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Independent Films, Blockbuster Sound

While digital technologies have democratized the production process, not all content creators fully grasp the role of audio, driving post production professionals to become educators and, all too often, miracle workers.

While digital technologies have democratized the production process, not all content creators fully grasp the role of audio, driving post production professionals to become educators and, all too often, miracle workers. The impact of inexpensive and easy-to-use digital tools on low-budget film and television productions in particular has been something of a double-edged sword.

“I think sound is a blind spot for most filmmakers,” observes Woody Woodhall, president of Allied Post Audio and head of the Los Angeles Post Production Group. “There’s a real lack of understanding that a microphone is not a microphone—meaning, they’re not all the same. I do a lot of reality television, and I’ve had producers call to tell me that they were going to do all of their pickups on an iPhone, and they wondered what my thought was. I had to be polite!”

“With the advent of digital photography, where you don’t need to deal with film anymore, anyone with an iPhone and a laptop can make a movie,” comments Gary Coppola, a Los Angeles-based independent audio post specialist. “A lot of young, up-and-coming filmmakers are very conversant with computer technology. But they don’t really know necessarily what it takes to mix a movie.”

And it isn’t just the first-timers, apparently. “There are people that have been in the business for 30 years who still don’t understand what it is that sound people do,” says Coppola.

“I do feel a common mistake is not hiring experienced people for production sound, or not hiring any production sound people at all,” says Lawrence Everson, a multi-discipline digital production artist who is increasingly focused on audio post for indie films, working out of his facility in downtown L.A. “Once they make that mistake, they realize by the time they get to post the importance of sound, or how much it’s going to cost to fix everything. And sometimes how much more it’s going to cost to fix everything than it would have been to hire people earlier in the process.”

“If you say ‘we’re just going to ADR all of these scenes later,’ that’s fine, you can make that choice,” says Woodhall. “However, the consequence of that might be two actors, 10 lines, 10 takes a line. You have 200 takes; now you have to sort through those takes, decide on the reading, the lip sync, the ambient quality. And if it’s a SAG low-budget movie, you’re also paying your actors to come in. It becomes a gigantic thing that you could have done properly in 10 minutes.”

The downward pressure on budgets— and indie films typically have less cash than reality TV, says Coppola— has made it increasingly difficult for sound artists to survive in the business. “No one wants to spend money on sound,” Coppola reports. “Partly because they don’t understand what goes into it, and they think that anyone with GarageBand can do it. They don’t understand the level of skill that it takes to really do a good job. Also, I think their expectations are not quite as high as they once were; they’re willing to accept less.”

Like many in the business, which has seen a film mix team go from three, to two, to one man, Coppola has increasingly become a jack-of-all-trades. “On a lot of these indie films, not only am I mixing the movie but I’m also supervising and editing them.”

The ubiquity of Avid’s Pro Tools in the filmmaking process has been an enabler, it seems. “Basically, you’re sitting in front of an editing machine, so you learn how to edit,” said Coppola. “It’s a lot easier to just move an out-of-sync ADR line in two seconds instead of calling in an ADR editor and waiting for an hour. Half my job now is editorial.”

But for all its importance, technology tends to take a back seat in creative discussions, in Everson’s experience: “While the costs of filmmaking are coming down and lines are blurring as directors are wearing multiple hats and being technically proficient in a lot of different areas earlier in their careers, none of that is as important as the combination of being able to give good creative direction and knowing how to communicate across departments and workflows. Being able to talk tech as a director doesn’t mean anything if you can’t convey what the story is about in a scene,” he says. “How to tell a story with audio is always at the heart of everything we do as sound editors and mixers.”

Everson, like his compatriots in low-budget projects, is happy to educate newbies. “The main piece of advice I tend to dispense to beginner filmmakers is that the earlier people are brought on board in a project, the more the lines of communication can be opened between departments in order to establish good workflows that work for everybody and the budget.”

Technological developments may actually be leading to a general improvement in audio quality, Woodhall believes. In the past, digital sound and picture were recorded to one tape, then transferred into the computer. Now, he says, “People are using a Zoom [recorder] and their Canon 5D [camera] to shoot. Just due to the fact that we’re going back to dual system sound, some of the projects are sounding way better than projects that were coming to me from digital video, because they’re now forced to use a separate sound person.”

Still, mixers may be expected to work miracles. “I did a documentary where I put out what I thought was a reasonable bid,” Coppola recalls. “The filmmaker didn’t want to pay even that much. He found someone to do it for half as much money. The film was going to Tribeca [Film Festival]; the week before, he calls me in a panic—it sounds like crap. He asks if I can fix it. I had a day and a half to remix it.”

Increasingly, says Coppola, indie filmmakers expect more, but want to pay less. “And because we love what we do, we try to please them and help them achieve their goals. More often than not, we’re able to, because we just work harder and work faster. The technology and our skill set allows us to do that. I mix movies in three days that never would have been done in less than two weeks—and I’m doing them by myself.”

Everson, too, loves his job: “I do find it such a uniquely collaborative art form. I can’t think of anything else like it, with such a huge number of different people, all with various skill sets, having to work together to tell a story.”