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Production and the Creative Spirit

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:54AM   |  31 comments
Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

Blog written by Ann Michel and Phil Wilde, coprincipals, Insights International

Is the sound you capture with your flipcam or your camera mic good enough?

Rarely. Why?

Because your ears are incredible filters.

Suppose you are out walking in a park. Your ears will pick out the sounds of birds chirping in the trees, but your mics will pick up the sounds of the cars driving by, the cell phone conversations nearby, your hand, the wind, somewhere a bird, and plenty of other ambient noise. And then mix it all up.

The mic lacks the benefit of your brain's audio filter. Your brain has said to you: those are birds out there. Tune in to only the bird sounds. Everything else is irrelevant.

So, to reproduce the soundscape of the park, the way your ears heard it, and your heart felt it, you go back to your studio. 

And then, you perform a myriad of fascinating manipulations to the sound – re-manufacturing and re-creating what your brain remembers hearing in the park. Sometimes, you end up starting from scratch and playing with sound effects, and music, and crazy digital sounds.
It's another world.

Mix, and re-mix. And re-mix. Then you will have a show.




True, camera mics rarely do pick up good audio. In my experience, I always seem to hear my hand moving on the camera and/or wind drowning out the sounds that I actually want the camera mic to pick up. Of course, I would prefer the noise from my hand and wind to not be on the audio track that the camera mic recorded; but at the same time, I think it is beneficial to record with the camera mic (if that is all that is available to pick up sound while shooting,) because maybe on the off chance some good audio was recorded, it can be used, or if for nothing else, the camera mic audio track can at least be used as a reference for what sounds need to be re-recorded. I really like the idea of reproducing the soundscape--it is an art to be a sound designer, and takes a lot of skill. On the contrary, it seems like the most difficult job in filmmaking, because of the necessity to pay so much attention to detail. If a sound designer is actually going to recreate the sounds at a park, to stay true to it they have to keep track of what they heard while shooting, how they heard it, how it sounded (pitch and amplitude,) and where it was coming from. There's no way that can all be reproduced exactly the way their ears heard it that day, and maybe that is fine; but there is a chance they can come close to the true sound if they take a rough recording with the camera mic they have as a way of taking audio "notes" for what needs to be reproduced. So, a camera mic is not completely useless.

Yes Julie, a camera mic is an excellent way to "take notes". And it would be a mistake to turn it off when recording.
As for the "off-chance" that some good audio would be captured, why take a chance? why not plan for and GET good audio at the time? The convenience and low cost of modern gear allows for the luxury of shooting without much, or even any, pre-planning. But you will pay for this in post. You might find yourself wading through hours and hours of awful audio, looking for that "off-chance" gem. Planning ahead can really pay off.

I agree that a camera mic very rarely picks up good audio, or the correct audio that the director is aiming for. The audio is poor quality, and picks up all the sounds our brain just doesn't notice. This audio noise is very hard, if not impossible to correct in post production. Even if corrected, the quality of sound would be significantly of lesser quality than when recorded. The only time I would suggest using the camera's mic to record audio, is if the filmmaker desired that specific effect. A person making an experimental film may want to play up images with different/unheard of sounds. The audio would be seen as non-diegetic, because the sound would almost not seem to relate to the image and may suggest to the viewer the sound is off screen from another source. A filmmaker using this audio may want their viewers to experience and understand the idea of outside sounds; simple put, what doesn't always meet the eye(ears). The filmmaker could almost portray a theme of things overlooked, forgotten about, etc. This audio would be very useful in this example of an experimental film, however I don't see any other purpose of recording with the camera mic.

Obviously it is very comforting knowing that we can easily manipulate sound to be the way we envision it. It could also lead to lazy sound creations if the person recording the audio doesn't care enough. Perhaps if your idea is in a state where it can be altered, then part of the natural world of the bird chirping includes the cars and the people. (I guess it all depends on what you're going for.)

After reading this post what stuck with me the most was your ending advice, "mix, and remix. And re-mix." Sound mixing an in depth and in someways confusing concept for me but I am really fascinated by the process. Sound mixing often times makes me think of films written by Charlie Kaufman such as "Adaptation" or more recently "Synecdoche, New York." These films to me represent incredibly layered and in someways mesmerizing sound tracks that use unorthodox digital sounds extremely well. While these films represented a good use of sound mixing, is there a point where mixing sound too much can hurt a film? Can the use of too many different noises make a film too heavy or overbearing on a viewer?

What everyone is saying is very true. The brain creates its own sound mix by telling us what the most important thing around us is. If I'm having a conversation with someone in a park, I will hear the voice of the person primarily, but I will also hear the sounds of the birds, other people, cars, etc. So in a movie, it is only natural to hear these things as well, to make the viewer believe the world that they're viewing is real. It's very easy to point out bad audio in a movie, because it is unnatural to our brain, unless that's the desired effect. Does anyone know an example of a film that purposefully eliminates background noise to disorient the viewer?

The re-creation of sound based on a noise that still exists in the present day (like a bird call) is a fascinating, difficult task to complete. I agree with Julie in that there is a lot to think of when reproducing sound, such as how it was heard and where it was coming from, for our environment definitely manipulates the way we hear everything around us even if we can tune in to a specific sound and forget about everything else. To create the perfect sound for a film, I would think it would be of the utmost importance to hear which sound one is re-creating in the setting where it is heard in the film. For example, wikipedia tells me that birds sing louder and at a higher pitch in urban areas because if the ambient low-frequency noise. This must be taken into consideration when re-mixing sound. If the film is set in the country side, the bird calls would have be created with lower volume and most likely a lower pitch. If the director wanted to have the bird call again repeated in the city, a new track would have to be created; the bird calls for the country could not be used for the bird calls in the city.
With all of the new technology we are creating, I am curious to know if any fancy microphones have been made that allow the filmmaker to control the frequency of noise the mic picks up? This way, the microphone could act like a human brain and could focus in on a particular sound. Picking up distinct noises would be easier as long as the filmmaker knew at which frequency the noise was made. This technology would not put sound design artists out of business either, for plenty of noises need to be created that no longer exist today (such as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park).
Cory Dahn, the only film I can think of at the moment that eliminates background noise to disorient the viewer would be in "La Jetee", where occasional sound bits are placed in with the montage of images, such as the German whispering or the chirping birds. I do not know if this even counts because the rest of the film was accompanied by music or voice-over and did not have the natural "sound"track one could find in a typical movie anyway.

Thanks for the response, Ann. Yes, it is logical that pre-planning sound would save a lot of time and sanity; however, I still think it is worth it to look for the "off-chance gem" in addition to pre-planning how the sound from a shoot will be reproduced in the (likely) chance that the camera mic fails to pick up any good audio or you just want to supplement new sounds with the original recordings. It helps when all aspects of the filmmaking process are thoroughly pre-planned, so that hopefully in post-production there will be extra time saved for wading through the audio (in addition to other things) so that a gem is not overlooked. Those gems can have a big impact on a film!

This is so incredibly true, sound is such a sensitive medium in arts industry. When you look at programs like Apple's Final Cut Studio, you notice that in the filters section of final cut there are only a handful of filters for audio and yet there are hundreds of stock filters for video. I went to see the social network the other night and in one scene they are in a club, that was honestly the first scene in that movie where I felt like I was a part of the story as the sound of the bass from the club just enveloped the whole theatre and brought you into the scene. With digital systems, hopefully, one day we will truly be able to capture the beauty of sound and truly bring listeners in.

This topic is very relevant to my life because just last week in cinema production we started learning about recording sound. We used zoom recorders and taped the sounds of the room, and what i noticed most was that i could hear everything. I could hear the sound of someone dropping something from across the room, or the conversation behind me, or the shuffle of someone's book bag. Recording sound is not as simple as it would seem simply because of this- it picks up too much! This is exactly why there are foley artists and why synchronous sounds are added afterwards. It's important to imitate our ear's filter through editing, which could mean removing sounds that would seem like they should be there but actually distract from the important sound, or adding room tone in place of silence. Silence is different than what we perceive it to be, because in reality nothing is ever completely silent.

Creating a sound track would be a very meticulous process. It is hard to make an environment sound real through recording on set. The mic can pick up things that the ear normally would not hear when in that location, or it might miss things whose absence would be noticed. A soundtrack for a feature length film must be mixed and remixed so many times that it is like creating a completely new soundscape from scratch, so that the original recording does not sound like the final one at all. When compared to the three minute films created in class, it is hard to imagine it only being a tiny part of a feature length film.

It is a popular mistake that people assume that the microphone on the camera is good enough. Even if you have an external mic plugged into the camera it still may not be enough. These microphones are usually omnidirectional and have broad pick up patterns. The only problem is if you need to capture a specific concentrated sound it is difficult to do with the microphones on the camera. Like stated in the blog the camera mic mixes all of the natural sounds together and is unrealistic to what our brains make us hear. Using external microphones such as lavaliere mics can concentrate on specific sounds and really help make a film or show stand out above the rest. Quality audio that is done correctly in the field can be the difference maker in getting your show or film broadcasted. The more time one takes on perfecting audio the better off it can be. If you bring as much good audio into the studio to edit the less you have to add SFX and manipulate the sounds. I believe it is better to properly capture sound in the field so that there doesn't have to be as much manipulation and the sound can be as natural as possible.

Camera audio can be useful in many ways. This summer I filmed my friends' band at a Fourth of July fireworks display. Another friend of theirs, who is studying to be a sound engineer, recorded the audio by connecting the sound board to his laptop. Later he asked me if he could have the audio off of my cameras. When I asked him why, he told me that he did not have enough mic cables to record the audience and was hoping to use the camera audio to mix the audience into the background of the music tracks. I have also used the camera audio to synchronize the mixed tracks with my edited video. I admit that the times when audio from the internal camera mic is useful as more than a reference, but it worked out well for my project.

One thing that I find interesting about this topic is that it implies that we are constantly trying to make our film live up to our internal artistic vision. However, even with new, high-tech technology, this is extremely difficult. Our bodies are such incredibly built "machines" that trying to duplicate what we hear or see exactly is near impossible. It takes an astounding amount of editing (or mixing, re-mixing, and re-mixing again) to achieve simple things that we see and hear everyday.

It is quite interesting to hear how subjective our human ears are, especially when compared with the objectivity of a mechanical mic. It is interesting then to think about the assumptions that we bring to our sound mixing. This might create what we perceive to be realism, but can this be called realistic sound mixing?

Yes, mics rarely pick up sound that is free of white/room noise. It picks up other sounds within the room which lessens the prominence of your original sound. In CP1, my teacher said that in order to get the best sound possible you must put the mic up close to your subject and try to drown out any other irrelevant noises in the room by unplugging devices or throwing blankets on objects. Of course, it does help knowing that after recording all your sounds, there is a way to remix and eliminate those recorded sounds in post production.

Our ears are the best recording devices around. It is extremely difficult to duplicate the sounds that we hear onto a recorder. I agree with Meg that it would take numerous amounts of editing to recreate the amazing sounds that we hear on a daily basis. However, is there a way to manipulate other sounds to appear like our everyday world sounds? For example, foley artists are able to create exceptional realism with objects that are not associated with the world outside the studio. Can recording in his way be better than actually going out and putting a mic to the object you are trying to capture?

Hearing is a powerful tool. To be able to manipulate sound is incredible. Especially over lapping sound. I find it fascinating in films how natural it sounds when people are talking and there is a score in the background with foley sounds. As a filmmaker you get to play god and tell the audience exactly how the environment is to be viewed. In theatre shows you can hear different things in different spots, see what you want your eye to see, but in film its handed to you. I appreciate the sounds in film just as strong as I do the visual but i think you have a lot of control and manipulation thats defiantly fun to experiment with.

I find it extremely fascinating the lengths we go to to recreate the physical world through cinema. While what we see as the final cut of a film appears as a realistic representation of reality, in actuality it is far from it. Each audio track is a compilation of natural, man made, and digital tracks, fused together to simulate what our ears hear in reality. So much for trusting what we hear.

I found this posting to be extremely interesting. I never really thought of how a human perceives sound in everyday life versus how a mic picks up that sound. Since tools such as final cut are used to manipulate the sound the mic picks up, it comes off as close to what the person observes through selective hearing. I always found tools on final cut used to correct audio and video as an easy way out and options that should only be used if absolutely necessary. For example in the case of sound, if a person is careful on the shoot to use a specific type of mic they can avoid having to overly manipulate the audio.

I have only recently had experience using mics or recording devices, but i have found that the quality is not great. Recording sounds indoors is a lot easier because you do not have to factor in the effect of wind or other outside sounds that are out of our control. I do not think there is any easy way to perfectly record, say a branch snapping outside, like a human ear hears it. However, I have learned that it is simpler sometimes to fake a sound, or in other words use a sound for something different than it actually is.

This post acts as evidence to the idea that I am discussing in my Non-Fiction Film Theory course taken with Professor Zimmerman. We are working with this idea that nothing is natural and that everything is manipulated or constructed. We see this everywhere in film--in Nanook of the North (Flaherty) the "authentic" igloo we see is actually constructed for the film, for example. This post exemplifies that even though we see "nature," the sound behind it is manipulated or constructed for the film.

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