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Alumni Interview

OIART INTERVIEWS ROB NOKES,
OIART Grad 1990, President of Sounddogs.com,
Supervising Sound Editor, Santa Monica, California USA

Rob Nokes is certainly an OIART grad that we can say is “living the dream” at the highest level. From his base in Santa Monica, California, Rob has recorded sound effects all over the world and has worked on over fifty major motion pictures, most recently this years' Oscar winning "Best Picture" Million Dollar Baby, Miracle, and Seabiscuit, upcoming releases Glory Road, Guess Who?, Ice Princess, Dreamer and the new Samuel L. Jackson film Coach Carter. Rob is the founding President of Sounddogs.com, Inc., the world’s first interactive online sound effects library, which he launched on May 7th, 1997.

As he keeps so busy with Sounddogs.com, Rob is selective about his motion picture work, which likely why he is so prominent in films with subjects close to his heart, hockey and horses for example. You can see Rob interviewed prominently on the Special Features disc of Miracle; the Disney movie starring Kurt Russell about the 1980 USA Olympic Gold Medal Hockey team, easily the best serious hockey film ever made with all due props to “Slap Shot”. In the featurettes “The Making of Miracle” and “The Sound of Miracle” Rob talks about his role as Supervising Sound Editor and how all those creative and jarring hockey sounds were captured.

Today we’re going to talk to Rob about a lot more than that, so get comfy. OIART’s Bob Breen interviews as usual:
Before we get started, I do want to thank London, Ontario native Paul Virostek who runs Sounddogs.com from Vancouver. He’s a tremendous guy as some of your local readers may already know.

Hi Rob, I'm thrilled I happened to get in touch with you while you were on vacation. I don’t reckon you’d have a ton of time for this otherwise. Thanks for talking to us.
Actually thanks to the virtual office I get a lot of work done, right now I am on my way back to California. Bless my laptop and Blackberry.

You’re in Uruguay both vacationing and recording?
Yes, I came down here last year to train a staffer in Buenos Aires. Punta Del Este, Uruguay was highly recommended as a destination spot. I spent some time at Maronas Racetrack in Montevideo and marveled at the quiet location. I wished for a location like it on Seabiscuit so when DreamWorks' Dreamer came up I went back to Maronas. I was allowed access to the far side of the track and basically laid in the dirt under the hot sun as the horses raced by for six races. It was the biggest race day of the year so for four races I recorded 12,000 people roaring as the horses came down the stretch. Previous to this I spent three days at Club Hipico and Hippodromo de Chile recording horses, races, and barn backgrounds.

I suppose everywhere you go there’s a sound worth capturing. Do you ever actually go on “vacation” or are your ears always open for the next cool sound?
As I get older I find that unique high quality sounds are harder to come by either because of the environment, technology, or the amount of sounds that I have previously recorded. Traveling provides a great opportunity to discover extraordinary new sounds.

How's the weather?
Lima is very hot and humid. Punta Del Este was beautiful.

You come from Winnipeg, back when they had the Jets, and started out as a cameraman and switcher before you went to OIART. I'm guessing you wouldn't be where you are doing what you’re doing if you didn't simply love sound for its own sake. Did you realize that’s where your heart was while you were doing that job?
Long before that, as a ten year old I was recording pseudo-music, and as a teenager with my Amiga computer, drum machine, guitar, synths, and multiple tape decks I recorded quite a bit of music. By eighteen I produced a music video that got some airplay out west. My Father thought I was little crazy because my music was non-traditional, ranging from experimental electronic to hardcore punk rock.

How did you even find OIART living in Winnipeg back then? We didn't exactly do a ton of advertising at that time, I understand.
On a whim I tried to get into Fanshawe and ended up at OIART. Coincidentally I had a Soft Machine record and was aware of Paul Steenhuis, the school’s founder.

Did you go to many Jets games?
WHA! That was real hockey. I have Morris Luckowhich’s hockey gloves and a Bobby Hull Northland stick back in Winnipeg.

Dale Hawerchuk or Teemu Selanne?
Anders Hedberg and fellow Manitoban Bobby Clarke. Ducky was a great player and I was a big Selanne fan because he was so good to Winnipeg.

You grew up around horses as well?
At the age of five I started working at Assiniboia Downs as a runner aka “Go For.” I eventually became the Jockey’s Room cook, Silks caretaker, and personal assistant to some of the riders. At seventeen I moved into the TV booth as a cameraman and switcher, I learned a lot from Ontario native Joe Kirillo about camera work and signal flow.

As someone with a lifelong love of horses, how badly did you want the “Seabiscuit” gig?
I did not know about the movie until I was sitting on a bus in Las Vegas with Film Editor Billy Goldenberg, he mentioned that he was working on the movie and I told him about my background in horseracing. The movie that I really wanted to land was “Dreamer” for DreamWorks, I wanted to blow the doors off the Biscuit.

How did you get the job? Did your passion for horses help?
Billy asked me to record “real” race track sounds for their Avid. I think my extensive knowledge, contacts, and passion was the key to landing the job. Race-trackers don’t let city people walk around the back stretch and on the race track unattended. Race horses are temperamental and safety is a priority.

On a film that big, what are the pressures? Deadlines? Budgets? How do you handle it? Do you feel much pressure at all?
Depends on the film, on Miracle yeah a lot of pressure because the picture was constantly changing going into the pre-dubs and in order to have the sound flow on and off screen with the direction of the game it required a lot of tweaking. Toss in the constant review of the sync of the sticks, skates, pucks, hits etc. Mind you this is good pressure; I would do it again and try to work even harder if it was possible.

Do certain directors keep coming back to you because they like your work?
I am not far enough along with my Supervising career to confirm that, however, the Film Editors and Supervising Sound Editors that I work with repeat.

You’re often credited with “Additional Sound.” What is “Additional Sound”? Is that another term for special sound effects? “Additional” almost sounds like an afterthought though the horse sounds in “Seabiscuit” or the hockey sounds in “Miracle” are completely central to the films. Is the position incorrectly named, then?
I think it is sort of inappropriate; however I would suspect that every crew member on a film considers their contribution to be very special. The film credit is not as important to me as the recognition the Director, Film Editor, and Supervising Sound Editor give me personally. I am interested in helping them tell their story and know that when I succeed there will be more opportunities in the future. I work for opportunities not money.

Tell us a little about your work on the new film “Coach Carter.” I think it came out this week. Did you do the basketball sounds?
Rob Sephton is the Supervising Sound Editor of the movie, we’ve been friends for ten years and we were supposed to do a movie at Disney together. After Miracle we had chatted and he mentioned that he was interested in me shooting basketball sounds for him on Coach Carter. The timing was bad because the High school, College, and NBA year had ended. I researched options and discovered the NBA Pro Summer League in Long Beach and that there was a college team practicing at West LA College in Culver City. I recorded a lot of great material for the movie, mastered it, and then turned it over to Sephton for his selection.

What did you enjoy most about your OIART experience?
I enjoyed the synthesis and psychoacoustic classes and scamming on unused studio time. While at OIART I also studied music history at Western in the evening.

What’s the single most important thing you learned here?
There are a lot more opportunities in the world than I first realized.

What matters more, the school or the student?
Student. Teachers can encourage or provide direction, however, I feel very strongly that it is incumbent for all people to take personal responsibility for achieving success. I was fortunate and still am to this day that my peers take notice of my dedication and pass on their own knowledge to me. It is a great gift to learn from a colleague.

When you graduated, you worked at Sound Dogs in Toronto. I'm a little confused, was Sound Dogs an existing company? How did the company branch out to Los Angeles and the Internet and form Sound Dogs USA?
Greg King and Nelson Ferreira formed the original Sound Dogs (Toronto) in 1990, Sonny Grosso the CBS Producer for the show Top Cops coined the phrase “you work like Sound Dogs” and the name stuck. I started working for Greg in November 1991, however we had originally met at Master’s Workshop while he was working on Dracula the TV Series.

LA was not my idea, in 1995 Greg was asked to do the sound effects for The Santa Clause, starring Tim Allen, and he asked me to join him. I had fortunately built up a stockpile of equipment and cash through my work with IMAX and the NFB and by default became a partner in Sound Dogs (USA).

After Greg’s career was well on its way, I turned my attention to converting Sound Dogs from a service business to an asset based business and intended to move into the stock market, realty, internet commerce, and intellectual properties. Sounddogs.com was started in August 1996 and went live on May 7th, 1997. There are now three companies, Greg has Sound Dogs (USA), Nelson has Sound Dogs (Toronto), and Sounddogs.com is my baby. When I do editorial I work under my name Rob Nokes, not Sound Dogs (USA) or (Toronto), however we sometimes do work together.

Sound Dogs was the very first Internet sound effects library, a logical idea now but revolutionary in 1996. What inspired you?
I collected hockey cards as a kid, 65,000 cards, so collecting sounds was an extension of my hobby as a collector. In 1992 we started building the Sound Dogs library in such a manner that it made it easier to search and faster to cut with, and I thought in the long term we could publish the library through Sound Ideas. After looking at Amazon.com back in 1995 / 1996, it just seemed obvious to me that the Sound Dogs could build its brand name globally, provide an excellent service for existing clients, and build a corporate asset that would emerge over an estimated seven years.

How does Sounddogs.com work exactly?
There are 240,000 sounds online, a customer searches, auditions, selects, and purchases their desired sound files and then immediately downloads them into their own computer.

Is Sounddogs.com like the Hair Club for Men? Are you the president and also a client?
Yes, the only way to ensure a good service is to use it myself. If it does not meet my needs then it is not good enough for the general public.

What are your present duties there?
I oversee the direction of the company and work with Paul Virostek who handles the day to day operation of the company.

How many employees do you have?
Currently we have five including myself.

Sounddogs.com had a stated goal of providing quality sounds cheaper, better and faster, with a “film-first” approach. What does “film first” mean to you?
I have a rule that I live by, what is best for the film. I ask myself this question in a yes or no fashion when I am making a decision about what to do on a film.

Are you inspired to create better sounds in films when you hear BAD sound in films?
No, I just listen and try to get what the sound editor was thinking, whether it works or not is irrelevant, if I can figure out what was intended that just broadens my knowledge of the craft.

Was there a moment you can remember it hit you; “hey, this is going to work out. I'm going to get to do this for a long time and have the life I want” or some similar thought?
It never really occurred to me, I left Winnipeg on whim and figured that I would work hard and see what happens. Intelligence and hard work is my secret recipe and I do not plan on changing my approach to life.

Did you ever have any doubts?
I was let go from Masters Workshop because I was “uppity.” Jim Frank told me that it was the best thing that could happen to me and he was right. IMAX hired me a week later. Jim told me when I started that cleaning toilets in the studio would help build character and would keep me grounded. Unbeknownst to me he had cancer and I had been fortunate to write him a letter before he had passed away and thank him for the opportunity that he had granted me in the summer of 1990.

'The Santa Clause' was your first big Hollywood job once you got to LA. How did it feel to see it in a theatre the first time?
I never saw The Santa Clause in the theater, only on the dubbing stage, and since then only in bits and pieces on television. When I saw Miracle with an audience it made me even more acutely aware of what they needed to hear.

How did your career progress from founder of a new company to Supervising Sound Editor for all these major projects? (See Rob’s IMDB credit list here)
I had a lot of experience from working with Greg King for ten years and it was a natural progression for me to start doing my own films when we parted companies. I had to re-invent my career doing smaller films, and then worked my way up.

What’s your favourite aspect of the job? Being in the field recording? When I see the film of you talking about sticking microphones in skates or using a dumbbell weight for the sound of a puck for “Miracle”, I can’t imagine life getting much more interesting or fun for anybody quite frankly.
It’s a lot of fun, I am very lucky. There is no license, law, or school for (this kind of) sound recording, the only thing that matters is the results.

You think Canada could ever do a film that well about 1972? For the uninitiated, 1972 was Canada’s 1980 Paul Henderson was our Mike Eruzione (actually Mike Eruzione was America’s Paul Henderson) in the first summit series pitting Canada’s best against the former Soviet Union’s best players. Canada won it in a squeaker and national pride was preserved. Think someone ever will? Would you line up to be on the crew?
I don’t think the movie will be made because the market for that movie is not large enough to afford the production costs in my opinion. Hey, if a good filmmaker makes the movie they can count me in regardless of the pay scale. I am slated to work on “Where’s Stanley” a hockey film by Nick Vachon, former Islander and son of Rogie. It’s still in pre-production.

There is a fairly large secret society of hockey playing Canadians in Los Angeles I discovered - only a year before I moved back unfortunately! Would you call yourself a member?
My roller hockey and ice hockey game is pretty good, I played one-year of semi-pro roller hockey for ProBeach Hockey on ESPN. I do not consider myself a pro, however if someone is crazy enough to let me play with good players I’ll do it. I am a member of the Canadian Mafia.

Do you miss Tim Horton’s? What do you miss about Canada?
Tim Horton’s was not that big when I lived in Canada, he was better known as a hockey player back then. I play hockey with a lot of east coast boys that played prep school, college, and in the minors. I miss the old school Canadians.

Were you happy to be able to take some of the “Miracle” recording work up to Winnipeg?
Irrelevant, the Director expects me to deliver and that is all I am concerned with. I have good relationships in the Peg and was a familiar with a rink that was cylindrical in shape, in a quiet location, and that could be shut down so that there were no extraneous noises.

How do you collect sounds? What sort of gear do you use?
There are two methods of recording that I employ, dedicated and random. Dedicated recordings are done by thoroughly researching the subject and investigating high quality sources of the sound in question. I then listen to the sound and physically determine the best mic perspectives or environments to record said sound.

For example, on Guess Who? I recorded go-karts, and to get the right sound of the engine without bumps and rattles, I fixed a microphone onto a fishing rod that was attached to the rear bumper of the go-kart. The end result was an exceptionally clean engine sound with air and dynamics that are not felt with extremely close perspective recordings.

Random recordings are exactly that. I wander around, listen and record. Sometimes I will go to a specific location knowing that there are sounds there, however I focus on recording only good sounds regardless if I need them or not.

What are some of the technical challenges of field recording that come up more often than not?
There can be any number of problems, from location, weather, noise, environment, safety, permission, sound pressure levels, and hardware failures. For me the most important aspect of recording is finding or creating the right sound and then placing the microphone in the optimal position.

When you have someone new to the business working with you, how can they annoy you the most?
It’s unfortunate that some people feel a sense of entitlement or that it is incumbent upon someone to help them. I look for self-starters that show initiative, intelligence, and perseverance. They can ultimately handle any job, figure out how to succeed, and do not expect anyone else to do it for them.

How could they best impress you?
Someone who is easy to get along, responds well to encouragement, and quietly gets the job done without fanfare.

Is there a secret to longevity in a cutthroat business like the movies?
Performance, dependability, integrity, fairness and a friendly personality.

Would you trade your life for anyone else’s?
I don’t think it is practical think about stuff like that. I am very lucky.

Anything exciting coming up in the future you can talk about?
Sounddogs.com purchased the SoundStorm sound effects library, about 7,000 hours of sounds created by an Academy Award winning sound company. For me personally I have a couple projects pending, none that I can comment on at this time.

Any last thoughts on the NHL lockout?
The owners made a huge mistake a decade ago, the players benefited immensely, and now the owners expect these individuals to take a 40% pay cut over night. The players’ lives are budgeted at their current income level so it is not fair to make them change their pay scale abruptly. The league does need to have a reasonable balance between income and salaries, and let’s face it, without the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques the game went downhill. WHA!

Thank you so much Rob, best of luck in 2005. Have a safe flight home.

2005 Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology

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