4 Questions To Ask When Searching For A Soundtrack

Field Notes Interview #39: Dana Shaw, Short Film Editor

Our good friend Dana Shaw (AKA “Babytooth”) is many things. Aside from being a stained glass artist, surfer and self-proclaimed parrot charmer, Shaw is also an extremely talented short film editor. We recently collaborated with him on a beautiful vignette series for Cenex. His nickname comes from still having a baby tooth in his lower jaw (pictured above) and takes it as a general lesson to take life less seriously and roll with the punches. This lesson speaks in his work — his work always has an element of joy and contemplation with honest, human stories.

We picked Dana’s brain for a bit about his creative process. When looking for a soundtrack for his projects, he has four guiding questions and we have them here for you.

M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

DS: My lineage is tied to fine artists, craftsman, weirdos and free spirits. I grew up in Southern California under the wing of my grandfather who was one of the first digital fine art pioneers. He taught me that documenting the world around us, whether abstract or concrete, is our responsibility as artists.

My dad reinforced those beliefs and connected me to stained glass making. My mom’s skepticism kept me grounded. I found my way to skateboarding and surfing culture and naturally began to document as my friends progressed. I made my first few films at San Dieguito High School, where I learned the basic principles of how to destroy your equipment on a skateboard (and then filter it through software to create a film). I barely graduated High School by getting As in skate P.E. & art and Cs everywhere else. One teacher told me I was on a path of destruction. I agreed and accepted my diploma… then went skateboarding.

A few years later I found myself traveling the world filming for the skateboard distribution, The Kayo Corp. My biggest influences at that time were Jon Holland, Stacey Peralta, Ty Evans and Greg Hunt. Jon used to talk to me about what he did for a living and how he loved it. Greg was kind enough to teach me how to use a digital camera over the phone when I was very young.

I loved every minute of those times. By my early 20s I wanted to dig deeper in documentary filmmaking, pursue a formal degree and find a life balance that worked for me. That’s what brought me to San Francisco, and I also liked the grit, grime and attitude.

After I got a degree, I was introduced to Britton Caillouette and Keenan Newman at High Low Film. They taught me how to channel my creative voice, find a rhythm and an approach to honest storytelling. And most importantly, how to have fun with it.

The rest is history and I’m loving what I’m doing. Yep… a long answer, but for me there isn’t one moment that lead me to become who I am today. It’s a long path of risky moves, LOLs and not letting people tell me what I couldn’t do. I still like to prove people wrong by that… and might even crack a baby tooth smile.

M: What’s your favorite moment of the filmmaking process?

DS: I honestly enjoy every step of the way. Each star has its part in creating a galaxy and the nebulas above are a symphony of such participations. From organizing the chaos to collaborating, each piece pushes the work to the next step.

I start off with a drive full of media, a concept, some direction and a cup of coffee. From there I reduce it to what feels best and within that process find my way to a finished piece. I enjoy working closely with directors who have a greater vision and trust in their editors. Setting me up and letting me run with the idea, to find something greater than we could have carved out alone, is the best part. I love when we solve a problem or when a problem solves itself naturally. Being tuned in to happy accidents is key. Sometimes logic is outweighed by human error and recognizing that is an art in itself. That’s the beauty of it for me: learning from your process and accepting organics.

M: What do you think defines a filmmakers’ voice?

DS: Human experience, education, street smarts, consistency, not being afraid to be different and knowing when enough is enough.  

M: Tell us more about the Cenex spot.

DS: This was a collaboration between my doggies at Farm League and a radical Minneapolis based agency Colle + McVoy. Britton Caillouette directed, Nick Restreppo DP’d, Master Colorist Marshall Plante juiced it up and my numero uno amigo David Burden was post producer. My roles were picture editorial and sound design.  The concept was to emphasize deeper parallels to what we call home. A place, a feeling, a nostalgia that is true to the hearts of the people tied to the land.

Everyone at the agency was very supportive of the process; selecting moments that felt natural mixed with some art direction adding to that authentic experience. I cut three different 30 second spots, each one original to the locations they were shot. The anthem 90 second is my fave. The 30 second spots featured community message, and the web anthem focuses on brand vibes. This is what I landed on and I love how it builds and feels.

M:  Are there ever any happy accidents when filming?

DS: Yes of course, but only to those willing to participate in the organics of such. Meaning the director, DP and subjects or actors need to be aware of the opportunity when it presents itself naturally. It is all in the director’s approach and I’ve been fortunate to work with people who have such patience and skill on set. I can tell right away when a moment is forced or the subject feels uncomfortable, so when I select shots, I try to find moments that make me feel something. These are the moments we hope for when a batch of footage comes back from a shoot, and it’s what makes your audience connect with the message. I love it.

M: What role do you feel music has in film?

DS: Sound is 50% of every film or commercial. Music plays with the images on screen.  Mood, tempo, pacing and emotion can all be set with it, and when it feels wrong or off, it’s obvious. Music is subjective. Many people have different opinions on what music brings which emotions. I stick to the archetypes of sound qualities. Those types of decisions sound like:

1. “What type of moment is this?”

2. “How would you like your viewers to feel when they watch?”

3. “What type of instrumentation are you looking for, organic or electric?”

4. “How is sound design going to mix with the track?”

There are so many genres so I always ask questions and provide alternative choices.

M: How do you feel music is misused in projects?

DS: When it becomes the only contributing factor to the structure of your edit. Some rely on the pacing of the song to give them edit points. Like a music video being cut on one drum hit every time. That’s when it becomes predictable and editorial doesn’t add to the dynamics of the cut.

You want music to be additive when you decide to use it. Sometimes music needs to be diegetic, sometimes it needs to build and release, sometimes it needs to be absent. Regardless of my opinion on how someone approaches their edit, music is still 50%. Your cadence and editorial decisions are the other half and make your thumbprint on the project.

M: When do you know that you have something ready to show the world?

DS: I feel ready to share my work when the edit speaks for itself. No caveats, no pretext. It speaks directly to the heart of the person you are sharing it with.

M: What’s coming up?

DS: Waves, travels with wife, LOLs and a few really dope short films, commercials and music videos I’m cooking up with some good friends and a gothic dolphin.

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