How to Get Better Sound in Your Indie Films

From field recording to the final mix - & on to your next project!

 

Mic Placement, Recording Techniques, ADR, “The Dirty Secret of Post-Production Sound”, & More

A flurry of activity swept our team here at Lights Film School as The Tribeca Film Festival kicked off in New York City this spring, bringing with it a slew of screenings, virtual reality experiences, and – of course – insightful panels packed with film professionals.

We heard from top directors including JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon as well as experts in other departments, from Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to esteemed casting directors Ellen Lewis and Ellen Chenowet. We’re excited to share their best tips and insights with our students and readers in the days ahead, beginning with highlights from a masterclass in production and post sound design.

Why the First 10 Minutes of Your Movie Matter So Much

Once the audience had settled into the theatre, the lights dimmed, and the panelists took to the stage. Appropriately enough, Glenn Kiser, currently the director of The Dolby Institute, moderated the conversation. Glenn has supervised post-production of feature films, music videos, and commercials, working closely with directors including David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and Jane Campion. He went on to work as the VP and General Manager of Skywalker Sound, where he oversaw sound design and mixing work on Hollywood hits like Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean – in other words, Glenn knows the ins and outs of sound at both the independent and studio levels.

“When you’re talking about sound in movies, you’ve basically got three main components,” Glenn prefaced. “You’ve got production audio and dialogue, then you’ve got sound design and effects, and then your third main tool is music.” Of course, these aural elements help cast the spell of the film, transporting the audience into the world we hear and see onscreen.

It’s especially important to ensure the elements are working together from the beginning. “[Sound Designer] Ben Burtt talks very eloquently about the magic of the first ten minutes of the movie,” Glenn said. “The audience shows up with a great deal of good will and energy and excitement. Obviously they’ve come to the theatre; they want to see your film.” Your job as filmmaker is to validate and reward the audience’s trust. Use your film’s first ten minutes to show how you’ll tell your story – what creative choices will you make? What is the tone; what is the style?

"Folk Hero & Funny Guy" | Dir. Jeff Grace, 2016

“Folk Hero & Funny Guy” | Dir. Jeff Grace, 2016

What Is the Relationship Between Production and Post Sound?

To contextualize these questions, Glenn turned to Jeff Grace, director of Folk Hero & Funny Guy, his feature directorial debut premiering at Tribeca. The film is quiet and naturalistic, about a struggling standup comedian who accompanies a successful rockstar on his solo acoustic tour.

The indie budget obliged Wil Masisak, the production sound recordist, to both boom and mix on set – not to mention, Wil was responsible for stashing additional mics and laving the actors! He advised production sound recordists not to bury lavelier microphones beneath layers of clothing, “even if it is a little bit harder to hide them”, since doing so can muffle the sound.

At performance venues, Wil’s goal was to cover the actors as well as the audience. “I wanted to give you the sound of the classic SM58 microphone that you’re gonna have at the open mic, and also, you know, a more traditional kind of recording,” Wil elaborated. This resulted in multiple sources for post-production, so that the post team could use the best audio from moment to moment. “If they have to mix and match,” Jeff clarified, “they’ll often just use a post effect [to make the microphones sound the same.]”

Glenn cautioned filmmakers not to go overboard in post, however. “If you talk to any post-production dialogue mixer, I think the first thing they would tell you is: don’t screw around with the dialogue too much. It’s a rookie mistake to try to polish it too much and get it too clean. Because every filter that you put on it, every manipulation that you do to the dialogue, takes away a little bit of soul.”

Said differently, a good dialogue recording balances polish with noise – you want to minimize ambient distractions and boost the dialogue without making it sound unnatural.

This can be difficult, and there are alternative approaches. Glenn shared how Gwen Whittle, one of the top dialogue editors in the world, sometimes steals audio from alternate takes to build tracks and make microphone sources match. “I can put together an entire performance from alternate takes, stealing a syllable here and there,” Gwen explained.

Even so, it’s a challenging and time-intensive task. Glenn recalled an interesting perspective from a sound mixer at Skywalker – “the dirty secret of post-production sound, is kind of the bigger stuff with the explosions and gunfire, often that’s easier to deal with because you can mask a whole bunch of problems with your production recordings. Two people just walking down the street talking to each other? That’s the hardest possible thing to make sound good, and ironically, most independent first-time filmmakers are making movies with two people walking down the street talking to each other… So immediately you’ve set yourself up for the most difficult situation imaginable.”

Of course, “two people walking down the street talking to each other” is often a budget-friendly scene and fairly straightforward from a cinematography standpoint, so indie filmmakers will have to weigh the pros and cons of embracing such settings. Just be sure to do everything in your power to ensure a clean production recording.

Sometimes a clean production recording just doesn’t happen. What do you do if no amount of post-production manipulation can salvage your dialogue and you don’t have alternate takes? Well, this is where Automated Dialogue Recording – also known as “ADR” – comes into play.

In an ADR session, the actors are brought back to re-record their lines from the problematic scene. The process is laborious and time-consuming, and it can be difficult to recapture the beauty and authenticity of a performance that was recorded weeks or even months earlier. Actors have moved onto other projects, and now you’re bringing them into the sterile atmosphere of the studio and asking them to revisit their characters.

“One great tip that I did get from a picture editor that I worked with a long time ago,” Glenn shared, “Was when you bring the actors back, a lot of times what contributes to that kind of staid feeling is they’re standing in front of this huge microphone, re-recording their dialogue in sync with picture. And he had me hire a boom operator so that the actor could actually walk around stage, and they were free to kind of do their thing.”

"Kicks" | Dir. Justin Tipping, 2016

“Kicks” | Dir. Justin Tipping, 2016

In fact, creating freedom for the actors was a theme throughout the panel.

Justin Tipping – also a first-time feature filmmaker, with Kicks premiering at Tribeca – shared how he permitted actors to step on each other’s lines, as opposed to capturing clean recordings. “I was fine with everything being chaotic,” Justin said. “Overlapping dialogue… the energy of that can be great.” He admitted the approach often marries you to the take, technical warts and all, but the tradeoff of flexibility for performance energy was worth it to him. Jeff, too, encouraged the audience to react naturally during the recording of concert scenes in Folk Hero & Funny Guy.

The conversation reminded me of my production sound professor’s old school approach – while he was wary of overlapping dialogue, he generally advocated mixing down to a single track. It was a fantastic way to learn, since it forced you to listen to every microphone source and really understand what they were doing and how they factored into the whole.

Less Is More

From time to time, you’ll discover there’s too much going on in your film’s audio – the soundscape is just too busy; it feels unfocused and unnecessarily elaborate. This was the case with an early version of Kicks. Justin recalled multiple six-hour sessions with his sound designer: “We’d just go through scene-by-scene… We realized we’d almost put too much design into it at one point, and we had to go back, and it was just a process of taking out too much foley,” he said. Glenn was quick to point out that having too much sound is better than having not enough, since it affords you the luxury of subtracting sounds in order to highlight the sounds that are most important.

But how do you determine the important sounds? “It’s just all gut check, I guess, at some point,” Jeff reflected. In other words, you and your team are following your instincts.

In Folk Hero and Funny Guy, that meant a quiet, naturalistic approach to the sound. In Kicks, it meant creating a more layered, subjective aural experience, as well as implying the offscreen world. “The city becomes almost like another character in the film,” Glenn observed of Kicks. “There’re sound elements that you’re constantly aware of: the trains, dogs barking. You’re aware of the space around you even though you’re not necessarily literally seeing those elements.” The power of aural suggestion can broaden the scope of a film – and help minimize its budget. For example, you don’t necessarily have to see a cop car in a scene; instead, you could use a siren sound to suggest its presence.

How to Build a Professional Creative Team You Can Trust

Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. If you’re an indie filmmaker, chances are you’ll work with a sound team to help bring your vision to life – but how do you find those people?

Jeff thought back to his film’s casting process, when he was hunting for an actor who could play music live, since he didn’t want to record songs ahead of time and do playback on set. He sent a cold email to Ellen Chenowet, the casting director for The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Ellen connected him with one of her associates, who had a list of all of the actors who also play music. Justin shared a similar story from Kicks – he reached out to Brian Reitzell, Sofia Coppola’s composer, who agreed to score the film.

“Film students and budding filmmakers, this is actually a really important theme,” Glenn synthesized. “I hear this time and time again… There are A-list big sound designers out there like Skip Lievsay, who does all the work for The Coen Brothers, and Randy Thom and Gary Rydstrom and Ren Klyce, who does all of David Fincher’s films… a lot of them are on Facebook. You can reach out to them. Odds are they’re gonna be too busy, but they may know somebody they’ve been kind of mentoring who is ready to break out… I’ve seen a lot of great sound designers who are now doing amazing work start off as apprentices and were in the right place at the right time and got a little project that helped them burst out.”

Of course, first impressions are precious, so you want to be sure your film is worth their time! But at the end of the day, in Jeff’s words, “there’s no reason not to reach out to somebody… The worst thing they can do is not answer your email… Most filmmakers are super supportive, and will want to help you out.”

Who knows? You could find a longterm collaborator. It’s not uncommon for creative professionals to work with the same people across projects; for example, Justin had worked with his sound designer before they did Kicks together, which meant the sound designer understood Justin’s taste and approach. You start to build a language, a shorthand, together.

From left to right, Glenn Kiser, Justin Tipping, Jeff Grace, and Wil Masisak at The Tribeca Film Festival

From left to right, Glenn Kiser, Justin Tipping, Jeff Grace, and Wil Masisak at The Tribeca Film Festival

Your Sound Design Begins with Your Screenwriting

“As you start to work with the same [sound designers] over and over,” Glenn shared, “they really enjoy the opportunity to read the scripts before the films are shot. And to have a conversation with the director about, you know, here’s an interesting opportunity for sound design to do some heavy lifting for you, from a storytelling standpoint.”

For example, Glenn observed how in Folk Hero & Funny Guy, the rockstar has a very warm, mellow voice that suggests success, whereas the struggling standup comedian has a voice that sounds thin, reedy, and generally less confident. The treatment of the sound helps tell the story.

Here at Lights Film School, we’re big believers in the role and power of sound in film, so it was a pleasure to drop in on three professionals discussing the art and science of the craft. As you turn your sights to your next projects, indie filmmakers, be sure to turn your ears, too!

What we hear is as important as what we see in a film.

 Michael Koehler, with


For help making your own short film, check out our in-depth online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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