A Sound Guy Sounds Off

Hi all,

Please excuse me, but I have to get this off of my chest.

What is it with Producers and Directors who relegate the sound of their films to an after thought? Without sound a film is just a bunch of pretty pictures without meaning. And yet many refuse to budget a reasonable amount of money to the sound of their project.

I get at least a dozen requests each week to do work on a project for credit and promises of future paying work, which, of course, never materializes. "But it's a great project!" If I had ten bucks for every time I heard that I would have paid off my studio by now!

It cost me over $50k just to sonically isolate and treat my studio. Then there are thousands of dollars in software (which constantly needs to be upgraded) and many more thousands in hardware such as computers, mixing, mics, pre-amps, audio patching, electrical distribution and speakers. Oh, and let's not forget video monitoring and such mundane things as studio furniture. Then there are electrical and phone bills, FTP, etc. It all has to be paid for!

SOUND IS HALF OF THE EXPERIENCE

Why is it that less than 5% your budget goes towards the sound of your film?

Why is it that the production sound mixer (if they even bother to retain one) is an inconvenience to be worked around?

Why is it that they want the sound designer to somehow magically make a scene (or entire project) work?

Try watching a film with the sound turned off and see if you can figure out what’s going on. Then listen to it with the picture turned off. Which medium provides the most information?

Many of the “classic” films made in the last 30 years or so included the sound designer in the pre-production process. Many of the “great” directors pay an enormous amount of attention to the sound of their films. Maybe this is why they are stand-outs.

Sound has been relegated by many to a “technical” exercise. Believe it or not, sound designers are just as creative as your production designer, DP/cinematographer, or any other person associated with your project. A sound designer can immeasurably improve your work if consulted during pre-production. In conjunction with your location sound engineer, involving the sound designer during the pre-production process can provide new insights into your work, refine your shot list, quantify your props and streamline the post production process, ultimately saving you time and money.

I’m sorry for the long diatribe, but it needed to be said.
 
I whole heartedly agree with you. But, there are reasons. While in the end, they're not great or correct (for what a movie maker wants to accomplish), they are the normal truth.

1. A camera is completely different then a mic. Not everyone can create a great angle or shot, but anyone can hold a mic over a person's head.

Of course, once they watch the footage and hear the problems they look for ways to correct it. That's where you come in.

2. Many micro-budget movie makers don't have the time (or experienced actors) to worry about volume and rehearsal runs for sound levels. Most of the time it's one or two takes and onto the next.

3. Most people honestly believe that as long as the sound is on tape, that it can be corrected in post-production. That hums, pops, bg noises can be removed in an instant and that the sound will be perfect.

4. Many people don't hear the problems that soundmen do. When I was recording with my band, we worked with an excellent engineer who heard things no one else in the room could. He'd point them out, and suddenly it was all you could hear.

From my own personal experience. We plugged our mic right into the XL-1. I checked levels on the camera's meter, and I paid for it in the end. The soundman I hired had the sound over a year and he was completely useless. The only thing I could use was the ADR work we did at the studio. Luckily I got a guy who loves doing little projects and he made the dialogue tracks the best they could (very good, but not perfect).

The bizarre part is, for my next flick, I'm getting an on-the-set soundman and my E. P. can't understand why.

Working with sound is a completely under appreciated art-form. Because, unless sound really sucks, no one notices. But, if the camera unintentionally focuses on an ear while the stars are kissing, that will be noticed.
 
SOUND IS HALF OF THE EXPERIENCE .........
Try watching a film with the sound turned off and see if you can figure out what’s going on. Then listen to it with the picture turned off. Which medium provides the most information?


Very true. In many cases, such as a shaky-cam BLAIR WITCH or CLOVERFIELD, I would say 80%. Before I started shooting film, my first stories were made on audio tape, like Radio Mystery Theater. When I got around to shooting shorts and features with silent Bolex and Canon Scoopic cameras, the sound had to be totally recreated or wild synced.

Like you, I was cajoled into recreating soundtracks for others. Total foley jobs - footsteps, wind, punches, gunshots, etc. Yes - back in the pre-internet days, I had to take a gun out to the country and record blasts and ricochets. Nothing like placing a microphone next to the rock you are shooting at! :lol:
 
I would both agree with you but I actually can understand not doing sound properly. Does the sound suck at the end if not done right? Yes. That's a given. However, having bad sound can be forgiven if your visuals are awesome. Remember film and video are a visual medium. It's not like listening to the radio where sound is 100% of what is going on. When the first movies were made there was no audio except for maybe a piano in the hall where the movie was being shown. And guess what? People still enjoyed themselves and could understand what the story was and what was going on. That is still true today. We work in a visual medium. I CAN turn the television on mute and still get what is going on and am able to follow the story. I can't however listen to just the sound. Sorry, it is just the way the world is. When you are talking about indie-films most people sit back and say "Well, even if I have some kind of sound, and you can remotely tell what they are saying that can be forgiven." Does it suck? Yeah. But can we do completely without sound? Yeah. It has been done and the movie still gets watched.

Don't get me wrong I agree with you that people should budget for good sound, it definitely adds to the viewing experience. But I think this will be one thing that continually gets over looked. Don't let it discourage you, stick to your guns and keep educating us indie-filmmakers. Eventually we might "get it".
 

Uranium City

Pro Member
indiePRO
SOUND IS HALF OF THE EXPERIENCE

I disagree...I think it's more than half the experience. I can't tell you how many movies or high-end television dramas I see lately where the dialog is impossible to hear. In that situation, I don't turn it up and rewind, I shut it off. The most brilliantly scripted, beautifully shot story is useless if dialog can't be heard. So keep up your weekly audio beatdowns, Alcove...I look forward to them eagerly!
 
I spent about three weeks working with my editor on the visual portion of the film. I am now in week 5 working on the sound. No problems with the recorded dialogue, on set soundman did a stellar job. The 5 weeks has spent on foley "The murmuring voices and other hallway sounds we added in this scene are too much, they not enough in this other scene", "Don't forget the outside sounds should get louder when he opens this door", "Don't forget he had to have entered that room through a door, we shold hear it close behind him even though it's out of frame", etc... etc... then there is the work with the composer on the original score, and the two scenes that should have music in the scene coming from a practical source (a record player in one and a radio in another). The audio portion is 1/2 the film, and takes a tremendous amount of work. I wish I was in a position to have someone like Alcove working on it, because it would probably be finished by now.
 
I completely agree with you Bob. I think one of the reasons that so many indie filmmakers do not understand how important audio is to their productions is a lack of experience.

I had to make several films with bad audio before I finally "got it." It was a progression, starting with using an on camera mic, to wireless lavs, to a good quality boom on a mic stand, etc. before finally realizing that having a soundman on set was not a luxury, but essential.

I'm now at a point where I don't embark on the production if I can't afford the sound guy, but it took me quite a while to get there.

Speilberg has been quoted as saying that "sound is 50% of the experience," you think maybe he knows what he's talking about? ;)

In my opinion, when the sound is bad, the audience 'feels' it, even if they don't know exactly what they're reacting to, a movie with bad audio just 'feels amateurish' - more so than a movie with top notch audio and a sub par picture quality.
 
I don't envy your jobs. That's for sure.

It's the one area of filmmaking that confuses me even more than trying to learn about cinematography.
 
In many cases, such as a shaky-cam BLAIR WITCH or CLOVERFIELD, I would say 80%.
I HATE Blair Witch. It's an okay film, but it's created a myth about low/no/micro budget filmmaking. What most filmmakers fail to realize is that the distributor spent over one million dollars on audio post - and most of the film as looped - in order to make it palatable to the movie-going public.

However, having bad sound can be forgiven if your visuals are awesome. Remember film and video are a visual medium.
I respectfully disagree. Almost since its inception film has been an audio/visual medium.

When the first movies were made there was no audio except for maybe a piano in the hall where the movie was being shown. And guess what? People still enjoyed themselves and could understand what the story was and what was going on.
The single piano player is a cliche, although it was true for the very small theatres. Actually, most film theatres in the big cities had an orchestra playing the score and up to a dozen people behind the screen performing live sound effects.

-*-*-*-*-

Excerpts from Uses of Sound in Early Cinema - Considering the Contradictions of Silent Cinema’s lack of Silence
© Wendy McCredie

...However to consider early cinema to be an entirely silent would be to do those early experimenters a great disservice. Not only were various experimental technologies in synchronised sound tried out over the years but also a whole variety of other elements made the experience of the early cinema-goer anything but silent.

...The musical score is the best-known aural element of early cinema. Perhaps because due to the lucrative nature of privately producing accompaniment music for films, led to detailed records being kept. Certainly newspaper reports on major film premiers of the time often make reference to the size of the accompanying orchestra and effectiveness of the score.

...Originally cinema sound effects were produced in the theatrical tradition: backstage and shaped by the skill and ingenuity of the individual sound person. However, a portable mechanical contraption came into use that could be hired out to individual theatres. This meant the same sound was created at each screening of the film, creating the same affect every time.

-*-*-*-*-

You may find this article of interest:

http://web.archive.org/web/20031203095914/http://www.windworld.com/emi/articles/soundeffects.htm

-*-*-*-*-

You also should check out filmsound.org for a lot of great information on the history and practices of sound & film plus hundreds of great articles about sound in specific films.
 
So how is a sound designer involved in pre production. Lets say a director said to you "we're going into pre production now and i want you involved but i dont know what you would do in pre" what do you say?
 

directorik

IndieTalk's Resident Guru
indiePRO
1. A camera is completely different then a mic. Not everyone can create a great angle or shot, but anyone can hold a mic over a person's head.
And anyone can point a camera at a person.

Anyone can hold a mic over a persons head, but very few
can consitantly capture the words coming from that person
with clarity. The boom operator is one of the most misunderstood,
under appreciated professional on a set. Especially on a no
budget shoot, a good sound mixer and boom op can seriously
save a production.
 
So how is a sound designer involved in pre production. Lets say a director said to you "we're going into pre production now and i want you involved but i dont know what you would do in pre" what do you say?

I don't make big-budget films, but in pre-production on my stuff I find it's important to talk about strategies for capturing audio (booms, lavs, etc.) and also to make sure that the locations I've chosen will work for the person recording sound.

There have been a couple of times that I've had to change locations after my sound person noticed a particular noise or something of the sort that would've made getting on location sound all but impossible.
 

indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
Go ahead and hire an inexperienced boom operator, and see how your sound turns out. This just goes to show how misunderstood sound is.
 
Just my two cents... I think that film CAN be a visual medium. I think that for most of it's history and in it's current incarnation it's an audio-visual medium.

And seriously, mothers, don't let your kids grow up to have bad sound.... I'm at the all my friends are in film school type age... and at least at my school (granted, not exactly a reputable one.. Stan Brakhage anyone ;p ) a lot of people are getting in the habit of having godawful make me want to kill my self sound not because they can't afford to do better but because they won't. I have literally seen kids spend over $5'000 on student shorts that had dialogue less intelligible than people can get out of in-camera mics. These movies will be useless to them as a calling card because no one is going to keep it turned on longer than the first 30 seconds. If your movie is awesome, in the right genre, and lucky beyond all belief then MAYBE someone will forgive terrible sound/pay to ADR it. For most of us, godawful sound is a really popular way to mark ourselves as less than professional.

Every single project I've done I've had major sound troubles in post because I've done the audio/boom/etc myself... and I've always taken sound relatively seriously. I may have to go DIY on my current project (though I'm trying raise enough to hire a professional) and I plan to make my camera man work around the mics not vice versa, and the absolute best I am hoping for if I go DIY is the poor end of adequate...
 
I HATE Blair Witch. It's an okay film, but it's created a myth about low/no/micro budget filmmaking. What most filmmakers fail to realize is that the distributor spent over one million dollars on audio post - and most of the film as looped - in order to make it palatable to the movie-going public.

Absolutely. Same with EL MARIACHI. None of these low budget wonders get released without a professional do-over of their soundtracks. When the screen is getting hard to look at, because your getting motion sickness, that audio becomes more than 50% of the experience. CLOVERFIELD had the shaky cam, but it also had a budget. I don't know if you've heard the audio on that, but it's incredible.

Composers also get the shaft, as music is often the last consideration in a film's schedule. Shooting goes over a few weeks longer and the composing window gets smaller. I finally gave up composing/sound fx for hire and now just concentrate on scoring my own work, or those of great interest.
 
So how is a sound designer involved in pre production. Lets say a director said to you "we're going into pre production now and i want you involved but i dont know what you would do in pre" what do you say?
A sound designer "listens" to the script as opposed to a DP who "sees" it. Where a cinematographer looks at the beach and sees the sunset and the reflections on the water a sound designer hears the seagulls and the sound of the waves.

An audio person lives in a world of full of sounds and interprets the world that way. So when I am involved with putting together the shooting script that is my viewpoint of the characters and the story, the aural world in which they live. What sounds are important to him/her? What does where they live sound like? What does their job sound like? Their car? What sounds do they react to or ignore? And so on.

As an example; I worked on a short about an introverted teenaged writer. Since he was a writer I heard the sounds of pen/pencil on paper or tapping away at a laptop. Since he is isolated that is my sonic perspective on the ambiences. So instead of the original shot showing him alone in the schoolyard we started with the sound of pencil on paper, faded in over his shoulder to show him writing. As the shot pulled back the sounds of the schoolyard were introduced before you saw where he was. We hear footsteps (added tension; friends or enemies?) and he slams his journal shut - he never lets anyone read what he writes - legs appear in the shot and then we hear the voices of his few friends. With a combination of sound and visuals we have now - without dialog - given a lot of information about the character and his situation.

It's just a different perspective/interpretation of the script; I tend to hear it as a radio play, so to say.
 
I get at least a dozen requests each week to do work on a project for credit and promises of future paying work, which, of course, never materializes.
I also do sound, but I'm getting out of this "business" because there is no money in independent films. Lions Gate used to pay 50K for a indie film, now they barely pay 5K. There's too many movies being made and that is driving the prices paid for movies WAY down!
But there's always someone who is trying to "get started" and who will take these slave labor jobs for points (that as you say NEVER materialize) or for "$500 to master our entire 90 minute movie" (LOL). I am always amused by the "slave labor" ads on Craig's List.
Audio editing equipment has become so cheap that there's tons of people with home computer setups and pro tools, Emagic, or Nuendo. Especially in Los Angeles. There's 50 ZILLION people here trying to be sound editors, Final Cut Pro editors, motion graphic editors, etc.
Unless you can establish yourself as one of the "go to" studios for top-notch, high budget productions you are in for a struggle in this new movie economy, dealing with no budget low-ballers.
 
i definitely agree that sound can have a HUGE impact on the feel/effectiveness/mood of a film. to me, one of the best examples of how powerful sound can be is david lynch's first film "eraserhead".... soooo much of that story/world is told through sound. such an incredible soundscape was created for that film.... so many weird sounds going on that, together, add up to a weird and strange world/reality that is gripping and unnerving and draws you in. i highly recommend it.

i've tried to get good sound on my films... seems like things always end up getting messed up though. i've definitely had to learn the lesson that things never go exactly as you want them to ;)
 
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