Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Interview: Sound Designer JR Fountain

In just a few short years, JR Fountain went from a 17 year old 12th grade student dreaming of working in a recording studio, to an award winning sound designer with a string of major television and film sound design roles under his belt. He owns Big Room Sound, a studio providing sound recording, editing, design and mixing services for the film, television and multimedia industries. Here, freeSFX.co.uk's Alan McKinney talks to JR about life as a successful sound designer.

JR, what is your background and how did you get started in the sound design and recording industry?

I was introduced to post sound when I was 17. My high school had a co-op placement program in grade 12 and like a lot of kids who are into music I thought it'd be cool to work at a recording studio. However, after talking with my music teacher about the various local studios I could try, he shook his head at me and picked up the phone. He called a former student of his, Stephen Barden who was working with Sound Dogs Toronto as a sound editor and asked him if he'd have me on as a co-op student/intern. Thankfully he said yes, and before I knew it I was travelling into Toronto every other day to hang out at Deluxe Post Production which is where Sound Dogs had their cutting rooms at the time.

I actually hated the internship at first because Steve just sat me in front of this old Mac with a Mac bible and told me to figure out how to use it for the first week or so. They (Mac computers) didn't even have solitaire on them, just this lame jigsaw puzzle! But eventually Steve let me into his room and I would watch him cut dialogue all afternoon. We didn't really talk a lot while he was working but I sure learnt a lot watching. The cool thing about Deluxe at the time was there was so much going on. They had around 8 mix theatres, 2 Foley rooms, ADR, and I think 3 sound editing companies all under one roof. So I got exposed to all facets of post sound and the people who did it. But the thing that really turned my crank was when I tried my hand at sound effects editing. We had to do a presentation to our class about our work placement so I decided to take a scene out of this Van Damme movie called "Maximum Risk" that Sound Dogs had cut and do my own sound effects edit for it. Then I'd show the class the before and after. My classmates didn't find it half as cool as I did. I'd have to say though that that was the defining moment for me to say that I wanted to do this for a living. Steve kept me on as an assistant through the summers, and taught me so much about film sound. I eventually got my break editing there after college.

You have an impressive list of credits for films, television programmes and more. Can you give us a little insight into how you get commissioned for a job and what’s involved?

Thanks. Most of the time, it's who you know. This year I supervised and mixed a film called "Living Downstream" because the director, Chanda Chevannes is a good friend of mine from our days in film school and we've kept in touch and worked together since then. I've also gotten work through recommendations from other sound editors when they're too busy which can open a new door. I'm actually gonna start up on a new series in October because of some work I did through one of those recommendations.

A number of years ago, a friend introduced me to Tim Archer at a studio called Masters Workshop. After meeting him I got a gig cutting sound effects on a very early animatic version of Steven Oedekerk's "The Barnyard". Masters unfortunately didn't get the final gig for the film but it was a great experience for myself and I ended up meeting Brian Eimer who mixed my tracks. Later on Brian and I worked together for a couple years as he was getting his own company off the ground called Images In Sound. And even just recently I made a cold call to a studio I'd never worked with, went in and spoke with the owner and in 2-3 weeks got a call back to cut a documentary with them. That one was really great timing!

Nelson Ferreira, one of the co-founders of Sound Dogs is who I usually work with these days, but you never know who you're going to meet and where that could lead you. At this point in my career I work mainly for supervising sound editors, so my mandate has been to try to get to know as many supervisors in town as I can.

Some sounds must be very difficult to record/create. Are there any particular sound effects you have had to make that stand out as problematic and what was involved in creating them?

Sure, often times you come across various things that are challenging. I must confess though most of my challenges haven't been nearly as cool as some of the big name sound designers. One that was very bitter sweet for me was working on the film Wild Ocean 3D. It was an IMAX film that told the story of one of the last big sardine migrations that happens off the coast of South Africa. It showed how all of these different animals would converge to prey upon the sardines and the climax sequence of the film revolved around these birds called cape gannets that dive into the ocean to eat the fish. The underwater footage they shot was just breathtaking. We're talking huge schools of sardines, like tens of thousands all swarmed together in what they call a "bait ball" and then probably hundreds of cape gannets dive bombing in to eat them.

My job on the film was to cut everything that was underwater. I knew there was no way I could use stock library sounds to cut this sequence so I went out into the creek behind my parents' house in some hip-waiters and began experimenting with splashes. I needed something fast and percussive and ended up finding that an axe and a hammer were my best props. So I would throw them as hard as I could straight down into the water, micing it from above and below the water and making sure not to hit my toes! I think I recorded like 50 or 60 splashes of each the hammer and axe cause I didn't want the sequence to sound loopy. I would use these recordings along with a pitched down/subsynthed version for the bird's impacts. Then I recorded myself skimming my hand, brooms, brushes etc. across the water very quickly to use for the bubble trail the birds would create once they were in the water. Any sort of swimming whooshes and moves I then recorded in a neighbour's pool. I'd do the old trick of putting a condom over my mic and dip it into the water a couple inches and then swish my hand or various props in front of it. Once it was all said and done this sequence rocked.

The bitter part came when the directors decided to favour the music pretty heavily during the mix meaning you could barely hear any of my work…oh well. That's unfortunately one of the things you have to get used to in this line of work. Thankfully the music for that film was off the charts amazing though.

What advice would you give to any aspiring sound designers?

We are all made with purpose and while I know it's not my sole purpose, I know that being a sound designer is part of it. If you think its part of yours, then bust your chops to do it cause I want to hear your work. Lots of people will tell you that it's a hard and declining business, it is. Budgets are constantly being shrunken; you're often under-appreciated, etc. etc. etc. But if it's your deal and you love it then do it.

Some practical things that worked for me…
  • Interning
  • Keeping my mouth shut while I was interning
  • Keeping a good attitude while I was interning
  • Borrowing/buying gear to go and record sounds
  • Always trying to learn something new in all situations
  • Reading, reading, reading, then applying what I've read

What’s next for JR Fountain?

Right now I'm waiting for a busy fall to get started. I've got a drama series, a doc, an indie feature, and a series of short documentaries that are all supposed to happen between now and Christmas. Plus here in Ontario, fall is a great season to record because there's no snow and no crickets. On my list of things to get are a Ford E-350 van, shotguns and rifles with my father in-law, and hopefully some animal recordings with local zoos, but we'll see how things shape up.

About JR Fountain

JR Fountain owns Big Room Sound, a studio providing sound recording, editing, design and mixing services for the film, television and multimedia industries.

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