The sounds of Melbourne and Chicago: Interview with John Phillips

Interview with John Phillips
Interview with John Phillips

Introduction

For a couple of years now John Phillips from RMIT Sound Production in Vocational Education, has been collaborating with DePaul University in Chicago with class collaboration projects. This activity started with a connection through the SUNY COIL network which was followed by a visit from DePaul academic Rob Steele to RMIT in 2018.

We caught up with John recently to interview him about these experiences.

John

“These students will typically go on to do sound production for media and events and so online collaboration is typically how they are going to be working beyond their course. It reminds me of recently doing  a documentary film music production. The director was in France, the producer in the US and I was in Melbourne. This is the world we live in. It is not just a one-off challenge. It represents what media production is like these days…even down to a student working on something in their home studio it might sound fantastic at their end; but at the other end it will be lofi, Quicktime compressed they have to hear what it is like for them as well.

Rob’s visit to RMIT made a huge difference to the project as it meant he could have a lot of contact with our students, and enabled him to develop his own perspective of Melbourne. This was especially helpful for the first project. His perspective informed the subsequent communications, and meant that we have developed a strong and ongoing relationship. Rob can choose amongst different cohorts in Chicago and knows that he can trust RMIT with them. Because we run synchronous classes, there are also good opportunities to work through concerns. Students are all faced with the personal challenges that participating in these projects presents.

The Projects 

“The actual nature of the project has changed each year. Rob from DePaul has a different media production cohort each year to which we adapt, which freshens it up. The initial instance involved Blind City Portraits, with students creating soundscapes that painted an audio picture of their respective cities, which they then exchanged so that the other group could do the post production. Because the development of this soundscape involved an intimate knowledge of their home city, this meant that the students had to be able to communicate with each other the ‘soundtrack’ of their city.

In the second iteration, RMIT sound design and DePaul music composition students were asked to all work in groups on the same piece of animation, to create the sound effects and music to narrate the piece. Even with the same animated scene, this resulted in vastly different finished results, simply from nuances in music and effects. Working in these groups enabled students to emulate what the sound production industry is like, as when you have effects and music combined with a busy animation, it’s really important that they coordinate – they need to work with each other to convey the meaning.

In semester 2 2020, students will be tasked with creating a photo montage of their city (like the films La Jette and Baraka), with the soundscape then added in to bring each city portrait to life. This will potentially be expanded to include composition as well as production students who will need to communicate their respective city’s iconic soundscape to the other students.


What and How…

“We try and keep it simple and not to get too ambitious. Class sizes are typically 2030, made up of 34 groups. We set specific requirements where a lot of collaboration is required. Students need to meet deadlines in order to make it happen, and they need to overcome communication barriers. Often they are very nervous to begin with.

We begin with allocating the teams and then file exchanges. We use shared onedrive folders and are often working with large files. For the synchronous classes, Zoom worked a lot faster and better than MS teams.

As well we enrolled all our students into their Canvas LMS. It was just easier to do that. For assessment submitted files go to both their LMS as well as our students submitting to our LMS. It is up to the cohorts to work out their own knowledge management practices, for example some would set up Facebook groups.

It begins with the first online meeting, followed by a monthly Zoom. Students are broken down into small groups to work on each project. For the students it is a little like speed dating looking at their teammates for the first time, feeling uncomfortable then relaxing, as they begin to communicate. Going through this whole process and still meeting production deadlines, in essence mirrors industry practice.

Cultural Exchange

“When Rob visited Melbourne he was fascinated with all the accents and languages of Melbourne. He heard a fresh view of Melbourne. We had a lot of dialogue on how the students could represent each of their cities in the first project. What are the iconic sounds of Melbourne? Some people live in very urban areas and some live in more rural contexts. Our class collaborations keep the dialogue going.

Collaboration in a Covid World

“For next semester with Covid, synchronous classes will be slightly different, as we won’t be starting in classrooms, which will be interesting to see. The first synchronous class will be an icebreaker, where we will get the whole class into breakout groups with each other. They are thrown in the deep end and are often nervous at first and a bit uncomfortable. Through the necessity of deadlines they need to quickly thaw the ice. After about 15 minutes they start relaxing. They start describing their cities. We allow them to nominate who is in which groups and then we massage that a bit, as we want to make sure participation sustains at both ends. So we make sure there is at least one strong student in each group at each end. Sometimes a student might be left on their own however, and that can be ok depending on the student.

Students don’t like participating in groups but that’s the work. Your name’s on the job. This will happen in the real world. We get caught up with the idea of the studio practice as industry practice. But our group based collaborations mirror the industry more closely than anything, according to my experience and background. The nice challenge with Covid is that it is just another challenge it is not an impasse. It’s just another obstacle to negotiate. For the world our students are going into, in music production, that is the world in which they will live. The studio will be in both Melbourne and Beijing, and they will work with staff all around the world. The Chinese do the film production and Melbourne does post production. There will be tight timelines and no face-to-face. All the work will be online and then there is the language barrier. So it is all about collaborating and exchanging and getting the job completed.”

If you are interested to take part in a virtual exchange with one of RMIT’s partner universities around the world check out Global Experiences at RMIT or contact the RMIT Global Experiences at team at global.semester@rmit.edu.au.

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