A Hollywood-based expat has some advice for Kiwi television
Paul Feenstra is an Emmy-nominated sound guru who has built a successful audio studio in Hollywood serving some of the biggest producers in the TV industry. So what’s he doing standing in a pokey room in Wellington’s Duxton Hotel talking to a group of local sound technicians?
Well, like many Kiwi expats who left the country years ago in search of greener pastures, and found them, he now wants to give something back.
In fact, he wants to move back. After more than 20 years working in Hollywood, Feenstra is looking to sell his thriving company, Terra Vista Media, and get his hands dirty working in the local TV and film industry. “I’d like to use the expertise I gained in Hollywood to assist businesses here in New Zealand,” he says.
In particular, he’s keen to help New Zealand’s TV production houses tidy up their technical act so that they can more easily sell their programmes to US networks.
Feenstra holds a thick manual up in front of his audience. It’s the Discovery Channel’s guide for producers trying to pitch programmes to the documentary network. Feenstra says that while American TV networks are keen to buy shows from New Zealand, complete with Kiwi accents, they are ruthless about weeding out shows that don’t meet their production guidelines.
“Technically, their product has to be identical to those in the US—no ifs, no buts,” says Feenstra, who was a freelance sound mixer for TVNZ in the early 1980s. If the local broadcasters’ habit of increasing volume for the ad break drives you crazy, you have an ally in Feenstra; he has a great ear for sound and what he hears on TV here doesn’t agree with him.
“They’re simple things to fix, but nobody is taking the helm and saying ‘let’s return the viewing pleasure back to the viewer’.”
If there’s one striking thing about Feenstra, it’s his obsession with quality and craftsmanship. It’s no surprise that he learnt from the best, legendary American sound mixer Ed Greene.
Assigned as an assistant to Greene in one of his first steady jobs in Los Angeles, Feenstra initially knew nothing of his mentor’s distinguished background, which included mixing records for artists from Frank Sinatra to Kenny Rogers.
“I remember when Sammy Davis Jr died and there were flowers on his star on Hollywood Boulevard, I mentioned it to Ed,” says Feenstra. It turns out Greene had spent years flying regularly to Las Vegas to mix Davis’ live shows and also mixed the sound on one of his biggest records, ‘Mr. Bojangles’. “Anytime Ed worked on a big show I was paired with him,” says Feenstra. “I didn’t know how big he was.”
He says US TV production companies usually use the same equipment as their New Zealand counterparts, but that the “skill base, the knowledge, the tricks” of well-trained US production engineers and the fat budgets for shows like The Sopranos and American Idol means the standard of the finished product is higher in the US.
But that’s the standard that local companies need to reach, he says. And there’s prominent proof it can be done: Park Road Post, Peter Jackson’s production house. “Even globally, it is a level above everything else.”
Feenstra got his start working with another creative powerhouse: Walt Disney. “They were looking for someone to mix live music,” he recalls. “I was one of 95 applicants … I got the job and they sent me to Disney University. Yes, there is such a place.”