An often-overlooked aspect of good filmmaking by many a young aspiring filmmaker embarking on those early productions and short films is sound. Good sound can really make or break a film. You may have a good looking image, but if your sound is not any good, it can quickly become not just a distraction that pulls the audience out of the experience you are trying to create with your film, it can be down right annoying—like fingernails of a chalk board. So, to any new filmmakers out there reading this, let me stress that it is worth taking some time to really learn more about good audio because it will really help your projects stand out (in a good way).
An important point to keep in mind is that, as I alluded to above, a film is an experience. As I have touched on before in this blog, there is a sticking similarity between Plato’s Cave Allegory and the experience of the modern movie theatre. Part of the experience for the poor shackled people in Plato’s allegory is the sound they hear bouncing around the cave, which they in turn believe to be coming from the large shadows cast upon the wall before them. Sound has the power to transport the mind and emotions. In our modern cave of the movie theater we have 5.1 (and I’m sure in many places, 7.2) surround sound. All of this contributes to the experience the filmmakers are creating into which the audience is expected to immerse itself like the chained subjects in the Cave Allegory.
Now, I’m not about the launch into a discussing on surround sound. I’m not qualified for that at this time, hardly any new filmmakers have access to the proper equipment and mixing facility to properly pull off a 5.1 surround sound mix anyway. The truth is, if you’re a new filmmaker, don’t even think of trying that. One step at a time. Master working with stereo frist. A good stereo mix is quite challenging as is. But the good news is that a well executed stereo sound mix for your short film is within your reach, and can be just as engaging as the more flashy surround sound mixes out there, if done well.
In this first entry, we will focus on recording good sound while shooting.
In order to write this entry, I enlisted the help of friend and fellow filmmaker, Jeffrey Martin. Martin served as the on-set sound recorder/mixer for the last two short films film I directed: “Cold October” and “Always Reaching.” I asked Martin a series of questions.
MJW: What experiences have you had before that helped you while working on sets of “Cold October” and “Always Reaching” recording the sound?
Martin: The first film set I worked on was a professional set for a feature film. This was a fantastic way to start my career, because it immediately impressed upon me that film required long hours of hard work. But I fell in love with it, and was willing to put in the hours for future films.
This positive mindset was very valuable when it came to working on “Cold October” and “Always Reaching.” Because they were short films, with non-professional crews, it would have been easy to slack off and just enjoy the camaraderie of hanging out with fellow film lovers. But I already knew I was there, not only to give Runaway Pen my best effort, but also to further my career in the film industry.
Much of filmmaking, like most art forms, is part technical expertise, and part artistry. Because making a film is such a huge undertaking, individual jobs tend to have more of one or the other aspect. On “Cold October,” I was the entire on-set sound department, which meant I had to draw on my experience with electronic sound equipment, as well as the ear training I had developed from many years of studying and performing music.
My training in music and theatre was the main thing that gave me the credentials to record sound for a film, even though I have no training in recording sound. I have studied and performed on a plethora of musical instruments over the last 25 years, and for the last few years have been a semi-professional classical singer. This musical training gave me the skill to listen to the sound I was recording not just as individual words and environmental noises, but also as though it were a symphony of interacting sounds, working together to create the whole.
MJW: How important is good sound recording to a production?
Martin: More important than the average filmgoer realizes. I've heard, and from my personal film viewing experience, I agree that sound makes up half of any film or TV show. Film is not a live medium; the sounds and images recorded on set undergo significant editing both in choosing and cutting together the best takes, and in sculpting those superior takes to further improve their quality (e.g. correcting color, removing extraneous noises). Ultimately, it's up to the sound editor to create the symphony that is the completed sound mix, but the better the raw material they have to work with, the better the final product can be.
It's easy to take crystal clear dialogue and make in muddy. It's virtually impossible (and a huge pain, not to mention time consuming) to take muddy dialogue and make it clear. So the primary job of the on-set sound recorder is to make sure that the sound editor has clear sound to work with.
MJW: What steps did you take on these sets to record the best possible audio?
Martin: The foundation of recording good sound is having good equipment to work with. The next most important thing is to make sure that the recording equipment is in good working condition. Each day, I re-assembled all the pieces of sound equipment to ensure that they were properly and securely connected. In the middle of filming [“Cold October”], I recommended that the production purchase a new cable to replace some of the jerry-rigged connectors that we had been using. Having equipment in proper working order freed me to concentrate on each moment of recording sound, rather than being distracted by having to care for inferior equipment.
MJW: What differed between your experience on “Cold October” and on “Always Reaching?”
Martin: There were two main differences between the recording process for “Cold October” and “Always Reaching.” The most significant was that the microphone we used on “Always Reaching” was of a vastly superior quality. . . . [T]he microphone quality has an overall effect on the equipment's ability to record clear, accurate, quality sound. The microphone we used on “Always Reaching” yielded a richness that had been lacking in “Cold October.”
“Cold October” was my first experience recording sound on a film. Theoretically, I had the necessary expertise. I had well trained ears, I knew how to connect and care for the electronic sound equipment, and I had a basic theoretical knowledge of how to use the sound equipment to best record the actors, while minimizing interference from environmental sound. But I had never put all these skills together, and without actual experience, everything did not go perfectly. Sometimes I set the recording level inappropriately. Sometimes I didn't have the microphone in the very best place. I would give myself a grade of about 85% for the quality of the sound I recorded on set. Since I was working by myself to both operate the boom and set the sound levels, I was not able to concentrate 100% on either task all the time.
For most of the “Always Reaching” shoot, I had a boom operator, and was able to concentrate on setting the sound levels, and even adjusting them during a take. This was extra valuable because one of the actors (Jennie [Sophia]) used a broader dynamic range in her performance--at various times whispering, sobbing, and screaming, each requiring the sound levels to be adjusted.
MJW: I think your experience on “Cold October” is a lot like what many people experience on low-budget short films, where there just isn’t enough money to get all the ideal equipment one would like to have. But I think these experiences are highly education. And I think you made the best of it, and I appreciate that so much! Now, did you mostly work alone or with other people?
Martin: No one works alone on a film set! Being in charge of the sound department, I had virtual veto power over whether shooting could proceed. If there was too much environmental noise, I encouraged the director to wait before shooting. At other times, I reassured him that shooting could continue in spite of noise that the microphone wasn't picking up.
When I had a boom operator, I worked closely with them to ensure that I knew where they were placing the microphone, and where they might move it during the take, so I could anticipate where to set the sound levels.
MJW: Do you feel the director helped make your job easier or more difficult (be honest, one of my objectives in writing blog articles like this is to learn how to improve as a director, so I would love to know if I should be doing things differently to make everyone's life on set better)?
Martin: I tend to work well in groups where everyone has a clearly defined role. Film is great for this, because even though everyone knows multiple things, there is always one person in charge of each element. The director and producers are overseers of the entire film project, but on set a good director focuses on guiding the actors' performances and allows everyone else to do their job. Mikel is such a director. He is available when I have questions, he cares about each aspect of the production, but he trusts his crew. This openness and trust makes me want to work even harder for him, improving the overall quality of the film.
MJW: Wow. Thank you. That is humbling. I hope to continue in that same spirit. Now, if you were giving advice to someone about to shoot their first short film, what would you tell them about sound recording, what they should and should not do, and how to get the best results?
For the director/producer:
1) Borrow or rent the best quality microphone you can find/afford.
2) Remember that sound is half the film (picture is the other half).
3) *Never* assume you can fix it in post!
For the person actually recording the sound:
1) Keep it simple--just record the sound, as cleanly as possible, and let the sound editor take it from there.
2) Don't get too caught up listening to the dialogue; that's the director and actors job. Listen to the sound as though it is music, and keep part of your mind focused on listening for background sounds that might ruin a take.
MJW: Great advice. Do you have any other comments you would like to share?
Martin: Making a film is like writing, producing and recording a play, writing, performing and recording a symphony, creating numerous paintings (approximately 1 per scene), and planning a complicated party, all rolled up into and focused on one thing: telling a story. The more talented each person is who works on the film, and the harder everyone works, the better the end product. No one of the many people working on a film makes or breaks it, but everyone can choose to push it towards awesomeness, or let it slide into banality.
In working on a short film, keep in mind what Martin has stressed above, that acquiring good audio on set will always pay off in post-production. The better the sound, the better the overall quality of the film. So, seek to place microphones well, using a fairly directional mic. There are plenty of good manuals out there that can give you good guidance on what kinds of microphones to use for outdoor or indoor recording, as well as distance and placement of such microphones. Of course, where a microphone can be placed is largely dependent on the frame. So keep in mind that director, cinematographer, and boom operator all need to communicate with each other and know what each shot will be, how much dialogue will be covered, and which character the shot will be focused on.
For “Cold October,” we used an Audio-Technica ATR55 shotgun mic directly into the camera. Jeff Martin monitored the sound with Sony headphones. For “Always Reaching,” we predominantly used an Oktave MK-12 for indoor recording. It was run into a Shure FP33 mixer where it was split into two channels, with one at regular recording levels, and one as a back up at a softer level. This way, should an actor suddenly shout and peak on the first channel, we would likely still have good audio on the second channel. Finally, the audio was sent to camera as a stereo signal. Both films were boomed above or below frame for each shot, aside from shots such as the 360-degree “steady cam” shot in “Cold October.”
Now, what if you do your best to get good sound on set, and you still end up with sound that is not usable? This does happen. In fact, from my experience, you plan to get all your audio on set, but in the end, you still end up with some messy sound in places. So what next? Can an independent filmmaker expect to do ADR? What about Foley and sound effects? We’ll talk about that in part two.