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Sound and music

Sound is half of your film. Turn off the audio on any film and note how different the effect is. It’s not just information, dialogue and music that’s missing. It’s the feel of the piece, the atmosphere. Some directors are particularly attuned to the expressive potential of sound; Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch. They’ll often incorporate sound as part of the basic conception of their films.

If sound is half of the film then it makes sense to start planning the sound before filming. This is Sound Design. Design the film with sound in mind to allow sound’s contributions to influence creative decisions in other crafts.

Working with sound

Your edit package may have sound mixing capability, even basic editing programs with only one video track have at least one extra audio track to mix with. Advanced programs usually have more. Your first tracks will be the sound that came with the original picture footage (probably dialogue) then the rest are for music, effects, atmosphere, etc - all the various sounds that overlap in one given moment (the toaster, the kettle, all the members of the family shouting at each other and the dog barking).

When planning the sound-track, keep it simple; if you are using iMovie or MovieMaker then the software will force you to keep it limited. In better programs, there is a volume line within each audio clip, which you can adjust by pulling up and down.

Make use of your audio tracks, adjust their respective volumes and weave all the audio you need together. Keep it organised (separate dialogue, music and sound effect tracks). Paramount in your sound mix is to make sure all dialogue and narration can be understood.

By the time you mix the sound, you will know the script off by heart. So test the sound mix on someone else - can they understand the dialogue? If not, you possibly have the music or effects track too high

Sound effects

Sound effects (SFX) are very important and give another dimension to your film. These can either be recorded at the same time as filming or can be added later when editing. You can also make your own effects after filming. This is called ‘foley’ work, you can experiment with all kinds of things to achieve the sounds you’re looking for. Did you know that the Mammoth’s footsteps in "Ice Age" was made by dropping a log into a pit of mud. Or that the sound of the dragonfly in the opening of "Men in Black" was made using a fan with tape stuck to the blades brushed up against the Foley Artists’ fingers. And King Kong's voice was the roar of a lion playing backwards.

Another way to get sound effects is from the web, there are now quite a few good places to find free sound fx.

Buzz track

The buzz track, also known as atmos track (short for atmosphere) is where sound recordists record up to a minute silence at each location in the film. Obviously these tracks wont be completely silent, they will have the normal noise evident when the actors and crew aren’t there.

Why is the atmos track useful? It’s often used to replace other synchronous soundtracks you may have recorded which are distracting. Or it can be used to fill the gaps that may occur, for instance when you snip out bits of dialogue or want to lengthen shots but don’t have the sound to cover. It can also help to smooth out cuts where the two background levels don’t match each other.

If you forget to record an atmos track, there is usually a 'silent' few seconds hidden somewhere in the rushes which you can use.

Adding music

Putting music with a scene will change it completely. It can make a dull scene come to life; it can make a sad scene comic. Try putting tortured classical strings, then a modern dance track over the same sequence: you'll end up with two completely different scenes.

Finding the right bit of music for a scene can be a treat. But don't plaster your film with music. As a rule of thumb, music on the titles and credits, and then every time a scene isn't having the desired effect and you can't find any other way to make it work, you should look at the sound.

The general principle is for music to direct or channel emotions that are already present, not to dictate what emotion to channel. If you use music to create emotion it becomes manipulation. It’s often about timing. If you bring a piece of sad music in after the audience has just felt sad for the character, then it will be accepted. But bring that music in before the sadness has been felt and it feels phony.

Don’t use music too early in the assembly process as it will dictate the pace and rhythm and sometimes the emotion too. Let scenes work on their own first.

And remember, the most powerful ‘sound’ of all can be silence! Juxtaposed with a dense soundtrack, the sudden absence of sound can have real impact.

Sourcing music

There are three areas for music to be sourced. Composed, copyright and copyright free.

Working with Musicians

If you are in a school you may be able to tap into the music department's skills to compose music specifically for your film. Or why not work in conjunction with local musicians who would like to have their music in a film?

Or better, find someone to join the production team to create something especially. This is how most film projects work and it is often the best way as your music is more specific. However, it will take longer and you and the musicians need to understand this and build in enough time.

With a digital edit suite you will be able to output a small movie for your musicians (probably an .avi for PC, or quicktime for Mac users). This will enable them to work in perfect musical synch with your movie on their computer. Don’t wait until you’ve finished the film to do this, work in tandem with each other. Give them a rough assembly so they can work out ideas. Some of those ideas might then inform you in how to edit certain scenes. Once you’ve fine-tuned, they can do the same before you output the final mix.

Make Your Own Music

Soundtrack creation is now within easy reach of everyone. Macs now come with Garageband software, which you can use to create your own music and import directly into iMovie, and there are a multitude of 'loop based' music creation packages for the PC too. These packages are intuitive children really get into it, and can craft excellent work (buy some classroom headphones). You may need to purchase additional music 'samples' to help them produce an appropriate soundtrack.

Copyright Music

Another reason to get your own soundtrack made is because of budget limitations. With educational films we often imagine it doesn't matter if we use copyright music, it can bring our films to life instantaneously if we use a classic song or music borrowed from another film etc, and in many instances it won't matter. But don't underestimate how far your film might go. Getting copyright clearance for a Madonna track is going to cost you a lot of money. You don't want festivals & TV to turn you away because you don't have the rights to your music.

Copyright free

There is a lot of copyright free music on the web made by keen composers who want to get their music heard and are quite happy to only receive a credit on the film. Again, the web is a wonderful resource for this type of music.

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