Listen to this. So I’m out in the park shooting stills for Mars. A plane flies overhead and the creative director shouts: “CUT! Wait for sound!” But I’m shooting stills, so I don’t care. We had a good laugh about this but I realized – if I ever get into video – I’m gonna have to start listening. Truth be told, I hadn’t even heard the plane.
Today, it’s very different. When I’m shooting video, I love to have a sound guy with me. Preferably one that’s been in the film business for a couple of decades and has tricks up his sleeve, I don’t even know about. Those guys are worth their weight in gold and if you can hire one, you should. My Sound Guy is a non-negotiable line item on my bigger motion productions.
While you’re at it, budget for an audio engineer who can clean everything up in post – he’s like a good retoucher and hears things you didn’t even know existed.
Can you hear me now?
Many times I shoot by myself, though. Especially when I’m filming documentary work. Without a sound guy, I really have to pay attention to sound: I have to hear the natural sound, since it can really help tell the story or distract the viewer. I have to listen to the person I’m interviewing, understand what they are saying and think about where I want the conversation to go – oh that’s on top of lighting, composition, camera movement, sometimes a second camera, etc.
Wash out your ears
When you dive into motion, you need to start using a sense, you’ve never used before: hearing. Here’s a good exercise to see, uh, I mean, hear what I mean:
Listen to your environment – better yet, grab your digital audio recorder, a mic and a good pair of headphones that keep everything the mic doesn’t hear out of your ears and listen.
My favorite headset to use on location are Etimotic hf5 noise isolating earphones. They are small, lightweight ear buds, that seal out all the sounds around you, which the mic doesn’t pick up. I know there are better ‘cans’ for your ears, but their size trumps it in my book – especially when I travel.
Dual system sound, means you record to two sources. Since today’s DSLR’s are crappy sound recorders, you’ll need an external digital audio recorder. My preference here goes to the Tascam DR100 over the Zoom H4N. The reason is not the sound recording quality – they’re both good units – but the Tascam powers up quicker, it’s sound input is controlled via dials not buttons allowing a smooth change in sound, and the Tascam has a rechargable battery and 2 AA batteries, letting me record longer before I have to change the power source.
Then I use a Rode NTG2 (the newer one, the NTG3, needs to be externally powered – which the small portable digital recorders don’t do – so I stick with the older model that runs on a AA battery). My second channel is a wireless Sennheiser G3 lavelier body transmitter and receiver – the mics I use with them are custom build by a shop in North Florida.
Quick tip: my lav mic always goes in the left channel (L for lav and left) and my Rode shotgun in my right channel (R for Rode and right). That way in the edit, I know which mic is on what channel. Neat trick, huh?
I feed a line out into my camera’s mic input (you’ll need a special cable for that – call the people at Makertek. They are very knowledgeable and are happy to help with all your audio cable needs). This gives me a scratch track, from which my software can sync the sound from the recorder to the video. It also covers your butt, should something go wrong on the external audio file. Nice to have redundancy. Remember you cannot listen to the audio coming out of the camera so you’re never sure if it’s being recorded. Better safe than sorry.
Sound is half of your video. Actually I think it’s more, ‘cause people will sit through bad visuals and decent audio, but they’ll tune out or shut down bad audio in a heartbeat in spite of stunning visuals.
Quick tip: if you can’t get rid of a noise, that’s bugging you (a construction site, a crowd of people talking, ect – there’s an old saying in film: show the sound. Grab a few seconds of what’s making the noise on video and show it to your viewers. Their minds will filter it out once they’ve seen it. I know sounds crazy, but it works. If you don’t show it, your audience will be constantly asking themselves – what’s that sound…