15 August 2009
Let us take a moment to appreciate the sound guys. Virtually every movie made since the early 1930s has sound, but unless a film has hyper-complex edits or noticeable sound effects, chances are that the sound guys (and girls) remain in the shadows. Successful directors of photography are highly in demand, since it is often they who give films their distinctive visual style- and we all notice the visual element of film, being primarily visual creatures- and many go on to be directors in their own right. Writers, too are often bumped up the cinematic food chain. Quentin Tarantino wrote scripts for others before taking over the helm himself. But the same is not true for sound people. We'd miss them if they weren't there, but we often don't appreciate them when they are.
I mention this because day six of Conversion shooting really warrants a hats' off to our principal sound guy, Georges Kandalaft. Keep in mind that as we assemble to caravan to the night's location that virtually all of us present had been shooting until six in the morning. Yes, it's after dark when we start shooting again, so in theory we've all had time to get some rest, but it's difficult to convince your brain to sleep through an entire summer day in a country where snow in May is always a possibility, even if you can convince your body to do it.
As we are heading to our location, I think that Georges is still in a state of advanced denial. Yes, we have told him that we are shooting under one of the city's busiest highway interchanges, but there still seems to be some part of him that believes that surely we could never be so cruel to someone who has shown such patience and dedication. We would have to be both sadistic and insane. None of us really want to drive home the point that we probably are.
When we selected this location, we knew it was perfect for what we wanted. A couple of shifts of the camera allow us to create the illusion of a much larger area and it definitely has the surreal, gritty urban look that we are going for in the film. This is what happens when people who know nothing about sound pick a location. As I said, we are visual creatures all. On location scouts, we were driven entirely by what looked right. The noise was the sound guy's problem.
At a glance, one would be tempted to say that background noise shouldn't present a problem. After all, cities do have background noise and it's not exactly like we're pretending to be in a farmer's field. And it's true that this would not be a problem if we were shooting every angle in one long take at the same time. But even the highest budget movies aren't shot this way. Rather, each angle is shot as a complete take and then the camera is moved; so if you have two people speaking, the camera might shoot one close-up, then the other, then a shot including both of them.
Now imagine that during the first person's speech, an ambulance passes by in the distance. When it's time to shoot the second person's dialogue, that sound isn't there, despite the fact that the conversation is supposed to be happening in real time. Now you have a problem. Your options, when the pieces are being edited together, are to keep following the first person, even when the second is talking, which will give the impression that the focus is only on the first person; or you could cut between them, which will mean that in the middle of the conversation, the sound of the ambulance siren will drop out abruptly when the shot switches from one person to the other. Your third option is to get yourself a really good sound guy, who will pay attention to detail and who will make you keep working at it until he's satisfied that the sound is consistent from one shot to the next.
We arrive in our desolate little corner under the giant structures of the soon-to-be-flattened Turcot Interchange, a little ragged around the edges, but ready to work. Tonight's shoot is very carefully planned. We have the exact sequence of shots so that we can move quickly from one to the next, which is especially important, since we're due to shoot all the next day, starting at nine in the morning. We don't want to make this a late night. Heather shares with us that she actually ended up driving home- two hours outside Montreal- after the shoot the night before- which is another great example of the dedication we have on the project.
It is immediately obvious that sound is going to be an issue. There is a constant, but subtly inconsistent roar of traffic above. There are people all around having conversations. There is a bus that passes nearby about every ten minutes, meaning that when it's there, we can't do anything at all, lest it show up in the final product. While the three of us- Ash, Heather and I- are wearing individual mics, we also need to get a "general" sound through the boom mic. When you're shooting inside, this doesn't present a huge problem, as long as the boom doesn't get in the shot, but outside, it's a nightmare, since the boom has to be at a greater distance and has to be very carefully maneuvered not only to insure that it stays out of the picture, but that there is no shadow cast of a tall man holding what looks like a scythe as the characters are speaking (although, in certain circumstances, that could be a cool effect).
For my part, I'm most concerned for Heather. There is a lot of pressure on her to deliver and how long we will be here tonight is dependent on how quickly and regularly she can nail the copious lines of dialogue she has. For Ash and I, it's almost like a night off. All we have to remember is to keep pace and make little noises on cue. This evening, we are nothing more than punctuation. She is the text. Fortunately for us, she is uncanny in her ability not just to remember her lines, but to deliver them in consistently the same way over different takes, which makes everyone's job easier. Even when she's getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, she barely flinches, although my flesh is crawling even thinking about it. (Mosquito bites are a particular hazard of this night's shoot.)
Many times, we have to repeat shots in order to get the sound dead on, along with the usual problems of the camera freaking out, people moving around or making noise and, at one point, almost losing our power generator and a crew member into the Lachine Canal. But somehow, despite the odds being against us, we get everything done in an orderly, disciplined fashion. We're getting better at that. Best and most surprisingly of all, Georges opts neither to kill us, nor to run away in frustration. It's a good night.
As we're packing up, he does mutter something about how this better be the only location like this. I smile and reassure him- no more scenes under highways. I don't mention that the place we're shooting the next day is a loft with creaky floors and a dance studio next door. I'll just let that reveal itself on its own. Besides, Georges is awesome and I know he'll make it work no matter what, so I feel like I have nothing to worry about.
You see? Even when I know I owe him big time, I'm taking the sound guy for granted. So let us take a moment now to appreciate everything we hear at the movies.