24 June 2007

The Fifteen [drops tablet]...Ten! Ten Commandments of Sound for Picture! (Part One)

Pay attention, class.

Mike Curtis over at hdforindies.com recently posted a brilliant rant/advice list called 10 Things Not To Do, detailing his "don't" list for indie/digital filmmakers. Inspired by this, I have attempted to concoct my own finger-wagging list for the audio sound of things, for filmmakers as well as other producers, directors and DP's.

(Edit: I'll preface this by stating this is mainly based on my professional experience, the majority of which has been shorts, both DV and S16; indie DV and HD features; corporate and industrials; documentaries and some reality TV. Additionally, much of what I've come up with is echoed to an extent in The Letter, which you should already have framed on your wall:)

1) Thou shalt make it a priority to shoot double system (aka: I don't care if your camera can also record audio, because it probably sucks at it).

I understand the temptation to go directly into camera: it gives the impression of saving time on set by not making it completely necessary to slate each shot, you don't have to spend time in post syncing each shot before you even begin to cut, and the audio always lives with video, so no having only one and losing the other. But doing so involves major quality compromises.

Cameras are by definition image-capturing devices, and while the audio sections have improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years, they still pale in comparison to a dedicated audio capture device, with 24 bit uncompressed PCM recording capability. Some may argue that 24 bit isn't necessary, given that most systems can't reproduce 144 dB dynamic range, and they may be right. But the fact is, everything you record out in the field is going to go through at least some sort of shake'n'bake in post, and having the (theoretically) lower noise floor and head room concurrent with greater bit depth allows for a cleaner signal after the fact, especially when summing multiple tracks.

And, in more practical terms, going double system means one fewer cable tethered to the camera, one fewer set of switches to be accidentally bumped to the wrong setting, and allows the person responsible for the audio recording to actually control and directly monitor the audio recorder. What a concept, eh?

2) Thou shalt budget or make arrangements for a dedicated boom operator (aka: No, the boom op is not just another "carbon-based stand").

I've been on several low/no budget shoots where, as production sound mixer, I was promised a boom operator, since I don't personally know of any that would do the job for free (for which I don't blame them in the slightest).

Inevitably, production assigns me either a Craigslist volunteer who's never operated before, or someone who "totally went through the audio program at the Art Institute", and thinks that learning game audio for post qualifies them for the position. I've worked with both, and while they've all been perfectly nice people who really gave it their all, the simple fact is that it's too critical a job to just drop on whoever is within arm's reach.

The audio department's job is to shoot your sound, just as the camera department's job is to shoot your picture.

Good boom ops know acoustics, microphones, and lighting techniques. They have to be able to direct the boom to the right actor on cue, silently, while making sure not to cast a visible shadow. They have to be physically agile, able to walk backwards while not running into camera rigging or tripping over dolly track. They have to be able to hold a boom fully extended over their head for hours a day.

To help non-audio folks better understand this, I offer this litmus test: WWCD (What Would Camera Do)? Try posing audio issues as camera issues, and make your decisions accordingly.

Would you really expect to shoot your movie if the camera operator was someone who had never touched a camera before in their life? If you wouldn't ask this of the camera department, don't expect the audio department to do it.

3) Thou shalt accept the fact that "we'll fix it in post" is TOTAL BS.

We've had sync-sound cinema (the art, not this blog :) for about 80 years, yet we as filmmakers keep making the same mistakes time and time again.

Somewhere, someone decided that audio shall defer to picture, and it has been down hill ever since. Routinely, people make decisions that are penny-wise and pound-foolish, laboring under the illusion that it is magically fixable in post.

Of course, I live on planet earth and realize that sometimes, some things are truly, completely unforeseeable and beyond production's control. These instances are what ADR was invented for, not because you want to save a few minutes on the schedule and decide to press on with that intimate dialog scene, even though a leaf-blowing brigade has just begun maneuvers not 50 feet away.

It can be as simple as waiting for clean backgrounds. In WWCD terms, it would be like this: instead of locking down a perimeter, you just decide to roll with bystanders wandering into the background of the shot, with the idea that you'll simply remove them digitally in post. While this is technically possible, any director who actually tried run their set in this manner would be hauled away to spend some quiet time in a padded room, and with good reason. Why spend all that time and money to get a final product that is guaranteed to never be as good as if you'd just shot it clean to begin with? Yet, audio is asked to do this daily.

4) Thou shalt learn how to properly slate each and every shot.

Yes, even now, and even with digital formats.

Everyone thinks that it takes too long to fill out a slate, drop it in, read it, and then clap the sticks. But without it, you are setting yourself up for some very expensive and time-consuming frustrations.

While you may plan on cutting you film yourself right now, that may change. Or, down the line, you may want to have someone else re-cut it, or bring certain shots into their system for color-correction or VFX. This may happen months or years later, and though it still feels fresh in your head, that will fade when you have some distance between you and the trenches of the set.

Additionally, if you shoot single-system (grrrr...), you may end up with audio that needs some specialized clean-up. Rather than bring over DV or HD clips, the operator may just want the audio files themselves. I've saved my own behind with just this sort of thing, because if I hadn't insisted on slating every shot on this particular single-system shoot, post would have had one hell of a time (and by time, I mean many, many hours) trying to re-sync by eye and ear.

This is my own particular philosophy when it comes to slating: Label everything, and do so with the idea that, upon wrap, you should be able to put all the raw material into a box, hand it to an editor you've never met before, and the editor should be able to construct a rough cut from the slate info alone, without ever having read the script.

And with media continuously being re-purposed after its initial release (whether for director's cuts on DVD, re-broadcast in another market, etc.), fastidious slating can facilitate ease-of-use years down the line.

5) Thou shalt not labor under the illusion that wireless mics are "magic".
(aka:
Director
"Hey, can we do anything about all that clothing rustle?"

Mixer

"Yes, either re-frame to allow a boom in, or make the actors do it naked."
Director
(beat, thinking)
"Naked, you say?"

Mixer

"Sigh...")


Sometimes, there simply is no other way to cover a scene. Wireless mics can be incredibly useful tools in these circumstances.

Where we run into trouble is when production dictates that everyone simply be wired, merely because they don't want to have to make a decision about where frame is going be, or have to communicate this information the audio department, or, after taking an hour to light a set, give the boom op five minutes and a rehearsal to figure out mic placement and shadows (you'll notice that I said "production", and didn't simply lay it at the feet of "camera". It isn't "us vs. them". Sets are run from the top down. If production treats audio with the same respect that they show other departments, many of these problems I'm talking about would go away).

With some shows (and more often with single-system), you have more mics than available recording tracks, forcing you to mix-down on set. While this can be fine for the most part, you run the risk of an RF hit from one mic spoiling what was otherwise a perfectly good feed from another, simply because they're sharing a track.

Also, due to their placement on the body, wireless mics mainly pick up only voice, and little else. That means that everything else (even footsteps and prop handling that could have been captured clean on set) will now have to be foley'd. Plus, you miss some other, more ephemeral qualities, the "air" of a room, when you don't boom the shot.

And, as mentioned in the "aka", if you choose clothing based simply on how it looks, you run the risk of having wardrobe that makes wireless mics useless due to uncontrollable clothing rustle.

There are other options besides wiring actors,as well. Here is my own list of audio coverage tactics, rated in order of preference:

A) Boom from above.
B) Boom from above (not a typo. It's that important).
C) Boom from below.
D) Hard-wired plant mics.
E) Wireless plant mics.
F) Wireless body mics.

Reality check: On the job, I work for the producers, and will do whatever they need to get the job done. This is simply some proselytizing whose sole purpose is to encourage better audio quality in film and TV production.

(I also know that some folks may be wondering about Robert Altman, and his being famous for wiring his actors to allow improvisation both for performance and camera. From all accounts, Altman pulled this off because he had the clout to insist that the audio department be properly budgeted and equipped for multi-channel recording on set. Indeed, California Split is famous for being one of the first films to record more than two channels of sync-sound.)

Okay, enough ranting for today. Stay tuned for Part 2, which you can read here.

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