Rhetorical Answer


A response to the question never asked

A typical New York City winter sight

A typical New York City winter sight

because air conditioners are heavy and city apartments don’t have enough storage room.

Yes, this is a short post. I worked 60 hours this week, attended two three-hour evenings classes, started memorizing a sketch for this Saturday’s Sketchubator show at the PIT (at 11 PM – be there!), watched To Have and Have Not, and worked on my novel. What do you want?

Filed under: New York

Expensive toys

Another week, another round of classes, and once again, I enjoyed the sound design class more than the editing class. However, I’m not sure how much of that was influenced by straining to watch grainy, black and white silent film clips in the latter and getting to play with hundreds of dollars’ worth of electronics in the former.

The equipment we worked with this week in sound design class included a $100 Shure SM57 dynamic mic, a $200 Sennheiser ME66 short shotgun mic, a $350 Blue Microphones Bluebird condenser mic, a $350 Audio Technica AT825 stereo mic, and a $1,300 Fostex FR2 field recorder. And this was the sound equipment provided for student use! The instructor said that the high-end microphones can sell for upwards of $10,000. I’ve heard about how amazing it is that individuals can now buy equipment to make their own indie films, but it still seems quite expensive to me. We didn’t even get to sound mixing yet, and then there’s the cost of the computer and Pro Tools workstation to consider. Next week, weather permitting, we will be venturing out into the night to record some sounds in the neighborhood with the expensive toys we’ve just learned to use. I can hardly wait!

Filed under: Education, Film

Inscrutable song lyrics

A prime example of the Principle of Inscrutability is song lyrics. “Drops of Jupiter” by Train is playing on my radio right now, and although I enjoy it, the lyrics are so nonsensical that I can read as much brilliant metaphor into them as I want:

Tell me, did you sail across the sun
Did you make it to the Milky Way to see the lights all faded
And that heaven is overrated

Tell me, did you fall from a shooting star
One without a permanent scar
And did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there

I mean, really, the creative possibilities are practically endless. What songs do you enjoy reading into?

Filed under: Reflection, , ,

The Art of Editing

In contrast to the Sound Design course, the Art of Editing course I just started turns out to be a more traditional humanities theory course: an analytical discussion of film editing techniques in the context of in-class screenings. Back in high school, I loved classes in which topics were subjective and there was no such thing as a wrong answer. Having since endured four years of training in an engineering school, however, I have learned that it’s important to be specific when defending an idea because being vague can be just as unhelpful as being wrong.

I have also learned, independently of school, that the most meticulously researched critical analysis of art can turn out to be complete BS. Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter once took a film class and wrote an essay, with her grandfather’s help, analyzing one of his movies. When she showed him the poor grade the analysis received from the instructor, he could only respond, “Well, it was the best I could do.” (I paraphrase from memory here, but you can watch the entire Mary Stone interview on the DVD special features section of To Catch a Thief (1955)). So I had to stifle a little skepticism as I stepped into my first session of The Art of Editing.

The class started with introductions such as the ones I imagine I missed in Sound Design last week. Quite a few of the other students already work in the film and television industry, and I hope to learn more about their day-to-day work experiences as the semester progresses. Since the course has no project lab component, though, I’m not sure what opportunity there will be to socialize. From what I’ve heard, their schedules sound pretty packed, Not that mine is any less so, of course, but theirs make for more interesting cocktail party discussion.

Getting down to business, we watched the first ten minutes of The Piano (1993) and discussed various editing choices the filmmakers with a few vague observations sprinkled with terms like “symbolism.” My internal warning light started flashing at that point, but I did glean a few tips regarding efficient characterization. I was also reminded that I should watch the entire movie again sometime, as the first ten minutes were totally absorbing, and I confess to being a little disappointed when the instructor stopped the DVD player for discussion.

Next we saw a short set of very interesting documentary and narrative films created by the Lumière Brothers, who invented the first movie camera in the 1890s, and an early short by Martin Scorsese called “The Big Shave” (1967). We rounded out the night with the first narrative film called The Great Train Robbery (1903) and an excerpt from Fatal Attraction (1987) to illustrate the evolution from continuous shots to pan editing to more sophisticated cross cuts.

Of all of the clips, the Scorsese film made a particular impression on me. After playing the short, the instructor asked the class what we thought of it. Most people commented that, had they not known anything about the filmmaker’s intent (which was spelled out in a brief on-screen interview with Scorsese beforehand), they would have had a different response to the film. The content was inscrutable enough that the audience could conclude with equal probability that the film was a) boring and pointless or b) a work of genius.

To the viewer leaning toward the first option, certain moments in the film stand out as unusual for no obvious reason. Not being immediately self-explanatory, these moments appear simply ill-considered and ineffective. If, on the other hand, the viewer assumes that everything in the film was a conscious choice by the filmmaker, and if the viewer then brainstorms as to what the filmmaker’s reasons might have been and comes up with brilliant explanations, he tends to go with option b.

The perceived genius of the artist, therefore, depends entirely on the determination and creativity of the critic. I call this the Principle of Inscrutability and look forward to applying it to my own work to elevate it to the level of artistic genius. Feel free to do the same.

Filed under: Education, Film, , ,

Sound beats picture, picture beats rock…

It’s the end of the week for me – the film class week, that is. My first Art of Editing class was yesterday, followed by my second Sound Design class today. Originally, I had been looking forward to the editing class more than the sound design class, but I have to say that, so far, I am enjoying the sound design course more. It reminds me more of an engineering course than a humanities course, but with less math and more Skywalker Ranch references. I can hardly wait until we get our portable recording devices and go trekking around in Washington Square Park waving microphones around in the dark. It will be…how do the 80s teens say it? Awesome.

I finished reading the first handout on basic sound design definitions and psychoacoustics over the weekend, which was a good thing because the instructor just dumped about twelve articles in our laps today to read, in lieu of a textbook, on topics ranging from Foley techniques to polar patterns of microphones. I will be happily occupied for at least the next two weeks reading all of them.

Netflix being rather poky, I only received and watched The Triplets of Belleville yesterday after getting back from editing class. Last minute it may have been, but I completed my first homework assignment on time, thereby guaranteeing that the instructor would not bring it up in today’s class. Nevertheless, I’m glad I saw the film. I was particularly impressed with how much of its rather bizarre plot was conveyed with minimal dialogue, which got me thinking about the contrast with dialogue-heavy American television.

News programs, fake news programs, morning and late night talk shows, sports analysis shows, celebrity soup shows, Judge Judy, Suze Orman, Rachel Ray, and even game shows like Deal or No Deal all pretty much boil down to a studio set filled with frantically talking heads. And I can count on one elbow the number of mainstream silent films that have come out of Hollywood in the past decade. What is it about our culture that makes us averse to television without dialogue?

Filed under: Education, Film, ,


My first assignment for Sound Design puts the “woo!” in homewoork. I’m supposed to watch the animated movie The Triplets of Belleville and note how the filmmakers distinguish characters by giving each of them a signature sound.

The instructor demonstrated the use of signature sounds in class by showing a brief clip from another animated movie, Monsters Inc. As each monster slithered or waddled across the screen, it made a distinctive sound that set it apart from the others. This got me wondering, if I were a character in a movie, what would my signature sound be?

During the a capella song-building exercise my improv ensemble does in rehearsals, I noticed that I have a tendency to riff based on a few patterns of notes like da da da da (beat) ba dum! Repition of these patterns frees up my brain to play around with the tempo and pitch so that my vocalization harmonizes with and reacts to those of the other improvisers. If my signature sound were a pattern like this, I imagine it would vary according to my emotional state in a similar fashion. If I were hopped up on root beer, it would be a manic da da da da (hic) ba dum! If I were debugging code at work, it would be a slower, deliberate da da da daaa baaa DUM.

In the soundtrack of life, what would your signature sound be?

Filed under: Education, Film, , , ,

Audition Camp-out

Audition line for Last Comic Standing

The other day, I passed a line of people, camping chairs, and tents behind a police barricade that extended halfway down a city block, wrapped around the corner, and went on for another at least another half-block. It turned out to be the audition line for Last Comic Standing at Gotham Comedy Club, and it reminded me that, aside from the dirt, noise, and crowds that sometimes threaten to overwhelm, New York is still a city of dreams.

At any hour of the day or night, someone is standing on a street corner, telling a loved one on a cell phone how they can feel in their gut that they are on the verge of their big break. To live here, to be steeped in a medium saturated with ambition and hope, inspires me daily to continue pursuing my own dreams. As I grow older, I appreciate the influence more and more, because without it, the daily grind can make us forget the reasons that we strive. Moving towards the realization a dream, even in a tiny incremental step, is an exhilaration in itself and one I would not deny myself any day, no matter how much laundry, cleaning, and other chores await me. When life gets crazy, though, it helps to get a refresher from fellow human beings about what’s important, so thank you to all those comics who camped out in the cold drizzle for twenty four hours.

If you could accomplish only one more thing in your life, what would it be? What will you do this week on your journey to achieving it?

Filed under: Reflection, , ,

What is Sound Design?

My first Sound Design class began with an overview of sound, which brought me back to my days in Psychoacoustics Lab in college. I would have never thought any of that course would have come in handy in the future besides providing me with great stories of sitting outside the testing rooms listening to experiment subjects scream in agony as they endured listening to a series of ear-splitting beeps through heavy-duty headphones. Ah, memories. Anyway, I looked over the diagrams of sound waves in the lecture notes and realized I understood what they meant. Score one nerd point!

The instructor then went on to talk a little about polar patterns and frequency response curves of microphones, followed by a few examples of ambient sound. We went through a brief case study analyzing the use of sound effects and music in a clip from the movie Behind Enemy Lines, which made me listen much more carefully than I normally do while watching a film, and concluded that the audio component really does drive the emotion in a scene far more than the visual component. If you don’t believe me, try watching some heart-wrenching movie scene with the sound muted. Then watch it again with sound. In terms of emotional impact, the version with sound will win hands-down, and the effect is even more pronounced if the scene is scored. Think of any scene with a swelling choral chant at the dramatic turning point, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The instructor summed up the use of music in film in a thought-provoking way. He said that the film-maker uses music to cue the audience to the appropriate emotional response. As an audience member, I was initially bothered by the idea that I was being cued to feel anything. Where do filmmakers get the right to manipulate me emotionally? But then he pointed out that aim of art is to put the audience into a state of suspended disbelief. Once in that state, we are able to go on a journey with the artist and see the world through that artist’s unique lens.

I can see the merit in his argument, but so much of today’s media is designed to manipulate consumers for commercial purposes that it still makes me uncomfortable to realize how much of that manipulation has been honed to an art. As it’s largely unavoidable in this technology-saturated environment in which we live, I suppose I’m better off being able to recognize the techniques. And perhaps, after mastering them myself, take over the world? *Dr. Evil pinkie smile*

Filed under: Education, Film, , , ,

The Saga Begins

I double-checked the time and location for my Sound Design course the night before the first session, wrote down the address on a slip of paper to carry in my pocket on the walk over to the building, made sure I had my registration form and student ID card in my bag, and left myself 15 minutes extra time to find Room B-3 before class started. I double-checked my e-mail before leaving for class, in case school administration sent any last-minute messages, and saw that my inbox was free and clear. Brimming with excitement, I skipped down the street, singing “B-3! B-3! B-3!” But when I arrived at the building in midtown, the nice guard at the front desk informed me that my class was not on his list and that there was no Room B-3, there never had been any Room B-3, and that according to his records, I should not even exist. I thought about this for a moment, then decided that I had imagined the last part of his response in a hallucinogenic panic reaction when I realized that despite my careful preparations, I would probably be late for class.

Next, I wondered whether I had fallen for an elaborate phishing scam in which I had thought I was registering for film classes on a legitimate NYU website but in reality had wired money to Nigeria. With only ten minutes left before class started, there was nothing else to do but check with the registration desk on the fourth floor, where another person had to call a central admin office to sort out the confusion. Sure enough, my class had been moved to another location downtown. I crammed into a cattle car – excuse me, 6 local train – and burst out, stressed and sweaty, at Astor Place. A hurried walk through my old neighborhood, which thankfully I knew like the back of my hand, and I finally arrived at the elusive Room B-3, which turned out to be a basement classroom in a building just east of Washington Square Park.

It turned out that NYU had been just as good about notifying the other students about the location switch as it had been to me, so I was not the only person late for the first class, and I don’t think I missed much more than introductions. Unfortunately, that means I still have no idea who anyone is, what they do, or why they are taking the course, and I usually find that sort of information interesting. The instructor did mention, however, that we will be working in groups on projects, so hopefully I will get better acquainted with my classmates over the span of the semester.

Filed under: Education, Film,


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