January is normally one of the busiest periods for commercials post production in the U.S. as brands line up high-profile Super Bowl ads. This year was no exception. Indeed, since August when production got back up and running, audio commercials mix, and sound design boutique Lime Studios has finished dozens of spots for TV, radio and video games using entirely remote workflows.
“Following the huge uncertainty last spring, business slowly returned, and we’ve been crazy busy since the fall,” says Lime Studios Sound Engineer Tom Paolantonio. “We’ve mixed commercials for AT&T, Disney, Google, Amazon, Planters Nuts, Burger King since the pandemic began. Currently, we are mixing Super Bowl LV spots and looking forward to a fantastic 2021.”
Normality for Lime Studios is relative of course. Like every other part of the industry, the Santa Monica-based facility has faced a bumpy ride to find the working practices that best maintain continuity of production.
“Our typical sessions involve two or three clients, sometimes up to 10 or more, coming in either locally or flying in from all over the country or even internationally for the final mix with us,” says Paolantonio. “Having all that pulled out from under us very abruptly last March was a shock. It was clear that we needed to adapt, and equally clear that the whole industry was in turmoil. Everyone was trying to figure out what to do. Initially, it was quite a struggle.”
Lime Studios employs 45 staff working across 12 sound mixing stages. After the early weeks of lockdown, its sound designers, mixers, producers and engineers continued to work in socially distanced fashion on site but connecting with clients took trial and error.
“The major thing we learned pretty early on was that there are very few things that can compare to having clients in the room with you and being able to go through that creative process together,” Paolantonio says. “We tried various video conference systems to send audio and video but whether that worked or not depended on internet connections. No one could trust what was being sent or what everyone was seeing. It was okay for broad stroke ideas but not for final mixing.
“We went through a phase of taking the process offline, by talking through the work with the client, sending them options to review and taking in notes but this back and forth just took significantly longer to do anything.
“In addition, the creative process was hindered by not having enough time to experiment in real time or the ability to experience the mix and sound design together. It was at risk of being a much more utilitarian mix.
“At that point we decided to trial a number of services that would emulate the experience of having the client in the room with us. Ideally, we needed to be making changes in real time while completely trusting the frame accuracy and the audio quality of the work.
“With twelve studios and lots of moving parts, the more fool proof we can make a remote system the better, and Sohonet’s ClearView Flex tool fit the bill for that. I love the fact that there is a dedicated box with ClearView Flex, so we don’t have encoders running on our machines or separate machines we have to maintain and switch over.”
With every project that Lime Studios does remotely, they learn a little more about how to get the best outcome for their clients. The ability to read the room and interpret the responses of multiple people which artists are so adept at doing face to face now requires a nuanced approach when everyone is online.
“You do miss that ability to feel the energy of people. It’s almost like you are reading the video conference calls now and there are new things to pick up on. Just keeping people engaged on a video call is very different than when you are together in a room.
“At first, I was working with clients who I knew and had a well-established rapport. I’ve got to a point now where I’ve worked on several projects with new clients whom I’ve only ever met virtually. That’s an interesting dynamic but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well you can develop a good relationship and communicate effectively remotely.”
These relationships are important especially in such a client service focussed part of the industry but retaining company cohesion is equally, if not more, valuable when everyone is so physically distant.
“It’s a moving target and it evolves daily,” admits Paolantonio of Lime’s attempts to translate its easy-going culture online. “For the most part, before the pandemic, there was a lot of socialising, watercooler talk, and most communication was in person and impromptu.
“Now we’re using email and Slack significantly more than we used to so in some ways communications are a bit more structured and organized now. One of our employees set up weekly trivia nights that he would host as a fun thing to keep everyone engaged. Hopefully, it doesn’t feel like everyone’s working on their own island and we still have a very strong sense of community.”
He says that the biggest lesson of the last year is to be adaptable. “Technology and workflows have always changed but it’s been easier to ignore before and remain set in your ways. We’ve reached a point now where everyone is having to adapt and figure out the best way forward. Just being open to that and trying to make workflows as seamless as possible is kind of paramount right now.”
“Whether we’ve got two or 12 people remote during the final mix, we don’t have to worry about whether their experiences are going to be degraded. ClearView Flex has made it so we don’t need to think about the technical side of it and we can just focus on the work.”