Indie Film Sound Design Primer

It’s so common with Indie filmmakers to underestimate the impact of the auditory elements of filmmaking or overlook it altogether. I have fallen victim to this myself, so I need to warn to not fall into this trap.

As I learned from a detailed talk with Howard Sonnenberg, there are a few simple ways to give your film a chance at feeling more like your intention. And, they don’t have to break the bank.

1 – Listen to your favorite films – I mean, really listen. Every film has a tone which changes how everything feels. If there is another film that makes you feel the way you want your film to feel, chances are, there is a sound designer who has painstakingly curated the sound that builds the story. If you close your eyes while watching that film, does it still feel the same? Having an awareness of “that sound” makes it easier to talk about and you can even use that film as a reference.

2 – Plan your sound design before you shoot – Having a conversation with your sound designer before going to location with your production crew will allow you to prepare for the shoot. How do you want your film to sound? Is there a sound that embodies the film? Are you capturing audio on location or building a soundscape with foley and ADR? Where does your sound inspiration come from? Are you shooting outdoors with unpredictable noises like wind, traffic and lawnmowers? If you’re shooting indoors, how long can you unplug the air conditioner, fan or refrigerator before it becomes a problem?

3 – Silence matters – Sound is always telling a story and if there are noises or sounds that are not made intentionally or serving the purpose of your story in some way, then silence is better. And you need to answer the question, what does that silence sound like? A decent sound recordist will capture room tone to help with the editing process, maybe a ticking clock or the oscillation of a fan will help tell the story. But, what story does it tell if you have true silence like a scene out of No Country For Old Men? Or, will the ‘silence’ be filled with rich futuristic city sounds like in Blade Runner? Choose intentional sound and be aware that the sound in-between those sounds tells a story as well.

4 – Communicate the the plan to the sound recordist – An experienced sound recordist has refined ears and is constantly listening in a way ordinary people do not. The sound person is a special breed. Ask the sound recordist in-between takes what they are hearing. There are lots of things that can be fixed in post with new software solutions, but as an independent filmmaker, you will likely not have the time or money to do ADR and foley for your entire film. Capturing the cleanest audio possible is the goal.

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