I’ve asked a lot of documentary film editors what they feel is the most important element of a documentary production. I thought for sure they’d say an image shot in high definition was the most important because you can push the color space better in HD than SD when you are color correcting. Or maybe, I thought, it would be the importance of adequate handles on either side of a shot…or making sure that a scene gets great coverage, as in a large variety of shots, such as an establishing shot, long shots, medium shots, close ups, tracking shots if possible, tilts, pans, etc. All of the elements listed here are important, but the number one element that most editors feel is critical to filmmaking is the audio recording.
Frankly, this didn’t surprise me. I’ve been on enough shoots in my life to know what happens when you bring back bad audio to your editor. I’ve seen relative stoic editors fly into a rage when faced with crappy sound files. Some things, my friends, cannot be fixed in post. Audio can be tampered with to try and make it sound better, but it rarely if ever is truly fixable. And really bad audio can ruin the most beautifully shot film.
Okay, it’s true, Soundtrack Pro and Pro Tools, to name two outstanding audio applications, do offer lots of bells and whistles to help improve the sound. And maybe it can be improved somewhat, but also think of the time this audio fixing adds to your editing budget. If you have to pay your editor more money for fixing bad audio, who is going to end up eating that cost? Probably you.
Recently, I had a conversation with my friend and fellow filmmaker, Editor/Producer Jordan Marshall of StoryWorks Digital, Inc., in Stuart, FL (www.storyworksdigital.com) about this subject. He had some words of wisdom to share with us about what happens if you don’t get good audio. Here are some of his comments:
“Sound is one thing that people tend to pay the least attention to in their project - to their detriment. It doesn’t matter how well composed an interview shot is or how fantastic the blocking, camera angles and set decoration may be on their film. If you cannot hear the dialogue being spoken - or if it sounds hollow, echo-y, muffled, or anything less than great - it ruins everything. Sound is something that you definitely CANNOT depend on fixing in post. If it was echo-y when you shot it, the is no magic “de-echo” filter. You can’t fix what is not there.”
Jordan also brought up another interesting point that I’ve never considered when editing sound:
“Be wary of mixing your sound during the edit while wearing headphones. Because you have everything right in your ears, you may be able to hear all the layers just fine. But when someone is listening to your final product over speakers on a computer, TV, laptop, etc., it is going to sound very different. Subtleties may be lost. The dialogue you could hear just fine over the background music in your headphones may be drowned out on an external speaker. Mixing on a good set of studio monitors is ideal.”
Another audio problem Jordan touched on is audible-out-of-context background sound:
“…Like when you’re shooting in a house near the end of an airport runway. You never SEE the source of the sound, which just makes it distracting and confusing. And intermittent sound on top of dialogue cannot be removed in post either. A constant frequency hum you may have some success in removing later, but anything with a varying frequency or pitch is virtually impossible. If sound busts a take while shooting a fiction piece, re-do it. If you are shooting an interview, politely ask the interviewee to cover that answer again because of the sound interruption.”
It’s true that budgets for documentary films are often tight, but Jordan clearly thinks that sound is an essential line item:
“If you can possibly work it into your budget, hire a competent sound mixer with professional equipment on your shoot - someone whose JOB it is just to look out for those things and make sure you go home with good sound in the can.”
I want to thank Jordan for sharing his comments, and I hope this post has helped you think about the critical nature of getting good sound. In a future post we will delve into different ways to get good audio when you’re filming.
In the meantime, happy filmmaking!