Between Two Speakers: Andrea McDowell
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Andrea Mcdowell

Between Two Speakers: Andrea McDowell

Welcome to our new series, Between Two Speakers, where we chat with creatives who are breaking boundaries in trailer audio and redefining the rules of entertainment advertising. We’re bridging the gap between the artists who craft and compose audio and the editors who use their work to build award-winning, game-changing trailers.

Finding the right track for your project can feel like a journey with no map. Andrea McDowell, a seasoned editor, who has worked for NBC and the Hive at Disney, navigates creativity (and libraries) with her music-first approach. Read her interview below or listen to it here.

Can you share some thoughts on how you approach music and sound design? What's your process regarding music, and what does music mean to you, as a creative editor?

I'm sure you hear this a lot, but for me, the music is number one. It’s the key, more than anything else—dialogue, picture, anything. It's what gets my ideas going. I have always loved music and had varied tastes in music, and I'd like to think I have good taste in music. Bottom line I've just always been somebody who's very music-oriented. What I tend to do with a project is I'll string out some dialogue lines that I think could work. Then I’ll loosely put them on a string. Next I’ll go through the bin of music that the music supervisor has provided for us—they're like selects for this particular project. I'll pick my favorites, then from my favorites, I'll place them under the dialogue string that I've laid out. I’ll start listening, and usually for me, that is what helps choose the music. All day long, I can go, “oh, this song is perfect.This song is great,” but I'll put it under the dialogue and it's like, “oh, that's not keying off for me.” I cannot necessarily predict it until I hear it against the media itself. So, I throw a bunch in, and then all of a sudden, something clicks. I can tell, because when I find the right song, it's like, my heart kind of starts racing, and I get a little excited. And it's like, “oh, oh, oh!” and then ideas start happening. So, for me, the music is when the ideas start happening.

When you're doing that, are you just doing it from a creative perspective? Are you ever thinking about the budget of the project?

Nope, I never think about that because as far as I'm concerned, if they put it in a bin, they said I can use it. It’s good to go. On the lower budget projects, you do notice quite a difference in music selection. And it's like, “Oh, Lord.” So then, at that point, it does become about choosing the least painful cue.

So, in either case, you're pulling your music from a pre-set selection of music instead of stepping out into the world and finding the music?

When I was at NBC, I had to go out in the world and find my own music. When I was there, I did have to be much more aware of the budget, but my method was always to pick a song, even if it cost a bunch of money. So, that way, if I play it for people and they love it, then they'll be more likely to pay for it. But, yeah, so I did have to be a little conscious of that at NBC and I did have to go do my own searches at NBC, which is tough. As you know, libraries are always adding so much stuff, so keeping up can be difficult. In the theatrical world, or at least at this job, we have a music supervisor who cultivates a bunch of cues that they think would be applicable to a certain project. Once in a while, if I don't like the pulse that they've done or want something different, I will branch out and go listen to some stuff on my own.

Do you ever get into custom pieces or bespoke stuff to take a cue to the next level or trailerize something that maybe just isn't bringing quite enough energy?

We do. It didn't finish but I worked on a teaser and a trailer for Cruella and we had a cool Tina Turner song. We sent it out to have it trailerized. We do that fairly often. Or, it'll be a cue that we're, like, “This is a dope cue, but we need more of a backend.” We need another next level at the end. We'll send it back to the library and say, “Hey, can you add onto this?”

Do you interface with the music company directly or does that always go through your music supervisor?

It's a little bit of both. It usually goes through our music supervisor but sometimes he will have us interact as well. If I have specific ideas, then it's easier for me to just explain it to someone. I personally am terrible with that, that's its own skill. I think editors who have a music background, like musicians or people who at one time were musicians, have quite an advantage. They have a certain vocabulary, and they’re able to talk to libraries in a much clearer way. For me, it's really hard sometimes to put it into words. A lot of times, I rely on other people to have those conversations, because I don’t want to be vague.

Was NBC the only job where you didn't have support on that?

Yeah. It was the only job I had where I had to do my own searching and stuff. And it’s hard keeping up.

Do you have any good stories about a project you worked on where music proved to be the most pivotal component?

Back at NBC, I worked on a show called Shades of Blue. We had this idea to use Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, which I guess evidently never clears. It's a thing—they don't ever let people use it in marketing. But I cut a spot to a cover of it, and they pushed it and somehow got it cleared. It's a pretty cool spot. The whole thing was about the song. Same with a trailer I cut for Emerald City, that was another one we spent weeks agonizing over the song. Once we found that song, the whole thing came together, and it was awesome. The footage was really slow and kind of plodding, but it's amazing how you can show a shot of somebody walking into a hall, and it can be the most boring shot of all time. But if you put the right cue behind it all of a sudden, it’s interesting. Mysterious. It changes everything.

Is it safe to say that music is the answer every time?

For me, yes. I don't know if other editors are less reliant on it, but for me, absolutely. It's sort of the key to unlock. I'll have a vague idea of how I want to do something, and it all changes when I pick a song. Especially now, because I use stems a lot more. I didn't used to at NBC because we were churning things out. But now, when we have time to craft something using stems, that really can key off a lot of ideas I wouldn't normally have had if I start listening to things individually, because you'll find a pulse or something that's on its own. You're like, “that is dope, how can I make a whole section just to highlight that pulse.” I’ll rework everything in the trailer because I want to use that one section of that pulse.

Does sound design impact your process in the same way as music, or does it come at a different time in your flow?

Sound design is something that I'm consistently working on. I would say it's probably one of my biggest weaknesses. I can get by with what I do with sound design, but I don't think I’m particularly innovative with sound design. Usually I build out the music, the dialogue, and some video, and then I layer on sound design after. The most I'll do early on is if there's a really great hit I like, or something that goes well with the song, I'll start putting it in spots in the song so I can hear where the hit points are so I can work my video around that. That really helps me. I appreciate sound so much when other people use it in a really original, unique way. It’s really one of the main things I'm working on as an editor, is expanding that more. It can just be intimidating and overwhelming when you spend hours finding the right hit for a particular song.

As a solution to feeling overwhelmed, do you look to music supervisors to put together packages for you? Or do you dig back through what you’ve already used before?

Yeah. I think most editors are a slave to their favorites. Most editors have access to endless cool new stuff, but everything I use is from my favorites bin. Then in the comments, I've been trying to note if it's low, mid, high, fast, slow, long, you know, like ring out. Then I can look and know if something is going to work without listening to it over and over again. I was like, how are editors organizing their sound effects in a way where they don't spend hours listening to things, just to find the right hit for a certain moment?

Check out Sencit’s reorganized sound library and packets, built for easy browsing.

Whenever you have little downtime between projects do you use that to explore new sounds and update your personal soundbank?

I do, I should do it more. One of our music supervisors sends updates every couple weeks with new albums from different libraries, and it gives a brief description of them. Which again, is so helpful. I'll go through his emails and look at what he has sent, and find some stuff that could work for future projects. So I use that as a guideline, because if I go into a shared folder, it's hundreds and hundreds of bins. It's totally overwhelming.

Have you noticed any trends that are happening in terms of music and sound design? Or can you see any trends coming through the pipeline that you feel will become full blown?

I am personally getting fatigued with the very predictable rhythmic cutting style that's been happening for a while. The drums are hitting, and it's like ‘punch punch punch’ and while it’s cool —I do it—I am starting to get fatigued because it's starting to become predictable. I don't know how to break out of that, but I’m curious if that's going to shift because I feel like it's becoming a little too predominant. I'm trying to focus more on instances where you don't need as much sound. It doesn’t have as much impact if you’ve inundated the audience. Have you guys heard of Steve Harris? He’s an old-school trailer editor, he works at Disney, he's been doing it for a long time. Most editors in the industry, if it’s a sound thing, they think Steve Harris. He’s the guy. What I think is most interesting about Steve is he never uses expensive sound design, he uses free stuff. He uses random stuff, I mean, he's innovative. I watched something he did a while ago, it didn't finish, it was a trailer. And it opened, really minimal, really quiet, letting the song play, letting the moments play. There was a sound that was happening as the song was playing, and at a really quiet part of the song, there was this sound, I couldn't place what it was, but something about it was just kind of keeping the rhythm going, and I looked at his sequence. He had taken the sound of an industrial fan from a free library. It’s not a sound design piece. It's just an actual, industrial fan sound and he had layered that to create this whole atmosphere and urgency. That's the kind of stuff he does. He uses really out of the box sounds, and creates pads and moments.

Can you talk generally, about the pros and cons of editing trailers, and streaming versus theatrical?

I would say one of the pros is sometimes there is less competition in the streaming world. So, that can be motivating because you have more of a chance of something finishing. But that isn’t always the case. Some of the smaller streaming projects I've gotten to work on don't put a ton of people on and that's really cool, and also just all around cool films. Not much difference though, it’s pretty similar in my world. There’s a lot more branding

What’s one of your favorite uses of music in a movie trailer?

That movie Hustlers with Jennifer Lopez. I don't know if you guys have watched the trailer for that recently, but I think it was a Cardi B Song. It’s a super basic Cardi B song, and they cut the crap out of it and it is such a cool trailer. You always know when it's a good cue for me. If it's a good trailer and a good cue, and I'm watching it for the first time, I get teary every time. You'd think by now I’d be jaded and wouldn't do that, but I do.

About The Speaker

Andrea McDowell
Trailer Editor
The Walt Disney Studios

Andrea McDowell’s career is a testament to the fact there is no set path. She didn’t have a college degree and was a high school dropout, but found her passion in the entertainment industry. Her first gig was at a local news station where she was exposed to all kinds of jobs with the camera, teleprompters, and cutting. The editing side of the work was always her favorite. She moved to LA and reached out to some contacts she had in the industry, which led her to her next role as an Editor at Trailer Park. Andrea felt an instant connection with the work, having always had a passion for music and cinema. From there she spent time at Universal Pictures and NBC as an Editor, and now focuses primarily on family and animation content as an Editor at Tiny Girl Creative.


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