started playing seriously in Fifth or Sixth grade, I started leaning towards the LA studio sound. I was obsessed with Toto: my uncle grew up with them. He introduced me to them at a very young age and they became mentors of mine. I was definitely exposed early on to the LA “slick” studio session sound which I really fell in love with, and that put me on a different path, not necessarily what was popular at the time. The thing that struck me about Toto specifically was their complete dominance over genre, they could do anything and be anyone, but they could also write hits. That’s what differentiated them from most other monster musicians that could play a mile a minute or shred….could they really come in and write a hit? The thing that really blew my mind about them was that when they played jazz they weren’t a rock band playing jazz, when they played funk they weren’t a rock band playing funk, they were legit in everything they did - I guess they played on all those records in the first place throughout the 70s and 80’s - but they had a way of really being those types of acts. That ‘chameleon-ness’ of them being able to switch styles definitely heavily influenced my style as a composer."
And was it a conscious decision to end up in film?
"It was always about film music for me. I have home videos of me at 5 or 6 years old where my dad yells ‘Star Wars!’, ‘Indiana Jones!’ and snapping his finger and I hum the theme. I’ve had these pieces embedded in me since birth; I learned of John Williams when I was ten years old or so and can remember, that was the first time I realized it was a job that musicians did. So, ya, pretty much as far back as I can remember I wanted score films, but it took a long time writing commercials and producing hip hop and pop bands to get there. I was always planning on going to music school, and my parents had supported me my whole life. Then, right at the point I was about to go to Berklee, I got talked into going to business school so that I could afford music school. It was a left-hand turn which set me on sort of an “alternate reality” path of doing pop, and producing, and commercial work. It’s been a slow transition since; it took ten years to get me onto the career that I should have been doing in the first place.
Our break really came with Imagine in 2011. That’s really the point where myself and my business partner Jake Proctor (we’re lucky enough to get hired as a package deal which is rare, doing sound and music together) got plugged into a great community of filmmakers. Through that one film we met four subsequent directors and have been working pretty much non-stop for the past five years on their many films."
Do you do much collaboration with other sound guys or studios or artists?
"To be honest most of my collaboration is just with Jake; in a some of cases, he’s the only other sound person on the entire film! There’s definitely a very tight collaboration there; we’ve done 20 films together and we’ve gotten a kind of shorthand where we don’t really treat sound and music as separate elements. I’ll spot a scene with a director, he’ll spot a scene with a director then he and I will spot the film together – ‘you take this high explosion, I’ll take this low rumble here.’ That’s about the extent of my collaboration, although I recently did do Romeo and Juliet with another composer, and we’ve both done films outside of Strawberry Sound; but to be honest we just have a hyper-focused 24-hours a day non-stop collaboration between our two studios, Jake and I: it’s a unique set-up."
How does an idea start for you? Do you sit down with a piano and start coming up with ideas and working through motifs with the director?
"That’s the most romantic situation, when you have a director who you feel comfortable enough with to play a theme for on a piano. In this day and age it really says something about your working relationship with the director, if you can do it that way. The director of one of the films I just worked on – Artifice - Steven Doxey, is an award-winning film composer himself, and he appreciates sitting at a piano and talking the idea through. It’s exciting to have at least one person who can appreciate the old style of craft. But for the most part, if I have enough time I will usually start with a mock-up suite. If I have even two or three days before I get the locked picture, I’ll try to write as much music as I possibly can, and send it to them.
I’ve been really fortunate to work with directors who don’t really use a temp, and if they do they’ve seemed to be very disconnected from it, so temp hasn’t been a really big part of my world. There have been a few things that I’ve done where the studio has approved temps and it’s been a little bit complicated to mitigate that, but I don’t have temp issues very often.
There are some projects which I literally don’t have even a moment to figure out a theme; I have to jump in on day one and start writing to picture, and hope that I find it along the way. Whereas I’ve also been on projects – like Artifice - Jake and I were working on that on and off for a year and a half, so I definitely got the opportunity to write to the script level. Artifice almost required it as they were shooting a movie within the movie. So, there’s a score within the score, but that score has to inform the actual score, so you can’t write one without having the other! It was a slow incremental process that took a long time to hash out, chipping away at something and trying to get to the lowest common denominator of the theme. Those types of situations take time. There are certain films I can calculate - I can estimate I’d do, let’s say two minutes a day on an action movie like Cyborg X, but with films like Artifice you can’t really calculate it; you have to allow time to explore it and chisel it out of wood until there’s something there."
Technology must be a really big part of the whole process these days? You must be using huge sample libraries to try ideas rather than shipping in a full orchestra…
"Absolutely - technology has really leveled off the playing field, and allowed me to jump to a higher production value when I first started out. I now have a massive rig: 5.1 in complete surround, 9 computers all working as one. I have 6 Slaves loaded up with my orchestra and all my sample libraries, which filter into my main VisionDaw computer then I print out to a Pro Tools HD system. Every component in my rig is vital for being able to do work at today’s pace."
And how helpful is Video Slave in the whole process?
"I didn’t realize how important it was until I started using it! Cubase is fantastic when a video works, but in this day and age you can get sent video files in any kind of format; sometimes a first-time director doing it on his Mac Book Pro, sometimes a pro editor or studio sending you cuts - the formats just sometimes don’t work in Cubase, so it was a nightmare for years and years for me to be able to have a reliable video.Then, about 2 and a half years ago, I had a system-wide crash; I was down for about 30 days with MIDI-timing issues, glitches and everything else you can think of! I was lucky fortunate enough to fly in JB, from Composer Tech from L.A.. We had three days to do a complete overhaul and get my rig working, basically rescuing me from getting fired off a project. The first thing he said was, “Buy Video Slave immediately.”. And man was he right. It was a tremendous win because not only did every video work every time, it also it also offloaded the video and a lot of heavy lifting from my DAW, including the dialog, sound design, temp score etc, that I was able to get 30% power back in some cases. Like I said, I had no idea how much of a difference Video Slave made until I started using it, and now the thought of doing anything without it is frightening!
As far as the way I use it, I sequence in Cubase then everything is streamed out to a Pro Tools HD system; I have Pro Tools slaving to Cubase so when I hit play in Cubase, Pro Tools follows along, but then it’s also connected to Video Slave. So I have Pro Tools and Video Slave working at the same time, then I’m able to print into PT and also have the video there offline for final delivery. If I switch over to Pro Tools then Video Slave is already synced to it. It’s a very elegant solution across the board; so many reasons to use it."
Have you found the new video engine (Video Slave 3) an improvement over Video Slave 2, now that they’ve detached it from any reliance on QuickTime format?
"To be honest Video Slave 2 was so solid for me that 3’s benefits are more the features; it’s been reliable since day one so I can’t really tell whether it’s any more solid, but the new features in 3 make life so much easier. Because I work in surround, with VS2, there were limitations on outputting, being able to stream stems out. I had to have my 5.1 stems broken up into three stereos with the centre channel panned left and the right muted; so the new ability to stream 5.1 up to 7.1 now with the new update has been absolutely invaluable. I can just drop stuff in. I work with editors where I get immense amounts of different updated videos, so the playlist feature is just… like I said: elegant - there’s no other way to describe it. It works perfectly the way it’s supposed to and immediately alleviates having to deal with video chaos and different file formats…"
Talking about new features, do you do ADR in-house and use the ‘cues’ features?
"I’m not actually using the ADR features. My business partner Jake does all the sound design and usually mixes the films as a re-recording mixer, so he’s the one doing the ADR. I’m going to get him on Video Slave but I have to wait for the right opening between projects – don’t tell him but I’m going to sneak it in there! I’ve been pitching it to him for quite some time. The ADR features look really exciting and once again a really well thought out solution. But I’m exclusively using it for slaving video - offloading my stems, and now exported videos, which has made life alot easier too."
What would you say to someone who hasn’t heard of Non-Lethal Applications, or are tied to other solutions?
"I think there are certain things that just make sense, and end up becoming the industry standard. Like, most composers will use Vienna Ensemble Pro because it solves several problems at once. It became something that most composers especially doing intense projects wouldn't want to live without. Video Slave is kind of the same thing for me; I personally think it’s going to be a must-have if you’re working to video. Especially with all the different file formats and video encoding; all the different variables that can happen."
That’s quite a bold claim, that Video Slave should almost be an industry standard…
"I think so – that’s the way I speak about it to my colleagues. The second we get a break in my project I’m not taking no for an answer from Jake; we’re going to get the Pro version for him because it makes sense with those ADR features. It seems like every feature makes sense; it’s been thought out for the right reasons, not just as a feature but as a solution, so all these features we’re interested in exploring, especially its integration with Pro Tools HD. So that’s the next step, getting the second half of the company converted."
Finally what advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?
"I would love to just grab me and throw me against the wall and yell ‘Focus!’. I often fantasize about going back and putting the fear of God into myself to study! Playing in bands and whatnot was great to learn by ear, but I would have preferred to have gotten serious about studying composition and orchestration at that time. My ultimate goal, even though I have a giant tech palace here, is to get to the point where I can write a score on paper - by candlelight, with a quill, in a cabin - I hope to get to that point. So that’s what I’d say to my 16-year-old self: get onto that path sooner."