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5 Misunderstandings About Audio Post for Feature Films

You’ll find this list is filled with quotation marks. They are representative of the “powers that be” who are making assumptions about the process. You know who you are …

5. The Quickie Mix –

Or the “one-day mix”, or the “just get the levels and EQ right mix” or the “quick polish mix” – generally this is a fiction. First there are a number of things that must happen to prepare the tracks for mixing. All of the production audio must be gone over, cleaned out and moved to their appropriate mix tracks. The dialog (production tracks) needs to be edited, cut in with room tone, the PFX (production effects) track needs to be created, all SFX need to be given their own tracks, music must be pulled to their own tracks and all of these tracks need to be properly routed for the mix splits. This session will also need to contain the editors guide track as well as the spotted to sync video that will hopefully have a Timecode burn-in that exactly references the Timecode in the edit session. If ADR has been recorded or Foley has been recorded they must be cut to their own tracks and properly routed as well as cut to sync. All of these things need to occur prior to the actual mixing session. Then we have to do the actual work of mixing the tracks. EQ will be added and automated, compression and limiters added as needed, levels adjusted and audio finessed to smoothly match. Then the show must be watched in it’s entirety for notes and changes. Just the “listen session” alone will take at least the length of the program – i.e. a 2-hour show will take 2 hours to watch, then the notes and changes take time as well. Unless of course it is all perfect and requires no changes … Bottom line – a successful, great sounding movie takes time to create. If it took months to co-ordinate and shoot, months to edit, weeks to create effects, graphics and titles, to online and do the color grading why would it take a few hours to mix? After all the blood, sweat and tears you expended to create your feature would you want to short change the audio? George Lucas has rightly pointed out that sound is 50 percent of the motion picture experience.  Give your audio – production and post – the time and attention it needs.

4. A Little Bit of Foley –

Just the title implies a basic misunderstanding of Foley. Foley is a complicated art that requires at a minimum a Foley artist and a Foley recordist. On the most-simple level the movie must be spotted for Foley and decisions made regarding what Foley work is to be performed and recorded. The Foley sessions may be fully cued with beeps and cue sheets or more run-n-gun where the scene is played for the Foley artist and choices are made on the fly. Foley is an exacting art requiring proper mic placement, proper props, experienced personnel and good sounding recording spaces. After all the passes have been recorded – cloth pass, props pass, footsteps pass, any special needs passes like fighting, swords, swishes and the like – the tracks are still not complete. Now an editor must go through all of this newly recorded material and clean it up, remove breaths, clicks, bad takes, the Foley artist talking etc., and cut all of it to sync and arrange the tracks in an easy manner for the mixer to decipher. Oh yeah and it all has to get mixed in such a manner as to seem to be part of the actual production or you’ve just wasted a whole lot of time!

3. A Little Bit of ADR –

I could just say see item #4 but we’ll break it down just a little more. ADR is a complicated art that requires at a minimum the actor who’s lines are to be replaced and the ADR recordist. On the most-simple level the movie must be spotted for ADR and decisions made regarding what dialog is to be replaced. Scripts need to be created for each actor indicating each of the lines to be ADR’d. The sessions then need to be beeped for sync playback for the actor. The session needs to be created in such a way that the production audio is easily accessible for playback to the performer and the takes are assembled in a manner for easy retrieval. You never know when the director wants to “hear the take a few back” cut into the production dialog tracks for playback and approval. It’s also an exacting art where the recordists needs to understand if a particular take can be cut to sync, where the actor needs to hit the proper emotion of the scene and the director needs to be satisfied that the replacement enhances the scene rather than detracts from it. There is also of course the “social” aspect of ADR. Actors see producers and directors for the first time since production, they’ve never seen any footage so would like to watch a bit of it, they take some time to get warmed up for the session all adding up to more time involved. Now mutiply that by several performers. And that’s just the prep and recording. The takes then all need to be approved by the director which mean placing and replacing lines of ADR up against production. Even “small” ADR sessions can be hundreds of takes per actor. Decisions have to made for the “final” choices. (Note the quotes!) Then cut to sync and mixed to match the production audio seamlessly. Yeah, and let’s get that done before lunch …

2. Just clean up the dialog track –

And what we mean here is production audio. There is often an assumption that “it’s already mixed.” (See item #5) Since the producers or director or powers-that-be have lived with picture changes and notes the audio is generally in a somewhat “acceptable” state. It has to be so everyone can comment on the edit. If the music was overpowering the sync dialog there would be a real problem. Usually the problems “to be fixed” are about noise levels, distortion, clicks and pops and generally bad production audio. Cousin Joey may be cheaper than a mixer and boom man but his tracks are all off-mic and there are hums throughout the scenes. All of this will cost you in post. Time and money. When I am approached about “a quickie mix that just needs the dialog cleaned up” I can generally count on the fact that there is no room tone to be had. Roomtone is one of the most cost effective tools for post that rarely makes it to the sound editing house. (Because it’s not recorded, or mostly not recorded, or recorded with whispering or cell phones …) Most of #5 applies here – all of that prep work still needs to be done for a proper mix, and all of that mixing stuff needs to happen too. No self-respecting sound guy is going to lay something back to tape with clicks and pops and hums, if they are avoidable. And when the project length is 90 – 120 minutes it takes a lot of time to go through all of that material. But thinking that “just cleaning up” the dialog track is somehow easier or different than “the whole audio post thing” is just plain wrong.

1. It’s Just Technical -

Audio post is a collaborative effort that is spearheaded by the vision of the director and translated into reality by the supervising sound editor and his team of editors, artists and mixers. You will make just as many new choices in the audio post process as you did during the picture edit. These are not simply technical issues being hashed out although there will be many of these such as – how much EQ do you roll off to kill the generator hum or what backgrounds are needed or the level of the score over the dialog. You’ll also be making many subjective choices that affect the overall experience of the story being played out – adding reverb and sound effects choices to create atmosphere, time or place and how frequency use and gain levels create mood and tension. Audio post is a highly technical process no doubt, it also defines the pace and mood of the story. Audio post is the final pass of choices to tell the most effective story possible.