Short Film Reflection


 

I sort of had every intention of only working on one project this trimester but I was given the opportunity to work on a short film and seeing as I hadn't had much practice in the area of film sound I figured it was a chance to get my hands dirty in some post production work. In a previous blog I mentioned that the start of this project was a little rocky; it was difficult for me to get a good idea of what the project actually had in store for me from the first person I spoke to, even though they initially got in contact with me they told me they weren't sure what was needed of me because they weren't the director. But after getting the directors details and organising a short meeting with him to watch the rough cut of the film and share ideas for the sound, I realised that I could easily have a good working relationship with him and the project seem well within scope for the work load I was expecting. To be honest, they wanted a lot less from me than I could offer to the project, so over time I made a point to show them exactly what could be done to improve the audio quality and convince them to let me take care of it all. This did eventually leave me with a slightly bigger work load, but at the end of the day I am confident that they have received decent quality audio for their project and I have been a part of a project I can be proud of.


I want to talk through the process of working on this project from the very beginning, including the way I dealt with working with a team that only had a rough idea of what they wanted, mixing and balancing the audio, and cleaning up assets that had been given to me.

 

Getting Started


Initially I was asked to contribute some "sound design" to the project, and coming from film people this could mean just about anything, so having a meeting with the director was essential. I took my notepad and pen to a sort of rough spotting session with the director and watch through the entire short film with him. The first thing I noticed was the sort of sparse scenery; 90% of the scenes were shot in either a completely black or white room, so specific background sounds weren't necessary. The other thing I noticed was that they already had a lot of the sound in the cut already, which was all mostly either captured on set or used from sound libraries, and to be honest it all fit rather well with the exception of needing a little mixing and timing adjustments. Feeling as though the project didn't need much work beyond a bit of music, I asked the director what exactly he thought the film needed in way of audio. He noted that he would prefer the film to be mostly silent but wanted music in some places of the film, again, not really knowing exactly what could be done but knowing that it needed something. I suggested that it would be good to have some small pieces of music that reflected what was happening on scene, like single note piano or small "riffs". He agreed and I got to work the same night.


Writing Piano


Piano Tracks for the White Room

The idea of this film is that the character is forcing herself to create a piece of art using her own blood, suggesting the pain and turmoil artists put themselves through to achieve creativity. The lady in white represents the artists creative side being punished into creating art, and the lady in the black suit is the side of the artist that is determined to create something which can be admired by an audience regardless of the pain it puts her creative side through. The lady in black is watching through a camera and judging the lady in white as she physically harms herself in the process of trying to paint. The audience is shown that these two people are one in the same with a shot of the lady in blacks face, which quickly cuts to the lady in whites face. I wanted to enhance this reveal using the piano score I had written. I had reversed the entire track of piano to play with tension and building up to reveals like this one, so I used one of these reversed piano tracks during the shot of the lady in blacks face, and then on the cut, used one of the more resolving pieces of piano, to sort of link the two shots together and suggest a reveal or conclusion.



I used some of the more dissonant piano to reflect negative emotion or surprise during the film, like the shot where she pricks her finger for the first time. The sharp attack and high pitched tone of this piano is used to reflect not only the pain the character is feeling, but also evoke a sense of shock from the viewer.



The piano was all written and performed in FL Studio, mostly because I knew I could easily compose in the DAW I'm familiar with. So I wrote a bunch of different single note hits and small motifs which I could export out all in the same file, and then imported that into Pro Tools to cut up into the film. This kind of prevented me from over loading the film with score, and had me making creative choices about where and when I should place particular piano sections.


Eery Sound Design


The very first scene was probably my favourite to work on, I had discussed with the director the idea of having the sound of popcorn gradually increase to an uncomfortable level until the cut into the next scene and he seemed to think it was a good idea. Before I got start on any of that though, I wanted to have a sort of theme for the guy starring into the microwave; he's kind of meant to be the "bad guy" in this film, representing the average consumer and their ambivalence and carelessness for artwork. So I wanted to have an eery sort of abstract motif for this character that I could call back to later on when I wanted to the viewer to feel uncomfortable in this character's presence. I couldn't resist using my new toy, the Behringer Neutron semi-modular synth to make the sound for this. The patch I created was a drone sound with a bit of an echo on it, which I recorded into Pro Tools and then added extra echo effects with a lot of feedback. I would love to go over what the patch was exactly and how I created the sound, but part of the beauty of modular synthesizers is that once you take out all the cables, unless you remember exactly where they went previously, the patch is gone forever. I do however recall adding to this drone with a subtle sub frequency "wub" sound, that I was controlling on the synth while played through the scene; you can hear this sound in the first scene come in very slightly with a bit of over-tone distortion added to it.


I finished these small additions in the first week of having the project as a sort of trial to see if the director liked where I was headed. We had another small meeting the following week to collect some assets, and during this session I made sure to show the him what I had done so far so I could better gauge his opinion while I sat with him. He mentioned that I had actually used the piano parts too much in the white room scene, but he liked the direction I was going in. While I sat with him I removed some of the piano parts within the session to see if he liked it better, and he did. I think it was much better to have too much sound implemented rather than too little, because it meant that I could remove it while I sat there with him and sort of get his input as I went along.


Strings

The director and I had a discussion during our spotting session about using strings and he noted a couple of movie scenes where a long strings section built up during a tense moment. I was trying to find a suitable time to have this during the film but the build sound they had for the scene it was necessary in worked fine. I did want to use strings however, so I used a similar approach with writing the strings as I did for the piano and created a couple of basic staccato string shots and short builds. In the scene with the build, the camera cuts between the man and the painting quick jarringly, so I used these staccato string shots to emphasise this. After this scene builds to it's climax there is a shot of the man looking around right before the scene cuts to the next shot, I used the short build I had made in this section to lead up to the transition in scene.




Tidying Up and Sound Design


Room Tone

If there's anything notable about what I learned during this project, it would be that receiving audio assets from a film team that didn't have an audio person involved from the beginning is a bit of a nightmare. Not only are they slightly unaware of what formats these assets should all be in, the assets themselves are certainly not the best quality. Just mainly because I wasn't given any sort of room tone track, so I had to do my best to pull out bits of room sound that suited the different scenes. RX 7 was incredibly handy for this; there were a few bits of room tone that were perfect for the first bit of the white room scene, but they had a lot of movement sounds in them that I wanted to remove without interfering with the room tone. In RX I simply highlighted the sections that I wanted to remove, and used the attenuation tool in the spectral clean up option to remove them, which worked perfectly. I then took a small section of this tidied up audio and popped it back in under sections that needed room tone.


Cleaning Up

There wasn't an awful lot of dialogue in this film so most of the cleaning up I had to do was actually removing dialogue, mostly being the crew talking in between takes, or during takes that they presumed wouldn't need audio, which again was pretty minimal. I used a small amount of noise reduction on some of the tracks that had different room tone to the room tone I had created. They had sort of vital diagetic sounds in them that I wanted to keep, but I needed to remove the room tone; RX comes in handy once again. The scene right at the end when the painting is burned is full of audio from the crew talking, so I completely deleted the audio track and added in my own. Luckily there was plenty of decent room tone from the previous bit of audio where she opens the bottle of kero and pours it over the painting. The sound of the fire wasn't really coming through in the original recording anyway so I had to make that myself.



It's worth mentioning that I didn't really bother putting things into my own configuration in Pro Tools, I more or less left everything in the tracks I was provided and tidied up from there. I made this choice mostly because the tracks weren't all separated into the different sounds; the way the editor had put together the audio tracks had sounds from different scenes on the same tracks and all different kinds of dialogue together, so moving it all around would have been a nightmare.


Creating Sounds

I had never made foley for fire before so I had to do just a little bit of research on the topic before I got started with this sound. The crackling of the fire was mostly what I was looking for, and is kind of the most recognisable sound of a fire, and I found a couple of sources that suggested slowly crinkling soft plastic would give a similar sound. So I grabbed a couple different kinds of plastic wrapping from around the house and for the length of the fire scene, crinkled the plastic for a few different takes, slowing down the crinkling as the fire gets less intense. For the wind around the fire, I blew into the side of my SM57 and took a lot of the low end out of the recording.


There were a bunch of clips that needed to be sort of timed better with the film, and a lot of things that weren't needed at all, so that was a majority of the cleaning up process. However, using RX to help me with my sound design in some cases, as well as cleaning up, was an interesting endeavour. When the popcorn builds up in the first scene, I wanted the amount of popcorn to increase and fade in slowly from the left and right channel separately, without the microwave sound going with it. This kind of makes it sound like the amount of popcorn popping is increasing rather than just the volume. I used RX in this case to remove the low hum of the microwave and leave the sound of the popcorn for my stereo separation.



Mixing and Mastering


I spent a fair amount of time touching up certain elements of the mix after hearing back from the director. The heavy breathing at the beginning for example was too loud and was meant to sound more like it was coming from the character, so I took some of the low end out and brought it down in level until it sounded right. A majority of the sound from on set was fairly easy to balance because it was mostly to do with perspective, and the perspective was already fairly set with the clips I had been given. It took a little bit of balancing and EQ to get the microwave, popcorn and drone synth sounds all to fit together, but the most important sound was the microwave so I kept all the low end content in that track and adjusted the other elements to compliment. I did some small reverb tricks with the scene in the white room, like using a bit of convolution reverb to actually place the alarm in the room; during the shot of the lady in the control room pressing the button that triggers the alarm, I lowered the reverb level to make it sound more like it's coming from the computer she's using, and then brought the reverb back in as soon as the film cuts back to the white room.


Balancing was a big part of the mix in this film, seeing as a lot of the frequency content changes I did were using RX to clean them up, rather than embellishing them with extra effects. Once I was satisfied with everything, including the placement, level and balance of all the sounds, I decided it was time to bring everything up to level for standard video streaming platforms like YouTube. I did a really basic amount of mastering by using a limiter on my master and bringing everything up to -13LUFS. I would have done a bit more processing in my master like slightly boosting high frequencies above about 10-12kHz, or removing low frequencies in the 30-40 register, but I didn't feel like it needed to be done at all because of the processing I had already done on all my other elements. I did however notice that things like the heavy breathing at the beginning were a lot louder than they needed to be after I applied the limiter, so I adjusted some more levels after that and got everything into an appropriate level.


 

Happy that I was able to get my hands dirty in a film project, and apparently the film team liked it too because they've asked me to work with them on their major project next trimester!


A couple things to take away from this project, and surprisingly they're mostly not to do with the editing process or anything like that, but more or less to do with working with another discipline. Although in a professional environment, the people I may be working with will have a professional approach to delivering assets, I should make a point to clarify thoroughly how I'm going to get assets and in what format I would prefer. This was sort of a minor problem, but it also gave us the opportunity to sit down and talk through the additions I had made to the project face to face. So making time to actually sit with the client or director to show them the progress I've made is a definite plus, as it gives me the opportunity to make changes on the spot and gauge their reaction. I've most definitely learnt more about the way RX works and how it can be used both for clean up and also sound design, and just another point of processing, mastering or setting loudness can be a bit tricky in post. A lot of the elements I had set low in the mix were suddenly a lot of louder than I thought they would be and I had to go back through and readjust everything. In the future I could probably apply a limiter at the start of my mixing process and bypass it until I want to reference at a industry standard level.


Anyway, keen to work on this new project with these guys next tri, I'm sure it'll be filled with even more learning experiences.