Friday, October 14, 2005

What I Do

When you go to see a film, most of the sound you hear is not the sound that was happening when the camera was rolling. In fact, it is probably accurate to say that in modern motion pictures, the only sound you can be sure was recorded at the same time the pictures were shot, is the dialogue. Sometimes not even that.

This comes as a surprise to many people, mostly because no-one has any cause to think that the sound is made by anything other than what they are seeing on the screen.

But it isn't. Nearly everything you hear is created by the post production sound department after the fact. There are numerous reasons for this, but it is largely because the stuff that happens on the location rarely sounds the way we want an audience to hear it.

So we rebuild it all to our liking. You will never be aware of this, though, because we post-production sound people are wizards. You will only ever notice what we do if we do it badly.

I am currently involved in the post production sound for Ray Lawrence's new feature film 'Jindabyne'. Today we finished the sound effect mix. Post production sound mixes typically involve 5 major elements: The dialogue, the atmospheres, the sound effects, the music and the Foley.

♦Dialogue: All the things the actors say. This includes words spoken by the main cast, the extras, offscreen characters and people speaking on tv or radio. Anything with human voice. This is mostly dialogue recorded on the set, but includes ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement - a term that has lost most of its meaning but still sticks), loop group (crowds & people in the background) and breathing and other vocal sounds.

♦Atmospheres: All the environments of the film - room ambiences, traffic backgrounds, wind, rain, birds and so forth. Any sounds that are not dialogue and not on-screen sound effects.

♦Sound Effects: Anything you see happening on screen that is not an environmental sound. Also off-screen sounds that directly refer to action happening on the screen (such as a phone ringing in another room that an actor reacts to).

♦Music: The score for the film, but also any music that might be happening within the film's reality, such as Muzak in a mall, or a jukebox in a pub.

♦Foley: Footsteps, clothing noise and other sounds the actor's 'person' makes, such as picking up or putting down objects.

These days all this material is prepared in what is known as Dolby 5.1 format - 6 channel sound. This sound is arranged as Left, Centre and Right channels across the front of the screen, Left Surround and Right Surround behind the audience, and LFE, or Low Frequency Extension, which adds the very deep bass tones you might find in thunder or explosions or in some music.

This means that for some single sounds in our mix we might need six independant tracks to create one effect. On 'Jindabyne' we are running something in the order of 150 - 180 tracks of sound.

There are eight people working in the sound crew: A post production sound supervisor/sound designer, a dialogue editor, two sound designer/sound editors, two Foley personnel, a sound editing assistant, and a post production sound mixer. This is a small crew, but representative of most Australian films.

We work long days in a big darkened room that is designed to have the acoustics of a typical cinema.

I'm not allowed to tell you anything about 'Jindabyne', but I can say that I think it is a very fine film indeed, and I am very proud of our sound work. I hope that when you see it in the cinema you don't notice a thing we've done.


Blogger Radioactive Jam said...

Thanks for the insight. It makes sense for your work to be transparent to viewers; inverted reasoning I suppose.

Normally I only "notice" post-production sound work when I watch behind the scenes clips. As an example, Liv Tyler's interview segments (LOTR) comes to mind. Her "real" voice isn't anything like her character's, yet I perceive the character's voice as something natural and right.

Wizardry indeed.

October 14, 2005 10:23 PM  
Anonymous UndercoverCookie said...

one of my biggest pet hates is the abuse of sound effects in films and tv programmes.
For example whenever anyone uses a computer, the stupid things blip and zzzzzzzz (when zooming in impossibly close without even selecting the area to be enlarged) and plink and dink whenever anyone does anything. as for the *plink plink plink* ACCESS DENIED flashing on screen.

And the other overused sound effect: whenever an animal appears on screen they HAVE to add the sound the animal makes. for goodness sake, cats do not go around miaowing as soon as the camera catches them, bears to not growl all that much, mice don't actually squeak that often. It's especially annoying when you can blatantly SEE that the animal hasn't made a noise.
I realise it's not you guys who are responsible for deciding those things but it annoys me. American movies overuse sound effects more than European, I find. ALthough this is not based on any scientific study on the matter.

October 14, 2005 11:32 PM  
Blogger weirdpixie said...

a) I'm really glad you posted about your work here at the Cow.

b) Can't wait to see the film and of course, hear more about it.

c) Your job sounds way cool. especially this part:

"We work long days in a big darkened room that is designed to have the acoustics of a typical cinema."

When I am working on my own sound projects, I spend most of my time in a small darkened room with a mediocre sound system (nowhere near cinematic quality, mind you). I'm still very much at a novice-level with my sound-editing skills, but my learning curve is getting higher with each passing day. I'm currently dealing with some very challenging stuff-- trying to master the cd's for my Women Take Back The Noise compilation project-- the roughest part is trying to get a nice, even mix from all of the different compositions people have sent me (various levels of sound quality, as you can imagine). My headphones have become my best friend lately.

I certainly look forward to reading more about your work here! Very inspirational.

October 15, 2005 8:03 AM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

This posting brings back a few memories.
I use to do a bit of voice charactorisation work, but I am sort of out of the field now.
When in production we use to have a favourite saying if something was completely stuffed up and we all knew it. "Fix it in Post" was the term, something you Post guys hate I know, but it made us laugh.

October 15, 2005 8:53 AM  
Blogger r.fuel said...

Thanks for the insider's view. It was cool.

October 15, 2005 9:02 AM  
Blogger Joe Fuel said...

Awesome. You're my hero.

October 15, 2005 5:28 PM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

rebecca: Some people still expect we will be able to fix anything in the mix. We are wizards and we can do pretty amazing things, but we are not miracle-workers.

October 16, 2005 1:55 PM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

undercovercookie: Computery blip-bloop noises are the bane of my life. I once had this conversation with a director:

Director: Can we have some sounds for those things that happen on the computer screen?
Me: Those things don't make any noises.
Director: But people expect them to have noises.
Me: No, what people expect is that you will put noises in for them because you are a film director. They will then say to themselves "Those film people are on crack - computers don't make noises"
Director: Well. stick something in anyway, and if they don't work, we'll leave them out.
Me (to self, because I know how this will turn out): $@^(*&^%&^%$.

As far as the See It/Hear It issue, well, that's just bad sound work. It could be the fault of the director, but is most often the fault of the sound editor. I really hate it, but some people are just completely unable to see why it is so tacky. Hopefully you won't have that problem with Jindabyne.

October 16, 2005 1:57 PM  

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