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Getting the Best Sound for Your Movie

Getting the Best Sound for Your Movie

Articles - Directing

Sound
is one aspect of the film craft which,
because of the medium’s overwhelming visual bias, is often undernourished—even
by experienced moviemakers. Master provocateur Alfred Hitchcock was fond
of saying that we should be able to turn the sound down on a good movie
and still be able to follow the plot. Yet a motion picture sound mixer,
like the director of photography, is the head of a department whose efforts
are often inseparable from the overall success or failure of the final
release. You only need to turn the volume back up on any of Hitch’s movies
to know that the implacable director had his ear finely tuned to the power
of sound.

It’s tempting for moviemakers to forgive a weak sound recording if they
instead get the shot they wanted; the hope is that any shortcomings in
the mix will be corrected during post-production. Given the vast array
of surprises and contingencies that inevitably arise during production,
it’s understandable that certain things get sacrificed to the gods of
expediency. For producers, this is often a matter of dollars and sense.
But savings taken out of the front end of a production can come back
to bite you during post.

According to production sound mixer Pawel Wdowczak (The Royal Tenebaums; Leaving
Las Vegas
), “Good sound is a savings: the better the sound you
start with—location sound and production sound—the bigger the savings
you have in post.” Among professionals concerned with motion picture
sound—be they mixers, vendors or the ministers of post-production—there
is a clear consensus: if you want good audio, get it in the field!

L to R: Sound mixer Pawel Wdowczak on Mike Figgis’ The
Loss of Sexual Innocence
; Rob Janiger on the Tall Tale and Speed
2
sets.

Casting

it starts with casting. Alan Gus at Matlin Recording
in New York City, works with picture audio in post. “There is nothing more important than
hiring a good sound person. Having your brother or friend record sound
is a definite don’t.” Seek out a professional who clearly knows the job,
has a kit that meets the needs of your picture and is at ease dealing
with people. This last point is underscored by sound mixer Rob Janiger
(Timecode; Bram Stoker’s Dracula), who claims that “On a big film you
have 100 to 200 cast and crew, and in one way or another, those 200 people
are all working for picture. Then there’s the mixer, the boom operator
and the cable person—the only three people on that film set who are concerned
with the soundtrack. In a lot of ways, the mixer is a second-class citizen
and s/he has to find a way to get people to help them out.”

Listening

once you’ve hired someone you trust, listen to them. “Sometimes directors
or producers will say, ‘I can’t wait for your fucking airplane,’” laughs
Janiger. “‘Hey, it’s not my airplane—it’s your soundtrack!’” Giving the
sound crew your ear will pay off in the long run. For instance, if there
is a problem with audio on a given take, the mixer may request a “wild
track” (a vocal run-through of the scene without camera). It’s worth
taking a few minutes to do this: the actors will be in touch with the
rhythm and meaning of the scene in a way that can be difficult to reproduce
later on in ADR. ADR, or Automatic Dialogue Replacement, is the post-production
process of replacing an actor’s spoken words from the original production
track. The actor—seated in a sound booth while watching a given clip
from the film—listens to the section of the corresponding production
track that needs to be replaced. After watching and listening to the
selection several times, s/he speaks the line being replaced, trying
to match the general tone and quality of their original performance.

It’s little wonder that experienced actors in particular tend to be
alert to the requirements of the sound crew; it’s not easy to convincingly
recreate a performance months after it has been shot. Directors and producers
who are sensitive to this fact, and determined to get good audio on set
(not to mention know the additional costs involved), stand to earn the
gratitude of their performers, who might prefer to spend Christmas with
family rather “looping” dialogue on an ADR stage.

“Don’t expect to ADR,” consuls sound engineer Jay Rose, CAS, author
of Producing Great Sound for Digital Video (CMP Books) and proprietor
of Boston’s Digital Playroom. “‘Automatic Dialogue Replacement’ isn’t
really automatic. It’s very time consuming (and that’s when done by professionals
with the right equipment), and rarely gives the best performance… If
you start with good dialogue tracks, you can build an excellent overall
mix.”

And the audience is listening. Kirk Miles, rental
manager at GEAR in Austin, Texas, points out that the eye is very often
led by the ear. “Studies
have repeatedly shown that people listen to televisions as much as they
watch them: they will surf the Web, eat, flip through a magazine and
then look up when they hear something. Most directors and producers are
visually stimulated people, and everyone on set is looking at the monitor.” Miles
suggests that moviemakers get a headphone distribution system and attune
themselves to the location.

On the set with production sound mixer Gary Gossett.

Planning

Jason george, a sound supervisor at Todd A-O in Burbank
coaches customers to think the audio process through carefully. “If
there’s a scene near
a busy street, [you should ask]: can your close-ups be done at a different
time than the establishing shot, when it’s not so noisy? In a different
place? It is likewise advisable to have your sound mixer present during
pre-production on your location scout. They will be able to forecast
and plan for potential sound issues with a location that others might
miss. Adds Derick Cobden of Airwaves Sound in Vancouver, BC, “Make sure
you spend the time before you shoot to meet with a post company to avoid
extra expenditures in the budget during this time.” If you can involve
the post sound crew on a basic level with the production sound people
they can share ideas, which may lead to better overall results.

Consistency & Craft

whatever degree of competency the sound crew possesses,
it doesn’t hurt
to be aware of some of the practical issues that tend to arise, particularly
on indie productions. “Sound problems on the set are usually due to poor
mic placement,” states Alan Gus. “Some situations are impossible, but
controlled environments should never have bad sound. We work on lots
of independent films, and so many need ADR… If the scenes were better
miked, they probably could avoid most of the ADR.”

“The most common mistake beginners make with production sound is treating
the mic like a lens,” adds Jay Rose. “It isn’t. You can’t point it at
one person and not expect to hear the other people, noises or echoes
in the room. The only way to get good dialogue is to have the mic close
to the actor, either with a boom mic (usually overhead and pointed to
the mouth, and no further than about 2’) or a lav. Lavaliers are very
small mics designed to be worn on the body in the vicinity of the chest
cavity; a boom is a handheld pole housing a mic at one end. A camera-mounted
mic—even a very good one—will almost always be too far away to do a decent
job.”

The norm on film sets is to have a dual recording
system: recording audio onto a recorder and image to camera, synchronizing
the two later
in post-production. Film cameras (70mm; 35mm; 16mm) do not have built-in
mics, so a dual recording set-up is the de facto standard. However, digital
video cameras do come with a built-in mic. New digital moviemakers often
record sound directly onto the camera mic, which—though a natural temptation
on low-budget productions—can lead to poor audio. The mic on a digital
video camera, particularly Mini DV camears, is going to produce audio
that is generally below par by professionals standards. It’s advisable
to use a separate, professional quality mic, and channel whatever it
picks up through a mixer before it goes to camera.

Steve Joachim, sales manager at Location Sound in
Los Angeles, elaborates: “We
encourage young filmmakers using video formats to insert a mixer into
the audio chain… Either way, a sound professional should be hired to
mix to camera or record to portable recorder. By having a professional
sound mixer controlling the gain [the level of the signal coming into
a device] and the output that’s going to camera and monitoring the return
signal from the camera, you can hear exactly what’s going to tape.” This
solves a lot of problems ahead of the game.

 “One thing we see too often,” observes Gus, “is when the soundperson
records material without monitoring. We just did a documentary that had
a very notable figure as the narrator, but the quality of the recording
was terrible. There’s no way the soundperson could have been monitoring
off-tape during the interview, and there is no way the filmmaker is going
back to this celebrity to re-record.”

“The most important thing is consistency from take to take,” states
Rob Janiger. “Just because the camera angle changes, you don’t want to
start changing your microphones, changing your EQ (equalization), etc.
You’ve got to make sure—first and foremost—that the scene cuts together.
If you give the post-production guys tracks where there is a consistency
in the recording—even if there is background noise and other problems—they
can make it work.” Any good sound mixer would agree that, as a rule,
it’s not a good idea to switch microphones within the scene. Some brands
of microphone, though excellent by themselves, do not mix well. “Sennheisers
and Neumanns are not so compatible with each other,” offers Pawel Wdowczak. “If
you mix them up, it can be hard to match in the cutting room.”

“The combination of wireless lavs and boom-mounted mics can cause discrepancies
in room tone, presence and proximity effect,” says Brian North, a sound
engineer at The Victory Studios in Seattle, WA. “Distant scenes shot
in warehouses or visually large, ambient rooms are usually recorded with
the use of lavs due to their ability to be easily hidden from sight.
The result, however, is dialogue usually sounding as if recorded close
and up-front, thereby lacking the appropriate ambience and room tone.” Inevitably,
with all these concerns to juggle, most productions will ultimately need
to turn to a post house for sound sweetening of one form or another.

Left: The Location Sound team demonstrates the MKH416
right: Professional Sound Services’ Rich Topham discusses sound
options with a customer.

Post-Production: Choose Wisely

even for moviemakers with home-based editing and
sound sweetening systems, employing a post-production facility to handle
at least part of the chores
is often a must. Half of the job in this case is choosing a post house
that is genuinely suited to your project. The experts suggest first looking
for a facility that has some experience working on pictures similar to
your own. “If your project involves shooting film, editing on video and
releasing on film,” Gus points out, “then you’d better choose a facility
that understands the entire procedure… Are you shooting on DV PAL but
intend to release on film? Then your audio post facility better know
how to deal with these issues.”

You should also ask to meet the engineer(s) you will
be working with before you agree to take them on, as they will be responsible
for taking
your picture to completion with you. Jay Rose cautions beginners to choose
wisely: “Some places foist beginning engineers on beginning filmmakers,
and save the good talent for regular customers. Also, be sure to ask
about an overall budget, not just an hourly rate. Some studios pile on
extra charges for sound effects or to use specific equipment, and drastically
inflate the cost of DAT tapes or CDs.” That caveat notwithstanding, there
are many facilities who are genuinely committed to working with independent
moviemakers, tailoring their services to all kinds of budgets. “Find
a company who is excited to work with you and your project, and willing
to work within your budget,” advises Derick Cobden.

Remember though, that if the field audio is poor,
there are limits to what even an experienced and well-equipped house
can do. “Applying such
things as EQ and compression (minimizing the amount of dynamic range
of an audio signal) can help alleviate some of the ‘presence,’ or unwanted
audio, but it cannot eliminate the sounds entirely,” says Brian North. “On
the flip side, however, it’s quite easy, with the use of SFX libraries,
to add in the sound of dogs barking or children playing. Adding the right
kind of reverb (the amount of sound that continues to exist in a room
after the source sound has stopped) can also make that distant indoor
shot have just the right amount of echo, while importing in-room ambience
from previous scenes can help fix any room tone issues that may have
previously existed.”

Home-based systems present a growing field of choices
and options. “If
the home computer is in a good monitoring environment,” offers Gus, “and
the person behind the system knows what they’re doing, the mix is probably
going to work. There’s nothing wrong with preparing tracks and trying
things at home, but if you don’t have the experience mixing for film
or broadcast or live venues, then make sure you let someone who has that
experience play with the mix. It can make a huge difference in the final
product. All too often, people lose interest in films because the audio
is so bad; it becomes distracting. It used to be that you can tell an
indie film by the poor sound quality; that doesn’t have to be the case.” MM

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