The sound quality of a movie is the single most important thing to focus on. Audiences will tolerate inferior image quality if the sound is perfect, but they will not tolerate a perfect visual image if the sound is inferior. Naturally, you want to have both the image and the sound as perfect as possible, but if you must throw more money into one or the other jars—pick the sound jar.
When I started out in the business there were specialty sound houses that produced and edited a movie’s sound. Even if you had no money, it still cost around $50,000. Of course, back then, we were shooting on film and had to imprint the final sound onto celluloid. Today, since film is obsolete, and almost everyone can get a copy of ProTools, it’s possible to get the same level of sound quality those sound houses provided for a fraction.
I can’t remember all their names, but Lisa Hannan and Paul N. J. Ottosson worked at that sound house who did the post sound on my first film PEP SQUAD. They were both incredibly nice people and also very talented. I remember telling them I wanted my sound design to rival that of THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, that surprisingly cool movie with Geena Davis. They agreed it would, and they did it, and the sound in PEP SQUAD is phenomenal.
Paul and I have continued to work together many times over the years, and he won back-to-back Oscars in Sound for THE HURT LOCKER and again for ZERO DARK THIRTY. He’s the best in the business, and the lessons he taught me are immeasurable.
I’ll mention one thing he taught me during the post sound in WATCH OUT. There’s a hilarious scene with Peter Stickles at a Lobster restaurant where the production sound had an echo to it (either because the boom wasn’t placed in the right location, or for whatever other reason). On the reverse angle, the production sound of the other character, played by Matt Riddlehoover, was not nearly as echoey. Instead of removing the echo from Peter’s shots, Paul added more echo to the reverse shot. So the echo matched.
That is one lesson I loved, and that never occurred to me before. You don’t have to have crystal clear sound, you just need to make sure the sound goes by smoothly so the audience doesn’t get sonically jarred from shot to shot, or scene to scene. I then remembered all the “bugs” and “weather” sounds Paul used in my film FIRECRACKER. Instead of removing the bugs, they added more.
It’s about how to take what would normally be considered an error, or a sonic mistake, and using creativity to solve the problem. If you use this way of thinking, and have taken good steps during production to insure you’ve got at least a good foundation to your sound, you, like me, will never need to do any ADR. I remember Paul telling me that my production sound on FIRECRACKER was better quality that the production sound in the blockbuster SPIDERMAN 2, which required a ton of ADR, and also for which he was also nominated for an Academy Award.
Another trick I learned about sound, is that if you remove the bass from the dialogue, it’s easier to hear. Try this next time you’re in your car listening to NPR. Put the bass and treble at equal, listen for a bit, then remove just a small bit of the bass. See what I mean? Or, rather, hear what I mean?
It’s also fun to play around with Foley. And sometimes the absence of Foley. In FIRECRACKER I wanted to have the mother’s character (played by Karen Black), have really heavy Foley – like the gravity in her world was intense. On the flip-side, I wanted them to remove all the feet Foley when it came to the carnival world, so when the carnival singer (also played by Karen Black) walked across the room, it was as if she were floating, feet never touching the ground. Of course, that is all absorbed subconsciously. Most viewers never notice those kinds of things. But, they’re fun to play with.
Creating sonic landscapes is just as much fun as creating the visuals. Remember this next time you’re watching a movie, or making one of your own.