Shooting Double System Sound
People have been shooting video with DSLR cameras for about four years now. You’d think everybody would understand how to deal with double system sound.
This was made plain to me last weekend when I agreed to edit some footage someone else shot. I won’t go into detail here; let’s just say it inspired me to write this article. Since the people who caused the audio problems didn’t understand the basics, let’s start really basic. If you know what you’re doing in shooting with a separate recorder, then feel free to move on.
A Little History
First, why do you suppose camera operators and sound people say, “Speed,” when they’re rolling? (I told you we’re gonna get basic.) In the film days it took a few seconds for the sound recorder to get up to speed. The soundman would have to make sure he took up the slack in the reels, re-cue properly if he had checked playback, hit the record button, watch his meters and lights until he was satisfied the machine was up to speed and recording properly.
On the camera end, the camera operator would always put a few feet of “rundown” at the beginning of the scene. In a typical 16mm camera with a 400′ magazine, it would take about two feet of film to go from where it came into the body from the magazine, around the rollers, through the gate, around the takeup rollers and back into the takeup side of the magazine. Two feet was usually safe but often the operator would do more. Generally between takes he’d pull the lens off and “check for hairs.” Remember those little fuzzy things dangling down from the projector frameline when watching 16mm educational films in school (if anybody’s old enough to have done that)? Those fuzzies could have been dirt in the projector, but occasionally there would be one in the print itself, which means it came from dirt in the camera gate.
So when the cameraman pulled the lens off, a frame of film would be exposed, and possibly more. If he had to open the camera to fix a lost loop, then a couple of feet of film would be exposed. Doing the rundown allowed the camera to get up to speed but also ran the exposed film on by safely.
When video started replacing film, most of us started shooting single system sound so we didn’t have to worry about a sound recorder getting up to speed. However, we did have to worry about the video camera getting up to speed. Broadcast cameras had a standby position, and when the camera was in standby, it would start recording within one or two seconds after the record button was pressed. Even so, the cameraman wouldn’t want anybody to yell action until he saw his red light quit flashing. If the camera had been sitting idle long enough, it would go out of standby and when the record button was pressed, it would take even longer to get up to speed. So people still yelled, “Speed.” The prudent cameraman would always make sure to have around 5 seconds of rundown at the head of his take and the same at the end. That’s so if anybody wanted to watch a take, he’d have room to re-cue the tape without the danger of cutting into a good take.
NOTE: I’m using the terms “cameraman” and “soundman” as professional job descriptions. A soundman or cameraman can be a woman. Nobody says “soundwoman.” It’s a non-sexist, non-gender-specific term.
OK, now we know why people say “speed” when they’re ready for “action.” Todays cameras and sound recorders are digital and mostly solid state. You press the button and they go. However, some take a second or longer to do so. It’s still prudent to be absolutely sure you’re recording both with the camera and the sound recorder before you let the director start the action. If you think speed is an archaic term, say something else. Just be consistent. Some people say, “Rolling.” But that’s archaic too since nothing rolls anymore. I still say speed.
Now, here’s a comment I wish I didn’t have to make: You call speed AFTER your camera and/or recorder are up to speed. Not before.
That should be totally and completely obvious, right? Well, it wasn’t to whoever did the sound on the project I mentioned at the head of this article. The guy would yell, “Speed!” and THEN start his recorder. The reason I know that is because I could hear his “speed” on the camera’s reference track but not on his “good” audio recordings. In fact, a couple of takes were unusable because the talent started talking before the recorder was recording.
When you’re shooting double system sound, slate your takes, please. I like a clapboard with the scene and take numbers written in. The single frame clap creates a nice spike on both the camera reference track and the recorder track, so it’s easy to sync. Don’t assume everybody has auto synching software and don’t assume it works as advertised for lots of takes.
And the slate should include a verbal take. Call out: “Scene 1, Take 1″ loud and clear, then clap the clapboard. This not only puts the spike on both files, it also lets the editor find which audio file goes with which video file. No, it’s not always evident, and no you don’t always end up with the same number of video and audio files. A verbal slate is a real help, and if you don’t have a person doing take sheets, it is essential.
If at all possible keep take sheets. But if you simply write down “take 1, good…take 3 audio pop…take 4 good…” etc., that doesn’t do the editor much good in knowing which audio file goes with which video file. The sound recorder puts a file number on every audio file. The camera puts a number on every video file. If the soundman and cameraman call out those numbers, the person doing take sheets can record them and everybody will be happy.
In many cases on small productions, whether personal documentaries or corporate productions for money, it is not always possible to have a person dedicated to writing take sheets. If there are no take sheets, then it is essential to slate every take. If you left the clapboard back at the coffee house where you met the talent, at least put on a verbal slate so the editor can hear both the sound file and reference camera sound file and know how to match them up. You can also clap your hands in front of the mic. Any short, sharp sound that creates a good spike in the audio helps with sync. It’s not 100% essential, but it really won’t hurt you to be professional.
In an ideal world when you finish a scene you have the same number of video files as audio files. If people were more interested in the free pizza than working like pros and forgot to do any slates at all, then if there are 27 sound files and 27 video files, the editor, in theory, should be able to start with sound file number one and sync it to video file number one and so on.
That usually doesn’t happen. The director may say roll and both camera and sound roll but then something happens and the cameraman cuts and the soundman doesn’t. Or the camera rolls and the sound doesn’t and the scene is cut. The cameraman may grab a quick shot of the actor’s feet…doesn’t matter why it happens, it just does. This is yet another reason why you need slates. If you’re careful, you might get through a few scenes and end up with the same number of sound and video files, and if that happens, life is good. Just don’t count on it.
If You Screw Up
S*** happens. For years I’ve said that everybody makes mistakes during a shoot, but the difference between an amateur and a professional is that the professional realizes the mistake when it happens and fixes it. The amateur discovers it after it’s too late. If you’re shooting sound and hear something funny, if you hit the wrong button, if you thought you were recording and didn’t…speak up. When the mistake or problem happens, the time to fix it is when it happens. Don’t think for a minute that it won’t come back to haunt you, because it will.
If you’re on a set with a big crew and especially if clients are around, be discreet. When you’re out with your filmmaking buddy and a bunch of actors doing something for fun, it might be OK to say, “Oh damn, I hit the stop button, let’s do that again.” But in a professional situation, be professional. Let the director know the take was bad for you and you need another one.
There may be times when you’re doing camera and sound by yourself. I often shoot documentary and even corporate interviews with a three-man crew: Me, myself and I. My recorder is mounted to my rig on the right and slanted so I can look down from the camera and see it easily. I have a habit of always rolling the sound first. I hit record, then when the flashing stops and I see the numbers going by, I know I’m recording sound, so then I press the camera record button. When I stop, I stop camera first, then recorder. The sound clip is always a little longer than the video clip. No reason to do it in that order, but it helps to develop a habit. If you get in a hurry and start to shoot video without rolling sound, the ingrained habit will cause a red flag to pop up in your brain. Hopefully.
I really shouldn’t have to say this, but gain, this really has happened. People often record wound without wearing their headphones. That had to have happened in the shoot I mentioned at the head of this piece. Otherwise somebody would have known that there were takes with audio levels so low they were unusable. If you’re shooting video, you have to use the viewfinder. If you’re shooting sound, you have to wear headphones. Simple.
- Let the director know when you’re rolling.
- Use a verbal slate and visual if possible.
- Use a clapboard.
- Get a retake if you mess up.
As Steve Jobs used to say–there’s one more thing. This probably wouldn’t happen unless you have a camera with manual audio control, but always check to make sure the camera’s audio is on. Without a reference track, synching is a serious problem. And that’s another good reason to use a clapboard: if the camera doesn’t record the sound, the editor can see the frame where the clappers hit and then sync the audio track spike to that frame. That’ s the way we used to have to do it in the film days. Having a reference audio track makes it easier…but the reference track has to be there. If someone shoots sound recorded directly into a camera such as the 5DII and then next time does double system sound, he may have the camera’s gain adjusted too low to pick up a reference track. Simply put the camera audio gain back into automatic and it’ll work.
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