10 Things You’re Doing That Are Killing Your Film

Mark Edward Lewis at The Sound Advice TourSo you’ve got a film that you want to make and you’re a little unclear on how audio works in a film? Below are ten common mistakes that independent (and big Hollywood) filmmakers make on a regular basis. If it feels like the tone of these are a little strong, please forgive me. I have filmmakers come to my door with one or more of these issues month in and month out…sometimes as repeat customers who did not heed my advice a second time. So, please take the time to ponder carefully the warnings contained herein, and perhaps you’ll contact me for a social visit instead of an emergency post production related one.


#1: You Have No M & E Track.

You spent all this time and money making your great film. You get a distribution deal. Congratulations! You now have 30 days to deliver your deliverables and an M & E track: music and sound effects only. You figure you just need need to mute the dialogue tracks, and you submit it. Then you get a call from Quality Control saying that your M & E doesn’t cut the mustard. You have no idea why. You don’t have the $10,000+ to get one made. You lose the distribution deal. Don’t worry. It happens every day. If you had started post production in preproduction as shown in the Sound Advice Tour, you could have saved yourself this heartache. Prepare to have it built while you’re making your other post audio elements, and you’ll be WAY ahead of the game, and your distribution deal – at least from an audio perspective – will be safe.

#2: You Put Music YOU Like in Your Film.

First, do you know the demographic of the people going to watch your film? If you don’t your film is doomed, because you have no idea the “listening” of the people who are going to spend money on it. Second of all, if you don’t know what kind of music those folks resonate with, you’ll never be able to lead them emotionally to the place you want them to go. Just because you like the music your putting in your film doesn’t mean it’s good music to put in there. 9 times out of 10, the music you like ISN’T the music which should be leading these people emotionally. Do your research. Know how to use music as it should be used. Command the focus of your audience, and leave your favorite music in your playlist, not in your movie.

#3: You Don’t Understand Sound Effects.

Each of the three main audio elements of a film have their own powerful affect on an audience. Sound Effects, especially ambiences, foley, and all the elements which are “subtle” have a very specific and wildly important role in multi-media. Most independent filmmakers have no idea that well done SFX are the powerful basis for manipulating and maneuvering audiences to like their products, characters, stories and suspend disbelief. Without this knowledge and the simple steps to mastering it, everyone will consistently enjoy other people’s films better than yours.


#4: You Don’t Understand Human Hearing.

The human psyche is ALWAYS lying to you about what you hear. It actually has you believe that your sensitivity to Low, Mid and High frequencies is the same throughout the hearing spectrum. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, whether you believe in evolution or creationism, in 2015, the mind is most sensitive to the consonants of the spoken voice. As a result, most filmmakers mix their movies without taking this into account, and it’s why when watch 95% of independent movies in a festival, they all sound tinny and lack power or body. The frequencies which the mind is sensitive to make even the best “mathematically correct” mixes feel like they were mixed to rip off the hair on your head. Hollywood mixes take this into account, and it’s one of the reasons why people like listening to big-budget movies: those mixers know how to manage “loudness contour” and manipulate mixes so that listeners psychologically “like” their mixes better than yours. To the extent that a filmmaker doesn’t understand this (or their re-recording mixer), is the extent to which their audience will have extreme difficulty immersing themselves in the content of the film.

#5: Your Movie is Too Soft.

Everything is moving to Internet delivery, and until the government puts into place loudness rules (which may be very soon), soft mixes will always seem less “likeable” than loud ones. It’s how the brain works, and there are many studies and research that proves that louder is better to the mind (not necessarily to the ear). Dr. Barry Blesser, Ph.D, an academic and lecturer on the subject has written one paper about an actual organ in the ear which, when hit with loud low frequencies, sends out a pleasure response. You can read the document here  [http://www.blesser.net/downloads/eContact%20Loud%20Music.pdf]. Of course, for theatrical, DVD and broadcast, the law and the rules apply, but on the internet the sky is the limit, and since the average attention span of a user of the internet is roughly 2 seconds, studies have shown that even a 1 decibel difference will have a majority of people like the louder program material than the softer – even if it’s the same program material. Want to compete in the Internet market? You’d better know how to make your mixes louder than your competition

#6: You Use Faders to Mix Your Film.

It’s natural. Most people who have never studied the affects or nature of audio in multimedia believe that making sounds louder or softer – or panning them around the stereo or surround field – is the way to make a mix work. Just make the dialogue louder than the music, and the sound effects not drown the music, and you’ve got a good mix. Nothing can be further than the truth. In fact, moving faders is one of the most unimportant aspects of mixing all of your precious audio elements into the immersive and dramatic whole which you’ve dreamed of. If you have no knowledge of compression, equalization or the concept behind the 3-D positioning of audio in a mix, you’re lack of knowledge will force you to have to make terrible compromises which will have your audience lose energy and flow in your film at brutally critical places.

#7: You Let Your Editor Mix Your Film.

Now, I love editors. They’re usually incredibly generous people who really understand how to tell a story. The trouble is, they usually have little to no idea how to put the audio elements of a film together in a professional and moving fashion. Worse, they invariably have no idea how to use the standard tools of the audio trade nor do they have the right mixing tools to implement them. With the exception of Sony Vegas, there is NO Non-Linear Editor on the market which will afford you the ability to do a professional mix. Any editor who attempts to convince you of this, to the extent they try, is the extent to which they have no idea how to mix your elements professionally. Sadly, it is incredibly difficult to get audio out of an NLE these days, and I understand why editors want to keep audio in their timelines. Not to mention that directors are recutting their “locked” picture up until the day before delivery. Therefore, “conforming” separate audio timelines to updated “video” timelines is horrifically painful. Nevertheless, without the appropriate tools applied to your audio, it’s impossible to get the Hollywood impact your picture deserves. Your editor either doesn’t have them, or doesn’t know how to use them. If they do, they’re an incredibly rare find indeed. Pay them more.

#8: You Have No Idea How to Speak to a Composer.

Many directors fashion themselves as masters of all things in the filmmaking process. Successful directors know that having department heads who are masters of all things from within their discipline is a superior way of making a film. And nowhere is having such a department head more important than in the role of composer. Cease from thinking of your composer as having anything to do with music. She doesn’t. Instead, think of her as the “architect of the emotional path your audience follows.” If you can grab on to this, then you can also realize that your communication with them will immediately change from one of a musical vocabulary to one of emotion. And if you know the most important question to ask yourself about each beat in your film, you’ll be able to easily navigate the sometimes etherial waters of the musical content of your film – not to mention communication with your composer if you have little experience in music. How do you get the best musical score into your film? It has much more to do with you, the filmmaker, understanding where you want the emotional current of your film to be from moment to moment than it does knowing what kind of music should go where. Leave that up to the composer. If you can speak in the common language that exists between director and composer, then you’ll have a successful collaboration with her. If you don’t, you’ll suffer the standard, substandard lack of communication or partnership that is present on most independent films. Yuck.

#9: You Believe Dialogue is For Moving People Emotionally.

So many talented directors these days are also writing their own scripts which I think is wonderful. The ability to have a single creative vision from start to finish, I believe, really enhances the ability of a film to avoid “media by committee” which is ruining so many wonderful projects these days. The trouble is, many of these directors also fall in love with their dialogue…which is the death of every project. Dialogue’s main purpose is to convey story. That’s what it does best. Not character development. Not Immersion. Not emotion. Only story and plot. When we try to have the dialogue “amped up” to try to motive audiences to be emotionally changed, things turn into melodrama really fast. It’s the same in audio. Dialogue should never be mixed in such a way that it attempts to push people to another place emotionally – unless it’s an effect or something specific and seldom. If we mix dialogue as though it were the primary audio function of a movie, our audiences may have a great understanding of the story, but they’ll have been checking their phones and talking to each other throughout. You must know the other two aspects of audio and be able to interleave them deftly with the dialogue to have audiences suspend their disbelief, immerse themselves in the story, and be led emotionally where you want them to go.

#10: You Commit False Economy.

You’ve cast Sigourney Weaver as your lead. You play golf with her, so you got her for $10,000/day. Congratulations. Really. She’s amazing. You have a 20 day shoot which means you’re spending $200,000 on her. You need to record audio for 20 days. You want to hire Frank Serafine who (and I’m making this up) is $1,250/day with a $750/day kit fee for a total of $2,000/day or $40,000 total. Now the problem isL you just don’t want to spend that on audio. Instead, you know your wife’s aunt’s dog’s cousin’s boyfriend has an iPhone 6+ and is $50/day with no kit fee. You hire him. Naturally, you get crap audio and you have to re-record all of Sig’s dialogue in a studio in Automatic Dialogue Replacement. This is usually a ten day process, but Sigourney is great at ADR (and she is) and she can get it done in 5 days – or another $50,000. BUT. You also have to factor in your $2,000/day ADR studio and the $750/day ADR engineer. How did you do financially? Very poorly. This is “false economy” and it is the death of far too many independent productions. Unfortunately, it’s steely claws of doom are only discovered when the film hits post production, and it’s why I’m always screaming for filmmakers to start post production in preproduction. This kind of false economy, along with hundreds of other FE traps in production and post, ruin and destroy films just before they get to the finish line. Do your best to route the seeds of false economy in preproduction by finding and employing the best people you can even if it costs a little more. It may save you from spending thousands of dollars you never had in the first place, and it may save you from losing irreplaceable performances that only occurred on set.

If any of these 10 items seems oddly familiar or resonates with you, my strong suggestion is to register in the Sound Advice Tour before seats fill up in one of the remaining locations. Or just Google the reviews of this event and see for yourself how it’s giving independent filmmakers an incredible leg up on their competition. Don’t be left behind. Get the tools you need. Get inspired. Jump on top of the competitive heap in one day.

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