An Open Letter From Your Sound Department – Part 3

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

Click here to read An Open Letter from Your Sound Department – Part 2

“An Open Letter from Your Sound Department” – Part 3

PRODUCTION MANAGERS

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.

CAMERA DEPARTMENT

Camera assistants:

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.

Operators:

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.

WARDROBE DEPARTMENT

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.

PROPS DEPARTMENT

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.

GRIP DEPARTMENT

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.

ELECTRIC DEPARTMENT

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.

TRANSPORTATION DEPARTMENT

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 bolts.

ACTORS

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.

DIRECTORS

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.

FINAL NOTES

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 butchered.

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 altercations.

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 tracks possible.

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 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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