USA Focus: Sony Pictures Studios

USA entertainment output remains strong but how is the post-production industry faring? Jake Young interviews Tom McCarthy, EVP of post-production services, Sony Pictures Studios.

How healthy is the market for audio post-production studios in the USA?

There has certainly been a decline in independent post facilities over the course of the past five years.

Some of the major studios that have sound facilities have an advantage over these independent post facilities.

They support the needs and requirements of filmmakers creating creative content for the studio’s releases.

It is much harder for the independent facilities as they do not have their own production arms and rely solely on third-party product to keep their doors open.

This is not to say that the post-production business is not very competitive. It is. We support our Sony productions, which include Columbia, Tri Star, Screen Gems, Stage 6, and Sony Classics, and we also support post and creative sound services on many third party films.

The market has changed over the past five to eight years. There are fewer productions and the balance between high budget blockbusters and low budget films has shifted.

In today’s market, during the course of a year, we might see one to two larger budget films with the majority being lower to medium budget films. But I don’t believe this is much different than any other film community around the world.

When I started in the business, Hollywood movie making was based in Hollywood/Los Angeles. Today, it is a very global business and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Filmmakers and studios, at times, have very restrictive budgets and sometimes are required to step away from Hollywood to get projects made. In addition, creative filmmakers of today live throughout the world and prefer to be close to their homes and the talent they are comfortable with when possible. Many countries have built incredible facilities and have great talent.

We cannot simply look at how things have been done for the past 50 years and say that it should remain the same.

We need to look at today’s technologies and new filmmakers coming up the ranks and provide services and workflows that support their storytelling.

Our facility has ten mix stages, three Foley stages, three ADR stages, a scoring stage, four design suites, and hundreds of picture and sound editorial suites. This allows us to support many productions at one time.

Tom McCarthy, EVP of post-production services, Sony Pictures Studios

How has the market changed in the past 5 -10 years?

To answer this, I have to go back to production budgets and their decline over the past five years. That has had a strong impact on our business and has made us innovate on work processes to maintain stability.

Budgets have reduced but filmmaker expectations have risen.

Crew sizes are smaller and schedules are shorter.

That being said, technology has helped us remain competitive and strong, allowing us to do more with fewer people and less time.

It is important to be flexible in your workflows and not be stuck on the past.

Temps in picture editorial suites and or design stages are becoming the norm as they can save production companies money, allowing them to put their dollars on the final product.

Relationships between sound supervisors and/or sound designers and filmmakers have created new workflows breaking traditional models. Some filmmakers wish a traditional post workflow where the sound editorial crew creates the sound elements and then hands it off to re-recording mixers. Other filmmakers prefer to foster the relationship created at the start of post sound and work closely with their sound supervisor/sound designer by building the mix from day one. In this model, the sound supervisor/sound designer becomes one of the two re-recording mixers on the mix stage, continuing a creative process that was began many months prior. A good example of this is Paul Ottosson, one of our sound supervisors. He has a unique style. On many projects, Paul is the sound supervisor, sound designer, and sole re-recording mixer. Today, there are no set standards or workflows in the post-production process.

Today there is more flexibility in gear. Some artists prefer traditional Pro Tools editing and traditional mixing consoles, others prefer hybrid systems, such as an ICON or S6 console, others a combination of the two. It is up to the talent and more importantly the filmmaker and the budget.

In the post-production world of today we cannot dictate to the filmmaker how they should get their soundtrack onto the screen. We can make suggestions, but each filmmaker has his or her particular style and preferences.


What sort of clients have you had through your doors since you opened?

Our studio and post facility have existed for many decades. The first score created on our scoring stage was The Wizard of Oz. We have a long and extremely creative list of clients and films dating back to the days of MGM Studios to today as Sony Pictures Entertainment.

We pride ourselves not only on the amazing facilities we have but on the incredible talent who have made this facility their home.

We have provided services on the largest Hollywood productions as well as small, independent films and a large array of television product – even record albums.

Tell me a bit about your studio set – up gear wise.

Our facility is becoming very flexible with the gear we use. That is required to provide filmmakers and talent with the tools they need to succeed.

Many post facilities such as ours were built for a business that existed 15 years ago. To maintain our facilities and be able to be competitive and service our filmmakers, we need to make adjustments. We have already moved in that direction.

Our sound editorial and design suites utilise Pro Tools technology. Some of our mix stages contain Harrison MPC 4D mix consoles with an Xrange, and some contain ICON and D-Control surfaces. Our ADR and Foley stages are Pro Tools-based. Avids are used for picture editorial. Our Scoring Stage has a Neve console.

Flexibility is key to success; we try to accommodate the requirements of our talent and filmmakers. If it supports the creative process, we will set up a side bar console next to the existing console on our stages.

We have outfitted one of our larger mix stages with both the Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro immersive sound formats. We are currently setting up one of our Television Stages with Dolby Atmos immersive sound format.

We have complete connectivity between all editing suites and stages using centralised servers. Additionally, the studio has created a production backbone that provides for secured shared storage with elements accessible to filmmakers, editorial staff, stages, Colorworks, Imageworks (VFX division), marketing teams, and those creating aftermarket deliverables as they are required within the post-production timeline.

We pride ourselves on having created a creative campus where our clients can park their cars and have access to every service from pre-production to the creation of the DCP and aftermarket masters without leaving the lot.

Foley A 

Have you seen any trends in technology purchasing? Is there anything that could be unique to the USA?

I cannot state if anything is unique to the USA as I am not completely familiar with practices outside the US.

I doubt that technology is unique to any country. However, workflows may vary between the US and other countries.

Purchasing trends have definitely changed. Everyone needs to be aware of the cost of each investment. It is important to make sure that technologies being implemented within a facility as large as ours will interconnect and support other areas of studio operations. We cannot have each post operation being its own island.

When investing, you need to consider the shelf life of each technology you consider. What is the payback? Does it have any? Or is it required simply to maintain current business and revenues stream. If we do not invest in a particular technology will we lose business?

Most importantly, what do our filmmakers want? What technologies are upcoming filmmakers and sound artists using today? Virtual mixing is definitely on the increase.

Investments for immersive sound formats for theatres and home distribution are required to keep up with new delivery formats.

These are among the factors to consider.

William Holden Theater 

How did you get started in the industry?

My family has been in the business for many years. I grew up in my father’s editing room.

My father was a picture editor and became the EVP of worldwide post production for Columbia Pictures.

I had an uncle who was a cinematographer and another who was a sound supervisor. He won an Oscar for Ben Hur.

My wife was a supervising sound editor and my son now works at Colorworks.

I started at MGM at the age of 21 in the sound effects library.

I tried picture assisting and Foley work, but when I tried sound editing, I was hooked.

I opened my own sound editorial company and supervised on over 100 films, including the Ghostbusters franchise, Out of Africa (for which I received a BAFTA award), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (for which I received an Academy Award).

After that period, I became VP of sound editorial at Sony Pictures Studios. I am currently the EVP of post-production services.

How is the USA audio post-production studio industry unique?

We are the birthplace of Hollywood filmmaking with many decades of history.

The United States has six major motion picture studios and many independent film companies that range from large production companies to small.

Even with the globalisation of filmmaking, the US remains the largest centralised hub.

There are many very talented artists around the world but overall our talent pool is exceptional.

We continue to strive to create new workflows and incorporate ways to enhance sound to increase filmmakers’ storytelling process.

Despite how great a soundtrack might be today, we need to ensure that it will live up to expectations decades from now.

During my 39-year career, I have seen and worked with mono tracks, stereo tracks, 5.1 tracks, 7.1 tracks, and now immersive sound formats utilising more than 40 speakers. Who can tell where we will be in another 39 years? It’s exciting to imagine.

Stage 6 

What are your plans for the future?

Continuing to take our facility to the next level for the benefit of current filmmakers and for the filmmakers of the future.

It is essential that we bring up new talent to support the art of sound and increase our talent pool.

One important step is to open up the path to becoming a re-recording mixer. We want our traditional recordists to have an opportunity to become mix techs on the mix stage and not remain in the machine room as they have in past. We want to make them an integral part of the mix team and the creative process. In exposing them to the mixing board, we are opening a new career path. Over the past ten years, most mixing talent has risen out of sound editorial.

We need to realise that technology has blurred the lines between many job classifications such a picture editing, sound editing, and mixing.

The key word is flexibility and thinking outside the box, never settling for what is in place simply because it has worked for years, always looking for ways to improve the process and enhance the quality of our art.

We need to invest wisely and continue to recognise that the movie industry is a global business. We need to seek new partnerships that will benefit our filmmakers, studios, and the product that we create for audiences around the world to enjoy.

Most importantly, when it is time for me to leave, I want to walk off this lot knowing I have set the facility up for continued success and have built a creative campus that filmmakers and talent around the world respect and wish to be a part of.

Stage 7

Do you have any predictions for the future of the industry in the USA?

You cannot predict the future of the industry solely in the United States. Filmmaking is a global marketplace. Innovations that arise anywhere impact all of us who are driven by the art of storytelling and the creation of soundtracks. We learn from each other and we grow together.

I can predict that filmmaking will continue to change. Distribution of content will continue to evolve with the emergence of new technologies and smart devices.

The way content is shared and viewed will continue to diversify.

Technological advancements will continue to blur lines. Services will be shared globally through file sharing. The physical location of filmmakers and service providers will eventually no longer matter.

I see the attraction of virtual reality theatres especially with the enhancement of immersive sound formats.

The creative process will continue to grow; the talent will get better and take picture and audio post to new levels.

When you think of the short history of the film industry and realise the accomplishments and technological advancements that have taken place over that period of, it suggests the following: filmmaking is still in its infancy. It makes one wonder where we will be 100 years from now. What excites us today will certainly be antiquated and probably sooner than we expect.