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Take One - Sound

Chronologically, it now seems an appropriate time to discuss the sound in our films, although in actual fact, this aspect of our movie should be a consideration from the very start when an idea is being conceived.

If we are to shoot outdoors, whether it be for a fiction or non-fiction film, extraneous noise should be a deciding factor in our choice of location. That is of course, if we have a choice! As discussed in my article on locations, noise is a fact of modern life, which we have to contend with as best as we can.

It may be interesting here to look at some of the history of sound for amateurs and with this in mind, let's flashback to 1967. This was the year that I started in this crazy obsessive hobby of film making.

My first purchase was a Eumig Mark “S” Super 8 sound projector priced a penny under £100.00. The projector was the first item bought along with the screen, as I couldn't afford a camera as well at the start. The idea was, that at least we could have film shows by buying “package movies”.

Until I saw the 50ft Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy cut-down reels in the camera shop window, I don't think that I had realised that sound didn't come automatically with the pictures, but had to be recorded separately.

The day that I bought the projector, was memorable for another reason too, I was given a complimentary copy of the magazine “Movie Maker”. It was memorable for two things. one: that this was my introduction to a superb magazine and two it was the only freebie that I ever had from the camera shop!

In these early days, it became clear that sound for the amateur film-maker was a huge problem! Articles regularly appeared between the ads in “Movie Maker” which were aimed squarely at the difficulties with synchronising sound to the pictures. Of course, there were features on exposure and focusing, but sound was the predominant subject that everyone talked and worried about.

“It's sync at last!” would declare the brilliant (Uncle) Ivan Watson, as he revealed details of (yet another) contraption for linking the projector to a tape deck. Clarity or quality of the sound didn't seem to matter quite so much as actually getting lip-sync. The actual process of getting a door-slam to occur on the soundtrack as we saw it on the screen and not two seconds later, was an objective in itself!

The “Mark S” had a sound head to read the magnetic stripe stuck down the edge of the film. Surely this would solve any synchronisation problems as we only had to get it right once and it was there for all time. Ah yes, but it was the once that was still a problem.

My first sound film in1968 was a holiday film made in Blackpool. I bought a portable Sharps tape recorder, which took 3 inch open reel “message” tapes made by Scotch. As I filmed away, someone in the family would stick out their hand holding a plastic microphone recording the sound of the trams or the seagulls on the promenade. My first film was to be a 13 minute long, full-sound epic! (We even included lip-sync introductions made to camera.)

Several weeks later at the dubbing stage, the projector microphone was set up in front of the Radiogram loudspeaker with the tape recorder positioned to one side, set to pause. Sound mixing was achieved by means of the Radiogram volume control, so it was a “simple” matter of lowering the arm on to the record at the right moment as the film reached the end of the leader. Volume was turned down a bit as I released the pause on the tape recorder. “Oops, that wasn't the seagulls, that was the tram sound effects.” The film had to be rewound to the start and cued up again. After several hours working on this short film soundtrack, I soon realised why sound was the big subject that everyone talked about in the magazine!

Enter the Kodak solution to the problem, pre-striped sound film. This, as the opening sentence may have given away, was like “silent” film, only with a magnetic stripe already stuck down the edge, not done after the editing as was the case previously. This now meant we could record sound in the same place as the pictures. At last, we could now have perfect synchronised soundtracks!

Well. That was the theory, only the thing was, the sound was recorded in a different place on the film in relation to the pictures. There was a separation of 18 frames between sound and picture on Super 8 and 54 frames in the case of Standard 8. Sound cameras were also incredibly noisy which meant that the clatter of motor whirring, was picked up by the microphone. It was not the perfect solution we all had envisaged.

Video came on to the amateur scene at the point that I gave it all up. For almost 5 years I withdrew from film-making, disillusioned by the whole business.

When I renewed my interest in 1985 (the fourth phase) Video was beating film slowly but surely into oblivion, as far as most amateurs were concerned, though I hung on with film until 1994.

This was the year of my last film shot on celluloid and the first shot on video . Deception was shot simultaneously on both systems as a test. Thus the movie exists as a film and a video.

Although it seemed in these early days of video, we had lost a lot with inferior picture quality and editing facilities, sound could be vastly superior to what we had had before.

Deception was shot with the on-board microphone. As this was only a test which was never intended to be a serious method of movie making, no consideration had been given to quality sound. I expected that this trial was to be a one off video test, which would never be repeated. Although there was a lot wrong with this primitive video set-up, it seemed much less Heath-Robinson than a lot of what we had had to endure with film. The decision had been made.

For the next film, Grave Doubts, an over indulgent, over long, spoof vampire film, (shot on video) I had bought a Sennheiser directional microphone. The MKE 300 made a big difference to the quality and volume of the sound picked up and recorded by the camera. Following the professionals lead, I had the microphone mounted on a “boom”, actually a broom handle so that we could get in close above the actors' heads.

The only drawback was, that as the Sennheiser is so sensitive (not in a “talk to it nicely or it cries” kind of way) it was picking up handling noise. The boom mike operators' job is not the most fascinating in the World, and often the chosen person would tap the pole out of sheer boredom. It was from this point on that the microphone was mounted on a tripod, un-manned, but NOT unsupervised. I always monitor the sound being recorded on headphones.

If you have ever recorded sound outdoors, you will immediately understand what I am going to discuss when I say ; wind noise! Anything stronger that a light breeze which is powerful enough to lift a dry leaf two millimetres from the ground, will decimate a soundtrack, rendering any dialogue virtually inaudible.

The solution is a suitable wind-muffler. These can be bought off-the-peg to suit your own choice of microphone, but actually, I made my own. All those Cine days of make-do-and-mend had stood me in good stead.

An off-cut of fluffy material bought from a market stall was fitted and stitched around the mike. Tests revealed that wind noise and rumble was dramatically reduced, to the extent that on at least two films we have continued to shoot in almost gale force conditions.

With a good quality microphone, suitably shielded from wind noise and as quiet a place to shoot our film as possible, we now should have the basis of a polished final soundtrack. An extension lead is added to the microphone to get it in close, but without it creeping into the picture. Radio mikes can work very well, but unfortunately my experiments in this area were done with a cheap one which picked up radio interference. Tip: Buy the best you can afford.

The computer can work wonders now as we manipulate the sound, often independently to the pictures.

Live sound is only the first component in our audio mix. We will probably be adding music, supplementary sound effects and, in the case of a documentary, often a voice over commentary. All these should be blended smoothly together into a satisfying whole.

As sounds on the timeline can be seen in a visual representation, it makes all kinds of cheats possible.

Sometimes, even though we may have shot several takes on the shoot of our fictional film, each can be marred by a different problem We can now use elements from different takes to create a new and better shot. As usual, I will give an actual example by means of illustration.

There was one shot in the film The Power of Three shot beside a main road. The house used as our location had been loaned to us and unfortunately, the house and it's garden couldn't be moved to a quieter place.

Our actor, Keith Pottage, is shouting to the woman upstairs (Helen Watson) who is looking out of an open bedroom window.
We had done several takes and ended up with two, which were usable. One was better visually, mainly due to the framing of the shot and the other had a cleaner soundtrack with less traffic noise.

As the spoken dialogue for this section was quite short, I experimented using the pictures from one take with the sound from the other. Lining up the modulations visually is very simple and the original sound can be removed altogether or “turned down”. As Keith is an actor who speaks in a very measured way, that is speed and intonation are identical (unless I request a different approach or style), the two matched perfectly. The traffic was not actually seen in this shot and so visually everything looked perfectly normal with no tinkering being evident.

Similar improvement or rescue operations have been done several times on the computer.

We will explore further possibilities with sound in the next issue placing a special emphasis on choosing music.

- By Ken Wilson (first published in FVM)

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