“Had this happened two years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” says Denise Sarris, speaking of the pandemic lockdown. Her partner Roger Harris concurs.
After having lived in big cities like Vancouver, Toronto and San Francisco most of their lives, living the lockdown life in Qualicum Beach is bliss for the couple, partners in business and in life. Roger and Denise moved to Qualicum Beach four years ago, commuting back and forth to Vancouver to run their business.
“We wanted to live on the Island,” Roger says. Qualicum Beach fit the bill nicely. “We wanted easy access to Vancouver for our business. Between the weather, local retailers and artists, and no chains or big box stores, and the airport, we made the decision to move here.”
Their company, Murmur Music and Sound Inc., produces audio and video commercials in their state-of-the-art Vancouver recording studio for customers ranging from Telus, BMW and RE/MAX to VanCity, Patagonia and Make a Wish Foundation. Normally, the typical work week for Roger and/or Denise, is to fly into Vancouver for four days of studio work, and then fly back home to QB for three days.
So, what is business like during a global pandemic shut-down when your business is gathering professionals from around the world into your studio to produce music and sound for commercials? “To tell you the truth,” Denise says, “we were very concerned. As soon as the lockdown happened, March 13th, all [studio] sessions were closed. No more actors coming to the studio, no more clients… In our business, that’s usually the very end of production. The film is shot, everything’s done and now you’re just [in the studio] doing the audio.”
At that time, the company had contracts with two clients to produce the sound components for their ads. All that stood in the way of broadcasting these TV commercials was producing the final audio track in the studio. It was Murmur’s job to deliver these audio components. Then COVID struck. Speaking like the producer she is, Denise recalls, “we got on it quick and were able to figure out a way to do it. People still had to get their ads out.”
Creating and producing commercials is an intense collaborative experience, especially during the final phases of production when everyone – technical staff, writers, composers and clients – gathers in the studio as the final pieces come together.
The big challenge was, could Murmur Music and Sound deliver the same top-drawer quality product when the voice actors, clients and writers could no longer all physically converge on their Gastown studio? Producer Denise and Creative Director Roger quickly conferred with their recording engineer Eric Mosher, and their writers, composers and production staff. They also brought their clients in on the deliberations. “We work closely with our clients; many of them have become friends,” says Roger.
Roger, who also teaches at Vancouver Film School (VFS), says, “it took us about two weeks to fine-tune the new [COVID] production process.” At VFS, “they were very quick to get on Zoom so that classes could continue.” So Zoom was one of the first things Murmur explored. That worked so well that Murmur now also uses Neon Zoom, a product designed for the marketing and advertising world that distributes commercials across multiple advertising platforms.
Initially “very skeptical,” Roger says, now “we can’t believe it works so well. We have to make sure it’s running in synch with the voice, in synch with the music. The quality of our studio in Vancouver allows us to do everything we need to do. Technically it’s flawless, the same quality as it always has been.” By combining the high-end technology of their Gastown studio and Zoom, Murmur can host a voice actor located in Toronto being recorded in real time by sound engineers in Vancouver, all of which is being coordinated and directed, step-by-step, by Roger and Denise from their home in Qualicum Beach.
Clients, though, faced huge changes in terms of the kind of commercials they needed to produce in response to the pandemic. Roger says, “It made our clients and our partners, the people we do business with, want to get their message out there very quickly: ‘Are we out there? Are we alive? Are we still doing business?’ Some of their clients had to come to grips very quickly with how or whether to allow people to shop at their stores, whether people would feel good about going there, and would they feel safe shopping there? “I think it’s fair to say we’re turning away from that somewhat now,” says Roger. “COVID is still part of the message, but it’s not the main message anymore.”
Some clients had other challenges. “Lulu needed to have ads produced in six languages,” says Denise. “Lulu” is Lululemon, the yoga and athletic wear company. It operates hundreds of stores around the world, and their ads needed to reflect the trajectory of the virus as it bounced across the globe. Fortunately for Murmur Music and Sound, sourcing voice actors who are fluent in a wide range of languages is routine. Other aspects of their business enabled Mumur to more easily accommodate the constraints of the corona virus shut down. “One of the things that worked well is that a lot of the time we work with composers throughout the world, so they’re used to working from long distances, sharing files. So we had a bit of a head start on that,” says Roger.
Roger reveals one big downside to doing business under lockdown. “The biggest change for us and for our clients is that they don’t get to work with us [in person] and we don’t get to work with them. The lunches, the breakfasts… I think we all miss being in the room together because when we were all together working on something there’s an energy that comes out of it.”
Denise agrees. “Roger and I have worked in advertising all our lives, client side, agency side and now production.” Producing the final product is very social. All of the preparatory work done to write copy, compose music, source actors and develop the creative and technical components, things often done in isolation, culminates in the studio. “It’s a big studio session,” says Denise. “Clients are there, agencies are there, actors, and there’s food and people are happy!” says Denise. With COVID, “all of a sudden, that just stopped completely and we had to do all of our sessions remotely.”
As Murmur Music and Sound’s Creative Director, Roger bears the brunt of some exhausting days while sitting in front of a computer screen on Zoom. “Roger’s been online today for five hours directing a commercial. The “talent” was in Toronto, and the client was in Dallas,” says Denise.
How will Murmur Music and Sound operate when this virus is less of a threat? “We’re not quite sure what’s going to happen when it opens up,” says Roger. “I think some clients like the idea of not having to spend a day out at the studio and being out of the office and I think other clients will sort of miss that. It will be different for everybody.”
The silver lining to working in the time of COVID says Roger “is the currency of appreciation that people show. I know it sounds simple but people are so appreciative of the effort we put in to make this work for them. The lack of travel, the technology is a bonus, but more than anything I think people appreciate what we did to make this work. We also appreciate, in turn, the patience they’ve shown with us.”