How can you achieve good audio for your film or video project?
For many indie film-makers or video producers, they are acutely aware that sound production can become challenging when you do not have the budget of major film studios.
But is it really so?
Truth be told, it doesn’t matter whether you are producing film for Hollywood or working on your own indie project in hope it gets picked up by Netflix.
To have enough budget for sound for your film or video project is almost always a luxury.
Whether you are working with a $10000 or a $100000 budget for sound, at the end of the day, it’s reduced to being a choice depending on your priorities.
A choice between having a composer to create the music, or using tracks from stock music library…
… Between having a foley artist / sound designer or digging into sound effects library to add sonic textures to your scenes…
… Between having it professionally mixed at a studio, or figuring out the audio-post process on your own.
So a better question to ask might be:
“How can you keep your budget lean enough to create decent, professional audio that doesn’t compromise the quality and creativity of your project?”
I have often talked about how modern day production demands of indie film-makers or video editors their capabilities to take care of the sound recording or production process on their own.
More often than not, video editors are doubling up as sound editors during the post-production phase — not by choice, but simply because “sound” is often the neglected child or sacrificial lamb when your team is working on a lean production budget.
However, a lean budget doesn’t mean your film or video has to be let down by poor audio.
A case-in-point would be the film Jimami Tofu, produced by the team of Jason Chan and Christian Lee from BananaMana Films on a modest budget of USD$350,000.
Jimami Tofu tells the story of a Singaporean chef Ryan and his romance with the cuisine of Okinawa and two women is scheduled for a Singapore premiere this week after its debut last November at the Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF).
With their vision firmly focused on creating English-language Asian content for global distribution, BananaMana Films has constantly reinvented their film and video production approach in a bid to shorten the production cycle and to keep the budget lean.
What intrigues me of course is how sound production could be optimized on a lean budget without compromising the required standards for broadcast distribution and theatrical releases.
Sound-wise, Jimami Tofu, being BananaMana Films’ first full-length feature film production, represented a step up from their previous productions to record and produce in surround format.
We’ve seen how poor sound can ruin a great story or kill an indie film’s chances at getting into film festivals or getting picked up for distribution.
As SXSW Film Festival head producer Janet Pierson once explained, a film with great story or cinematography would not be selected for premiering if the sound wasn’t up to standard.
“You can have funky images, it can be shaky, focus can be off, but the sound has to be of a quality that makes the film watchable.” – Janet Pierson, SXSW Film Festival Head Producer
Looking at the accolades and distribution deals the film has picked up since its world premiere at HIFF, Jimami Tofu is perhaps BananaMana Films’ proof-of-concept of how the film industry could be “disrupted” in years to come, via a business model typical of lean startups.
Their production approach may look unorthodox to traditional film practitioners from the outside. But Jason and Christian have been very generous in sharing their workflow to industry peers and I think there are many tips that we could use to make the filmmaking or video production process more cost-effective.
If you are looking at how you can achieve better sound for your production on a lean budget, here are five insights I’ve gleaned from their production philosophy and workflow in Jimami Tofu that you might find useful for your next project.
#1. Appreciate the importance and function of sound in films
As Jason explained during a sharing session at Broadcast Asia 2017, “performance is visual plus sound”.
You can’t expect to produce a great film without giving as much emphasis to sound as you would for the visual aspect.
Sound is 50 percent of the movie going experience, and I’ve always believed audiences are moved and excited by what they hear in my movies at least as much as by what they see. – George Lucas
As a filmmaker, it’s important to appreciate how both the visuals and audio work together in bringing across your story to your audience.
It’s common to see producers getting caught up with camera angles, lighting, lenses to capture the best visual footage for their projects, while taking a care-less attitude towards sound recording, thinking that the sound will take care of itself.
Sadly, as Russ Hughes points out, “sound never takes care of itself“.
One extreme scenario of such thinking would be to commit available resources for shooting in 4K, and yet use only lavaliers to record audio on set for a film – because “there was no budget to hire a boom operator”.
Understanding and prioritizing the importance of audio in your film or video project is the first key mental shift a filmmaker or video producer should make.
Otherwise, the way sound has been taken for granted during the production will almost certainly translate into your final cut, no matter what size of a budget you had to work with.
#2. Adopt an “audio-first” approach on the set
An “audio-first” approach on set follows naturally once you have an appreciation of the importance of sound for your film.
BananaMana films learnt very early on when they were working on their first drama series “What Do Men Want?” that you could waste a lot of time and money in post-production if you did not get the audio recorded right during the shoot.
There’s very little you or even an audio house could do when the recorded dialogue is intelligible or ruined by excessive background noises.
ADR is never as realistic, unless you are willing to spend more in post than actually trying to get it right at source. Even then, it still cannot match the power and immediacy of a well-recorded performance on set.
Instead, by adopting an “audio-first” approach or “audio-prioritized” approach on the set, you are making sure that both the visual and auditory aspect of a great performance are taken care of during the shoot, saving your precious time later during post-production phase that could be better spent on the creative aspects of editing.
To facilitate such an audio-first approach, what BananaMana Films did was to burn (record) the audio signals directly into the video during filming. This allowed them to immediately review each and every take for both visual and audio performance.
If the audio recorded was not optimal due to some unwanted noise or ruffling, they would quickly go for a retake rather than contemplate “fixing it in post”.
This audio-first mentality was so pervasive that upon shouting “cut” for a scene, their immediate default action would be to turn to the sound recordist and ask, “was the audio ok?”
Jason quipped that such preferential treatment given to the sound crew in Japan made the sound guys somewhat uncomfortable at first, as it was against the norm of how they would generally be treated on sets.
Patience on the set is sometimes rarely accorded to the sound guy for properly setting up his rig and testing the gain or levels.
I know many sound guys who sometimes have to take calculated gambles on set to save time, or deliberate whether to call out for a halt to double check his audio takes for some noises they might have heard in their monitoring cans.
If we could give location sound guys a bit more latitude and voice on set to express themselves during the production, what we get in return is an improvement in performance (remember, performance is visual plus audio).
And you would save yourself a lot of heartaches and caffeine during audio-post.
#3. Articulate your creative vision to the sound crew.
Everyone on the set wants to help realize the creative vision of your film or video.
Share with whole film crew your audio-first approach and why getting good sound on the set is so important for the production.
Sound is so taken-for-granted by many creative producers these days that I would imagine nothing invigorates your sound crew more than letting them know your appreciation for the importance of their work in relation to your vision for the film.
If you are working with experienced and professional sound guys, the difference to the end results you could achieve is huge.
You may be concerned about keeping the budget lean, but consider the fact that most professional sound guys would have with them a better arsenal of recording gear that are a notch up in terms of quality.
These include different utility microphones from makers like Sanken, Schoeps or Neumann which are not commonly nor cheaply available from cine-production gear rental companies here.
More importantly, capturing good audio on set involves using the appropriate microphones and miking techniques that match your framing and flow of your scenes.
Even having just one professional sound guy on your team would help you eliminate a lot of “guesswork” (and potential disasters) in making sure you get the dialogue and “life-savers” wild tracks that you need for post-production surround mixing.
#4. Being flexible enough to change your framing or even location when the sound isn’t working
Being meticulous during pre-production by planning and testing your shots at specific locations like what Jason and Christian did will help save you a lot time during the actual shoot.
And this should also include paying attention to the ambient sounds at the locations during your pre-production recce.
But remain prepared that even the best-laid plans can go out of the window during the actual shoot.
In Jimami Tofu, there was this particular scene that took place at a popular farm in Okinawa. Location sound recording became a challenge during the actual shoot as there were tour buses arriving and leaving the place constantly.
Shooting the entire scene in one flow using medium-shot framing as planned was impossible without the sound being interrupted by noisy bus engines.
So rather than opting for the audio to be fixed or replaced (ADR) in post, what they did was to wait for moments of “quietness” to re-record certain parts of the affected dialogue using close boom-miking (which helps maintain consistency in the audio tone and perspective).
But it was hard for the re-dubbed dialogue to sync up well with the original footage.
The same scene was thus also reshot using a long-shot framing so that they would have the necessary footage available in post as replacement frames where the overdubbed dialogues had to be dropped in.
As you can see in this short clip here, what they have in the end was an authentic and coherent performance, edited and spliced together in less time than you would cleaning up noisy audio or bringing the actors back during post-production to replace the dialogue in a studio environment.
The key is in remaining flexible enough to adapt to the “sounds” of your environment and changing your framing or workflow whenever necessary.
Based on Jason’s personal experience, “in a lot of situations, it is always easier to reframe your camera for the boom, rather than re-mike the scene for your camera angle”.
#5. Visualize your scenes in sound, not just in pictures.
It’s a natural instinct for filmmakers to map out their story in visual form.
But going a step further to visualize your scenes in sound can prove useful in many ways, including keeping your budget lean.
There is a scene in Jimami Tofu that takes place during a typhoon.
Trying to recreate a typhoon scene in the traditional way would involve renting some wind and rain power machines.
But what BananaMana Films did was to plan the scene in terms of sound and create sounds on set to suggest the impact of a big typhoon that was taking place.
Here’s a clip of Christian shaking the door panels and banging his fists furiously at wooden beams while the sound crew recorded some wild audio tracks that would “simulate” sounds for the typhoon scenes.
I hope these 5 insights on the audio production aspect of Jimami Tofu are useful for you as a filmmaker or video producer to appreciate that prioritizing audio in your production workflow is a key to better productions.
Doing so not only saves you money and time during post-production, but would also help capture more authentic and realistic performances that serve as your foundation for better story-telling.
Time in post should be more effectively spent on creative aspects like sound design, music scoring and surround mixing, instead of cleaning up noisy dialogue or rescuing bad audio.
If you are interested in learning more on How to Make Your Videos Sound Great For Film, Broadcast and Online, we have more resources in the pipeline here.