Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Indie Post #1 - Considering production value

This is the first in a series of posts I'll be writing about audio post for independent films. At the beginning of 2013 I begin working on Pictures of Us from CNGM Pictures, so the upcoming months will be an excellent opportunity to discuss the creation of a film soundtrack from pre-production, through shooting and post production. Along the way I'll talk about soundtrack conceptualization, quality control of audio and appropriate workflows through different phases of production, restoration of production sound and dialog replacement (ADR), sound design, mixing, mastering, and delivery.

At the time of writing I've been working on audio post for independent films for about five years, and in that time I've worked on about the same number of feature length productions (listed on IMDB), as well as several short films and web series. I would classify most of those productions as residing in the "low-to-no" budget range, with budgets ranging from the low thousands up to about $40,000. This is not a judgement of their creative merit, but it's useful background to consider as we discuss resources and approaches to soundtrack production.

What is production value?

It's clear that monetary budget is linked to the overall production value of a film—that is, its perceived quality aesthetic or "professionalism". Considering monetary budget gives us not only an idea of the technical resources available to the film makers, but also a window into the creative decision making involved in realizing a film as a satisfactory representation of a story when on a budget. Thus, I think it's logical to frame a discussion of the specifics of audio post production with a sense of what production value means in independent film.

Clearly economics and budget restrictions have a direct effect on creative decision making in independent film making, and although this effect is often thought of as negative (we lose that plot essential, film festival winning final helicopter shot), restricted parameters can lead to equally satisfying creative work.

There is another factor that influences the final production value of an independent film that I'm going to call creative budget. This budget is the amount of time and personal creative resources the film makers are willing to invest in a project to improve it.

Because it will be relevant for subsequent discussions, my own definition of good production value is where the technical aspects of a film (for example cinematography or sound design), and the aesthetic choices of the film makers (such as production design or costuming) effectively communicate, subtly enhance, but do not distract from the delivery of the story. This definition is sufficiently wide, I hope, to leave room for plenty of creative maneuver.

Technology and production value

Advances in the technologies available to film makers, as well as a decrease in their cost, have made significant contributions to increase the production value of independent films over the last few years, particularly in the low-to-no budget sector. Even in the short time I've been working on independent films the transition has been made to using DSLR cameras over DV and HDV cameras (the first film I worked on was shot on a Panasonic AG-DVX100B), with RED cameras becoming a popular choice as the cost of renting them drops.

Ease in acquiring high quality location audio has not quite followed the same trajectory, but a wide choice of inexpensive microphones and the steady increase in the availability of portable recorders capable of recording uncompressed audio, have opened up new possibilities for budget conscious productions. Inexpensive, powerful, computer based audio production tools are also now a reality for post production engineers: I recently discovered that one of my favorite DAWs, Cockos's Reaper, supports working to video.

As a post mixer I view part of my job as a responsibility to maximize the production value of a film's soundtrack based on available budget (if any), so I try to maintain a detailed understanding of what level of quality is achievable at a given budget level, and how to realize it. This understanding informs the tools and techniques I use, and the workflows I've adopted for film mixing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


My intention in writing this blog is to document my work as an audio post production engineer, to provide some insight into the work performed in audio post, and to explore the wider links between commercial post production and the creative arts.

By sharing my thoughts here I hope to develop an online resource that will provide a source of information and inspiration to other engineers and mixers involved in audio post, as well as aspiring media professionals and students, while contributing to the wider dialog on aesthetics and good practice in the “audio arts”.

Among other things I’m interested in writing about my experiences mixing independent films, and about how creative goals on a collaborative, large scale project can translate into practice. Along the way I’ll attempt to cover the production of a film audio track from pre-production through mastering and delivery.

Most audio post engineers spend years developing their own techniques and methods with which to approach the range of technical and creative challenges collectively understood as “sound design”. It will become apparent that my own working methods are a combination of established “textbook” practice, a multitude of tips and tricks garnered from other engineers, and personal solutions I’ve developed (and continue to refine) for audio post.

While there is a close relationship in audio post between the technology and equipment engineers use and their creative process—and hence a lot of interest in microphones, preamps, plugins, and the rest—I’m primarily interested in the applications of these tools. Software and hardware will be discussed in detail as they relate to recording, mixing, and other processes relevant to audio post.

Finally, a lot of what I’ll discuss here will be personal opinion, so at this point it’s worth stating clearly that my opinions do not necessarily reflect those of my employer or clients, nor am I paid or endorsed by any equipment manufacturer or software developer!