Why the Best Sound is Invisible

by David Rosenberg

Think back to the last time you were watching a great movie or television show. Did any thought of how it was made cross your mind, or were you totally zeroed in on the story? Those of us who work in production might notice signs of the process, but in narrative cinema, its expected that the technical aspects of filmmaking be invisible. Ultimately, the director wants us to remember the story, and even one technical flaw can distract from that story. We don’t want to notice it, we just want it to sound right so we can focus on the story.

This is where a strong sound department comes into play; comprised of a production sound mixer, boom operator, and utility person. All of these positions need to come together like a puzzle if you want to create a great “invisible” sound mix. The production department needs to do a great job in the field capturing audio. Sound editors and a rerecording mixer are next in the assembly line, sewing all these recordings together into a great sound mix.

But what IS this “good sound mix”?? From a production sound POV, the goal of the final mix track is to not call attention to the mix itself. One way to achieve this comes from a very simple statement, “Make it sound the way it looks”. Meaning, if the camera is super wide, the sound might have a far away, reverb-quality.

Picture in your mind a big, sprawling, establishing wide shot with a few characters speaking off in the distance. Doesn’t it make sense to give these characters a far-away sounding quality? How should you adjust for that? This is where the skilled boom operator uses a microphone on a pole, just above frame line to record the natural sound perspective of this shot, making this far-away, but crystal clear sound possible.

Of course, the director might want to hear the conversation from a much closer perspective. In that case we would put wireless microphones on the actors. Be aware that putting a wireless microphone on an actor means the sound will be coming from his or her chest, a sound quality I feel doesn’t work as well for narrative film and television. Sound from a well placed, overhead microphone can adjust based off the perspective of the lens, and allows the mixer to make the tracks sound match how the picture‘s framing. Wide shots can sound slightly wide, because the boom is farther away. And on close-ups, the sound will have a much closer texture, as the proximity of the boom to the speaking source has greatly decreased.

Filmmaking is extremely situational; we need to be able to roll with all forms of punches. Recording conversations indoors requires a different set of tools and knowledge compared to recording dialogue in a car or outdoors. I hope this brief overview gives you some understanding as to what goes on in the sound department of narrative work and what we are doing to ensure audiences focus on, and enjoy a good story.

David is a freelance Production Sound Mixer in New York City.

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