by Simon Hayes AMPS CAS
This question has been asked again and again, over the last two decades on production sound forums, and in conversations between Production Sound Mixers, Picture Editors, and Sound Editors. This is a divisive subject often leading to heated debate especially on forums and professional social media groups. I thought I’d share my thoughts and opinions.
Years ago, we PSM’s mixed to a mono quarter-inch Nagra track, and professional reputations were forged or lost by our production sound mix. There were no ISO tracks to save us should we miss time a fader cue or miss an actor ad-lib. With the careful blending of score and effects, our production sound dialog mix was pretty much what the audience heard in the theatre (give or take some equalization and level changes in post), and if the production mix did not work, the scene would be marked down for ADR.
There was change necessitated by some Directors shooting style; a well-known example being Robert Altman, who required multiple tracks of lavaliers, so his cast could overlap each other, and the advent of multiple track tape-based equipment; the Nagra D or Tascam Hi 8, followed quickly by nonlinear systems from Zaxcom, Fostex, Aaton, and later, Sound Devices, leading us to where we are today.
Similarly picture editorial and sound editorial were moving into nonlinear systems with multi track audio capabilities, the prototype systems of which are in use now; picture editorial using Avid with the ability to import multiple audio tracks, and sound editorial using Pro Tools.
The movies I work on now, I’m finding that the picture editing team is becoming increasingly adept at creating a really great sounding Avid playout with score, and sound effects added seamlessly to the production sound mix.
I have also found that for the last twenty years or so on the projects I work on, that the Dialog Editor will generally rebuild the production sound mix from the component ISO tracks I deliver.
Is this a bad thing? Does this process compromise the PSM’s importance in the filmmaking process? Has the PSM given up an element of control that we previously had when providing a single track mix? Has the advent of the Dialog Editor rebuilding the mix been helpful or a hindrance to the Production Sound team working on the set? And finally, how important IS the production sound mix in modern times?
I’ve been party to recent discussions that PSM’s have become ‘recordists’ rather than ‘mixers,’ and the importance of the production mix has been relegated. In my experience, this could not be further from the truth. I have actually found that the production sound mix is actually becoming more valuable rather than less so, even though the Dialog Editor is likely to rebuild the dialog mix using Pro Tools from the ISO components provided by the PSM.
“When Directors are hearing a really great burgeoning soundtrack in the cutting room from day one, they are more likely to be supportive of production sound rather than feeling ADR is the answer.”
There are a number of factors, the main one being the audio integration of Avid software, and the huge increase of audio skills with Picture Editors and First Assistant Editors using the Avid platform. Directors are increasingly expecting their Avid cut to sound polished, like a finished product. Picture Editorial are committing more time to getting the cut sounding great. The First Assistant Editor is literally working on the Avid sound mix in real time on a lot of the films I work on. The Picture Editor is making shot decisions so that when the Director arrives in the cutting room to catch up after the day’s shooting, they can watch a cut and be completely immersed in a scene that has added score and sound effects.
Increasingly, I am seeing Picture Editors cutting in 5.1. Ten years ago, this was rare but the phenomenon has become more and more the norm over that time. In my opinion, this attention to audio detail in picture editorial is great for production sound.
Hearing the sonically polished Avid cut from the very beginning of the project promotes confidence in the performances we capture on the set. When Directors are hearing a really great burgeoning soundtrack in the cutting room from day one, they are more likely to be supportive of production sound rather than feeling ADR is the answer. A pessimistic view of the quality of the production soundtrack from Directors means the production sound crew is less likely to get that all-important directorial support, which could lead to more collaboration and respect from our colleagues in other departments.
Another positive for our production sound mix as the Avid cut has started sounding better and better is that Directors and studios are more likely to use it for early test screenings of carefully chosen audiences to gauge opinion while still editing. There was a time when it was rare for the Avid cut to get shown without a proper temp mix by the sound editing team closer to the end of picture editing. Nowadays, using the Avid audio mix, the test screening process can begin far earlier.
The ability for the Director to be able to show the Avid cut at almost any stage is incredibly positive for the production sound mix. The temp mix is still vitally important when the test screenings audience gets bigger as the movie is closer to picture lock. Every time the production sound mix is screened the Director and Picture Editor become more confident in the mix and its ability to support the performance and narrative, and less likely for the Director needing to use ADR for technical purposes. I am fully supportive of the use of ADR for performance or storytelling reasons, but I personally feel it is a shame when performances are re-recorded for technical reasons, unless absolutely necessary due to poor location sound.
The time from picture wrap to theatrical release is often growing and the production sound mix remains within the Avid for many months (sometimes over a year!), due to a number of reasons, the main one being VFX delivery. Since this is the only reference the Director has to the performances, our production sound mix has to be great, and instil confidence, not just in the technical aspect of the recording but in the creative realm as well.
So why is it necessary for the Dialog Editor to rebuild our production sound mix from the ISO’s? I always look at it from the Dialog Editors’ perspective. They understand that often we are shooting rehearsals; dealing with ad-libs, watching a monitor as we mix, assessing if we could get more carpet in for the next take to reduce footfalls, giving our boom ops edges of frame through comms as we shoot with two or three cameras, particularly if the cameras are using zooms.
With the additional ISO tracks we record, there is so much more we are having to cope with. Along with the critical part of our jobs, adjusting input gains on mic pre-amps as we record. We are having to react to so many more variables during a take than purely mixing our faders. I feel it is more important to get the input gains on my mic pre-amps absolutely dialled in to provide technically excellent ISO tracks, rather than making sure the modulation on my mix track is perfect to nearest 1db. I am confident that the Dialog Editor will read my sound reports to find out which ISO components I used in my mix track, and work through my ISO’s to decide whether my instinctive and fast-paced decision to use a boom for a line of dialog was misplaced, and the track would have benefitted from the actor’s lavalier. We are able to provide choices for the Dialog Editor and it would be arrogant to assume that we always make the right choices between the lavs and booms when we are in the moment, during the creative process of a take. For that reason, I carefully write the elements of my mix on the sound reports, going into detail if need be. I am confident that I am delivering the best mix possible for what I perceive to be the Director’s vision.
I am also conscious that if I was the Dialog Editor, I would use the mix as a starting point, but go through the ISO tracks and listen to other choices. Even if the PSM made all the correct choices, I would still go back and rebuild the fades and balance levels using the ISO’s in the comfort of a quiet cutting room, listening through studio monitors critically, with the time to audition a mix, replay and adjust if necessary. Rebuilding the mix using the ISO components allows the Dialog Editor and the Re-recording Mixer the opportunity to “steal” words or even syllables from previous takes to help performance, or remove unwanted background noise that is unfilterable.
When I spoke to Re-recording Mixers and Dialog Editors about this article, what was most prominent was their use of de-noising plugins in subtle and creative ways with the ISO tracks. They can achieve finer detail with each ISO track rather than far broader brush strokes leading to obvious artefacts when using the same process on the mix track. This workflow is incredibly important to reduce ADR, and protect the creatively fragile original performances we capture on the movie set.
Mixers on the set have read the script, understand the story, and do their best to convey the narrative that best fits the Director’s vision. Once shooting wraps, the Director and Picture Editor may decide that two scenes in the script in linear form will be better served by intercutting to build tension or other qualities the Director wants to convey.
“It is wonderful that we are able to give creative choices to our Directors and colleagues in picture and sound post, that previously we were unable to.”
Let’s say on the first scene the PSM has mixed using the booms, with beautiful perspective; the wides sound wider, the mid shots sound mid and the close-ups sound close. In the next scene, there was an ambience or background noise issue with the booms, or perhaps the Director wanted to shoot wide and tight at the same time, so the booms never got close up coverage, forcing the PSM to prioritise the lavaliers in the mix. This scenario is very common, and it simply doesn’t work to be cutting between the two scenes with one playing air around the mics with camera perspective on the booms, and the other scene using the forced perspective of the lavaliers. Thankfully, the Dialog Editor has the ability to completely remix the first scene with the lavalier ISO tracks to intercut seamlessly with the second scene. When the audience watches those scenes in the theatre, there are no uncomfortable shifts in audio perspective that takes the viewer out of the cinematic experience.
Another pertinent point in this discussion is the picture cut and the relationship with the score. The Director may have been presented with a beautifully written and performed score by the Composer. The Director decides that this new piece of music really enhances the emotional performances in the scene and he/she asks the Re-recording Mixer to really push the volume. In our example, the PSM has been presented with a beautiful location or set to record in, with no acoustic or background noise issues, a single camera or two with matching headroom allowing us to play the camera perspective, letting the acoustics breathe and use the booms alone in our mix.
Now that the Director has asked to push the volume of the score, they will reach a point, while using the fantastic sounding camera perspective boom mix, that the Re-recording Mixer has to say to the Director, “We can’t push the score any louder without swamping the dialog on the wide and mid shots as there is room acoustics and the dialog is less upfront.” The Re-recording Mixer can offer to use a lav-only mix which allows the score to be pushed a few decibels higher without swamping the production dialog, as the lav perspective is all close regardless of camera angles. A second bonus is that the louder score will potentially hide any clothing/costume rustle from the lavalier tracks that we were concerned about while shooting the scene!
There are numerous ways in which ISO tracks are being used creatively to support the Director’s vision, both visually and acoustically. I am particularly proud we are able to supply the components, and it is wonderful that we are able to give creative choices to our Directors and colleagues in picture and sound post that previously we were unable to. With this reason, I see no negative in the fact that on films and higher budget television shows our production sound mix is usually re-mixed to support the narrative and final picture cut. It simply means MORE production dialog is likely to make it into the movie theatres with LESS reliance on ADR for technical reasons, which can only be a good thing for our craft, the theatre-going audience and the protection of the actor’s original performances.