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Sound recording Windfall

Last month, I was invited by actor and producer Tyler Burrows to be on-set Sound Recordist for Windfall. I have worked with Tyler several times before, starting with Here For Scarlett in April 2014. I like Tyler; he’s fun, friendly, and a hard worker. He vouched for the project, so I agreed to do it.

Lesson 1: When it comes to getting gigs, it’s not who you know — it’s who knows you.

Windfall was directed by Rick Tae, who’s better known as an actor. The cinematographer was Michael Martell, who more often works as a gaffer. Darren Mann — who came up with the story, co-wrote the screenplay, and played the supporting lead — is more usually an actor. Other individuals took on whatever jobs needed to be done, without regard to what department was technically responsible for that job. Everyone pitched in to do whatever needed doing.

Lesson 2: Independent projects can offer you a chance to stretch yourself — to take on roles you wouldn’t qualify for on an industry production.

The movie was scheduled to shot on the first two weekends of January. Most people who work on independent, micro-budget projects have to work a day job to afford this expensive hobby, so you might think shooting on weekends when people aren’t working is good. That’s fine for a short movie, but not ideal; it essentially commits everyone through the week as well. If I found a five-day gig that began on Wednesday, I wouldn’t be able to take it.

I’ve known people who tried to shoot feature-length movies over six months of weekends, but I’ve never known anyone who’s managed to complete such a project. Life intrudes: people land paying gigs, they need to spend time with their families, they take holidays, they move away. As the production drags on, the air can go out of people’s tires.

Lesson 3: If possible, schedule your shoot for a contiguous block of days.

The first weekend of the shoot coincided with a “winter-storm warning” from Environment Canada. We were told we might expect heavy rains (and in Vancouver, that’s saying something) and perhaps even snow. Snow!

Fortune smiled upon us the first day. Although the sky was grey and overcast, it never actually rained. Overcast skies are actually good for shooting — all that diffused light everywhere makes everyone look beautiful. Of course, the sky doesn’t look so good . . . but you can’t have everything. It didn’t matter much anyway, as most of the day we shot indoors, in a house owned by some friends of Darren’s.

Alas, the second day the heavens opened! It didn’t snow, but the rain was constant all day, and varied from moderate to heavy. And wouldn’t you know it, we shot outdoors all day. In hindsight, we should have reversed the days; that way, we’d have been outside most of the dry day and inside most of the rainy day.

Lesson 4: When you’re shooting exteriors, have a back-up plan — something else you can shoot indoors, in case the weather turns bad.

We mounted umbrellas in grip heads on light stands to protect the cameras, and kindly crew-members held umbrellas over the heads of the actors until the cameras rolled, but there was no way I could record audio. I wasn’t willing to risk damaging my gear by holding a microphone over the actors’ heads in torrential rain. Even if I had clamped an umbrella to my boompole to shield the mic, we’d still have picked up the spatter of the rain on the umbrella. We tried pulling a car near to the action so I could shelter inside it, and even put a blanket on the roof, but the audio was still no good; it sounded like the actors were speaking at the other end of a hallway, and between them and us somebody was hammering nails into softwood with a rubber mallet. All the dialogue will have to be re-recorded — particularly regrettable, as the day featured the most emotionally-fraught scene of the movie.

If I had had a rain cover for my mic, I could have done a better job. Something like the Rycote Duck Raincover will protect a mic from moderate rainfall, and will also shield the mic from the pitter-pat of direct rain noise. Unfortunately the sound of the rain on the surrounding environment would still be audible; rain sounds like white noise on a soundtrack (unless it’s bouncing off a car roof or something).

This leads to another point. Director Rick wanted low-angle shots from a distance. This means that, from across the room, the ceiling was in shot, or almost in shot; from across the street, the sky was in or almost in shot. I couldn’t get a mic overhead, or even close, so the audio was compromised.

Audio-recording in these conditions — in the rain, or from a distance — could have been improved. Specifically, I wish I had had wireless lavalier microphones. If the actors were actually wearing the mics hidden under their clothing, the mics would be protected from the rain and would always be close to the actors’ mouths. Wireless laws have a lot of problems, but when you need ’em there’s no substitute. They’re on my shopping list, but I don’t currently own any. I might have been able to arrange for some (for money, of course . . . ).

Lesson 5: Discuss the shoot in advance with all crew members, so you can be sure you will have the gear you need.

On the third day we shot in a house, dressed to look like a trashy apartment, and in the alley behind the house. The homeowners were amazed that their nice ground-floor suite could be made to look like the slum bachelor apartment of a down-and-out alcoholic. The alley location was very picturesque: a lane bordered by garages and apartment buildings; there was even some graffiti spray-painted on a wall, adding to the realism.

Unfortunately, the location was right next to the HVAC unit for a large apartment building. The constant whirr, rattle, and hum of the ventilation system was unavoidable. The alley was also half a block away from a major arterial street; not only was there constant traffic noise, but the beep-beep-beeping of delivery trucks backing up was a frequent occurrence.

We had a similar circumstance on the fourth day. That day we shot in four different locations. Usually two is the most you should schedule; moving cast, crew, and gear is a major effort. But we pulled it off! However, the third location was on the corner of two busy streets, and the noise of passing traffic was constant.

No doubt these locations looked good and had necessary features for the scenes. But there was no hope of recording acceptable audio, and it took only a moment’s listening at the locations to realize that this was the case. I was not consulted about the locations, and when I pointed it out I was told to just do the best I could.

Lesson 6: When you scout your locations, consider the needs of recording the audio as well as the needs of shooting the video. Better yet, take your cinematographer and sound recordist with you on location scouts.

I fear that these lessons will cost the production the price of re-recording perhaps 50 percent of the dialogue, including the key emotional scene of the whole movie. That shouldn’t have happened — and wouldn’t have happened, if the director and producers had paid more attention to the audio needs of the project. Producers, take these lessons to heart! Audio is not an afterthought to your production.

However, the rest of the shoot seemed to go well (at least as far as I could tell). I hope they captured the footage they need for editing, and I wish them well with post-production. I look forward to seeing the finished movie.