Independent Filmmakers Alliance News
Calling All Filmmakers: Rebelfest International Film Festival
by Sasheen Roberts

The Angry Filmmaker sounds off
By Karina Halle

Above: Kelley Baker, The Angry Filmmaker and master of sound design.

When most filmmakers move to LA, they never look back. The same can’t be said for sound engineer and “The Angry Filmmaker,” Kelley Baker. Born in raised in Portland, Oregon, Baker moved to LA where he attended USC's Film School to receive his BA and MFA and further his film career. However in 1982, doctor’s advised Baker to return to a more humid and less-polluted locale on account of his growing asthma problem.

The move ended up working out perfectly for Baker. Tired of the LA film scene, he decided to concentrate on making films while thinking outside of the box. It was at about this time that the independent film movement was gaining appreciation. Riding the momentum, Baker got work as a sound designer on a Will Vinton Claymation movie. It was on that film that a friendship with acclaimed director Gus Van Sant was formed. It led to Baker being the sound designer on all Van Sant films from My Own Private Idaho onto Finding Forrester. He also did the sound design for the Indie favourite Far From Heaven, directed by Todd Haynes. 

It was at this time that Baker decided to branch out and start making films of his own. He went on to make seven shorts films, documentaries, and wrote and directed three of his own features, including Kicking Bird, a film shot for $5K on an 18-day shooting schedule. His films have played at festivals all over the world and have been seen on Canadian and Australian television, as well as on PBS and The Learning Channel. 

Currently, Baker tours North America and Northern Europe as “The Angry Filmmaker,” teaching aspiring filmmakers the real ropes of Indie filmmaking.
“Remember that many classic films were put together with razor blades and tape”
I recently had the opportunity to hear Baker’s point of view about the importance of sound design and the evolution of the Independent Film Industry…and what we can do to change it. 

IFA: How does designing the sound for independents differ from bigger budget/studio films? 

Baker: The biggest differences are money and the levels of people you have to please.

When I am working on a small film, I usually only have to please a couple of people: the director and myself.  When I am working on a studio movie there are tons of people putting their two cents worth in and most of the time they don't know what they're talking about.  With the larger movies we have to do temp mixes for preview audiences and so you have even more people giving you feedback based on what other people think.   

On the small films, you rely on your gut instinct.  You have a lot less money so you have to be more creative.  There are things you can't afford so you come up with other ways to get the desired effect or whatever.  On a big movie you can just go out and rent a diesel Mercedes and record all the sound you want.  On one small
“If you have no money, you have to be creative”
movie I did, the sound of the Mercedes was actually a 10 year old diesel VW Rabbit that belonged to a buddy of mine.  No one can tell the difference.  I always say that if you have too much money you don't have to be creative, you just throw money at the problem.  But if you have no money, you have to be creative. 

IFA: How has technology affected sound design? 

Baker: Technology is a double edged sword.  I am old enough that when I started cutting sound we still used upright Moviolas and did it all on 35mm mag. I worked with some old-timers who would use razor blades to cut shapes into the mag that would essentially take out pops and all sorts of different stuff on the dialog.  Now, we have computers with lots of outboard gear and you're still trying to cut out pops and other crap on the dialog.  Computers are great because you can work faster and you can make the changes faster. The downside is that it allows some directors to keep changing their minds on cuts, sounds, etc., until you can have 12 different versions of the same scene with 21 different sound effects on 12 different mixes of a reel.  

I also think that there are times when technology is driving the car.  When I speak to students about sound, or any part of filmmaking, I will invariably get the question: "What kind of software do I use?"  It's not about software.  It's about your brain, your creativity, your experience.  Software doesn't make movies for you.  You have to do that yourself.  Technology is just a hammer.  It is no more important than any other tool in your bag.  It's the blueprints, the script if you will, that's important.   

When it comes to technology, I think too much is not a good thing.  Remember that many classic films were put together with razor blades and tape. 

IFA: Describe your approach to the art of sound design? 

Baker: I approach sound design by first thinking: “What can I add to help move the story forward? What can I use to tell you more about a character? How can I tell you more about the physical space through sound?”   

In a movie like Far From Heaven, it was a period piece so we had to get the period sounds right.  Then, Todd and I talked about using as much "canned" sound effects as possible.  He wanted the movie to sound and feel like a studio film from the 50's.  We used a lot of foley in that movie, because that's what they would have done if it was a studio film from the 50's.   

In My Own Private Idaho, it's about street kids and the sound is grittier, rougher. I went out and recorded a bunch of stuff for that film. It's very urban. In my movie Kicking Bird I used some of the same stuff I used on Idaho.  I wanted that gritty feel. My characters were losers, outsiders. You don't hear any birds on the tracks, you hear lots of traffic and industrial sounds. That was their reality - these were poor intercity kids.   

Far From Heaven has this really nice track as far as birds and nice dogs barking, this whole “Leave It To Beaver” quality. In my film Birddog, one of the characters lives in a very poor area, and every time we are at his house you hear airplanes in the background.  You never see it, but it sounds like he lives right next to the airport. Who would live in a place like that?  A poor thief, that's who.  Make the sound help move the story along, or tell us something about the characters.  

IFA: What are the greatest obstacles for aspiring filmmakers to overcome? 

Baker: It is what it has always been:  getting our work seen. The studios and even the so-called "Indie" distributors don't really want our movies. They want 10-15 million dollar movies with recognizable TV actors or stars who are slumming.
“Get used to rejection, get a thick skin and don't listen to people that say you can't do it…you only fail when you give up”
They don't want anything too smart, or heaven forbid, a movie that an audience has to really watch in order to figure it out. And Sundance isn't going to take your movie either, unless you are connected to the business somehow, or you fit in to one of the above.  It's not going to happen.  

After everyone has rejected you, you need to figure out how you are going to market your own movies.  And don't give me that crap about how you don't want to learn about business and you're an artist and all of that.  I don't buy any of it. I make good movies inexpensively and I self distribute them. A lot of people donated their time, talent, and money to help me make my movies.  I owe it to them to go out and find the audience.  My movies don't do anyone any good sitting on my shelf at home and neither will your movies. 

Also remember, the word "no" never hurt anyone.  Get used to rejection, get a thick skin and don't listen to people that say you can't do it.  Too many people feel like they can only work in film, not video, or if they can't get into the right film festivals then they have failed.  You only fail when you give up.   

IFA: What would you like to see change in the Indie Film Community? 

Baker: I'd like to see us take the word "Independent" back! “Indie” has become a marketing phrase.  I have a tough time sitting through a 15 million dollar Indie movie.  I want us to recognize that Indie doesn't mean stars and all of that other crap. We are independent filmmakers and we make movies whether we have a deal or not.  I want to see more theaters and media art centers providing places for us to show our work, instead of just giving us lip service about how they support independent film. I am fed up with these "independent" film festivals that show all these movies with big names in them.  I think Sundance and any other festival that calls itself independent shouldn't take films with budgets of more than $100,000.  That ought to weed out the phonies.

There are a lot of people out there who do want to see real independent films, they just need to find out where they can go and what kind of work is out there. 

IFA: Tell me a bit about your work shops 

Baker: I have four work shops that I teach, “Making The Short Personal Movie,” “Making The Extremely Low Budget Feature,” “Sound Design for Independent Features” and “Marketing and Self-Distribution.” 

I try to pass on my experiences to others.  I’ve made seven short films about my life that have won awards and been screened all over the world and I made some money off of them. I want to tell people ways that they can do that as well.   

I spent $150K on my first feature Birddog, and every one who saw it thought I spent a million and a half.  My last two features, The Gas Cafe and Kicking Bird, cost $4K and $6K in cash and a lot of favors.  I want to show people how they can make good movies without going into huge amounts of debt.  I also think sound is over looked in all movies at all levels, so I try to pass on tricks and things that I have learned over the years.  

And once you get your movies done, what do you do when everyone has rejected them?  That's the focus of the self-distribution work shops. I tell people that not everyone should be in the business. Just because you watch movies doesn't mean you can make a good one. It's just as hard to make a bad movie as it is to make a good one. Even great filmmakers make bad movies on occasion. I hope that my work shops get people fired up about the craft and the art of filmmaking while keeping an eye on your own bottom line.

Kicking Bird, Baker’s Indie film shot for 5K.
I tell people to not listen to those people who tell you need to have a star and lots of money.  What you need to have is a good story and some good actors.  Even if no one has ever heard of you, or them.  Make the film that you want to make.

For more information about Baker and his workshops, please visit his site: www.angryfilmmaker.com

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Independent Filmmakers Alliance
Karina Halle
Director of Media Relations
phone: 1-866-959-FILM