Creating an indie film isn’t easy. It requires a great idea, hundreds of hours of hard work, thousands of dollars of equipment, and many talented people.

Anyone who has made a film knows dozens of things can derail even the most carefully planned project: lack of time, poor weather, mechanical failure, crew squabbles, and more. But, when the ideas, equipment, and people all come together, a film has an opportunity to create an emotional experience that will affect thousands of viewers.

How can you ensure all the cogs mesh in the massive machine of your production? One important element is ensuring your film records the best sound possible. Today’s post will include quick and easy tips to help independent filmmakers not only save troublesome production sound but supercharge the audio in their projects.

Why Record Good Sound?

image of empty audience, the reason why you should capture quality sound on set

Are you an experienced director shooting your fifth indie film? Maybe you’re a film school student who is assigned to record sound for an end-of-term project. Perhaps you’re just curious about high-quality sound recording and want to know more. You may wonder: why bother recording better audio? What’s the benefit to improving sound on set?

There are dozens of reasons. Here are the most common ones:

  • Preserve performances. audio recorded on set preserves performances. When an actor’s dialogue is inaudible, obscured, or damaged, the line is either lost forever or must be re-recorded using automated dialogue replacement (ADR) or “looping” in a sound booth long after the film is finished shooting. The result? The emotional energy of the scene will alter or evaporate, changing the entire feel of the take. Good, cleanly recorded dialogue will preserve this emotional power.
  • Save money. ADR recording sessions are expensive. Avoid this expense with well-recorded audio.
  • Save time. Properly recorded audio saves time. On set, it means avoiding shooting re-takes to accommodate for damaged sound. That ensures you keep creative energy high and stay on schedule, too. It also sidesteps looping and editing ADR in post-production afterward. Capturing good audio avoids these steps so filmmakers can focus spending time on other tasks.
  • You owe it to your audience. This above all else, you are making your film for people to experience. Delivering quality sound is 50% of that experience and it will make or break your audience’s experience.

Why Recording Good Sound is Challenging

image of a noisy drone, one of the challenges to recording quality sound on set

Recording good audio on set is a common challenge. Why is this?

  •  Production gear is noisy. From buzzing lights and camera fans to HVAC noise and drone propellers, sometimes it is difficult for a production to make room for the conditions necessary for getting quality sound. This is a constant compromise as it often affects budget and schedule.
  • “Film is a visual medium.” For the untrained viewer, visuals dominate the experience of a film. Sound is intangible. Few are aware of substandard sound when it is happening. That’s why it’s an unfortunate reality that this experience trickles down to film creators, too. Sound often isn’t appreciated fully until truly bad sound is heard.
  • Lack of experience. Many new filmmakers aren’t trained or aware of the finer details of the craft of recording sound, or how it affects the final product. As a result, less attention is given to creating good sound on set.
  • Time. An indie film shoot is a hectic place. Often schedules are tight, and scenes must be shot quickly. It’s not always possible to accommodate all the requests of a production sound mixer or boom operator.

Those may seem like substantial challenges. Let’s learn some quick and easy tricks to create good production sound for your project.

Working With Crew

Let’s start by seeing how working with the crew can improve audio in your film.

image of working with a film crew, one of the ways to esnure high quality sound on set

Education.

A lot of production sound problems can be solved by educating crew about sound, how it affects a film, and a production sound mixer’s and boom operator’s needs.

There are many ways crew can help the sound department. These have some of the most significant effects:

  • Directors. Talk to directors about sound. What do they expect? If they are unaware of how poor sound can affect a film, tell them about the benefits of good sound listed above. Be careful: don’t begin a project by whining to a director about how it’s so difficult to capture good sound or what the director needs to do. Instead, be positive. Frame the discussion on how good sound can help their film, and how you can do this for them.

Ask them about how they would prefer to be notified about poor audio. Do they want you to stop the take when a plane flies over the location? A visual signal? Make them aware of it after the shot is done? Each director will have their own style.

  • Assistant Directors. A veteran sound mixer once mentioned they speak to the AD before every shoot and tell them that at some point they will need 5 minutes (or whatever) of time. AD’s are insanely busy. Prime them so that when you need them for emergencies, they will be on your side.
  • Locations. Ask locations crew to shut down HVAC, refrigerators, vending machines, or other noisy machinery during the take.
  • Wardrobe. Meet and get friendly with wardrobe crew. You will need to coordinate with them when placing lav mics.

These steps are best done before a film begins. Why? It manages the expectations of the crew and makes them more likely to support sound requests during a shoot.

What You Can Do

image of sound guy on set, focused on what he can do to record good sound

Collaborating with a receptive crew isn’t always possible. That’s ok! There are dozens of small tricks a production sound mixer can try to greatly improve location audio.

Good Habits and Technique

  • Record room tone. Room tone or presence is the sound of a film location without any dialogue or crew movement. Record a few seconds of sound after shooting a scene. This helps dialogue editors cut audio in post-production, later. Get the director and AD on your side to record room tone during those few, precious seconds.
  • Record wild lines. Sometimes there’s no choice but to record sub-optimal dialogue on set. When this occurs, see if you can pull the actor aside to record wild lines. Wild lines are dialogue recordings not synchronized with video or film. Take the actor to a quieter location while the rest of the crew works setting up the next scene. Ask them to repeat their dialogue and record it. This will help in post-production, later.
  • Watch the rehearsal. Have the boom operator watch scene rehearsals carefully. That will show them how they will swing the boom to capture all dialogue efficiently and avoid missing lines. In addition, this helps in other ways, too: it keeps the boom op out of the way of the crew and shows them were to stand out of the shot and away from in front of the lights.
  • Get the mic as close as possible. It may seem common sense that moving a boom mic closer to actors will capture better audio. It’s not as easy when you’re on set, though. Why? It’s difficult to know how far to drop the boom before it appears in the shot. So, before a scene begins, drop the mic into the shot and slowly back it out. Ask the camera crew when the mic is out of the shot. Then, create a mental note how far you can lower the mic. This will ensure the mic is as close to the actor as it can be, and capture the best possible audio.
  • Record a safety track. Are you a production sound mixer newbie? Not sure how to set your levels? Perhaps a scene combines low-level whispering and yelling, too. Here’s an idea: create a safety track. Split the audio signal into two tracks, one set to capture quiet dialogue, and the other diminished to accommodate shouting. While not as ideal as mixing sound on the fly, it can be a lifesaver for beginners and help one-person boom/mixer shoots.
  • Use a slate or a clapper. A clapperboard is a requirement on advanced film sets. It’s not necessarily a given on low-budget films. It’s used to create a sharp smack to sync video with audio to assist in post-production. Don’t have a budget for a top-tier Denecke smart slate? No problem. Even an app or smacking your hands is an improvement to the miserable experience of lining up audio to picture manually, later.

Gear

  • Get wind protection. Wind is one of the most common problems sound mixers can experience in exterior locations. It damages dialogue considerably. Ensure your microphone is protected from wind with foam windscreens, blimps, or windjammers to accommodate for different intensities of wind.
  • Use moving blankets. The thick, heavy moving blankets are a great way to muffle problem sound or deaden the reflections of a location. Plug up a vent with a blanket, or cover a buzzing machine to instantly improve your audio (just make sure it doesn’t overheat).
  • Remove footsteps. Record cleaner dialogue by diminishing footsteps from recordings. High heels are the worst culprits; they can be so loud that they cut deeply into dialogue. Paste foot foam on the soles of actor’s shoes to minimize the sound of their footsteps. If the scene’s floor is out of the shot, ask the location department for carpets. Lay them down across an actor’s path to reducing footstep intrusion onto the soundtrack.

 

Mentality

image of a zen structure, Soundsnap's reminder to be zen on set when yo're in charge of recording sound

  • Be alert. It’s natural for a sound mixer to have their ears trained on recording dialogue. Don’t shut off your ears from other sounds in the area. Keep your ears alert for intruding traffic, trains, planes, or other environmental noise that can ruin a take, and then adapt to it.
  • Be zen. Recording sound on set is not easy. There are dozens of obstacles to capturing pristine dialogue tracks. Recording audio can be challenging. Do not let frustration consume you. Yes, be assertive when fixing issues. Be aware of sonic problems. Be congenial with the crew. Recognize that the project is collaborative and sometimes compromises are required. Just the same, stay positive. A frazzled and cynical production sound mixer doesn’t help any shoot.

How do you ensure high-quality sound recording in your indie film? Share your ideas in the comments below.

 

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