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Scouting for Sound

Contributed By Fred Ginsburg

One of the most critical areas for Sound is the selection of the shooting location. All too often, sites are selected without even remote regard for noise or acoustic conditions. Unlike the camera lens, which can frame out those items which the director does not wish the audience to see, the microphone cannot be particularly selective in what it hears. Unwanted background noise is omnipresent, and will permeate a set irregardless of camera framing or the addition of a few flats & props.

For example, imagine the production of an 1860’s period western. The camera operator can remove a tall radio tower gridwork from the visual background by either framing it out or blocking it from view with a strategically placed foreground cactus tree. The sound mixer, on the other hand, has no simple method of "framing out" distracting sound such as a busy freeway directly behind the setup.

In this situation a western being shot in an urban location the odds are extremely high that all of the dialogue would have to be replaced by means of ADR, unless some science- fiction quirk in the storyline could successfully explain the presence of freeway noise during the 1860’s! In a less extreme example, imagine the difficulties involved in trying to record dialogue or interviews in tightly cramped, hard-walled offices that sound like echo chambers. As if the acoustics weren’t evil enough, add to this nightmare the sporadic rumble of a central air conditioning system along with the frequent intrusion of nearby office typing, phone calls, loudspeaker pages, and computer printers.

If you think that either of these examples are just bizarre creations of a twisted author’s imagination, then you haven’t been out on very many shoots yet! One time, I was hired to record sound on a video interview with the legendary Mother Theresa. The site that the producer and director selected was virtually the chamber of audio horrors described above. We videotaped in the library of a convent. The room was a visually acceptable array of book shelves, and with some artistic rearranging of the volumes it transformed into an okay background for picture.

As for acoustics, forget it! Hard walls and bare floor all contributed to extreme echo. Noncontrollable air conditioning and venting created a distracting level of room noise. Add to all of that a ton of machine noise from the adjacent physical plant. What we had was the Dante’s Inferno of Sound! Although I did the best that I could, there was no way that this saintly woman was going to sound as good as she should have for an interview of this magnitude. Considering that this video interview relied mainly upon what she had to say as opposed to what she looked like the production company really blew it when they came up with this location. Sound, despite its importance to the final product, usually gets very little consideration on the set—or BEFORE.

Scout with your ears Prospective location sites (and even many so-called studios) should be evaluated for their conduciveness to good sound as well as good picture. Location scouts should learn to examine a site with their eyes closed and ears open literally and for about ten to fifteen minutes minimum. In fact, I know of one professional scout who goes so far as to plant a cassette recorder at each location and then returns later in the day to retrieve the recording. In this way, her producer/clients have the option of asking their own soundpeople for opinions as to the workability of a proposed location.

Scout with regard to time of day It is equally important, when evaluating a location, to do the scouting on the same day of the week and hour as the proposed shooting schedule. One show that I was involved with had chosen to shoot at a ranch out in the country. When the producers visited the site, they did listen for sound and found the location to be as pastoral as a storybook. That was on a Wednesday. The producers figured that a weekday would bound to be noisier than the weekend on which they planned on shooting. Or so they thought... Come the Saturday of the shoot, the ranch itself was as quiet as could be. But just a hoot ‘n holler down the road happened to be the local dirt-bike racetrack and play area. All day long, both days, our takes were continuously interrupted by the roar of un-mufflered motorcycles. Some of these weekend riders even did us the added favor of performing practice runs up and down the roads on either side of the ranch. What more is there to say? Scout locations carefully and wisely, with your ears as well as eyes. A few extra dollars spent in checking a place out can be worth tens of thousands in either lost production time and/or post-production "repairs".

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