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Clean location sound

25 May 2011
Capturing 100 percent clean location sound is the ideal, especially if shooting lower budget films, but is it always possible? Ande Schurr offers some technical tips.

Capturing 100 percent clean location sound is the ideal, especially if shooting lower budget films, but is it always possible? Ande Schurr offers some technical tips and examples from his time on NZ feature films Russian Snark and Timeslow.

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Russian Snark, the low budget feature by Stephen Sinclair, is an example of a film that did not rush hurriedly to the market but took the time it needed. In doing so, it has attracted screenings and awards at festivals around the world on route to a Rialto cinema release in New Zealand mid-June.

Shot back in 2008, with pick-ups and editing in 2009 and sent to festivals in 2010, Russian Snark was in the hands of adults who wanted the best route rather than the fast route for their child.

When I sat down with Stephen and Producer Liz Difiore to talk about the strategy for the location sound, we realised there were some things that we just had to accept. The 'out at sea' close-ups at the boat park in Tamaki drive right next to cars and trucks whizzing past was the main one.

Capturing 100 percent clean location sound is the ideal for many filmmakers - especially those shooting lower budget films. When I recorded sound on the second unit of the UK/NZ mini-series ICE, the director didn't give a second thought to say the words ‘Automated Dialogue Replacement' (ADR*) when a noisy snow machine was needed - and he was still very considerate to make sure I had the time to do my job on scenes that I could get clean sound from.

But with millions in the budget, ADR is easy to schedule in. However for the many indie film makers it saves time, money and effort and the actors don't have to try to recreate their performance in a sterile sound booth many months later.

The trick for 95 percent usable sound on location is wild lines (recording the actors saying their lines again without the camera) immediately after the scene has been shot in the same location as the filming.

I am currently working on one of the four NZ Film Commission funded Escalator films in Auckland Film Studios: Timeslow directed by Sally Tran and produced by Owen Hughes. There are 33 shots in the entire film which incorporate several scenes into one steady-cam or dolly shot - often for more than five minutes. We have 14 moving sets in total and often there are several costume changes during the actual shot, which means that it is simply not possible to capture all the sound clean because the sound of caster wheel on the floor of the studio are heard over dialogue.

To the art department's credit, they have perfected the timings so that only a small portion of dialogue is overlapped but still, wild lines are needed. We conduct these immediately after the shot. We run through the scene once with the same movements on set. Then we single out lines and fx and record those separately. This small touch at the end will save them a lot of time redoing these lines with the actors later on.  The hope is that the actors will say their lines in the same way, rhythm and stress as the take that the director liked best, and thus map perfectly over their on-screen dialogue. It's the hope of course, and the continuity person helps enormously in this process to ensure their words and mannerisms are the same.

However if heavy rain sets in, the sound it makes on our tin-roofed studio will be completely unacceptable. In that situation we have arranged to take over the quietest room in the building complex to do our wild lines. It is not ideal but we have to deal with the reality. We will simply walk the cast to the other location, accompanied by an AD and the director, and record the lines of dialogue while camera and lighting prepare for the next setup.

The other five percent of usable sound that we are trying to attain requires an organised understanding by the director, producer and 1st AD. We often just need a few seconds to let a train, traffic or planes pass. Lawnmowers and weed eaters need personal attention and negotiation - but that too usually can be resolved immediately. Car alarms need patience, lighting buzzes can be muffled and insulated a little as soon as they become apparent when the setup noise has quietened, while accidental noises during the take can be eliminated when crew are reminded to keep still.

It is obviously the location sound mixer's prerogative to eliminate all the noises in their control. Clothing noises on the lapel mics is the main one, radio interference is another which brings me to the most important thing, equal to the skill of the recordist, their gear must be impeccable.

The recordist must have enough radio mics for the main actors. Two radios just don't do justice to our films today. They must be capable of long distances so there is zero chance of radio interference in 30-50m distance and up to 100m if necessary for the scene. The sound recordist must have a range of sizes and colours of lapel mics to suit various costumes along with a variety of tapes and methods of application. They must have a multi-track hard drive recorder, with ideally eight+ channels, so the boom and radio mics can be captured on separate tracks along with a digital slate to make syncing the sound easy during the edit. Then there is the guide track sent to the camera (if non-film camera) such as the Alexa, RED or a DSLR - this will help the editor enormously.

As my career progresses, I have noticed two changes in my approach to dealing with location sound on movies. The first is that I will try unconventional lapel rigs to capture the best sound and will keep trying until I have clean sound. I am determined to take any costume arrangement or any action and get clean sound from it. It is my personal satisfaction to start off sometimes not knowing how I will approach a scene and then observing rehearsals and testing until I know what I will do.

The expansive lighting environment on the set of my current film, and the costume of one of the lead characters, is such that my boom operator was not able to get close enough to her so the responsibility fell on good radio mic placement. Specifically, a hair rig was the only possible place to hide the mic. However her neck was exposed so we couldn't have a wire dangling down her neck - even though it was the colour of skin and very thin cable. With the help of the makeup department we hid my small radio mic transmitter in her hair along with the lapel mic. It worked perfectly and the actress didn't have to worry about it on her clothing.

The other change in my approach is that I accept more gracefully that there are some things that I simply cannot do anything about. My personal goal is to have 100 percent usable sound from the location recordings however there are many more important things that may override my, and often the director's, wish to have no ADR. That comes in the form of pressure to keep shooting and maintain the schedule rather than wait those few extra minutes. I can say what I want but ultimately there is a greater responsibility to finish the picture on time, on budget.

Thus, I believe that 100 percent of clean location sound is possible with meticulous monitoring by the sound recordist and amply supported by the 1st AD and director. Indeed, I will always strive for this result. However, if it is at the expense of the other departments, where mistakes are not as easily remedied in post production, I think a little ADR must be accepted as part and parcel of the contemporary film.

* ADR means that the dialogue from a scene in the movie was not usable and has to be re-recorded in a studio. This may be because of filming in the wrong 'sound' location such as a noisy city room that is supposed to represent a quiet countryside environment or bangs, clothing or wind noise on the lapel mic or other unwanted sounds over the top of the dialogue - causing an unnecessary distraction to the listener.