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Breaking The Sound Barrier - Breaking 1 - Dr. Neil Hillman

Here in Australia, with its beautiful, upside-down southern-hemisphere seasons, there’s a tangible excitement building in the university city that I live in, as second- and third-year students prepare for the start of the academic year of their undergraduate degrees, and new students prepare expectantly to take the first step on their chosen career path. Writing as someone who has a foot in both camps of being a practitioner and an academic in film and television, it’s always a pleasure to see a new cohort joining the ranks of the next generation of filmmakers.

One of the primary driving factors for me writing the book Sound for Moving Pictures in 2021, and then founding the Sound for Moving Pictures Academy in 2022, was to reach students and new professionals who, for whatever reason, are not embracing sound as an equal creative partner in their work; and the most common reason I hear for this is because the film or television production course that they signed up for didn’t have the time, or the inclination, to treat sound with the same respect that it afforded to pictures.

So following up on those comments, it came as some surprise to me as I talked privately with several experienced academics (above and below the equator, and each tasked with teaching sound on these types of courses), when they candidly admitted that they regarded their own knowledge of sound as scant – and they, too, put this down to the fact that the vocational education they had received had a huge hole in it when it came to anything audio.

And so it goes on… Successive generations of filmmakers have left film and television production courses with barely a glimmer of insight into, or even a passing care about, the creative importance of sound; and so it is that they enter the industry with one hand tied behind their back.

Can you imagine what use the graduates of a medical school would be if they were only taught physiology from the waist down? Or, whilst they were taught about the lungs, they learned nothing about the heart?

The wider implication of this embedded culture should really cause all of us involved in teaching basic film craft skills to pause and take stock. Because if students come to learn that their school, or their lecturers, don’t understand or value sound, why should they when they join the workforce as newly-minted industry newcomers?

Here comes the ‘Why’…

It’s fair to say that very few people go to film school to become a sound professional; instead, most (but by no means all) sound practitioners come via a more technical education. The big-ticket items in film department brochures tend to be focussed around becoming a cinematographer, or a film director, or failing that, a picture editor.

Unfortunately, what 99% of these students come up against as they approach graduation, is the problem that filmmaking courses culminate in the delivery of a capstone project – often described in the prospectus as something like ‘a multifaceted body of work that serves as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students.’

This, then, is when it gets decidedly tricky; because if the sound is unacceptably poor in a student’s final submission film, it doesn’t matter how special their framing, panning or grading is. If the soundtrack is amateurish, by definition, a professional-standard product hasn’t been achieved by someone who has spent three years, and a lot of their future income, on learning how to make films… And if we’re in the business of training generalists rather than specialists, this is even more disappointing to witness.

And I know I would say this, but genuinely, can I humbly suggest that if you have your heart set on becoming a director, please pay attention to your sound.

Breaking The Sound Barrier - Breaking 2 - Dr. Neil Hillman
Picture credit: ‘The Location Crew’

10%, 50%, 80%, yadda-yadda-yadda…

Of course, students hear the mantra ‘sound is 50% of the product’ from their teachers repeatedly; but what does that really mean? Half the width of a videotape contains the soundtrack? 500Mb of a 1Gb capture card is reserved for audio?

Rather, how often do students get to learn that sound is 80% of the emotional experience for an audience watching their film? Or that the best ‘bang-for-your-buck’ comes from the soundtrack, which usually costs just 10% of the production budget?

Budding directors please take note: VFX is very expensive, and as beautiful as the animatronic and CGI dinosaurs are in Jurassic Park, they’re on screen for only 15 minutes of the film’s 2 hours and 7 minutes… That’s just 11% of the film. The rest of the time, the audience’s emotions are manipulated by the atmosphere and tension that is so skilfully built by Gary Rydstrom’s superb soundtrack. (Don’t get me started on Gary’s work for the soundtrack of Saving Private Ryan, or we’ll be here all day…)

It’s sound Jim, but not as we know it…

Within the various teaching modules available from the Sound for Moving Pictures Academy, I get picture-centric professionals to reconsider how they regard sound; especially on-set microphones and location acoustics: because they’re likely to process production concepts in a totally different way to someone with a passion for sound; and so I ask them to think of the microphones as their ‘sound-lenses’, and the acoustic of the set as their available light.

Given that the only task for any location sound recordist working on drama is to capture effortlessly intelligible dialogue (that’s easier said than done, by the way), we have three basic sound tools at our disposal – an omnidirectional lavalier microphone, which gets hidden on the individual actors (and let’s say its camera equivalent would be a 28mm, wide-ish lens); a cardioid microphone, mounted on a boom pole (consider this as you would a standard 50mm lens); or a hypercardioid microphone, again mounted on a boom pole (this could be considered to be like a telephoto, along the lines of 105mm lens or, in the case of a super hypercardioid microphone, a 200mm lens).

High, wide and handsome…

Like a wide-angle lens, an omnidirectional lavalier microphone can be useful – essential even in many scenarios on-set – but it needs careful placement; and like a wide-angle lens, it captures a lot of what is around it – and that inevitably includes clothes rustle, tongue clicks and throat rattles; all of which are unwanted. (So don’t be totally reliant on it – just like you wouldn’t want to shoot everything as a wide shot, a personal radio mic has little or no perspective).

A cardioid microphone is a must for indoor dialogue, as reflections of sound can cause issues when they are picked up on a mic that is recording speech. What we need to manage is the wanted sound versus the unwanted noise ratio – that has to be as high as possible. (Just like we appreciate a ‘fast’ camera lens that offers us a good aperture versus shutter speed ratio.) A boom-mounted microphone does however require skilful placement as the actors move; and operating it is a highly dextrous occupation.

Finally, there is the hypercardioid microphone (also referred to as a ‘shotgun’ mic) which is a boon, on a boom, in a fluffy windshield outdoors. Designed to reject sound from the sides, and with a narrow pick-up pattern at the front, in the hands of a skilled boom operator, a boom microphone is without doubt the blue-ribbon way to capture dialogue inside and out of doors.

Sadly, what we don’t have in sound is the equivalent of a zoom lens – so microphones need to be thought of as prime lenses.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me…

The challenge for any on-set sound recordist in gaining recognition and respect from on-set colleagues, is that the better they do their job, the less they tend to be noticed.

But as a director, if the sound recordist asks for some time and consideration to get the best results for you, or they request that your actors ‘speak up’, it really is in your interests to be accommodating – because if the dialogue is poorly recorded, and the first time you take notice is back in the editing suite, it will be long after the actors have moved on to other projects; and it will be costly to put right. (It’s also well known that Producers and Executive Producers – a director’s employers – take a very dim view of productions that go over budget for easily preventable reasons.)

And the good news is that sound issues – by and large – are very preventable if enough thought is given to the recording of location sound in pre-production and production, which in turn makes for smooth and cost-effective audio post-production.

In summary, here are three golden rules to follow (although we give many more within our Sound for Moving Pictures modules) to ensure that sound in any production is afforded the consideration it deserves (and you need):

1 – Treat your sound recordist with the same respect as you would your camera operator, your writer, or your editor. They are also a creative partner working with you.

2 – Involve sound at the pre-production stage and the location recceing stage.

3 – Remember that mumbled dialogue is not the equivalent of dark, moody pictures. 

Finally, if you are a student about to head off and start on your film studies or production course, good luck! Enjoy every single moment, and be prolific in your output whilst you have the expertise, enthusiasm and equipment around you!

And if you’re a teaching colleague, I’m always happy to talk about ways I might be able to support you and your students with their appreciation of sound design.

 © Dr. Neil Hillman 2023

Header picture credit: Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica

Dr. Neil Hillman is an academic with a research interest in Emotion in Sound Design. He is also a post-production supervising sound editor, dialogue editor, re-recording mixer, and live-event outside broadcast mixer with more than 1,000 IMDb credits. His book on sound design, Sound for Moving Pictures, was published by Routledge in 2021.

The Sound for Moving Pictures Academy offers a series of short, online courses that range from ‘entry level’ to ‘experienced professional’, and each module is designed to bring about a greater understanding of the creative power of thoughtful sound design for both picture and sound specialists.

Dr. Neil Hillman MPSE

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I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.

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