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Getting Supreme Sound on Any Budget

Getting Supreme Sound on Any Budget

Articles - Directing

Modern cinema is made up of two parts: Vision and sound. Here are some ProTips™ on how to get the most out of the aural component.

1. Hire a Good Production Sound Guy (or Gal).
When it comes down to it, this is really the best piece of advice I can give. So much of your sanity and post-production budget will be determined by this decision. For example, let’s say you have the choice between an unproven and possibly not-so-great sound mixer for $150 a day and a sound mixer you’ve heard is pretty good for $300 a day. Your budget is tight and you don’t think you can afford the higher rate. But would you rather pay an extra $150 a day upfront for, say, a two-week shoot (totaling $2,100 extra) or pay upwards of $5,000 to $10,000 in post-production house fees for ADR recording, Foley recording, ADR editing, Foley editing, ADR mixing, etc.—just to make up for what you probably could have gotten on set with the better sound mixer in the first place?

Hire the best guy (or gal) you can afford. Research. Interview candidates and interview their references. If your budget is really pinched, find a mixer who can mix and boom without help. A boom operator is ideal, but if the project is not complex and there aren’t too many actors on screen at a given time, a self-booming sound guy can be a great bargain. Try not to use untrained boom operators; the last thing you want is an intern or production assistant holding a giant boomspear inches from your actor’s faces, or worse, afraid to hold it anywhere near them. Never let that happen.

How do you know you have a good sound mixer? He or she will come up to you after a take that you thought was great and not be afraid to say, “I’m sorry, but there was a problem. We might have to do that one again.” Don’t get mad at the sound person when he or she tells you this. It took a lot of courage—and a lot of set hierarchy stigma to overcome—for him or her to be able to tell you that your exciting, magical take was a complete audio failure. Say thank you… then shoot the scene again. Because if the sound person had not told you right then and there, you would be horrified to learn this in post-production, when you’re unable to re-create the naturalistic performances you captured (without good sound) on set.

Worst Case Scenario: You can’t afford a sound mixer at all!
File Under: Student films, quickie weekend projects, pickup shots, epically low-budget films.

Do not fear—all is not lost. You can still get usable sound without a good sound guy. You just have to remember to get it. One big reason that films shot without a dedicated sound guy have terrible sound is because it becomes an afterthought. Here are a few not-so-pro-tips on how to ensure the best possible sound without a great sound guy:

a. Choose your location wisely: This one evidently isn’t as obvious as it seems. Do not pick noisy locations near things such as traffic, crowds, construction, whatever. The quieter the better.

b. Turn off any sound-making items you can get to—refrigerators, air conditioners, noisy appliances, etc.

c. When practical, opt for shotguns, not lavalier mics: Shotguns sound good and natural when properly aimed at an actor. While lavaliers may be able to follow the actor around all the time, they sound heavy and often pick up rustling clothes as much as the actor’s voices.

d. Run the audio into the camera: If shooting video and the camera has audio inputs, run it into the camera to keep things simple. Remember to check that your levels are not too low or too hot.

The most important thing you and everyone else can do every time you’re about to roll camera is to always remember to yell—as loud as you can: “Quiet on set. This is a take!” Then hope a plane doesn’t fly overhead.

2. Shoot to Edit, Shoot for Sound. a.k.a. Directing The Sound Guy (or Gal).
You may know the phrase “shoot to edit” in terms of camera direction, but it also can apply to sound. When speaking visually, this usually means that you should pay close attention to the sequence of shots you’re choosing and how they will cut together later, as well as getting “coverage” (malleable shots that you can use to fill in gaps in the edit). With sound, this “coverage” can apply to many different things. Here are a few:

a. Room tone: Get at least 30 seconds worth of room tone after every location setup, and make sure no one leaves the room (subtly shifting bodies can affect the tone of a space). Better yet, leave a good amount of time (five to 15 seconds) in between yelling “Roll Camera” and “Action.” That way you always have room tone in each audio take.

b. Wild sound: Quiet down time on set is a great opportunity for your sound recordist to get wild sounds you might find useful in post-production (production audio recorded when the camera is not rolling is called “wild.” You know, because the sound guy has gone completely crazy). Props that make a unique sound you won’t have access to later, such as a particularly squeaky door or a specific type of water faucet, are good to get. Environmental sounds that you couldn’t turn off are good to get isolated so you can cover up inconsistencies in the edit.

c. Wild lines: Any dialogue you couldn’t get in a take (for instance, if the shot was wide and the lavaliers sounded bad) is worth picking up wild, with the shotgun microphone close to the actor. You’d be surprised at how well this audio can match sync, especially if you do it right after the last camera take—and it’ll always match aurally better than ADR.

d. Perspective dialogue: Digital reverbs can sound really good, but it’s hard to replicate certain qualities of natural spaces, particularly outdoor spaces. If you have some dialogue that is shouted outdoors, or heard from a distance, it’s a good idea to record this with the microphone the appropriate distance away. This kind of reverb will always sound better than what you can create in post.

Most importantly, communicate with your on-set sound mixer. Direct him or her like you would an actor or a cinematographer—get him or her excited about collaborating with you and providing you with the tools that you need to create your cinematic world. If you inspire the sound mixer, he or she will surprise you.

3. Post-Production is Where the Magic Happens (or, Be A Sonic Magician).
Tips 1 and 2 (and all of their subsections) deal with capturing the most pristine, usable sound during production. But pristine production audio is only the starting point. Really Great Sound*, the kind that will affect an audience and enhance their experience, comes from sound design. I have far more experience working as a sound designer than I do in location sound, but it’s a lot harder to give advice about what makes for good sound design. It’s a little more abstract, a little more philosophical.

On the technical side, there are too many tips and pointers to list, but briefly: Spend time auditioning sound effects. Don’t just use the first one you find; look for the right one. There are plenty of resources online (paid sites like SoundDogs.com, free sites like Freesound and so many more) where you can audition an endless number of effects until you find what works best. The majority of my time designing sound is spent listening to an endless number of clips; you end up building a mental toolbox of what’s available, and when you least expect it, that knowledge comes in handy.

It’s important to remember that a sound designer is not just a “sound editor.” A sound designer is the “director of sound” in the same way that a cinematographer is the “director of photography.” You are designing the soundscape of the film, and that means creating a streamlined aesthetic that is reflected in every level of the audio. You need to make audio choices that elucidate the story, not just ones that “sound good.” Sometimes that means taking a great, clean sound effect and making it sound “bad” (i.e. muffled), because on screen it comes from behind a closed door.

Like every other aspect of moviemaking, the goal is to create the story, then to make it effective. Sound has a distinct advantage over all of the visual elements: It’s invisible, therefore, it’s magic. Cinema sound is a form of sleight of hand. The visual imagery and action will captivate and distract the audience on a visceral level while creative sound design can emotionally affect them on a subconscious level. You can get expressionistic with sound even in the most realistic of stories, as long as you are subtly elucidating emotions present in the story.

Sound design can alter a film entirely, but it must be given the same attention and care as every other element. It must be relished. MM

*“Great Sound” is subjective. Graham Reznick’s Supreme Sound ProTips™ do not claim to make you a Super Sound God. That power resides only within yourself.

Raised in the quiet suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, Graham Reznick is a moviemaker, sound designer, artist and musician. Reznick has designed sound for acclaimed directors Ti West (The House of the Devil), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), Jim McKenney (Automatons), J.T. Petty (Blood Red Earth) and Joe Maggio (Bitter Feast). His feature directorial debut, I Can See You, was followed by the 3-D short film The Viewer, which, due to overwhelming response, has led to pre-production on the 3-D feature film The Teleport.

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