Camera! Sound! Silence! Action!!!
“Beyond the sound and picture“
A short manifesto of recording sound for film
Academy of Dramatic Arts Belgrade
Media Education Centre
International Youth Media Summit
Most modern viewers are well aware of the fact that shooting a film does not follow the sequence of the scenes, and that the shooting schedule depends on the location specificity, the order of appearance of actors, technical requirements and the overall efficiency of the crew. Film is a foothold for many lost souls passionately and obsessively devoted to the career and job which is, essentially, an evolved example of children’s play. Situations that can take a turn for the worse during a shooting are immeasurable. Therefore, a precise allocation of minutely defined assignments is essential if the „Oh, no, we forgot … “ flashback moment is to be avoided in the post-production stage. Very often too, one is faced with the question of who to address for an instruction, indication, or help and it’s not all the same who it will be, with so many people around involved.
Amidst all that crowd, there’s usually a small group of people lurking in one of the corners, with their ears pricked up and their eyes wide open. They are the sound recording crew, who commonly receive a welcome worthy of one’s aunt’s best friend’s nephew whom she dared to bring to the party (Denise the menace). What are the reasons for this phenomenon? Does it have something to do with that unwritten ‘first come – first to be served’ rule? Like: somebody else was there first and had the things their way, right away. Or is it just that they lack knowledge about the intricate nature of sound?
The truth is that, in their mutual communication, the representatives of the sound department sometimes truly sound like aliens to the rest of the world. And yet, sound design is essentially a craft, which, similarly to nuclear physics, can be mastered, then perfected through hard work and practice, in order to finally open the door of art.
The main task of the sound design crew on a set is to record the dialogue as precisely and in as quality way as possible. Most elements of the sound image can be created subsequently, but the modern feature film relies on the spoken word as a means of communication between the drama characters and the audience. That is why the dialogue must be recorded in the best possible way, on the spot. The dialogue can be dubbed in the studio as well, but this imposes additional tasks and production costs. The sound sector includes the sound recordist and a boom operator. The sound recordist listens to what is being recorded while also being cautious about the noise of the environment. The boom operator holds the boom pole with a microphone at its end, making sure that the mic is as close to the sound source as it gets.
Microphone is a device that transforms sound pressure into electricity. It’s a stupid device because it focuses on only one spot in the whole picture. That’s why the boom operator has to be well trained and precise. You miss the sound source, and the microphone will pick that up. There are three things you have to know about a mic: its sensitivity, its directivity and its placement.
Sensitivity tells you how sensitive a microphone is to the sound waves coming in its direction. You will use more sensitive microphones in quiet environments where it’s necessary to pick up all the details of a sound, and less sensitive microphones for louder environments where you only need to pick up the information. For example, condenser mics have higher sensitivity, that’s why we use them for film. We need that ‘crisp’ in actor’s voice, so don’t forget to turn on the phantom power. Dynamic mics have lower sensitivity and are mostly used for TV reports and musical performances.
Then, there is directivity. Those microphones that uniformly pick up signals coming from all directions are referred to as omnidirectional. A common directional microphone is the cardioid microphone, so called because the polar graph curve is heart-shaped. A cardioid microphone is useful for recording live performances, where it is desirable to eliminate audience noise. A shotgun microphone has a strictly forward-directional response. It’s highly useful for recording a film on the set because it focuses precisely on the sound source. But be careful! A shotgun mic is also sensitive at its back end, so it can easily pick up a noise such as a neon light or a noisy street coming from its back-side direction.
You may know everything about microphones and you can bring dozens of them to a set, but if you don’t know how and where to place them at a given moment, you might as well give it all up. It’s important to know where the edges of a frame are, and stay as close to the sound source as possible. Yes, “we’re living on the edge.”
Sometimes, you will have to hide your microphone somewhere in the scenery or costume. That’s why lavaliere microphone comes in handy. It’s mounted on the chest of an actor and covered up so you can’t see it. The good thing is it’s close to the sound source, yet it’s important that you mount it properly. Costume fabric can get pretty noisy if interacting with the microphone, so make sure it’s covered with a tape or medical patch.
Be careful with the levels. Be sure to have the loudest signal possible, but watch out for the red lights zone, because it will clip and get distorted. If you record it too quiet, it will bring up a lot of noise afterwards, while processing the soundtrack. Having a level rehearsal before the action is the best way to keep your signal safe.
Try to pick up some atmospheres. When on a break, after a take or a scene, take five minutes and record an atmosphere. They are usually pretty discrete and unnoticeable to the listener. But they give life to the space, and define time; they create the world we imagine as well as an experience. So ask for silence – it’s your birthright, and get yourself a nice atmosphere for later.
Also, give some attention to details, because it’s all about details, and record sounds of all the characteristic objects and props on the set. If the actor is using one of these, it has to make a sound. But you will deal with sound effects only when sure the dialogue is recorded well. It’s paradoxical that you avoid some sounds at first, so that you get to record them as separate, and even reconstruct them in the studio later. But it’s all about having control and power over your sounds. When you have all the elements isolated and carefully treated, you can play with them properly. It’s even more paradoxical that you have to make a special effort in the process of mixing, making sure nobody notices anything you did. Because only when you’re not concentrating on what you’re hearing, you’re experiencing the magic. But that’s another story.
Words are powerful. Language is essential. Lack of communication leads to misunderstandings and violence. A successful exchange creates harmony, love, and good films. Learning the language of film enables communication with the people around us who share our passion and skills. Ignorance is removed but once.
The communication between the director and the composer or sound designer is hindered if the director is musically untrained and unskilled. For a director who doesn’t know enough about the sound dramaturgy, technique and technology, the concrete use of sound resources and the fulfilment of the goals set before the crew represents the field of perpetual instability.
Just like any other stimuli that make a film, the design of the sound image is a process which has its many stages and undergoes filegree-delicate craftwork. We regard the raw material as ore, ready to be carefully treated and passionately processed until all the surface dirt is off, and the limber shines its splendid luster. Every step is equally important, as negligence in one phase can cause a chain reaction for the future work.
Keep your equipment safe and clean. Be neet and organised. Cherish your craft and it will cherish you.
Camera. Sound. Silence! Action!