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8 Tips for Making Your Film Sound Great from the Industry’s Top Sound Designers and Execs

8 Tips for Making Your Film Sound Great from the Industry's Top Sound Designers and Execs

Last week at the Sundance Film Festival, Dolby announced the launch of its “Dolby Institute” at a panel entitled “The Sound of Your Story” on Jan. 20. Details of the Institute were few at the panel, so Indiewire caught up with Dolby after the Festival for more. Slated for a spring 2013 launch, the Institute will support artists “at film festivals, in universities and conservatories” first with sound, and eventually with other aspects of filmmaking. The Institute plans to branch the effort out into electronic and emerging platforms. Dolby’s goal is to move the planning and budgeting for sound up to the filmmaker’s initial ideation, before “there’s no time or money left,” according to the company’s representative.

Moderated by Dolby’s Glen Kiser, the panel featured primarily current and former Skywalker Sound executives, who praised “Dolby Atmos,” which adds overhead arrays to theatrical surround sound. Dolby lists 10 post-production facilities equipped for Atmos—including Skywalker. “It’s almost like going from black and white to 3D color in a sense. You have this whole hemisphere now to work with,” says sound designer Erik Aadahl (“Argo,” “The Tree of Life,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”). Dolby’s Stuart Bowling explains that the overhead speakers widen the sweet spot, so that more audience members experience surround sound.

Below are five top tips for independent filmmakers from the panel’s sound gurus. The full video can be found here.

1. Too many sonic elements can be confusing.

Skywalker Executive in Charge Phil Benson (“Punch-Drunk Love,” “Contact”) concurs. He likens asking the audience to follow too many sonic elements at the same time to asking them to focus on several different depths of field simultaneously. “Imagine if you could have shallow depth of field with four different areas on the screen. Your audience wouldn’t know what to focus on. And that’s kind of like telling all these different [acoustic] departments that it’s only them who should focus on covering, being the supporter of what [the director is] trying to accomplish in the scene,” he says.

2. Decide if Sound or Music Should Do the Heavy Lifting in Every Scene

Two-time Academy Award-winner Randy Thom (“Flight,” “Apocalypse Now”), Director of Sound Design at Skywalker Sound, says, “It’s a common frustration among both sound designers and composers in movies that too many directors wait too long to decide whether music or sound effects will play the principal role in a given moment, or a given sequence in a film.” Instead, either sound or music does the heavy lifting in a given scene, so it should be clear upfront whether it is the sound designer or the composer who bears primary responsibility for each scene.

3. Concentrate on Capturing Good Sounds on Set or in the Field

A corollary of engaging with sound early is that by the time you start post-production, you should already have your best sounds captured on your shoots. “There’s usually a lot more drama to be had in real-world sounds than there is in highly processed ones,” says Thom. Skywalker’s Will Files (“The Tree of Life,” “Take Shelter”) concurs: “When I started working for Randy [Thom], one of the first things he told me was that the best money you can spend as a sound designer is a good microphone.”

4. Encourage Communication Between Production Team and Post Team about What Sounds Were Captured on B-Roll

Coordination between the production sound team and the post-production sound team is crucial, Files stresses. Too often, the post team doesn’t even know what B-roll is available from location. On both “Mud” (2013 Sundance Film Festival) and “Prince Avalanche” (2013 Sundance Film Festival), Files was able to use extensive sound effects from location because of early conversations with the production team about capturing additional material. “The sound guys go off with stereo microphones and record these beautiful, amazing, one-of-a-kind Mississippi frog chirps and all this stuff that had a real authenticity,” he says.

5. Save Budget by Telling Story Aurally

When telling part of your story visually is economically impractical, engaging the audience’s imagination through sound is an affordable alternative, the panel’s experts agree. When director J.J. Abrams was tasked by Paramount with making “Cloverfield” look like a $75 million film on a $25 million budget, part of his solution was Files. “The way you make it is that you only show the monster as little as you can get away with,” says Files. “And so in order to make that work, you have to figure out how to sell the audience on the idea and sell the drama of the moment without actually showing it. And I think that actually the film was much stronger because they had to do that, because the audience had to imagine what this crazy thing was doing when they were just hearing it off in the surrounds.”

6. Don’t Speak During a Great Sound Sequence

Making room for sound to tell the story means leaving space in the dialog. “There’s something about human speech that compels us to listen to it, so if somebody is talking in a scene, even if there are lots of other competing sounds, you’re going to be doing your darnedest to understand what’s being said,” Thom cautions. “Almost all great sound sequences have fairly sparse dialog.”

7. Don’t Assume Top-Quality Post Is Only for Blockbusters

A common misconception is that access to top-quality post-production facilities such as Skywalker Sound is limited to the sort of blockbusters that Lucasfilm produces. Not so, says Benson. “We have historically been this kind of two-headed monster. We work on the largest films, but we also work on some of the absolutely smallest films.” When Benson is approached by a filmmaker, Skywalker takes on the project only if someone within the company is excited about that particular film. The director’s relationship with her sound designer should be as intimate as that with her DP, Benson counsels.  “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and Sundance 2013 film “Twenty Feet from Stardom” did their post at Skywalker. 

“Stardom” director Morgan Neville describes Skywalker as “filmmaker heaven.” Neville stayed on the facility’s ranch during post-production on the musically rich documentary, which showcases back-up singers. “I’d heard that they work with indie filmmakers, but I kinda thought, ‘Yeah right! I could never afford to do that,’” he recalls. “But they saw the film and they loved it and they bent over backwards to make it happen,” he tells Indiewire.

8. Learn from the Greats

Speaking about the best sound in film history, the experts’ consensus is that what makes cinematic sound great is its support of the story. That, more than any particular technology, defines their favorites. Here are their top picks:

Aadahl: “Apocalypse Now”
Benson: “Eraserhead”
Ben Burtt (Lincoln, E.T.): “King Kong”
Files: “The Conversation”; “The Godfather”
Thom: “Star Wars”

Dolby’s latest is on full display in Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”, stil in theaters.  The film is one of the 21 Atmos-enabled feature films released so far.  Try to catch it at one of the 72 Atmos-equipped theaters around the world.

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