Nofilmschool today posted a brilliant short film called The Secret World of Foley, which inspired me to share this DVD extra from Stop/Eject. It looks at the whole sound process on this short film, from production audio, through ADR, foley, effects and music to the final mix.
And here’s The Secret World of Foley – well worth a watch.
While syncing sound in an edit recently I came across a number of little mistakes that cost me time, so I decided to put together some on-set and off-set tips for smooth sound syncing.
On set: tips for the 2nd AC
Get the slate and take number on the slate right. This means a dedicated 2nd AC (this American term seems to have supplanted the more traditional British clapper-loader), not just any old crew member grabbing the slate at the last minute.
Get the date on the slate right. This can be very helpful for starting to match up sound and picture in a large project if other methods fail.
Hold the slate so that your fingers are not covering any of the info on it.
Make MOS (mute) shots very clear by holding the sticks with your fingers through them.
Make sure the rest of the cast and crew appreciate the importance of being quiet while the slate and take number are read out. It’s a real pain for the editing department if the numbers can’t be heard over chit-chat and last-minute notes from the director.
Speak clearly and differentiate any numbers that could be misheard, e.g. “slate one three” and “slate three zero” instead of the similar-sounding “slate thirteen” and “slate thirty”.
For more on best slating practice, see my Slating 101 blog post.
Off set: tips for the DIT and assistant editor
I recommend renaming both sound and video files to contain the slate and take number, but be sure to do this immediately after ingesting the material and on all copies of it. There is nothing worse than having copies of the same file with different names floating around.
This should be obvious, but please, please, please sync your sound BEFORE starting to edit or I will hunt you down and kill you. No excuses.
An esoteric one for any dinosaurs like me still using Final Cut 7: make sure you’ve set your project’s frame rate correctly (in Easy Setup) before importing your audio rushes. Otherwise FCP will assign them timecodes based on the wrong rate, leading to errors and sound falling out of sync if you ever need to relink your project’s media.
Follow these guidelines and dual system sound will be painless – well, as painless as it can ever be!
Recently I’ve been involved in pick-ups shoots for a couple of projects I lensed last year: action-comedy feature The Gong Fu Connection and fantasy series Ren. Both pick-up shoots were strange experiences, featuring some very familiar aspects of the original shoot – locations, sets, costumes – but noticeably lacking others – certain actors, crew members and so on. The Ren pick-ups in particular were like re-living principal photography in microcosm, with stressful crowd shoots followed by more relaxed, smaller scenes and finally night shots with flaming arrows again!
I’ve blogged previously about how a director/producer can prepare for pick-ups – by keeping certain key props and costumes, for example – but today I have a few thoughts from a DP’s perspective.
1. Keep a record of lighting plans. I have a pretty good memory for my lighting set-ups, but not everyone does, so keeping notes is a good idea. Your gaffer may even do this for you. I frequently use this blog as a means of recording lighting set-ups, and indeed tried to access it during the Ren pick-ups shoot but was foiled by dodgy wifi.
2. Keep camera logs. On a properly crewed shoot this will be the 2nd AC’s job. The logs should include at least the following info for each slate: lens, aperture, ASA, white balance and shutter angle. This can be useful in principal photography too, for example if you shoot the two parts of a shot-reverse at different ends of the day or different days all together, and need to make sure you use the same lens.
3. Have the original scene handy when you shoot the pick-ups. Load the edit onto a laptop or tablet so that you can compare it on set to the new material you’re framing up.
4. Own a bit of lighting kit if you can. In the shed I have some battered old Arrilites and a few other bits and pieces of gear that has seen better days. On a proper shoot I would leave this at home and have the production hire much better kit. But for pick-ups, when there’s often no money left, this stuff can come in handy.
5. Keep gels. If you employ an unusual colour of gel during principal photography, try to keep a piece of it in case you need to revisit that lighting set-up in pick-ups. Production will have to pay for the gel once it’s been used anyway. On the Ren pick-ups shoot, after pulling all of my gels out of the plastic kitchen bin I keep them in, I was relieved to find that I still had two pieces of the Urban Sodium gel I used in the flaming arrows scene the first time around.
One of the big benefits of the Blackmagic cameras is their ability to shoot raw – lossless Cinema DNG files that capture an incredible range of detail. But encoding those files into a useable format for editing can be tricky, especially if your computer won’t run the processor-intensive DaVinci Resolve which ships with the camera.
You can usually turn to the Adobe Creative Suite when faced with intractable transcoding problems, and sure enough After Effects provides one solution for raw to ProRes conversion.
I’ll take you through it, step by step. Let’s assume you’ve been shooting on a Blackmagic Cinema Camera and you have some 2.5K raw shots which you want to drop into your edit timeline alongside 1080P ProRes 422HQ material.
1. In After Effects’ launch window, select New Composition. A dialogue box will appear in which you can spec up your project. For this example, we’re going to choose the standard HDTV resolution of 1920×1080. It’s critical that you get your frame rate right, or your audio won’t sync. Click OK once you’ve set everything to your liking.
2. Now go to the File menu and select Import > File. Navigate to the raw material on your hard drive. The BMCC creates a folder for each raw clip, containing the individual Cinema DNG frames and a WAV audio file. Select the first DNG file in the folder and ensure that Camera Raw Sequence is ticked, then click OK.
3. You’ll then have the chance to do a basic grade on the shot – though with only the first frame to judge it by.
4. Use Import > File again to import the WAV audio file.
5. Your project bin should now contain the DNG sequence – shown as a single item – along with the WAV audio and the composition. Drag the DNG sequence into the main viewer window. Because the BMCC’s raw mode records at a resolution of 2.5K and you set your composition to 1080P, the image will appear cropped.
6. If necessary, zoom out (using the drop-down menu in the bottom left of the Composition window) so you can see the wireframe of the 2.5K image. Then click and drag the bottom right corner of that wireframe to shrink the image until it fits into the 1080P frame. Hold down shift while dragging to maintain the aspect ratio.
7. Drag the WAV audio onto the timeline, taking care to align it precisely with the video.
8. Go to Composition Settings in the Composition menu and alter the duration of the composition to match the duration of the clip (which you can see by clicking the DNG sequence in the project bin).
9. Go to the Composition menu again and select Add to Render Queue. The composition timeline will give way to the Render Queue tab.
10. Next to the words Output Module in the Render Queue, you’ll see a clickable Lossless setting (yellow and underlined). Click this to open the Output Module Settings.
11. In the Video Output section, click on Format Options… We’re going to pick ProRes 422 HQ, to match with the non-raw shots we hypothetically filmed. Click OK to close the Format Options.
12. You should now be back in Output Module Settings. Before clicking OK to close this, be sure to tick the Audio Output box to make sure you don’t end up with a mute clip. You should not need to change the default output settings of 48kHz 16-bit stereo PCM.
13. In the Render Queue tab, next to the words Output to you’ll see a clickable filename – the default is Comp1.mov. Click on this to bring up a file selector and choose where to save your ProRes file.
14. Click Render (top far right of the Render Queue tab). Now just sit back and wait for your computer to crunch the numbers.
I’ve never used After Effects before, so there are probably ways to streamline this process which I’m unaware of. Can anyone out there suggest any improvements to this workflow? Is it possible to automate a batch?
Yesterday I attended the final sound mix for Amelia’s Letter, the short supernatural drama I directed last year for writer Steve Deery and producer Sophia Ramcharan. This is always one of my favourite parts of the filmmaking process; all the hard work of generating the material is done, and it’s just about arranging those materials in the right proportions to create a whole larger than the sum of its parts.
Amelia’s Letter was a little more complex than Stop/Eject, but not much. It was my third collaboration with gifted sound designer Henning Knoepfel, and my fourth with the equally gifted composer Scott Benzie, who both gave us excellent material to work with. In the pilot’s seat for the mix was Nico Metten of Picture Sound. Although I hadn’t worked with him before, he was very much in tune with what I wanted from the mix. In a nutshell, the brief was: make it scary.
If Amelia’s Letter succeeds, and I think it does, it should be by turns unnervingly scary and heart-breakingly sad. I did research the horror genre when I embarked on the project, but for the latter stages of preproduction and during the shoot (basically, whenever I was dealing with the actors) the important thing was that the characters worked and were empathetic; the sadness would naturally follow. I tried to avoid thinking of the film in horror terms at all during that stage.
But once we got to post, it was time to start thinking about creeping out the audience, and downright scaring them. As the last stage in the audio chain, the mix needed to play a big part in this. Nico agreed, and had already added some extra creepy sounds by the time I arrived. As we went through, we added in more impacts to the jumpy moments, not forgetting to keep things quiet in the run-up to those moments to make them seem even louder by comparison.
Just as, during the picture edit, Tristan and I had been reminded of the power of NOT cutting, during the sound mix I was reminded of the power of subtracting sound, rather than always adding it. In a couple of key places we discovered that muting the first few bars of a music cue to let the SFX do the job made for much more impact when the music did come in.
But the mix wasn’t just about making it scary. The film climaxes with a sequence of flashbacks and revelations that was tricky to edit and still wasn’t quite doing what I wanted. It was only at the scoring and mixing stage that I was finally able to realise that a clear transition was needed halfway through the sequence; as I said to Nico, “At this point it needs to stop being scary and become sad.” In practice this meant dropping out the dissonant sounds and the ominous rumbling, even dropping out the ambience, and letting Scott’s beautifully sad music carry the rest of the scene.
It never ceases to amaze me how the story shines through in the end. You hack away at this lump of stone all through production and post, and at the end you’ve revealed a sculpture that – though in detail it may be different – follows all the important lines of the writer’s original blueprint.
Now begins the process of entering Amelia’s Letter into festivals…
Amelia’s Letter is a Stella Vision production in association with Pondweed Productions. Find out more at facebook.com/ameliasletter
A week after the test screening, I sat down with editor Tristan Ofield in a corner of Steve Deery’s book depot to take a final pass at Amelia’s Letter. Steve balanced on a pile of boxes beside us. Who says exec producers get all the luxury?
The main aim of the day was to make the film clearer. This became a fascinating exercise with notes from the test screening like, “I didn’t get that Barbara was a writer,” although she spends most of her screen-time sitting at a typewriter. How could we configure these images to more effectively tell the audience that Barbara is a writer, without the benefit of dialogue or ridiculous captions? And without showing her actually writing, because the whole crux of the film is that she’s suffering from writer’s block – and that needs to come across too. How? By really getting into the nuts and bolts of how motion picture editing tells a story, that’s how.
The previous evening I’d been watching 2 Reel Guys, a YouTube series about the creative filmmaking process. It’s incredibly cheesy, and a little bit soporific, but it does make some excellent points. Like how just two different shots can be edited together in three different ways for very different effects.
So how did we make it clearer that Barbara was a writer suffering from block? First, Tristan altered the scene to open on a shot of Barbara standing thoughtfully over the typewriter, with the machine dominant in frame. He held the shot for quite a while to let the audience take it all in. “A reminder of the power of not cutting,” he pointed out.
The second step was for us to really consider when to cut to the keyboard, or to the blank paper. The scene’s previous iteration had started on the blank paper, but I think that image failed to sink in for viewers, who were too busy trying to work out where they were and what was going on. Moving it later in the scene made it much more powerful.
It was also important not to cut to something else at the wrong time. There was a cutaway of a letter that had to be included somewhere for plot reasons, but I was convinced that if we showed that immediately before the typewriter CU then we would be telling the audience that Barbara was trying to compose a reply to the letter. Context is everything in editing. Put a different shot before or after a certain shot and you can completely change the meaning of that shot. By cutting to the letter as Barbara puts a teacup down next to it, Tristan was able to avoid it gaining undue importance.
Another big lesson/reminder of the day was: less is more. I had been feeling for a while that Amelia’s Letter had one too many layers of supernatural mystery. Would the film be clearer if one was removed?
Steve was sceptical, and understandably so. No writer loves having chunks of their material hacked out. But to his credit, he let Tristan and I try it. After watching this revised version through, all three of us were convinced it was the right decision. Everything else in the film had become stronger because this one thread had been removed. Minor characters gained more importance because they weren’t competing with the removed element, and major characters’ challenges and emotions shone through more clearly. And the audience would have a much better chance of solving the film’s two remaining mysteries without scatching their heads over the third one too.
At the end of the day, we left greatly satisfied with what we had accomplished. Soon Amelia’s Letter will enter the next phase of postproduction: sound design, music composition, grading and visual effects. Stay tuned.
It’s time for one of my occasional asides celebrating the world of traditional visual effects – miniatures, matte paintings, rear projection, stop motion and the like. For a film using all of those techniques, look no further than The Abyss (1989). Arguably James Cameron’s most underrated film, it can also be considered his most ambitious. Whereas Terminator 2 had bigger action scenes, Titanic had a bigger set and Avatar had more cutting edge technology, these concerns all pale in comparison to the sheer difficulty of shooting so much material underwater.
The hour-long documentary Under Pressure makes the risks and challenges faced by Cameron and his crew very clear.
The Abyss won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and is remembered chiefly for the then-cutting-edge CG water tentacle. But it also ran the gamut of traditional effects techniques.
The film follows the crew of an experimental underwater drilling platform, led by Bud (Ed Harris), as they are roped into helping a team of navy divers, led by Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), investigate the sinking of a submarine. Underwater-dwelling aliens and cold war tensions become involved, and soon an unhinged Coffey is setting off in a submersible to dispatch a nuke to the bottom of the Cayman Trench and blow up the extra-terrestrials.
When Bud and his wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) give chase in a second submersible, a visual effects tour de force ensues. The following methods were used to build the sequence:
Medium-wide shots of the actors in real submersibles shot in an abandoned power station that had been converted by the production into the world’s largest fresh-water filtered tank, equal in capacity to about eleven Olympic swimming pools.
Close-ups of the actors in a submersible mock-up on stage.
Over-the-shoulder shots of the actors in the submersible mock-up, with a rear projection screen outside the craft’s dome, showing miniature footage accomplished with….
Quarter-scale radio-controlled submarines, shot in a smaller tank. These miniatures were remarkably powerful and, due to the lights and batteries on board, weighed around 450lb (204kg). In order to see what they were doing, the operators were underwater as well, using sealed waterproof joysticks to direct the craft. The RC miniatures were used when the craft needed to collide with each other, or with the underwater landscape, and whenever the audience was not going to get a good look at the domes on the front of the submersibles and notice the lack of actors within.
Where a more controlled camera move was required, or the actors needed to be visible inside the subs, but it was not practical to shoot full-scale, motion control was used. This is the same technique used to shoot spaceships in, for example, the original Star Wars trilogy. A computer-controlled camera moves around a static model (or vice versa), exposing film very slowly in order to maintain a large depth of field. The move is repeated several times for each different vehicle under different lighting conditions, before compositing all of the “passes” together on the optical printer in the desired ratios, to achieve the final look. For The Abyss’s motion control work, the illusion of being underwater was created with smoke. In shots featuring the submersibles’ robot arms, stop motion was employed to animate these appendages. But perhaps the neatest trick was in making the miniature subs appear to be inhabited; the models were fitted with tiny projectors which would throw pre-filmed footage of the actors onto a circular screen behind the dome.
The sub chase demonstrates perfectly how visual effects should work: mixing a range of techniques so that the audience never has time to figure out how each one is done, and using an appropriate technique for each individual shot so that you’re making things no more and no less complicated than necessary to tell that little piece of the story.
My favourite effect in the sequence is near the end, when the dome of Coffey’s sub cracks under the water pressure. This was filmed over-the-shoulder using rear projection for the view outside of the dome. But the dome was taken from a real submersible, and as such was too thick and too valuable to be genuinely cracked. So someone, and whoever he or she is is an absolute genius, came up with the idea of using an arrangement of backlit sellotape on the dome to create the appearance of a crack. A flag was then set in front of the backlight, rendering the sellotape invisible. On cue, the flag was slid aside, gradually illuminating the “crack”.
Now that, my friends, is thinking outside the box.
It’s a common dilemma in the UK for filmmakers: do you shoot at 24 or 25 frames per second? Until a couple of years ago, I would have said 25 every time, but with DCPs and Blu-rays now about, and most TVs capable of handling a range of frame rates, the answer is not so clear-cut. Unlike aspect ratio or shooting format, the decision has no discernible creative impact on your project, merely a technical one. And it’s so easy to convert between the two that it often feels like it makes no odds. Nonetheless, to help anyone on the horns on this dilemma, here’s my round-up of the respective advantages of each frame rate.
The Case for 25fps
If you need to record to any kind of tape format at any point in your process, 25fps is what you need.
The same goes for PAL DVDs.
If your film is going to be broadcast on UK TV, it will be transmitted at 25fps.
Since your camera’s running in sync with the UK mains supply’s alternating current, you don’t need flicker-free ballasts for your HMIs. Having said that, pretty much every time I’ve hired an HMI, it’s come with a flicker-free ballast as standard anyway.
If you’ve made a 25fps feature film that isn’t quite long enough for distributors to classify it as a feature, the extra running time you squeeze from exhibiting it at 24fps might make the difference.
The same goes for Blu-rays. (Blu-rays do not technically support 25P, but they support 50i, which can contain progressive 25fps content. However, discs authored to the 50i spec apparently will not play on most US machines.)
If you shoot at 24fps and need to convert to 25fps for any reason, your film will become 4% shorter, making it that extra bit pacier and able to squeeze into a shorter slot at a film festival.
If shooting on film, your postproduction facilities will be much more comfortable with 24fps material. We really freaked out our lab on The Dark Side of the Earth by shooting 25.
Many traditional film projectors will only run at 24fps.
Can you think of any other factors that I’ve missed?
I’d say the balance has tipped in favour of 24fps. However, I think you’ll find that many people in the UK (outside of the celluloid world) are still more comfortable with 25…. for now.
In this 2005 featurette I break down many of the visual effects in my feature film Soul Searcher, revealing how they were created using old school techniques, like pouring milk into a fishtank for apocalyptic clouds. Watch the shots being built up layer by layer, starting with mundane elements like the water from a kitchen tap or drinking straws stuck to a piece of cardboard.
What follows should not be construed as legal advice, and you should ALWAYS get legal advice before signing a contract. However, if you’ve been offered your first distribution deal and money is tight, these basic tips might help you reach a rough understanding of what exactly is on the table before you splash out on a solicitor.
As an example I’m going to use one of the contracts I was offered for my feature Soul Searcher, but not the one I signed.
Producer hereby grants to Distributor, with respect to the Term and the Territory set out below, the exclusive distribution and exhibition rights in all media now known or devised later including, but not limited to Theatrical, and Non Theatrical rights, Video/DVD rights, rights pertaining to all forms of Television syndicated or non syndicated, ancillary rights, and all kinds of internet rights pertaining to the feature film entitled “SOUL SEARCHER” (the “Picture”) a film by Neil Oseman, shot in Mini DV.
Territory: The World excluding U.K.
Term: Commencing immediately and expiring 25 years from the Date of Complete Delivery.
First of all check out the TERRITORY and MEDIA, i.e. what countries are you allowing the sales agent to distribute the film in and in what form (theatrical, DVD, TV, VOD…), but be aware that just because the contract grants them the right to release your film in cinemas, for example, it doesn’t mean they are under any obligation to do that. Also check out the TERM – how long will they get these rights for? The 25 year term in this contract is unusually long; five would be more typical.
Minimum Guarantee (“ Advance”)
Distributor agrees to pay Producer Fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000.00 USD) as a Minimum Guarantee of Producer’s share of Gross Receipts payable 20% on signing of this agreement and approval of Chain of title. The remaining 80% balance will be on complete delivery and acceptance, in terms of technical specifications, of all the items noted under Schedule “ A”.
This contract offers an ADVANCE – meaning that they pay you upfront, later recouping this advance out of the profits. But if your film doesn’t make any profits you’ve still got the advance. This is a great deal for a low budget filmmaker.
Distribution Fees, Expenses and Reporting
Distributor shall be entitled to a distribution fee of 25% of gross receipts net of withholding tax from exploitation of the Rights.
The crux of the contract is the PERCENTAGE of any earnings that the sales agent will pass on to you the producer, the higher the better. Here they are proposing to take 25%. That leaves 75% for me – pretty good, huh? But wait….
Distributor shall also be entitled to distribution expenses to a maximum cap of U.S. $ 75,000.00 excluding deliverables, unless additional expenses are approved in writing by Producer, which approval will not be unreasonably withheld (“Distribution Expenses”). Distribution Expenses mean out-of-pocket costs incurred by the Distributor, directly or indirectly, in specific connection with distribution, promotion, and marketing of the Picture including any costs which can reasonably and proportionately be allocated to the Picture in accordance with normal accounting practices of the motion picture industry.
Gross receipts shall be disbursed in the following order: (1) Distributor’s fee (2) To recoup Distributor’s costs for creating or correcting any deficient materials as set forth above (3) Distribution Expenses (4) Balance to Producer
Check out that last paragraph. When the money comes in, the sales agent creams off their 25%, then they recoup any costs in correcting the delivery materials (more on that later), then they recoup their EXPENSES, and only then does the producer get what’s left of the pie. So they can swan off to Cannes, Berlin, the American Film Market and so on, to promote their catalogue of films, and take the cost of all their lunches and air fares and slap-up dinners out of the profits before the producers of those films get to see a penny.
You should look for an EXPENSES CAP in the contract, limiting the amount the sales agent can claim out of the profits before they’re passed to you. Here it’s $75,000. The chances of a microbudget film ever making more than that are extremely slim. Result? You never see any money (except the advance, if you’re lucky enough to have been offered one).
Representations and Warranties
Producer warrants, represents and agrees that it is the holder of the copyright, and has the right to convey all of the rights, licenses and privileges granted herein; that it has not entered and will not enter into any agreement, commitment, arrangement or other grant of rights competing with, interfering with, affecting or diminishing any of the rights and licenses granted herein, and that the Picture, insofar as the Rights granted herein are concerned, are free and clear of any encumbrance and do not infringe upon the rights of any party or parties whomsoever.
If you sign this contract, what you’re saying via the paragraph above is that you haven’t already sold the rights to anyone else and that your film doesn’t infringe anyone else’s copyright. You’re WARRANTING that you’ve cleared all the music and branding that appears in your film. You got Apple’s permission to show that logo on the iPhone your lead character’s always using, right? And you got WHSmith’s permission to have their shopfront in the background of that highstreet scene?
Now we come to the reason I didn’t sign this contract: the DELIVERY MATERIALS, the list of which occupies five full pages of this contract, so check out the PDF download above to see them.
When you sell a film, you can’t just hand over one master copy of it. The sales agent wants all kinds of different versions – eleven different submasters in this contract, plus all the film elements (those would have been expensive – I didn’t shoot on film!), sound elements, press kits…. And then the documents. Some of the things listed on pages eight and nine (especially the E&O insurance) are serious legal documents that could have cost thousands of pounds to have drawn up. The delivery materials could easily have eaten up the whole $15,000 advance and might even have cost more than the whole production budget of the film. I recommend getting quotes for all delivery materials before signing any distribution deal.
I hope this has given you some idea of what to look for, but let me say again, GET PROFESSIONAL LEGAL ADVICE BEFORE YOU SIGN ANYTHING!