A little about me: (and my 40 year career in sound). I was born in a trim bin. In Hollywood! If you don’t know what a trim bin is then you’re a lot younger than me! I have worked in the industry as a sound editor since 1973. My mother, KAY ROSE, was the first female sound editor to win an Oscar for Best Achievement in Sound Editing for the Mark Rydell directed film, THE RIVER. I was privileged to work with her for about 25 years. My love of movies started with my mom, who was a film aficionado. Stories were a big part of my life, whether in books, in films, in plays, musicals, opera or just sitting around telling stories.
I started making up my own stories when I was about three. My mind was inventing, creating and doing stories all the time and while using my story telling skills in the sound editing arena, I’ve really wanted to write and direct my own stories. I was in the Directing Workshop for Women from AFI, where I made my first short. I then went on to write/direct two other shorts and about a dozen commercials, PSAs and spec ads.
I have learned how to save money and time from being both a sound editor and a director.
Here’s what you should know as a filmmaker about sound.
Sound is one of the most misunderstood aspects of making a film. So much so, that even top directors don’t want to know or care to know what sound can bring to the table. I think a director should know enough about every job on a set or in the editing bay to both understand what happens and to be able to speak the language of each department.
Having great sound for whatever level project you have STARTS ON THE SET.
And it starts before you even get to the set!
Sound starts in the script.
Look in your script for how SOUND can contribute to the story. Sound is the environment of your film. Even a documentary needs to have well-recorded sound. The screenwriter will have important sounds CAPITALIZED. You can use these as a guide.
The goal of good production mixing is capturing the VOICE as cleanly and as ON MIC as possible. Sounds can always be ADDED – they’re a lot harder to take away. If your mixer needs to hold the take so an airplane isn’t in your track, thank him or her for watching out for you in post! Airplanes, since they are cyclical, are the hardest things to try and eliminate. You don’t want your best take ruined by the sound of a plane because you didn’t want to wait a minute!
Go to the set or location and LISTEN. Is there an airport nearby, traffic, lots of wind, lots of people talking, the ocean?
If you have to shoot in noisy locations, talk to your production sound mixer about how best to achieve that.
The production sound mixer is your most important ally. He/she will watch your rehearsals and figure out the best way to capture good sound.
Good sound is when the voice is above the noise floor and is ON MIC.
A BOOM mic is best for capturing dialogue as well as ambient sound. They are more reliable than LAV mics, but you need a good and experienced BOOM OPERATOR. Do NOT let your cousin, Larry volunteer to hold the boom. You will make up for it later! Trust me. Lav mics can go rogue at any time! Yet you sometimes need them. It’s best to have both LAVS and a BOOM. A LAV provides hidden, close up sound recording. It does not pick up ambient sounds like footsteps, background air, other ambient sounds.
DO NOT RECORD with CAMERA SOUND ONLY! (Especially for your fundraising campaigns!) and ALWAYS record sound. You never know when you need it! Even for a montage. You might think you’ll never need sound, but try reading lips months later when you realize you really want to hear what they’re saying.
Camera sound only is not professional. It does not record close up unless the camera is right near your actor’s mouth!
Now, if you’re doing a low budget production using a DSLR like a Canon 5Dor 7D, there are low budget solutions to get big budget sound. You can use a separate sound source like a ZOOM or Tascam recording device.
It has XLR inputs and ¼” inputs. You can record four or six track stereo recording, depending on the device you get. It can easily be mounted on the camera with some extra options, but it gives a one man/woman-band filmmaker the ability to record good sound. Along with this digital recorder, you get a couple of lav mics, you’re pretty much set.
BUT, if you can afford it, hire a good production mixer who comes with all the possibilities of mics for every situation. A word of caution: Make sure you listen to what the production mixer is hearing. A good mixer will probably give you your own set of headphones so you can hear what is being recorded. Listen for good voice above the noise floor level. If you can hear the voice clearly above whatever noise is in your environment, then that is good! Make sure your headphone volume is set correctly. VOLUME is not PROJECTION. If your actor is speaking so softly that you can’t hear it above the ambient noise, then you need to talk to your actor. Communicate with your production mixer often. Like you do with your DP.
Here’s my motto for sound: IF IT SOUNDS GOOD, IT IS GOOD!
Here is a link to a great article every filmmaker should read and re-read. It has lots of hints about how to get good production sound on the set.
It deals with issues like: where to put the generator so that it doesn’t get on your sound tracks. Are you shooting with two cameras? In which case, you have to accommodate the widest camera, so make sure your actors are laved! (In other words, you have a wide master shot and a medium close up using two cameras with different lenses and frame sizes – this may save time on the set, but it’s a nightmare for sound. You can’t get the boom in close enough for a medium close up because it will be seen in the wide master camera! and if you put the boom high enough to not be seen, when you go to use the medium close up, the voice will be OFF MIC.)
Getting good sound is a process of figuring out what the problems are and how to solve them.
Another issue is costumes. Silk is your enemy to lav mics. Cotton is your friend! Leather squeaks when you move in it. If someone is in a bathing suit or naked, obviously you can’t put a lav on them!
I know that being on a set is a crazy experience as a director. You’re pulled in so many directions. Everyone needs answers, but remember, you’re going to be sitting in an editing room for months listening to the sound that is being recorded TODAY. Give your mixer one rehearsal so the boom operator will know who will speak next, so that everyone’s on mic. Not everyone on a set will love your film as much as you do. Some are there doing very technical jobs. YOU have to care about your film the most.
Another thing you should make sure to record are WILD TRACKS. Wild tracks are sounds captured without camera. They could be the ambience of the set or location you are in. These are helpful to use as SOUND EFFECTS. You do not want to take up time to record ambience on the set if it’s just for ambient sound. Sound editors have many more stereo sound effects to use for that. You want to record things that they may not have in their library. Like a train station background, or ambience that is unusual to that location and you need that exact same sound. Some production mixers make the mistake of thinking we sound editors need 30 seconds of every camera angle. We don’t. It would take up a lot of time to get everyone on the set who is busy preparing for the next shot to hold still that long! (A better way to capture ambience from the scene and take is for you as the director to say, “And……………..ACTION! - And………………. CUT"! etc.) This gives your sound editor the exact same ROOM TONE as what is in that take (which we do need). It also helps the actors and the DP to know that the scene is starting and ending. DO NOT drag out the word, “Annnnnnnnnnd…action” NO! You want a few seconds of air between “And” and “ACTION”, as well as at the end of a take.
WILD TRACKS are also useful to get VOICEOVERS and/or ADR while still on set. For example, the other side of a phone conversation. If that actor is available on set, take a few minutes and record the other side of a phone call. If you know you need additional dialogue or VOICEOVER, record it on set while the actor is still fresh in the role. Voiceovers are never shot on camera, so make sure you have your list of voiceover needs while you’re still on the set. Also, if you’re shooting with a 12 year old boy and may not get to any of his possible ADR for a while, make sure you get some wild tracks of questionable sound quality before his voice changes!
You can also use WILD TRACKS to record machinery, cars, animals – whatever is unique to where and what you’re shooting. It will give your project a freshness, with sounds already indigenous to your own project. For example, in The River, which my mom won her Oscar for sound editing, she recorded the smelting plant – all the machinery, working smelting pots etc. Things that would have taken someone a long time to gather from a sound effects library.
If you’re shooting a nightclub scene, or a bar scene, make sure you get the actors to PROJECT over music that isn’t there yet! That way, you’ll be able to mix the music in at the right level and still be able to hear the dialogue! People have a tendency to drop their level down so you, as the director, need to remind them that there will be BAR MUSIC in that scene and to PROJECT as if they are talking over the music.
ON THE SET: When you’re doing coverage (close ups, OTS shots etc), make sure your actors do not overlap each other when they are speaking, even if they overlap in the master shot, do not let them overlap on their close ups. Why? Because the actor the camera is shooting is ON MIC. The actor sitting next to the camera for eye line is NOT ON MIC. If you find they just cannot control themselves and they are overlapping each other, then have your mixer put a mic on the OFF CAMERA actor. It’s better if they don’t overlap because then, in editing, YOU can decide where to make them overlap. It gives you more options. OVERLAPPING dialogue means you are tied to that forever!
The antidote for bad or overlapping dialogue and problems with production sound is a process called ADR – (Automated Dialogue Recording), which most actors do not like to do. You will fall in love with your production sound because you will be hearing it over and over in the editing room and you will not want to change readings just to fix sound problems. It’s a fine line between choosing performance and ADR based on noise problems. See the issue? If you have to replace dialogue because of sound problems, it will be hard to recreate that performance. Better to get it right on the set! Let your sound editor have time to create great environments and sound effect sequences than spend their time FIXING badly recorded production sound.
The time it takes in editorial (which is already underpaid and overworked) to clean up bad production sound is a waste of time and money. Get it right on set so people can do their jobs and go home to their families!
Why spend money you don’t have for post for something that should have never been a problem in the first place. There is NO excuse for bad sound nowadays.
REMEMBER: IF IT SOUNDS GOOD, THEN IT IS GOOD!
About Vickie Sampson:
Victoria Rose Sampson is a writer/director, film and sound editor. She has been a renowned Feature Film Sound Editor since 1973. With over 193 titles of post-production sound work, she has edited the sound on the Academy Award winning films SPEED, THE RIVER and has won four Golden Reel Awards and an Emmy. Victoria is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a graduate of the AFI's acclaimed Directing Workshop for Women. She has written, directed, produced and edited two award winning short films as well as a dozen commercials. She directed a PSA for Women in Film about Down Syndrome. The 30 second spot won a Telly award and a Gold Aurora Award. She is also a member and Emeritus Board member of The Alliance of Women Directors. She teaches post production sound to help directors and sound professionals get the most sound bang for their buck. She will be directing SHELBY’S VACATION and SMALL WHISPERS, two short films and has been attached to direct the feature film REVOLUTIONIST. Her feature script WHO’S ON TOP? won Best Screenplay by First Ten Pages contest for Rebel Seed Entertainment and has garnered the interest of Lily Tomlin.
Information about my current film campaign SHELBY’S VACATION – a short film – can be found here: www.seedandspark.com/studio/shelbys-vacation
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