If I had to pick one constant among independent film festival submissions it would be unintelligible dialogue. The cause of desperation of every director; the bane of every mixing engineer’s existence; the source of suffering of your friends and family, forced to go through a whole movie they don’t understand because the actors’ words simply can’t be heard. This and many other nuances of your film’s sound are the victims of a few often overlooked details, which in turn result in the delivery of a subpar soundtrack, driving your audio post team insane and wasting production money. Good news is these mistakes can very easily be prevented. You can start by tackling a few key issues often associated with your role.
Author: Jai Mansson
Sound is half of the moviegoing experience, but unfortunately, many directors only realize that after they have heard their disastrous soundtrack in front of an audience. Mistakes will make you a better filmmaker, but if you want to be proactive about it there are a few steps you can take to get started.
Consult your audio team before locking locations. If you are considering shooting key story moments next to a highway, close to a factory, or underneath an airplane take-off zone, you are either going to need to plan ahead or change your location altogether. Whether it's the sound of a car going by or the chatter of a crowd noise can very easily be added in post-production, but it is hard or impossible to remove (ever wondered why most TV shows shot in the noisy streets of New York sound so bad?) The production sound crew or the sound designer will be able to give you invaluable advice on your location choice. Depending on the budget of your movie and the different professional figures involved, this task might fall on the producer or location scout so have them talking with your audio team, but unless you trust these people blindly as a director you might want to get involved in this first hand.
Involve your sound designer during pre-production. Your sound designer (or supervising sound editor) will oversee the creation of the sound of your film, artistically and technically, and to help you translate what’s on the page into a beautiful soundtrack you should involve them all the way from script revisions to the final audio post-production stage. Their sound-oriented approach to storytelling will likely bring a sensibility to your project that finds cheap and artistic sonic solutions to your seemingly expensive and complex problems.
Production Sound Recordist
Clean audio with enough headroom, separate room tone and a reasonably constant level between takes are all very basic elements that any production sound professional will be able to deliver. However, there a few often overlooked details that will exponentially improve your film soundtrack.
Always use a lavalier along with the boom mic and if the budget doesn’t allow it then cut some other expense. As controversial as some might consider this, in any dialogue driven film the lines recorded on set are the single most important element of your production. That lavalier will save you when there’s a problem with your boom mic when the room you are shooting in is too noisy or reverberant (
lavstend to pick up more of the actor’s voice than the rest of the sound in the room) and in many other common situations. Using your budget to rent microphones and wireless transmitters is not remotely as satisfying as spending it on beautiful camera lenses, but if your dialogue is occasionally unintelligible your audience might lose key elements of the story and if you are unable to communicate the story to your audience, why are you even shooting a film in the first place? Good news is that an extra mic is going to cost you a fraction of that sexy lens.
Properly name and organize audio assets you are delivering to your editor. It is unthinkable to have someone who has not been on set to go through hundreds of nameless or badly organized files and try to make sense of them. I have once received a dialogue session to edit where the files were not named properly. I pointed it out to the director who told me that “the sound guy does that sometimes” and thought that I was going to sort hundreds of nameless snippets of audio. I usually go out of my way to accommodate an extra request, but this was simply a monumental task so I left it for them to figure out. The dialogue actually sounded pretty good, but I would never recommend that sound guy to anyone. Also, remember that metadata is your friend.
The picture editor has a very similar role to that of a re-recording mixer in that they get to choose what piece of information is the most worthy of being presented to the audience. Everything the picture editor does will influence the work of the mixer, so delivering their assets in a way that makes sense should be a priority.
Properly naming and organizing your session’s tracks will dramatically speed up the sound editor/mixer work and yours too. Keeping separate tracks for the dialogue, music, sound effects, room tones, … will ensure people further down the production chain can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on with a bird’s eye view of a session they are looking at for the very first time. The same goes for learning the difference between a mono and a stereo (or larger channel count) file and always keeping them on separate tracks in your session.
Make sure your session is exported in a proper manner and with all the assets necessary for other people to do their job. I have lost count of how many times I have received a video with a codec that is not compatible with Pro Tools or a session with no video file at all! This is a waste of time for all the people involved, which translates into a waste of money for the production. And remember: not printing timecode on picture is a crime.
(A Very) Special Mention: The 2-pop
Any session carrying audio synced to video should always include a 2-pop, no matter which post-production department the session is coming from or going to. The 2-pop is a burst of a 1 frame long 1kHz sound playing 2 seconds before the first frame of action (FFOA.) This means that if your picture starts at timecode 01:00:00:00, your 2-pop should be placed at 00:59:58:00 and play for 1 frame. Coupled with the universal film leader, this provides a foolproof way of being able to tell whether video and audio are in sync. The importance of this seemingly tiny element cannot be overstated.
When I was in college, one of my teachers used to tell me that a session without the 2-pop will almost guarantee an assistant losing their job. Back then this sounded like an exaggeration to me, but I quickly realized how right he was as soon as I received my first session without that reassuring “beep”. You never want to be left guessing, dragging a whole post crew with you in the process and potentially wasting the time of dozens of people (or worse, delivering an out-of-sync mix!) I sure wouldn't take that risk and you shouldn’t either. Always spare the 10 seconds necessary to place a 2 pop in your session.
Although less relevant in the digital world, I always also request for a tail pop to be included. The tail pop assures no drifting has happened between audio and video and it should be placed, you guessed it, 2 seconds after the last frame of action (LFOA.) Just like the 2-pop, the tail pop should be 1 frame long and output a 1kHz tone. Some consider it obsolete, but it has helped me in a few occasions and it is such a cheap and quick way to guarantee peace of mind that I don’t see why you shouldn’t be taking advantage of it.
All of the above-mentioned mistakes can easily be avoided by communicating with your audio team ahead of time. When I am mixing or doing sound design for a project, I always hand in a text file with my delivery requests listed in bullet points and I would want others to do the same with me: it takes any guessing out of the equation; it can be referenced at all times without bothering your collaborators; it can provide you with a different workflow perspective you might not have considered before.
As you can see a lot of emphasis was put on production dialogue recording. Dialogue is the most important and most delicate element of your soundtrack and, as much as you can massage it, badly recorded dialogue can only go so far. Sure, you can ADR it, but not only does that cost money, any actor will tell you that conveying the same emotional response alone, in a dark recording booth is really hard and often times the final result simply won’t be the same as the original performance.
You’ll notice a few notable omissions in this article, namely the sound editor and the music composer: I feel like their delivery specs are so strictly dependent on each sound designer/engineer’s preferences that any blanket statement would simply be useless. Also, keep in mind that every task mentioned in this article can be passed on to another professional figure depending on the size of your production, but they remain fundamental blocks in the construction of your movie.
Your film is 50% picture and 50% sound and a beautiful, professional delivery of the latter will take a small toll on your budget, your time and your energy if planned ahead. Keep that in mind and your product will surely stand out from the herd.
Andreas Russo is a sound designer and the founder of Noise Blender, a boutique audio facility focused on providing premium sound design for film and commercials. He works in close collaboration with agencies and directors to deliver a soundtrack that is custom tailored to their story and enhances the client’s vision. Andreas’ services are trusted by Universal Pictures, Landor, Enel, EY, Sencit Music and many others. You can check out his work, hire him, or say hi by visiting noise-blender.com and andreasrusso.com.