Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound
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Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound

David Lewis Yewdall

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eBook - ePub

Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound

David Lewis Yewdall

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About This Book

Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound, 4th edition relies on the professional experience of the author and other top sound craftspeople to provide a comprehensive explanation of film sound, including mixing, dubbing, workflow, budgeting, and digital audio techniques. Practically grounded with real-world stories from the trenches throughout, the book also provides relevant technical data, as well as an appreciation of all the processes involved in creating optimal motion picture sound. New to this edition are exclusive sound artist lessons from the field (including 2 new production cases studies), including insight from craftspeople who have worked on the latest Harry Potter and Batman films. All technological changes have been updated to reflect the most current systems.

** Please visit the book's website, to download the Yewdall Sound FX Library.**

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Chapter 1

The Empowerment of Sound

“It's probably not a good idea to come into this room and hear this
demo—because after I finish, you will belong to me.”
David Lewis Yewdall MPSE (playfully teasing clients who are not
empowered by the art of sound as they enter the author's sound

design and editorial facilities)
This book is for everyone interested in sound. It does not matter if you are in the sound business. It does not matter if you aspire to personally design and prepare your own soundtracks for the silver screen, television broadcast, or live theatre performances. This book is just as important to those not involved in the actual hands-on creative efforts, but just as responsible for the ultimate success of the soundtrack through the misunderstood and seldom considered phases of preplanning, budgeting, and scheduling. This book has been written with one objective in mind—to empower you, the reader, in ways seldom offered or available. Many years ago (and I hesitate to admit just how many) I produced numerous amateur “home-movie” productions, dreaming of the day when I would set off for Hollywood and work on feature films.
I scoured libraries, bookstores, and technical periodicals looking for any information about the skills and techniques I would need to make more exciting and interesting films. I am not referring to the “technodata” books of engineering or the idealistic platitudes that so often fill such texts. I was starved of the real thing—the practical and experienced craftsman who had set down his or her thoughts and advice from which others could learn. Such books were, and still are, rare. Many talk at their subject, but few talk about it with substance and experience. It is for that very reason this book has been written—for the accurate compilation of the experiences and expertise of dozens of men and women who bring some of the most exciting audio achievements to the screen, regardless of the media format.
Figure 1.1 The author working as supervising sound editor on John Carpenter's The Thing, 1981. Photo by David Yewdall.
Our world is filled with a vast amount of misinformation—by far the most damaging is the misinformation that we hear or see written by those we respect or hold in high esteem or by those who have the perception that they should know what they are talking about, particularly books and papers written by people with PhDs. Most misinformation is born out of ignorance, drawing the wrong conclusions, or having knowledge of the front end and knowledge of the back in, then guessing or extrapolating what they think the middle is, and erring in the process. For instance, I have great respect for Ted Turner's Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable channel. I consider it the last bastion of commercial-free presentations of great film. But it runs an occasional blurb that says, “Turner Classic Movies, 30 frames a second. . .”
I heave a sigh of disappointment every time I hear that. Thirty frames a second is a video standard. Motion pictures are shot at 24 frames per second. The extra six frames is made up by using a “drop-frame” video transfer technique, where every fourth frame of the film is repeated, thus making 24 frames per second view at 30 frames (video) per second.
Ignorance such as this by the writer, and consequently by the narrative voice, highlights the lack of a person or protocol at the network to catch such errors. It is how misinformation spreads throughout our daily lives. When you read it or hear it spoken by a voice that represents a standard of respect and quality, the truth is blurred and the audience left confused. I have, therefore, striven to present the material in this book in as straightforward a manner as possible. You will not find a bibliography note anywhere, because I do not draw upon other people's works to build my own. I will tell it like it is—as straight and honest as I can.
Back to the issue of the audio art form. Sound is sound—whether you are working on amateur film productions, commercials, student films, documentaries, multimedia presentations, CD-ROM games, interactive virtual reality, episodic long-form television, or multimillion-dollar theatrical motion pictures. The recording of dialog and sound effects, the style of editing, and the preparation of these sounds, as well as the philosophical taste and manner of mixing the sounds together are all virtually the same.
Read this paragraph very carefully. Whether you record with an analog tape recorder, a digital DAT machine, straight to hard disk, or to liquid-helium molecular storage; whether you cut on film with a Moviola and a synchronizer; or whether you spin a trackball with a nonlinear computer platform—the techniques, procedures, technical disciplines, and creative craftsmanship of creating an acoustical event are the same. Only the tools change; the artistic and scientific principles remain the same.
Whether I cut the sound cue with a Rivas splicer and scrape the magnetic soundtrack from the edge with a degaussed razor blade or whether I use a mouse to manipulate a digital cut on a computer screen and encode a fade-in, the artistic reasons for doing it and the net results are identical.
Of course, unique application differs from one medium to another, but the art form and techniques of sound recording, sound design, dialog preparation, and sound-effects editing are identical. The reason I have taken this moment to stress the art form so vehemently is that not enough people understand this, especially those perhaps most responsible for ensuring the success of the final audio track by planning for it long before the cameras even roll.
I will refer to the term technical disciplines many times throughout this book, and I want you to understand why. Many of us are rather puzzled by the educational institutions that now offer film and television courses. Most of these schools are caught up in theory and raw-creativity style instruction, something they call critical studies. Many are literally discarding and openly discounting the need for the film student to develop the technical skills and discipline necessary to create a successful project. This style of instruction is akin to a mechanic putting an engine into your car, offering creative ideas about where to go, but not giving you a steering wheel, transmission, or brakes to drive it. What good are theory and creativity when you are frustrated and floundering with the very tools that you need to bring your creative vision to fruition?
Even more important than knowing how to use the physical tools of production is knowing what is possible. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard producers or directors say they did not know they actually had to do something or preplan the shot or action so they could achieve something creatively that they assumed could only be achieved months later in postproduction. They were not empowered by their educational background to release their full potential and/or creative desires.
I served as supervising sound editor on an unremarkable kickboxing picture several years ago. After the final mix, the director and producer both displayed little enthusiasm about what they had just heard during the final continuity playback. I noticed this and asked what was troubling them. The director's brow furrowed as he struggled to articulate his feelings. “I don't know, I guess I thought it would just sound. . .bigger.”
I knew exactly what the problem was and what it had always been, but so seldom did I have such a receptive audience as I had right then and there. “I want you both to listen to me very carefully. We gave you the soundtrack for the movie that you made.” The two men sat there waiting, as if I had not made my point yet. The director shook his head. “I don't understand.” I knew he did not.
“What did you expect to hear?” I asked.
“I thought we would have stereo pan-by stuff, you know, big. . .broad.”
“Absolutely, we can do all of that. But you first have to make the movie in such a way that we can do those kinds of things. For instance, you want all these stereo pan-by effects, but you didn't give us the cinematic opportunities to do it—because you didn't plan for it.”
“Plan for it? What do you call those car-by shots?”
“A perfect example. Your film was photographed monophonically.”
The producer leaned forward. “Mono-what?”
“When the car races by, your cameraman panned with the car, keeping the image in the center. If we put the sound of the car into a pan-pot joystick, where do you expect us to pan it when the action remains in the center of the screen? What your cinematographer should have done was to keep the camera anchored down, filming the car going past him, whooshing close-by to the left offscreen. While the stunt driver set up the action again, you set up the second shot, turning the camera around to catch the car whooshing past, only this time from the right of the screen and throttling down the road away from the camera.”
The producer started to understand. “This way they can pan the car from center to hard left and then come by hard right and go away into the center of the screen.”
I smiled. “That's right, except you have to continue to plan for it when you cut the picture. Many picture editors do not understand the difference between cutting for television and cutting theatrical, between cutting monophonically and cutting for stereo. Many picture editors would cut the first shot just as the car disappeared screen left and then a frame before it appeared on the right. That's monophonic thinking. Your picture editor should give a full beat once it has disappeared screen left, and a full beat before it appears screen right, knowing that the follow-through stereo panning effect the mixer makes will yield the fullest stereophonic result, making it big—and full.”
I'm sure it was a bitter revelation for the two men, but judging from their subsequent pictures I would say they learned much from that enlightenment. From that moment, they became empowered—the proverbial lightbulb had gone on—and their creative planning and preparations would be forever different.
The sharing of actual war stories and examples like this is a vital part of this book. It is the glue that bonds the information and techniques in such a way as to give a vicarious experience that will serve you well in the future. Of course, you will make mistakes of your own along the way; we all do. Hopefully, though, you will learn from the mistakes described herein and avoid making them yourself.
This book is written with real industry terms, not only technical words, but the jargon and nomenclature that are part of the language and understanding of motion picture craftsmen. For instance, one simple example that often appears is the word sync. The proper dictionary spelling of this word is synch, as it would be outside of postproduction industry usage. In the professional industry jargon, however, this word is spelled without the h.
Rather than write this book with a literary correctness, I have decided to spell the words as they have come to be known in their professional applications. You will find that if you read this book in sequential order, both your vocabulary and your technical understanding of the process will grow geometrically. As you learn more terms, you will not only understand them singularly but also quickly develop a rhythm and an ability to assimilate and comprehend. By the time you finish this book you should not only be enriched with detailed explanations of techniques and practical applications but also, through the various examples and actual experiences, you should begin to understand why the industry works the way it does.
One more ingredient is vital to any kind of work you do, whether creative or mechanical: You must have passion for what you are doing. Frankly, most craftsmen today are working in jobs other than those they dreamed of doing. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it can often lead to even more interesting and fulfilling opportunities—as long as you fuel your working gas tank with passion.
Many newcomers to the industry confuse the concept of loving the idea of doing something with being passionate about actually doing it. It reflects in their work; it reflects in the attitude of how to work. Many lose their way spending untold fruitless hours trying to develop shortcuts rather than rolling up their sleeves and simply doing the work. For those of us endowed with the love and passion of our work, there is only the craftsmanship and the yearning to achieve a greater level of quality and meaning. The secret to real success and personal satisfaction is knowing you must have passion for everything you do, even for jobs for which you have disdain. You cannot work in this industry by doing only what you want to do, and you probably cannot start right away working at the job of your dreams. The quickest way to achieve promotion and advancement toward the dream career is to approach each job assignment and task with as much passion and enthusiasm as if it were your dream job.
During a spirited argument with a colleague over the creative abstractness of the sound design of a picture on which we were working, my colleague became flustered and suddenly blurted out, “Yewdall, you know what your problem is? You have a passion for what you do, and you think it makes a difference!”
I nodded. “You're right, I do have a passion for what I do, and I know it makes a difference.”
The passion you have for your work will be a double-edged sword. It will energize you and empower you to stretch, and to go that extra distance to create and achieve. Unfortunately, it will also lay you open and expose you to those who would ridicule and destroy rather than inspire and challenge. You cannot have one without the other. You must choose. Are you going to be a photocopy drone of a thousand others and mindlessly turn out formula products that everyone has seen and heard over and over again? Or are you going to stretch and do something new and different? Therein lies the challenge; therein lies the passion.
You will also notice that very often I posture ideas or examples in military terms. I do this for a good reason. Making a motion picture is almost identical to a military operation. No two films are the same—you must alter and adjust your tactics for the new material and problems that arise. Good filmmaking is 5 percent creativity and 95 percent problem solving. Keep this simple axiom in the forefront of your mind, and you will become a Navy Seal commando of your craft.

Chapter 2

Our Amateur Beginnings

When I was in junior high school, I had to stay home for several weeks because of a contagious illness. My father had an old office 1/4” audiotape machine with a simple omnidirectional microphone that was really only intended for recording close-proximity voices. In a matter of days I was swept into a fantasy world of writing and recording my own performances like those I had heard on the radio. I played all the parts, moving about the room to simulate perspective, and making a wide variety of sound effects and movements to conjure up mental images of Detective Ajax as he sought out the bad dealings of John J. Ellis and his henchmen.
I opened and closed doors, shuffled papers, moved chairs about. My parents had an antique rocking chair that had a great wooden creak when you sat in it. I ignited a firecracker to make gunshots and threw a canvas sack of potatoes on the floor for body falls. Then the tape broke. However, I got some scissors and tape to splice it back together, and I got the shock of my life. After I repaired the break, I wondered if I could cut and move around prerecorde...

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