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So you’re going to a Film Festival?

June 11, 2012

Then simplify your sound design.

Spent last weekend at the Little Rock Film Festival, which was a blast by the way, and noticed something about a number of the films. Not the films themselves (may of which were GREAT), but about how they were screened. There were some excellent projectionists for some of the films, and then there were a few who were… uncertain of their jobs.

I imagine that many of the readers of this blog (making the leap that there are many readers of this blog…) are filmmakers or filmmaking types, and most of us at least dabble in short films… short films are a bitch for the festivals to make work.

Think about it, you’ve got 4-10 films in a short film block, and you’ve got to deal with each film’s aspect ratio, codecs, and other technical specs. I once put together some shorts programs – you wouldn’t believe the codecs that some filmmakers think are standard enough to send out to strangers.

And then there’s the sound. I thought I’d give some tips to short filmmakers about your sound and what you can do to help make it sound better at festivals. I’ll try and do a “Joe’s theories of sound design” post one day – this isn’t that.  This is just some simple tips to make sure that a lesser trained projectionist, which many festivals are going to have, doesn’t hatchet your film.

Of course there are some things you just can’t control. I went to a screening one time where during the 3rd act, as my characters were pouring their hearts out to each other and Paul Dickinson’s beautiful score was playing quietly in the background, the space opera in the next theater went into their final bloody battle. So as my characters are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, they’re accompanied by laser canons and synthesized horns.

The tip first is that your sound needs to be mixed well – again, that’s a topic for another post, but very quickly – it needs to be mixed so we can hear the dialogue and the important sounds over everything else. Don’t mix in headphones or in your computer room. Mix in a theater so you can really hear what it’s going to sound like. Especially, throw away your headphones when you’re trying to do a mix. I heard a lot of bad sound in a lot of shorts – some of them were just mixed poorly and some of them had another problem which is the next tip:

Don’t use surround sound. Use a stereo mix. Some of the problems were that the films were mixed in surround, and playback wasn’t prepared to handle that, so some sounds got thrown only into some speakers and other sounds were just mixed strangely because they couldn’t handle the surround mix. Keep it simple so they can’t screw it up. It’s a short film – really, how much surround do you need?

Give the projectionist something at the beginning of the film to know how loud to set the volume. When the opening of your film is a giant explosion, you know what’s going to happen with the rest of your film? The projectionist is going to freak out, and lower the levels so that blast sounds OK (not great), and now either the rest of your film will be WAY too quiet, or the projectionist is going to keep tweaking it through the whole film – and probably not in a subtle way.

I always put a “daringly Dull productions” logo at the head of my films for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that is has a soundtrack that lets the projectionist find a level and leave it there. It gives them an easy gauge, and then I make sure that the rest of the film bounces around at a similar level to the logo. It makes it easy for them, and my film sounds good.

None of this is an excuse not to have a good mix – you have to take the time to do that, too, but these are some more things to keep in mind to help the festivals show your films as best they can. At all points in the filmmaking process you want to think of your audience, but in this case, your audience is at least partially the person handling the projector and the mixer level – they can make or break your film, so make their job as easy as possible.

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