Industry veteran, Ball State professor Vanessa Ament speaks about her short film ‘ Amplified: A Conversation with Women in American Film Sound’
It would be a massive understatement to say that the creation of film takes an enormous amount of work. Camera operators, editors, light departments, producers, set designers and actors all must work together in perfect harmony if they want to craft a brilliant piece of art. Neglecting even one department can result in absolute disaster. Despite the necessity of various departments and specialists, the first thing that comes to mind for many when discussing film is often the various visual components that make up a film. Editing, staging, choreography, acting, and camera-work often the most discussed aspects of a film, but visuals are hardly the only important aspect of filmmaking.
And similarly to how sound is usually thought of after visuals in film, women working in film live a similar experience, usually being thought of after men in the industry are recognized (if they are thought of at all). One Ball State professor and a team of students sought to change both paradigms by recognizing the work and experiences of the women in the film and television industry who bring sound to life.
Their short film, Amplified: A Conversation with Women in American Film Sound, was created through Ball State’s Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry and crewed by a total of 14 Ball State students. The film celebrates the women who work in Hollywood’s sound departments. From Foley artists to sound editors, Amplified gives a platform to 30 different women working in the male dominated film industry, allowing them to tell their unique stories. After the initial premiere on December 3rd, 2017 at Muncie’s AMC Showplace 12 theater, Amplified was nominated for best documentary at the Long Beach Indie Film Festival and has been featured in various film festivals including Heartland’s Indy Shorts Film Festival 2018 and the UFVA film conference. Amplified will also be screening on October 11th at the LA Femme Film Festival.
The film’s director and producer, Ball State Telecommunications Edmund F. and Virginia B. Ball Endowed Chair Vanessa Ament, has had an extensive career as a Foley artist. Over the course of her career, she has worked on popular titles such as Beauty and the Beast, The Goofy Movie, Edward Scissorhands, and Predator just to name a few.
There is a lot that went into making Amplified, and we spoke to the director wanting to learn more about her thought process as she made her film as well as to learn more about her career working in film sound.
Q: How did you get into sound editing and Foley artistry?
Ament: In a play I was in, I met someone who had known a Foley artist and she had been looking for someone to kind of fill in for her when she had too many jobs to do at her kind of low-end studio. And I went and interviewed, actually just replacing a voice for a film, but they liked my synch, they interviewed me, and they hired me at a reduced rate to learn Foley and replace her and take her place on other films. Because they had two men, they wanted a second woman on TV shows and films. This was in 1980; I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that it had something to do with doing these funny sounds. It turned out that I had a knack. People really liked me. I worked really well with people and I seemed to have a certain talent.
Q: It’s interesting because when you think of people going into sound, I always wonder, how do you discover that interest?
Ament: I got into editing because I was intellectually curious, and I wanted to learn more about how to shoot it, how to queue it, and go on the dubbing stage. Then I ended up marrying a sound editor who ended up supervising and then we ended up kind of having our own company, and we were both intellectually curious on how to expand our toolbox. So not ever being satisfied just doing one little task. It’s not my nature. I would learn how to do more and more and more, and I’m still like that. I mean I’m still taking on new tasks. I’ve always wanted to learn something new and that’s kind of how it happened.
Q: How have your feelings changed about Foley and sound since you’ve actively started getting more involved with it?
Ament: So now as I teach it more or demonstrate it more, articulate it more, write about it, and interview people about it and look at it from their perspective, what is changing for me is understanding how other people approach the craft. How other people approach sound design, how other people approach mixing, write about their way of doing it and understanding their different ways of doing it. The different perspectives, even from different countries, different sound aesthetics.
And it’s different because they may have a different view of what sound importance is, a different way they like to do it, what their culture’s like or with their sound aesthetic is and their particular city is like, or their particular culture is like, or their particular country or their technology affords something different. And you start opening up and understanding just how big the world of sound is and how your particular perspective is only one particular perspective.
Q: Amplified highlights other women who are Foley artists. You include yourself in the film for a small segment, but it is mostly about 30 other women who work in film sound. Why focus on highlighting the contributions made by women in film sound?
Ament: When I was in the industry, I did better than the other women. I was promoted more. I was allowed to hire other people, train other people to side with studio, go to dubbing stages and worked with the directors and the producers. And I was allowed that freedom by men, not women.
But what I noticed, was always having to be much better than the men around me. I noticed men always get so much glory, for being less gifted than the women around them. The men that get really noticed are very good, but there are some really excellent women that you never hear about.
It just occurred to me that that was an injustice and I wanted to highlight them. And so when I decided to do this Virginia Ball project and try to write a grant and get to be one of the fellows to do the project and have the students learn about this, I didn’t want me in it very much. I only want it to be edited enough to evoke conversation in the groups were my two interviewers, Komal and Lauren didn’t feel like they knew enough about it to get the people talking. So in the two segments where I appear, you’ll notice I say very little. It’s because I didn’t want it to be the Vanessa show. If somebody wants to do a film about me and interview me or do a book about me, fine. I will happily talk about myself. But I didn’t want to do that in this film.
I wanted to hear about the other women. I wanted to hear what their experiences were. There’s so many women that weren’t in it either because their schedules conflicted or because I couldn’t get in touch with them or because I don’t know them or because I didn’t think of everybody, but I wanted a sample of what that world is like for these women who just are kind of invisible or aren’t heard of as much. But you hear about the men, and this isn’t to disparage the men. It’s just that I wanted to celebrate the women and I didn’t want it to be the low hanging fruit of all of the horrible things that have happened to women.
So that’s what drove it for me. There are some women who have won awards that are not in this film who were supposed to be. And then they ended up working on the few days that the students and I could get to New York or LA and they’re not in it and I wish they were.
And I have to tell you too that in both New York and LA, never did any of our subjects were all professionals ever get a sense that they were working with students who didn’t know what they were doing. Our DP, Jeff Spot, really did a fantastic job of organizing everybody. Ivie Hiller and Samantha Molenda did a great job of organizing the sound. We had research people, we had people making transcripts, we had every single job taken care of. We had somebody color coding all of the pieces, so everybody knew what equipment they were in charge of. It was a really first rate, fast, pack up and leave kind of job. And it was so impressive I would hear over and over and over again from all the women that they were so impressed by the crew. So that was very gratifying too.
I didn’t want a stiff talking heads thing. I wanted conversations so that the women could show who they were, because I wanted them to be special and I wanted them to be alive. And most of these women I knew beforehand. Though the ones in New York I really didn’t know very well except for Joanna Fang. And I wanted them to be people who really brought their worlds to life. And there were several of been nominated for La La Land who were supposed to be in it and then ended up working.
Q: Why did you feel it was important for the interviews in the film to be personal and conversational?
Ament: So here’s what we did. The students had to watch a lot of different kinds of documentaries about people and they had to decide to style. I had my biases, but I wanted them to kind of think about what they thought they wanted this to look like. And we went with this format. I was really glad that they wanted it to because we did talk about it being conversational. I said, if you get these women talking, you’ll get all sorts of stories and it’ll be really fun and interesting. So I wanted it to be just a conversation. And I knew we could get there if the crew went in and they were chatting and they got the women talking beforehand. I knew the women would be warmed up and just sit down and start chatting and that’s what we did.
So they’ve watched a bunch of different documentaries to see what style they wanted and then we discussed it in content as a team, figured out how it would look. So as a producer I wanted to evoke their ideas as well because it was also a learning situation for them. So their DNA is in there too. I don’t like the idea of being the kind of producer director who tells people what to do. It’s just not my style.
I’m the mentor and the center. I like evoking giving some ideas and then seeing where people go with it and let them learn and evolve. And so that’s the style that we use for them to kind of come up with it. So this was truly a collective authorship. It’s just that I guided it.
Q: A lot of the platforms that you’ve been given were given to you by men. You’ve done interviews with big names like David Letterman and Ben Mankiewicz, but you’re on their male platforms. This project offers a female platform. What can we as a society do to make these platforms for women more common or accessible?
Ament: I’m not sure what we can do as a society, as much as we just try to get this, these kinds of projects out there, those of us women who are willing to be the pioneers. The ones that get noticed will be the ones that make it easier for the ones that follow us. I don’t necessarily know if anyone’s even going to know that I’m doing this. I’m hoping that they’ll know though that this work is getting done, the more that women are willing to step up and not be afraid of what people think of them, but just do the work that must be done, the more it gets easier for everyone that follows us.
I think that helps. Women are trained to please, and I think that that is to our detriment. I think if women stop worrying about pleasing and just worrying about being true to themselves and doing what they think must be done, they can have a voice and not worry about whether or not it annoys other people they’ll find the people that want to be in their world. That’s a hard thing for women to learn, but women have to do this.
There are male allies out there. In my whole life, it has been mostly men that have helped me. That’s kind of a sad commentary that we still are at a place where women aren’t helping women that much. They’re still feeling competitive. They’re still feeling like there’s not enough room for all of the women to have a place. And that’s probably true, but the more women help each other, the more there will be more places for women. So I think that’s helped me because I was thrown into the film industry not knowing at all what I was doing and they knew that and they know that you’re going to learn while you’re doing it.
So these are little tips I guess. I’m always saying to women, “Remember, get in there and talk, because the men are going to. And you might as well understand that there’s nothing wrong with just saying, ‘I want to do it; I want to try.’”
Q: Like you’ve been saying, so you’ve been giving excellent advice for women that are a little more skeptical to jump into these projects. Do you have any advice for maybe how to build that confidence or anything like that?
Ament: The only thing, honestly, the only way you build confidence is to put yourself out of your comfort zone and try something that’s uncomfortable. The only way that you learn something: don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. Do it wrong and fail because the worst that’s going to happen is you’re going to see what you did wrong. You’ll try it again and you’ll do it better next time. I think what is the most just discouraging thing that we can do is not try something because we’re afraid we’re going to fail.
Q: Where can people watch Amplified when it’s available?
Ament: Right now we’re just doing the film festival thing.
So I don’t know. I’d like for it to be picked up for distribution and I will look into that. I need to figure out how that works for the university here. But right now, there’s nowhere, unless they go to the festivals. After we’re done with these festivals, I will be looking for distribution. So stay tuned.
Featured Image: Amplified Film’s Facebook Page
Images: Amplified Film’s Facebook Page
Graphic: Tt Shinkan