The Art Of The Perfect Brief

I recently sang on a Big Ad.

It was another ‘Sound-alike’ job.  Sound-alike versions are usually employed when the rights to use a piece of music cost more than the budget allows for and are often referred to as a ‘copyright dodge’. This is something of a misnomer, as no copyrights are actually dodged, but in most cases it is cheaper to pay for a cover version of a track to be made than to use the original.

The thing to remember about sound-alike work is that firstly, no one sounds exactly like someone else (and often the job that lands in your inbox is from a someone you could never sound like in a million years and after several surgeries); and secondly if, after the million years and several surgeries you did end up sounding exactly like someone, you’d be inching your way into the hazy world of ‘passing off’ (i.e. giving the impression that you are that someone, and/or that they endorse your product), which you are not allowed to do.

So a better term for these jobs is ‘In The Style Of’, which is how one of my clients labels the product.

But anyway, back to the Big Ad. Most adverts use placement music, which is a piece of music for which they probably don’t have the rights, that is synched to the advert as a guide while it is still a work in progress.

What usually happens is that they get attached to that music, so when they find they can’t get permission, or it’ll cost too much to use, they commission a sound-alike or ‘in the style of’ version.

The problem with this is that it will never have the essential element that captured the heart in the first place, largely because they don’t really know what that element is.

It could be a barely audible breath the singer took before a certain phrase; it could be because the song reminds them of their beloved Nan; or maybe they used to dress up and mime to it as a kid and they want to feel that unrestrained again.

And whatever you do with the track it won’t be right.

This is, of course, their fault for not being able to provide a properly detailed brief (they can’t of course if they don’t know why the song is important to them), but they’ll try to make it seem like your fault, that you’re the one who’s ‘not getting it’, and they’ll give you nebulous instructions such as ‘more competitive’; ‘braver’; ‘lonelier’; ‘older’.

There were many versions sung of the Big Ad sound-alike.

It was to be edited on the Sunday (in a country with a time zone several hours ahead of ours), to be aired Monday.

I told them I’d have my gear set up until 10 p.m. Saturday night in case of any last minute changes. I left it until 11.30 p.m. then packed up and started working on something else, finishing that at about 3.30 a.m.

10.15 on Sunday morning the call came: ‘Can you make the last line more triumphant?’

Bear in mind, all this has to be taken on board while sounding as much like the original as humanly and legally possible. ‘And we need it by 11.30’

I am also in bed still half-asleep when I hear this message go onto the answerphone.

So I get up, set up my recording gear and make a radical decision.

‘If this needs to be different,’ I tell them, ‘I’ll have to ignore the brief.’

Which is what I did, and sang it as if I’d been told to sing this song without reference to the specific version they had used. The upshot? They loved it and went for my off-brief version.

On a different but related note, I still receive casting bulletins dating back to my drama school days, and if anything marks out an amateur film-maker it’s this:

‘Character: Chloe, student. 19 years old, 5ft 8 1/2 inches tall, blonde hair, green eyes…’

On the surface this might seem like the perfect brief. After all they offer concrete descriptions, not vague words like ‘brave’ or ‘competitive’, but think about it.

Here’s a clue. The character of Ripley in the film Alien was originally written as a man, but the character’s sex was irrelevant to the plot so ‘he’ ended up being played by Sigourey Weaver, the best actor for the job.

Look again at my example of a casting brief.

How would the story no longer work if Chloe had dark hair and eyes? Maybe she gets mistaken for another blonde because it’s dark and blonde hair is easier to distinguish in low light than subtler shades of brown. Ok, keep her blonde.

What about her eye colour? Is that an important plot point? No? Then forget it.

How would the story change if she was 5ft 1 instead of 5ft 8 1/2? It wouldn’t? Then leave that out or else you may lose out on the perfect actor for your film if you get hung up on height or eye colour.

So how about this instead for a casting brief:

‘Chloe, 19 year old blonde student. Brave and competitive.’

Here ‘brave’ and ‘competitive’ work as they tell us about her character. You see, creating the perfect brief is not so much about knowing what you want, as knowing why you want it.

Ripley is a strong character whose ingenuity and determination save the day. The made up ‘Chloe’ is a blonde student who gets mistaken for someone else and finds herself in a situation that will require her to be brave and competitive.

The Big Ad character, whom the song was meant to reflect, was a housewife boasting about the stain-removing prowess of her new washing powder. She didn’t need to sound exactly like the singer from the musical whose rights were too expensive to acquire, she just had to sound as if she meant it.

And if I’d been told that in the first place rather than ‘sound like this… but not like this’, I’d have had a Sunday lie-in.

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By SJB

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