A CONVERSATION ABOUT TIME WITH: 

BEN NIMKIN

  Ben Nimkin is a sound engineer, a voice over actor, a film editor and a podcast producer. I first met him in college, and was intrigued by his watch and compass tattoos from the get-go. Talking to him, I realized that the life of a sound-mixer is more tied to time than I had ever considered. In this thoughtful interview, he patiently walks me through the basics of sound as it relates to time, and yes, finally explains those tattoos. Photo credit:   http://www.bennimkin.com/. 

Ben Nimkin is a sound engineer, a voice over actor, a film editor and a podcast producer. I first met him in college, and was intrigued by his watch and compass tattoos from the get-go. Talking to him, I realized that the life of a sound-mixer is more tied to time than I had ever considered. In this thoughtful interview, he patiently walks me through the basics of sound as it relates to time, and yes, finally explains those tattoos. Photo credit: http://www.bennimkin.com/. 

 

Name:   Ben Nimkin

Age: 28

Occupation:  Sound Engineer, Producer, Voice-over Artist

 

1. What are the first five words that come to mind when you think about time?

Late. Steven Hawking. Star Trek. Oh god this is super nerdy. I’ve only named proper nouns here. How about gears? And for some reason I was thinking about Jamiroquai, because of their music beat; so dancing, time signature. And minutia, which is nice because it has the word minute in it.

2. Do you have any early memories of time or time measurement?

 I totally remember my first watch that my mom gave me. It was a tiny, tiny watch with a yellow face, and the minute hand was unnecessarily long and was a stick figure of this little red guy, and the hour hand was a tiny little blue girl. The idea was the tall guy was really fast and little blue girl was really slow, because she was the hour hand. There was a story behind it, maybe a little booklet, although I might be making that up… I remember the tall guy was obsessed with time and moved really quickly.

Is it how you learned to tell time?

Yes. On the faces of a clock, I learned all the numbers and like, what they meant, AM and PM. What is it… post-meridian and anti-meridian? Also, when I was young I was also really tall, and my name is Ben….

 Oh, I see.

 So, people called me Big Ben, and one week when I was in third grade, I stole my dad’s really awesome digital watch, and I set the alarm for recess, which was always a really big deal. The first recess of the day was important to me, to my friends, and when the alarm went off, whatever was going on in class had to stop. And it sort of became a little bit of a joke by the end of the week, like ‘Oh Big Ben, here comes the chime for recess.’

 Was your Dad mad that you stole the watch?

 Oh yeah, totally. He was not cool with it. But whatever. He got it back. It was fine. I kind of just stopped wearing a watch after that, for some reason. Wearing a watch became very uncomfortable for me. I didn’t like having things on my wrists, even jewelry or bracelets. I don’t know exactly why. I could probably speculate.

 Would you? I wonder, since your aversion was to jewelry as well, if the issue was physical encumberment? Or was it the mental aspect?

 I don’t know. That was in third grade, or fourth grade, I was still wearing it periodically. I mean, things happened then. Like my parents got divorced, which may or may not relate but probably doesn’t but I’m guessing a little bit does, and then I don’t know, I just became less bothered by the passage of time.  I liked the flexibility of time passing without a watch. Especially as a child, so much of your life is already set up for you – recess happens at a certain time, you get out of school at a certain time, but everything else is flexible within those parameters. And it was really nice to enjoy things that were happening without that feeling of, ‘Oh, I only have five more minutes to enjoy this awesome recess or this cool science class where we’re making explosions.’ Looking back with my adult eyes at my juvenile self, I probably didn’t think that, but was maybe peripherally aware of that. So I stopped wearing a watch. And, I probably didn’t like the nickname Big Ben anymore.

 3. In your daily life, how often do you think about the times of the day?

Pretty minimally. I mean, I work as a freelancer, so my overall schedule is very sporadic and irregular. Sometimes I’ll have to wake up at 4 in the morning to go to a job, or some days I’ll just do whatever I want because I don’t have to do anything. I do my best to be as punctual as possible to the things I’m supposed to be punctual for, but I’m pretttty lax about it. So really, on a day to day basis, if I were to think about time, it would be like when I’m trying to go to sleep and I can’t because I’m excited, or worried about something, and I look at the clock and I see time passing. Other than that, I don’t worry about being at work on time. I don’t have to think about subway schedules and dealing with rush hour and I like it that way.

 4. How many times a day does your profession require you to measure time?

I’m very concerned with long amounts of time, long durations. Whether that be eons (because I’m researching dinosaurs), or curiosity about some aspect of history, or just the passage of a month. Alternately, I’m concerned with incredibly small increments of time. When I record sound, I often have to take into consideration the difference in time it takes for sound to travel between a source and a microphone. And I do think about the fact that sound has a set speed and travels at that speed and it’s surprisingly slow when you break it right down. So, I only really think about time in a grand scale or in a really minute scale, not like hours or minutes necessarily.

 5. How does your profession, specifically as a sound mixer, and maybe even as an editor, affect your experience of time?

 Well, you know, there’s the superficial aspect of it. Working in the film industry, you work very long days. They pay you by the 12-hour day, and it’s not uncommon for them to really push that 12-hour limit. But then there are other aspects. I did work as an editor, so I am often thinking about when something happens, the interval at which it happens. So, if someone says a really amazing fact, because often it’s documentary and it’s unscripted and they’re saying things about their own life (whether they’re an expert in Greek mythology or an expert in reincarnation), I often have to make a note about when they said something. For sound mixers, they use a thing called ‘time code’, which I guess  I should also bring up as a really cool thing. Time code is something that I think is very important.  A camera, generally, and in the US specifically, takes one frame every 23.97 seconds – we can round it up and say 24, but it’s truly 23.97 frames per second. And time code, is exactly that. It tells you, it is listed in numbers, hours minutes seconds and then frames – so every 23.97 frames it will advance one second. I often am making notes like:  my god this guy said something totally amazing about Prometheus at time code 07: 14: 35.  If I’m working on a fiction film, you become very concerned with the way a scene plays out. Because you’re taking a scene, filming it from multiple different angles, there is a concern regarding continuity. Does this scene kind of pace at the same level across all the different takes? Did one take last 5 minutes but the next 3 minutes because they were rushing? If so, that makes editing not impossible but more difficult. If they’re rushing and you’re cutting between these takes, it’s hard to reconcile.

  Photo credit: Caleb Heller

Photo credit: Caleb Heller

  Photo credit:   http://www.bennimkin.com/

Photo credit: http://www.bennimkin.com/

 

 6. When do you lose track of time, and why?

Like with most people, when you’re having an awesome time, or when you have enough to think about that you don’t necessarily need to be concerned with it. When you’re enjoying yourself, time passes very slowly – I mean, quickly. Is that right? Either way. I guess it doesn’t matter. I guess in immediate retrospect good times pass slowly, and then as the days go on, they seem like just a little flash.

 7. Have you ever experienced time as moving faster or slower than normal?

Negative moments can seem intolerably slow. I went to this alternative high school, and we would often go on spelunking trips, or survivalist desert marches – things like that. One time in January, a small group of us went back country skiing in Leadville, Colorado, and people say we got lost, but we knew where we were, it just took us a really long time. We got kind of separated, some of us got frostbite, and I just remember how slow time passed. Especially when we stopped – we stopped to build a fire on a flying saucer sled, and we were burning pages from a book I had brought, which was 1984, George Orwell. Even now, that seems like a crazy amount of time. Perhaps we were there for an hour, but it could have been days that we were there trying to get ourselves warm. When search and rescue finally came, it seemed like eons were passing before our eyes.

 Where you afraid for your life at that point?

Well… word to the wise, dying by freezing is probably the most pleasant way to die. If you’re really cold, your body shuts down, so you don’t really care, and you become a little bit euphoric. So, maybe not scared, but perhaps resigned to the fact that you might die. Very pleasant, I think. If you had to choose, I highly recommend it.

 8. What would you say is your general relationship to time? Perhaps we’ve covered this in previous questions, but maybe we can use this question to talk about your tattoos [one of a sundial watch, and one of compass watch] and why you have them?

 This might all circle back to being called Big Ben in elementary school. When I was in college, I had a friend who was a tattoo artist, and I always thought it would be cool to have tattoos of things you’d normally wear, especially watches. I went through a lot of design considerations, like should it be a normal watch, but that’s pretty boring. I considered a weird melt-y watch, like a Dali watch, but thought, wouldn’t it be funny if I got a sundial watch? It’s got quite a three-dimensional quality to it. People ask what time it is. And I answer “it’s a freckle past a hair”, or “we’re inside and it’s a sundial, it doesn’t work like that”, or “it’s broken” – it depends on my mood. So I got this one first, and I wanted some sort of balance, and since it’s a sundial and it requires some sort of orientation, so I got a compass as well. My grandma is always trying to give me my granddads’ watch – a beautiful Swiss made watch, well-made elegant, modern, just like he was. My grandma is always very upset, like how can you live without a watch? She has always worn a watch her entire life, as did her father, so the notion that one could exist in the world we exist in today without some concept of time boggles her. For some reason she can’t understand that I have a cell phone, she thinks it’s impractical – which it is, because it’s in your pocket, and requires significantly more effort to check the time ---

 But in a way, not at all…

 Especially mechanical clocks, that make a tick noise – in a quiet space, you constantly hear that. And I don’t feel that I am especially concerned with the passage of time – I’m not worried that death grows ever closer. But I would feel that I would have a small neurotic problem with something that marks the passage of time with an auditory noise. Because it’s just another sense, another part of your perception of the world, that is being reminded that time is passing. Now, if they made a clock that released some kind of odor…

 They do! The Aroma Clock

 Oh, I guess that would be triply annoying.

 

This interview was conducted on October 20, 2013.  It has been edited and condensed for this format. The interviewer is responsible for any errors in transcription.  All  images are either taken by the interviewer, or used with permission and credited.  For more information about Ben Nimkin visit http://bennimkin.com/