Wyatt Earp

Sync tanks The Art and Technique of Postproduction Sound

by Elisabeth Weis  (Cineaste, 1995)

The credits for John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) include Wyatt Earp as technical consultant[1] but only one person responsible for all of postproduction sound (the composer). The credits for Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) list the names of thirty-nine people who worked on postproduction sound. The difference is not simply a matter of expanding egos or credits.

An older film like Casablanca has an empty soundtrack compared with what we do today. Tracks are fuller and more of a selling point,” says Michael Kirchberger (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Sleepless in Seattle). “Of course a good track without good characters and storyline won’t be heard by anyone.[2] 

With soundtracks much more dense than in the past, the present generation of moviemakers has seen an exponential growth in the number of people who work on the sound after the film has been shot. What do all those people add both technically and esthetically? “When I started out, there was one sound editor and an assistant,” says picture editor Evan Lottman (The Exorcist, Sophie’s Choice, Presumed Innocent). ” As editor for a big studio picture in the early Seventies I usually cut the ADR [dialog replaced in postproduction–EW] and the music as well.” Today an editor on a major feature would either hire a supervising sound editor who gathers a team of sound specialists, or go to a company like C5, Inc., Sound One, or Skywalker that can supply the staff and/or state-of-the-art facilities.

Sound is traditionally divided into three elements: dialog, music, and effects (any auditory information that isn’t speech or music). Although much of the dialog can be recorded during principal photography, it needs fine tuning later. And almost all other sound is added during postproduction.

How does sound get on pictures? The following is a rough sketch of the procedure for a major Hollywood feature production. But it is not a blueprint; exact procedures vary tremendously with the budget and shooting schedule of the film. Blockbuster action films, for instance, often devote much more time and money to sound effects than is described below. The process certainly does not describe how the average film is made abroad; few other cultures have such a fetish for perfect lip-synching as ours–so even dialog is recorded after the shoot in many countries.

This article can only begin to suggest how digital technologies are affecting post-production sound. For one thing, there is wide variation in types of systems; for another, digital sound techniques are evolving faster than alien creatures in a science fiction movie.

PRODUCTION

Even the sound recorded live during principal photography is not wedded physically to the image and has to be precisely relinked during postproduction. It is usually recorded on 1/4″ magnetic tape (though there are alternatives) and marked so that it can be ultimately rejoined with the picture in perfect synchronization.

On the set the location recordist (listed as production mixer) tries to record dialog as cleanly and crisply as possible, with little background noise (a high signal-to-noise ratio). A boom operator, usually suspending the microphone above and in front of the person speaking, tries to get it as close as possible without letting the microphone or its shadow enter the frame.

An alternative to a mike suspended from an overhead boom is a hidden lavalier mike on the actor’s chest, which is either connected to the tape recorder via cables or wired to a small radio transmitter also hidden on the actor. But dialog recorded from below the mouth must be adjusted later to match the better sound quality of the boom mike. And radio mikes can pick up stray sounds like gypsy cabs.

While on the set, the sound recordist may also ask for a moment of silence to pick up some “room tone” (the sound of the location when no one is talking), which must be combined with any dialog that is added during postproduction (with reconstructed room reverberation) so that it matches what is shot on the set. (We don’t usually notice the sound of the breeze or a motor hum, but their absence in a Hollywood product would be quite conspicuous.) The set recordist may also capture sounds distinctive to a particular location to give the postproduction crew some sense of local color.

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