Audio post-production pro Greg Malcangi talked to us about optimizing audio in filmmaking. London born and trained, Malcangi now owns Darkside Audio, based in Macedonia. Depending on budget, filmmakers can hire a Production Audio Manager (PSM) to deal with audio on set, or do the audio management themselves.
Working with a Dedicated PSM
What steps can be taken on set during filmmaking to avoid problems later in post-production? Malcangi replies, “In a word, ‘consideration’! Many filmmakers, at all levels, seem fixated on the image until they get to post-production, when it’s already too late.”
He goes on to say, “Most audio problems can be fixed in audio post but almost without exception, the fix results in more cost and compromised quality. So ‘consideration’ of audio is needed throughout the filmmaking process.”
“For instance,” Malcangi says, “as soon as you’ve completed the shooting script go through it with the Production Sound Mixer (PSM). The PSM should be able to identify many potential problems and suggest a range of possible solutions before you get anywhere near the set. For example, an extreme solution may be to change the filming location, a potentially viable option if proffered at an early stage of pre-production but much less viable if you’re already on set.”
There’s another aspect to Malcangi’s “consideration.” “Give your PSM the respect and authority he/she deserves on set as a department head and which he/she needs to help you make the best film possible.”
Malcangi stresses, “It’s such a shame to see a good acting performance captured on film, only to be destroyed by lifeless ADR.”
Hiring a PSM can make life easier for a filmmaker. “The number of potential audio problems on set is almost limitless,” Malcangi says, “and of course varies widely from location to location. With all the other considerations and responsibilities of directing and shooting, it’s unrealistic for a filmmaker to expect to also develop enough expertise in the field of production sound to capture decent or high quality audio.”
Consider this when you’re hesitating about bringing a PSM on board. “Although I’ve only got anecdotal evidence,” Malcangi says, “the biggest cause of rejection by film festivals and TV broadcasters is audio quality. Bearing in mind the cost of hiring a PSM can be anywhere from $0 to over £1,000 (about $1,500) per day, the filmmaker should only need to trouble themselves with listening and acting on the advice from their PSM rather than trying to acquire all the necessary expertise.”
Acting as Your Own PSM
For many emerging filmmakers, the cost of hiring a Production Audio Manager is beyond budget. That’s no reason to neglect the process, however. Says Malcangi, “Essentially, the only reason why pre-production and production exist in the first place, is to provide the raw materials for post-production! ADR is the time consuming and expensive process of exchanging better recording quality for poorer performance quality and should therefore always be viewed as a solution of absolute last resort. The vast majority of ADR at every level of filmmaking is due to avoidable failures in pre-production and production.”
Malcangi offers this advice for the zero-budget filmmaker: act as your own PSM. “The first thing you’ll need to try and do, is to think like a PSM and understand a PSM’s motivations. The role of PSM could be described as ‘ADR Avoidance’ and therefore the primary consideration of the PSM is to record clean dialogue, eliminating as far as possible all other sounds.”
This mindset must be part of a filmmaker’s viewpoint from the beginning. “So when you scout a location,” Malcangi says, “you’ll have to spend some of your time thinking like a PSM. If the location is a room with a lot of echoes/reverb, plan to take a bunch of blankets and stands to hang them on (to absorb sound reflections). You may need some carpets or rugs to deaden footsteps, sheets of rubber to place under tablecloths during eating scenes, coasters for cups and glasses, fake ice cubes.”
Don’t overlook potential electrical problems, Malcangi advises. “Check if you have separate electrical circuits for lighting and recording equipment and do a test sound recording, which can identify invisible problems like areas of high RF or EM interference.”
When you’re scouting locations, Malcangi suggests, “Do background research on your location and if you’re not already intimately familiar with it, ask the locals. A location which may appear perfect when scouting may turn out to be a nightmare when you arrive to film. Maybe the traffic (road, rail or air) dramatically increases at certain times of the day or on certain days, maybe there’s a nearby market, sporting or leisure event which only occurs on certain days and at certain times.”
Locating in or adjacent to airfields (as opposed to airports) can tend to be a hidden problem. They are “… much busier on weekends than on weekdays (depending on the weather and time of year).” And he says, “Nice sunny weather can turn a turn a deserted location into a hive of activity or vice versa.”
- Make sure that everything at the location can be switched off: Air-Con, fridges, fans, heaters, boilers, dimmer switches, computers, cell phones, any other type of machine (washing, coffee, etc.), garden sprinklers, water pumps, etc.
- Make sure noise-making items can be removed, like clocks and wind chimes and that doors and windows can be securely closed when filming interior shots.
- Consider that some types of clothing materials can obliterate an otherwise good dialogue recording.
- Always record a minimum of 30 sec. of good room tone immediately before or after the shot.
- As director you can aid your role as PSM by enforcing good noise discipline on set from the cast and crew.
- Always have a good set of headphones and check your take is printable from a sound point of view rather than just from a performance/cinematographic point of view. Always do a safety take or at a minimum, an additional wild take of the dialogue, even if it appears perfect.
Malcangi offers a few insights on audio recording equipment. “The right recording equipment is quite a large subject area but at a minimum: A camera’s built-in mic is rarely capable of recording usable quality dialogue and a balanced mic (XLR connector) is always going to have better interference rejection than an unbalanced mic.
“Remember,” he says, “that a camera mic produces an invaluable sync reference when using an external sound recording device (as does a clapperboard). If the camera is being used as the sound recording device, remember to turn off any automatic leveling/trim/gain options.”
Audio Post Production
Once you’ve captured the best audio you can on set, it’s time for post-production. Malcangi’s business, Darkside Audio, specializes in high-end audio post at considerably lower cost. He accomplishes this by basing his facility in Macedonia, a country on the northern border of Greece.
“We’ve drastically slashed our operating costs by moving to probably the cheapest location in Europe, Macedonia. To give you some idea, income and business tax is a flat rate 10% and the average gross income is roughly $500 a month! Meanwhile work-flows are virtually unaffected, OMFs or AAFs (audio files) uploaded to our secure FTP server and communications via Skype. We even have solutions to encourage maximum client participation, to monitor progress and provide feedback/approval.”
“The most obvious way of providing a low cost service,” says Malcangi, “is to reduce investment costs in equipment and facilities, reduce operating costs by locating away from the most expensive areas of the city or to employ inexperienced, cheaper staff. With the exception of location, the other two options inevitably result in a reduction in ability to produce creative, high quality sound.”
“I’ve been lucky to have worked for most of my career at the higher end of the market, so I had little interest in creating a low quality audio post service… I haven’t compromised on investment, so my equipment/facilities are industry standard for the higher end of the market.
“What I’ve done instead is gone to the extreme of reducing operating costs by locating my business in probably the cheapest location in Europe, Macedonia. My prices are therefore roughly one quarter of the price you would expect to pay for an identical higher-end facility in London, LA or New York. The result is that higher-end audio post is now available to those with much smaller budgets and this, I believe, is revolutionary.”
This business model is familiar to some film processes. “It’s becoming quite common even in high budget productions,” Malcangi says, “to outsource CGI and VFX to Eastern Europe companies, and even some of the large audio post houses in LA and London outsource to Eastern Europe. All I’m doing is cutting out the middle man!”
Malcangi expected from the outset that the vast majority of his clients would be based in a different country. “We have in place a secure FTP server to exchange OMFs/AAFs, video edits and audio files and where I can upload test mixes for client feedback. There’s also email, of course, and Skype so we can chat free from the concern of international phone costs.
“We also have various other options to encourage client participation in the audio post process but of course our location is less convenient than being based in one of the traditional high-end audio post locations. I strongly believe though that this slight loss of convenience is small price to pay for any filmmaker working with a restrictive budget who doesn’t want to compromise on quality.”
Malcangi’s Darkside Audio facility boasts:
• A sound designer/chief mix engineer who is a BAFTA finalist and a certified ProTools instructor with nearly 20 years experience at the high end of the London audio post scene. In addition to feature film credits, he also has credits for the BBC (UK), ABC Family (USA), Discovery Channel (Europe) and many others.
• Acoustically controlled, calibrated environments, using the industry standard equipment common to almost all high-end audio post facilities; Apple Mac Pros running ProTools HD systems and ICON D-Control.
“Personnel and facility resources required to complete your project on time and to the highest standards can vary considerably,” Malcangi says, “depending on format and genre. For this reason Darkside Audio quotes per project rather than a daily rate. However, to help you compare our unprecedented costs, a full audio post service can be as low as $150 per day.”
Seducing Your Film Audience with Sound
There’s a statement on your website, a quote from Randy Thom, known for his work on, among others, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and The Incredibles: “Sound may be the most powerful tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal in terms of its ability to seduce. That’s because ‘sound,’ as the great sound editor Alan Splet once said, ‘is a heart thing.’ We, the audience, interpret sound with our emotions, not our intellect.”
This is something which “…in my opinion cuts to the heart of high quality audio post.”
Malcangi says, “Many directors and producers make the effort to convince me of how important they believe sound to be but often their actions contradict their words. It would appear they’re either lying or fooling themselves. To be brutally honest, I believe it’s the latter.
“This attitude is entirely understandable if you fully appreciate the meaning behind Randy’s and Alan’s words. When we watch a film, even a relatively slow paced film, the brain is presented with far more information than it is able to process consciously. Eyesight is the dominant sense so we consciously process a high percentage of the picture. Likewise the dialogue is usually essential to our understanding, so most of that is consciously processed. So too are the most obvious sound effects (SFX).”
“However,” Malcangi says, “there’s another layer to the dialogue and obvious SFX, plus at least one or more layers of additional SFX (room tone, background and ambient SFX) which are processed by the brain but of which we are not consciously aware and that’s where their power lies!”
“A skilled audio post craftsman (or craftswoman) can use this fact to communicate directly with the subconscious to very convincingly manipulate not only the audiences’ attention but also their emotional responses and even their physiological response. In many cases, the sonic tricks we use only work because the audience is not consciously aware of them!
“Many directors don’t have the budget to experience working with the most highly skilled audio craftspeople, and film schools generally teach sound appallingly. So, most directors are barely more aware of the subconscious potential of sound than their audiences and consequently often view sound as the technical chore of struggling to achieve acceptable sound quality, rather than realise it’s power as a full artistic contributor.”
“It’s the difference,” Malcangi says, “between sourcing and sync’ing some appropriate sounds, and crafting a soundscape to manipulate the audience into feeling they’re actually there, sharing the experience with the actors. The sound which enters our ears is well understood and easily described by science but the way we perceive sound and how that perception changes with different moods and situations is fascinating and far more closely related to art than to science.
“From a sound design point of view, there is a small minority of directors who appear to appreciate and employ sound to it’s fullest potential. For example and in no particular order: Leone, Spielberg, Tarantino, Cameron, Scorsese, Hitchcock, Coppola, Kubrick (and others).”
“Let me ask you a question: This list appears to share many similarities to lists of legendary modern directors which might have been created by the public, film critics or even other filmmakers. Do you think this is purely a coincidence?”
On his website, Malcangi shares advice that other sound pros offer to screenwriters, encouraging them to write for sound. And much of “writing for sound” involves setting up a point of view (POV) in the film’s story. What specifically does a writer/filmmaker need to imagine in order for the lead character to demonstrate a point of view that will support good audio/sound design?
“I’ve spoken to a number of screenwriters,” says Malcangi, “who believe they write well for sound because they mention or detail various sounds quite frequently in their screenplays, but, in my opinion, this isn’t necessarily good writing for sound. Essentially instructing the audio craftspeople specifically what sound to create is, to a certain extent, relegating sound to a technical skill rather than an artistic contributor.”
Malcangi offers this example to illustrate his point:
“INT. SITTING ROOM – DAY
Character “A” moves to the window, looking through it, across the road at the approaching clouds, listening to the sound of thunder and the approaching wind and rain.”
Sound is mentioned and we’ve got the opportunity to create and cut in some wicked thunder SFX. This is not bad from a sound point of view but it could be played so much more interestingly. For example:
“EXT: FRONT GARDEN – DAY
Character “A” is looking through the window in the general direction of the camera, suddenly Character “A” looks directly at the camera (beyond the camera), he/she frowns as he/she focuses on something.
CUT TO: INT. SITTING ROOM – DAY.
POV Character “A” looking through window at the approaching storm.”
“Now this,” says Malcangi, “is much more interesting. The audience can’t see what the character is looking at because it’s out of shot, behind the camera, all they have is their imagination which is far more intriguing and provides much more potential. In audio post we can now play this exterior shot in a number of ways depending on the genre of the film and what the filmmaker wants to achieve. For example, we could have a light suburban atmosphere from the perspective of the camera and then suddenly a clap of thunder in the rear speakers a fraction before Character “A” looks beyond the camera. Part of the rolling thunder effect pans to the front, arriving at the front speakers to coincide with our cut to Character A’s POV.
“A skilled sound designer would then alter the sonic characteristics of the thunder, choose exactly what other background sounds to include and how to process and mix them to reflect our character’s perception of the sound. As our character’s personality and emotional state would influence their perception, so the sound designer would be creating Character A’s perception of reality, an artistic challenge far removed from just cutting in some appropriate thunder storm SFX.
“Done this way, sound is a real collaborator, providing our audience with a far more detailed and convincing insight into Character A’s personality and state of mind than could be achieved just through the moving image and/or dialogue.”
“A sudden unexpected thunderclap in the rear speakers,” cautions Malcangi, “is likely to scare the bejesus out of our audience! So we could lessen the impact and prepare the audience by anticipating the thunder with a few drops of rain and some wind and maybe mix the thunder much quieter and more distantly. Depending on how the editing goes, the film might need a bit of extra dramatic impact at this point or it might not, but writing the script in this way provides the filmmaker with valuable options rather than tying us to a precise visual image.
“All this sounds like a lot to learn but a scriptwriter doesn’t need to have a deep understanding of all the artistic sound design possibilities, just an appreciation of sound as a collaborative art and a willingness to allow space for the audience’s imagination to be exercised.
“Remember the scene near the end of Silence of the Lambs, where Clarice (Jodie Foster) is searching around an almost pitch black house? To many filmmakers the script could have appeared quite uninspiring at this point and to present limited opportunities for great cinematography. But dark and ambiguous visual images also presented the audience with an opportunity to exercise their imaginations, and the sound designers with an opportunity to manipulate the audience’s emotional and physiological responses. By allowing sound a prominent role as collaborator, the script, far from being uninspiring, has resulted in a climatic and impressively powerful piece of cinema.”
We asked Greg Malcangi if, as an audio pro based in Europe, he sees any significant differences in how European filmmakers approach film audio, as opposed to American or Latin American filmmakers?
“The simple answer would be ‘not really’.” Malcangi says, “More so than in most other areas of filmmaking, audio post styles and standards seem far more closely linked to budgets than to any geographical considerations.”
“The more detailed answer,” he says, “would be that differences cannot really be broken down geographically. I’ve always considered California (mostly centred around LA), New York and London to be the traditional world leaders in high quality audio post. Having said this, there is some world-class audio post in France, Germany and a few other places. While there are some significant stylistic differences in certain types of films made in Britain, France, Italy, Russia, the USA and more recently China, when it comes to audio post the differences are quite minimal.”
Malcangi states that “Even with a trained ear, there’s almost no way to tell just from listening, that big Hollywood style blockbusters like James Bond and Harry Potter were actually created and mixed in London rather than in Hollywood. Even some films which appear to be American rely on some or all of the audio post being done in London, The Da Vinci Code or Eyes Wide Shut for example. This internationalisation is quite common in the very high-end audio post world and has been for quite some time.”
He says, “Add to this equation Dolby sound specifications and the dominance of AVID ProTools and the result is largely industry standard equipment and almost identical expectations of audio post styles and standards.”
“When it comes to audio post style and standards,” Malcangi says, “the UK is far more closely related to the US than to any of its geographical partners in Europe. This is largely due to the common language and partly due to its experience in high quality TV and film production, which of course filters down to the more modestly budgeted productions.”
Malcangi adds a post script: “Digital Cinema could, in theory, democratise film making and as it breaks Dolby’s virtual monopoly on film sound, it could in turn promote more diversity in audio post styles and conventions, but the potential loss of Dolby specifications and standards is very much a two edged sword. Interesting times!”
For more information on Greg Malcangi, start with his company Darkside Audio’s website.
For more on how a filmmaker can learn to incorporate good audio, see the “Sound Advice” section of his website.