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How Soundtree and Trim Editing Captured The Music, Sound, and Rhythm of Truth for The New York Times


“Does ‘truth’ have a sound and rhythm?” is the question the teams behind Soundtree and Trim Editing were tasked with answering for The New York Time’s impressive spot. LBB speaks with the musical creatives behind it to learn how they executed such a conceptual brief

How Soundtree and Trim Editing Captured The Music, Sound, and Rhythm of Truth for The New York Times
Truth is having a zeitgeist moment. From politicians, to certain media outlets, and the way misinformation spreads through social platforms, there has never been a more pressing need for the truth to make its presence known. That’s exactly what The New York Times set out to highlight in their striking 2020 campaign, exploring how the truth shapes our culture, daily lives, world events, and so much more. The truth is powerful and we need it now more than ever.
The spot opens with the sound of typing; quick and confident, as a series of images pop up on screen. The rhythm of the typing is then seamlessly bolstered by Makaya McCraven’s jazz track, Requests. Words and phrases flash before our eyes, a kind of ‘found poem’ collaged from the The New York Times’ journalism, rearranged to interrogate the notion that ‘Life Needs Truth’, which the spot is titled as too. The chaos of the track is masterfully interspersed through the video, capturing the uncertainty of it all.
Behind the infectious soundtrack and editing are Soundtree and Trim Editing. Following a recent Grand Clio win for Use of Music in Film Video and Gold Clio and Gold Lion awards for editing, LBB took a deep dive on all things sound and editing with the talented trio behind the work — Soundtree’s Peter Raeburn, founder and composer/producer, and Luke Fabia, composer/producer, and Tom Lindsay, editor at Trim Editing.
Peter, Luke, and Tom shared with LBB all about the challenges and creative highs of working on the conceptual brief, the art of rhythm, and how team effort is to thank for the final product.

Q> First of all, congratulations on a great ad! What excited you most of all about this project?

Peter Raeburn> Thank you, credit is due all round. The producers Forest, Saul, and Neil really held all of us and this delicate and important project together. The Soundtree team of me, Luke, Luis Almau (composer,) Neil Athale (producer), and Graham Norman (assistant sound designer) all worked seamlessly together to allow the flow of the project to work during these crazy Covid times. I loved the idea of representing ‘truth' musically and sonically, telling this story and poem in a unique and deeply current way, finding that elusive but ultimately inevitable language, and the wonders of real collaboration.
Luke Fabia> The chance to work on an original and provoking piece that had so many possible paths and avenues it could go down.
Tom Lindsay> I was pretty excited to work on something cultural and of the moment. Something that reflected the times we’re all living through.

Q> The ad does a fantastic job of building a sense of chaos, with moments of calm and clarity within it. What role does sound design play in creating that atmosphere?

Peter> The role of sound design dances with the poignancy of the music. We journey through hearing and feeling it — cheerleaders, uplifting trumpets, mourning loss and freedom, offering hope, waxing and waning in the present tense. We experience the ups, downs, and in-betweens of this pivotal moment in the first person through the typing fingers of the journalist, the truth poet.

Luke> It really brings alive each title in the spot. I think Aaron, the sound engineer at Wave, did a great job of creating a whole world of backstory and intrigue where for some of the visuals there is just a still photograph!

Q> From an editing perspective, how do you build that sense of chaos, with great journalism providing the calm and clarity within it?

Tom> The New York Times edit is all about the balance of imagery and text, and how they interplay with the rhythm of the typing. We focussed on getting the right tempo for the poem and then seeing how the images could support it.

Q> What makes ‘Requests’ by Makaya McCraven such a great track to work with for this spot? 

Peter> The drums and bass are the pulse. When Luke first played it to me, it got me between the eyes. By working with this amazing piece, The New York Times literally has its finger on the pulse. It’s a piece which is so strong in itself and knows exactly what it is, and yet it allowed me and Luke to go beyond and within it, scoring emotions and curating crescendos that were essential. Everyone on the project wanted to feel everything the words suggested. Toby and Laurie were very clear that they wanted us to really score this by whatever means necessary, so we got all the tools out and then put them back as if we never used them. That’s a satisfying result to me. Also, the pulse of Requests became the basis for Tom and Kim to be able to crack the type timing and the edit itself.

Luke> I think its raw and unchecked nature certainly fits with the message. It’s like an instrumental Rage Against The Machine track, but in the world of Jazz! The pace was also great as it helped lock in with the rhythm of the typing and gave us that base to play with other things over the top.

Q> Looking at the finished ad, how close is it to your original vision going in?

Tom> With this edit, I didn’t have a vision going in. Often the material will speak to you and tell you what it wants to be, but in this case, it was an extremely iterative process — try a bit of this, a bit of that, see what sticks, and gradually the right direction revealed itself.
Peter> It was an epic adventure. My initial vision was a very open one as it always is, especially when working with Kim.

Luke> I didn’t really have a vision going in, when working with a great bunch of people like these — Kim, Toby, Laurie, Tom, Pete, to name a few — the idea was constantly being manipulated and morphed, taking us on a journey in itself!

Q> What is the secret to a successful edit on a spot like this?

Tom> The best edits are simple and direct. They can still be clever and emotive, of course, but there’s always zen like clarity to the best ones. A big part of editing is rhythm, and in this case more so than most. Getting the cadence of the typing right, so that the viewer feels the poem as it appears on screen.

Q> I'm sure that anyone watching this would feel some kind of emotional response. As an editor, do you feel a responsibility, or even a pressure, for the nature of that response?

Tom> Absolutely. If the edit leaves you cold, then it has failed. I’m always looking for an emotional twist in every job, and sometimes that’s not immediately apparent. It can come from a preconceived idea prior to shooting, or it can be a surprise performance, or an unexpected marriage of sound and picture that gets the cut to where it needs to be. As an editor, you’re responding to the material, the director’s intent, and also simultaneously dreaming of where you can take it.

Q> Speaking more generally, how do you come to decide what great journalism sounds like?

Peter> Great journalism sounds authentic and it has integrity. Real musicians really working hard to tell this story is how we did it, that’s our part in it. From Makaya McCraven and his band, to our Soundtree musicians and composers, everyone worked hand in hand to elevate and unite.

Luke> It was an interesting process as some music we listened to whilst viewing the spot made us feel ‘too sorry for’ or ‘too angry’, so great journalism should sound like a balance of these extremes.

Q> And did you feel you were giving a sonic identity to great and clear journalism, or to 2020 itself? Or both?

Peter> I felt we needed to put a stamp on this opportunity and we needed to be brave. Kim always gives us the creative license to reach far out and in, and the collaboration with Droga5 and The New York Times really pushed that envelope. It wasn’t right till it was right. And then it was. We wrote and created the cinematic emotional layers of the score and Requests is the chaos, the heartbeat. The streets, the clubs, the vibrations, the intensity, the moving forward, the personality, the conviction. The power of art.

Luke> I think both and then beyond. The emotion of the spot is everyday life, from the specific to the more encompassing.

Q> What was the most difficult element of this project, and how did you overcome it?

Tom> There was very little to hold on to at the beginning. Normally, there would be hours of moving image — something you can watch and invest yourself in emotionally. And from the rushes, the spark of an idea would come. But The New York Times ‘Life Needs Truth’ project is a collage of disparate typography and pictures, and the fundamental challenge was “how do we recite a poem from headlines without hearing a voice?”, “how do we make it clear that the poem is created from these headlines”, and “how do we make this all feel like one cohesive work?”
We had a hive mind working throughout — Kim Gehrig assumed a slightly unusual role as director as she drove the cut initially without having shot material. She has a really broad skillset — she can shoot anything from documentary and human pieces, to highly conceptual work like Viva la Vulva, so in this case she wore a part storytelling, part graphic design hat. Fraser Muggeridge, graphic designer, had the great idea of setting black type on white (like the NYT website / paper), and laying out the lines to reveal the spaces where words had been excised to make the rhyme clearer. 
The creative team at Droga5, including Laurie Howell and Toby Treyer-Evans, executive creative directors, Jackie Moran, art director, and Ben Brown, group strategy director, kept the edit focussed on the cadence of the poem, and the emotion of the lines. Toby is a drummer, as am I, so we’d end up tapping out rhythms over Zoom, which is mad but it worked! The Droga5 team has a light touch and deftly sifted through a cacophony of ideas, holding on to the good ones. We cut words and stills and then realised that it needed some moving image —  footage to help you really feel it and connect, so Kim remotely directed a series of shots which helped bring another level to just the stills and typography. 
And finally, the largest piece of the jigsaw was the music. We cut with some temp tracks to help us find the centre of the piece, from the mad drum solos in the Birdman soundtrack, to laid back lounge music — anything that helped us find what the rhythm of the poem should be. It was a tough nut to crack musically, and Pete and Luke at Soundtree went through many iterations until they found Makaya McCraven. It’s such a virtuoso track and it totally unlocked the piece — from then on we knew we were headed in the right direction. Soundtree sculpted the track to create more highs and lows; spaces for the stanzas of the poem to fit, so that they had their own personality.
Peter> I once asked my son Atticus what came first, the chicken or the egg, and he said “the mother.” We searched for the mother when the chicken and the egg were elusive. Makaya Mcraven’s Requests was the mother, which we found on The New York Times’ recommendation to check him out as an artist. This was several weeks into the project and it happened in the nick of time. From there the timing, structure, and shape formed, and we knew how to progress and land the musical journey and the layers of sound. 

The other real challenge was to ensure the typing was musical as well as authentic. This was a real team effort with Luke performing on Tom Lindsay’s old Apple keyboard that Toby particularly liked the sound of. We had to really study the musicality of typing to help find the right balance. At this point Aaron at Wave got involved, brought it home, and made some great sounds and layers  to what we had done through the developmental stages with Tom Lindsay.

Luke> For me, it was finding a track that had the right feel and provocative nature, but also with the ability to change emotions throughout the spot. We ended up adding some additional elements to help sculpt the track and hopefully create a more emotional journey for the viewer.

Q> And if you were giving your time again, would you do anything differently? 

Peter> We have all become more deft at navigating Covid restrictions and frustrations since then but this process and great teamwork is how we arrived in the right place so no, I trust the process.

Luke> With a project like this, that had so many avenues it could've gone, I think the time spent exploring them was essential to where we ended up.
Tom> It was a pretty long process, but I honestly can’t see a way that would have made it more efficient. We had to make the mistakes and tread the missteps in order to find the path.

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Genres: Music & Sound Design

Categories: Media and Entertainment, Newspapers

Soundtree, Thu, 12 Aug 2021 09:22:21 GMT