Waiting on Sound

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Although I must admit to a fondness for MOS sequences, when shooting dialog, I prefer to get clean sound on set. But this isn’t always easy, and sometimes it’s not possible at all. Fixing audio problems in post is never satisfying, and I start to dream of just doing all the dialog in post. In many ways, this makes sense, as on-set time is incredibly expensive, and never having to do an additional take for sound will save loads of time, and time is money. Plus, I’m only dubbing the finished film, and not all the unused takes, so that seems economical.

I’m told that a great many spaghetti westerns (circa the 1960s) were shot this way, many of which are considered classic films now. El Mariachi, the film that launched Robert Rodriguez’s career, was also shot MOS and dubbed-in later, so it is an option and it is not uncommon for high-budget films to do a lot of ADR (automatic dialog replacement) to fix flubbed lines or improve performance. However, dubbing/ADR is not necessarily inexpensive, and it takes a fair bit of time and effort for actors to create a convincing performance, essentially trying to sync to pre-recorded mouth movements. If you are thinking of adopting this workflow, consult your post-production sound engineer about what is involved before shooting. Or you can choose to get the on-set sound as perfect as possible, which comes with its own set of problems.

Combat Zone

A note about the on-set dynamic. It isn’t a battle between the sound department and everyone else, even though it sometimes feels that way. In the end, doing your best work with a smooth on-set workflow ought to be the goal, because for most films, the audience is not watching the movie to look at the images, or listen to the sound. The audience is watching because the movie is about the characters. The crew is there to make sure the actors are seen and heard. Yes, cinematography and sound design play a big role in the finished film, but unless you are creating another Koyaanisqatsi, it’s about the actors and characters. So, on set, the idea is to create an environment in which the director and actors can work.

The excellent sound recordists I’ve worked with are always watching the blocking and rehearsals. Once the lighting gets roughed-in and the on-camera rehearsals begin, they start looking for boom placement. By the time we have finished the last rehearsals, all the lighting is in, the boom positions are sorted out, and the actors are primed and ready to go. Nothing kills that momentum and causes more frustration than an unforeseen problem that stops everything, except perhaps a sound recordist who sits back and waits to find a boom position until after everyone else is ready. I get it—you don’t want to find your boom position until the blocking and lights are set, but stopping production just before we roll a take, because now sound needs its own rehearsal, is just like pulling the emergency brake on a train. It kills the momentum and can throw the actors off, affecting their performance. Plus, it is easier to make adjustments when we are roughing the shot in instead of after the blocking, camera position, and lighting are set. Of course, the AD should be on top of this, but sometimes it falls through the cracks.

I Can’t Hear It—Why Does It Matter?

Getting clean sound matters, getting room tone matters. Some scenes are better without underlying music. Which scenes? Well, that should be up to the filmmaker, and not a choice made because they had to use music to cover inconsistent background or room noise, which can be incredibly distracting in the finished film. Was the fridge on? I didn’t even notice this while we were shooting. In real life, we just tune it out. Except of course for the sound recordist, because they’ve trained themselves to identify the sounds in a room or location, much as a D.P. has trained themselves to distinguish color and lighting. So, while we may ignore the sound in real life, while watching a film, we may suddenly become aware of sounds that we’ve spent a lifetime ignoring.

The Truth of the Matter

If you’ve been on a set for any amount of time, then you’ve heard that woeful cry of the AD “Waiting on Sound.” It isn’t specific to the sound recordist, “Waiting on Camera,” “Waiting on Wardrobe,” or “Waiting on Makeup,” is also heard, but it is just that waiting on sound seems to happen so much more frequently, and the sound recordist seems to end up being reviled for holding up the entire shoot. It may seem easy to pick on the sound department, as the sound department often has only one or two people, unlike the grip, electric, or camera departments, which tend to pack at least four people, but it is a bad idea. First, don’t make an enemy of sound recordists, they stick mics everywhere and know everyone’s secrets. Second, you are a crew, which is a team, so stick together. Shoots are hard enough without ostracizing a whole department for a few moments of mirth.

The Root of the Problem

When the camera, lighting, grip, hair and makeup departments have a problem, or the director works with the actors; the reason that sitting around and waiting isn’t so frustrating is that there is usually an active solution. Change the camera’s media or battery, set a flag, or tweak the light, it is a quick fix and with an obvious solution. When the makeup person jumps in for last looks or the Director gives notes, the entire crew sits around and waits and no one complains. However, when the sound department needs to stop the shot because of a problem, all too often the problem is an airplane flying overhead and there is nothing that can be done but let the airplane pass, or the ambulance, or the people chatting on the phone walking by. So, there is increased frustration as we have no choice but to wait, and not do anything. Kind of like when you are shooting exteriors and you must wait for clouds to pass by the sun to maintain visual continuity. The reality is that the sound recordist must keep the audio as clean as possible, and while we know that, we really don’t think about it when we are waiting to get the shot. But, the director is going to be using audio from various takes, and if one take has the sound of a refrigerator on it and another take doesn’t, then that is going to become disturbing. Not that you would notice it while shooting, but when the sound of the refrigerator is suddenly there and then just as suddenly gone, that will no doubt distract the audience. So, we sit uncomfortably and wait for the sound department to record room tone with and without the refrigerator noise—twice the waiting without making a sound. It is necessary, the sound recordist is doing his or her job and getting the best sound for the film. It may be frustrating, but it is no less necessary than tweaking that streak of light on the set wall.

Conclusion

You can do all your dialog in post, matching to a scratch track, or you can record your dialog on set/location as clean as possible. Doing another take to get clean sound Is something that I hate having to do on set, especially when I have the performance I need, but in the edit I’m glad to have it. Remember to roll room tone in every location, and if you are doing all your dialog in post, good luck to you.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any tips for recording audio in difficult locations, or if you are a fan of doing your dialog in post, please feel free to comment below.

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