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Woody Rant: A Slight Imbalance

I offer free audio post discussions quarterly each year.  These are filled with filmmakers of all stripes, new and experienced, amateur and professional who are close to or at the time for audio post and they are hungry for knowledge.  I will generally discuss all the hot and heavy aspects of what we post sound folks do.  We talk about the production audio, we talk about the design process and elements, we talk about the mixing of the material and the types of stems required for longevity and usefulness.

I generally ask the same types of questions and each and every time I get the same types of answers.  I’ll start by asking what format the project was shot with.  I’ll hear very excited answers about HD and HDV.  We’ll talk about interchangeable lenses and progressive frame rates.  This is where everyone is excited and maybe even showing off a little for the other folks.  They’ll crow about being one of the first to shoot with the RED camera system, or that they did a film-out from HDV that looked stunning, or that they played with the all the different flavors of HD but decided that 720P was the one that fit their project best.

I can see that we are on a roll so I’ll continue with the discussion.  I’ll hear about the beautiful lighting set-ups, challenges with lighting for green screen.  I’ll hear about using monitors on set and prepping for the DI.  We’ll talk about the ruggedness of the new cameras, the ability to shoot in adverse situations or with extremely low light.

Then I’ll ask about the audio.  “What microphone did you use?”  Quiet.  “Anyone?”  One person will mutter it was mostly boom but also some radio mics.  I’ll ask what brand.  Quiet.  “Did you use an outboard mixer or straight into a camera?”  Quiet.  “How about roomtone, did we all get clean roomtone for each location?”  “Well hmmm”  I’ll point out the discrepancy between the picture and the sound.  Do we see a pattern here?

In these filmmakers’ passion for the “perfect shot” they seemed to have forgotten that it generally has audio attached to it.  And in my experience they will expect the audio to be clear and seamless when they get to the final mix.  No matter how little regard they had for it on the day of shooting.

I’ll often ask these filmmakers if they can recall a behind-the-scenes photo from the set of a well-regarded feature or TV director.  I’ll ask if they notice anything significant about them.  I’ll hear they’ve got a special lens to view shots with, or hoods over monitors to keep out the daylight.  I’ll say there is usually one thing more.  If you look you’ll see that they are generally also wearing headphones.  An experienced director not only asks the DP if he “got the shot” or to “check the gate,” he’ll ask if the audio was recorded clean.  He (or she) understands what badly recorded audio will mean when they get their program to post.

There is an old adage “we’ll fix it in the mix.”  And indeed it will be addressed and fixed if possible by then but this generally a very poor approach to filmmaking. Many problems can be easily solved on set with an experienced production mixer and a couple of extra minutes.  There is a mistaken notion that since there’s “all these people here” we don’t want to have them “wait” for audio.  If A/C, refrigerators or computers need to turned off, sound blankets hung over reverberant spaces and quiet to be had for 30 seconds of recording roomtone it can literally save days  of time in post.  All the best directors know and understand the importance of taking the time to get the best audio possible.  Don’t be picture wise and sound foolish!

One Comment

  1.   marc specter wrote:

    Fantastic stuff. Truely superb. The way I think about it is that when these inexperienced directors you talk of sit in front of the monitor on set, they see a manifestation of their ideas in front of them, and they IMAGINE the scene, they hear the perfect audio in their heads. They fail to realise that that the audio actually needs to be captured somehow in often very difficult conditions.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink