Post-Production Sound for Filmmakers: Frequently Asked Questions

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Post Production Sound for FilmmakersHiring/Bids

When should I get a bid for post-production sound on my project?

Either while you’re in editorial or after you’ve locked picture. Anyone giving you a fair bid will want to see some footage and get a sense for sound coverage and quality. Sound shouldn’t start working til picture is locked (unless there’s a tight deadline and the sound team is doing it to get ahead).

The advantage of hiring a sound crew before you lock is they can watch the rough cut and flag scenes for rough audio, ADR, or sound design. There might be places you want to make picture changes based on that feedback.

If I’m not working with a studio, should I try to hire people individually for a sound team?

No. It’s much better to hire someone to act as a sound supervisor who can coordinate a team. A lot of times the re-recording mixer doubles as the sound supervisor. There’s also mixers who do every part of the process (like myself).

If you know people you want to be apart of the sound team, that’s great – but there still needs to be a conversation about details with the sound team as a whole. It really isn’t best for the project to have a dialog editor or sound designer working when there’s no re-recording mixer hired. Part of what a good sound editor will do is prep per the instructions of the mixer.

I’ve also had picture editors say they’ve finished a dialog edit and therefore the project doesn’t need a dialog editor. There’s picture editors who are fantastic with audio but there’s limitations to video software that we don’t have in audio software (we can move audio in quarter frames and have much more sophisticated fade options, for example).

What should I say to get a bid?

Here’s what not to say: “I have a 90 minute drama. Can you tell me how much the sound will cost?” If you do this and someone actually gives you a number, don’t hire them. No sound person (who knows what they’re doing) can give a fair and accurate bid without knowing basic details and looking at the material. Every project is different and the audio involved is different.

Sometimes people use the wrong terms or are looking for something very different from what they ask for. For example, the terms “sound fx” and “Foley” get confused sometimes. Sometimes people say they need a sound mixer when they need a re-recording mixer (“Sound mixer” is for production and “re-recording mixer” is for post-production).

A basic list of questions a sound person will ask:

  • When’s your deadline?
  • Do you want the mix in stereo or 5.1?
  • What is the project for? (film festival submission, screening, broadcast tv, web, etc)
  • Did you have lav coverage on everyone throughout?
  • If there’s a distribution deal or it’s for broadcast, who’s it for and what are the delivery specs/requirements? (They may want extra versions or M&E or tasks that will take extra time beyond the mix)
  • What would you like to do (or not do) if the budget allows? ADR, Foley, etc?
  • Is there anything you know will need extra time/attention or may have quality issues?

Should I share my budget?

Personally, I like to know what you’re looking to spend (or price range) up front. That allows me to cater any options, crew, and studio rental costs to what is the most practical for your budget.

What can affect the cost of a project?

  • Deadline – Does it need done in a few days or months?
  • Production dialog quality – how much is noisy, is there mic coverage on everyone
  • Level of detail – Do you just want a quick clean-up or the full makeover package (ADR, Foley, sound design, backgrounds, etc)?
  • 5.1 or stereo (5.1 may require more sound design and dialog work)
  • Content. If it’s an action film with wall to wall fighting or aliens taking over the Earth, it’ll probably take more time than a “walk and talk” love story.

What can cause my project to be turned away completely?

  • Camera mic (internal). If your film is shot all on camera mic, sorry. It’s sad to see projects that look great and are good stories but sound like a home movies.
  • Genre. There’s not a lot of genres or content people turn away outright but there are some (like porn, horror, or certain types of violence). It’s not personal and as a filmmaker in these genres you probably know about it already. I don’t like (or watch) horror movies and I’ll be honest about it – “Since I don’t watch this genre I’m probably not the best person for the job. I’m happy to recommend someone who might be.”

I don’t think anyone would openly say they don’t want to work on a project cause they just don’t like it. In actuality, I think everyone asks “Is this something I want to spend my time on?” and there has to be something compelling to make it worth it.

Hacks to save on cost

  • Be flexible on time, if you can. I’m more willing to give a deal if I can work on something at times more convenient to me even if it takes a bit longer.
  • Let your crew work unsupervised until they need you. A lot of questions can be answered by phone, email, or with Quicktimes. Sometimes having a client around too soon or too much can slow things down a lot.
  • If you can’t afford a studio for the whole project, work with an independent/home studio and rent studio time at the end for a screening (where you can take notes).
  • Work in phases. Do a basic mix for your festival submission and a second round for your festival screenings (more on that below).
  • Keep re-edits to a minimum. Every time you have to conform audio to new picture it’s labor costs that could go into something else (like sound design).

Working with Sound

How good does sound need to be for festival submission?

It’s ok for a mix to be temp for submission (no one is going to be watching on 5.1 in a theater at this point). But, having a professional do some work on it will make it noticeably better.

What I suggest to filmmakers (whose goal is film festivals) is to do a basic sound edit cleanup and a stereo mix. All of this work can be built upon anytime later. Once you are accepted into a festival, then do a 5.1 mix (and any extras – sound design, Foley, ADR). That’s really putting your best foot forward to landing a distribution deal.

I’ve never worked on a movie where the edit stayed the same between festival submission and festival screening. It’s very common to make edit changes. So, working in phases also minimizes the cost and time that goes into doing and redoing work.

When you hire a professional sound person (or sound team) for post-production sound, what materials will they need?

  1. An AAF of the sequence. This is how we get all of the audio regions, edits, fades, track organization, and everything else from video software (like Media Composer or Adobe Premiere) to audio software (typically Pro Tools).
  2. A Quicktime of the picture with burn-in timecode and two pops at the top and tail. Please use compression (no one wants to download a 100 gig video!). Don’t use H.264 since sync isn’t frame accurate.

If everything is done correctly, the crew should just be able to open the AAF, drop in the Quicktime so the timecode matches, double check the two-pops, and start working.

Why do you need an AAF?

With an AAF, we can see all your edit points, cross fades, and have some extra media (file handles) in case we need to adjust. If all the audio is mixed down, we’re limited how to fix a bad edit or clipped dialog. For example, if you put in a fade out by accident, we can’t bring the audio back. With an AAF, we can.

How organized does the audio need to be in the picture sequence?

The more organized it is, the faster a sound editor can start working. But, it’s more a courtesy than a necessity. Sometimes it’s not feasible and that’s totally cool. However, if it’s a complete jumbled mess that’s going to take days to sort through, I might ask if someone back on the video side can take a look at it.

Ideally, we want to see the tracks divided by element and all the elements on the correct tracks. For example,

  • A1, A2 – Voiceover
  • A3-A6 Dialog
  • A7-A10 Music
  • A11-A20 Sound FX

The order of elements doesn’t matter. The number of tracks doesn’t really matter, either (if there’s 4 dialog tracks or 10). Where it gets problematic is if you have dialog on the music tracks (or other mixups like that). If the music editor isn’t the same person as the dialog editor, it’s possible for an editor to not see that there’s a region missing.

The only other thing that helps us out a lot is to keep everything in pairs (starting with an odd number). I’d prefer stereo music on tracks 1-2 and 3-4 versus tracks 1-2 and 2-3. I’d like to have all the mono sound fx on different tracks than the stereo sound fx tracks.

How do you want your dialog organized?

If you go reading online (or even on this blog) we get into different styles of dialog editing (like checkerboarding or A/B). This really applies only to the dialog editor – not to the picture editor. Even if a picture editor were to do this it’s possible a sound editor would redo it all.

The thing a picture editor (or AE) can do is make sure the same mic stays on the same track through a scene. If there’s two characters on lavs, we don’t want them switching tracks mid-scene. If there’s 8 mics (and lavs for everyone through a scene), we don’t want to see a character switch from track 1 to 5.

I also like getting the editor’s select tracks and all of the alts, when possible. This way, if there’s a problem with a mic the editor selected, I can easily listen to all the alts to see if there’s something better. Most of the time a good editor will select the mic I want to use but occasionally there’s something better (or solves a problem differently).

Why is a two-pop so important?

It helps us troubleshoot problems. For example:

  • Problems with sync. Is it just a shot or scene out of sync or is the whole film drifting?
  • If there’s a dropout or problem with the Quicktime we received.
  • If we’re working in reels, two-pops help us assemble the film back together (how do you know where the first frame of picture is when it’s black or there’s no audio?)
  • It helps guarantee that when sound and color come back together, timing should match up (if there’s not, there’s a new problem to troubleshoot)

Why do you want timecode when giving notes?

We probably don’t know the material as well as you do and even if we do, having timecode saves time. Do you want directions to my studio like, “Take a right at the end of the block and look for the white fence. It’s a half block down by the cracked sidewalk and next to the blue house…”

What is temp love?

When you’ve heard a temp mix in the edit bay a thousand times, anything new the sound crew does can sound jarring.  There’s times where the sound crew did something that sounds significantly better but a filmmaker or picture editor want to go back to how it was in the temp. It could be temp love versus listening objectively.

Picture editors vary on how protective they are of sound fx they added. Some expect you’re going to swap out everything and others don’t want you touching the sounds at all. I respect that an editor took the time and care to add sound fx. But, at the same time, an editor might have picked a sound from a handful of options where as I might have hundreds in my sound fx library (sounds like doors opening/closing and whooshe come to mind). If something is lo-fi or dated and I know I have something better, I’m going to try swapping it out.

We also do “sweetening,” which is leaving in what the picture editor did and adding supporting sounds. An explosion, for example, could have added rumble, debris, glass breaking, and other sounds to fill it out a bit more.

Sometimes I’ll send out a mix for review before we watch it in the studio just so a filmmaker (or editor) can get familiar with the material. It can take a couple viewings to get used to hearing something new and that’s totally normal. That can help separate whether you like a sound because you’re used to it or because what was in the temp actually is better.

 

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