You know what marks a film out as amateur more than anything else?  Shoddy, shoddy location sound.

I fully understand and have been guilty of this.  For a director sound is a difficult thing to get excited about. Every year the industry announces bigger and better cameras promising fantastic, breathtaking HD visuals.

Whilst advances in sound mean that it's... slightly clearer?  Maybe... if you really listen...

However from the moment I became an editor I have been forced to amend my ways.  Now whenever I meet a director as they are about to embark on a shoot I drop to my knees and beg them to pour their resources into the sound.  Usually to no avail.

Directors, these are the things that make me hate you.

1. Unclean Dialogue

My heart always sinks when I'm sat with a director, looking through rushes in the edit suite and I see something along the lines of the following:
Characters talking in front of traffic, running water, music, crowds and the list goes on.

You can just edit that stuff out right?

Umm. No.

But aren't there filters?  Ah yes.  Filters.  Sure, in some cases you may be able to clean it up a little but it still won't sound good. Just a different ever so slightly lesser kind of terrible.

And don't ever say, “We'll just ADR it”.  ADR, unless you have access to the right facilities or really know what you're doing, should always be an absolute last resort. It's not just about having the actor spout their lines in time with the picture. You need to get the right sound perspective, you need the right microphone and it needs to match the other elements that you're not adr-ing.  And who are you kidding?  You'll probably be too broke for that stuff anyway come postproduction.

2. Overlapping Sound Effects

Footsteps (high heels in particular) and any objects that your characters may be messing with throughout a scene cause endless headaches in the edit.

You might think that footsteps are ok.  You're going to need the footsteps there eventually anyway, right?  So what's the harm in leaving them in?  The harm is, it reduces options. With everything you leave in, it reduces what you are able to do with the mix in post.  Artfully applied sponges can be a quick fix here, or laying down a carpet depending where and what you're shooting.  If possible have your actors switch to a different, softer set of shoes for the close ups.  If you're inside it's as simple as just having your actors remove their shoes.

This same rule applies to all other actions in a scene.  If you're character is doing something out of frame that makes noise, such as making tea, fiddling with a lock or typing on a computer then have them mime it.  If I can't see it, I don't want to hear it.

On your typical Hollywood movie (and say what you will about them, they always sound awesome) all these sound effects will be added in post.  Why?  Because maybe you don't want the door to make that particular kind of creak.  Maybe you want the villain's footsteps to have a more ominous quality.  Every sound has a certain character or mood to it.  Clever use of sound effects can open up a whole new dimension of creative possibilities and it's something that new filmmakers often overlook.

3. No Atmos / Wild Tracks

The more your location sound sucks, the more I need this.  And unfortunately the more your location sound sucks, the less likely it is that you recorded one.

Usually this results in me foraging around for the tiny bits of ambience I can lift from in between dialogue.  Fun stuff.

What's an atmos track you ask?  Some people call it room tone.  It's a recording of the ambient sound (the Atmosphere) of the location.  In editing it is used to patch up gaps in the sound or to hide any undesirable noise.

4. No Forward Planning

Sound is such an after thought for so many filmmakers. Get a sound guy on board early on. Show them your locations. Figure out what the problems might be and start coming up with solutions. They need to be kept in the loop as they will need to know what gear they're going to need in order to deal with the challenges of a particular location.  They'll be able to flag up any potential problems and you may be able to alter your plan to get better results.

And even if you're not working with a professional, make sure you have someone whose sole concern is the sound from the get go.  Don't just thrust a boom pole toward whoever isn't doing anything on the day.

5. Loud Locations

People tend to choose locations based entirely on looks.  Which is fine for the most part.  However, you really need to spend a little time in any location you plan to spend a decent amount of time shooting in.  Just go there for maybe 10-20 minutes and listen.  Planes, wind, traffic, nearby fire station, next door neighbour's rowdy dog.  You need to know what you're going to be dealing with.
Planes and wind noise are a particular problem as they can be there in one shot and gone the next.

6. Not Respecting the Sound Guy

The amount of times I see ads asking for experienced sound guys with their own kit to show up unpaid on a shoot... oh and by the way, we're shooting tomorrow...
You have to ask yourself exactly what they get from it.  Unlike your DoP or your cast they aren't going to be getting showreel material from it. Whilst your DoP is presenting finished pictures and your cast their whole performance, the sound recordists work is the first stage of a long process.  It's more like getting a clean green screen shot for effects in post.  It'll be stunning eventually, but right now we just need it as clear and plain as possible.
Too much of the sound editors job in the low budget world is damage limitation rather than making your film sound the very best it can.  Make their job easier and they can put their time to far better use.

Here at Raindance we have the unique perspective that comes from being one of the UK's foremost film training providers and Europe's largest independent film festival.  We see filmmakers when they're just starting out and we see their debuts up on the screen. And you know what strikes me about the shorts and features that make it? They all sound pretty damn good.  Put simply:
Red Camera

It cannot be stressed enough.... that...

You're not listening to me are you?  You're looking at that Red camera...

Christian Bell
A graduate of the Metropolitan Film School, where he made short films about tortured misunderstood artists, Christian Bell now devotes his time to the Raindance cause in the hope that he can somehow make amends for his crimes against cinema.
At Raindance he handles all things tech and probably built the website you're using. Read more articles from Christian Bell