MC – EP 5 & Sound Design

Some graphics I’ve been used for epoxy coffee mugs. Guess character is a murderer? Hint – I found a dead finch on my porch last week.

Well good morning.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on any form of social media. The truth is I’ve been busy filming Mountain Cult Ep 5 and in fact only have 1 scene left to shoot. Beside wordpress, I was making a habit of posting “film journals” to my youtube channel. Believe it or not I recorded a new episode of FJ about a month ago – I just haven’t gotten around to editing it.

As a matter of fact I have so much material I’m hoping to edit that it overwhelms me at times ( I want to remaster former episodes by fixing audio issues, send each actor from mountain cult a 1 minute clip for their acting reels, film a youtube “short” everyday, and – unrelated – but I’d also like to try my hand at singing to see if the vocals would improve the songs I’ve put together). The important thing is that I’ve edited much of Episode 5 already. However, it’s been a unique experience after learning so much about audio this year – I never thought that sound mixing would be more time consuming than coloring.

I’ll give you an example – imagine you film a scene on your porch where all that you’re doing is speaking on the phone to an offscreen character. Sounds simple, right? Well that all depends on how involved you’d like to get. If I were to go all out this is what I would do –

  1. A clean take with mic focused on character speaking
  2. A full minute recording of ambient noise with nothing else
  3. A full take that focuses only on the rustling cloth and movements of the character
  4. Focus the mic on any distinct sounds – phone placed on table, phone picked up
  5. Sound of the voice coming through the other end of the phone (an easy improvisation in post, but always sounds better when played in the actual environment)

I think those are enough pertinent tracks to make the scene. When I get to the editing room, I’ll isolate each sound on a separate track – ie, dialogue, sound effects, foley, background noise, special (like editing a normal voice to sound like its coming through a telephone… or cellphone since nobody uses the word telephone anymore)

So now each layer is on a separate track. From here I’ll place audio effects to each track – EQ, highpass filter, dehummer, deesser, and finally mastering. The less effects needed the better. Often Dialogue needs the most. (the better the recording, the less I have to do in the editing room).

Once the sounds are placed I’ll add cross fades and some quiet audio to the start and beginning of dialogue bits. This prevents those sharp, millisecond blips that you hear when an audio level changes dramatically in an instant.

After all the audio is placed, I would import the tracks into ableton. Here I can design a score that is specific to the scene I am editing. It is important during every step of the process to level your clips appropriately – dialogue should always be the loudest, most distinguishable track. I like loud, crisps sound effects (the phone being picked up and placed down). Foley, or the cloth movements, should fit the scene appropriately. In others words the common viewer should not even know that track exists. Ambient noise should also be at a low level, but consistently present. The music volume depends on how important it is to the scene. For something such as this I would keep it at a low volume. I might even sidechain it to dialogue so that it lowers in volume during each moment a character speaks.

After all this is finished, I would focus on panning – or speaker assignment for each layer. Dialogue will be front and center, but the other sounds and noises can be panned to the side speakers. Panning audio is something I still have a lot more to learn about. For example, I am uncertain if it is better to pan most sounds far left and far right, or to settle them closer to the center.

The cool thing about making my own score is that I can pan each instrument separately along the speakers. I am also unsure of where sound effects should be placed – I enjoy panning them according to the object creating them in relation to the visual scene.

My biggest question when it comes to panning is how it effects surround sound. I believe that exporting in 5.1 means that each track will go directly to the speaker it is assigned even if it is not panned. What I am curious about is whether a hard right/left pan makes any change to the speaker it is assigned to. 5.1, for those that don’t know, means that your audio set up includes 1 center speaker, a front left and right speaker, and rear left and right speaker, and 1 subwoofer that plays the low frequency waves (explosions are popular).

The final step for audio would involve leveling it once again. Where will the clip be posted? Youtube, broadcast television, and film festivals each have different leveling specifications. Youtube requires audio that is much louder than the other platforms. The other consideration for this is surround sound – cable and youtube will not support surround sound audio. I believe most film festivals will.

The other major concern for me has to do with kickstarter – I desperately want to offer episode 5 of mountain cult on a DVD. I want it to supply 4k video with surround sound. I’m sure it’s just a few web searches away, but I have some big questions before I can promise this. #1 – can basic DVD-R support 4k and surround sound? #2 – Do I need a special DVD writing drive, or is a simple CD Rom drive capable of writing these specs to a DVD? #3 – Do I export 2.1, 5.1, and 7.1/7.2 to the same disc? Or do I write the most advanced surround sound tracks to the DVD and allow the AV receiver to fold the surround sound according to the viewers audio setup? For example, you can upload a surround sound clip to youtube, but youtube will fold the rear left & rear right speakers so that it is incorporated into the stereo track and plays through front left and right speakers. I believe Youtube supports 2.1 audio, but I could be mistaken.

Anyways, thank you for listening to all this audio gibberish. Definitely not what I intended to write about when I sat down here but I’m glad I got it off my chest. I hope to begin posting stills from my footage soon I’m just too lazy to press the upload button now.

Leveling Up

I’d like to make this short and sweet as I just finished my shift and it’s time for me to rest. I made some great improvements to the script last night and feel that it is heading in the right direction.

It’s amazing how easy it is to delete segments of your story after you get some breathing room and realize it is not as perfect as you first thought. I think you make the most progress when you view your product as partially defective and take it back into the shop for repairs.

A lot of highly successful comedies feature an endless onslaught of transitioning meanings. Many scene begin with the anticipation of a character’s actions resulting in something bad that turn into something good. I feel quite certain that the more fluctuation you apply to the events that are unfolding the more intriguing they become. You keep your audience on your feet and your protagonists in a position of uncertainty.

I want every line in my story to add significance. The stakes should continually raise with the threat of danger repeatedly becoming more imminent. The awesome thing about late-stage drafts is that you understand your story more thoroughly and become less concerned with word count. Every dramatic situation you come up with will always have areas of tension, urgency, and conflict. Applying your creative ability to find ways to increase these elements will tighten and escalate your story.

I always like to think in terms of levels when I am doing something creative. As a filmmaker, I find areas of cinema that I feel separate the production quality. You begin by purchasing a camera and audio recording equipment. You get the takes you need, then you edit them into a story. It’s easy to stop there, but learning how to color grade takes you to another level. After that it is tempting to call it a finished production – but learning how to sound mix and improve dialogue with compressors, cross fade, and background noise brings you one level closer to a professional production. After all this is completed you will be tempted to export and publish. But then there are special effects – and often times there are areas in your story that will be more effectively shown with animations (think title sequence at the least, or phone and computer screens, or a burst of blood).

It is the same with writing just as it is with everything else. Each progressive step is not necessarily more difficult, it is simply more laborious to continue applying one improvement after another on a single piece of work. I think of it as “leveling up” because other artists who are working within the same medium are bound to drop off at each of the points I feel are “good enough.” I do believe every story can only be as good as its premise, but even that I am willing to rework if it means the final production will be better. I am never afraid to start from scratch all over again. If I don’t have a good story to tell prior to production, then I do not wish to devote a month or two to telling it.

Now it is time for me to sleep, or as I like to call it, “plot.” I wish you good fortune today in your day’s adventure and hope to have positive news regarding episode 5’s story soon.

Looking Ahead

Now that Episode 4 has been out and available for close to a month, I’m excited to begin working on Episode 5.

There are some new challenges, however, and as always there is more for me to learn.

I have been contacted by one online streaming service that would like to show my content to their viewers. This deal features the potential for monetization, which is obviously exciting news.

The major dilemma I am facing is that the current episode features soundtracks from Epidemic Sound. Epidemic sound licenses songs from artists to be featured on youtube. I am not permitted to publish my content on other websites without upgrading my subscription. I have been informed that it would cost me $500 a month to purchase this license. I would consider such a business transaction to be a “bad deal.”

I have been in touch with a music composer who is willing to score the episode and am currently considering this option. Taking this avenue would also enable me to publish episode 4 as a video rental on Amazon. Personally, I am thinking I might be better off waiting until episode 5 is complete before publishing on Amazon. My ability as a filmmaker continues to improve and I have large ambitions for the next episode.

Another major concern is the audio of Episode 4. I have written on here before about my shortcomings and obstacles that came with the dialogue featured in Episode 4. I would have to thoroughly clean that up before I posted the content to Amazon. I don’t know if that is possible due to the recording errors that were made during production. Ultimately, I do not want anything coming from TMWproductions to appear amateur as I move to new outlets. It is not about racing to monetization for me. It is about producing a professional product that viewers will enjoy watching. I would feel like a thief if I began making money on a product that is not satisfying for the customer.

Once I make some of these decisions about episode 4, I can begin work on episode 5. I’m going to start by figuring out a location. I would like the majority of episode 5 to take place in a relatively large and open building that I can film in 1-2 days. This will take a ton of preparation and pre-production planning.

In order to finance the film, I will have to return to working more overtime (I have been slacking). I already anticipate purchasing a:

  1. 2nd camera to maximize continuation for each take
  2. A better microphone
  3. Lighting Equipment
  4. Something to improve the recording quality of audio. I am completely new to this area of set design and must expand my knowledge.
  5. Any props that will be required.

The two actors I have asked to return have already stated they are willing. I’d be privileged to have the entire cast back for the next episode, however, I prefer to write the script first. I do not wish to request them back only for them to find out I have filmed the episode without them.

Anyways, these are just a few of the things that have been on my mind lately. I’ve spent many a days being lazy and having nothing to do with the creation of future episodes. I am ok with this because once I get started the filmmaking process inevitably takes up all of my free time. One aspect I am looking forward to for the next episode will be fast edits. I have learned so much over the past year that I envision I will move much faster. The great bottleneck in this process will be audio, of course. In episode 5 I fully intend to provide crisp, clear dialogue that will require minimal editing effects. In order to do this I will have a lot to learn before I even start editing.

If you haven’t viewed episode 4 and would like to take a look, feel free to check it out below: