Where are you currently employed?
I am a Maintenance Engineer at Skywalker Sound, located at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin County.
Describe Your Job.
My ongoing job is to provide design, support and maintenance for all sound technology needs at Skywalker. Design is talking with people, figuring out what they want, and then building it for them. This could be a voice modulator or a complete mix stage. Usually it involves identifying and using existing off- the-shelf equipment, but sometimes it involves building a one-of-a-kind device.
Support is helping people by setting up and organizing their rooms and solving their technical problems when they arise. And maintenance is keeping the equipment in good working order and repairing it when it fails.
How did you first become interested in this line of work?
When I was a child, I probably broke more things than I fixed, but I was always interested in how things worked, whether it was a toy jumping frog, a power lawnmower or a computer. Given enough time, I usually would get whatever it was working again. As I grew older, I became much better at repairing than breaking.
Later on, I was lucky enough to work with the Des Moines Community Theatre, where I learned how to work with a team of people doing tech for stage productions. I especially liked sound and lights.
Who gave you your first break? Your first union job?
Ann Dentel, a friend I met at a San Francisco art collective called Komotion, told me of a position at Skywalker Sound where she worked as an installer. K.C. Green, then head of engineering there, interviewed me and offered me a position. I accepted and that was my first union job, represented by IATSE Local 16. In 2005 Skywalker Sound’s workers moved to the Editors Guild, Local 700. I have been with Local 700 ever since.
Which of your credits or projects have made you the most proud and why?
I am especially proud of being able to keep some of our older and much beloved equipment working; this includes the Lexicon 480L Digital Reverb, the Synclavier System, the AMS RMX-16 Digital Reverb and others. I do not want to give up on these guys. When they are working well, they are obedient and useful tools. But when a failure does happen, they appear to be individuals. I especially like equipment that mostly works, but misbehaves. Their misbehaviors can be tricky and fun to figure out.
What was your biggest challenge in your job (or on a particular project) and how did you overcome/solve it?
Recently, one of my most difficult jobs was both mentally and physically challenging. We needed to update some of our aging equipment in our centralized machine room serving the larger mix stages and, at the same time, keep the mix stages working. This required working with 5,000 cables in the sub-floor — 4,000 that could not be disturbed and 1,000 that needed repurposing or removing. Some of those cables were deep under others and some were woven in with others.
We had to do the job in sections, taking out a few cables at a time to rotate in the new gear. Using plastic cable ties, we lifted small bundles of cables, just enough to relieve the weight on cables that were to be removed. We removed 875 of the cables — a total of 43,862 feet — repurposing 116 and putting in 79 new cables. This was a slow tedious process, involving a lot of people. Perseverance and camaraderie made the job possible.
What was the most fun you’ve had at work?
Working with fellow engineer Steve Morris on designing a mix stage called Mix B. Day by day, it seemed like the mixing console would change from being a Neve DFC to a Neve Capricorn and back again. I listened to music, kept busy and, whenever the console changed again, I went with the changes. I like designing larger systems, finding creative ways to work with limitations and design changes, and I like working with a crew of people who are dedicated to achieving a goal that could only be achieved as a group. When we finished, Mix B had Skywalker’s first Neve DFC. We celebrated with the installation crew by eating chips and salsa and watching a movie on the new mix stage. Steve is now Director of Engineering at Skywalker.
Jobwise, what do you hope to be doing five years from now?
I’d like to continue doing what I am currently doing. I hope to be learning new technologies as they emerge and helping others use them, but I also hope to continue using some of the older equipment. Supporting esoteric gear and tape machines will never get old for me. There are always new things to do with them and new ways for them to misbehave. The “bleeding edge” equipment, so new that it barely works, is also interesting; sometimes I get to play with prototypes sent from manufacturers that don’t yet have serial numbers. I look forward to future developments.
What are your outside activities, hobbies, passions?
I am a birder, a musician and a tinkerer.
Favorite movie(s)? Why?
Apocalypse Now: I like the book, Heart of Darkness, and this interpretation, even though it is so different from the book. I like the opening scene where helicopters and music swirl all around; it’s upsetting and beautiful.
Popeye: I like the characters, especially Popeye as played by Robin Williams. He is solid and thoughtful.
Favorite TV program(s)? Why?
Max Headroom, a sci-fi comedy show from the ’80s: The obsession people have with screens and the possibility of artificial intelligence presented are intriguing.
Do you have an industry mentor?
He may not know it, but Jim Austin, an engineer at Skywalker, is my mentor. I go to him with problems. Sometimes it is a simple technical problem; the best way to light a lamp? Sometimes it is a more complicated human problem; why should the lamp be lit? When? What color? Where? How big? How bright? I also work with Jim on some of the larger projects and he helps me see the end of a project when I’m in the middle.
What advice would you offer to someone interested in pursuing your line of work?
Sometimes, as a technician, it seems like the focus of your work is technology, but when you ask yourself, “Why am I doing what I am doing?” the answer will be about helping people.
Was there ever a circumstance when you had to rely on the Guild for help or assistance?
I am grateful for the representation of the Guild during contract negotiations and other times.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your fellow Guild members, some words of
You have helped me to grow in my profession and to enjoy my work along the way. I hope I live up to this tradition of improving and sharing.
Compiled by Edward Landler
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