The Director’s Guide to Sound — Part One
A lot of people do understand that good sound is very important to creating a good film. No one doubts the ridiculousness of archetypical kung fu movies, loaded end-to-end with lip flap, fist hitting face sounding like a fish hitting a watermelon, or music that sounds like it belongs more in a spaghetti western. But there are a lot of directors out there who don’t understand (and don’t want to try to understand) what’s really involved in getting good sound. For the production sound, some think it is mainly a matter of mounting a shotgun microphone on a boom pole and plugging it into the camera and then having some kid (or whomever is not otherwise occupied by any important task – like going out for coffee) hold it over the speaking actor’s head–from time to time paying attention and adjusting it a little (when after paying more attention to the camera crew doing the really important stuff, he realizes it’s pointing at the wall). Well, that certainly beats using the crappy mic that’s built into the video camera–but not by much, actually.
Most dedicated production mixers liken the microphone to being the camera for sound. But unless you bring your own boom operator or are your own boom operator (itself not a really great idea), you’re likely to get little more than a yawn from the kid who is assigned to help you out and who does so begrudgingly, because there are already too many people standing around the camera. But it’s very much true. Sounds have color and tone and position and depth–just like images do. If you really want the sound and picture to complement each other nicely, you would push in the mic as you’re pushing in the camera (and the reverse when pulling back). This is one of the reasons why boom microphones are generally preferred over body mics.
Now why is it a bad idea to mix and operate the boom at the same time? Pretty much for the same reason it’s a bad idea for the same person to operate the camera and push the dolly at the same time. You just can’t focus on both tasks well, so you end up with a compromise—often manifested as the boom pointing away from the sound source while you adjust levels and clipping/noise as you walk along with the action, paying attention to where the mc is pointed. There’s only one justification for having a lone sound guy on the crew (or even no dedicated sound guy sometimes), and that’s in raw, hardcore run-and-gun style filmmaking, electronic news gathering, and documentary work. If you’re making a serious dramatic film, you owe it to yourself as a director to bring in a two-man sound crew (in Hollywood, they use three-man crews, with the utility person there to run cables, attach lavalieres to actors, and just be a general backup in case one of the other guys gets sick or something).
Finally, show your mixer/sound crew chief the respect to at least give him or her a copy of the script in advance to study. Invite her to the location scouting trips—she just might point out sound-related problems that no one else notices (like train tracks that might only be quiet at the time of the scouting trip, or maybe that the interior location has high ceilings and hardwood floors and plaster walls). Include him in a few pre-production meetings, when you’re going over the shot plan, to help him understand the blocking and camera movements—before he arrives on the set. If the extent of your interaction with your sound crew chief is to just tell him the crew call time, don’t be expecting fantastic sounding production audio every time. The sound crew need to know what is happening on set and in the story, if they are to capture dialogue that befits the film. This is not the place to get complacent and skimp.
Next blog: What can and cannot be fixed in post.