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Screen Edge Forum listens and learns

The Sound Masterclass at the Screen Edge Forum in both Auckland and Wellington over the past two weeks was “full of sound and fury” – resulting from the choice of the Anthony Powell’s documentary Antarctica – A Year On Ice as the example through which to illustrate the sound post people’s art.

But it was clear from the start that this was no “tale told by an idiot” – these four guys (and they were all guys) obviously knew this stuff inside out. Recreating the feeling of 123 knot (228 km/hour) winds for a cinema was a breeze for the chaps from Park Road Post.

It was a shame then that the sound system in the lecture theatre at AUT in Auckland was grossly inadequate for illustrating the full impact of their work. When the same “before and after” clips of a tempest were played in the cinema at Park Road Post, we did feel almost blown out of our seats. That must have mirrored their frustration that so many cinemas have inadequate sound reproduction, and vary so much from one to another – “You’ll never hear it sound as it does in the edit suite!”

Some in the audience may have felt disappointed that two-time Oscar winner Mike Hedges was not leading the session as billed. Apparently he was still occupied in finishing off the extended cut/DVD of The Hobbit. But as soon as our MC for the 90 minutes, Nigel Scott, started describing the way in which sound can change and control an audience’s emotional responses as being what excites him about his work, we were drawn in.

Unlike your average low-budget documentary, where one guy will do all aspects of sound post, these men are specialists. Chris Todd, as well as being the liaison person for the department, is the dialogue guy – “I deal with anything that comes out of people’s mouths”. David Donaldson is the music man, composing, and arranging, as well as sourcing existing material; Tom Skot-Toff is the effects expert. Their collaboration was described as being like a soccer team; each player knows where his fellow players are going to be, so doesn’t have to look before kicking the ball to his mate.

Throughout the session a series of useful, cost-saving hints were proffered. Always work on the assumption that your film will end up in the cinema, not just on smaller screens – therefore aim for the highest quality you can afford. Everything always takes longer than you think it will – but the deadline for finishing almost never changes. If you can’t afford to have a sound recordist on your location all the time, choose carefully when to use one. ADR (additional dialogue recording) is more common in documentaries than you might think.

Strong emphasis was placed on the value of using a back-up recorder and/or microphones. If your equipment does not allow for more than one input, use a splitter so that you can at least get to separate channels. A recording device separate from the camera is not expensive. The usefulness and time-saving element of taking a little extra time to record atmos tracks on location was presented strongly, as was the importance of supplying every little bit of sound recorded to the post team. Providing 30-second ambience tracks can be a lifesaver – one single atmos track could save half a day of work. When recording ambience of the location, follow the camera angles with your microphone.

Choose your editing system with sound post in mind – some systems do not produce good EDLs (edit decision lists). If there is temporary (guide) music included in what you’re supplying to the sound team, then supply the files with what is to be kept panned hard to one side, and what is to be replaced panned hard to the other side. The key is to set up the process of the workflow from picture edit to sound beforehand.

“Most films today have too much music in them,” David Donaldson told us. Don’t put music in if it’s not needed – and don’t use it to try to cover problems!

AT both the Auckland and Wellington sessions, it was emphasised that the Park Road Post team, as is common with most sound post people, are more than happy to give five minutes of advice over the phone, for free. We were urged to take advantage of this generosity of spirit – a spirit which pervaded the seminar.

At the start of the Auckland session, Chris Todd refused the offer of a microphone, saying “I have too much to do with mics – I don’t trust them!”

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