The Doc Doctor's Clinic

Story Strategies: Debunking the Myths of Storytelling

Myth #10 “This is a documentary. The sound must sound how it sounded in real life.” Excuse me? I couldn’t hear you!
By Story Consultant Fernanda Rossi, The Documentary Doctor

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The myth in all its glory
Sound, that first casualty of a tight film budget. The sound person, so often replaced by the director himself or an intern during a shoot. The cost of a microphone, so readily dismissed in favor of the vastly more costly and often unnecessary exotic lens. And in post, the reluctance never ceases. Sound editing is an afterthought, often left to the picture editor to deal with in the last week of post-production.

Much of the above is often rationalized by invoking budgetary constraints or ideological grounds: documentaries capture reality, sound is what it is, correction during production (turning a radio off) or design in post (like adding other sounds) equals manipulation.

Yet audiences will more readily leave a screening due to faulty sound than to subpar image quality. Those who succumb to this myth are in much need of sound advice.

Possible origin of the myth
God first commanded, “Let there be light!” and never followed up with sound; maybe this is why filmmakers have a hard time not doing the same in their films. However, through millennia, humans, in storing and communicating their knowledge, moved the opposite way: from a primarily oral tradition to the predominance of the image. Through the invention first of the alphabet and later on of the printing press, documentation and communication moved slowly from the ears to the eyes. Today, visual media overwhelms our existence: texting, chat, email, etc.

This predominant use of sight to engage with the world might be the reason why filmmakers focus all their efforts on capturing images in all their breathtaking beauty and often neglect the sound, even to the most basic extent. Think how long a typical filmmaker might spend testing a camera and how little time the same filmmaker might put into trying out microphones. We, filmmakers or not, tend to be much more literate regarding issues of images, and often are oblivious to the impact of any and all sounds, including silence and noise.

Some truth to it
In the audiovisual equation, image is important—extremely so. This is evident in everyday language: we say “video” to refer to an audiovisual format. After all, a film without sound is still a film, while a story told through sound without image is an audio-book or a radio-program. It’s the moving images that define the form. However, the argument is not whether sound is as indispensable to film as image, but whether faulty sound can be tolerated as much as flawed visuals can. And the answer is a resounding no.

The real deal
Sound creates a unified, continuous world for the audience to enter and comfortably inhabit for the duration of the film. While images can assault the viewer with a remarkable variety of frames and color palettes, sound needs consistency and fluidity. In fact, the more visual variety there is, the more the sound needs to keep audiences grounded.

Even the experienced filmmaker may unconsciously neglect sound. Many are diligent in creating a look but few conceive an aural world for their film. Some argue that sound design is manipulation of reality—yet choosing a lens isn’t?

The well-known facts about the need for sound proficiency are only evident when comparing the same scene with and without sound editing—something few do, while convincing themselves that the sound quality is “not that bad after all,” a statement that stems from habituation to the material rather than from proper judgment. Such denial comes to an end only when audiences desert the room, blaming their lack of interest due to supposed faults of the story per se, when in reality it’s a sound problem affecting proper perception. And such issues are not only a matter of not being able to hear what’s being said: they extend also to subtle disruptions of the aural experience, which can elude conscious perception but still make a significant impact on the audience.

What to do
In spite of it all, sound is forgiving. A fix is indeed more costly than having done it correctly from the start, but less expensive than the equivalent fix to an image. For example, filtering a distant engine that rattles in the background is more expensive than having moved the interviewee a few feet away, but less expensive than fixing drop-outs or other image glitches with computer software, which, by the way, are often less avoidable than sound blemishes.

The first issue to tackle is to put aside all concerns of manipulation. Proper sound is always called for, and conceiving a sound palette is even better. During a shoot, spare no money on good microphones and sound people. Having important characters all set with their own microphones is expensive but often necessary. Compare that to the cost of a sound person with a boom–-something that you might need anyway, depending on the type of film.

On location, close your eyes and listen carefully. You’ll be surprised to suddenly hear a much noisier world than the one we block out when bombarded with images. And remember room-tone. It’s not impossible to recreate atmosphere in post, it’s just time-consuming for the sound editor.

Once in postproduction, budget for that sound magician who will make the audio…audible! In a worst-case scenario, today it’s acceptable to subtitle defective sound, but this shouldn’t be overused.

Sound is all too important and silence is part of creating sound. A noisy film can make even the most beautiful image seem gray.

To think further
Filmmakers are visual beings complementing their experience with sounds, while audiences are aural beings entertained by the visual world. Therefore, filmmakers should make video-aural films with an audio-visual sensibility: i.e., in the making, video takes precedence but in perception audio does.

May filmmakers realize viewers are listeners, too. May they attract audiences through their eyes while keeping them engaged through their two ears.

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Story Strategies • Debunking the Myths of Storytelling
Myth #10 “This is a documentary. The sound must sound how it sounded in real life.” Excuse me? I couldn’t hear you!

Article by Fernanda Rossi | edited by Marcia Scott | photo by James Carman
published by Documentary Educational Resources

Fernanda Rossi, 2006-2010. All rights reserved. This article can be reprinted in its entirety for educational purposes only, as long as no charges of any kind are made. Partial reproductions or modifications to the original format are strictly prohibited.

Posted on December 21st, 2010 in Doc Doctor | No Comments »

Doctor's Credentials: Internationally renowned speaker, author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers including the 2009 Academy Award nominated The Garden by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and the 2007 Academy Award nominated Recycled Life by Leslie Iwerks. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. Ms. Rossi shares her knowledge and research of story structure and the creative process in columns and articles in trade publications. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.

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