F-Up #41 “Sound Is Not Important”

sound mixingWhy this is the dumbest thing you may ever hear on set…

The F-Up

Have you ever been watching a movie and then got up and walked into another room so you could only hear the TV but not see it? Chances are, by merely hearing the movie, you could still follow much of what was going on. Now try watching the same movie on mute and see how much you can follow.

The truth is that the lion’s share of your story is more than likely to be told via sound. The dialogue, the music, and the mood are all built largely in the audience’s ears. And yet those naïve to filmmaking still think of it as primarily a “visual medium.” This mentality means they are prone to vastly underappreciate sound’s importance. If your sound is bad, no matter how great the writing, directing, acting, or visuals, the audience will simply be incapable of enjoying your film.

How to Do It Right

“Let’s go see a movie” may be the figure of speech, but have no doubt what the audience really wants is an experience for both their eyes and ears to enjoy. Furthermore, an audience is far more willing to tolerate poor picture quality than even mediocre sound quality. Many terribly shot movies went on to achieve success, but the soundtrack was still clear (Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Paul Provenza’s The Aristocrats are both examples of this phenomenon of poorly shot movies with good sound that achieved success). I challenge you to find any example in which the opposite is true: a movie that was beautifully shot but the sound was terrible and yet it still went on to achieve success. Even filmmakers of ultra low-budget successes like Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi may have spent only eight thousand dollars shooting the film, but the distributor spent hundreds of thousands fixing the soundtrack to get it to a releasable quality that audiences would tolerate.

Time and again, it’s been proven that what is most important to an audience, whether they realize it or not, is having good sound quality. To avoid annoying your audience and making it impossible for them to enjoy your movie, you must prioritize your film’s sound quality.

Although the “sound department” may be one of the smaller departments in terms of staffing, it is of the utmost importance on set. With that point in mind, let’s examine the role of the technicians who will determine the quality of sound recorded on set.

Sound Mixer

The sound mixer has the critical duty of being ultimately responsible for all sound recorded on set. The term “mixer” is a bit misleading, because actually mixing the levels of the multiple microphones being used is only one important part of this person’s responsibilities. The sound mixer must also decide what microphone placement will provide the optimal sound recording for every scene and its unique challenges. Just as there are infinite places to put the camera to shoot any given scene, there are infinite ways to mic a scene. A good sound mixer will examine the set, the actors’ movements and wardrobe, and the scene as a whole to figure out where to place microphones to provide the best sound quality possible.

When you are hiring a sound mixer, it is absolutely vital not to simply hire the person who offers the best rate or equipment. Choosing a poor sound mixer can cost you far more money and frustration in post-production, where you’ll be left with poor quality or unusable sound and have to struggle to fix the problem. Poorly recorded sound may even make your movie unreleasable.

Boom Operator

The boom operator works under the sound mixer’s guidance to operate the boom microphone. Boom operator is one of those jobs that everyone seems to think he can do, until he actually has to do it and discover it is vastly more difficult than it looks. A good boom operator not only needs the physical agility to operate a boom over his head for a long period of time, but also the mental capacity to anticipate every line of dialogue that is going to be spoken. Good boom operators study the scene closely and know when every character will speak so they can be ready with the microphone accordingly. I’ve been on sets where if actors blank on a line, the boom operator is the person they turn to because he knows the dialogue better than anyone. Furthermore, the boom operator must perform this function with a ninja (yes “ninja”) like precision to avoid causing any sound interference with his hands, which the boom mic will pick up. If a boom operator cannot maintain a majestically gentle touch for extended periods of time, the sound he picks up will suffer greatly.

Excerpted from First-Time Filmmaker F*&^ Ups by Daryl Bob Goldberg ©2011 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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