If Camera was Sound and Sound was Camera

“Sound has the set,” calls the 1st AD, fishing a roll-up from her pocket and heading for the fire exit.

The production sound mixer strides into the middle of the set and strokes his Hipster beard thoughtfully.

“What are you thinking, boss?” asks the gaffer, scratching at the beer belly under his Yamaha t-shirt.

The mixer points to the skylight. “Let’s have some early morning ambience coming through here – the one with the distant traffic.” With a sweeping gesture he encompasses one side of the kitchen set. “I want it to explode off the floor and reverberate throughout this whole area.”

“Hundred watt woofer?” the gaffer suggests. The mixer nods, and a spark scuttles off to the truck for the required speaker.

“Is that practical?” the mixer wonders aloud. The gaffer follows his gaze to the kettle, nods, and flicks the switch. The mixer pulls a sound meter from the pocket of his leather jacket and holds it up to the boiling appliance. “6dB under.”

“We could hide a little tweeter behind it, bring the level up a bit,” the gaffer suggests. “I’ve got half a dozen different kettle effects on the truck.”

The mixer agrees, and proceeds to point out several other positions around the set, which is soon full of busy sparks running XLR cables, rigging speakers and shaping them with sound blankets. A cacophony grows as each one is fired up.

“Does this look about right?” asks the 1st AS, steadying the Sennheiser as the grips wheel its massive Technoboom to the previously agreed spot. She holds a pair of headphones out to the mixer.

He puts them on, and a reverent hush descends upon the set. He pans the mic left, then right, then up, then down, then left and right again. Finally he takes off the cans, clutching at his SQN baseball cap to stop it coming off too. “We need to go tighter,” he pronounces. He holds up his two hands, forming a circular aperture with his fingers, and cups them around his ear. His face a picture of concentration, he squats down and listens intently through the hole in his hands. He shuffles a little to the left. “This is it. We need to be right here on the 67.”

“Copy that,” the 1st AS replies. Her 2nd drags over a massive flight case and she begins unscrewing the ME66 from the power module.

 

“OK everyone, standby for a mic rehearsal.”

At last the camera operator – who had been somehow hiding in plain sight – puts down his coffee and heaves an Alexa onto his shoulder, checking the image as the cast go through the motions.

The director presses her headphones against her ears, frowning. She turns to the mixer. “I’m not getting enough sense of where they are,” she says. “Can we go wider?”

A few moments later the 1st AS is sighing as she unscrews the ME67 and remounts the ME66.

“It’s really quiet,” a producer complains, from his canvas chair in front of the amp at sound city. “Can we turn it up a bit?”

“We’ve got to have the mood,” the mixer insists. “What you can’t hear is more exciting than what you can.”

“I’m paying to hear it!” snaps the producer. “And why is there so much hiss? I can barely hear the dialogue over it.”

“It’s atmosphere!” the mixer protests, but he can see he’s not going to win this one. Reluctantly he signals a spark to turn down the white noise generator.

 

“Cut!” calls the director, smiling in satisfaction at the cast. She turns to the mixer. “How was that for you?”

“That sounded beautiful,” he replies ecstatically.

“OK, moving on,” says the AD, reaching for the clip-list.

“Hang on a minute.”

All eyes turn to the camera op.

“The caterer walked through the back of shot.”

“Did he?” asks the AD, looking around the crew for confirmation.

“I didn’t pick him up,” says the mixer.

The camera op stares at them in disbelief. “He sauntered right across the back of the set. He was there the whole take. It’s completely unusable.”

The AD sighs. “I guess we’d better go again.”

“Can we ask people not to walk through the frame? This lens will pick up literally anyone that walks in front of it.”

The director thinks about this. “Have you got a different lens you can use?”

“Can’t you put Go Pros on them?” asks the AD, gesturing to the cast.

“I’d rather not use Go Pros,” a new voice chimes in. Everyone turns with surprise to see the director of photography blinking in the light. She almost never moves from the shadowy corner where she sits with LiveGrade and a monitor which is rumoured to display mostly rugby matches.

“We can’t afford to lose any more takes because of camera,” says the AD. “What’s wrong with Go Pros anyway?”

“The image just isn’t as good. The dynamic range…”

But the AD cuts her short. “Well, it’s either that or AVR.”

“I just think if we took thirty seconds to find a new position for the Alexa…”

As the producer strides over to stick his oar in, the sound assistants exchange knowing looks: this could go on for a while. The pair lean on the Magliner and check their phones.

“Have you ever worked with a Nagra?” the 2nd AS asks, conversationally. “I still think they sound better than digital.”

If Camera was Sound and Sound was Camera

9 Tips for Easier Sound Syncing

Colin Smith slates a shot on Stop/Eject
Colin Smith slates a shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Hold the slate so that your fingers are not covering any of the info on it.
  4. Make MOS (mute) shots very clear by holding the sticks with your fingers through them.
  5. 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.
  6. 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”.
Rick Goldsmith slates a steadicam shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall
Rick Goldsmith slates a steadicam shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall

For more on best slating practice, see my Slating 101 blog post.

Off set: tips for the DIT and assistant editor

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

9 Tips for Easier Sound Syncing

Distribution and the M&E (Music and Effects) Mix

The Japanese cover of Soul Searcher / Blade X
The Japanese cover of Soul Searcher / Blade X

While in Japan recently, I was finally able to get hold of that country’s version of my 2005 feature film, Soul Searcher. I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk a little bit about international distribution and the mysterious M&E mix.

The story of an ordinary guy who gets trained to be the new Grim Reaper, Soul Searcher was picked up for distribution by a small UK company called Wysiwyg Films (now defunct). After releasing it on DVD in the UK, they sold all the foreign rights (much to my chagrin) to American sales agents Loose Cannon. Loose Cannon put out a US DVD, aiming to misleadingly tap the horror market by adding a splash of blood to the cover art, along with a stock photo of a random hooded guy with glowing eyes.

Loose Cannon then sub-sub-licensed the rights to five other territories: Benelux, Russia, Argentina, Thailand and Japan. Russian pirates hilariously dubbed the film into their own language (see some clips here), but the only territory to officially dub rather than subtitle the movie was Japan.

Presumably because of the film’s numerous martial arts fights, the Japanese distributors paid more for the film than any other country: $24,750. I know this from the Loose Cannon sales reports that were eventually forwarded to me by Wysiwyg. The only reason I know anything else about the Japanese release is from extensive googling (using the actors’ names as search terms proved most fruitful) which led me to the Amazon.jp page for the DVD a few years ago.

At first I thought I’d made a mistake. The cover art displayed on the page was completely new to me, showing an unfamiliar man holding a huge sword (a weapon never used by Soul Searcher’s hero). Beneath that was the title, in both Japanese and English: Blade X. It was only after Google Translating the page that the customer reviews confirmed this was indeed my very own Soul Searcher. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reviews complained of the film’s lack of Wesley Snipes, the lack of correlation between the movie’s scythe-wielding hero and the cover’s sword-bearing imposter, plus many other flaws that are common to the English version!

Sadly, this is how low budget film sales work. The distributors know that the films are unlikely to generate much positive word of mouth, so they resort to tricking consumers into buying them with misleading covers and references to more successful films.

Left to right: the UK, US and Russian covers for Soul Searcher
Left to right: the UK, US and Russian covers for Soul Searcher. The Russian one is my favourite.

Anyway, when I saw that Amazon’s tech specs listed a Japanese audio track, I was desperate to get my hands on the DVD. But I could never find a seller who would import it for less than an eye-watering £40, so I waited, and in June this year I finally visited Japan and bought a copy.

But how does dubbing work? Well, amongst the delivery materials that a sales agent will require when you sell them your film will be an M&E mix – that’s Music and Effects. What this means is that you supply a version of the film which contains music, sound effects, foley, atmospheres, everything except the dialogue. This is one of the reasons for the existence of foley (footsteps, clothing rustles and other mundane sounds added to the film in postproduction); if you relied on the footsteps recorded along with the dialogue on set, those footsteps would disappear when you muted the dialogue tracks to produce the M&E mix.

Some of the buses in the Logic mix of Soul Searcher
Some of the buses in the Logic mix of Soul Searcher

It’s always worth running off an M&E version when mixing a feature, whatever you feel its chances of achieving distribution are. Trying to create an M&E track after the fact, when the mixer has moved on to other projects, the source files may no longer exist, etc, etc, is likely to be a real headache. Instead, take five minutes in your mixing session to mute the dialogue tracks and bounce it out.

Along with the M&E mix, sales agents will require a dialogue list – essentially a transcription of the film, so it can be translated ready for dubbing or subtitling.

The following video compares some clips from Soul Searcher, showing the original English versions, followed by the M&E track, then the Japanese dub.

The Japanese distributors made a good job of dubbing Soul Searcher. As far as I can tell, the voice cast seem to give decent performances, and the mixer has blended everything carefully together. I wonder how much this dub cost them? Undoubtedly, factoring in the manufacturing and advertising costs, and the $24,750 they paid to Loose Cannon for the rights, they will have spent more on the film than my investors and I did in making it (£28,000).

If you want to know more about distribution contracts, check out my post on what to look for in one, and for the full story of Soul Searcher’s financing, expenditure, and distribution revenue, look no further than this exhaustive, no-holds-barred video…

Distribution and the M&E (Music and Effects) Mix

Mixing Amelia’s Letter

IMG_1841
Nico Metten works on the mix of Amelia’s Letter

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.

Mixing is harder the more tracks of sound you have. It took Neil Douek and I forever to wrangle the layers and layers of audio I’d laid into a decent mix for Soul Searcher (listen to a breakdown here), and The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot was a delicate balancing act with swordfight SFX, dialogue and a big orchestral score all going on at the same time (watch an interview with the mixer here). Stop/Eject, being quieter and less complex, was a breeze to mix (read the blog post here).

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.

Recording one last sound effect...
Recording one last sound effect…

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

Mixing Amelia’s Letter

The Importance of Sound Design

Here’s a quick demonstration of the huge difference that sound design can make. This video contains a scene from the final cut of Soul Searcher, but still with the original production sound, followed by the same scene after the processes of sound editing, design and mixing were completed.

The music makes a big difference, of course, but putting that to one side, the sound effects have really brought the scene to life. And bear in mind that I did the sound design on this film. If a proper, experienced sound designer had done it, I’m sure it would be a hundred times better still.

First of all, the location, the villain’s lair, has been given a character through atmos tracks. The fluorescent hum is actually a combination of an electricity substation, recorded outside a local shopping centre here in Hereford late one night, and my own voice humming, layered up several times. The human element adds some randomness and makes the sound more alive.

There’s also an airy sound which is my mum’s gas oven, representing a Bunsen Burner that’s established in the room earlier in the film. This high frequency sound lightens everything up and gives it a sense of space.

The thick chains which Danté is carrying were ingeniously made by production designer Ian Tomlinson out of rolled-up newspaper. Clearly it was necessary to replace the light, crinkly noises this made on set with the heavy clanks of genuine metal chain. These were sourced from an online library called Sounddogs.

The smaller chain was real metal, but you’ll notice in the production audio that what little sound it makes is weak and off-mike. This is absolutely normal; your sound recordist’s job is to get the dialogue as clearly as possible; everything else can be re-recorded in post and therefore each element can be miked closely for the best possible sound. Using a length of the chain which I had kept from production, I recorded the sounds of it being handled and dragged over the lip of the chest using a coffee table in my living room.

The chains are the MacGuffin of the story, so giving them thick, clean, satisfying sounds is vital to cement them as key elements in the audience’s mind.

Ideally the chest used as a prop would have been more ancient-looking, but that was the best one we were able to get on our budget. However, adding the sound of a friend’s squeaky bathroom doorknob as Danté opens the lid helped to age prop the little.

Finally, once all these lovely clean sound effects were track-laid, they were all treated with reverb by mixer Neil Douek, to help them feel real, to tie them all together, and to convey the scale of Danté’s lair.

How have you used sound design in your own films to help tell the story?

The Importance of Sound Design

Mixing Stop/Eject

Mixing Stop/Eject at Alchemea College in Islington
Mixing Stop/Eject at Alchemea College in Islington

Yesterday I travelled down to London to sit in on the final mix for Stop/Eject. This is the last part of the filmmaking process as far as the audio is concerned. All of the disparate elements – dialogue recorded on set, dubbed dialogue (ADR), ambience, footsteps, effects and music – must be combined into one seamless whole.

Guiding the audience’s ears through the soundtrack of Stop/Eject was Jose Pereira, re-recording mixer. Alchemea, the college in north London where he works, very kindly gave us the use of their postproduction room, a very nice little studio with a big screen, cinema seating, surround sound monitoring and more knobs than Nobby the Nobber’s Knob Emporium.

The film sounded great already, thanks to the talents of sound designer Henning Knoepfel and Jose’s diligent pre-mixing. It was a very painless process to do the necessary surround sound positioning, adjust a few levels here and there and arrive at a final mix.

It was a world away from Soul Searcher, my first real mixing experience. Yes, Soul Searcher was a feature and yes, it had a lot of action, but looking back I can’t help but think it would have been much easier to mix if I knew then what I know now. Back then I was doing my own sound design, and I was convinced that quantity was quality, creating layer upon layer of noise which took an age to sort through and balance in the mix. I obstinately foleyed every footstep even when it had no hope of being heard under the music and gunfire. I believed logic was the key to every decision, that the same location had to have the same ambience every time we returned to it, even if the story and emotions would have been better served by something a little different. And I was determined to make as much use of the rear speakers as possible, even at the risk of confusing or distracting the viewer.

Now I know that less is more, that a few well-chosen sounds trump fifteen tracks of poor ones, that the rear speakers should be use sparingly and that you don’t always need to hear every clothing rustle and every footstep.

Anyway, with Stop/Eject’s sound mix in the bag, it only remains to grade the images, and I hope to have a date set up for that soon.

Mixing Stop/Eject

ADR Podcast

Here is a video podcast from the ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement / Additional Dialogue Recording) session on March 15th, in which the actors explain some of the challenges of recreating their performances in a studio.

This is a belated public reward for passing the £1,400 mark in Stop/Eject‘s crowd-funding campaign (over two months ago!). See my earlier blog for more info about how the session went.

Thanks to Gerard Giorgi-Coll for filming this and Soundtree Music for the use of their studio.

ADR Podcast

Adiabatic Demagnetisation Refridgeration

Adiabatic Demagnetisation Refridgeration, or ADR, is a cooling technology based on the magnetocaloric effect. I don’t know what that means, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Automated Dialogue Replacement, which is what ADR stands for in the film industry.

Georgina does some ADR
Alternative Democratic Reform

Last Friday, Georgina Sherrington, Oliver Park, Therese Collins and I all got together for the first time since we shot Stop/Eject – almost a year ago. Along with sound designer Henning Knoepfel and behind-the-scenes camera operator Gerard Giorgi-Coll, alumni of The Dark Side of the Earth, we descended on Soundtree in East London to re-record some of Stop/Eject’s dialogue.

Henning looks on as Ollie takes to the mic.
Applied Data Research

Recreating a performance in the sterile environment of a studio can be difficult for an actor. I remember struggling with a line of Kate Burdette’s on Dark Side where she was crawling backwards along the floor while a seven-foot-tall wooden robot with a massive sword bore down on her. Standing still and alone in an empty, soundproof room, it’s hard to summon up the same energy.

If I’ve learnt anything about ADR it’s that – as with any aspect of directing – you have to figure out what conditions each actor requires to do their best work and then try your best to provide those conditions. So while Georgie’s years of ADR experience on The Worst Witch meant she was quite happy acting and lip-syncing at the same time, Therese’s performance was best when delivering the lines wild, straight after hearing the production audio. Your sound crew has to be up for this, though. Kudos to Henning, who recognised and accepted that this was the best way for Therese to work, even though it would mean extra graft for him manipulating the audio to match the picture.

"Any good?"
Artificial Disc Replacement

Breaking further with convention, I had the actors feed each other lines sometimes. You have to be careful; at one point they started to overlap each other, which is exactly why we were ADRing the scene in the first place. (You want each character’s voice to be on a clean, separate track when you come to mix.) But even just rehearsing the scene a few times before recording can help recreate the performance. That’s why it’s always good to have all your principal actors present at the same time for ADR, if at all possible.

After wrapping the ADR we recorded the People’s Choice Reward, which you have probably seen already, followed by the cast commentary for the DVD and Blu-ray. With the music written, many of the VFX complete and now the ADR done, it is really starting to feel like there is light at the end of the tunnel for Stop/Eject.

Adiabatic Demagnetisation Refridgeration