Announcement: We’ll Fix it in Post

You are recording sound on the 8th take of the second to last shot of the day and, of course, the shoot is behind schedule.  The Director calls “action” and as the actors run through their lines perfectly with incredible emotion, an airplane flies overhead.  “Cut”, says the Director, “brilliant…what emotion”.  “Great for camera”, says the DP.  “Uh”, you say, chagrined, “there was airplane noise, that audio is not going to be usable.”  Running late, the Director makes the same inevitable decision. “Moving on.  We’ll fix it in post.”

You cringe inwardly, mentally sigh, shake your head and of course, do what the Director says.  Move on knowing that the audio on the take is not usable and can probably only be solved using ADR or by using another take’s audio and hoping the lines can be matched up when editing.

This articles in this blog are going to be about the best ways to get audio done correctly in the production environment so you never have to fix it in post.   An impossible task, but a worthy goal.  For more info about hiring me for your next project, see my webite, www.locationsoundmontana.com.

What Did He Say?

I worked an interview/doc type shoot today and when I got home, my wife asked me who was interviewed.  I told her and she asked my if he was interesting.  I told her I really didn’t know.  I didn’t know because I was listening with my sound man ears, not my director or producer ears.

If I actually listened to what was being said I might be distracted by an interesting statement and  not notice things I should be listening for such as background noise, conversations, cars, air handlers, airplanes, trains, etc.  I wouldn’t be doing my job.

One of the most basic things a sound mixer has to do, obviously, is listen but it is very important to know HOW to listen and what to listen for.  A huge part of listening correctly means NOT listening to what someone is actually saying.  That’s someone else’s job.

Panasonic AF-100

I have been doing so many shoots on DSLR’s these days that it has been a couple of years since I recorded directly to camera. I just got back from working on a doc in Helena, MT for the Veteran’s Administration. The story followed an Army Guard member who had a hip replacement through a new VA program that allowed her to receive physical therapy through local private practitioners rather than having to drive hundreds of miles to a VA hospital. She was a fire fighter and did physical work, so the program gave her her life back. But I digress..

We shot on a Panasonic AF-100 and I got to use my remote audio breakaway cable for the first time. The AF-100 has a few quirks that could have caused some problems for sound. First, the level meter in the view finder has two markers, neither labeled, one at 0 dBfs and another one that looks like it should be -20 dBfs but upon reading the manual, I learned it was -12 dBfs.

By default, the AF-100 records to an AC3 compressed audio format. That needs to be changed to LPCM (Linear PCM, uncompressed) and the Automatic Gain Control, called ALC in the menus needs to be turned off. The input switches are self explanatory.

The headphone amplifier is pretty weak and it was very difficult to get a signal back on my breakaway cable with enough gain. I cranked my return A level as high as possible on my Sound Devices 442 and it was still pretty hard to hear.

I still recorded to second system just in case they needed iso tracks later, as I both boomed and ran a lav on the interviews.  All in all, it was a fun little shoot, great people and they had the camera video and audio outputting to a device called a Nanoflash that was interesting.  It actually upgrades the video and audio quality as it records everything uncompressed.

Audio in the Blood

Recently I had the good fortune to be one-half of the sound department on the feature film, Winter in the Blood, written and directed by Alex and Andrew Smith of  The Slaughter Rule fame.   This adaptation of the James Welch novel of the same name was shot on location in Montana.

I haven’t blogged much about the experience or what I learned because I have been waiting for the release of the movie, but I kept a daily journal that I will revisit soon. This was my first feature film and I made some rookie mistakes, got my ass kicked physically and mentally and came out a far  better sound guy and in much better shape.  I learned a lot about making features and about being part of an incredible family, a film making crew.  I know that I can now walk on any film set and be confident that I know what to do and how to act.

Tomorrow I am on a panel at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula to discuss my experience on the film as part of a doc on the “making of”  Winter in the Blood called Visionary Insight.  Just before that we are scheduled to do some ADR with one of the actors in my home studio.  Winter in the Blood has opened some doors for me, no doubt.

Guess who I am in the following picture from the set.  Hint:  follow the boom.

On the set of Winter in the Blood

 

Sea Glass

Last night we we had our principal photography wrap party for Sea Glass, my thesis film made in collaboration with my partners, writer/director Caitlin Hofmeister and producer/production designer, Jeri Rafter.  I was producer, sound mixer, production accountant and am the principal editor and sound designer for the movie.

This short film represents a paradigm shift for the University of Montana’s MFA program.  Though not the first film made collaboratively, it is the first time that three grad students had such well defined and differing roles in a thesis project.  Because of our work together in 2011 on Winter in the Blood, we knew that we could work well together and all make large contributions creatively without stepping on each others toes.  It took some discussion with our professors to convince them that our partnership would actually result in all of us being freed up to work even harder and be more creative and would result in a much higher quality film than three separate “magnum opi”.  The best argument?  This is how movies are really made.

I am truly proud of all aspects of the film.  We did things right.  We took the time to find great locations, fantastic actors and raise money to rent HMI’s.  We took the time during production to get great performances.  I took time to make sure the audio is as good as possible (of course).  We had a talented and dedicated cast and crew.  Time will tell, but I feel like this film is going to be special.  The showcase will be May 10th, 2012.

An Open Letter from your Sound Department

originally published on filmsound.org

written by John Coffey, with help from Randy ThomJeff WexlerNoah TimanMike HallJohn Garrett, Scott Smith, Rob YoungMike FilosaWolf Seeberg,Darren BriskerCharles Wilborn,Todd RussellBrydon BakerLarry LongGlen TrewDave SchaafCharles Tomaras, Klay Anderson, Brian Shennan, Hans Hansen, David Marks, Bob Gravenor, Von VargaMark Steinbeck, Carl Cardin, Eric Toline, Joseph Cancila, Stu Fox, Peter DevlinMatt Nicolay and many others.

This letter is being written by audio professionals to help directors and producers understand how good sound can be recorded on the set. We want to help you make the best film possible.

For this piece, we will not discuss the topic of mixing itself, as this is the “hocus pocus” part that you trust us to do so well.

We want you to have information that will enable you to evaluate what is interfering with good sound, before a hasty decision is made that can harm the quality of your film’s sound. To help you make your decision you need to know about some of the obstacles that we sound people face, before we can even begin to get usable production sound on the set.

This is after all, the age day of digital sound. Theaters have wonderful THX (the audience IS listening) and SDDS with 5.1 surround. Home audio is often better than many theaters as a sophisticated audience demands DVDs with 24 bits. Yet, today’s sound at it’s source on set is suffering like never before.

THE PROBLEM

We, the sound crew, are the ones that you depend on to create and protect YOUR original sound tracks during production.

Unlike the work of the majority of the people who are working for on-camera results, the mixer’s efforts can not be “seen” on the set. Almost no one hears what the microphone picks up. Too few are sure just what we do. Only the most obviously bad noises are even brought up for discussion.

Included in our job is to monitor the sets for unnecessary, accidental, ignorant and sometimes even malicious actions or lack of actions that may compromise your sound track. To emphasize this point: WE DO THIS SO YOU WILL HAVE THE BEST TRACKS POSSIBLE; IT IS NOT FOR US.

We are too often frustrated by the state of conditions that now exist on most sets. Many times we are expected to solve all sound problems alone. Instead, this should always be a cooperative effort with the assistant directors and other crafts.

Sound mixers are often perceived as pests or even a hindrance to the film’s progress. We don’t like being put in this untenable position because it is humiliating and unnecessary. We don’t like to be considered adversarial to the rest of the production and we certainly don’t want to be the “sound police”!

A mixer on a tough show, who fights alone to get you good sound, stands a good chance of burning out from all the excuses and defenses put up. It’s hard to put it all out there without support. The temptation is to cave into the pressure and just go with the flow, and no good can come when that happens.

The problems that we face may lead you to believe that good sound cannot be achieved without set disruptions and added costs. This would not be necessary if reasonable measures are anticipated and endorsed by you both in pre-production and during production.

We know the limitations of our equipment. For example, microphones are just tools, they don’t make miracles happen. If on-set audio problems are not dealt with immediately, they will only be back to haunt you again in postproduction.

You can help us do a better job for you. Good sound can most often be achieved by using reasonable preparation to avoid pitfalls.

We need your understanding and your backing.

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