Doing Sound for Films

For movies and television, the image is king and always will be. After all, they call them movies, not soundies. But since 1928 or thereabouts, most films have been made with live sound. Audiences usually want some degree of real life to mingle with cinematic fantasy. Doing the show right from a technical standpoint is a key element in maintaining a viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief. Whatever you think of Hollywood, the polish and expertise of our technical crafts have led the world’s screens for more than a century, a good part of the gloss of an American success story.

Doing sound for the movies is a little different than doing camera. On a movie set, the camera is treated like a sacramental altar, with attendants performing guild rituals, a technical priesthood, and its own nearly incomprehensible jargon. Superficially, on the other hand, sound looks like an afterthought that seems easy to do—just stick a mike in someone’s face, wear earphones, and run a tape recorder. Simple, right? But it’s surprisingly hard to do it well, especially on the cramped confines of a noisy film set.

An example: Consider the sheer difficulty of finding or creating a truly quiet room on location. Maybe you’re in one right now. How quiet is it, really? There’s a laptop in front of you, with a cooling fan and probably a hard disc. If you’re in the kitchen, the refrigerator motor quietly cuts in and out. A clock is ticking in the next room. A plane passes overhead. Outside, in the distance, a dog barks. A truck rumbles by. A heating or ventilation system whispers in the background. Upstairs, someone is taking a shower and the faint sound of running water runs through the pipes in the walls. You don’t normally hear all this, but the microphone does.

That’s why at the end of a day in a new location, the sound crew will ask for silence so they can record “room tone”, just what it sounds like: the faint sound of a specific room.

The right microphones make a difference. Controversial TV talk show host Les Crane, sort of a 1964 cross between Phil Donahue and Glenn Beck, used a photo of himself pointing a so-called shotgun mike as his signature image. They were a new, faddish thing then. They aren’t really what they look like, sound telescopes that can focus in as exactly as telephoto lenses can. Les Crane is forgotten now, but his pointing the shotgun mike into the crowd was meant to symbolize his willingness to go farther than mainstream hosts to seek out politically ignored populist voices in his audience.

At the other end of the microphone “closeness” spectrum, lavalieres—neck microphones—can be very useful, and in some situations like outdoor recording they are real life savers. In a film like Robert Altman’s Nashville, as many as a dozen actors were miked up with lavalieres, so Altman’s cameras could roam everywhere in the scene without fear of filming an intrusive microphone boom. Lavalieres don’t have absolute top sound quality, though. For dialog there’s still nothing better than a good mike on a fiberglass pole overhead, pointed right at the actor.

On some filming days, a crew won’t have to bother with location sound. The film industry has a tradition that goes back ninety years: of referring to shots filmed without sound as being “MOS” in camera report forms—"Mit Out Sound” after Josef von Sternberg’s accent. Examples are brief shots of a car driving up a trick ramp and overturning, a safecracker turning a dial, checking his watch, or jumping in a cab, a nun crossing the street to a phone booth, or close-up smiles of delighted kids filmed among other seated actors in an otherwise empty stadium. You don’t always need a sound crew.

Another time-honored exception to the difficulties of recording live sound goes back nearly to the dawn of the talkies. “Filming to playback” is what we’ve come to know as “lip syncing”. No sound is recorded on the set because everyone is pretending that they’re speaking or singing what’s coming out of the loudspeakers. This is how nearly all musicals have been made since the earliest days of sound, but not quite all of them.

In At Long Last Love, director Peter Bogdanovich set himself and his actors the challenge of doing outdoor musical numbers with a live band riding alongside them. I like an original approach and appreciated the tribute to a brief, obscure moment in early film history. It wasn’t a disaster, but it didn’t really work out either. Decades later, Les Mis would also dare to use the technique.

Outdoors, even a peaceful breeze that just ruffles leaves can make it hard to record acceptable sound, let alone crowds of spectators, car alarms, or aircraft. Period films have special problems with anachronistic sounds.

A film crew can work much faster if sound isn’t a consideration. In Europe, dubbing has always been much more popular than it is in the States. Many or most of their golden age films were filmed on the streets without live sound, to be dubbed later even in their own language. Of course, it means lengthy sessions in the dubbing studio later, something actors normally dislike. It’s harder than it looks to match your own speech rhythms and lip movements, and harder still to do it with anything like the dramatic effect it had on the set when it was filmed.

When you do have a strong, clear signal from the microphone, what you record it on has changed greatly over the years. In the beginning, it was phonograph records and then a separate “sound camera” flashing a fluttering signal onto a 35mm soundtrack. The great big camera and the great big sound recorder were linked with a mechanical cable, like the brakes of a bicycle. During the Thirties, selsyn motors or synchros started to replace the mechanical connection with a multiphase, high amps electrical one.

That’s the meaning of the zebra stripes on a classic era film slate; the “clacker” gives an exact moment of synchronization between the picture and sound tracks. Editors marked a grease pencil X on each spot and spliced away excess picture and sound film. That was called “syncing up the rushes”. From this point until the final stage of the film production process, they will be handled separately but in sync with each other.

A top quality Swiss tape recorder called the Nagra became the industry standard of sound recording nearly everywhere in the non-Communist world. Virtually every movie or TV show you ever saw between about 1960 and 2000 was recorded on one. Today, many of the problems of isolating good location sound are the same as in the past, but the equipment used to record it has changed. The extreme mechanical precision that led to nearly perfect recording isn’t needed anymore. A modest lump of solid-state digital technology can do what a Kudelski Nagra could twenty to sixty years ago, and at a twentieth of the price.

Today’s digitized soundtracks are vastly easier to clean up, copy and shift around. Many film industry procedures of the 21st century still echo those of the film era of analog sound and photochemical images.

Electronic filters can reduce extraneous noises, like faint hums or buzzes, and can reshape sounds to make them more top or bottom heavy. But they can’t accomplish the miracles that they can in fiction, eliminating specific people’s voices, or stripping away an orchestra so you can hear the singer, solo.

In post-production, once a particular section of the film is declared “locked”, picture and dialog editing are considered over and the timings unchangeable. That means the musical score can now be recorded with some confidence that it will match the picture. One whole subunit of music editors works with the composer, conductor, and film under the supervision of the chief editors to determine, to a fraction of a second, where to place the music once it’s recorded.

While that goes on, a different set of small editing teams are working over the sound effects on those same “locked” reels. You’ve probably heard of “Foley artists”, a fancy name for people who make sound effects, often out of seemingly outlandish materials that sound terrific.

It all comes together in the sound mix. The goal is to leave with a fantastic soundtrack, but more specifically, for a feedstock mix that is as final as the one in theaters, but is separated into DME—Dialog, Music, and Effects. The foreign market can dub a version in their own language that will still have the complete multichannel wraparound music and sound experience.

For nearly fifty years mixing boards have shifted over to linear volume controls; sliders, rather than knobs. It’s easier to see at a glance and manipulate as groups of tracks. But plenty of us remember those big, solid RCA dials, and the flickering needles of analog gauges. On a mixing panel, each individual track can be steered along a left-right stereophonic sound field with “Pan Pots”, panoramic potentiometers.

It was noted in the recent post about editing Star Wars that in May 1977, George Lucas was still re-dubbing and re-mixing the film for later monophonic release even as the stereo version was premiering in theaters across the country. You might ask why mono required a separate mix.

Here’s an example why. Suppose someone is walking along a factory floor talking with someone. In stereo, you can toss the sounds of machinery all the way to the left and right, at maybe 20% of the total volume on each, with the lead actor’s voice right down the middle at 60%, three times as loud as either extreme. He’s perfectly audible and every word is clear. Now take the same mix and play it all through one speaker: it’s muddled. His words are barely louder than the noisy machinery. In mono, you don’t have left-right position to differentiate sounds, so you simply have to give the dialog track priority, fading back the surroundings of the factory.

A final word on the value of doing sound. Young directors are able to attract free acting talent to their early films with the promise of showcasing them. They are also able, in many cases, to get ambitious young cinematographers to work for almost nothing, or for shares in the finished film, because a great camera job on a low budget independent film can launch a Hollywood career. But doing sound, vital as it is to the film, is merely down to Earth, hard, unpretentious work. As a result, soundmen always get paid, because there’s no dream of yours that you can fob off on them and yet you need them anyway. That’s pretty close to a bedrock capitalist proof of their necessity.