Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cheating your audience, and why a lot indi's fail the rump test

I was asked the other day about Formulas for Dialog EQ, to make it sound professional.

There are no "formulas" for dialog EQ.  As a general rule there isn't much EQ on dialog other than rolling off areas you don't use, generally the high end and probably everything below 120 or so.  It depends a bit on what your delivering for, some formats can't handle bass (16 mm for instance).  Dialog is usually compressed a bit but much of that is done manually with fader moves.  The whole goal of the dialog edit is to get as clean a track as possible (you asked about the "Hollywood" sound) so everything but actual dialog will be cleaned out.  If it's an FX that might be of use in the mix it's put on PFX (production FX) tracks.  Room tone is used to fill the wholes made by all the cleaning.  Old school those tracks get sent to the mix where the mixer does any processing (EQ, compression etc).  New school the Dialog editors may be doing some of the processing.  It really depends on the post workflow and who is mixing and supervising.  The mixers will also use reverb etc to place the dialog in the space if it doesn't fit naturally (sometimes the set doesn't sound anything like what the camera sees) and to get the ADR to blend with the production sound.  Serious noise reduction and dialog surgery is more and more done in editorial because the tools have gotten cheap enough and time in editorial is cheaper than in the mix.

BUT that is only a small part of the "Hollywood" sound, though it certainly helps.  In the ideal post everything you hear in a big film has been thought out and put there for a reason.  Other than indi directors/ producers generally not thinking about sound past intelligibility they also tend to be not into "sound".  They generally have an aversion to anything that deviates from the picture edit.  They often essentially want you to clean up what the picture editor has done.  So even when there are the skills to do a better job a lot of times it is hamstrung by a director who is married to the track they have been hearing for months in the picture edit.  Sometimes it's because they spent a bunch of time "fixing" (working around" a problem that they should have left for sound to do.  Now they are so invested in the "fix" that they can't live with out it.  And sometime they are just super conservative in a strange way.  With most "big time" directors, well the few I have worked with and the many that friends have worked with, if you have some little subtle complexity going on in the track.  Say some TV or crying baby bleeding through the wall from the apartment next door.  Not loud or in the way but just something that shows we are in a real apartment and not a set.  They will be happy and in fact would probably be pissed that nobody had thought to fill in the environment if you didn't do it.  A lot of indi directors will go "there was no baby on the set, it's the city, it's silent".  I actually had a director give me the "silent city" thing because I had put some traffic out the window of this downtown apt.  I live on the outskirts of San Francisco so I asked him to follow me out side for a minute.  I'm about ? 4-5 miles from the heart of Downtown and the traffic was very clear.  I usually try to point out that it is THEIR film and what ever they want I'll try to do but they should do it for a reason because the "that's what it sounds like" is A almost always wrong (most peoples perception of what things sound like is very far off) and B, it's the weakest reason to do something in a film (that is not a doc.).  A film is not a "real" place.  Everything is designed and if it isn't then your failing your audience (unless you doing some Dogma style thing).  A film makes a pact with the audience.  You promise that if they will suspend their disbelief you will take them to a world where your film lives and take them on a journey.  They have put their trust in you to look out for their interests.  It might be a scary world or a warm and fuzzy world but it needs to have an internal logic and you MUST honor the rules of this world.  If you cheat or short change the audience they will feel betrayed and not be happy they saw your film.  This is not a Disney argument.  You can scare the crap out of them, fool them amaze them make them feel good or make them terribly sad.  What you can't do is make them sad and then laugh at them.  You can trick them but you can't cheat them.

Of course expectations also play into things.  If I go to a no budget screening my expectations are totally different from going to a big budget film.  If this were not the case everyone would hate most indi's.  So you can get away with a lot but you still can't cheat.  And most low budget films cheat their audience in terms of sound.

*** “The Rump test” was a term my mother used for when the audience starts squirming in their seats, a sure sign you have lost them and they know they are back in the theatre and have been sitting too long.

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