Friday, April 2, 2010

Short and Sweet

I didn't take a lot of notes last night, more from exhaustion than anything else. As we get closer to the end of the submission season the brain starts to get a little blurry. Not to worry, a good movie is still appreciated, as they make us sit up and take notice. A bad one is less likely to start a discussion as they do early in the season – so I end up with less to say.

As we were leaving last night, I asked the room if there was anything they wanted me to talk about in the blog.

"Sound!" was the answer.

"I've talked about sound so many times already," I said.

Their particular gripe has to do with sound levels across scenes. You can barely hear one scene, and the next one is way too loud.

Sound is harder to get right than picture, no doubt about it. I'm no expert, and even if I was I couldn’t give an entire lesson in sound mixing in this blog, but uneven levels across scenes is a sign of lack of sound compression (I think). Sure, when you're putting the scenes together, you have to try to get the levels as close to each other as possible, but once you're done, you might want to add a compressor like Sony's Wave Hammer. I'm sure there are ton of others, that's just the one I know.

What's the beer commercial where they talk about "drinkability"? Well, sound compression helps with "listenability." It will pull up the lower levels, top off the higher ones, fix clips as much as possible, all while still keeping the tone of the sound. Of course, your mix has to be clean and relative levels – dialogue can be heard over music, effects, etc. – have to be good before you apply compression software, so it's not a one-step fix, but it definitely makes a difference.

On other topic: We get a lot of short films that are dance pieces, which is fine. Some of them are very good. Some aren't. But they make us wonder if people think the name of the festival is literal. It's not. We're not a festival that shows only dance pieces, and if you make a modern dance movie you don't have a better chance to get in with us than any other movie. In other words, it has be really good no matter what.

We're seeing a lot of movies with beautiful deep depths of field. This is no doubt due to new cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II that can take 35mm lenses with a chip that can handle the depth of field variations. Really pretty stuff. This makes it all the more agonies when you run across a scene where actors stand only inches from a flat, blank, wall. If nothing else, have the actors step out a foot or so and put an up light on the floor to knock the shadows off the wall. Give your work some depth, in writing and picture.

Speaking of flat. We see some scenes, and occasionally entire movies, that just lay there. We had one last week, and I asked the room, "what is it about this scene that keeps it from holding our interest?" Nothing was obviously terrible, but the whole thing taken together was.

We talked about it and decided that each department – acting, camera, sound, writing, overall directing, etc. – was so under par that no one thing brought the scene down, but nothing lifted it up, either.

So what do you do when this happens? Hopefully, you discover this during the writing phase when it's cheap and easy to fix the problem, since that's the core of the issue. If not, you might be on the set when you realize that nothing interesting is going into the camera. Editing is your last chance to inflate a flat scene.

In all these cases, the fix is the same. Go back to the basics. Objective. Obstacle. Tactics. What do the characters want? What's stopping them from getting what they want? How are they going to overcome the problems? Sharpen up those aspects of the scene. Cut anything and everything that doesn't apply, and get out as quickly as possible.

On that last point, I'm going to get out to work on my own project and try to put my work where my criticism is.

Thanks for reading.


Anonymous said...

Inconsistent levels across scenes is an indication of poor audio editing, not a lack of a compression effect. Dialog is generally in the -30 to -12 dB range. Nothing should go past -12 dB. But generally, compression is not needed if the audio editor does their job right. And "deep" depth of field of "great" depth of field is when EVERYTHING is in focus. "Shallow" depth of field is when your subject is in focus and the background is blurred, because your range of focus is shallow. Just thought I would correct that mistake, so that fledgling filmmakers/cinematographers don't repeat incorrect information and make themselves look dumb.

RSMellette said...

Thank you much. I do come at this as a theatre person and a writer, so often my terms can be a bit askew. Thanks for the correction.

Obviously, the best solution on sound is to have an audio editor. Most of the films I'm talking about don't. The main point I'd like to get across is that sound is 50% of what makes up a movie. Skimp on that, and you will fail.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely right. I might even say that sound is 60% of a film. In any event, it's supremely important, because without good sound nobody will care about your film or even watch it. I'd rather have a $200 camera and $2,000 sound equipment than the other way around. It's too bad that editors don't learn sound. I personally feel competent editing picture as well as dialog, foley and score. But it is tough to learn. I learned by fixing bad audio from documentary work and also from mixing music.