An Open Letter from Your Sound Department – Part 2

by Peter D Marshall

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.

Click here to read An Open Letter from Your Sound Department – Part 1

LOOPING

It is important to understand the gravity and consequences caused when the words “We’ll loop it” are used.

You are obviously aware that extra ADR adds a financial burden to your budget, but the consequences are much greater than that. Looping is only an answer for situations where all else fails! It’s not a quick fix later if the original set problems could have easily have been rectified with just a little time, knowledge or communication. Looping means that you are also making a huge artistic compromise that damages the film in many other ways in which you may not be so aware.

Obviously, you realize that the actor’s performance is always better in production than in an ADR booth. Making a film is an artistic endeavor that lives forever! You cast great actors to bring together the collaborative efforts of film making and then you lose the essence of the scene by looping! The voice of a great actor totally in character, moving and interacting with other actors in three dimensional space is a treasure. It breathes life into the film.

Sure, ADR will have less noise than even the best set recording made with cameras rolling, but in fact we know it lacks any spontaneity, as well as the emotional truth of what’s captured when you use your artists talents on the set. It can’t be duplicated. ADR is not acting. The greatest method actors all hate it and at best, it is only a close recreation of the original scene.

Looping also just eats into a post budget’s financial and time constraints, which would be far better spent utilizing their magical tools to enrich the film.

When you just have to loop, the new forward thinking by many respected post sound professionals (such as Randy Thom from Skywalker) is to loop it immediately on or close to the set and as soon possible after the scene. These advocates know that the performance will be better so soon after filming the scene and the sound will be more natural if done in the same environment with the offending noises locked down. There are companies that specialize in on set looping using the video assist tapes for picture in portable studios.

Looping at best is usually fiscally irresponsible. Be sure that the audio problem really can’t be fixed BEFORE you make a decision that you will regret later. Never allow the simple impatience of the moment on set be your real reason to loop! Be sure you have first covered all reasonable alternatives.

SOUND PROBLEMS ON THE SET

The majority of events that ruin sound tracks are totally predictable and happen over and over, show after show, year after year.

These are obstacles that are clearly identifiable and quantifiable. The difference between getting good sound or bad sound is often determined by how many of these predictable negative factors take place on your particular show and how they are handled.

There are few problems that don’t have solutions if proper diligence can be taken in advance. The sound mixer is your advocate here. Let’s try to identify the audio problems which each craft brings to your film.

PREPRODUCTION

Good sound begins by anticipating the outcome well in advance. Communicate early and often with your mixer in pre-production. Pay the mixer to go listen to potential problem sets ahead of time. Let them make a mock recording to see what can be dialed out in post. Do this before the locations are locked in and before the scouts with your key department heads. If the mixer is still on another show, have them designate a trusted associate to go for them. In the end, it’s cost effective.

LOCATIONS DEPARTMENT

More can be done here to save a film’s audio than any other department. Picking sets should have consideration for sound. At least try to weigh in environmental noise factors! We just ask that a minimal amount of consideration be given to potential audio problems. Often, we shoot in a place which could have easily been substituted for another location or on a weekend. Many times we film at a location which has construction, traffic, schools, airplane patterns and other background noise which are quite obvious. Only shoot those kinds of locations when it’s absolutely necessary and essential to the film.

Lock down all the noise problems before we get to the set.

Always consider the control of the air conditioning. This is a must! Without a/c control, the audio background will change from shot to shot as the air goes on and off. If it is a large building, have someone standing by with a walkie-talkie to turn the air back on after each shot. When exterior, it can be just as important to kill a/c units that are near the set.

Have control on all noise makers in sets such as bars, offices and hospitals. All refrigerators, computers, ice makers, x-ray and other machines must be able to be turned off.

Ask to schedule filming during non- work times in locations such as bars and restaurants.

Avoid tin roofs during rainy season.

Make sure sets can be cabled by electric and still keep windows, doors and openings closed.

ART DEPARTMENT

Confer with the sound department when adding noisy set furniture, computers and machinery.

Try to consider overhead mics before building low covered ceilings, hanging lamps and cross beams.

Inject foam into constructed stairs and steps to get rid of hollow footsteps over dialog.

Whenever possible, carpet sets to deaden echo and live rooms. Especially consider these taking this step in rooms where the majority of dialog takes place.

ASSISTANT DIRECTORS

None of these implementation plans will succeed if the ADs don’t support YOUR sound on the film. Sometimes they don’t! The crew will take their cue to stop co-operating if it’s clear the ADs react at the expense of getting good sound. Derogatory statements like “waiting on sound” and “just loop it” are unproductive and sap our spirit.

Get police traffic lock downs when possible.

Get quiet lock ups on set. Do not allow any walking. Station your PA’s at key locations outside, and most especially under windows. (Keep the PA’s from talking too) “Lock It Up” means that we should not hear any work noise from our crews. No engines, talking, etc. Have your walkie set up with priority override function so as to announce the roll across all walkie-talkie channels being used by all departments.

Allow the sound department to make quick corrections that are reasonable.

Enforce pantomiming from the background extras.

Allocate a reasonable time and place for an actor to get wired. It won’t help go faster if you push the sound crew to wire faster if the actor insists on getting wired at the last second on the set. Conversely, don’t make the boom operator sit outside a star’s dressing room just wasting valuable time that could be used to work out other sound problems on set.

When there are closed rehearsals, make sure the boom operator gets to see at least one rehearsal before the actors leave the set.

Honor wild line requests before releasing the actors.

Honor room tone requests before breaking the set up, and stop all talk and movement. Room tones are very important to get before the ambient sound changes.

In plane infested locations, roll as soon as the engine noise tails out before another plane comes in. Keep the set quiet enough to determine the status of the incoming and outgoing planes.

Be sure to inform Sound Department at least two days ahead of playback days. Have the office send a post approved tape with sync. Don’t expect that a CD or cassette will suffice.

Have all walkie-talkies, cell phones and pagers turned off during takes and final rehearsals. They can wreck havoc on wireless microphones.

An Open Letter from your Sound Department. Written by John Coffey johncoffey@coffeysound.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.

Copyright (c) 2000-2009 – Peter D. Marshall / All Rights Reserved

There once existed a major studio system where an assembly line of crafts worked together to churn out film products. No matter which studio we worked at, all crafts understood they were expected to take reasonable measures within their purview to allow for good sound recordings. It was instilled as part of their job description. These duties were passed on to the young apprentices. Grips cut microphone shadows sharply with flags. The electric department would change out a noisy light that buzzed. Camera assistants would try everything possible to quiet camera noise and many is the time that an operator had blankets and pillows over them and the noisy camera. Every other craft would do whatever was deemed reasonable to help get good sound, because it was considered to be part of their job. No one had to try to persuade them to do it. It was an era where reasonable co-operation with the Sound Department was the normal way to make good movies.

Today’s crafts still have pride in their jobs but it seems they NO LONGER consider sound assistance to be a part of their job description. The problems began when the in-house studio training system broke down as non-union independent films proliferated. Along the way, the process of learning what their jobs entailed changed the way they perceived sound. The other crafts now don’t think they should do anything to help YOU get good sound for YOUR movie. There is no longer an apprenticeship system to pass along this knowledge. They now learn on the job under fire through osmosis.

They must now be requested in each instance to do reasonable things, which are necessary to protect YOUR sound tracks, because they just don’t consider it to be a part of their job anymore.

The Sound Department would gladly cut the shadow on the back wall of the set ourselves or cover the noisy camera, but that’s not how the game is played. Instead, we have to convince, cajole, coerce, plead and use every other psychological persuasion technique to get the other crafts to help us prevent sound problems.

That last second, scrambling time on set should only be used to fix the unexpected problems which will inevitably occur. Instead, that last second is the first time that the sound mixer finds out about changes in dialog, staging or unwanted noises from on or off of the set.

All of the other departments work for what is seen and not heard. Every single person on the production from make up and wardrobe to grips and props concentrates only on what’s seen in the viewfinder.

Because the other production crafts work only for picture, no one knows or cares what’s happening to YOUR audio.

You are the only person on set with the power to allow us to get you good sound. It is always tempting for sound to give in and not go against the grain when circumstances impose impossible barriers.

Film schools are going to need to add psychology courses to their sound mixing curriculum soon. The situation is often that bad. That is why we want you to know as much as possible about the audio minefield lurking on every set.

What may often seem to you to be a lot of complaining, is in fact simply communicating negative factors to you, so that you will know what you are getting on your sound tracks, and what sound problems can be fixed NOW. For bottom line, these are YOUR choices. Just because we hear a noise does not make it a sound problem. It is your problem too. After all, we turn over the tracks to you at the end of the day.

After reading this, hopefully it will be much easier for you to make the informed decision about when it’s really the time to loop. It’s far too late to reverse a sound calamity later in post.

Even though this topic is last in the chain of events, we should start first by talking about why ADR is not a fix.

PART TWO TOPICS – Looping, Sound Problems on the Set, Locations Preproduction, Art Department, Assistant Directors, Production Managers, Camera Department

PART THREE TOPICS – Special Effects, Wardrobe, Props, Grips, Electrics, Craft Service, Transportation, Actors, Directors, Final Notes

An Open Letter from your Sound Department. Written by John Coffey johncoffey@coffeysound.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.

Copyright (c) 2000-2011  Peter D. Marshall / All Rights Reserved

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