I realize I’ve been doing “big picture” blog entries lately, and thought it might be good to hone in on an area where independent film folks often get into trouble: post sound. This is w-a-a-a-y too big an area to cover completely in one blog entry. But here are some thoughtful tips on how to plan for sound post.

Format Your Script Correctly

Sound verbs should be in all CAPs. This helps your sound editor figure out what s/he needs to look for in your audio, and what s/he needs to provide if it’s not there. Make sure your scenes begin and end in one location – if you change locations, that’s a new scene. Use INTERCUT for phone conversations. This is all really basic stuff, but about 80% of the scripts I budget are not shoot-ready in this regard.

Figure Out Your Pathway – BEFORE YOU SHOOT

Does your sound editor expect 48KHz 16-bit BWAV stereo files recorded at 29.97NDF? What kind of Quicktimes does s/he expect (codec, framesize, framerate)? What kind of mix are you expecting (stereo, stereo LTRT, dolby 5.1, DTS)? What will the editor be delivering (stems, ProTools sessions, BWAV or AIFF files)? Does the above sound like greek? Well, then do some research now and find out what these terms mean. Have your editor explain it to you – carefully. Do this before you shoot so you don’t record audio at the wrong framerate, or using the wrong sampling parameters.

Record Separate Source Audio

On film this isn’t even an option (unless you’re shooting super8). The fact is that the audio circuits on most camcorders suck. The jacks on the smaller ones are unbalanced 1/8-inch, which means that (a) they’re more prone to buzzing and interference, (b) they break or come loose more easily. The best way to do deal with this is to use the camera mic or line-in as a backup. It will keep you from having to sync your sound right away. Use a DDR/SSR (direct-to-drive/solid-state recorder) as your primary audio source, preferably going through a mixer along the way. Sound gear is relatively cheap to rent, and sound mixers usually come with at least a basic package. On some cameras you can slave the timecode to the recorder, which will help you sync up your footage later. This is accomplished using a Lockit Box (or similar product) which plugs into the timecode in jack on your camera and is synced to the timecode output from the DDR.

Think About Sound When You’re Scouting

Another no-brainer. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on location scouts where the DP and director begin an intense, passionate love affair with the location… which happens to be next to a highway overpass/under a flight path/one floor above a printing press/etc. For a scene with 6 pages of solid dialog. And the sound mixer ISN’T EVEN ON THE SCOUT.

Get All Your Sound On Location

If you’re next to a river, record the sound of the water on a separate take. If you do find yourself in a noisy location, try to find a quiet spot somewhere close by and record the dialog separately (no video, just audio). You’ll get the actors when they’re in the moment, and some of it may be sync-able with the noisy takes you recorded. Or getting good off-camera dialog. And make time for room tone.

Use Stereo Microphones If At All Possible

The difference is amazing. Your actors will sound better even if they’re not completely on-mic. Keep in mind that the cost of renting stereo mics, and the bigger mixer you’ll need, does go up. But if you can swing it, it’s great.

Line, Log, Label

If you’re on a tight budget and can’t afford a script supervisor, take the time during the editing process to line the script – as you’re scanning through the footage, you’ll want to note what takes picked up which parts of each scene. This gives your sound editor something to reference later on – often s/he will have to go back to some other audio bit to get the best take, or to grab some wild sound or room tone. You’ll also want to note any lines or scenes that were omitted, so your editor and sound editor won’t be going out of their mind trying to find footage for something that never made it into the film.

Along these same lines, please name your sound take files something intelligent. In fact, think about labeling ALL your files something you’ll remember later.

Break It Up Into Reels

This is for all you do-it-yourself editors out there. At some point, you’ll want to break your feature into 20-minute reels. Why 20 minutes? Partly because it’s a manageable length, partly because it corresponds to the way film reels are organized (if you ever want a smooth film out), partly because the OMF files and Quicktimes you’ll be generating for the sound editor will get too big to be manageable if you try to stick your entire project on them.

Organize Your Tracks

Once you’ve locked your picture, you’ll want to spend some time organizing your sound tracks. Move the sound clips to their respective tracks. Label those tracks (or at least provide a list for your sound editor). Generally, I do something like this:
Tracks 1-2: Main Character
Tracks 3-4: Secondary Character
Tracks 5-6: Secondary Character #2
Tracks 6-10: Other characters
Tracks 11-14: Temp score
Tracks 15-16: Temp effects
Tracks 17-18: Room tone
Ask your sound editor how s/he likes the tracks organized. Some like all the room tone piled up at the beginning of each reel – so they can find it and use it how they see fit. Some like the room tone for each scene under each scene.

Deliver To the Sound Editor

What do you need to output to your sound editor? Usually they want:

  • An OMF file for each reel, with 5-second handles;
  • Matching Quicktimes with time-code window dubs (which codec do they expect the Quicktimes, at what frame rate)
  • Copies of the original BWAV or AIFF files that your sound mixer recorded
  • Any sound logs your mixer made
  • Any logs you made
  • Lined script
  • Copies of all your temp music
  • Contact info for you, the production sound mixer, the picture editor (hopefully they’re not all you)

Assuming you followed my advice above and planned this out before you shot the film, then you just have to deliver what you both agreed to. If you haven’t, or you’ve had to change sound editors for whatever reason, or it’s been two years and you can’t remember what you agreed to – figure it out now and go slowly.

ADR Does Require Some Thought

ADR is not a magic fixer-upper. Often the performances will not be the same. It’s often better to ADR everyone in the scene rather than only one performer or one line – there is almost always a jump in tone between ADRed and location dialog. If you’re not the director, consider bringing the director into the ADR session to help out the actors. If you’re the director, spend as much time on script analysis and prep as you would if you were shooting this on location. Look at it as an opportunity to improve the performances, instead of as a potentially costly drain.

Clear Your Music

ALMOST nothing sucks worse than getting 2/3rds of the way through a project only to have to rip out the music and rebalance your sound design. But I’ve seen it happen a LOT. If you’re a really broke filmmaker, I’d advise against licensing music in the first place – there are enough hungry, desperate musicians out there who’ll score your whole film for credit and crackers. But if you must (or if the story calls for it), then really get it done while you’re cutting your picture and before sound post starts.

Communicate. Research. Ask

I like to write down spec sheets, vision statements, a list of cues that I’d like to see in each reel… that way, even if the sound editor isn’t a reader (some people respond better to verbal communication, others to visual cues), we have something that we’ve both at least looked at. Some kind of map to go from. Walking into your sound post without having a clear idea of what you want the film to sound like is like walking onto set without a clear idea of where the camera should go – except now you’re even more broke and desperate to finish the film.

If you don’t know something – and there’s plenty I don’t know – don’t be afraid to ask. If technical stuff isn’t your bag, then get a post supervisor to help you out. Can’t afford one? Find a friend who you can at least make 911 calls to. The point is – don’t try to do this all yourself.

Have Fun

Sound post is your last real chance to improve the film. You can’t save a bad film but you can enhance a good one. You can create an experience that penetrates deeper than the visuals can by themselves. So have some fun with it. Sound editors are some of the most generous people I’ve met (as are sound people in general, including production mixers, boom operators, musicians) and have a broad base of knowledge that they (usually) are happy to share.

Okay folks, that’s it for now. Go hit up the Found In Time IndieGogo site in the meantime, and express your happiness through a small donation to the cause.