I don’t think there’s an audio post engineer in existence who doesn’t have dozens of stories about awful production sound or tales of great movies ruined by unrepairable audio. But instead of dwelling in the negative, I’d like to go through the various stages of film making and talk about examples of best practices for achieving good audio.
A qualification first. I know a great deal about my little corner of the film making process, but I don’t claim to know much about the process as a whole. What follows are just the ideas and opinions of one person observing film making from one particular vantage point. This is more geared towards people who are new to film making but even those who have been in the industry for a while might pick up an idea or two.
Screenwriting. Good audio starts with the script. There are many examples of great sound ideas happening well after the script was written – like the disembodied train sounds from the restaurant execution scene in the godfather - but other times there needs to be some narrative setup or visual reference for the sound to work. Also, just as feasibility and expense come into play when writing scripts for low budget productions, the screenwriter should at least consider cost and feasibility of recording audio in say, a busy train station or in the rain.
Speaking of feasibility, sound can also be a very affordable way to include action that would otherwise be too expensive. A spotlight and the sound of a police helicopter is much cheaper than an actual helicopter. Can’t afford a huge explosion? How about sound effects, lights and a shot of a crowd reacting? There’s huge potential in this idea and I think it’s one of the most under utilized tricks in indie film making. (btw the webseries JourneyQuest utilizes the off camera action device very well a number of times. Here’s one)
Location Scouting. Experienced directors think about sound when choosing locations. If you’re shooting a scene in a hotel with thin walls, finding one away from highways and flight paths will be to your advantage. Seems obvious, but don’t underestimate the very human tendency to filter out and ignore sound. I bet if you stopped reading this right now and paid attention to the sound around you, you’ll notice ten things you weren’t previously aware of. This natural tendency of our minds, combined with the current cultural emphasis on all things visual, makes it very very easy to overlook the sound issues of a location unless you make it a priority to listen for them. Or better yet, bring a sound person along and ask them!
Production. Hire the best production sound team you can afford and value their input on set. You will thank yourself later. This isn’t my area of expertise, so I’ll leave it at that. If you would like a very thorough laundry list of complaints and suggestions from on set sound crews, read “An Open Letter From Your Sound Department”.
Post Production. The problem with post production is that it’s at the end of the process. It’s all too easy to ignore sound up to this point when the primary focus of production is getting great shots and great performances. It’s also far too common for production budgets to eat into post budgets and for film makers to run out of money by the time they get to post. The films I’ve worked on with the best sound paid attention to sound from the beginning and kept their post budgets in tact.
So there are a few basic ideas to avoid terrible audio. Getting really fantastic audio can be much more complicated. When it comes to post production, the level of audio quality that can be attained starts with and builds upon the quality of the production audio. Audio post can be about trying to fix and rescue poor production audio or it can be about using sound to further enhance the story.
Next, I’ll briefly go through the various stages of audio post production.
Dialog Editing. The dialog editor is the person who first deals directly with the audio recorded on set. Dialog is separated from non dialog sounds, decisions are made concerning which mic source to use (lav, boom, plant etc) and the ambient sounds or “room tone” is crossfaded across cuts so everything plays smoothly. Hopefully clean quiet room tone for each scene was recorded on set for the dialog editor to use. Dialog editing is a very technical process, but also a much more artistic process than many people realize. If you’re interested in learning more there’s an excellent book available on the subject.
Sound design/sound effects editing. The sound designer is the person who works with the director to establish the audio aesthetic for a project. Think of it like cinematography for audio. The sound designer then works with a team of sound editors to realize this vision. Sounds are either pulled from sound effects libraries or, depending on budget, recorded in the field and custom made for the project. I always say the reason sound gets ignored and reason it is so powerful are one and the same. The reason being, that while our conscious mind is focused on the visuals, sound creeps around back straight into our subconscious minds. While it’s true that audio sometimes fulfills a merely functional necessity, there is also huge potential to draw upon the metaphorical and emotional potential of sound to enhance the story.
Foley. Foley is any action that is performed in sync with the picture. The more obvious examples include footsteps and clothing sounds, but it can also include props when something needs to be performed in a way that can’t be replicated using sound effects from a library. Foley can be very subtle and if the production audio is noisy it frequently gets lost in the mix. It’s tempting to think of Foley once again as purely a functional necessity, and often it is, but once again there is huge potential to use it as a story telling device. The way a character drags their heels when they walk for example, can tell us a lot about their emotional state. Very detailed Foley work was used to great effect in the film “The Hurt Locker” to illustrate the tension and hyper awareness felt by the characters.
Music. This is obviously a huge subject and I won’t really go into it here. Music composition usually takes place at the same time as audio post production and then the finished score is delivered just before the mix. I think it’s best if the composer and sound designer collaborate, but this doesn’t always happen. Another thing worth mentioning here is the concept of the “locked cut”. While it is possible to do further edits after music composition and audio post production are under way, it can be hugely time consuming to re-conform the audio and music to the new edit. Music especially can be thrown off by even the smallest edit. If you’re on a budget at all (and you value your composers sanity), lock your cut and keep it locked before audio and music work commences!
ADR, called “looping” in other parts of the world, is the replacing of dialog recorded on set with dialog re-recorded in a studio after the movie has been edited. In some movies %100 of the dialog is replaced this way. In others, none of it is. Sometimes lines need to be replaced because the quality of the recording isn’t good enough. Other times it’s because the director wants a different performance or lines have been changed.
Some actors are very good at ADR, but many actors and directors find performances done in the sterile environment of a recording studio don’t live up to the vibrancy of performances delivered on set. Sometimes a dialog editor, armed with sound reports and well organized production audio files, can edit together multiple takes to save a line. Another trick is to pull actors aside after shooting a scene on a noisy set and have them re-perform the scene immediately in a quieter location. Even without visual reference, sometimes actors can nail the timing and this can be synced up with picture in post. Or at least give the dialog editor something more to work with.
Remember that dialog recorded on set should be as free and clear of background sounds as possible. Indie films tend to be a little more loosey goosey about this, but even something as simple as a door shutting while a character speaks could be reason to replace that line with ADR. Savvy directors who wish to avoid ADR should direct their actors to wait until simultaneous actions are completed. This isn’t always possible of course, but sometimes even just waiting a half second until that garage door shuts or until the crumply bag of groceries has been set down can make the difference between a line being usable or unusable. This goes for overlapping dialog too. Yes, sometimes it’s worth the hassle, but if it’s not necessary, your dialog editor will really appreciate the extra breathing room between lines and any pacing issues can probably be tightened up in the edit. Actors should also be aware of who is actually on camera and refrain from moving about and making unnecessary noise during someone else’s close up for example.
One more indie film tip. If you have lots of extras in a scene, consider taking some time after the scene is shot to record some walla on set. A full budgeted production would do this in post by hiring what are called loop groups. These are groups of actors dedicated to the task of performing background speech. Sometimes a generic sound like “bar crowd” can be pulled from a sound effects library, but more specific sounds like “cafeteria full of geriatric women with New Jersey accents” might not be so readily available. If you already have the extras on set, an extra 15 minutes recording some background talking will save you a lot of money and make your post team very happy.
The Mix. The mix is where it all comes together and where the director and re-recording mixer get to work together and really shape the audio track. It’s frequently the funnest and most gratifying part of the audio process, but it can also be exhausting and frustrating if things don’t go well. It can be difficult for a non-sound person to communicate ideas to someone who has long ago forgotten what the world sounds like to the non-audio-obsessed. There are also a lot of strange things having to do with the psychology of perception when it comes to audio. I won’t go into too much detail, but try this experiment. Pick a scene from your favorite movie and really listen to one detail from the audio mix. Listen to the footsteps for example. Play the scene over and over again and really listen to those footsteps. Chances are they’re going to start sounding loud and out of place. Welcome to the hall of mirrors that is audio mixing.
A good mix experience, like a lot of things, comes down to relationship and trust. Directors ultimately need to trust their mixers and mixers need to morph and adapt their style to best realize the directors vision. I know things are going well when the director says “Hey can you turn up that….” and I’m already reaching for the right fader. That’s when you know you’ve reached an understanding.
That’s that. Are you still with me? Film making is an incredibly complicated and laborious process and I’m constantly in awe of people who have the vision and tenacity to shepard projects from conception to completion. It’s also one of the most expensive art forms and like everything else, really top notch audio can cost a lot of money. But compared to other expense, audio is one of the cheapest ways to increase the perceived production value of a film. And getting decent to good audio is often just a matter of choosing quiet locations and hiring an experienced sound crew for production and post.
Finally, those of us afflicted with an obsession for sound are usually more than happy to talk shop. Actually, it can be hard to get us to shut up once we get going. As evidenced by this post. Point being, feel free to contact me if you’d like to talk further.