Is the Dedicated Sound Guy a Dinosaur?
Having started my involvement in filmmaking as a “sound guy” doing both production mixing/recording and post production sound editing, ADR and re-recording mixing, I have seen some changes over time with respect to the role of a dedicated sound person either in production recording or in post production. For some filmmakers, whether or not to have a dedicated production sound mixer has always been a modus operandi: some filmmakers tend to want to keep the production crew small and tight, and avoid the need to sync up sound files to video or film clips at the beginning of post production. Many filmmakers feel that there is no longer a need for a dedicated specialist to rig microphones and monitor levels. And on the post-production side, the primary editors have gained skills in sound editing, sufficient enough to warrant eliminating the need to lock the picture and then send it to a post sound person. There is some merit to the arguments that the entire filmmaking process can be tightened up by not having a dedicated sound person on crew. But there is also potential peril.
On the production side, it appears more and more often that a semi-experienced production crew member (sometimes a Production Assistant with nothing else to do) holds a boom microphone plugged directly into the camera. Technology is definitely a driver. In the early days of filmmaking, film cameras had no capability to record any sound at all—not even a guide track. And yes, I do go way back: to high school film class projects using a Bolex 155 (Super8) and college-level classes using a Bolex R16. And for sound, we used now-antique Nagra IV’s). When you hear a geezer talk about doing it “old-school”, pay attention and you might learn something about the history of filmmaking! We slated (both head and tail slates) liberally, and were fully expecting drift in those days. Post production was a completely different looking animal, replete with mechanical flatbed editing machines. We did the best we could to sync the soundtrack, but out-of-sync soundtracks was just par for the course in the early days of indie filmmaking and the audiences expected it. Not anymore! Nothing can kill the artistry of a film more than an out-of-sync soundtrack with crappy-sounding dialog.
But these days, camera sound recording capabilities have gotten so good, with 16 bit x 48 kHz audio file capability, XLR breakout boxes and physical gain control knobs built-in to many video cameras (almost nobody shoots to real celluloid anymore) that microphones are often just being plugged straight into the camera. There are even devices like the Sound Devices PIX series of recorders that can record both high definition video and multiple channels of high fidelity sound—in perfect sync! This alleviates the painstaking task of syncing video and audio in the first phase of post production editing. It also allows for instant review of a shot with both picture and sound already in sync (in the old days of Hollywood, the production mixer got the sound tapes to the editor at the end of each day’s shooting and then an assistant editor would do a quick and dirty sync up in order to show “dailies” to the director before going off for a few hours of sleep. In the Indie world the whole concept of dailies has been replaced by rewinding and playing back the footage from a video camera after each apparent “money” shot, to see if it really is the “money” shot, or if a safety take should be done.
If there is a “production sound person”, his or her role is often relegated to setting up lavaliere body mics and holding a boom-mounted mic plugged into the camera. The camera operator often is assigned the task of setting the initial audio levels. If there are no external gain controls then there is pretty much no hope of the camera operator making even a casual adjustment to the levels. While this strategy does “tighten up” the process of shooting a movie, it is not without issues and risks. First of all, the science of acoustics is complex, and while the person rigging the microphones for a low-budget Indie production doesn’t need to be an acoustics engineer, he or she should know the basic concepts of reflection, refraction and absorption of sound waves (as well as the DP needs to understand the same for light waves) in order to select the best microphone and placement technique and positioning. Nothing kills the quality of a a movie like echoic “sounds like it was recorded in a tunnel” dialogue. And then there’s a risk with the audio gain levels not being monitored and actively adjusted while the camera is rolling of clipping and dropouts when the dynamic range of a scene is wide (i.e. there’s shouting and whispering in the dialogue). It is asking too much of the camera operator to actively monitor audio levels while at the same time framing, focusing and moving the camera. At the very least, an external field mixer device should be used between the microphone(s) and the camera to allow a dedicated person to manage the audio levels. Using the automatic gain control setting on the camera’s audio inputs is not a good option for serious dialogue recording (except in guerrilla style run and gun and documentary filmmaking) as the sound often sounds artificially pumped and deflated. And finally, having a production sound specialist on set who understands the fundamentals of acoustics is a common-sense valuable commodity. This person will know which microphone to use in which situation, when and where sound blankets are needed, and where microphones should be placed to record the cleanest, clearest dialogue and minimize phase cancellation effects that can complicate post production and even ruin the dialogue to the point of requiring ADR sessions. You wouldn’t ask a Production Assistant to decide where to place a light or to style the lead actor’s hair. You shouldn’t relegate production sound duties to someone who is either under-qualified or too busy with the camera.
Technology is a driver as well on the post production side of things. Video editing software suites now include rather sophisticated sound editing and mixing capabilities. And the editors themselves are expanding their skills to include at least basic sound editing and mixing techniques. Often, the entire post production sound process is performed by the primary editor. Even when audio and video are not synced up in the camera or an A/V recording device, software such as PluralEyes makes an easy task of syncing the audio clips to the video clips using automated waveform analysis—as long as at least a crude guide track was recorded to the camera’s built-in microphones. The Indie post production sound specialist is without question becoming a rarity, just as jack-of-all-trades editors are becoming more commonplace. Very specialized audio problems such as difficult to fix noise in the audio track, may be turned over to one of these audio specialist for fixing. But even with noise removal, software applications (such as Noise Ninja, Lightroom, DeNoise, iZotope RX, etc.) are becoming more sophisticated each year. But sometimes, it takes a skilled human touch (and ear) to really polish and hone a professional soundtrack. Plus, the picture editor has so many other important tasks throughout post—often also being responsible for visual effects, title design, fixing things like shakes—without changing the timeline, and other tasks. It is often just good common sense to lock the picture and send it along with a rough soundtrack to a post production sound person for tuning and sweetening.
In conclusion, filmmakers should make a determination prior to the beginning of the production phase concerning what the needs of the production are. If the emphasis is on speed and agility (often the case in documentary filmmaking) and a small tight crew is a necessity (shooting in very confined conditions – like on a boat or in a car) then plugging one or two microphones into a camera with an external breakout box or an external A/V recording deck may be the best way to go. On the other hand, if you have the time and space and budget to have several camera and lighting guys on set, as well as maybe a script supervisor, makeup artist, hair stylist, set decorator, costumer, assistant director, production manager and a few PA’s for running gopher errands, then you really have little excuse for not bringing a dedicate production sound specialist on board to ensure the best quality audio is recorded on location. As for post production—you have the luxury of do-overs in post. If an audio editing attempt fails, the picture editor can simply undo and try again. Dedicated post sound guys may be called in for special problems and tasks. Filmmakers should always remember that sound is half of the artistic presentation, and that despite great writing, acting, directing, and cinematography, poor quality sound can ruin the entire feel of the movie. Filmmakers should not overlook the value of having sound specialists on board both during and after the production shooting.
RG December 2012