I recently worked as the Post Production Audio Engineer (or Re-Recording Engineer) on a short film entitled “Her Calling”, which is a story about a girl who attends the first female college west of the Mississippi. But when the Civil War forces the school to close, she chooses to become a war hospital nurse in order to hang on to her dreams. This film was shot in Mansfield, Louisiana and directed by Travis Mills of Running Wild Films. It was made for the Louisiana Film Prize competition, and was chosen as one of the top 20 contenders (out of 127 films submitted) for the world’s largest cash grand prize for a short film, $50,000, and special distribution opportunities. The winner will be announced during Prize Fest weekend in Shreveport, Louisiana on October 4 through 8. The film’s lead actress, Heather Fusari, who also wrote the film, was nominated for best actress in this competition.
Although it is very cool to do post production audio on a film up for a prestigious prize like this one, it also meant I had a tight deadline to get it ready in time to for the festival premiere. Basically, due to my schedule with other projects, I had only the better part of a day to complete the mixing process and overcome any and all challenges.
Setting up the Mix
My audio mixes always begin by creating a new session from a template. I am very OCD about my mix sessions, so for some time I’ve been using a template I created that has my dialogue, SFX, and music all separated, labeled, and color coded, with each group being routed to stems that I can use for final tweaking. There are two files I always ask for from video editors; one is a video file with a scratch audio mix and the other is an OMF or AAF file (which is an export of the audio files in video editing sequence). I import the video and make sure session timecode frame rate matches the frame rate of the video sent (I also prefer timecode embedded into the video). From there I import the OMF or AAF file that has all the audio clips synced already and the audio files embedded in the file. Then I organize and move the dialogue, SFX and music clips to the proper tracks and remove any unnecessary tracks.
Dialogue is the Most Important
Once all the audio clips are organized, the first section I start to edit and mix is the dialogue. The dialogue edit could be as easy as just leveling out the audio volume, or it could be as difficult as running all the dialogue clips through a denoise process to remove unwanted background or environmental noise.
If you were to think of a film stereo sound mix as a 180 degree half circle, dialogue “lives” in the front and center, while SFX can be anywhere depending on what is needed in the scene, and music “lives” more on the outside. Everything needs to “fit” in its own place for the best sound mixing. However, many rules change when you get into mixing in surround sound.
Sometimes with editing dialogue, some of it needs to be replaced with ADR, or by grabbing audio from different takes. Luckily the dialogue audio with “Her Calling” was more a matter of just tightening the clip edits, running some of it through denoise software, adding crossfades, and evening out all the audio levels. One of the requirements the film festival had was the dialogue needed to be mixed at -18db, which is around my normal dialogue volume.
The only interesting audio issue I had with the dialogue was in regards to the background noise. During a couple of the takes from inside the school location, you could clearly hear what sounded like a plane in the background (or could have also been a generator). Now I was never great in history, but from what I remember, there were no planes during the Civil War era. Luckily between some quality plugins and music, I was able to remove it or mask it pretty easily.
Filling in the Holes with Ambience
Another thing that you don’t want competing for space in your audio mix is ambience, which as all audiophiles know is the natural sound of a room. The main thing this mix needed was stereo ambience of various 19th century locations. However, most of the ambient sound effects I used were not recorded in the 19th century, but rather in my own home or from my personal sound library. Production audio is usually recorded with a single boom and some lavs, all of which are mono recordings, and the edit I received had no ambient sound added. I added in some ambience to help everything fill out and sound fuller and to cover up the hard cuts and even mask any audio issues in the production audio. This wasn’t unique to this project as most films need ambient sound added to reflect the environment trying to be portrayed. The only time you can get away with not adding ambience is when the music can mask the absence of ambience or the story calls for it.
Civil War Sound Design
This film didn’t require too much in regards to sound design, but it did include a Civil War fight scene. I wasn’t around for filming, but it looks like they were able to get some actual Civil War reenactment actors to shoot a battle scene with Civil War era artillery. The editor had added some ambience from the actual location where they did a full on reenactment with live gunfire, but for most of the up close rifle fire shots the editor used the same rifle sound effect in place of any production audio. So rather than spend two or three hours I didn’t have searching for different rifle sound effects to make it sound less robotic, I just automated a pitch shift to change the sound effect a few semitones each time it was used. It helped the rifle shots sound more like they were all different rifles.
Luckily even with the short time I had to edit the sound on this film, I got it done in time to make the festival’s final submission deadline. After the Louisiana Film Prize festival this film will be shown before screenings of “Blood Country”, another Running Wild Films movie. It will also be submitted to several other film festivals.