SOUND MAKES A MOVIE

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  Today, since film is obsolete, and almost everyone can get a copy of ProTools, it’s possible to get the same level of sound quality those sound houses provided for a fraction.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.

GIVE THEM A NAME

When you’re writing a screenplay, it’s a good idea to name each character who has a line of dialogue.  Even if it’s just the “Workman” or the “Church Lady.”  I think every role deserves a personality even if their characters names aren’t ever spoken.  It’s a good habit to build.  Why?

Actors like to have names.  It’s much more fun to be in a movie when you’re playing “Cheryl” instead of “Woman #3.”  Furthermore, it looks better on the actor’s resume if they played a person who is named, instead of playing a mere number.  Think about it from the standpoint of a director or producer.  When you’re trying to find the best actor to play the “Bartender,” do you pay more attention to actors who have played “Man 2” or those who have a part called “Carl” on their resume?

Which resume below suggests a better actor?

FILM                                ROLE
Night of the Bees . . . . . . Jackie
Hungry In Love . . . . . . . Rose
Tomorrow, My Sweet . . Kathy

Versus:

FILM                                ROLE
Night of the Bees . . . . . . Woman in Alley
Hungry In Love . . . . . . . Flower Shop Employee #2
Tomorrow, My Sweet . . Travel Agent

Unless the actor is playing “Man 2” in the latest Spiderman movie, chances are the movie titles on people’s resumes won’t mean much.  For a big budget studio action movie, they probably see thousands of men for “Man 2,” so if this guy got picked, he must be great!  Whereas, say the actor played “Man 2” in a no-budget indie that you’ve never heard of… what message does that send?  Did they use him because they couldn’t get anyone else, or is he a decent actor?  Now, if he’d played “Roger” in that same indie movie, I’d be more apt to consider him.

When I’m casting a new movie, budget or no-budget, I always make sure to go through the script and give every character a name whenever possible.  I understand when there’s a scene, say, involving a drug bust, it would become problematic to name every single policeman in the scene.  So in that case, it’s okay to refer to the group as “Policemen.”  But, if there are a couple cops that have a line or two, why not give them names?  Officer Thad, or Officer Dave looks a lot better during your end credits, and also on their resumes, than Officer 1 and Officer 2.

Can’t think of a name?  No need.  Sometimes, I’m fresh out of names in my imagination database, too.  When that happens, I grab the nearest phone book, look up at the ceiling, flip through pages and stick my finger in.  I’ll rest it firmly on a page, then open the page and see what name I pointed to.  Usually, I’ll use whatever name I’ve picked.  I’ll try it now.

Let’s say I need a name for a waitress.  Okay, I’m opening the phone book, and… POINT.

Ronda.  What a great waitress name.  I think I’ll just use that.

I also need a name for the short order cook in the back.  Okay, I’ll open the phone book, and…  POINT.

Thomas.  Okay, that’s fine.  I could use “Thomas,” but I was hoping for a name with a little more feeling.  I’ll try again… and… POINT.

Delbert.  TOTALLY sounds like the cook in the back of the diner.

See, not hard at all?  It helps when you use a phone book from a big city so there will be many cultural names.  Telephone books are nearly extinct now, so anytime I’m in a big city hotel room and see a phone book, I make sure I accidentally drop it into my suitcase before checking out.