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How a Cinematographer Sees the Art of Sound #FilmmakerToolkit

How a Cinematographer Sees the Art of Sound #FilmmakerToolkit

Dear White People’s” use of Schubert’s Piano Trio in E Flat made me giddy. I’ve always associated that piece of music with Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and loved it being reimagined for a modern tale of love, deceit and identity crisis.

Camera department gets a lot of attention but the sound for your film shouldn’t be an after-thought. It is the audio component (Texture of an actor’s voice. Ominous sound effects. Enchanting score) that solidifies the audience’s suspension of disbelief. David Lynch, a director who is always asking us to believe in the bizarre, said it perfectly: “sound is a great “pull” into a different world. And it has to work with the picture – but without it you’ve lost half the film.”

Obviously my creative strength lies in the visual. I thought I’d take you on my journey as I learn to see the art of sound. I start with my introduction to sound, proceed with advice from sound professionals, loop back to share tips on filming live music and finish with the role of film and music in creating social change.

So first. A few of my firsts:

1st favorite album – Tie: “Jungle Boogie” – Kool and the Gang; “Peter and the Wolf” – Serge Prokofiev

1st film score/music to impact me – “Fantasia” – Paul Dukas

1st film score/music to impact me (live action) – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – John Williams. He had my childhood on lock-down

1st soundtrack I begged and prayed (and begged) for – “Fame

1st “soundtrack” I loved and memorized before seeing the film – “Pink Floyd’s The Wall

1st score I remember my father racing to buy at Tower Records – “Blade Runner” – Vangelis

1st score I raced to download on iTunes – “Tristan und Isolde” (Melancholia) – Richard Wagner

1st unpaid job in music – Parents’ ad agency. I use to consult on music for tv and radio spots

1st paid job (2nd AC) on a music video – K-Ci & Jo Jo’s  “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” by Lionel C Martin (no relation)

1st (and only) score that always makes me cry – “Carnival of the Animals (Aquarium)” – Camille Saint-Saens. Not for its use in “Days of Heaven” but in the documentary  “Visions of Light”. (Yes, being a DP is that deep for me).

1st time I noticed the power of sound design – “Eraserhead” – David Lynch

1st time I noticed the power of overlapping dialogue (Oh right. No one pauses and waits for the other to speak in real life) – “Nashville” – Robert Altman

1st foreign film I was told to watch because of the score – Either “Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud” – Miles Davis or  “Orfeu Negro” – Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim

1st use of sound to make me paranoid –“The Conversation” – Francis Ford Coppola

1st TV title sequence (horror) to make me salivate “American Horror Story : Coven” and 1st to make me ridiculously nervous “The Walking Dead : Season 3”.

Only scene I refuse to watch without the audio:  “There Will Be Blood” – Jonny Greenwood

My directorial debut is a vampire film. Sound effects and theme music are especially important in horror. What sounds do I find unnerving or threatening? It’s a combination of location sounds (hollowness of an abandoned building for example) and “synth sounds”. What sounds do I feel describe the allure of darkness and evil? Timeless classical music. And cutting edge sound track. Should I favor synth vs orchestra music?

In order to get the best out of my sound department, I asked three friends, a Sound Mixer, Music Supervisor and a Composer, what advice they’d give me, a first time director. Their advice and pet peeves.

Judy Karp – Sound Mixer (“Half Nelson”, “Girlfight”):

“You’ll want to hire a sound person whose job experience matches the requirements of your shoot and directing style (narrative with a lot of improvisation? Run and gun?)

Bring your Sound Mixer on location scouts so they can come prepared. Let them see a full rehearsal first and decide how to mic it. (Don’t tell them to “go wire everyone”. Maybe the boom sounds best.) Partially because shooting on cards is inexpensive, directors like to shoot the rehearsal. The problem with that is it forces Sound to place mics in a safe area (in case the take is used), instead of the best area.

Deciding whether to do ADR or not is not exclusively a money issue. For example, I’ve gone to the sound mix with John Sayles. He has the resources and actor availability to

do ADR. In the session, he’ll ask to hear the production tracks again and opt to use them instead. They sound more alive. The performances and energy are there. You feel the location more.”

Barry Cole, Music Supervisor (“Home”, “Marley”, “Alive Inside”):

“Music licensing is no joke. Use a supervisor or a clearance person. I always tell Producers that I will save them more money than they will pay me as a fee.  

If music budgeting isn’t sorted in pre-production, it can cost you more later or you will risk not being able to use it in a scene. The Producer needs to be honest and as firm as possible on the budget and schedule.

[this cracked me up] ”Distro doesn’t want to hear about music problems any more than they want to hear that Crafty didn’t have enough vegan options for the crew”

Segun Akinola – Composer (“1 Way Up”)”

“When working with a composer sometimes it takes a while before everyone is on the same page; in such situations it’s important to be a team and communicate effectively. Don’t worry about talking in musical terms, instead, ask yourself how you want the audience to feel and talk to the composer about this. I highly recommend talking over the phone or via Skype if you can’t meet face-to-face. This way there’s less room for misinterpretation (generally) which is especially important when giving feedback.”

My first documentary was on French hip hop. To this day, I really enjoy DPing films about musicians. I’ve shot lots of concert footage, album recordings and impromptu jam sessions (those are the best).

Here are two tips to make your live performance footage more dynamic.

Be stylized. Why should music videos have all the fun? Just because you’re shooting a doc with limited resources doesn’t mean you have to stick to available/source light, a locked off wide shot or going exclusively handheld. Play with your camera settings. Be inspired by photographers.

My title and photograph for this article is a “hat tip” to the extraordinary photographer Roy DeCarava. His book, “The Sound I Saw”, altered how I view jazz musicians. I shot the above image of horn players backstage at the Carrie Mae Weems Live event at the Guggenheim.

Film musicians like a sports team:

– know the individuals and group dynamics. Who has the bigger ego? Who is the rookie? Let that inform your composition, because it is informing their performance

– is this the home stadium? Are the audience members welcoming or not?

– the entire crew should know each “play” (song) prior to shooting. Helps to anticipate your camera move, how fast/slow, how wistful, how jarring it should be

When I fell in love with filmmaking, I was attracted to the medium’s visual expression and ability to reflect/cause social change. But I’ve become increasingly frustrated. DPing Dee Rees’ short film “Orange Bow”, about the social challenges facing black boys, was extremely important to me. After the huge success of “Fruitvale”, I naively thought that society and legislation would change to protect all citizens against police negligence.

As expressed by my friend, ReBecca Theodore-Vachon, aka @FilmFatale_nyc‘s tweets: “The thing that frustrates me is how movies abt social justice are loved by the public, but it’s not reflected in our society or politics… I’m happy people are loving #SelmaFilm. But look at what’s happening in Ferguson RIGHT now. The struggle from then and today is the same”

It wasn’t until seeing the excellent documentary  “Mr Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” that I surrendered the leadership role of “social change via the arts” to the music industry. I thought of the importance music played in the Civil Rights Movement. The music industry has the advantage of repetition. Radio play, mixed tapes, MTV rotation, cover bands and everyday people singing, rapping or humming their lyrics. There’s a reason I’ve not watched the video for Artists United Against Apartheid “Sun City” in 30 years but still remember all of the lyrics. The powerful film “Cry Freedom” came out around the same time and I remember very little.

TV shows could leverage their power of repetition to create social change. I’m sure seeing Dennis Haysbert’s face each week as President Palmer on “24” made it easier for some to see a then Senator Obama as their future President.

I also see parallels between the disturbing film, “Nightcrawler”, and tv news handling of Ferguson. Repetition can also deteriorate any sense of unity and social justice.

I’m still “chewing” on how I can use my arts (film, painting and photography) to positively impact society. I hope you do the same. Make sure to check out ReBecca’s “Film 4 Justice” Movement.

Share what you know and love about sound effects and music in the comment section.

Additional reading:

The Electric Side of James Newton Howard

Getting the Score: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Scoring

Robert Altman: The Sound Crew’s Best Companion

Additional viewing:

Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony

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See my work and past articles at CybelDP.com and chat film with me at @cybeldp

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