IT DEPENDS: Sound Advice for Your Script

Christopher Schiller delves into capturing and utilizing sound in a movie and giving you tools to deliver much more producible scripts that don’t hit the wrong notes of those who haven’t heard the news.
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As my favorite production sound guy says often, “People forget, movies are 50% sound.” Now, he may be biased, but it is true. From the beginning, sound has played a significant role in our filmic experience. Recognition of that fact will go a long way toward delivering a completely involving experience to the audience. This article will delve into how to acknowledge that relationship, prepare for the complexities of capturing and utilizing sound in a movie and give you tools to deliver much more producible scripts that don’t hit the wrong notes of those who haven’t heard the news.

So why should a screenwriter worry about sound anyway?

It may seem like a strange focal point, or at least a very early one, for a screenwriter to be concerned about sound when they are writing. But just like in every other business-related aspect of the craft, the more the screenwriter shows an understanding of the complexities involved in bringing their printed pages to life on screen and accommodates them in their drafts, the more likely that screenwriter will be viewed as a professional who the filmmakers can work with in order to get the best end result.

Consider your thoughts about your script when devising characters or describing locations. If your character has to be seven feet tall and able to spout Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, that choice will cause issues with casting. Similarly, if you set your two-hander dramatic scene in the midst of a busy, futuristic spaceport landing zone, there’ll be budgetary issues gnawing the producers from the start. Smart choices in the writing stage that are aware of the complexities of production will make things easier all around.

So let's look at how sound choices will make sound decisions better in your script. After all, it’s been a part of screenwriting since the beginning.

So called “silent” films weren’t

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that so called “silent” films were actually intended to be experienced in silence. Early on it was realized that adding sound somehow was key to keeping the audience interested and entertained. All the early silent films houses were equipped with an organ, piano or even a small orchestra to accompany the picture. And it wasn’t just random improvisational tunes being plunked on the keys as the celluloid rattled on. Specific music was written to be performed in time and keeping with the scenes being shown. As an example, every silent film Charlie Chaplin starred in had an original musical composition written by Mr. Chaplin himself that was shipped with the prints to be played at the theaters. Eventually when synchronized sound was finally perfected, the filmmakers could include the integral sound necessary to convey the story along with the pictures in one package.

[Script Extra: What a Silent Film Can Teach You About Screenwriting]

But with the incorporation of integrated sound in the films, problems and dilemmas started to emerge. Huge film stars in the silent era suddenly couldn’t get work because their real life voices didn’t match the imagined characters they had been playing in the audiences’ ears. All the technological advances that had made film cameras lighter and more agile in filming were undone because the microphones on set picked up the mechanical noises the cameras made. Initially the cameras were relegated into their own sound-proof boxes or covered with heavy blankets to muffle the mechanics, taking away all their newfound mobility and dynamic storytelling.

Eventually solutions were found. Microphones improved, cameras became quieter to operate or at least the sounds could be known quantities in planning where to place them to get the right shot. But some realities were tricky to get around.

Sounds in real life don’t sound right to a film audience

Very few locations on film sound really real. But they nearly always sound filmicly real. Audiences have come to expect certain soundscapes when viewing scenes set in familiar settings that just don’t reflect reality. Whenever you see scenes set in restaurants, offices, houses, city streets, just about anywhere intimately familiar to audiences, there are expectations of what they should sound like and what they shouldn’t. Most often what they shouldn’t sound like is actually what they do.

Case in point. In a film you can have an intimate conversation at a couple’s table in a fancy restaurant where the lovers share a whispered conversation. In reality, those whispers can’t be heard over the background noise of other people’s conversations around you, the clink and clatter of glasses, dishware and cutlery, the waitstaff asking, “Is everything alright?”, the machinery of the coolers and kitchen clanging and humming which is why there’s insentient music playing on speakers throughout the area to try to drown out the hubbub with insipid tunes that are supposed to sooth the dining experience. We can still have the conversation, but it’s in spite of and ignoring the other noises and ongoings.

A film can’t afford to have those distractions. So, if the writer sets the scene in a restaurant because they think those are easy locations to film in, everything’s already there, the sound reality will be a rude awakening to the budget and a nightmare in post. Even a locked down, after-hours restaurant location can’t shut off the refrigerators and machines (not without risking health code violations) or lessen the traffic noise from the busy street outside that makes them such a popular restaurant to begin with.

Listen before you leap

Restaurants aren’t the only noisy environments that people ignore the real noises from. Offices, factories, streets, actually most anywhere needs help to get to sound like what the audience has grown to expect. I always advise filmmakers on pre-production scouts to, before they look at a location, close their eyes and just listen to it. Those sounds won’t go away. So if you know the problems before you fall in love with the visual aesthetic of the place, you’re making better choices. Unfortunately, they don’t always listen to me, or the location, before making up their minds.

Filmmakers either have to spend a lot of time in post production cleaning up the location sound as best as possible (not always doable to the standards expected by an audience) or they spend the money to make a mockup location on a sound stage. Either way won’t sound exactly right. So there are specialized post production processes that try to handle getting the sound heard on the screen as close to expectations as possible. If these people do their post jobs well, no one will notice.

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Soundproofing good sound is done by various specialists

Even the best professional recordings made on sets with inherently noisy atmosphere need help. A good production sound technician can provide the best starting point, but it is in the hands of the post sound department where the success or failure lies. Here there are specialists in play and each of their jobs is key to delivering a sound that pleases the audiences’ ears.

The sound editor is the person whose job is to seamlessly match the various recordings edited together in the locked final cut edit and make them sound as if they were all recorded in the same place and time. They have the ability to blend large variances between takes so that the audience is unaware of the changes between one to the other. It’s a complex job, adjusting sound levels, blending background sounds, altering sounds to match visuals, laying in and mixing the music (discussed in depth in a previous column) and everything else. This and much more lies in the sound editor's key talents. But they should always have help to achieve this seamless result.

One tool used (or overused) to fix sound is ADR which stands for either Automatic or Additional Dialog Replacement. There are proponents for both name origins but everyone agrees that ADR requires bringing the actor who originally spoke the lines on set (or a vocal sound-alike or replacement) into a sound recording studio to overdub the spoken narrative of the picture. The looping process will play the part of the film to be dubbed and the actor attempts to match the emotion and timing of the original performance. The amount of ADR used in films varies. According to Walter Murch at a Conversation at the Telluride Film Festival this past year, action films can have as much as 90% of the dialog ADRed while indie dramas can have as little as 10% or less. If done really well, ADR can be seamless to the ears of most of the audience. Still, getting good, usable location sound is preferred aesthetically and financially.

To minimize the reliance on ADR, an often overlooked technician/artist in post-production houses is a dedicated dialog editor. This person’s job focuses on emphasizing the dialog spoken and diminishing the surrounding sounds of the environment and happenstance that were present in the original location sound recordings. Through specialized software and artistic finesse these technicians are able to remove non-dialog sounds from recordings that would lead to distraction while maintaining the full resonance of the spoken words the actors delivered. Done well, these artisans work is unnoticeable. Done poorly, the audiences cringe at the unnatural sounding results. (I have to admit a bias here, since dialog editing is one of my own specialities. I’ve been known to have removed a revving motorcycle from a poignant delivery of an actor’s line. And not one listener has consciously noticed the work I did. As it should be.)

[Script Extra: A-list Story Editor Gives Secret to His “Recommend” - Q&A with Christopher Lockhart]

Once the audio is as clean and clear as it can be the next magician of post-sound steps in, sometimes literally. The foley artist is the technician who re-creates the sounds to place the expected natural sounds that audiences expect that weren’t properly captured in the field recordings or don’t sound like what they’re supposed to. If you hear a stairway step creak just so in a horror film, thank a foley artist. By being able to create the right sounds for the events on screen the filmmakers can deliver on all harmonics the emotions they intend to convey, even if those sounds actually come from the most unlikely sources. A foley studio is a weird menagerie of assorted, noise making objects, ready to give that magical note to the finished product.

The sound effects editor is essential to the marrying of those non-naturally occurring sounds in with the ones recorded on set or in the studio. They’re responsible for creating realistic sounding gun battles, at least realistic to the expectations of the movie audience. Real battle sounds much different than in the movies. They also are charged with creating the sounds that no one has ever heard before, alien creatures, machinery that doesn’t really exist, even down to the familiar “swoosh” of elevators that don’t make that sound, even though everyone expects them to.

Good sound is more than sound

Paying attention to sound is a key element in creating a cohesive cinema experience. But it’s more than just replicating or creating the expected sound for an audience. A good sound design also affects the mood of the film. How sound is treated can add tension or anticipation, add to the emotion of the moment or raise a decent scene to heights of experiential excellence.

And don’t forget to listen for the silences, they’re important too. A good choice of when not to have any extra sound is just as important as knowing when to add something. Considered as a writer, knowing when dialog is unnecessary and the expression of the feeling can be given in just a look or pause is just as powerful as a properly placed soliloquy.

Consider the scene on the beach from Saving Private Ryan (1998) where Tom Hanks character is too close to an exploding shell and loses his hearing. The disorientation of the near silence, just distant ringing of the ears conveys much more of the confusion and drama than the images alone could. A great sound design is a tool that when used well raises a film toward greatness.

So when you sit to write your next scene and choose a location, consider all that goes into making that location seem realistic to a movie audience. A quiet conversation on the street is different than a quiet conversation in a bedroom. A lot of that can be conveyed—or ruined—by the presence or absence of sound. Writing wisely with sound in mind as one element of your decision making will lead to your hearing that sweat sound we all want to hear when we pitch our projects, “Tell me more.”

I’m not saying that attention to sound will always make it easier to sell your script. It depends. I am saying that being a well rounded as a film professional, understanding what else goes into a film besides your little part in it, can’t hurt.

More articles by Christopher Schiller

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