Movie sound engineer entitled to keep $2,000 downpayment in dispute over work quality

A sound engineer was entitled to keep a $2,000 down payment for audio work on a movie, a British Columbia tribunal has ruled, despite the fact the company that hired him called his work “defective.”

Sodhi Productions hired Rayce Vaughan to provide post-production audio services on a film.

Sodhi said his work was “incomplete, poor quality, defective and delayed,” according to the Civil Resolution Tribunal. It sought a refund of the $2,000 down payment it gave to Vaughan.

Vaughan, though, said the production audio was worse quality than expected and, despite the “cleanup process,” some scenes still suffered from poor audio quality which would require automated dialogue replacement (ADR). He said his work was neither incompetent or poor quality, nor was it delayed.

The contract

The contract of employment was signed on Nov. 27, 2021. Vaughan was hired for a flat fee of $4,000, with $2,000 paid up front and $2,000 due upon delivery of the final sound mix.

Vaughan’s responsibilities included “dialogue cleanup and editing, mixing, mastering, and the delivery of the sound mix” for the movie, to all “industry standard responsibilities of a ‘Re-Recording Mixer’.”

There were no specific timelines for deliverables related to the work contained in the employment contract.

It also stated that if Vaughan broke any of the contract terms, payments are to be returned to Sodhi Productions upon request. Similarly, if Sodhi broke any terms, Vaughan was entitled to keep any payments made.

The timeline

Sodi said Vaughan advised it would take over a month with some leeway to get the job done. Work started on Nov. 24, 2021, after some technical difficulties that were not Vaughan’s fault.

Sodi said it wasted four months waiting for the work before terminating the contract, something it did on Feb. 23, 2022. (Which the tribunal noted was only three months, not four as alleged.)

Since there was no timeline in the contract for completion of the soundwork, the tribunal said there was no breach of the contract.

“Although Sodhi says it wanted the work done in “about a month”, I find text messages in evidence show Mr. Vaughan kept Mr. Sodhi apprised of delays he was having due to production sound quality,” the tribunal said. “At the end of December 2021, Mr. Vaughan advised Sodhi he needed “a few more weeks on the cleanup process”. Mr. Sodhi responded telling Mr. Vaughan “no rush… take your time” and saying they were not on any tight deadlines.”

Quality of work

Generally speaking, if someone alleges work is below a reasonable standard, it is up to them to prove it, the tribunal said. The two exceptions to that rule is if the deficiencies are not technical in nature or where the work is obviously substandard, the tribunal said.

“Sodhi provided a 2 hour and 37 minute audio track of the movie, and pointed out certain timestamps where it says the dialogue is not adequate. I am unable to determine from this audio recording whether any changes in the audio are a result of Mr. Vaughan’s work, or are from the production audio,” the tribunal said.

“Also, although I note some voices are muffled, the evidence is that one of the characters was wearing a mask. I do not find Mr. Vaughan’s work was obviously substandard.”

The ruling

There was no indication Vaughan breached any aspects of the employment contract. Instead, Sodhi actually breached it by asking for a refund — which it was not entitled to do under the terms, the tribunal ruled.

Vaughan was allowed to keep the $2,000 payment. Vaughan didn’t pay any tribunal fees, nor did he claim any dispute-related expenses, so there was no order for recovery costs.

For more information see Sodhi Productions Inc. v. Vaughan, 2022 BCCRT 899 (CanLII)