Imagine this for just a second: You spent months, perhaps years creating the perfect script. Then many more months getting a budget together, building a team, and to top it off you found the PERFECT location for your film.
You visited the spot, took pictures, even decided to bring one of your cameras to do quick film tests and it’s absolutely spot on perfect for what you need.
So you gather your team, get the proper permission and start setting up for the first take.
But you notice that a very nervous audio guy, gal, or crew member comes up to you and says,
The Problem - Not Bringing Audio When Location Scouting
It’s every filmmaker’s worst nightmare. And you better believe it’s not a walk in the park for us audio nerds either! The last thing we want to do is let you know that your dream set is impossible to capture clean audio in.
But that’s what happens when amateur/indie filmmakers who have never really worked with an audio team before go about doing things like they did in their community college film class.
And it’s not your fault, really! Please don’t feel bad if this has ever happened to you. It’s all part of learning!
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of resources out there to learn audio for filmmaking. Any videos or blogs that ARE out there are almost always created by filmmakers for filmmakers teaching…audio. And not really a lot created by audio engineers for filmmakers.
So let me help by offering advice, from an audio engineer to filmmakers, on how to work with and plan for audio during location scouting.
Audio's Role When Location Scouting
When you go out to scout locations you have a million things on your mind. Lighting, sun location during time of day, if the land or building is public or privately owned, how easy it is to bring gear, etc. You have a lot to think about and audio, I guarantee, is last on the list.
As you’re looking at the location and figuring out if the scene will LOOK right, let your audio representative tell you if it will SOUND right.
We know what to listen for just as you know, through your years of learning and experience, what to look for.
And as your audio guy, gal, or crew member listens to the location they can create a list of things to problem solve before rolling up to the set on filming day. Better yet, you can plan time at each location to listen to concerns and discuss options with them and your producer to see if you can eliminate or mitigate some of these problems, such as redirecting traffic on nearby roads for the day.
The Danger's of Not Bringing Audio When Location Scouting
For the one-person filmmaker or DIY indie film crews you may not have it in your budget to hire an audio professional for your project. Which means you have no audio rep to bring along with you.
Or you might currently be a self-learning or recently graduated filmmaker who’s realized you don’t know anything about audio and are trying to learn so you can create great stories before you’re able to afford an audio professional.
Either way, the dangers of not having a dedicated set of ears when location scouting is the same. You may not hear the subtle roar of plane engines overhead every 5 minutes, or the flock of birds living by the pond. Or you may not realize that the angle you want to film the scene at would point a shotgun mic directly at a waterfall.
Without realizing and understanding these threats to your perfect shot you’ll be stressed when you learn in post that 95% of your audio is completely unusable.
Which could have been avoided had you brought those sets of ears to the location scouting trips.
Still, sometimes circumstances aren’t in your favor and you can’t call up an audio engineer to drag along with you. So I’ll list out a few things for you to start listening for when scouting for just those situations! 🙂
Keep in mind, these definitely aren’t every single thing that could cause issues on set for you. These are just the common ones I’ve personally run into the most.
Noise from nature or animals
You may be surprised by this one. If you’ve ever watched any film ever (which…look who I’m talking to, of COURSE you’ve seen a movie!), you probably notice dogs barking or birds flying overhead, or the slight sound of wind when characters speak. This is common ambiance in scenes that help the story breathe and come to life.
What you may also be surprised to learn is that most of these sounds are ADDED IN POST!
While a location sound recordist or location sound mixer may record natural tone, or ambiance, at location, these recordings are used for post processing only.
When you’re on location recording actors’ dialogue, movements, and all around performance the sole purpose is to capture their dialogue cleanly. It’s not to capture a dog bark perfectly timed to highlight a storypoint. And while your post team appreciates as much PFx, or Production Sound Effects, as they can get, what they won’t appreciate are planes flying overhead throughout the scene.
That said, here are common natural environmental noises that would cause issues:
- Excessive dog barks, especially in parks
- Birds flying nearby. Common problem in Spring/Fall during migration.
- Large amounts of wind
- Any water features, like ponds or fountains
- Any large water movement, like waterfalls, waves at a beach, or rain
- Trees and leaves
Now, you may look at this list and think,
And of course you do! I do just as much as you because that’s more fun for me in post! But as I said above, most of these are added during post production. If any of these sounds would interfere in capturing audio cleanly from your talent then no, you don’t want them anywhere near you when filming.
But we obviously can’t green screen your entire film. There are scenes that need to be shot on location near ponds or forests or even beaches.
Noise is a delicate balance. As I always say,
This is where the experience and expertise of a dedicated audio engineer when location scouting would come in handy.
Interior and electrical noise
It’s extremely hard to control nature. It’s mother-freaking-nature after all. We can try and plan around her but in the end what she says goes.
Interior and electrical noises, though? That, we can control.
By turning things off!
- Water pipes
- Certain lights (yes, older types of lights can make a bzzzzz sound…it’s actually really freaking cool).
Just as with the natural noises listed above, these interior noises may be things you think that you want in your final film mix. And you’re 100% correct to want these sounds in.
My purpose with this post isn’t to suggest that you sterilize your film to death and leave only dialogue. How boring would that be!
But, as a reminder, the role of your location audio team is to capture dialogue and your talent’s performance as cleanly as possible.
If any of these items, or others, threaten that then they need to go or be turned off. While nature can be planned around, these types of obstacles will largely be up to your producer to figure out and coordinate.
As an example, I worked on a film near a shooting range a few years back. And when I say near a shooting range I really mean in the middle of a shooting range. They had a sweet old west themed area which was perfect for the story.
But the shooting range further up would cause numerous problems, including sound and safety.
So it was up to the producer to schedule it out and make sure I could record the audio we needed without constant POP POP POP!
All worked well until the last day…but that’s another story for another time.
Point is, this is why bringing audio when location scouting is so important. Not only will we let you know of any problems but we can start to get a list of to-do’s for your producer to figure out before filming day.
Like I said, these noises aren’t nearly everything you’ll run into. I didn’t even mention things like roadways, pedestrian noise, construction, CREW MOVEMENT (looking at you, grips).
If you can’t afford or don’t have access to a dedicated audio engineer for your film please please start to LISTEN to your locations as well as look at them.
Keep in mind that microphones “hear” differently than we do. They’re more sensitive. Audio engineers like myself have years of training and know what sound sounds like through a mic. The beginning director doesn’t.
So at the very least record some sound at location in your phone to listen back later. I promise you’ll hear things you didn’t even notice while walking around your potential locations.