Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sound Garden

I learned the hard way that sound can make or break a film. On my first short film, First Session, my original sound guy kind of flaked out on me, and I was left with a fast approaching deadline and virtually no soundtrack.

Sean RussellThankfully, I got introduced to Sean Russell who's not only an expert at putting out audio fires, but a creative mind and sincere professional who has been a blessing to work with. He's the sound master of Women's Studies, and understands the importance of audio to the cinematic experience. Not only that, his post-audio skills are, to coin a phrase, mad.

On a production full of PC/Avid technicians, Sean is also our lone Mac operator, for which he catches a lot of good natured flak, though sometimes I think he often gets the last laugh.

As the Women's Studies shoot dates roll closer, Sean has been busy prepping his sound recording gear as well as preparing for the eventual post process. I took some time recently and talked with him about his gear, work methods, and philosophy.

# # #

Sean, what drew you to sound work?

Sean Russell:
I first got into sound at a young age visiting my uncle Steve's studio at the age of eleven. I was into playing drums, and he recorded a small solo to tape for me and right there I was hooked. Some Years Later, I was playing in bands and handing tapes to sound guys every night asking them to tape our show from the board feed. Usually, those tapes sounded horrible, and I thought I could make a better sounding recording. That's how I slowly moved from making music to recording music, and later, my passion for post developed. And here I am.

A lot of independent filmmakers make the mistake of shortchanging their sound in both recording and post, why do you suppose that is?

I've always been taught that video with poor audio might as well be surveillance!

I guess mostly because the conscious focus of any film is the visual. I think most people always think of movies that way - the visual judgment of how they looked may have been more immediate then how they sounded. I would also suppose that with days, weeks, months of shooting a project (and trying to make it look as good as possible) you end up with no time (and budget) to get the film properly posted to a standard we're all used to. Most gear budgets are a lot like casting budgets - you spend the big money on the biggest feature. In gear terms, that might mean a really cool camera. With casting, it might mean spending a chunk of the budget to get a big celebrity. After you've spent a good amount of budget on the camera and associated peripherals, the sound department gets 'what's left over,' meaning, usually the location audio suffers, both in equipment and quality.

In big productions, the location audio recorded isn't as big a deal, with 90% of most audio being replaced after principal photography is over. In post, the usual culprit is the timeline - too many projects hit post past deadline, need the audio yesterday, and don't have time to take time! I've been in this position many times - perhaps more times than not. Proper audio is the difference between a well-shot film with a good plot going over well, or just being well-shot with a good plot. So much of the audio for film is subconscious, and it's amazing what the human ear can perceive as being 'false' or 'fake' if the audio isn't up to par. It's my job to make it seem like there almost wasn't a 'sound guy' or 'post tech' tweaking stuff, as most people are pretty fuzzy about the process anyway.

A lot of films which could have failed, succeed because of fantastic audio. Lucas's THX-1138 is one that comes to mind.

Yes, films which 'could have failed' ...hmmm, there are so many that come to mind... anyone remember Armageddon? Man that was a bad movie, but the soundtrack - whew! The audio in general was top-notch. It's amazing sometimes what the Re-Recording mixers on a movie can do. You mentioned THX-1138 - I would even go so far as the first Star Wars movie. Have you seen cuts without audio? Complete Velveeta. Even the people making the movie thought it would tank - but then they saw it with all of Ben's audio behind it, John's music on it, and - WOW! What a great film! It's the subconscious element of sound to work almost behind the scenes on our senses while our eyes process the film itself. I think good sound makes the film believable - and allows the suspension of disbelief we all must experience to walk out of the film saying to each other 'that was a good movie.'

I agree wholeheartedly. The aural experience enhances the visual one, and is just as important in making the audience lose themselves in the movie. What are some of the things you like to do to heighten that experience?

Secret tips, eh? OK, well, there are general rules, 'see a sound, hear a sound,' that kind of thing. A lot of sounds that we typically hear on movies aren't actually realistic - but most of the time, our brain agrees with the delivery and there's no argument that would give pause. The easiest example in modern cinema is probably gun effects. On TV, when the bad guy cocks his 9-mil, you're usually hearing a 12-gauge shotgun sample. There might be other samples layered with that, but you almost never actually hear the 9-mil itself, it's just not believable. The same can be said for the firings of the guns - many guns in real life make more of a 'pop' sound then a 'boom' sound - but you rarely hear that, because it doesn't build the same way. It's not what we're 'used' to hearing on a movie.

I think it's mostly trying to make sure that the layers that make up an effect or sequence don't stick out independently enough to defeat the stack. It's also about the timing of the sequence, and build up musically coming in or going out.

Give the gear heads a little taste of what your rig is like, for both production and post.

Production audio is mostly Sennheiser shotgun mics feeding Lunatecs recorded 24-bit / 48 kHz to Compact Flash. It's usually a simple chain to get the clearest idea of dialog, location room tones/background loops, and general other sound gathering techniques that might comprise of 15%-20% of the actual audio in the movie.

When you get to Post, everything moves into ProTools and you begin 're-cutting' the film from the ground up - before music and final dialog mixing. Once you get the main beds down, you begin all the obvious effects, and things like the SPL transient designer are a must for making things 'bigger.' Much of the actual effects and editing is handled strictly in the DAW now, with the integration of ProTools and Avid.

Last question: What does your world sound like?

Good question. That's a question I've always wanted to ask those that came before me. I've always been fascinated with the human perception of sound and how people hear differently. I suppose my world sounds not unlike everyone else's. I am forever trying to be more conscientious about what I am perceiving, and how much I'm hearing something as opposed to how much I'm feeling it - or perceiving that I'm feeling it.

Connecting to the undercurrent of emotion that a piece is portraying and supporting that feeling is my main goal. It's my connection with that feeling that allows direction to the technical aspect of my job to come up with something that will enhance rather than distract the point of the story, whether it be in song or film.

No comments: