Filmmaking as a Metaphor for the DBA

I worked on four films in 2015, three shorts and one feature-length movie, all shot in Calgary where I live. That has resulted in seven IMDb credits for me, someone who earns a living as a DBA.

If nothing else, that experience has scratched an itch I’ve had since I was old enough to wonder what it would be like to act in a movie.

But acting isn’t filmmaking. It’s a very small part of the big picture, along with directing, producing, set building, makeup, lights, cameras, craft services, animal trainers, and so on.

DBAs also do a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure everything works the way it should. The sign of a good DBA is a system that works as expected. The sign of an excellent DBA is recovering from failure, affecting anyone else as little as possible.

Like being an excellent DBA, making films is hard work. Purely from an acting perspective, there are lots of lines to learn, repeating them over and over again, and then having to wait for someone to reset the camera, move some lights or the boom mic, and then do it all over again.

Exactly the same way.

Acting is the antithesis of automation. For example, it can take nine hours to film five pages of a script. Each page in a screenplay equates roughly to one minute of screen time. When I directed our last short, we shot eighteen pages in seven hours. That’s almost unheard of.

In information technology, we are encouraged to automate any repetitive task.

In front of the camera, we can’t automate our lines. Continuity is critical, so that the cup you’re holding at 8:15am during the master shot, is in the same hand at the same line, with the same level of liquid, as the close-up shot at 11pm.

I have also done a little bit of voice acting. Have you seen the film Singin’ in the Rain, starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds? She plays a voice-over actor who must redo all the voice parts for Jean Hagen’s character, in a process called ADR (automated dialogue replacement) or Looping.

There’s nothing automated about it. You see the scene and the current audio, and get a metronome counting you in for two or three beats, then you record your dialogue, trying to match against the picture. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and never quite matches.

Sometimes you have to do it in voice acting too. Except, excluding some very minor exceptions, there’s no picture to watch yet. You are in a booth, with headphones, a microphone, and pop filter in front of you. In my case, there’s also an HD web cam in there so that the outside world can see in. In other studios, the booth may be soundproof glass and have the recording equipment and director in view. It’s a very lonely space.

Either way, if I have to do ADR for a movie like Debbie Reynolds did, she’d have a picture to lip sync with. In voice acting, if you have to do ADR, there’s no picture. You hear the original track, you get counted in, and then you do your line while the old one is playing in your headphones.

Try recording yourself, playing it back, and then saying the same line over again, exactly the same way.

Being a DBA has a lot of similarities:

  1. Repetitive tasks
  2. Attention to detail
  3. Troubleshooting with no visual guides
  4. Trying to do something complicated while someone is talking in your ear
  5. Someone is always judging you
  6. You have to go with your instincts sometimes.

Someone asked me recently whether I would choose between being a SQL Server professional, or a filmmaker. I answered that I couldn’t choose. They complement each other and keep me sane.

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to comment on Twitter, find me under @bornsql.

Author: randolph

Randolph West is a Microsoft Data Platform MVP, and has worked with SQL Server since the late 1990s. When not consulting, he can be seen acting on the stage and screen, or doing voices for independent video games. Randolph is available for talks on SQL Server, and technology in general. He also offers training for junior DBAs. Connect with Randolph on Google+ or Twitter.