Schools Training

Recording Dialogue for Independent Film

13 MAR 2013
Career Path : Filmmaking and Film Editing

Easily the biggest technical shortcoming of many independent films is the sound. Audiences may forgive jumpy video with poor lighting, as in the hugely successful Blair Witch phenomenon, but given noisy, unintelligible sound they’ll quickly run for their aspirins. With the relatively recent proliferation of affordable digital cameras there are more aspiring filmmakers than ever before, but while many visual problems can be fixed in the editing process, the same isn’t necessarily true for sound. Sound is integral to the immersive power of film, pulling the viewer into the director’s alternate reality and conveying the message and emotional heft that can elevate a home video to a work of art.

Production Sound

Try to get as clean and clear dialogue as possible with a high signal-to-noise ratio – little background noise. If the dialogue recorded on location is marred by traffic noise, machinery hums, or a million other possible intrusions including the shuffling and clicking of the shooting equipment itself, the sound is useless. Ideally you will have a separate skilled sound recordist with a portable field mixer that can record when the camera isn’t running, but you can still get decent results if you don’t. If at all possible, don’t use the microphone built into the camera as they tend to be of poorer quality and pick up camera noise. Plugging the mic straight into the camera has the advantage of getting audio right away, and not needing to synchronize audio with video afterwards. There are more advantages to having separate audio, however, in terms of flexibility and audio quality.

Choose the right microphone

There are numerous mic options but generally more directional shotgun models work best for interiors, non-directional for cramped interiors and ultra-directional for outside locations. “Block the action” by knowing where the actors will be moving for the scene and aim a boom (microphone on a pole) down from above their heads. Get as close as possible by positioning the actors in the frame, have the boom operator (listening with headphones) dip the mic just into the frame, then lift it till it is just out, set the recording level with a sample dialogue line and roll. There are many other microphone types and techniques best learned in audio school but the key is to get as close as possible to the actor’s mouth without contact noise.

Other Tips and Tricks

Shoot several takes of each scene, regardless of the actors’ performance, so that even if part of the take is flawed by unwanted noise then a clean version of that section can be substituted in. Record at least 30 seconds of ambient sound, the location’s natural sound without any speech. This can be used as background for editing in post-production. Most of the sound effects can be added later but synchronized sounds like walking in gravel are best recorded with the video. Film production programs will confirm that getting optimal sound from the beginning will make all the difference in creating a quality production.


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