The Importance of "Pre" In Post-Production Audio

The terms “pre” and “post” are two very deceptive demarcations in filmmaking. Labeling yourself as a pre-production crew member might mean that your involvement becomes confined to only the time before production, regardless of your vision for the project. Likewise, post-production crew members may not be brought onto a project until it’s been written, shot, and reshot. They haven’t been part of the growth of the film, and so they may have a harder time understanding its intention or how they can contribute their own voice to a nearly-finished project. If a crew is brought on in a piecemeal fashion, then creative cohesion can be lost along the way. Consider, for example, how much more disorganized a film would be if the cinematographer wasn’t brought on during pre-production to discuss shot lists and coverage.

To  be clear, I strongly believe that a film should be a living work, one that is changeable and malleable as new ideas arise and as improvisation provides. However, a thematic consistency needs to be established and upheld for a film to feel whole and unified. One of the best ways to achieve this thematic cohesion - especially on low-budget films with a tight deadline - is to bring on your post-production crew into pre-production. While a few post-production positions (such as visual effects) are brought in either before or during the production phase, they are in the vast minority. Having more than the production-essential post crew members join a project early gives them time to mull over creative ideas, to talk with the production crew about those ideas, and to start collecting assets and making demos to show the rest of the team.

While every aspect of post-production can be improved by having these crew members brought on early, I’ll be looking specifically at post-production audio as a representation of the whole. As a post-production sound mixer and designer, I feel most passionately about audio and am most familiar with how it can be improved on low-budget sets, but this article can be taken as advice for any area of post-production, from editing to color.

Improving Your Production Sound

Often, the post-production sound mixer and the production sound mixer are the same person on small-budget films. If they’re not, it’s a good idea to have them meet and talk strategy before production begins. They’ll be able to talk over what extra sound effects,
“walla,” or ambiences they want captured on set as well as what type of mic is best for what purpose. For example, if the film is heavy and dark thematically, the post and production sound mixers might decide to use a microphone with a better low-end frequency response. Conversely, if the sound mixers have planned for the sound design to be sharp and punchy, they might decide to go with a mic with a better high-end response. Of course, they might want to be able to have more flexibility in post production, so they might use a mic with a flat-response. It’s all about preference. Personally, I love having as much flexibility as possible in post-production, so I like to check out what kind of mics the production mixer is using to make sure they’ll give me enough room to experiment in post. Having your post and production sound mixers talking can ensure that they’re on the same page about what kind of audio the project needs and the best way they can go about capturing it.

Also, I cannot stress enough how important it is to take your sound crew with you on location scouts. It’s so important that I’m going to say it again:

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BRING YOUR SOUND CREW WITH YOU ON LOCATION SCOUTS.

A location might be perfect for you visually, but aurally it could be a total nightmare. Some of the problems that I’ve run into are locations that are too close to highways, places with heavily reverberant surfaces, and one bedroom with an old water heater in the closet that rattled so loudly that I could barely hear the actors. All of these problems resulted in big headaches in post and could have been caught and solved if the sound crew had been included on the location scout. You can even encourage your production sound mixer to bring their recording gear on location scouts to test out how the location will sound before production begins. Think of it as test footage for audio. If your post-production sound mixer is also on the location scout, they can let you know how problematic or not the test audio will be for them to clean and restore in post based on their studio and resources.

Of course, you can’t plan and prepare for every audio-related issue that might pop up on set, but by bringing your post-production sound mixer on before filming begins, you can significantly improve your production audio.

Leaving Time to Mull Things Over

As a post-production sound mixer, one of the biggest frustrations I face is having too little time to work on a project that has great sound design potential. Often, I’m brought on with only 1-2 weeks to sound design and mix a film, and even for a short film, that’s not very much time to really think through what the soundscape should sound like. The projects I’m most proud of are those where I’ve been a part of the crew from the pre-production phase, because I had time to iterate on my initial ideas, to do some research and experimentation on how to create the sound effects I wanted, and to plan out the dynamic range of the film.

Take the stellar sound design in Stranger Things as an example. In an interview with A Sound Effect, Craig Henighan, one of the sound designers on the show (and one of my favorite Hollywood sound designers), talks about how he was on the team from the pre-production phase:

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Before they started shooting, I was coming up with sound ideas. I’d send MP3s down to the Duffers while they were shooting, like the sound of the monster and tweaked insect ambiences, just to get an idea of what would pique their interest.

Craig Henighan

On certain episodes, Henighan also worked on the more sound design heavy scenes before the rest was picture-locked, giving him the time he needed to mull over the sound design and to go through a process of trial-and-error.

It’s hard to talk about the sound of Stranger Things without talking about the show’s score, especially considering how important the score (created by local Austin band SURVIVE) was to the creation of the show’s sound design. According to Henighan,

“While I got an early, I believe that SURVIVE was on even earlier. . . . When you can create sound design against the real music, as opposed to working against temp music, it makes it that much better. I was able to create atmospheric sounds that would complement what SURVIVE was doing with the music.”

Often times, producers and directors tend to separate sound and music into two different departments, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; they’re two different crafts with separate processes and goals. However, as Henighan talks about with Stranger Things, having the post-production sound and composing members on the project early and letting them inform each other can make your sound design that much more unique. Bringing crew members on early not only gives them more time to perfect their work, it also allows them more time to interact with and learn from other departments.

Of course, a large-budget series like Stranger Things benefits from having more time and resources than a small-scale production, but the lesson here remains the same - giving a sound designer time to think through a soundscape will almost always yield better results. Even if it means missing festival deadlines, allotting more time for your post-production audio engineers and bringing them on early will produce a film with a unique soundscape, rather than one with quickly thrown-together, tired sound design.

Creating Thematic Cohesion

 Still from Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Still from Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

When thinking of thematic cohesion, people generally think of visuals supporting narrative - color palettes should support the tone of the film, cinematography should help establish the world, lighting should provide realism or the lack thereof, and so on. However, the audio design of a film can drastically impact its unity - consider, for example, Jim Jarmusch’s vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive. Like its characters, the film moves slowly and quietly, progressing with a subtle sound design that leaves room for silence. This silence not only accents the quiet grace of Jarmusch’s vampires, but it also externalizes the struggle Adam is having with his music - he can’t seem to write melodies he likes and so lives in a quiet world. Almost every sound in the film is small, nimble, and musical, even the way the actors say their lines. And, when Adam finally finds his musical inspiration, his muse, all other sounds fall away, letting the music take over the soundscape completely. Jarmusch’s film has such cohesion because not only do the visuals guide the pacing and range of the film, but the audio design does as well.

On the flip side, take the sound design for the horror film The Babadook. I remember watching this film in theaters and being so impressed by the sound design. That is, until the climax when I heard a sound that I thought I recognized from the movie The Black Cauldron (around minute 0:55). It completely took me out of the film, and bothered me for the rest of the movie. When I left the theater, I asked my friend if he had noticed the sound, and he said that he recognized it as a sound effect from Doom (around minute 0:19). This one, seemingly small sound effect is an example of where cinematic cohesion can come crashing down. If this pterodactyl-like sound effect (around minute 2:18) had been better mixed with the myriad of other sounds during the climax, I may not have noticed it. Or, if the sound was more cohesive with what had already been established by the soundscape of the film until that point. But, that one sound effect was so prominent, overused in other works, and very obviously not a cohesive part of the rest of the film, that I was immediately aware that something in The Babadook’s soundscape was off (in fact, on The Babadook’s official reddit thread, there’s a whole discussion about this sound effect). That sound effect actually completely change my opinion about the sound design in general and also made me like the film significantly less than my peers. Cohesion is key.

While it may seem daunting or even unnecessary to hire post-production audio engineers (and post crew of all kinds, for that matter) early on in the filmmaking process, in the end, your project will be better for it. On top of all the benefits I’ve mentioned above, hiring a post-sound engineer early will also give the crew time to meet them, get to know them, and learn how to work better with them. Often when I feel that I’m not meeting the director’s vision, it’s because I haven’t had the proper time to get to know the director and to really dig down into their artistic vision.

Instead of thinking in terms of “pre” and “post,” try thinking in terms of cohesion - cohesion of story, of character, of visuals, and, most importantly, a cohesion of crew.