Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Audio for Short Films Part 2: ADR and Foley.

So now that you’re in postproduction, your film has all been shot, the crew sent home, what happens if you need more sound? Let me assure you that this is naturally part of the filmmaking process. In fact, as nice as it might be to gather every single extra sound effect you might need for your film during shooting, most of the time the schedule simply does not allow for this (especially on indie films). In fact, in some situations stopping everything just to grab what are called “wild tracks” of sounds during shooting may indeed be irresponsible use of the crew’s and actors’ time. Often, these sounds, referred to as Foley, are something that you or someone else can go off and record on their own once shooting has wrapped.

Gathering Foley

Many time, it’s hard to know what extra sound effects you will need until you are cutting your film. You might find that the sound of a door slamming you recorded on set during the actual take just doesn’t carry the weight and impact you were hoping for. You might actually need to get a different door slam and replace the one from the actual take with this new sound effect.

There are a few ways you can go about gathering foley sound effects and even specific environment sounds for creating ambiance for a scene. If you have access to a program with free sound effects, look through that database first, see if there is anything in there you can use. Chances are, these will be very high quality, clean sounds you can add effects to, equalize to your hearts content, and place in your film. I’ve had good experiences finding such things in Apple’s Soundtrack Pro, particularly environment sounds, such as rain, which I later equalized to sound like it was recorded inside a building while it rained outside (by knocking a lot of the highs off). Often times the name of the game is to layer two or more sounds to get the extra effect you want. In one instance I grabbed the sound of cracking wood, the sound of a hard impact, and the sound of glass breaking to create the audio of a kick that broke in a door and struck objects inside the apartment once opened, such as pictures on the wall.

Another way to gather high quality sound effects is to search the web. There are free effects out there, but I find that most often you are better off going to a well organized library of sound effects where you can pay a few dollars per sound clip you wish to download. This way, you can go though and sample folly sounds in various categories and buy just the ones that will work for your project. It’s really pretty inexpensive, and if you end up only needing two or three sound clips, you’ll spend less than ten dollars at most places. You can search for free sounds effects, but be careful. Too often free sound effects are either low quality or simply cheesy foley sounds that don’t sound real at all. You’re better off paying a few bucks. In fact, for my purposes, if Soundtrack Pro doesn’t have it, I go to a pay-per-download database of effects on the web and just buy what I need. I don’t waste my time looking for free ones. I should also note here that there are extensive sound effects libraries one can buy as a whole to have at your finger tips. In my experinece, you’ll end up paying a lot of money for something you’ll only use 5% of.

The last way to gather foley, and often the most fun, is to actually go record your own sounds. Let’s face it, sometimes things just need to be catered directly to your project. And in this way, you maintain the uniqueness of your project’s identity. I have used a Mini Disk recorder and my shotgun mic very effectively for this, gathering all kinds of sounds that have filled in the gaps in the audio mix of my short films. In fact, that’s the whole reason I still hold on to my Mini Disk recorder, because it is so portable and so capable of recording very clear, clean sound. One time, for my short film, “Cellar Door,” my friend Brenan Campbell (who did that sound mix with me) and I recorded a creaking door with my Mini Disk recorder. We then loaded that sound into the computer in the studio we were using to mix the sound. We slowed down the creaking door sound so the creaking became a strange sort of hum/rumble. We played that through the studio monitors, places a very large (6-inches wide by three feet long) think cardboard tube in front of one of the audio monitors and a mic at the opposite end of the tube to capture the cavernous sound. It was quite the creepy effect we created. It was recorded again into the Mini Disk recorder, since the studio computer was tied up playing that sound for us. The effect was great, wholly otherworldly, just what I wanted for that climatic and frightening scene of the film, a bass-heavy rush of adrenaline and very foreboding.

If you do not have the luxury of a portable audio recording device, the next best option is to hook up a good mic to your video camera and simple go record sounds directly to tape (or memory card, as the case may be). With most video editing systems, you have the option to capture just audio. This can save you some hard drive space, since all you really want is the sounds you’ve recorded, not the random video of you standing in you bathtub with a plunger making blood sucking zombie sounds.

Once you have gathered your foley, make sure you create a folder in your NLE’s project just for foley sounds. You may even want separate categories like: environments, weapons, impacts, cars, and so forth. That way, should you have multiple options for a particular sound effect, you can easily find them when you decide that the foley sound you had put in is no working.


Now, certainly you will end up needing more than just sound effects replaced in your film. Dialogue often has to be replaced in films. The name of the game is to try to get the best audio you can on set. But sometimes that’s just not going to be the case. For my short films, “Cold October” and “Always Reaching,” we did our best to grab good audio on set. But both films had scenes that took place outside, by a river, in the middle of a city. With the combination of fluctuating traffic noise and shifting wind, cutting between the audio of one take to the audio of another was just awful. At times the voices of the actors were almost obliterated by wind or cars. Onr take would be fairly clean, the next would have a truck rumbling by and wind blowing. Cutting such audio together just isn’t going to happen. We could have stood there for hours (with changing light, mind you) and tried to get perfect audio between all these variables. But there was a schedule to keep to, and as long as our shots were looking good, we just had to move on.

Thus, in both instances, ADR (additional dialogue recording, or automatic dialogue replacement) was required. For that, we were fortunate enough to go into a small studio. If you can’t get into a studio, try to find a quiet room you can set your computer up in. Then, hang some blankets on the walls, fill it with pillows, anything that can dampen the sound. You want clean audio that is virtually devoid of a sense of space. You can create that sense of space by applying reverb and careful equalization. Some audio editing programs have advanced effects to help you with that. But you need to start with clean and very clear audio. If you’re not able to use a recording studio, I would recommended using the same microphone that was used on set to record sound, this way you should have a very even match in sound quality.

If you are fortunate enough to use a recording studio, be sure it’s sound proofed and padded. Hopefully the studio will have a selection of microphones. On my last venture into ADR during the postproduction of “Always Reaching,” we used two microphones to record the audio to independent, dedicated tracks. That way, I could use a shotgun mic from above the actress doing the ADR (for a similar sound to what would have been captured on set), and I had a high-end vocal mic from the studio directly in front of the actress as well. This simply gave Heber Hernandez, with whom I did the sound mix for that film, and I the option of picking the sound quality that fit best with the film. In the end, we went with the studio mic. It was a clean, full, rich sound that played well with the images and felt consistent with the on-set audio still used in other scenes.

Now, a very important thing about ADR is trying to recreate the performance. So, be prepared to take time with you actors to enter into the character again and deliver a good performance. Trying to get lost in the moment again weeks after shooting is no easy thing. That is why ADR most often just doesn’t do the trick for many directors. The performance can be stiff, lifeless, and flat. Even the best of actors hate ADR. It’s not the same as being on set and playing opposite another actor. This is where a temptation to do ADR with multiple actors might come up. I would caution against that. Most often, you should do ADR for only one actor at a time. That way, you can focus solely on one person’s performance and do as many takes as needed. And in this way, you avoid having another body in what will likely be a small space, and you don’t waste one actor’s time while you ask them to just sit and wait while you end up working with another actor.

Your actors will need the ability to see and hear the scene you are recording ADR for. And this brings up another good point; don’t try doing ADR for individual, unedited takes. Cut your scenes first with the on-set audio. The original audio should be there as reference. In fact, you should be at a picture lock before you do ADR.

This is how I have done ADR in the studio: We have Final Cut Pro and ProTools running on the same computer. My ADR recordist, Brenan Campbell, will then create a sequence in Final Cut where he will copy and paste the very small chunk of the scene (often just one line of dialogue) several times so that what we end up with is a two or three minute audio and video loop of just that one segment. We will then show the actor the segment and let them practice a couple of times. The actor should have a set of headphones that gives him only the sound coming from the original audio (not from his mic). Then, once the actor is ready, Brenan jumps over to Pro Tools, hits record, we all toss our headphones on to monitor sound, and Brenan jumps back into Final Cut, brings up the looped sequence and makes a full screen display of it that the actor can easily watch while recording ADR. Do as many takes as you need. You can even try synchronizing a few takes to the original scene quickly to get a feel for how things are lining up, but don’t take too much time doing this. You’re actor’s time is precious too, and they don’t need to sit there in the studio while you edit audio.

Don’t be surprised if you need to equalize your ADR to make it fit with the scene. You will also need room tone, or environment sounds, for the scene for which you’ve done ADR. A scene with sound that is too clean and lacting in environment will feel unnatural. If you’re characters are standing in a cave, there will be echo to their voices as well as natural cave tones. If they are standing outside in a wide-open space, there may be no echo or reverb at all, but also hardly any bass to their voices. There would also be some breeze, birds, or any such sound appropriate for an exterior space. You’ll have to play with such effects, equalization, and environment sounds until you have a good solution. But that happen in our next step: Sound Mixing.

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