The Director’s Guide to Sound — Part Two

So the principal photography (AKA shooting) is done–what next? If you’re like most micro-to-small budget directors, you might not have reviewed dailies on a regular basis. You might have just reviewed them during a break on the first day of shooting, to make sure the camera and sound recorder were actually working right. If you do wait for the end of the production phase to really watch and listen to the footage, you might be surprised by what you have to work with, now that the actors and some of the crew members have moved on to other projects.

If the picture footage is really bad, your options may be extremely limited with respect to what you can do to salvage a finished product. Color correction and camera shake removal aside, there isn’t much that can be done if the picture is washed out or hidden in deep shadows for an entire scene. Hopefully, you’ve paid attention throughout the production phase, and consulted with both your DP and sound mixer to make sure they’re getting good stuff. Hopefully, the problems will be small enough that you can fix them in post-production. This discussion concerns what can be done to fix small production sound recording problems and to enhance or sweeten the soundtrack to really make it pull the film together as a whole.

Generally, audio post-production doesn’t begin in earnest until there is a picture lock created by the director (with the help of his/her editor). This doesn’t mean the post-production soundies have nothing to do–on the contrary, there is a great deal of work that precedes the sound editing done on the film after the picture editing is locked down. Audio files need to be ingested into the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), and possibly transcoded to a different format. The supervising sound editor will probably want to listen to the slates and a minute or so perhaps of each take to make sure what he hears is what he has in his logs. There’s a good deal of housekeeping that goes on, which I won’t go into in detail. But suffice it to say that while the director and editor are cutting the picture along with a basic sound track, the sound post-production crew are keeping busy getting ready to start their editing work.

And when you (the director) have (with the help of the editor) stitched together what you think is really the final cut–now is the time to meet with the sound editors (or possibly a single talented person does all of your editing work) to go over your ideas for fixing and enhancing the soundtrack. If you’re working in the digital video world ,more than likely, you have a basic soundtrack assembled from footage recorded direct to the camera. This audio is already in perfect sync with the picture, and while its sonic quality is generally not good enough or anything beyond a run and gun documentary production, it does serve a purpose in providing a guide track for the post-production guys. This guide track, along with sync pops will let the sound guys create an endless collection of files containing fixed/replaced dialogue, sound effects and music, which the re-recording mixer will be able to line up perfectly and then blend the final soundtrack. Simple? Well, yes and no.

So what kind of sonic magic can be done in post? Well, sound is generally divided up into three distinct stems: dialogue, sound effects and music. In Hollywood, there are usually three different teams of specialists, overseen by a supervising sound editor. In the low budget indie world, you might have but a single post-production sound person (who’ll do all the editing and mixing) plus someone to score the music (this is too much of a specialty, even at the micro-budget level to have anyone lacking music composing and performing skills create the score).

In Hollywood, the three stems are created in parallel, but in Indieworld they are usually done sequentially by the same person. First comes the dialogue editing. The gist of dialogue editing is to eliminate or minimize noises, enhance the voices, and to make the sound flow smoothly from cut to cut – normalizing volume so shots taken from different perspectives (and potentially with different microphones) sound like one continuous take. In cases where the dialogue recording is completely unusable, a form of dubbing called ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) is performed, whereby the actors come to a recording studio and watch their performances and re-say their lines. The editor then works to edit and sync these new lines smoothly into the dialogue tracks. It’s a tedious process, but it can be very effective in replacing crappy lines with good-sounding ones.

Sound effects tracks are built next. These are constructed from a combination of sounds extracted from the production recordings, sounds recorded by a sound effects recordist before or after the shoot, library effects either purchased or from a free library, and a simplified version of Foley sessions, whereby someone stands or sits in front of a microphone and dubs sounds (often sighs, coughs, hands pounding on a desk, and so forth) while watching the footage.

Finally comes the music. A composer/performer watches the (nearly) final footage and (with a director’s advice) creates music to fit the picture. The sound editor may tweak these tracks to fit the overall picture lock.

And then, the final step in constructing the soundtrack is to mix all these tracks together into a coherent whole – a process known as re-recording mixing.

It all sounds simpler than it really is, but if you want to have really great sound to match that really great picture, then you need to spend the extra effort on sound.




About Robert Gordon

Robert Gordon is a writer, musician and audio engineer based in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. He has written short stories and screenplays for short films and is currently working on his first full-length novel. Check out his Audio Engineer page on Linked in as "Rob Gordon".

Posted on September 24, 2011, in Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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