Indie filmmakers are always looking for ways to up their production value, putting their time, energy and limited funds toward locations, lighting, production design, casting and renting the most expensive cameras they can afford. In the age of easy-to-use, high quality digital audio recorders that are so small they fit in the boom operator's cargo pants pocket, what often gets taken for granted is sound.
According to festival programmers, like SXSW head Janet Pierson, this is a huge mistake and can be a fatal flaw for a low budget film. "If the sound isn’t clear, it’s a deal breaker," she said.
Pierson, whose festival is where filmmakers like Benh Zeitlin, Lena Dunham and Joe Swanberg were discovered, told Indiewire that every year poor sound is a deciding factor as the SXSW programming team weeds through the films they are interested in premiering.
"You can have funky images, it can be shaky, focus can be off," said Pierson, "but the sound has to be of a quality that makes the film watchable."
Veteran production sound mixer Thomas Varga ("Birdman," "Blue Jasmine") concurred, telling Indiewire that filmmakers focused purely on visuals fail to realize just how damaging poorly recorded dialogue can be.
"Poor sound has the ability to pull us out a story and performance, as much as it has the ability draw us in," explained Varga. “Directors put a great deal of their energy into an actor's performance, but I always tell them that performance means nothing if you can't hear it clearly. If there's distortion or background noise, you are breaking that intimate connection between the viewer and character on screen.”
"We'll Fix it in Post"
Poor production sound is not a new problem, said Christopher Koch, a recording mixer and sound editor at Postworks — a post-production house where a large percentage of New York indies mix their sound. The problem, according to Koch, has been exacerbated by the sharp increase in low-to-no budget films being made.
"The irony is that with the current abundance of really affordable, great looking cameras, and people having editing systems in your houses," said Koch, "it's cheaper and more accessible than ever to make something with an extremely limited budget that looks like a million bucks. Unfortunately, filmmakers undercut that by ignoring sound. I see it all the time and their assumption is someone like me can fix it."
The expression "we’ll fix it in post" has become a cliche in the digital era, and one that Varga and Koch feel has created a false crutch that permits productions to ignore noisy locations or deny the sound mixer proper time to prep. Both acknowledge that digital post-production tools, like iZotope RX software, supply amazing sound restoration tools that didn’t exist even a few years ago, but it's not the magic fairy dust filmmakers believe it to be.
"You can't bring back frequencies that aren't there," explained Varga. "I compare it to if you are recording a band and your drummer is bad or off, you can't save that, no matter how many layers of guitars, keyboards and vocals you add. If you have a bad rhythm track, you have nothing. It's like making a movie with a bad script."
Koch is a little less pessimistic, explaining that he can address almost any sound issue "to some extent," but added that often the best he can do is make poorly recorded sound "acceptable," while nothing will ever come close to the power and immediacy of a well-recorded line of dialogue.
Sound DesignFor Koch, the tragic part is that low budget indies are wasting their money paying someone like him to repair poorly recorded sound, rather than spending their valuable mix time advancing the filmmaker's vision.
"When you actually have time to sound design," said Koch, "you have the ability, with the score, ambiance and sound effects, to pull the viewer through each element of the story. That’s where I can use my expertise to help bring a film to next level, but so often on low budget films all of my time is spent fixing, rather than sculpting sound."
From the perspective of festival submissions, Pierson sees failing to spend time on building a real soundscape as a potential missed opportunity.
"A good sound design is magic," said Pierson. "When sound comes alive it works in a place that is underneath your intellect and it's directly emotional. Often times though people are rushing to make festival deadlines and we'll see films that just [recently] picture locked. It's interesting because I am very swayed by sound design, but we are constantly seeing films that aren’t mixed yet."
Tips For Better SoundVarga, who has worked on well over a 100 different films and TV productions, believes good sound starts with the director. "[On] indie films the director is king," explained Varga. "If the director cares about sound, so will everyone else on the production." Varga pointed to sound-sensitive auteurs like Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers, Alejandro Inarritu and Peter Bogdanovich as good examples.
Koch concurred, adding that on ultra low budget films, it's vital that filmmakers make sure there's someone specifically responsible for sound. "If it's just someone's boyfriend or girlfriend holding the boom," Koch explained, "they might not actually have the guts to say, ‘Hey, we need to stop and check out where that noise is coming from.' On a low budget films where time is finite, the director needs to empower someone who will speak up and halt production to address a sound problem."
Another tip our sound experts have for indie filmmakers is to make it a priority for location managers to find quiet places to shoot. "The sound mixer can only record what's in the room," explained Varga. "No matter how good you are, if you are recording whispering actors in a loud place you're going to get lousy sound."
Both Koch and Varga also encourage indie filmmakers to fight the urge to settle for pinning wireless radio mics on their actors. The problem with wireless mics are many — actors' costumes rub up against them, create RF interference from other devices like smartphones, and they can lead to an unrealistic forced perspective — but more than anything, they are inferior to a traditional shotgun microphone on a boom pole.
"My biggest advice to young mixers is don't accept the status quo and just radio mic'ing everybody like this is a reality show," said Varga. "If you have a good boom mic directly over an actor's head, you can get some bass response, which is nice. It gives you that big, warm fuzzy low-mid feeling that you want to hear echo in a theater."
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