Notes from a Festival Programmer: NEVER, EVER Hire That Guy (or Gal) for Sound Again. Or, Why We Loathe Omni-Directional Mics

Of all the advice festivals and festival programmers will give, sound is likely the one that will appear in everyone's list. Sound is the one element almost no film can overcome when it's noticeable for all the wrong reasons.

"Getting good sound is one of the most affordable things that you can do to up your production values and make your movie look better" -  David Hechenberger

In the past, the biggest issue in this area has had to do with productions relying on the on camera mic. That was even more so five or so years ago when the digital cameras indies were using would be of the more affordable prosumer quality, which would have a mic built in. In general, they're terrible for capturing sound on narrative productions. There's almost no compensating in camera. The mic's are omni-directional so they're pulling all sounds that are within range. The mic is at the mercy of the acoustics of wherever one is shooting. And you're pretty much stuck filming close ups and medium shots, because they only pick up sound at relatively short distances.

Fast forward and the mantra of "boom mic, boom mic, boom mic" is one we don't scream at the screen much anymore. More filmmakers, especially self-trained, are aware that shooting on set without a boom mic is a non-starter.

Which brings me to a new issue, that's really an old one, and that's having people who know nothing about sound running it on set.

I've watched films this submission process that have been filled with:

  • dresses rustling against the lavaliers
  • clearly audible mic bumps
  • scenes that sound like they were filmed in a bathroom, but weren't
  • extraneous background noises, such as cars honking and passing on the street
  • mic pops
  • the sound of the dreaded, overbearing, and pretty loud, refrigerator and or drink machine
I've personally been on indie film sets in which the person running and monitoring the sound has immediately after the take, let everyone know when they didn't get clean sound. They've never let production move on till they were sure they had something usable. To watch a film and hear such errors, angers me.

No, it pisses me the fuck off.

Why would you do that to a filmmaker? And filmmakers, why would you find that acceptable?

Now, the reality is that sometimes you can't actively monitor sound as you're shooting. Or, get as fancy as you'd like. Logistically and budget wise there are constraints, we get that. Here's some advice and observations from a layman, who isn't an expert, but knows he detests bad sound, especially in what could be good movies.
  1.  Always include the sound guy when making final decisions about locations. Figure out what the issues will be before the day you start shooting.
  2. When in doubt, ask the guy behind the counter for a uni-directional microphone.
  3. If you can hear the car, dog, plane, door slam, yelling without a headset, you know for sure the microphone picked it up. Do another take.
  4. Always be monitoring the sound as you're shooting, not afterwards. And a semi-decent headset is better than no headset at all.
  5. If you can't afford to monitor the sound--which means you probably shouldn't be shooting, but if you decide to go ahead anyway--then build in time to review sound on set every few takes. Missing a key line of dialogue could come back to bite you in the ass, don't let it. However, this will EAT UP time. Monitoring is the faster, cheaper way to go.
  6. If you've got a dialogue heavy, or quick paced scene, with lots of back and forth, and you're only working with one microphone, you may need to get more coverage. Shoot more with a few takes focused on just getting the dialogue of one character. Yes, you may have to add shoot days, or hours, however, this may save your butt in editing.
  7. If you can use multiple mics and multiple recorders to record each character to a separate track do it.
  8. If you're using lavaliers, work with your costume designers, or in the case of most indies, the actors who will be picking their own costumes, to make sure the mics are firmly secured and the costumes won't present any issues. If it dangles, jangles, or swings, it WILL bump up against something. ALWAYS.
  9. ADR for exterior scenes (almost) never work for low budget films, and even at best, are just barely convincing. ADR for interior scenes can kinda work for low budget films (but rarely do), and are convincing after lots of work and manipulation, i.e. you'll be spending extra cash or extra time. Aim to avoid ADR if you really don't have the budget, or find ways to shoot key scenes without the dialogue--even if you plan the shot to be entirely silent, or to only have music, still capture on set sound to give you the option of layering that back in.
  10. Use the same mic(s) and gear, throughout an entire scene, and ideally the entire shoot. If your sound person owns her own equipment and won't be on set for next week's shoot, see if you can rent her gear for a nominal fee if she won't allow you to use it without her present. Trust me, that extra bit of consistency will be worth it.
  11. You can NEVER fix it in post. You can only patch it up.
  12. Never be afraid to fire the sound person as soon as you know something is wrong, even if they are your friend.
  13. And following that up, unless you know your friend, or anyone for that matter, is really great at sound, don't hire them. Take your time and find the right person, not a person for right now. Delaying shooting may save you the heartache of having a nearly useless film.
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