The Actor's Performance vs. The Sound Mix

Hey Guys,

   So here's something I've learnt recently: actors really need to buddy up to sound mixers, because they can make them look even better than a make-up artist can.

   The director can shape a character with the actors on set. The editor will pick the best take, and shape the pace of a scene. But the sound mixer has the final say on the delivery of the lines before the film is released to the world.

   The last couple of weeks, I've been supervising the Night Owls sound mix (with Edward Harvey now on mixing duty, the film has returned to my house), and I've witnessed this surprising phenomenon first hand. Ashes sound designer Ian Cudmore has also been with us, offering his opinion and laying down the music he's painstakingly recorded and collected over the past year. 

   The placement of the music has changed the shape of the sound mix in many unexpected ways. For example, a previously subtle clap of thunder can suddenly sound expositional when the preceding music lines up perfectly against it with descending guitars! We've certainly had a few laughs mixed in with the hard work, perfectionism and long hours.

The Night Owls sound mix in progress - in spite of the tempting sunshine outside!

   But back to the subject of actors. There's something which I (and other directors) occasionally do, much to my shame, and that is to watch the camera moves on set more closely than the actors' performances. This is particularly true in the case of complicated camera moves which take multiple attempts to perfect. As soon as you've nailed the move, its all too easy to say, "brilliant - let's move on."

   It's not until the rushes that you realise the actor's best performance came on take one, when your camera's focus was out, for example, or the tripod head was slightly loose.

   Of course, whenever possible, you should go with the best performance and accept a little camera wobble. Your editor will help cast an impartial eye over which footage to use. But sometimes, as with the really complicated camera moves, you'll want to favor the camera.

   So, your tracking shot is beautiful, but the actor seems uncomfortable or misses part of their line - what are your options? There's ADR (additional dialogue recording), but this can be costly if your actors aren't local, and some actors struggle to recreate the natural emotions of the scene when they're separated from the set by distance and time.

   If you've ruled out ADR (or the even-more-costly pick-ups), then cue the sound mixer, ready to save the day. In some cases, they can simply take the audio from the best vocal take and slot it into the best camera take. In worse cases - such as a missed word or a misspoken line - they can replace/put in single words from another take, and stretch or change the pitch of the word to make it sound like a natural part of the sentence. Hard to believe (and understand, if sound isn't your thing), but brilliant nonetheless.

With the Night Owls cast on set
   Sometimes the most natural performances come from an actor when they think the camera is on their co-star rather than them. A very skilled sound mixer can take these relaxed lines of dialogue and change the volume and placement of them, to make them sound like they're coming directly from the actor to the camera.

   But this can be extremely tricky and time consuming, and only good sound mixers can do it effectively (without making the actors sound too robotic). So all of these tricks should only be seen as a last resort.

   The best thing you can do is to give the actors the attention they deserve in the first place, and coax the best performances out of them on set before moving to the next shot. Never, ever just say "we'll fix it in post" and rely on someone else to make up for your lack of judgement!

   In conclusion: yes, actors should be very nice to sound mixers... and everyone else should pay them. The last person to make decisions on you film should always be kept in very good stead indeed!


P.s. I should point out that I was very lucky with the Night Owls cast. In spite of the last minute line-up change, both Jonny and Holly were brilliant - and there really wasn't that much to 'fix in post'!


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