Inspiration is mercurial. It can appear suddenly with a flash of insight. It can trickle away leaving you struggling for motivation.
Perhaps you’ve worked months without a day off and you’re burned out. Maybe you want to shake yourself out of a rut. Maybe it’s been weeks since you’ve had a fresh, creative thought.
As sound effects field recordists, we can’t afford to wait for inspiration. Sometimes the reason is practical. Perhaps your client needs you to design creative sound and needs it now. Maybe you’re between gigs (a common time for motivation to vanish), and you need to get off your couch.
Recording the best sound effects depends on creativity, often on demand. How do you find inspiration when you need it?
I’ve faced this problem countless times during my fifteen years working in sound and field recording sound effects for airbornesound.com. Here are some tricks I use to spark creativity and inspire me to record new, fresh and compelling sound effects.
Other artists – the easiest way to inspire yourself is to learn from artists who share beliefs that resonate with you.
What themes interest you? Patriotism? Family? Underdog stories? Ambition? Spirituality? I personally like books and films about courage and honour.
Read a book, a graphic novel, or listen to music that invokes these themes. See a play. Whatever it is, feed your subconscious. Themes that resonate with you will always return to inspire you.
- Contrast your experiences – creativity is defined as combining two seemingly unrelated ideas. Do you usually listen to electronic music? Try playing classical for an hour. Do you read only non-fiction? Try a suspense novel. The juxtaposition is guaranteed to create new thoughts.
Spend time with passionate people – passion is infectious. Exchange recordings, experiences and ideas with other passionate people. Invite feedback. Learn from it.
Don’t limit yourself to sound designers. Artists, entrepreneurs and other people with ideas can help kick start inspiration.
Push your boundaries – Eleanor Roosevelt said “do something every day that scares you.” You can shake your mind out a rut by placing yourself in new or even uncomfortable situations.
It’s easy to get stuck in a pattern recording the same tired sound effects. Try recording something difficult. Cars, guns or animals are a good start. When you want to wake your creativity, avoid foundation sound effects that require the bare minimum of pointing a mic and pressing record.
It’s safe to record in the comfort of your home or in the studio. Try recording somewhere that requires special permission or is difficult to reach.
These types of challenges will make your mind solve new problems and think in new directions.
Change your perspective – put yourself in a new environment. Book a weekend recording trip to a new city. See how people behave differently. Canada and the United States have incredible state parks. Visit and listen to new sounds there.
On smaller scale, you can explore a new neighbourhood in your town. It could be something as simple as recording a typical sound, but at a different time of day. The new experiences and observations will help with inspiration.
Persevere – As Mary Heaton Vorse wrote, “Writing is the art of applying the seat of the trousers to the seat of the chair.”
I didn’t plan for a life in sound. I originally studied writing in university. Writer’s block was common and crippling. The longer it I left it the worse it became.
Then I learned a trick that helped.
The best way I found to get past writer’s block was to write something, anything, as long as I kept going. If I didn’t have the exact word I wanted, I used the next best thing and continued. I returned later and edited. Sometimes the writing was terrible, but at least I avoided creative paralysis.
I apply the same idea to sound. I record almost every day. It’s not always my best material. However, the process of recording something at all helps. It may not be a chaotic jungle in Mexico. Maybe it’s just some birds in a back yard. But I always learn something about sound by recording. And I always realize something new discovering errors when mastering.
I originally believed that creativity wasn’t something I should manufacture. But over time I’ve realized creative paralysis is worse.
Don’t stop creating when you lack inspiration.
Listen to poor sound design – Stephen King wrote that a beginning writer can’t afford to stop reading a bad book. He felt there was always something to be learned from poor writing. I agree. It’s easy to criticize, but can you suggest what would make things better?
Try the same with game or film sound. Watch a film that has terrible sound. Then watch one that is superior. What makes it better? What makes the poor one worse?
Although the presentation is wry, occasionally tasteless and PNSFW, this review of the Phantom Menace is actually an excellent study of what structural elements (i.e. not sound) compromised the film and what would make it better. It’s also hilarious.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review (Part 1 of 7)
You might think it’s best to focus only on masterpieces of sound design in games and film. Avoid the classics or anything that has won awards.
Why? The classics clearly have excellent sound but they won’t help us now. You may learn about seminal field recording or sound design, but the greats won’t kickstart your creativity. You already know they lessons they’re teaching. You’ve heard the foley tricks about celery, staple guns and corn starch a thousand times before. You’re familiar with the pioneering sound design in Star Wars and Apocalypse Now. What you need is to challenge your brain to get ideas flowing.
Watch films that need help. Think about how you would fix them if you were the sound designer.
Thinking about how to improve existing sound work will hone your analytical skills and make you hyper-aware of every element of sound in the film or game. You’ll look at things differently and soon inspiration will come to you.
Live in the moment – escape the edit suite. If you spend too much time recording or mastering you will lose perspective. Take a break. Do something that places you directly in the moment without analyzing or planning. This will stop the mental chatter that is drowning out your creativity. Your brain will keep working subconsciously. When it’s time, you’ll have new ideas.
Sports or exercise is great for this. I run. When I return I always have fresh ideas.
Stop listening to the sound wizards – there are some amazing field recordists and designers around us. There’s a lot of advice in books and in sound design courses. The advice is from intelligent people with amazing accomplishments and dazzling creations. But they’re not relevant here.
At some point you’re going to have to leave them behind. Forget about the textbooks and everything your instructor taught you in film school. That includes this blog. Lace up and get out there. Your challenges, successes, and even your failures actually experimenting and field recording for yourself will generate ideas and inspire you.
Turn to others
Take a break
Overall, don’t let a lack of creativity consume you. It’s common. It’s not permanent. Use these suggestions as a starting point to find tricks that work for you.
Share with us in the comments below how you stay creative in sound.