Replay: Video is only half the equation for a full production. Audio is important. To do it properly, you need skill and perseverence
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When you next watch a quality film or an episode of television drama have a think about what you are really taking in when you are viewing it. Given that many of the same cameras are now being used on all types of production, from high end drama to lower end soaps, what is one of the biggest differentiators between them?
I have long been a proponent of the theory that what really, truly, gives a production high end value is the sound. It is much easier for the eyes to forgive a lower quality picture, but low quality audio will always be distracting.
Recording good quality sound
If you produce video for a living then recording good quality sound should be at the forefront of your mind. However the soundscape is still one of those things that is often forgotten when it comes to post production. Certainly many filmmakers will make sure that the have good quality functional sound from the location, but how many of you out there finesse it or use it creatively in the same way that you use your picture grading and effects filters in post?
Slapping a bit of music on top of the video does not a good sound mix make! Used well, creative use of sound stands to transform your videos. It is an art form every bit as involved as dealing with the picture, which is why perhaps it is often neglected. Decent sound design can also fall by the wayside because amazing use of audio often goes unnoticed by the viewer. It is one of those invisible things that you notice when it is absent but do not think twice about when it is there.
If you watch any recent BBC wildlife programme you will hear post produced sound at all stages. From fighting giraffes to scuttling insects, much of it is produced after the fact. In reality you wouldn’t hear a waterfall from 10,000ft in the air, yet this is precisely what you can hear when one of those renowned aerial shots is seen in the such programmes. Most viewers will not even give it a second thought when they watch.
Now take a look at great fight or action sequences in Hollywood films. Much of the time the sound is what makes them work. Take the limited physical abilities of actors like Keanu Reeves in the first Matrix film as an example. Try watching those fight sequences without the sound turned on. You’ll find that those moves don’t seem half as effective!
Jackie Chan, one of the masters of fight choreography has always said that a fight sequence should look great without sound because he realised how much it can cover up poor choreography and physical skills.
Not only can sound be used creatively to enhance your videos, but the general location sound can be enhanced too in the same way that you play around with the picture. If you want to see how far this can be taken watch this example by Skywalker Sound.
The sound in this video is entirely location recorded, but has been enhanced by the audio magicians. This is a very good example of how the detail in sound can be brought out in much the same way that you can enhance a picture.
While you do not have to go as far as the guys at the Skywalker ranch this mentality can still be taken to the most basic of corporate videos. For example if you have recorded an interview. By boosting some frequencies and reducing others the intelligibility of the human voice can be increased dramatically.
Consider banning music!
A good overall sound and effects mix can influence the mood of a scene every bit as much as simply using music. I can think of a number of examples of films where music has been excluded to allow the general sound to take centre stage simply because it tells the story better than music would have done.
The car chase in Bullitt is a very good example of this. Tense music plays while the build up is taking place, but once the seat belts go on the music cuts out and we are left with the equally musical sound of V8 engines and burning rubber.
The opening to Equilibrium is another example, where pure darkness is shown on screen while the surround sound does the job of painting the picture of what is happening.
Films like Saving Private Ryan are a masterclass in detailed soundscape creation and it is absolutely intrinsic to involving the audience in what is happening on screen and making them feel a sense of danger.
How can all of this help people who are not making multi-million Dollar Hollywood blockbusters? One way it can help us is by influencing a change of mindset. Usually video makers will use music as the primary “go to” option to drive the mood of a piece. Instead we should be asking ourselves what type of sound would best serve what we are seeing.
Sometimes that answer will be to use music, but often general and creative sound will suit the purpose better. The idea is to get the music to compliment the general and creative soundscape and vice versa. Both should compliment what is happening on screen. In other words the sound should be just as motivated as the picture. We want to aim to create a synergy between all the components rather than have them fighting against each other.
Doing this takes skill as well as preplanning. You need to be thinking about such things early in the production. A common complaint amongst sound designers on films is that there is no communication with the musical composer resulting in a conflicting mix where the general sound is competing with the music.
Such problems can be eliminated if the use of sound is thought about early in the production cycle and can really help to boost the overall production value of your video or film.