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A 6-Part Comprehensive Introduction to Sound and Filmmaking

The importance of sound in modern film is simply undeniable.

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When we decided to tackle the subject of sound, I knew that to do it justice we had to approach it like building a foundation for a house: building it up brick by brick. For many filmmakers, sound is a mystery blended with bits and pieces of understanding gleamed through practice – that was the way I was before doing the research. That’s a clumsy way to go about learning. If we really want to understand sound and become masters of it, we have to start and the base and build up from there.

So I designed this series of audio lessons to move from broad base understanding to the specific application. Here is a map of the six different videos in our audio series and how they relate to one and other in progression:

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Before we break down each video, I would like to take an opportunity to thank our sponsor RØDE Microphones who have been a tremendous support on this project.

RODE

 1. The History of Sound at the Movies

I cannot exaggerate the importance of history. This is the longest of the lesson in the series and we cover from the beginning of sound on film (which despite conventional wisdom, The Jazz Singer was not the first film with sound or recorded dialogue) up to the sound technologies of the 1990s.

The first major point for filmmakers to think about in this lesson is the dramatic change that sound brought to the filmmaking process. As with all our history courses, I want you to put yourself in the shoes of the filmmakers at the end of the 1920s – watching an entire industry turned around and retooled in the matter of two years or so. Think about the implications for this art form – at the beginning of sound, debates raged over whether sound was suppose to be natural or augmented with things like sound effects and music. The dust did finally settle and what emerged was something that really didn’t resemble the silent film of only a decade past. When sound came about… silent film died and a new hybrid art form of motion and sound was born.

After the industry switch, sound technology stagnated for about 20 years. It was until television mortally threatened all of Hollywood that the industry started to experiment with multichannel surround sound. Even then it tool another 25 years or so before finally settling on the widely adopted Dolby Stereo format just in time for the film that would go and redefine the cinematic experience: Star Wars.

2. The Science and Engineering of Sound

This lesson takes a different angle on building the foundation – whereas the history lesson looked at the social implications of sound and film, here we look at the science of sound, beginning by defining five properties of sound: Amplitude, Frequency, Phase, Harmonic Content, and Envelope. We then define what a decibel is and the cover two common microphone types (dynamic and condensers) and the different types of pickup patterns from mics on the market.

The concepts about sound properties laid out here are crucial once we get into the sound editing side which will manipulate these properties. The engineering portion of this lesson is mean to give a basic underlying understanding to how microphones work. By understanding their internal function and the characteristics of microphones on the market we can better make choices for recording audio on set or on location.

3. The Basics of Recording Audio for Digital Video

With a foundation of history and science, we now move into the general application of sound recording. The best way to approach this subject was to look at the audio signal chain – that is how sound goes from air waves, into electric signal and finally being recorded onto a digital medium.

But in this lesson, I decided to work backwards – starting at the end of the chain and working toward the original audio waves. By looking at the equipment used for recording we also cover some of the key settings for audio recording including sampling rate and bit depth. Moving up the line I clarify the ingenious technique of audio signal doubling in balanced cables which leads us finally to beginning of the audio signal chain with mic placement and usage.

4. The Fundamentals of Sound in Post Production

Now that we have our sound recorded what do we do with it? In this lesson we cover the four types of filters commonly used in audio engineering including: Equalizer, Dynamic Range Controls (compressors), Noise Reduction, and Time Delay effects.

Now admittedly when I first started playing around with audio tools as a kid I had no idea what half of these things did (just that the reverb filter made it sound really reverby). But with a foundation in science of how sound works, these filters suddenly make more sense.

When you open up your audio editor, you will find a lot more advanced versions of these four basic types of tools (for instance Adobe Audition uses FFT for a lot of really powerful noise removal tricks) but if you understand how EQ affects frequency, how compressors reduce dynamic range and how Time Delay effects can color your sound, you’ll have a good grasp to begin working the sound in your film.

5. Introduction to Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR)

Putting it all together for the first time, we explore a common practice in filmmaking: ADR or looping.

I used to be of the ilk that ADR was something that you wanted to avoid at all costs – I have only done it once before in a short film and honestly I didn’t find that experience all that unpleasant. I knew it was a tricky affair.

But when I started to research the history of sound and look at how ADR (called looping before computers got in the game) freed up camera movement in the early days of sound cinema, I realized that ADR was a much maligned technique. Ideally you want to capture the performance with natural location audio but ADR, if planned for, brings so much freedom.

Now my approach may have ruffled feathers of some ADR purists who think that ADR should only be attempted by professionals. With exception of panning the dialogue (which I learned too late that I shouldn’t have done), I stand by everything as it is explained in the lesson.

ADR is much like a magic trick, the first time you do it you may screw it up. In fact the first ADR session I ran with my actors didn’t cut together well. I brought them back in and we did a second take, this time reviewing each line as I placed them to see if we could make it better. It was a great learning experience for myself and my actors. As you get better the magic trick becomes more subtle – hopefully to the point where if the audience doesn’t know to look for it, they won’t even see it… or in the case of ADR… hear it.

6. Introduction to Foley and Sound Effects for Film

Once you replace dialogue with ADR, the next thing is to replace all the sound effects. In this lesson I wanted to dive into the world of Foley and look at the interesting history of the man that lended his name to this technique.

This was a challenging lesson for another reason all together. After filming the short demo film and the lesson I had a catastrophic hard drive failure that wiped away everything. So I had to reassemble my actors and reshoot the entire scene. Oh well, second time’s the charm. And now I have a pretty beefy back up solution in place.

Foley and Sound Effects really do bring a scene to life. As I was putting this lesson together I started really to pay attention to all the little noises that occur in my everyday life – the sound of my shoes on the carpet, the sounds of car doors (I always notice how nice car doors sound in the movies), the sound of a simple scratch. These little things simply don’t get picked up in the production stage and have to be added in post.

Although Foley can be a little challenging, ultimately it’s a lot of fun putting in those finishing audio touches and hearing your film come to life.

***

I really hope that this series on audio changes the way you approach sound in your films. In have learned a lot in researching this series but these were never intended to be the “the final word” on the subject -rather they are a chance to introduce topics so when you do more research or listen to interviews with audio professionals, you’ll have at least a context of these concepts and where they fit inside the audio world.

We have done our best to put together your foundation, but if you want to advance in sound, you’ve got to get out there and start practicing. Stay tuned – major changes are coming to the site which will give you a chance to practice with us… Keep your ears open and make something great.

John P. Hess

Improvising Screenplays: Three Stagnant Scene Types…and How to Make Them Flow

In Improvising Screenplays, improvisational actor Brett Wean shares how the concepts of improvisation can be applied to the work — and play — of writing your script.

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There are a few general, arbitrary-sounding, scene types that actors are told to avoid when first learning improv. Specifically, novice improvisers are warned to stay away from: argument scenes, teaching scenes, and negotiations.

I wouldn’t advise you to eschew these types of scenes in your screenwriting. We obviously see all sorts of arguments, teacher/student moments, and negotiations take place in many of the best, most compelling movies and TV shows. But by understanding why improvisers try to avoid them, and how the best theatrical improvisers make them work when they do perform them, you can gain a unique understanding of the specific pitfalls these types of scenes often contain, and learn how to avoid them in your writing.

Why are improvisers warned not to fall into scenes involving teaching, arguments, and negotiations? Because each of these scene types quite often naturally drag the characters into stagnant, back-and-forth moments that keep the action from moving forward. “No!” “Yes.” “No!” Yes.” “No!” While it may be exciting to watch two characters dramatically duke it out via their differing points of view — “drama is conflict” we’re so often told, and that’s true — we have to make sure that we don’t trap our characters into a clinch, like two boxers in a ring, so jumbled together that nothing is actually happening. Scenes need to move forward: two people yelling “No!” “Yes!” “No!” at each other can stop any natural momentum in its tracks.

ScriptMag | Read the Full Article

‘Legends of the Knight’: Batman inspires ordinary heroes in documentary

The LA Times’ Hero complex interviews Brett Culp, the director of a documentary that examines the hero mythos of Batman and how the dark knight is inspiring people to do good.

Filmmakers and comic book creators have taken Batman to some dark and scary places in recent years, but a new documentary steps away from the grim and gritty to examine the Dark Knight’s bright side as the character inspires people to do good.

“Legends of the Knight,” out this week on DVD and video on demand, weaves together the true stories of ordinary heroes, including a man who dons the cape and cowl to visit children’s hospitals; a journalist whose love of superheroes offers her courage as she lives with muscular dystrophy; a town that comes together to grant the wish of a little boy with leukemia to be a superhero for a day; and a student who, while dressed as Batman, does anonymous good deeds for his community.

The feel-good film, from director Brett Culp, also features extensive interviews with several Batman experts, including Michael Uslan, who has served as executive producer on every Batman film since 1989; comic writer and editor Dennis O’Neil, who oversaw DC Comics’ notorious “A Death in the Family” story; and Travis Langley, who penned “Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.”

LA Times | Read the Full Article

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Interstellar: inside the black art

Mike Seymour gets deep into the Visual effects of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar including the creation of the black hole, giant tidal waves, and how to cinematically depict the four dimensional cube that is the Tesseract.

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Artists are often asked to produce images of things never seen before, and often times asked to make them look real when no one is quite sure how they would actually exist. In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and the team at Double Negative were asked to produce images of things that aren’t even in our dimension, and furthermore have them accurate to not only quantum physics and relativistic laws but also our best understanding (guess) of quantum gravity.

Luckily, amongst the key team at Dneg was chief scientist Oliver James. James has a collage degree in optics and atomic physics and a personal understanding of Einstein’s relativity laws. He worked, as did Franklin with the film’s executive producer and scientific advisor Kip Thorne. Thorne would work out complex equations in Mathematica and send them James to recode into IMAX quality renderings. To meet the needs of the film and to solve the visual problems involved, James had to not only visualize equations describing the arcing and bending trajectory of light but also equations that ended up describing how a cross section of a beam of light changes its size and shape during its journey past the black hole.

Even then James’ code was only part of the solution – he worked hand in hand with the artistic team lead by CG supervisor Eugenie von Tunzelmann which would add say an accretion disc and create the background galaxy and all its stars and nebulae, that get warped as their light rays are bent past a black hole. But as complex as it is to for the first time show a black hole scientifically correctly in a film, the team also had to show someone entering a four-dimensional tesseract, which also extrudes or shadows into the three dimensions of a little girl’s bedroom – all in a way an audience could follow.

FX Guide | Read the Full Article

Astronaut – A journey to space

What does astronaut see from up there? From the red soil of africa, the blue water of oceans, to the green lights of the poles and yellow light of human activity, discover, through this journey to space, something astoundingly beautiful and strange at the same time. by Guillaume JUIN

I wanted to do something different from what has been done before with those shots. Something more dynamic and fast. After all, ISS travel through space at 28.000km/h! There are also more recent footage that have never been used (at least I think…) in other edits.

All the credit goes to the crew members of ISS expeditions 28, 29, 30, 31, 34, shot from 2011 to 2014.
The international Space Station weigh 377 tons, orbits the earth at around 350km from the surface, and does one spin around the earth in 1h30, at 28.000k/h! At 1’11 we can see a little refueling shuttle desintegrating back to earth. At 1’20, it’s a little telecom satellitte (Cygnus) that is launched into orbit. The little green and purple lights you can see at 1’57 are respectively fishing boats and oil platforms offshore with the big city of Bangkok nearby.

All the footage (around 80GB of pictures) was processed throught after effects/premiere, denoised for some shots, removal of dead pixels for some shots, deflickering, and simple color grading (didnt want to change the already incredible look! just curves, saturation, and some blue crushing). Don’t hesitate to comment and ask questions about the video!

Video courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center
eol.jsc.nasa.gov/Videos/CrewEarthObservationsVideos

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5 Tips For The DP Whose Director Is Also The Lead Actor

Cybel Martin offers 5 tips for the director of photography who is shooting a director who is also the lead actor.

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1. Create a Visual Shorthand – if you’ve been following my articles, you know how much I love pre-production and pouring over reference material with my directors. This is even more important if your director will spend the majority of production in front of the camera. During prep, Nana gave me over 10 films to watch or rewatch that emulated the style/tone she was going for. I countered with more film references and photographs that I thought would support her script and aesthetic. Once on set, if Nana said “like the Big Lebowski shot” or “what we liked in Darjeeling [Express]”, I knew what to do next.

Aside: when it comes to reference material, my director and I will often formulate the look of a film based on established works of art. The colors of this painting. Mixed with the camera movement of that film. But with the lens choices of this photographer. But maybe you, the Director or the Production Designer would rather create original works of art to serve as a visual reference. See Akira Kurosawa’s amazing storyboards for “Ran”. Or read about Production Designer, Dante Ferretti’s work on “Gangs of New York” and his recent awe-inspiring show at MOMA, “Dante Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen”.

2. Rules of Your Visual Language. Once you and the Director have narrowed down your reference material, your likes and dislikes, the “rules” will be self-evident. I won’t give away all of our secrets yet, but each of the films Nana liked treated camera movement in a similar way and approached color in a similar fashion. In prep, you and your Director should come up with a list of rules for your film. For instance: only use the color purple to signify death or an eyelight to foreshadow “not guilty” (a personal favorite from the genius film “12 Angry Men”).

If you lose a location, lose a few hours and need to reimagine a scene on the spot, this list of agreed upon rules will cut short discussion on what needs to be done next. This predetermined set of rules is also a safeguard preventing the final film from emulating your, the DP’s, taste over the director. See my previous article on how those same rules will be supportive in post production.

IndieWire | Read the Full Article

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