Thursday, 28 June 2007

Let's Go To Work

For the next few weeks, if you will excuse me, the blog will focus more on the job that I am about to start.

I’ve been working as a production sound recordist now for close to 3 years, and have worked in the sound department in films and commercials in one capacity or another for the last 7. This is about all the background that I’ll be giving for now.

In a little under two weeks my team and I will start work on the shooting of a film about the life and times of record producer, Joe Meek, entitled Telstar.

This week and next is set with preparing the equipment, working out what will be needed, what I have, what I need to hire in and from where – and also looking at the best process of transferring the daily sound rushes from the machine that I’ll be recording on to the machined that the editor will be assembling the cut upon.

Big changes have occurred in the last few years, not just in the manner in which film is consumed and in the camera’s that are used to capture them, but also in the field of sound recording. Technical necessity has seen sound capture techniques improve in almost leaps and bounds from its earliest days back in 1929.

It is a shame that, even in its earliest days, sound and camera where often to find themselves at conflict. Early microphones were un-wieldy and picked up too much background noisy, cameras were noise and large, and so had to often be covered with sound proofing – limiting their movement.

As things improved, the manner in which filming took place changed – the amounts of money being thrown around made every minute of every day more and more expensive. Multiple camera shots became common in an attempt to speed things up. I understand that with things like stunts or moments that you are limited in being able to recreate safely benefit from multiple cameras capturing enough footage to help the editor, but often multiple cameras become a false economy and actually, when used in correctly, slow things down.

A good example of how to use them can be seen in Heat. The coffee shop scene between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino is shot using two cameras and a technique called cross shooting. As the lenses are deep, the height above each actor’s head is matching without risking getting the other camera or equipment in shot – thus you are able to capture the actors playing off each other. Matching shots make sense. If two cameras are used, but one is on a tight lens and one on a wide lens, then you limit how close the microphone can get to the actor. You effectively get wide sound for both shots – meaning that either the shot is no good or the sound is no good. As it is easier to replace the sound than re-film, often ADR is used, which costs money and loses performance.

Personal radio mic’s, or lavalier lapel mic’s are often suggested, funnily enough by other departments than the sound department. These are okay, but are designed really to be used in locations when a boom mic would have trouble picking up the dialogue regardless of how close it could get. The inferior quality of the radio mic is often masked by the uncontrollable and high background noise. It is a shame, though, that many sound recordists are asked to compromise their work in often unnecessary circumstances.

Modern times have seen changing in the format in which films are accepted by the audience, and so, also, how the format that they are filmed using has changed. The big nuisance for sound departments with newer cameras are two fold – firstly, cameras are able to now continuously film for up to 45 minutes – a long time for a boom op to hold a microphone above their head. Secondly, the hardware contains computer chips and boards that are prone to over-heat. As such, most cameras now days have very noisy fans built into them to stop them from shutting down or overheating.

Radio mic’s have improved considerably in both size and quality, but are still a long way away from the quality of boom mic’s, which really haven’t changed much.

The number of tracks now available to record upon has improved a great deal. In my time in the industry there was still the odd sound recordist who preferred to record on analogue reel-to-reel. The format offered a sturdy recording, with no chance of the sound levels over-loading. The recording length was quite limiting though, and often tape’s would be reloaded several tens of times throughout a shooting day.

DAT replaced reel-to-reel. A better recording floor, but less of a ceiling (imagine two parallel horizontal lines. The lower is the sound floor – on analogue recording this is raised because of tape hiss, it is also higher the more background noise you have – the higher line is the ceiling, the absolute top point that you can record to – on digital going over this will lead to distortion and cut off, or recording hot). Recording lengths greatly increased, information imbedded into the tape, such as time code, didn’t affect this either. It was, however, limited to two tracks of recording.

Hard Drive recording has seen the number of tracks available increase dramatically, feeing up the recordist from a mixers role allowing them more time to control the environment, deal with problems and more chances to get the live sound that they need.

The device I’ll be using is the Sound Devices 744t HD recorder a very user-friendly and sturdy four track recorder. The last couple of days I’ve been wondering if the best method of getting the rushes from the machine is by burning a daily DVD of the data, which can, with verification, take twenty to thirty minutes at the end of a long day. Or, my preferred method, rotate a series of 4GB Compact Flash Cards. What has stopped the CF cards being an option in the past was that they were limited to 1 or 2GB.

At 2GB, running at 48khz of sample rate and 24bit, you could get just under an hour if you used all four tracks – which could lead to having to change cards at some point in the day. Not a major hassle, but if you are recording outside in the dark of a night shoot, you should limit the number of plugging and unplugging of anything on the machine as much as possible. A 4GB card should easily last the day out.

I’ll be running tests early next week.


Howard S. Berger said...

Is this the adaptation of the Nick Moran play? I know that there was another fictionalized production that has been in delayed launch for a few years now. Curious to find out which one this is. I have just spent the past four years putting together a documentary about Joe (in post production now) and I'm very interested to see what aspects of his life/work are being focused on. I've heard very good things about the West End production -- was planning a trip overseas to see it last year, but work, as always, got in the way...

Monkey Pipe said...

It is the Nick Moran play, yes - Nick is directing also, and has taken the actor over from the stage. I never saw the play, but my Dad has been filling in several blanks about Joe Meek, and I've been looking at the documentary stuff that exists at the moment - it's a great story. What areas is your documentary looking to focus on? Good luck in post!