Preparation is king
We know our own work best. Ande Schurr’s freelancer series started as a guide for sound recordists before expanding his interviews and observations to the wider film and TV industry.
In this article, Ande comes full circle to discuss his approach as a sound recordist and how preparation is king.
Among the more obvious things a sound recordist does as part of their job description are to clarify, test and verify the work flow with the camera department, script supervisor, editor and sound designer. Next is the task of recording clean audio with correct boom and lapel placement, politely eliminating as many distracting sounds as possible. But what is less understood is the importance that the script plays, not just as a technical guide, which it so obviously is, but in helping us feel for what the actors are going through.
The script is the core energy source of the movie. The script provides me with understanding and with understanding comes an accurate approach. The success of a movie rests on its actors being able to deliver the emotional punch needed to move their audience. As a sound recordist, I work towards that end. I want that actor to produce their best performance. Of course it's not all so serious and once the shoot is over I don't really give it another thought, but while I'm there shooting I'm trying to give the film the best chance it has by being observant to such considerations.
Once I accept a job, I give no more thought to the quality of the story. My single purpose for reading the script is now for technical understanding and, of equal importance, so I can get an idea what the actors are going through for each scene. There is something very rewarding about understanding what the actor has been through in the story to get to the scene. I believe there is a sympathetic rapport between actors and crew, and especially the sound crew purely based on their proximity to the actors – that is, dealing with their radio mics and booming them at a close distance. The more I understand about their space, the more appropriate my approach will be and the better sound I will get because I know what I am looking for.
Something that has to be understood by newer members of the film industry is the amount of effort that goes into a film's pre-production. The task of breaking down the script into a shot list, storyboard, and shooting schedule at the right locations, is in my opinion the single biggest feat in the development of the film.
Understanding how much effort goes into preproduction has helped me respect the tight time-frames on set. When I need wild lines or FX I make it known and ensure I am completely ready when the chance appears.
In terms of my own preparation for a job, I am inspired by how actors prepare for their role. When Tom Cruise was interviewed for The Actors Studio TV show, he said that he would practice for 10-12 hours a day learning to play pool for The Color of Money. That sort of dedication is simply astounding. If the biggest factor in creating a movie star was the time they put into preparing their character then that is enough of a clue for a sound recordist, or any technician for that matter, to research and prepare in as many ways as possible for their film.
Specifically, that means a number of things to me. I like to research the director. I want to learn about them and see what their last films were like. How did they approach sound? When I visited producer Claire Kelly from Smasher to discuss the possibility of recording sound on the historical, lighthouse based drama, JubJub (recipient of the New Zealand Film Commission’s Premiere fund) she gave me the director’s treatment to read that included biographical information on both director Dylan Pharazyn and writer Paul Stanley Ward. Aside from explaining his visual approach, it also included historical references to the script and the regulations surrounding how lighthouses were maintained all those years ago. I sat there reading for quite some time, relishing the chance to work on a project that I could sink my teeth into! Next in my research I looked at his previous work on commercials and music videos but in particular his last short film that had been invited to Sundance, the sci-fi Vostok Station.
This amazing looking and sounding film was brought to life by kiwi star Matthew Sunderland. In this case, sound design made up 100 percent of the film. There was no location sound so all the breathing FX and ambiences were recreated later. What I gleaned from watching this film was how important the breath is in conveying the characters’ emotion. I realized that despite there being no dialogue whatsoever, every nuance of feeling was still expressed by Matthew. This is testament to the painstaking work that Max Scott did in designing the sound track. When I relate this last film of Dylan’s to the one we’ve just finished late last month, JubJub, which had only a few lines of scripted dialogue, I paid special attention to the breathing, adlib and other audible expressions used to convey the feeling of each character.
After my research into the director I engage in discussions with the editor and sound designer so I know what they want from the very start. My communication with Dylan and his UK based sound designer Max Scott were instrumental in helping me feel properly prepared for the shoot. Back and forth went our emails until we had established exactly what was needed. Max likes the comprehensive approach. He wants true 5.1 ambient tracks, Impulse Response recordings in each location - we were filming in and around lighthouses in the South Island, often in incredibly tight spaces - and as many FX as possible that fitted the mechanical and nature-filled mood of the film. With all this discussion guiding my approach to a film, I feel that I am part of a larger sound team – I don't just work for myself (as some people may wrongly observe when they see the lone sound man struggling to keep the set quiet!!) but I am the forerunner, or worker on the field, that helps the sound designer lay the foundation for a brilliant sound track.
When I see how much effort the producer, first AD, production manager and others put into preproduction it makes me want to deliver great work. I've learned my best work is not just about technical considerations or getting clean sound, but a constant awareness of what is missing, or 'what I owe this scene' to use a camera coverage phrase.
The location sound department is a small team. We have one boom operator and if it's a bigger job, a sound assistant. With all eyes turned towards the camera and visual side of the film, the onus is on the sound recordist to speak up when they need something or forever hold their peace. We have to make our day. Yet within that day there are often moments when we can chip away at getting all the sounds we need. Yes, preparation is king.