x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Turn on the music, tune in - and figure it out

In life, and business, you're lost, most of the time. And when that happens, you want to do something - anything - to get back a little control.

If you look at the production schedule of any television show, you'll notice an awful lot of stuff that comes under the heading of "post-production".

There are colour corrections, transfers, dirt fixes, sound mixes, all sorts of little adjustments to the sound and the picture. Sometimes a week's worth of fiddling goes into each episode.

So many processes, so much hard work, that it's hard to remember that in the end, the thing you've touched up and fussed over is just going to be blasted through the air and watched on an old TV with a lot of other stuff happening around it.

That's how people watch television: in a living room with distracting conversations and phones ringing and kids arguing about whether they've done their homework and life drowning out the carefully mixed sound cues and the delicately reframed master shots.

Typically, someone in the post-production phase will notice a boom shadow - that momentary dark line that appears on a face or the back of a set when the boom microphone passes briefly in front of a light - and the visual effects crew will get out the electronic paintbox and work on the shadow frame by frame until it's barely noticeable on the screen.

In fact, it's a pointless exercise, because no one would have noticed the shadow anyway. Whenever I see a boom shadow, I keep my mouth shut. Visual imperfections are things I can live with.

I've been in film editing sessions where the only way to get the right mix of performance, tempo, and meaning is to use a shot that doesn't match the shot before it - maybe the fork is in the wrong hand, maybe there's a missing person, maybe there's a big fat lingering boom shadow in the frame. We'll flip the shot, we'll blow up the frame, we'll fuzz out the detail, we'll try everything and then, eventually, give up.

Someone (usually me) will say: "Okay, enough. I'll pay $1,000 for every letter we get from a viewer about this mismatch," and we'll all admit that no one really notices these things.

So why do we do it? Why do we bother?

For the same reason that when you're driving in your car and you're a little lost you will instinctively turn down the radio.

That's a pointless thing to do, really - the radio isn't making you more lost. You can drive and listen to music. But for some reason the frustration of being lost and at the mercy of a confusing map make the chatter of a radio unbearable. If you're like me, you turn it down and say to yourself: "Now I can figure out where I am."

But that's wrong, of course. You're lost because you're lost. Not because the radio is too loud.

No, I think what's happening is that you suddenly realise that a huge part of your life is totally out of your control.

In life, and business, you're lost, most of the time. And when that happens, you want to do something - anything - to get back a little control. So you reposition the frame a bit, re-record a sound effect. Or you turn down the radio as you search for a street sign.

There's a point at which, in TV and in life, you're getting closer and closer to the line where what you do doesn't really matter.

You still want to make a great show, but there's a moment things just slip out of your control. Advertising, competition, what shows are on other channels - all of these things are out of your control.

The things in your control - dialogue, character, story - are what got you to the place in the beginning. The little stuff - sound mix, colour, boom shadow - are what you mess around with to get back your sense of control and direction.

We do this in our lives all the time. We focus on the small, insignificant things because the big things are scary and beyond our influence. We're lost in a strange place, and the only thing we really know how to do is turn down the radio. But in the end, there's really not much you can do, except turn the music back up, find a place to park, and wait until you've figured it out.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood. On Twitter: @rbcl