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Lessons from SXSW: "The Emotional Language of Film with Skywalker Sound"

SXSW Synopsis:

"Through his work on both independent and studio films, Pete Horner has developed an approach to film sound that explores the unique language of each film. In this presentation, Pete will share clips illustrating the potential of sound to express underlying emotions, with the intent of encouraging filmmakers to engage the audience more fully through sound."

Pete Horner Bio:

"Pete Horner is an Emmy Award-winning sound designer and re-recording mixer at Skywalker Sound. He studied percussion and music recording at the Cleveland Institute of Music and discovered the musicality of film sound at American Zoetrope, where he worked on films including Apocalypse Now Redux and The Virgin Suicides. His work at Skywalker covers a wide range, from large animated features like How To Train Your Dragon to documentaries like Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure. In 2012 he won an Emmy for his mix and design work on Hemingway and Gellhorn; in 2013, he was awarded the first-ever Sundance Special Jury Prize for Sound Design for his work on Upstream Color."

This one is going to be a lot harder to explain without access to Pete Horner's wonderful sound design examples. However, his discussion did generate a smattering of interesting quotes and pieces of advice that I may be able to condense for the purpose of this blog.

He opened with a clip from a documentary film called "Hell and Back Again", which tracked the lives of Afghanistan & Iraq War Veterans. In the scene, a veteran was discussing his treatment with a doctor, and the dialogue faded away and the soundscape was bathed in more abstract sounds and effects. While this made the sound harder to understand, that was the point - it expressed the soldier's lack of understanding of perhaps interested ability to focus on what the doctor was saying. 

It was pretty effective, and it served as a good lesson on how sound - or really any aspect of the arts that comprise film-making - didn't need to be literally reflecting exactly what is happening diagetically in the scene, but can be manipulated and mixed solely to express the subtext of the story being told.

Sound is a dramatic element in the film, just like anything else.

The next story he told was about working with Walter Murch on a film. A sound from a clock-tower needed to be recorded, and the director & producers suggested that they send an intern. Pete was too inexperienced to protest, but fortunately, Murch jumped in and said:

"If you send an intern to go record a sound, you may get the recording... if you're lucky. But if you send an experienced sound designer, the microphone becomes a divining rod."
- Paraphrase of Walter Murch

There's more to being an excellent sound designer than simply generating accurate recordings of specific sounds. Ultimately, Pete Horner went to record the clock-tower and in the process found a range of new opportunities for recordings which ultimately made it into the film.

Happy accidents only really work if you have the skill and knowledge to know them when you see them.

Another excellent piece of advice from this session:

"Take advantage of a film audience's open-state when the house lights go down."
- Pete Horner

As a film-maker, you have a virtually guaranteed moment at the beginning of any film to have the audience's undivided attention. Exploit that opportunity by using that moment to set the tone for the rest of the film.

Pete turned out to be a fountain of interesting quotes like that. His approach to sound design is built around using sound to create auditory poetry.

"The beating of the glass by the moth (wings) can be the chattering of lips... I'm always searching for some kind of sonic metaphor."
- Pete Horner

At one point, highlighting this concept, we were treated to an example of Pete using rattlesnake rattles to replace the sound of rustling leaves outside the Dachau Concentration Camp in the film "Hemingway and Gellhorn". That rattlesnake rattle returns thematically over the course of the movie, wherever there's a need to subtly express violence and danger. 

It is sound design as leitmotif.

"Anger is like a cold front that moves into a human place."
- Pete Horner

Pete was a fantastic presenter and I will be looking out for his work from now on.

Reader Questions: Wireless Microphones for Wedding Videography

Tim asks: 

I do weddings. What's a good wireless mic system to use for that?
Answer:

I started my video production career working for a wedding videography company, so... I'm sorry ;)

But seriously... Here's a system I use and can personally vouch for:

Audio-Technica_1800_ATW-1821_460224.jpg

Audio-Technica ATW-1821

You'll want to mic the groom and the bride as covertly as possible, but this is a great system if you want to be able to get a quality recording from a distance and still be able to move around with the camera. The only downside is that this system will cost $1,200-$1,400. If you're doing this kind of thing a lot, it's definitely worth it.

On the other hand... There are some less expensive options like this Shure BLX188 Dual Wireless System. Stuff like this is going to get you a quality recording, but it's designed to be attached to a stationary soundboard, and the receiver needs to be plugged into an outlet, so you'll either have to have your camera in a stationary place connected to the receiver, or you'll need to record the audio separately and re-sync it with your footage later on. 

Another more affordable option I'd recommend if you're only  recording the bride & groom (or, you know... bride & bride/groom & groom/etc.) when they're performing their vows, would be to rig a shotgun microphone with an XLR-based wireless transmitter above them hanging down, or on a short stand pointing upward between the couple. Audio Technica, Sony, Shure, Sennheiser, etc. all make one-channel transmitter/receivers for between $400-700. 

Unfortunately, usually a boom operator is too intrusive at a wedding, or I'd recommend going with a shotgun and a boom run wirelessly through a single-channel system so that you could follow all that action at the reception as well without being limited only to the featured couple. But a shotgun mounted on the camera works pretty well too!

All that said, I will note that wireless systems can always be a risk as they can be disrupted by other radio signals. This is why I tend to prefer wired set-ups wherever possible.

 

How To Get Organized: DSLR Video Production Kit

As I noted in my first post on getting organized, there are tons of crucial benefits to being well-organized when it comes to producing any kind of media. But strangely, that's one skill typically left out of everyone's formal training on how to get good at film-making and media creation.

There are plenty of areas where people need to get better organized, and I'll cover as many of them as I can in subsequent posts, but it makes the most sense to me to start with the most hands-on part of the process:

Your gear. 

Digital Single-Lens Reflex - or DSLR - film-making has exploded in the last few years, and it has some amazing benefits. Apart from producing high quality, high-resolution images at a fraction of the cost of other professional video recording devices, they're also exceptionally portable. That's why it's become such a popular option for film-makers around the world, and especially for those of us working on a budget.

However, to get the best out of your DSLR videography, the camera itself just isn't enough. You'll need audio recording hardware, cables, lights, memory cards, spare batteries and a means to stabilize the camera itself. And as anyone who's been filming on sets or on location knows, you're also going to need a bunch of adapters and other gear just to be prepared for all the unexpected things that can - and always do - happen when you're out on a gig.

I've been there, and done that... And over time - and many mistakes - I've put together a portable, effective kit filled with most of the gear I need to get almost any job done. 

Check it out: 

CitizenA-production-gear-list.jpg

Although that looks like - and is - a ton  of stuff, it all fits nicely into a single bag... At least, all of it except the actual shoulder-rig, which can actually be easily broken down and stored in a back-pack if you're traveling through an airport or going on a longer trek to your location.

See below:

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What's the point of all this?

The point is to make sure that you are prepared  for any eventuality that might arise while you're out capturing the footage you need, while systemizing your gear so that everything has a place that's easily accessible when you need it.. Having your kit organized simplifies your life, and makes it so that you can grab the bag and run out the door at a moment's notice when you need to.

Plus, when you're not using it, all of your stuff is stored neatly and cleanly away right where you left it.

Now... I know I'm going to get some questions about why I included what I included here, so I want to walk through some of the reasons I've chosen certain things to put in this case over others.

First, let's talk cameras. 

Cameras: 

We'll be talking about other camera options in the future, but as I said above, DSLR's are affordable and they're really great for a ton of environments. They're light, they're small, they accept all shapes and sizes of high quality lenses, and their imaging sensors are unbeatable for the price... which is typically very inexpensive compared to other professional gear.

Problem is... Their audio capabilities are usually horrible, they suffer from severe rolling-shutter problems (which means they usually will need to be externally stabilized), their record-time is highly limited (which is a serious problem for many video production requirements), and in nearly all cases they just can't compete with more professional options in extreme low or high light situations.

Fortunately, there are solutions to (most of) these problems!

Audio Recorders: 

The biggest problem with DSLR cameras is that their built-in microphones are just about useless, and the features they offer for connecting external microphones are minimal at best - typically only a 1/8" stereo input, like the kind of connection you see on a pair of headphones.

We can correct for this problem by purchasing a separate sound recording device that either has higher-quality built-in microphones, or which accept XLR microphone and line inputs. I prefer the TASCAM DR-100 (approx. $330), but many of my colleagues like the H4N Zoom, and some people I know use a JuicedLink box, connected below their cameras.

I prefer the TASCAM because it produces a generally superior quality recording, it has a lot more features, it has better built-in microphones, and it can be more easily converted for use as a small 2-channel field mixer if you have the luxury of a separate production sound mixer/boom operator.

But all are decent options. 

As you can see in the image above, I keep two  DR-100 field recorders on hand, because good audio is a must and having a back-up (that can also be used as a battery charger) is smart - I've learned from painful experience on that one.

Of course... Along with a separate sound reording device, you'll need microphones, cables and other hardware to attach the recorder to your rig.

Microphones: 

Typically, video production sound is captured one of two ways - either with a condenser "shotgun" microphone held on a boom pole, or with lavalier microphones clipped to the subject's clothing.

Sidenote: In Electronic News Gathering (ENG) videography, sometimes reporters will hold a super-cardiod microphone while getting interviews from people on the street - but I will cover that in later posts on understanding differences in microphones.

In my kit, I usually keep a single shotgun microphone (I travel most with a fairly inexpensive one from Audio Technica), and a pair of wired lavalier mics.

I also travel with a wireless XLR transmitter and receiver, in case I need to leave a microphone on or near a subject and still be mobile with the camera. The drawback here is that you're relying on a radio signal to get you the audio you need, and the battery life on wireless gear is notoriously limited.

audio-kit.jpg

I also never leave home without an assortment of audio adapters and several XLR cables. Since I spent most of my earlier career working in the music industry and performing live myself as a drummer and vibraphonist (and classical percussionist), I've built up a great little kit (on right)

It includes different adapters for XLR, RCA, 1/4" mono/stereo, 1/8" stereo mini-plug, and other types of connections. I also keep a spare size "N" battery or two in the kit, for when I need to swap out batteries in my powered shotgun microphones.

Turns out, you can also buy a pre-made audio survival kit from Film Tools for under $100, and I would definitely recommend it.

Especially if you find that you're trying to film different events and get audio from different sources, these adapters can be a life-saver.

...and don't forget the headphones! 

Lenses:

I usually carry two lenses with me at minimum - both zoom lenses, for maximum versatility. One is typically a wider lens that doesn't have a huge magnification range. For this, I find Canon's 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens is a great choice for DSLR film-making.

My other lens is typically a much longer option, for those moments when you need to grab a close-up or capture footage from greater distances. For instance, I also have a less expensive, but still good, Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.5 VC zoom lens, and carry that almost all the time.

Between these two lenses, I can capture a pretty wide range of photography & videography environments.

Again... This is designed for versatility and to be prepared for unknown situations, not for any specific creative shot choices - nor am I suggesting that the lenses I carry are always "the best" possible. If you know the shots you're going to need to get, other lenses may be far more appropriate.

We'll talk more about lenses later on.

Lights: 

This one is a bit trickier, because a professional lighting set-up - which I will definitely  cover in future posts - is one of those things that simply takes up a ton of space and will never be able to fit in this little kit bag. Fortunately, in most amateur and on-the-fly settings, a simple LED video light attached to your camera or held by an assistant works just fine.

Plus they're really inexpensive (less than $50 in some cases!) and easy to find on eBay by searching for "LED video light"

Check out this video I produced for the General Electric corporation lit only with an on-camera LED light:

Apart from the basics (including all necessary chargers, adapters and batteries, etc.), I strongly encourage everyone to carry a few other absolutely essential items if you want to be prepared. 

  • Pens/pencils
  • Small notebook
  • Tape (Duct/Grip/Electrical)
  • A multi-tool with at least pliers, knife/scissors, can-opener & phillips/flat-head screwdriver attachments. 
  • Mini-flashlight (because it's just too easy to lose pieces

But don't forget that the TSA bans knives and other exceptionally useful multi-tools, so be sure to move that into your checked luggage if you're traveling long-distances.

Believe me, they've got no problems confiscating $50+ Leatherman tools. 

Apart from the kit itself, unless you're a professional, you absolutely do not  need a shoulder rig or stabilization system as fancy as mine. When I started with DSLRs, I frequently just used a simple monopod, and connected my audio recorder to the camera's hot-shoe with an adapter. I did this even while working for a news website getting interviews in front of the White House, and most people would never know the difference. 

Eventually, I'll do another post about stabilization, about my rig, and what your other options might be - but right now, I just wanted to show you all the basic organizational system, packing & set-up I use on a day-to-day basis. 


Lastly, you might be wondering: 

Why a tool-bag instead of a camera bag?

My answer is two-fold.

First, tool-bags like the one you see above (made by Husky) are incredibly rugged, well-made and are designed  to carry heavy loads. In addition, the good ones store lots of stuff and they have a ton of pockets, dividers, and work exceptionally well for this kind of all-encompassing video-production kit. 

Second, camera bags tend to be ridiculously - and unreasonably, in my opinion - expensive. For example, Portabrace (one of the leading manufacturers of professional cases for the film industry) makes an 18.5"x12"x9" camera case which is comparable in size to my Husky tool bag. It is softer, has a fraction of the internal pockets, no dividers, and isn't as rigid.

It costs $419.00 - $469.00. 

My bag: $40. I'll leave you to do the math for yourself.


I hope this post helps you get a better sense of the gear you'll need to go out with your DSLR and shoot your own videos.

Just remember: Organization really will set you free.

The better you are at keeping track of everything and being prepared for all kinds of recording environments, the more you can just concentrate on the business of actually creating your videos... And that's what it's all about!

As always with this blog, e-mail me at citizena.media@gmail.com with any and all media production questions, and I'll try to get back to you with an answer!