Why Does My Movie Sound Low Budget? Part-1

I was on a panel at SXSW covering sound design a few years ago, and a question was asked that really got me thinking. “I’ve been told that the biggest difference between hollywood movies and independent movies is the sound of the dialog.” I had never really thought about it that way, until that question was posed but I think there are a few obvious reasons for this and some more subtle reasons. Some of the issues are easily overcome and some are just a question of money.

The most obvious place (and the easiest) to improve your dialog is on the set.

1. Interview more than one production mixer. You’d be amazed by how inaccurate IMDB is. You want to know what type of gear they are using, what types of mics are available and how many. What type of on set playback system do they have so you can listen back?  Also ask your candidates to turn over something that demonstrates their work. You should be listening for:

  • Dialog that sounds chesty rather than thin – It shouldn’t sound like AM radio.
  • While you want it to be chesty, you don’t want it to sound like voice over either. It should sound like its coming from the room that the scene is set in.
  • Is the dialog roomy? Is there an echo on everything? It could be a sign of poor boom mic placement.
  • Is the dialog super noisy? Often times the dialog mixer has no way to avoid the noise, but if its all over the tracks, it’s fair to ask why. This is a great exercise to get a vibe for how the mixer deals with problems.
  • Distortion. If you ask for a demo and you hear distortion, move on to the next guy.

2. Prior to shooting while scouting locations, take a listen, and if in doubt ask your production mixer. There are some things that are a no-no unless specifically called for in the script:

  • shooting near freeway traffic
  • flight paths – planes are one of the hardest things to clean out of the dialog
  • construction sites
  • heavy wind – to some extent this can be compensated for with wind socks
  • generators – these need to be placed as far from the set as possible

3. Workflow meetings can solve many problems before they arise. Prior to shooting, have a meeting with your camera dept, production sound dept, editorial dept, and if you already have one, your post sound dept. At this meeting you want to determine:

  • frame rate and timecode format for picture and sound
  • bit depth and recording speed for audio
  • sync method used on set: wild, Time code line, clockit, etc.
  • make sure that you have an EXACT naming scheme for Tape names and Scene and Take names, these are VERY important in post.
  • delivery method to editorial (drives, disks, tapes)
  • final delivery format: Film, HDcam, HDSR, DCP, or some combination thereof.
  • If possible plan a workflow test and make sure what you have planned actually works

4. While shooting the Director has 5000+ things on their mind and often sound is an afterthought if not a bother. This is probably even more true in large budget movies than smaller budget. You should try to get a dialog going with your production mixer. It is often a job that goes unnoticed unless they mess up, but let your mixer know that you need their counsel and as they get to know you they will learn when to speak up and when to let things go. In my experience, many production mixers are so browbeaten that they give up on letting the director know about an airplane overhead or a buzz and just keep their head down. Often they are not given time to properly setup prior to rolling on a take.
Also, encourage your production mixer to ask for wild line when he feels they might help; however remember that the actor must deliver the line as close as possible to the delivery of the recorded take. Also don’t rely on wild lines, as a dialog editor I can tell you that they are often 50/50.
If it’s possible, try to allow 4+ seconds before or after each take to record tones. As you’ll see in a later post, these are invaluable.

I realize thats a lot to do but a little planing beforehand will help you know that you don’t wind up in post with huge (and expensive) problems. Stay tuned for the next installment of: Why does my movie SOUND cheap.

link to check out:
Avid Post Workflows


Brad Engleking has taught sound courses at The University of Texas at Austin, Texas State University. He has also been on sound panels at the SXSW film conference and given numerous lectures on sound at other institutions. To discuss you project Contact Us!