Thursday, February 2, 2012

Kelley Baker on “The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide Part Two: Sound Conversations With (un)Sound People”

Although the book's focus is on sound, it's really on the bigger issue of the impact that sound has on movies and how low-budget filmmakers tend to forget that. What's the biggest sound mistake that low-budgeters make?

KELLEY: They don’t even think about sound until it’s too late! So many filmmakers have become in love with equipment. How often do you hear people say, “We just shot our new film with the 7D.” Or the RED, or whatever. Why aren’t they talking about story? Good visuals are a must, but good sound is even more important! If an audience can’t understand the dialog it doesn’t matter what you shoot on. No one stays in the theater to look at visuals (unless it was that damn Koyaanisqatsi and don’t get me started about that movie…).

Low Budget filmmakers have the most to lose if their sound isn’t good. They usually don’t have the money to fix it correctly in post and on a low budget film if the audio is bad people will shut it off. If you have very little money you need to spend as much as you can on production sound, it will save you TIME and MONEY in post production and make your film look that much more professional.

Why is the recording of sound often a last consideration on the set?

KELLEY: I wish I knew…

I think part of it is that everyone has been waiting around for camera and lighting for so damn long that now they just want to hurry up and shoot. I also think that it’s easier to imagine how a film is going to look, it’s much more difficult to imagine how a film is going to sound. Too many filmmakers think that it’s the visuals that are going to carry their films. It’s the story, acting and sound that actually do the heavy lifting, trust me on this one.

I blame Hollywood and the big expensive features for part of this. If you look at all of the comic book movies and a lot of the blockbuster films they spend so much time on visual effects and pyrotechnics to literally blow us away visually that many filmmakers think that’s what they need to do. The truth of the matter is that if you’re making a film for very little money I don’t care how good you and your friends are with After Effects, you can’t compete with Hollywood movies! It ain’t going to happen!

As Glen Trew (production recordist) points out, on any shoot most of the people involved have something to do with picture, the camera crew, the gaffers and grips, the production designer, make up and wardrobe, the list goes on and on. Usually there are only one or two people on the sound crew. So sound is considered less important and gets the short end of the stick.

The camera crews have convinced everyone that they’re the rock stars; they’re the important ones on a set. As Ken Karman (music editor) says, “No one ever came to Hollywood to fuck a sound guy!” The visual people have spent all this time telling everyone how important they are and if you repeat that over and over enough people start to believe you.

A friend of mine likes to say that when we had radio dramas those people could paint a picture with nothing but sound, silent films needed dialog cards and music to tell their stories… Just sayin.

What's wrong with the phrase "we'll fix it in post" when it comes to sound?

KELLEY: It’s much easier to fix sound in post then it is to fix picture. Fixing picture is incredibly expensive which is why I included post-production supervisors (Bob Hackl & Gregor Hutchison) in my book. They talk about how expensive it is to fix picture. But Gregor also points out how expensive it can be to fix sound. He worked on one film where the ADR bill was around $60,000. Most filmmakers don’t have that much for their entire budget.

But the question I like to ask is why are you fixing anything in post! Low Budget filmmakers need to spend more time in pre-production, you and I both know that’s where your film is really made. You need to try and solve potential problems before they come up! If you know one of your locations is really noisy then why not change the location! Find a better location, one that’s not on a busy street or on the landing pattern of the local airport.

I try to tell filmmakers any time you fix ANYTHING in post it is going to be a compromise and EVERYTIME you watch the film that fix is going to stand out to you and bother you!

Filmmakers think that they’re not really making a movie until they’re on the set, but the less money you have the more of a problem solver you need to be ahead of time. I see so many things in low budget films that if the filmmaker had spent a little more time BEFORE they started shooting, or a little more time on the set letting sound get properly set up they wouldn’t have those problems.

Boom or wireless?

KELLEY: I have to go with boom. Remember to get the best dialog your mic needs to be pointed at the mouth. With a boom mic you can do that. The boom mics are larger and have better electronics, wireless mics have gotten a lot better in the last few years, but booms still sound better.

If you’re putting a wireless mic on someone you’re making a huge compromise right then and there. The electronics are smaller, you’re usually putting a mic below someone’s mouth, like on their chest, and then you’re covering it for God’s sake! You’re putting clothing over it, sometimes multiple layers! How do you expect to get good sound? And the camera crew always just looks at you and says “Just put a wireless mic on the actor, we need to shoot.” I always tell them why don’t you shoot this on VHS then, because in my mind that’s similar to putting a wireless mic on an actor and then covering it.

Now there are times when you do need to go with a wireless, but that should be a last resort, not an every take thing.

Why is looping (ADR) not a wise solution in most cases?

KELLEY: You’re asking your actors to work with at least one arm tied behind their back. How do you expect them to give you a great performance weeks or months later, standing in a sterile recording studio? You’re saying I want you to go back to that intimate moment when you’re confessing something very personal and I expect you to do that without being on the set, without any other actors performing opposite you and you’re expected to watch yourself on a screen, repeat this performance and MAKE SURE YOU LIPS MATCH THE ORIGINAL! That’s really hard to do.

There are some actors who are amazing at it, but many are not. Many actors think that by ADRing them you’re trying to ruin their performance. I have done a bunch of ADR sessions and there are tricks that you can use to make it work better, but why make the actors go through that?

What’s finally happening is that directors are really seeing the difference in the original performance and the ADR and they are spending a massive amount of time on the mix stages trying to make the original useable. It would have been so much easier to do it right on the set. And once again on low budget films you usually don’t have much of a budget for ADR.

If your DP says that last take was a little shaky and they want to do it again you say yes. If the actor says they want to do it again because they know they can deliver that line better, you say yes. If the sound person says that take was distorted or there was background noise on it everyone says, “We’ll fix it later.” I can’t figure that out. A film crew is supposed to be a team with everyone working together trying to do their best. Why doesn’t anyone listen to sound?

If there are sound problems on the set, think about doing another take just for sound. Do a wild track of the actors on or near the set. They’re in costume, they’re in character and you have the same mic set up that you did for the other production takes. A wild track will almost always sound better then an ADR line done later.

I have seen ADR hurt so many low budget films because it isn’t done well and it really makes the film seem amateur. Try and avoid it.

What's the value of a sound designer to a low-budget filmmaker and why is it worth the money?

KELLEY: I think the phrase Sound Designer is one of the most mis-used terms in filmmaking. There are very few real Sound Designers working today. The original concept for the term is someone who is like the “Director of Sound,” someone responsible for all of the sound from the beginning, starting in pre-production.

Sound Designers are people like Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom, Jim LeBrecht and a few others. Most people take the credit and they don’t come in until after the film is shot, and in my mind that’s too late. Now you’re concentrating on fixing problems and with schedules being so tight you have less and less time to be creative.

I think that filmmakers should consult with sound people during the pre-production stage, and most sound people will give you a break for a consultation before you start shooting. I can look at a script and see where there might be problems with sound a head of time. A good sound designer can start giving filmmakers ideas on how to really use sound in their films. Not just music, but how can you use sound to tell us something about a character without dialog? How can you use sound FX or backgrounds to move the story along?

If filmmakers start thinking about sound at the script writing or pre-production stage then a good sound designer can give you advice that is going to save you money and time in the long run, and make your sound track so much better in the end. I think what you would get out of a pre-production meeting with a good sound person will absolutely pay for itself, and then some.

You cite several favorite films in the book for their use of sound. What's your favorite film or filmmaker when it comes to the creative use of sound in film?

KELLEY: That’s not a fair question for me. I have so many friends in the business who do great work and if I forget to mention any of them I’m going to hear about it. My apologies up front to anyone I forget…

David Lynch absolutely because of what he does with sound and with visuals. Whether I like a particular film by him or not, he uses sound in amazing ways. The Coen Brothers do amazing things and they’ve been working with Peter Kurland (production recordist) since Blood Simple. I am not a fan of Steven Spielberg’s movies but I have so much respect for the sound and visuals in his films. He is a master when it comes to filmmaking and he surrounds himself with amazing people.

And then I look at the films that Walter Murch has been the editor/sound designer on, (The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient). Amazing work.

Then there’s Gary Rydstrom (Saving Private Ryan, Monsters, Inc, War Horse) and Ron Eng (Mulholland Drive, Coraline) and my list could go on and on.

And finally, what's next for The Angry Filmmaker?

KELLEY: In addition to promoting this book, I’m working on Part Three of the Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide series, Self-Distribution & Tales From the Road, (you can only imagine some of my tour stories…).

Also I have a documentary I wrote and directed that I’m trying to finish and I’ve got a script that I’ve written about a musician that has been on the road too long that I’m going to be raising money for soon. And I’m co-producing a couple of documentaries for friends. And I’m already looking ahead to next Fall’s tour. Basically, I’m doing way too much right now, but it keeps me out of trouble.

And don’t forget to go to my website and pick up the new book, The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide Part Two: Sound Conversations With (un)Sound People. (

1 comment:

film said...

Great blog. I learnt the hard way the importance of sound - My production flopped because of lack of sound sound.