DV101: Audio for Video Pros: Sound Advice from Anarchy Post’s Eric Lalicata
I grew up on the visual side of things. In the theater, although I held many jobs, lighting was a primary vocation for me: electrician, master electrician and lighting designer. Then when I made the move to film, I started in Los Angeles as an electrician, made my way up as a best boy, gaffer and then cinematographer, where I worked for nearly a decade.
Eric Lalicata, co-founder of Anarchy Post
Although I actually got my start in live entertainment working sound in high school, I have spent very little time during my career in the sound department. I have a basic understanding of sound recording techniques and have learned more over the years, but I am by no means an expert when it comes to sound.
To that end, in order to provide some, ahem, “sound” advice to filmmakers, I turned to a true professional, Eric Lalicata, an Emmy Award-winning sound editor and re-recording mixer specializing in sound supervision and sound mixing for television and feature films. Lalicata is the co-founder of Anarchy Post in Glendale, Calif. In 2011 Anarchy Post was recognized with an MPSE Golden Reel Award and a Cinema Audio Society Award for their work on Sony’s 30 Days of Night: Dark Days.
I sat down with him on Stage A at Anarchy Post and picked his brain for advice he could offer fellow filmmakers.
JH: Let’s talk about some of the most common mistakes that independent filmmakers make when dealing with sound.
EL: One of the biggest problems we see here is not having a common sync reference between digital picture and sound.
JH: I would imagine that’s even more of an issue now with the popularity of HDSLRs, REDs and the ARRI ALEXA—cameras that are pushing the digital realm back into the film world of two-system sound.
EL: Exactly. Filmmakers have to be sure that their cameras and the production sound recorder are jammed to the same timecode periodically in order to establish a link so that postproduction can easily re-sync the dailies.
JH: That generally takes just a few seconds and requires actually plugging the recorder or slate into the camera to make sure the sync is precise, right?
EL: Yeah. It’s easy to do—and it should happen more than once during the day because equipment can get out of sync for various reasons. Also, in post, the picture editorial department may sync up only the mix track.
JH: That’s the reference track from the on-set mixer that contains a rough mix of all the individual recorded tracks but not any individual tracks, right?
Anarchy’s Avid C|24 control surfaces
EL: That’s right. It’s just meant for reviewing dailies and for the director and editor to use while cutting. It is meant to be used for reference only. Later, the sound house will reassemble all the individual mic channels for use in the final sound mix. This means we have to redo the syncing process yet again. And if the timecode isn’t correct, if it wasn’t jammed properly on set, then these individual files have to be synced by hand, which can be very time-consuming and a waste of money.
JH: Especially since you’re not just syncing one track, but four or six or eight tracks recorded for one scene.
EL: Exactly. The next problem we see a lot is just not enough microphone coverage on set. Each actor should have a wireless body mic in addition to the boom. These mics are recorded on their own “iso” [isolated] tracks in addition to being mixed into the mix track. This gives the post sound mixer and dialogue editor the most flexibility when trying to create a smooth dialogue mix.
JH: That’s obviously in a perfect world. I know there’s a lot of times when lav mics don’t work—either because of wardrobe or blocking. Do you have any tips for those kinds of situations?
EL: Having the wardrobe department assist with mic placement is always a good idea. An experienced sound utility tech will have a few tricks up their sleeve to minimize wardrobe rubbing against the mic. It involves gaff tape or these little premade mic head sleeves that really help when mic’ing under clothing.
You’re right, of course—there are always special circumstances that prevent getting the proper sound coverage. That shouldn’t prevent one from trying, however. Using “plant mics” hidden in the surrounding set is sometimes an option. Multiple boom mics can also help with coverage when lav mics are not practical.
JH: I know that I’ve been scolded by my post sound team before for shooting too many MOS [without sound] shots—mostly tight inserts or shots we want to get quickly and can’t get a mic in there right away.
EL: Shooting MOS is rarely a good idea. Mostly, don’t do it. Establishing shots maybe. Any shot with action, movement or actors in it should also have sound rolling, even if it is only to give post a reliable “guide track” to what the shot sounds like. Sometimes the actual sound makes it into the film, adding a sense of realism that library SFX can’t cover.
Often we see slow-motion shots being done MOS, sometimes with the actors saying things, or making efforts or breathing. All of that will make the film seem more real. Record it.
Anarchy Post ADR suite
JH: I would never have thought to roll sound on an off-speed shot. Very interesting.
EL: Be careful with the “We can fix it with sound” mentality. You can’t. You can change it with sound, you can sweeten it with sound, but if your shot has problems to begin with, no sound work is going to fix it.
JH: That goes along with “fix it in post,” which I generally avoid—about 98 percent of the time.
EL: On the same note, “We can fix it with ADR” is a dangerous thought process. Sometimes you can fix it with ADR. A lot depends on the actor’s ability to get back to the same emotional place they were at on the day of shooting. You should record wild lines on set for scenes that you think may need ADR. Often those recordings match production much better than ADR can. No one likes doing ADR, no one likes editing ADR, and most people don’t like hearing ADR in their film. The performances are often weaker and the sync is often loose. That being said, properly recorded and mixed ADR can really save a scene. There is a reason every film has ADR in it, but it should be a last-resort scenario—and a filmmaker should never depend on it in place of making good choices on set for sound.
JH: Good point.
EL: Multiple-camera setups, shooting a master and a close-up angle at the same time, may seem like a good idea to a producer trying to save money and maybe to the picture department, but for the sound department, it is a mic’ing nightmare. The composition of the master shot dictates how close the boom operator can get the microphone to the actors, often making the close-up angle sound “off mic.” Then when the second close-up angle reverse shot is done, the boom op can get up close. When this sequence is cut together, you end up with a master shot and one angle “off mic,” and another close-up angle “on mic.” The makes it very difficult for post to make these shots cut together smoothly.
JH: This is a situation where lavs would help balance that out, right?
JH: Any other tips?
Stage A at Anarchy Post
EL: Do not rename the files created by your digital camera or move them from the enclosing folder structure created by the camera. This isn’t really a sound-specific note, but it causes major reconnecting issues when you want to online your edit. After the footage is transcoded for editorial by the DIT, an assistant editor needs to enter the scene and take metadata associated with each clip. This information is crucial to your post sound department. Without it, hunting for the correct dialogue take is virtually impossible.
Finally, turn off anything that makes noise on your set. This may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how many filmmakers don’t take this step. If you hear it, the microphone hears it. Relight refrigerators so the compressor can be turned off.
JH: Yeah, I know one sound mixer who will always put his car keys in the location’s refrigerator to remind him to turn it back on when they leave.
EL: I guess that works. Really, think about anything in your shot that may make noise that will harm your dialogue and do whatever you can to minimize or remove it. For example, kitchen scenes will often be shot with an actor actually cooking. Don’t do that. If the shot requires the audience to see the food, pre-cook it and have the actor fake it. Pan sizzles will ruin your dialogue every time. If you are shooting a practical location, find out how to turn off the HVAC unit during takes. Put a PA in charge of that. Also, make sure you can’t hear your generator on set. If you can, it is too close. Move it.
These are the biggest issues I can think of. These common mistakes can be avoided fairly easily to make the post sound process a lot smoother.
JH: Some fantastic tips! Thank you, Eric, for your time.
EL: Absolutely, my pleasure.