The Director’s Chair Issue #16 – July 23, 2001 (Letter from Your Sound Department – Part 3)
THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR
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July 23, 2001 Scene 2 – Take 7
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Welcome to Issue #16 of The Director’s Chair (July 23, 2001).
1) THE FEATURE ARTICLE this month is Part 3 of “An Open Letter
from Your Sound Department”. This very informative letter was
written by over 40 audio professionals to help directors and
producers understand how good sound can be recorded on the set.
2) THE DIRECTING TIP is on how to communicate with your crew.
3) Check out “THE BUSY PERSON’S GUIDE TO DIRECTING” where I
review the best Film and Television Directing Websites and keep
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7. FEATURE ARTICLE – An Open Letter from Your Sound Department
To read “An Open Letter from Your Sound Department” – Part 1
To read “An Open Letter from Your Sound Department” – Part 2
“An Open Letter from Your Sound Department” – Part 3
This letter is being written by audio professionals to help
directors and producers understand how good sound can be recorded
on the set. We want to help you make the best film possible.
Budget in a third sound person and the proper amount of audio
equipment. A third person is invaluable in getting sound problems
fixed in the crucial moments between the takes and scenes. Don’t
say “no” to any additional sound related costs without
considering the entire post budget too. Book and check that
stages are quiet. Even the newest and most modern stages often
have dimmer banks located on or so close to the stage that they
are a terrible problem.
When (not if) there is camera noise, make all reasonable efforts
to contain it by using barneys, glass, blankets, tweaking, etc.
Don’t turn the slate on and off as time code will then be wrong.
Let the mixer know as soon as a slate shows any problems. Let the
sound mixer know what frequencies are being transmitted in case
it steps on wireless mics or comteks. Be prepared to kill the
panatape when it causes microphone interference.
Hold only the frame size to be used and no more. Communicate and
work out any problems with the boom operator before the first
team is called in. Be willing to operate in a pinch with cover or
blanket over a particular noisy camera.
Directors of Photography:
Light the set so that a boom can swing overhead. Don’t use Xenon
lights unless the director was informed ahead of time that the
whole scene will have to be looped. Don’t ever say “loop it”!
It’s not the DP’s prerogative! If the DP conveys to the crew that
sound matters to the film, they will follow that lead and be more
attentive to potential sound problems. When shooting practical
car scenes, try to consider sound problems and light so that
windows can be closed where possible.
SPECIAL EFFECTS DEPARTMENT
Make a reasonable effort to keep the offstage noise making
devices away from the set and baffled whenever there is dialogue
in the same scene.
When making rain, put the rain machines and water truck as far
away as possible. Use hogs hair to muffle raindrops on roofs and
when it’s seen out a window. When a fan is used to blow a curtain
or plant, work it out with the sound mixer before the noise
problem crops up after the first take. When using fireplaces, try
to limit the hissing gas sound. Heaters close by on cold sets
need to be shut off well before rolling to eliminate the crackle
and pops from shutdown.
They can help in creatively placing the wireless in the best
possible position on the actor’s body, when asked. They should
never make negative comments about bulges that make the actors
overly conscious about wearing a body mic on them. Think about
avoiding noisy clothing, especially when the principal actors
will wear much of the same clothing throughout the film.
Never allow the actors to wear silk underclothes, especially
bras. Cotton tank top T-shirts should be put on actors when
possible to help avoid clothes rustle. Silk ties should be
avoided or at least modify the inside with cotton for primary
actors wearing the same wardrobe in several scenes. Be sound
conscious when choosing chains, necklaces and other jewelry.
Make an effort to keep noise making props as quiet as possible.
Especially in the following most common problem areas:
With guns, always let the mixer know if it’s full, 1/2 or 1/4
loads, and how many shots plan to be fired and when. With table
scenes, try to put down a pad or felt underneath the tablecloth
to muffle dish-clattering noise. Use fake ice cubes in drink
glasses. In kitchen scenes, put a cloth down where possible dish
noise will occur. Spray shopping bags with water mister to get
rid of paper noise.
Use cutters to kill boom shadows. Use all reasonable measures to
reduce dolly squeaks. Put a dance floor down if floors creak. Use
talcum powder when needed. Use blankets to deaden outside sound
from open doors and windows. Make baffle covers for the loud set
machines, fans and ballasts. Fasten down scrims that rattle in
the wind. On insert cars keep extra stands attached to speed
rails from clanging.
Keep the generator as far away as is reasonably possible. Always
use a minimum of 3 banded lengths (150 feet) to the first box,
and go back from there. Supply base camp power where possible to
avoid loud generators. Use all reasonable measures to keep lights
and ballasts from making any noise on set, and use extension
cabling to keep noisemakers off set. Run cables so that windows
and doors can close. Put variacs on problem dimmers. On insert
cars, clip and wedge funnels to keep down the rattling sound.
CRAFT SERVICE DEPARTMENT
Set up away from sets so that the coffee makers and other devices
can’t be heard, especially on stage.
Plan on pushing or pulling a particularly loud vehicle out of the
scene using human manpower when it’s possible during close-up
shots. Park the trucks as far away from set as reasonably
possible and keep the individual generators off during the shot.
Put base camp at least 1000 feet from set in quiet locations such
as deserts and mountains, and 500 feet away in city locations.
Help keep insert cars quiet. Be prepared to park a truck in front
of the generator. Instead of running car engines, use alternate
quiet power for picture vehicles that must run flashing light
effects during the coverage. Reward the companies who have taken
reasonable steps to keep quiet driving to a maximum. Especially
ask if the tail pipe has been rerouted to the front of the truck
and if the on board gennie is quiet. Use only one key alone in
the ignition to eliminate clanging keys. Don’t Armor-All the
dashboard, and use Simple Green to remove it where mics need to
be planted. Keep car interior floor area free of all the
noisemakers such as the chains, removed side mirrors, nuts and
To mixers, a good actor is a loud actor. Whenever we get together
to discuss our jobs we always talk about how good a voice an
actor has. Actors who have done a lot of stage work tend to have
learned the art of projecting their voice.
Don’t refuse to wear a wireless mic when it is necessary. Don’t
ask a boom operator to get out of their eye line. (Acting has
been done with the boom for decades. This is a dangerous
precedent we have recently started seeing.) Warn the sound
department when you will do a much louder or quieter take than
was rehearsed. Please speak louder when asked. We only ask when
we really need it.
Collaborate frequently with your sound mixer as you would an
editor, composer, DP or writer. We can also enrich your “vision”
through sound images. Find out what problems and solutions exist.
Don’t fall for the trap where you hate to see your mixer coming
because you know it’s just bad news. Your mixer will feel that
vibe and start telling you less and less until sound is no longer
a vital part of collaboration on your film.
A good rapport with your mixer will allow you to know information
about what was borderline and what you can barely get away with.
If you simply trust that the mixer is getting good sound, you may
be mistaken. It is always possible that the mixer has given up
fighting the good sound battle and succumbed to the lack of any
positive response to their efforts.
Very often, sound problems are not discovered until the last
moment after the other departments have done their work and the
set is finally quiet enough to hear through the microphones. The
shot sometimes evolves into a sound problem that was
unanticipated. Also, we may need a moment or two to make
adjustments when creative changes have been made on the spot.
Like it or not, sound is a part of your entire film making
process from pre-production through production and on to post
production. You might as well do it right. If you convey this
message to your troops ahead of time, you will be freed up to
spend more quality time with other pressing areas of film making.
Remember that certain crew departments such as the UPM and ADs
are compelled to watch their production budget, and are not
always concerned about the entire cost of a film all the way
through post production.
The difference between good sound and bad sound on many shows is
only about 5 to 10 minutes a day of doing some added tweaking
here, another mic planted, a wireless changed there, quieting
footsteps, siliconing a door squeak, room tone, a well placed
blanket, killing a machine that came on during a take, powder on
a dolly wheel etc. Usually by the time you print a take, the
problems have been solved. If not, another take may be in order.
ADs or other crafts who stifle this process will cost you dearly
later in post.
OVERLAPS – When possible, it’s always better not to have them at
all unless absolutely necessary because you can only be in one
cut or the other. You may decide later you want to see both sides
of the actor’s dialogue. Remember, it’s always easy to create an
off camera overlap later if you still want it. Usually, the
overlaps are simply because of a belief that the performance will
be hindered. That argument loses credibility when the face of one
of the overlapping performers won’t be able to be seen at all. Of
course there are times that overlaps must happen and both sides
must be miked. USING TWO CAMERAS – There is a proper way to use 2
or more cameras and an improper way. It is perfectly acceptable
to use 2 cameras of the same approximate frame size at the same
time. The sound mixer’s nightmare is running one camera wide and
another tight at the same time. This means that sound will be
compromised because all the actors must be wired because the wide
camera will not allow a mic to get close enough to the tight
camera size. This can be resolved by the second camera only
filming non-speaking actors, or not working at all during the
wide master shot. Then, go to 2 cameras for all your coverage.
REHEARSALS – These are very important to the whole crew. It’s
fine to have closed rehearsals for actors only, but give one to
the crew or at least let the boom operator see one. Otherwise, we
can only guess where and how the sound will be delivered. The
words we dread the most are “let’s shoot the rehearsal”. You
might get lucky, but don’t shoot rehearsals unless you are
willing to do a lot more sound takes to work out the unknown
problems. AD LIBBING – It’s impossible to mic lines no one knows
will happen. If you want to keep an ad-lib, do another take for
sound if they didn’t get the line the first time. AIR TRAFFIC –
Probably the single most frustrating audio problem on set is
being in a plane traffic pattern. It’s a problem that might have
been avoided by better location scouting. You know it’s no good,
we know it, the actors know it, the whole crew knows it’s no
good. Yet, after awhile, you have no choice but to plow through
and start printing those takes anyway. In that case, rather than
looping, it’s much better to get through the scene with lots of
short clean pieces that can be cut together later. LOUDER ACTORS
– Sometimes we really need you to get the actors to speak up in
order to save a scene. When in loud scenes such as a crowded bar
or stock exchange, it’s best to force the actors to speak
unnaturally loud. If not your added post sound will be thin and
they won’t be able to add the rich background effects that make
it sound real.
The key at all times with sound is the word “reasonable”.
Reasonable efforts should always be made to do all these things
in a reasonable amount of time. We don’t want to take over the
set and make the film, it’s just about getting good sound. Nor do
we want to sit quietly in a corner while YOUR sound tracks are
We are only asking that we go back to a time not too long ago
where this was all common practice. We won’t debate why this
happened, but there is no question that an anti-sound attitude
now prevails. That was then, and this is now. Being a set
politician is always an important forte, but your tracks should
not be forced to ride on the outcome of those verbal
Don’t tell your sound mixer that you hate looping unless you are
willing to back them up with your on set support.
Today, it is up to you to demand better sound for YOUR picture.
This can be easily instilled on the first day of pre-production.
Give all the keys a memo and a verbal direction that you want
every reasonable effort made to get good sound on YOUR film.
We are not asking for power on set, just a little respect for
your sound. With your newfound support, we promise to act
reasonably at all times and not expect that the sound be the most
important part of the film. We know there will be times that
sound must be looped after it was given due consideration. We
just don’t want it taken lightly either. The word “reasonable”
applies at all times.
Most importantly, find the time to communicate with your sound
mixer because you need to know if you are getting the best sound
We have written this because we want your film to be great! It
will live forever and we always want to be proud that our name
went on your film.
Sincerely, Your Sound Department
An Open Letter from your Sound Department. Written by John Coffey
<mailto:email@example.com>, with help from Randy Thom,
Jeff Wexler, Noah Timan, Mike Hall, John Garrett, Scott Smith,
Rob Young, Mike Filosa, Wolf Seeberg, Darren Brisker, Charles
Wilborn, Todd Russell, Brydon Baker, Larry Long, Glen Trew, Dave
Schaaf, Charles Tomaras, Klay Anderson, Brian Shennan, Hans
Hansen, David Marks, Bob Gravenor, Von Varga, Mark Steinbeck,
Carl Cardin, Eric Toline, Joseph Cancila, Stu Fox, Peter Devlin,
Matt Nicolay and many others.
8. DIRECTING TIP – Communicating to the Crew
An experienced director should be able to talk to key personnel
in their own terms.
That means you should not only know the techniques of acting when
talking to actors, but you should also understand lenses when
talking to a camera operator and DOP, you should understand
costumes when talking to the wardrobe department, you should
understand the basics of hair and make-up….etc.
Does this make you a better director?
Not necessarily. But it will help you to communicate your ideas
and vision to the people that have to make it happen!
9. OUT TAKES – Pointers to Help You in Life!
POINTERS TO HELP YOU IN LIFE
(which I’ve learned from watching movies)
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