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Audio Tips That Every Microfilmmaker Needs

by Jeremy Hanke
& John Howard

As I get to know more and more microfilmmakers, I am pleased to find a warmth that arises from realizing that, as Fight Club put it, "we are not alone". While this is a good thing in the sense that this allows us to grow strong by uniting, it is a bad thing in the sense that many of us are all making the same mistakes.

So, in the interest of helping with both the former and the latter, I've decided to address one of the rampant problems in the micro-film community. It's the A-word that your mom would have washed your mouth out with soap for saying.

That's right, it's: audio.

Even now, I hear moaning in the back: "We're filmmakers after all! Why must we learn about audio? Isn't that the audio guy's job?" Well, sure, in a way, it is the audio guy's job. However, let us not wax eloquent on the multitudes of different people we have working for us. By the very definition of micro-filmmaking, if you're a micro-filmmaker then you and most everyone on your "crew" wears about a dozen different hats.

As such, often times, the audio guy is just your cousin Morris who's tall enough to hold the boom mic above your talent or your crazy brother Edward who's devised a super-microphone by combining eight $4 USB mics! Let's be honest with ourselves! There's nothing wrong with starting from humble beginnings, but there is a problem when we focus too much on video quality to the exclusion of audio.

As much as every one of us loves the filmic look of the high end Panasonic, Sony, and Grass Valley cameras, a better camera will not help you if you do not understand the basics of audio.

Who am I to talk about audio, you may ask? I am the filmmaker who has probably made the most mistakes in audio on this planet. While I'm sure that someone has outclassed my ability to screw up audio somewhere, I have yet to meet him. (I heard a rumor that there is a man in Swahili-land that has made more audio mistakes, but I discount that rumor because I don't think Swahili-land exists.)

On my first film, I was putting a cheap shotgun mic 5, 10, and 15 feet away from my talent, allowing my camera person to "proof" the audio from a day's shooting with $4 headphones, and accidentally putting the mic-in plugs into the line-in ports on the switcher. Oh, and, just for fun, I shot an entire shooting day with the audio muted! The fact that I caught that last element is shocking, since I was "too tired" to actually proof any of my dailies as I was shooting!

Needless to say, when I finally hooked up with my eventual audio guy, John (John waves from the corner, sipping an iced mocha), after a year of editing and re-editing the film, John tore out all his hair. You think I'm lying? John used to have a full head of hair…now he's bald! Oh, wait…that's me. He's the one with the pony tail. (John smacks Jeremy, being careful not to dump his coffee on his audio console.)

So, am I saying that in order to get good audio we have to be masters of sound design? No, although familiarity with that art can help you create a more three dimensional film. (If you're especially interested in that, you can read the review we did of David Sonnenschein's book Sound Design in this issue.) Instead, what I am saying is that you need is to simply be aware of audio and its importance.

Most filmmakers think that the footage you capture is about 40% of a film, the editing is another 40%, with audio elements "filling" in the other 20%. The reality is that the audio is actually more like 70% of the film and the shooting, editing, and snappy titles are only 30%.

Think I'm wrong? Explain The Blair Witch Project, then.

A very poorly shot film, it was nonetheless watchable because Artisan spent a lot of money sweetening and re-looping the audio after it was purchased. (Of course, good audio can't salvage films that break every rule of visual filmmaking, like Paul Greengrass' migraine-inducing The Bourne Supremacy. But that's a bit more of a rarity than bad audio.)

Imagine what you can do if you combine competent shooting with decent audio? Literally, the world is limitless if you can get your hands on both of these.

So, where do we start?

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