Get Your Headphones On
All right, so I watch quite a few short films on several platforms from different independent filmmakers and I have to say that one of my biggest issues in a lot of them is audio. Now hear me out (no pun intended), when it comes to making films, sound is half the battle.
(Keep in mind, all of the products I discuss, with prices listed, are ones that I use personally and have experience with. They are not the only ones available on the market. YouTube is a great source to find other products that might fit your needs better than what I list.)
People have a sort of tendency to tolerate less than great image quality but when it comes to what they hear, they are a bit less forgiving. Why this is, I cannot say for sure but there are several easy solutions that are often overlooked in movie makers who are just starting out.
A common mistake is not paying attention to what is being recorded and what it is being recorded on. I have witnessed several great stories with decent visuals not excel because they filmed in the wrong place at the wrong time. Using noisy areas like public spaces filled with hoards of people or hills with tremendous wind are not a great idea as they usually drown out the dialogue or the action the audience is supposed to be hearing.
If people cannot hear what is happening or being said, they will not be able to follow along, they will quickly lose interest in the film, and they will want a refund for their time. Coming prepared by finding quiet, secluded locations or even having a microphone with a wind cover and spare sheet/blanket to cover wind and extraneous noise will instantly increase the quality of the audio and the volume of the sound which is supposed to be heard.
Speaking of microphones, it does not hurt to bring a good quality one on set with a separate audio recording device. I currently use a Canon Rebel T5i for my films and as a lot of tech people know, Canon is not recognized for their amazing built-in mic quality. This isn't saying don't use Canon cameras (I'll discuss those more in a different post), because their video quality and color science is tremendous, but rather don't be set on using the microphone built into the camera. It tends to have a very hollow sound and picks up sound from all around it.
There are countless cheap shotgun microphones on the market for someone just starting out. A preferred brand of mine to use is Røde (specifically the Videomic line). With options like the Røde Videomicro (currently priced at $39.95 USD) to the Røde Videomic Pro+ ($319.99 USD) there really is no direction to go wrong. Comparing these two mics (and all the ones in-between) there are obvious differences in sound quality. To use the famous saying, "you get what you pay for" is definitely the case for these microphones.
I myself am using a Røde Videomic currently and have had very few issues with it.
I do plan to upgrade to a Rode NTG3 ($699.00 USD) in the near future but that is a larger, long-term investment. When it comes to purchasing any sort of gear, it is best to do research and keep an open mind (sometimes the better quality/price is found
in lesser known names).
To me, shotgun mics are a necessity for every film kit but there are some situations they cannot handle. When filming wide shots with the talent delivering a line, it is hard to capture what they are saying from 20+ feet away. This would be a case in which a lavalier microphone would come in handy. You can just clip it to your talent, plug it into an audio recording device, and get the audio you need.
That's just microphones. Sometimes, the camera does not have the right input for the mic or the input still doesn't produce the desired quality (also a case found in some Canon cameras like the T5i). When this happens, it might be worth considering investing in a separate audio recorder. Just a quick search brings up several devices, usually from Zoom and Tascam, the two largest creators for audio recorders (once again, it is possible to find hidden and cheap gems). Every now and then it is possible to find a good app on a mobile device but I do not recommend this very much as you might struggle with not getting full quality like using the port on the camera.
A fantastic, but cheap, option that I went with is the Zoom H1
($94.99-$179.00 depending on color). It only utilizes the 3.5mm input for cables but a good number of cheap microphones have this cable anyways. Higher end budgets will search for options with phantom power but, once again, this is not exactly a good budget choice for smaller figures.
With the gear and locations no longer being a complication, it is time to discuss how these tools are used. When I started off, I was never quite sure the distance to use when putting my mic up to my talent. From what I've seen, read, and experienced, three feet is usually the furthest you want to be from the action and 6 inches tends to be too close (and usually gets in the shot) to get clear and crisp sound. Situations will obviously vary depending on what is happening within the shot but these are usually good starting points.
Also, be sure to monitor your sound in the field to insure that your audio will be around the same volume. Most devices will have a decibel readout to show you the decibel level of what you are recording. Most typically you want to keep it around -12 db on the readout. This prevents the audio from getting a weird boomy effect at high volumes as well as from generating too much static when too quiet.
If your gear doesn't have this readout but does have a headphone port, be sure to bring
either a headset or a pair of earbuds with you to listen while recording and adjust volume/distance to your subject accordingly to keep a consistent volume level. People do not care for adjusting their speakers constantly.
So production is done, you're ready to go into editing now. Your timeline is built and you're ready to start adding in sound effects and music. But wait, you realize that you have a few shots that sound a bit louder than the others. This is an issue that can usually be fixed very easily within the editor by adjusting the individual volumes on those clips. Most editors (which I will also discuss in a later article) will include a readout of decibel levels as well to monitor volume.
My best advice is to spend some time just tweaking with your program and learn the ins and outs of it in the event of an audio emergency. There is 3rd party software like Audacity (free) which also does pretty good for editing just audio and then plugging those clips into a video editor.
With that problem out of the way, it is time to add in music and sound effects. Personally, I find it easier to add in sound effects first and make sure they are timed right with what is happening on screen and the general pacing of the film. I try to make them stand out enough to be heard but not so much that they become overpowering and take over what I am trying to show.
I also cannot record all of the sound effects I use or simply do not enough time to go out and record them so I use sites like Freesound.org as well as the selection in the Creator Studio on YouTube to get royalty free sound effects for free. I put them into a file on my computer and save them just in case I need them again, making sure to keep them organized to find easily when I do need them.
When it comes to music, I also use royalty free for the fact that it is not copyrighted and I can still use the tracks in any project, regardless of whether or not it is paid. I used to use the Creator Studio in YouTube as well as sites like Purple-Planet.com and bensound.com for free royalty free music. I have since upgraded to Artlist.io (~$200/year USD) because it has a much larger selection of music and has many tracks which also include lyrics but it is not a necessity if you are just starting out.
Editing audio in general usually just takes much patience and micro-adjustments to get just right and make flow properly. With some practice it becomes much easier and starts to make more sense to the editor.
Hopefully this article was helpful to you and can get you going in the right direction to creating your own work. If you feel there is anything I did not quite cover or did not get enough detail in, please feel free to comment and let me know!