It's been said over and over again that film is a visual medium. Please don't buy that crap. Film is a gestalt medium wherein the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. A gestalt is an entity made of many parts that by themselves have value, but when they are put together in a specific, ideal way, the sum value skyrockets. That is what happens when a film is well made.
Sound is a major component of your low-budget film. I'll go out on a limb and say it is co-equal with the visual aspects of film. It's not simple, not trivial, and not easy. It is however, essential. Sound can make or break your film and it's going to take a lot of planning and careful editing to get it right. It's not just the quality of the audio in your film, not by a long shot. It's all about sound design.
You absolutely must nail your sound if you want your film respected and appreciated. How do you do that? Well, let's talk about it. Clearly, I can't solve that problem for you here. But I can point you in some useful directions and perhaps inspire you to think more about the sound component of your movie. Start out believing—with me—that sound is more important to your film than most people ever imagine. That's because the best sound design is inconspicuous, powerful, and often subliminal.
As a baseline, you have to have quality dialog pickup. That really requires a variety of mic options. You might want to consider hidden lavaliere mics attached to a digital recorder tucked in the back of the actor's belt. Consider using an iPhone as a recorder for example. Good dialog capture is essential, because you don't want to pay for ADR.
But that's not really what I mean by sound design. Let's assume you have amazing pickup for dialog. Right? That has to be a given. You would not even consider putting your time and effort into a movie that doesn't have it. Right? Sadly many new filmmakers do just that, and it kills their work in the end. I've seen first-time efforts where understanding the dialog was literally impossible. But, again, this is a quality issue, not a design issue. Design is all about the invisible sound elements that create environment, emotion, transition, and further the story. Proper sound design enhances the dialog, expands the set environment, and sets both mood and place. You can quote me on that.
I get aggravated when I see a filmmaker who pays little attention to sound design, and I stop watching. It has happened too many times. So let's look at what sound design entails.
Your Overall Sound Design
To get started on an overall sound design, study your script and think about how you can employ sound to further your story. Do this early on. Each scene should be blocked out with sound notes. Make note of your thoughts about sound transitions between scenes. I'd keep a separate script just for sound notes.
Note how you might use background music. Think about how you can use ambient sound to enhance a scene's impact without going overboard. Don't forget subtle sounds like footsteps, twigs snapping when walking in the woods, and cars going by. Do you want a particular sound to remain in the background, or do you want it to stand out as it might in battle scenes, or at a shock moment in your horror film? (Please don't make a horror film. Most of them are horrible. It's been done.) This will give you an overall plan. Don't stick to it! You'll find that, as your production rolls along, new ideas and new possibilities will occur to you. Keep making notes. Good judgment helps here, as always.
Let's look at some of the pieces you'll be working with.
Dialog recorded in the wild (any place outside the studio) will always have ambient background sound with it. This is good and bad. Ultimately you want to have total control over all ambient sound in your film. Plan to record the cleanest dialog you can in front of that lovely Victorian row house in San Francisco. Then listen to it, and hear birds, airplanes, cars, a motorcycle blubbering past, and a bee buzzing by the mike at a critical moment. You will need to sweeten these tracks.
Assuming your micing is excellent (suggestions for that will come in part two of this piece), you still need to clean up the dialog. On a budget, find a student with a background in sound editing. She can do a spectrum analysis of the dialog tracks to see what can be done to clean them up.
You'll be amazed how good current Sound editing software is. With a sound application like Adobe Audition, your sound person will be able to surgically remove most of the background noise like pops and airplanes and coughs, giving you relatively clean dialog tracks to begin layering your film's soundscape. A good sound person may do things like enhancing “presence” and making dialog feel more rich. If you can't afford Adobe Creative Cloud membership (you can do it on a month-by-month basis to get access for a very reasonable rate), you can buy the Dexster Audio Editor for $45.00 and it is excellent. It even has spectrum analysis for noise removal. (More suggestions to come in part two.) In any case, we now have some nice, clean dialog tracks—probably duplicates from different mics, including lavaliere, shotgun, and boom, depending on your budget.
This is all the sound that isn't dialog but contributes to the “atmosphere” of the shot. Again, most people don't consciously notice this, but it plays a huge roll in your storytelling. Unfortunately, a common practice is to let ambience lay where it lies. That is, let whatever you pick up at shooting time be the ambiance in the shot. In most situations, this is a truly bad choice. We want to craft the ambience to create a sense of mood and place, so we will use layers of sound to enhance the emotional experience of the film while also giving the dialog a complementary background. Yeah, it's a lot to think about.
A creative use of resources might be to keep the sounds you remove from the original dialog. You can use it later on, perhaps in a different project.
Remember to record about three minutes of ambient sound at your shooting location with no one there. This will give your sound editor a reference. His editing software can reference this ambience track to remove background noise from your dialog. Use the very same track to build background sound elsewhere if you like.
It's just nice to have a collection of ambience tracks that you can sweeten, edit and use for bits and pieces when you need them. I've even used a contact mic screwed into a tree to record strange sounds that can be used at a very low level to sync with what's going on. This can all be done using excellent-but-cheap mics and reasonably priced audio editing software.
How Human Brains Handle Ambience
Our brains are far more complex than we realize. There is a lot going on outside of our awareness that contributes to our gestalt experience. Ambient noise would be extremely annoying if we couldn't put it someplace out of our attention range, so we do. People who live under an airport approach don't really hear the planes passing 500 feet above their houses. It would drive them nuts if they did. What's important in filmmaking is that even though we don't actually "hear" ambience, we do process it. A subliminal part of our brains keeps track of these invisible sounds and feeds our brain with information. This information shapes our emotional experience. For example, walking down a country lane chatting with a loved one, we don't necessarily "hear" the birds chirping, but they do add to the experience by creating a comforting sound environment. Another thing that happens unconsciously is that, as movie viewers, we can differentiate between diegetic and non-diegetic sound without thinking about it. That is, we process sounds that we know the character in the film can hear, as opposed to the parts of the soundscape we know are there for us alone, like the musical score. Diegesis is a word you should know. It refers to the world experienced by the characters in your film narrative. The creative use of non-diegetic visual and audio material to tell your story can be very useful to you.
Let's take a look at crafting a multilayered sound environment
We have a close up on a pretty woman's head and sad face. She has long hair against an out-of-focus sky background. A slight breeze moves her hair. There are no visual cues as to where she is as she stares distantly at something, the camera slowly pulling back.
Layer one – a soft layer of distant surf rolling in.
Layer two – a few sea gulls screeching in the distance.
Layer three – a church bell rings in the distance then stops
Layer four – a soft wind almost unheard blows from time to time
Layer five – a jet plane roars by in takeoff mode.
Layer six – we hear children playing joyously screaming and splashing.
Layer seven – a dog barks once.
[Camera reveals palm tree and surf in bg]
Layer eight – ice tinkling in a glass
Layer nine – Off-screen dialog: Male Voice: “I don't really want to talk about this right now…”
[Camera continues to pull back, revealing she is sitting at a small beach table drinking a mojito with an attractive man her age who is speaking.]
These layers are positioned beneath the dialog, where you feel they strategically do the most good for the scene. That is the art of it. If you can't figure that part out, find someone who can.
You could have a hidden TASCAM DR-05 portable digital recorder, with its quality condenser mics, hidden in the table centerpiece, or you might have lavaliere mikes in place for all the dialog, or both. They plug into the digital recorder or perhaps a shotgun or a boom—or all three.
(Much more on your sound equipment in part two.)
Important note (picture this in all caps): You will not use the camera's recorded sound in your film. You will use it only to sync the digital recordings, which are much higher quality.
The Sound Reveal
Okay, what did this background sound alone tell you? Notice how it leads each visual reveal. We continue to hear the dialog layered in over the ambient tracks, and we follow the situation as it develops. You could add in a little visual— maybe the place is called Lonely Jack's On the Beach, but from your camera angle you just see the word: “Lonely” in the background, and it goes with the woman's sad expression. You could also layer in a moody contemporary song about loneliness.
See how much you don't have to reveal through blatant exposition? I hope you're starting to see how exciting and important sound design is, and how it must work with your whole production to help form that gestalt. It is your best tactic for indicating off-camera action critical to the story, and it's a hell of a transition tool. As a rule of thumb, always place audio transitions just before the visual ones.
Use background sound to presage action to come. For example, our couple having drinks by the ocean are chatting seriously when we hear a subtle commotion off camera. The male looks off to the left to see what's happening. Next we hear a gunshot. She jumps and he ducks in reaction. We hear a woman scream off-camera. Again, we've built an entire sequence of events, clearly understood, without relevant dialog or description and off camera.
So learn to respect and use ambient sound as your friend and one of your best tools for establishing and clarifying both off-camera and on-camera situations.
Didn't plan to use music? Have you ever wondered why everybody uses music? As I type, Love It or List It, a Canadian home remodeling show, is playing on the TV. They are chatting about redoing a house in Vancouver. The background music is tracking the conversation. Now, as the female lead is chatting, the sound designer is laying in musical hits to emphasize her dialog. People watching it are 98 percent unaware. In fact, if you asked a viewer if there is background music played on that show, they would likely tell you a definite “no.”
So how do you use music? Depends. You can go with background music and/or vocal tracks. The latter is very popular in contemporary teen soaps and TV drama.
First, start collecting sound tracks. You should probably subscribe to a license-free music source. But those generic film scores are widely known and a little too generic for me. There are alternatives. Seriously consider visiting and exploring SoundCloud. It's a Swedish sound distribution platform where you can find all sorts of really bad music and a little but of really good music that you can often get permission to use. Some is posted as public domain, but most is copyrighted. Again, people will do remarkable things to be associated with a movie, even yours. There is no explaining why, but use it! Offer film credits.
On SoundCloud, the easily available sound has a download link attached. Type in “ambient” and you should find something called “Dawn Part 2” by MrSuicideSheep. Seriously! It's very good. You can download it. Contact Mr. Suicide before releasing it in your movie. But you can certainly use it for free as a placeholder while you're setting your movie sound up. Example tracks are often used to sketch out a sound design. In most cases, you'll only use a few seconds or minutes of a track.
Now, in the same list, listen to Funieru Mihail's “Best of Buddah Bar Ambient Chill Out.” Some very nice stuff to track in behind the couple as they begin their seaside chat. Very mellow. But you can't download it. You can certainly record it as it plays (if you have the app for that). But if you love it, you should contact the owner and negotiate. Start with screen credit.
So what do you do after we hear the gun shot? You change the music abruptly. Go harsh. In SoundCloud type: “violent” and get a list of upbeat tracks. One of them, “I See Stars – Violent Bounce” has some really disturbing moments, one of which might enhance the emotions after the gunshot. Oddly enough, I typed in “Uplifting” and the first track, “NCS:Uplifting,” was quite disturbing and might even work better. Try different tracks until you get the emotional response you're after. Try it on friends and recruited strangers to get a feel for the general response.
Use a Film Composer
Now that you have your musicscape sketched out, search out the SoundCloud Film Scoring Network. It was started by Berklee College of Music film-scoring students. It is a treasure trove of cinematic music. Some of it is downloadable and much of it has a “Buy” link. For example, “Glimpses of Eternity” by Lex Dumitru (right), a talented composer, costs only one Euro for specific rights—but not film rights. Lex is a real film composer. Sure, he lives in Bucharest, Romania. You could probably steal his work, but don't. Contact him. He can create a true original film score for you that you very well might be able to afford. Forget screen credit here. Come up with some coin. He's an excellent artist who should be paid and given screen recognition. He'll be worth it. Lex is a good guy, speaks English and may be able to work within your budget. I like his tagline: “Emotion is my craft.”
Hits: Your Baton
Now we get to how you can add emphasis to the music score with hits.
Hits are generally percussive sounds that blend with the background music. I insert them to emphasize action. I also use sound effects (SFX). Video Copilot is an excellent source of information on how to use hits in your work. They have two reasonably priced DVDs that will help: Pro Scores and Sound FX. They come with excellent tutorials on using sound and music to enhance your video by Golden Pixie winner Andrew Kramer.
You can download the BBC sound effects library from many places on the web, but it's not legal to use it in published works because all the sounds are copyrighted and thus require a license for use. So if you can afford it, buy the library. It is pricy. But I use it, along with other resources, to sketch in SFX both as part of the ambience and as hits in the music. I created a short bit of draft animation in After Effects as a demonstration. In it, I change scene a couple of times and use music, hits and SFX to give it a feeling. I tried it several different ways and haven't decided my favorite yet.
This is the first one…it's a bit harsh in places, but does bring a little drama, calm or excitement depending. Then all sound stops and you can see what a difference sound makes. There are some rough visual transitions, but this is just a draft. I'm also including a capture of my After Effects screen.
Note the sound layers and placement. I've closed dozens of animation layers so you can see the sound part.
So go for it. This stuff is all fun and exciting and requires a level of skill and attention that can really show you off as a filmmaker if you take the time to learn and do.
Sound is such a big topic that I've divided this unit into two posts. In the next post, I talk about how you can afford to capture good dialog using inexpensive equipment and how to edit it. That includes all the stuff like affordable software to remove hiss and noise associated with cheap mics as well as jets and coughs and motorcycles going by. I'll show how to mic up your actors and where to find what you need. I even have a short piece on how to make your own decent lavaliere mikes if you can't afford to buy or rent them. I'll also talk about other hardware you may need that you can afford and how to use it all in an iOS pipeline in the wild with no line power.
I hope you're finding these posts helpful. If you have any suggestions on sound or any other part of this series, please post your thoughts below. We all appreciate your input. We are a community and we need to support each other.