July, 2001

Acoustic Perspective

July 6th, 2001 July 6th, 2001
Posted in Film making
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Last Train is at the printers! This means that in a few days I’ll have a grading print ready to look at with the cinematographer and we can have one of those creative arguments where I will inevitably be right. I’m always right. It’s a burden but I bear it. He will want to change things so they look perfect for his showreel. I will want to change things so they reflect the requirements of my vision about the story. I will be right.

Actually, I will be right for two reasons. One, I have a feeling for these things and can’t help myself. Two, I’m paying. I tell you, if the cinematographer is prepared to stump up half the printing costs then I would be inclined to go with what he wanted. I will still listen to him and take his opinions into account. But I’m paying the piper, so I call the tune.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading up about surround sound because I have strongly suspected for some time that Michelle, the rerecording mixer on my other film Fate & Fortune, is feeding me BS. I don’t think this is deliberate on their part, I just get the feeling that there are gaps in her knowledge. She’s telling it like it is as she understands it, but she doesn’t understand enough.

For instance, last time I was sitting in the dubbing theatre, she said things like the audio “tends to suck towards the centre”. I automatically thought about the time this is all taking tending to suck. But what she meant was that because we recorded with a mono mic, the sound will tend to be mono. Hmmm… okay… But I was sceptical. Then she said the same thing about the music. Even though the music is a stereo mixdown, “the instruments are mono so they’ll tend to suck”. She did one of those ‘the fish was this big and getting smaller’ gestures with both hands to illustrate. Hmmmmmmm…

Okay, so why does a stereo recording sound so much bigger and better than a mono one? Eh? Why not just make mono CD’s for music? The answer, my notyet but soontobe enlightened chums, is that stereo incorporates the sound of the room to envelop the listener in a fuller sound. It includes the echoes and reverberations from the walls, the ceiling and other objects in the space where the performance was recorded. All those things together are called the room acoustic.

Acoustic perspective is what gives a picture depth. Your ear picks up depth cues from the sound. Your brain interprets the difference between a direct sound (eg. from someone’s mouth) and the reflected sounds (eg. their voice bouncing back from the walls). From this you can close your eyes and get a feeling for how large the room is and how far someone is from you.

So, the reason a 5.1 surround mix sounds better than a straight stereo mix (and not just a mono playback) has a lot to do with acoustic perspective. It has a lot to do with adding reverberation and echo effects and trimming out sounds that would be absorbed by reflective surfaces and sending those signals to the appropriate different channels in order to give a feeling of room acoustic. It also has to do with putting different effects on different channels (left, right, front, back) and with how the sound of all these things envelops the listener.

Now I suspect those of my enlightened chums who have been paying attention to previous posts can guess where all the talk of reverberation is headed.

Yes, I remember very vividly the hour and half wasted trying to get the rerecording mixer to match the room acoustic on my actor’s redubbed voice last time we had access to the studio. After much sweat (and inner tears) we ended up with a man in a small kitchen space sounding as if he was in the Taj Mahal. This strongly led me to believe that the Michelle didn’t really understand the finer points–the rococo intricacies if you will–of using the very expensive effects and processing unit. Now I have to consider that she actually doesn’t have much of a clue beyond driving the desk (which is an art in itself to be fair).

If most of a surround mix is based on adding reverb effects and modifying sound in different channels rather than just panning sound off to the left and right, front or back, then I suspect I may be barking up the wrong tree using this person. And so… teeth gritted… I’m thinking I need to get the DAT dialogue tapes back from her… and ask her to lay off (ie. record on new tapes) any effects and foley (footsteps) that she wants included in the final mix. And I need to take all that to someone else. Otherwise the sound will indeed tend to suck, and not only in the way she meant.

Sigh. Michelle won’t be happy. But then again she’s had a year and so far no mix anyway. I’m hardly delighted. Sigh again. Slowly grindingly slowly it all falls into place. And the echoes of that falling can be heard all around me. Still, at least I got hold of the editor this morning and we spoke of my need for a new EDL before he disappears to the States next week. Phew. It could happen. Oh yes it could!

So, one of my friends suggested that I learn to drive the sound desk myself. Funnily enough, I was seriously thinking about this the other day. I’ve driven a sound desk before but that was for simple stereo mixes and it was all manual. None of this computerised fader malarky. When you start getting into six output channels plus auxiliary sends and effects processors, it all starts getting very complicated. Nevertheless, it is fascinating so, who knows, maybe I’ll look into it. Whether I do or not, your comments are still appreciated.

One thing that does occur to me is that any piece of film-making technology can be endlessly fascinating. I love cameras, lighting, graphics, scriptwriting and sound. I also enjoy some elements of production–mainly when I pull off the seemingly impossible. However, films to me are stories about people and I really want to stay focussed on that, which means focussing on the characters and the narrative.

That, for me, remains the essential part of film making. To tell stories. Yes, to do with as much art as possible, but essentially, it’s about stories.

I once said to my editor/composer friend Andy that the most important thing in a film is the script. After that it’s the casting. If you get the script and the casting right you can shoot it on a camcorder with no lights and low production values. He barely paused before coming back (in his shy retiring way) with, “No. Actually. Everything is important. The sound, the picture, the editing, the music, the graphics. It’s all important. It all conveys emotional messages and it all tells the story. You have to pay attention to the details.”

Andy is right. Everything *is* important. It all contributes to the perception, to the art of film making. Yet the art serves the story, not vice versa.

What I really want to do is work with creative people who really understand their craft rather than trying to take on every job, although it is always a tempting option. I’ve also been thinking I want to operate the camera myself on more projects and direct from that position. Whenever I’ve done camerawork for TV in the past, it’s just seemed like the most natural thing in the world to direct the action with the clearity of vision that looking through the viewfinder.

Sitting in the director’s chair is incredibly frustrating when I want to just lean over and tweak something myself and hold up my hands in horror when someone can’t get the effect I want. However, rather than trying to take on all the roles myself, if I can keep my perspective and have at least a good understanding of how things work, then I should be able to direct and motivate other people to create what I need.

It’s a lot to do with planning and having a strong vision to start with. The more effort I put into each stage, the easier it is to communicate what I want to other members of the team. And getting results out of that communication is, I think, the real art.

One of things I wanted to learn through making these films was how certain parts of the industry operate. Okay, I realise I’m not getting a wholly realistic impression here working on a low budget and asking favours. Yet still I feel I must practice my art of delegation because I know it’s an issue with me. So, yes, there are inevitably compromises in my vision but what I want is to be able to work with a large professional crew in the future and have as few compromises as possible. In this sense, I practice my art too.

Sure, I’d love to learn to drive the desk and take time out to learn to mix surround sound for myself. There is a whole career niche there which I’ve never explored. Surround will eventually be a part of television production and those who know about it will be at a premium.

Yet I have to stop and ask myself, “Is this what I want to do?” Hmmm. Because you see, I find more and more that what I want to do is tell stories, communicate, create some kind of art and through that art reach people. And effect change in people’s perceptions. This is one of the things that attracts me to posting on the Fool boards too (not that I set out to shift perceptions very often but it is there and sings a siren song too).

So, I reflect that I want to tell stories and reach as wide an audience as possible. And so I need to equip myself with the skills to do that. And one of those has to be delegation. It is an art and, though it pains me to learn it–far more than learning to drive the deliciously complex and evocative mixing desk would–learn it I must. Meanwhile I come here and bitch about it and then go and learn what else I need to know in order to move on. It is a balancing act between learning enough of the skill to do what needs doing and learning how to motivate others.

I know I’m arguing for my own limitations here but oddly that is actually a necessary thing. There is a great truth that the secret of art is limitation. Take any two primary coloured pigments and you get a beautiful secondary but if you keep mixing more you inevitably end up with a muddy shade of brown. Go too far beyond melody and harmony and you can end up with cacophony.

Each of these little films is really an initial mutant pancake to prepare the griddle for the perfect mixture still to come. I always try to be as open as possible to listening to advice although I don’t always take it. Sometimes I just wanna try it the Keith way and screw up and learn from those mistakes because that’s important too.

I was talking about this to a girlfriend and she remarked that initial pancakes are still soul feeding. I hope so. My short celluloid cinematic offering Last Train is intended to be dark and nasty and disturbing and a little haunting for all that. Nevertheless we define what is acceptable and what it means to be alive by such stories as this. It is not all joy and light and happy clappy songs and ohm Hare Krishna big smile instant love in this world. So I hope my mutant pancakes will be soul-feeding, thought-provoking, although I cannot promise they will be instantly gratifying.