An Introduction to Film Sound

I love you.

They’re always switching it around, but for our class, Term 3 was our first time getting our hands dirty with production sound and the challenges of recording on a film set. Over the last month, we all spent around 8 12-hour days collaborating with students from the school’s Film Production program, trying to make short movies – WITH NO ADULT SUPERVISION. Woo!

It was the first time we’d really been out from behind the editing desk in several months, and a super eye-opening experience. So much so that I’m no longer so sure of where I want to end up, audio-wise. The whole world of sound is just so damn awesome! I thought I’d give a little rundown on some of the things I learned from this experience, plus some background info on how sound for movies happens (as I understand it so far).

Fair warning: the more you learn, the more you’ll want to pay attention to it at the expense of, y’know, actually enjoying the film.

How Sound Gets in Your Movies

A beautiful American morning.

Let’s take a fairly typical, yet morbid film scene:


GEORGE is heading out the door for work. He picks up his briefcase, turns the knob and opens the front door, walking out into the sunshine.


BIRDS are chirping. Here he encounters his neighbor, MRS. DANIELS, trimming the hedges.

Morning, George!

GEORGE gets into his car, throwing the briefcase onto the front seat, and drives off.


GEORGE is driving along LISTENING TO THE RADIO. He takes his eyes off the road to adjust his part in the mirror, and suddenly hears a loud HONK. He looks down to see a car heading straight at him.



GEORGE’s entire life flashes in front of his eyes.


GEORGE CRASHES into the car in front of him and dies.

You can pretty easily imagine how these scenes will sound because, besides the effects that’d accompany his flashback and the life-ending car crash, it’s full of things you experience in everyday life. As a result, you probably never stopped to think about how they got into the film.

Before I started into this program – or way back, before I knew I wanted to do it – I wasn’t thinking about movie sound much at all. If I did, I probably I still naively thought that maybe the actors were just wearing little microphones that captured everything that happened, and maybe there was a guy at a big mixer with a lot of faders who made sure everything was at max volume before they finally shipped the film.

What Really Happens

The “existence of tiny microphones” and “guy at a big mixer with a lot of faders” have some basis in reality, but the rest of what I knew was completely off. Looking at that scene again from a “where did the sounds come from?” perspective, it might go something like this:


GEORGE is heading out the door for work. He picks up his briefcase, turns the knob and opens the front door, walking out into the sunshine.

George’s footsteps (the ones you’re hearing, anyways) were recorded after the film was shot on a Foley stage by a very coordinated guy in a pair of near-matching shoes on a near-matching surface. This would’ve been done by a team of at least two people: a Foley Recordist there pushing the buttons to make sure all the audio was captured while the Foley Artist walked the scene out.

Afterwards, these footsteps plus everything else would’ve been sent to the Foley Editor, who would clean up those recordings (edit out clicks and pops, put the best takes in place) before submitting to the Mixer (guy at the faders), that places it in with the rest of the film’s sound and decides how loud he wants it to play.

Hand Touches
The sound of George’s hands clasping around his briefcase and his touch on the doorknob would be Foley’d as well, using either a real briefcase or a prop that sounds like one. Same process.

The swishing cloth of George bending down to pick up the briefcase? Also Foley, done like this:

Working hard!

The Door
The door opens, creaks and closes (every door in Hollywood must squeak like the most unique door in the world) etc. were probably selected by an SFX Editor, who could’ve pulled the sound of any random door from his personal library or one of the many professional libraries available. He trimmed the length of this door sound effect to match exactly what the door was doing in the scene itself (or just tried to get close, depending on his schedule) and eventually sent this material along to the Mixer.


BIRDS are chirping. Here he encounters his neighbor, MRS. DANIELS, trimming the hedges.

Morning, George!

GEORGE gets into his car, throwing the trunk onto the front seat, and drives off.

The Birds
Sad news, these birds weren’t real. I mean, they were real at one point, but for this scene they were selected from a library by a BG Editor, who is responsible for selecting all the ambient sounds that tell you where the scene is happening. The wind noises, the distant traffic – he picked them too. If there was an off-screen clock or a fridge hum in George’s house, he would’ve been responsible for all that. When the BG Editor is done with all his stuff, he sends it along to the Mixer again.

Mrs. Daniels
Mrs. Daniel’s Oscar-winning dialogue was, actually, probably recorded right there when they filmed the scene the first time, maybe even by one of those tiny microphones. Score!…

…Unless there was a plane passing overhead every time they tried to record it (common), or some crazy hobo yelling in the background, or a loud car passing by at the worst moment, or her performance just plain sucked. In these cases, Mrs. Daniels’ actress would be called in to record ADR and redo her lines in a studio somewhere after everything was shot. She would be coached through this recording session by an ADR Supervisor while an ADR Recordist pushed buttons in the booth to capture every take, as Mrs. Daniels watched herself mouth the line on screen and tried to deliver it in sync, with the same emotion she did in the original scene.

This line, and any other ADR that needed to be done, would be sent along to a Dialogue Editor, who would choose a best performance from Mrs. Daniels’ actress (or combine several), trim the little clicks, pops and mouth noises out of her speech, and subtly time-stretch or compress that audio to match her lip movements perfectly.

Ah, but Mrs. Daniel’s line now sounds like it’s been recorded in a vacuum, and is totally unbelievable when played sitting by itself in that scene. So the Dialogue Editor’s got to take some isolated bunch of ambient noise (more like “ambient quiet”) and make it into “fill,” which doesn’t sound like anything but a mash of what the audio on set that day was like. And that’s the point. He puts this bed of “fill” under the re-recorded line from Mrs. Daniels so that it sounds more like it was recorded on set, and when he’s finished, he’ll send everything along to the Mixer again.

“It’s digital, right? We can just take that sound out?”

Everything Else

Foley: George’s outdoor footsteps, the hand touch on the door, the sound of him tossing his briefcase onto a car seat, the sound of him sliding his suit against the seat and maybe even his seatbelt buckling. Mrs. Daniel’s hedge trimming snips would get recreated either in Foley or selected/edited from a library by the SFX Editor – or possibly done by both parties, leaving the Mixer to choose which version he liked the best.

SFX: the door close, for one. That same SFX Editor would also have to take some combination of a car starting, gear shift, engine reverse, tire crunches, engine accelerations and pull-away sounds from his library of hundreds or more and mangle them into sync with the picture. Easy enough for a car pulling out of a driveway, but imagine being the Sound Supervisor on The Fast and the Furious.


GEORGE is driving along LISTENING TO THE RADIO. He takes his eyes off the road to adjust his part in the mirror, and suddenly hears a loud HONK. He looks down to see a car heading straight at him.



GEORGE’s entire life flashes in front of his eyes.


GEORGE CRASHES into the car in front of him and dies.

The slight hum of the AC in George’s car and the occluded sounds of traffic outside are work for the BG Editor.

The sounds of George’s car revving up, slowing down and driving are from the SFX Editor.

George’s clothing swishes and seat creaks as he shifts around, his touches on the steering wheel and mirror, his hand running through his hair – all Foley stuff.

But the music on the radio? That didn’t just get thrown in there because it was the director’s favorite song. The director might’ve had a say, for sure, but more than likely a Music Supervisor, with knowledge of the full film, thought hard about what should be playing in this critical moment when George dies. When he had figured all that out, he had to negotiate with the artist or label to get the rights to use that song in the capacity of the film and broker that deal. Finally, when the music has been cleared, a Music Editor will take the piece and select only the part of the song he wants to play in the car scene, trimming the audio to fit.

He will send it to the Mixer, who might add that “futz” effect (the tinny sound of something playing through a radio) to make it sound like that flawlessly produced track is coming out of the dude’s little car system.

The Flashback
Suddenly, there’s a loud honk chosen by the SFX Editor (honk = incoming car crash for the audience) and the screen flashes white and we find ourselves in George’s flashback.

What was that sound that played when the screen when white? And where did this low, eerie rumble during the flashback sequence come from? Those were designed by the SPFX Editor, the guy who typically makes the sounds that don’t really exist.

He might have reversed the sound of a cymbal, sped up a few whale calls, slowed down some of his own recorded breaths and done a whole bunch of other magic to arrive at these sounds. He can do whatever he wants and most of the rules don’t apply to him, because we don’t know what “having a flashback” sounds like. I mean, we do, from other movies, but there is no real-world flashback we can go listen to out there and compare, so he gets to personalize things a bit. When he is done, his sounds go to the Mixer as well.

If you noticed, all the voices and sounds in George’s flashback were probably all washed-out and echoey sounding. The Mixer did that.

The Crash
And the car crash itself? Probably a combination of the SFX and SPFX Editors, especially if the crash happened in slow-mo. If George screams, the they might’ve recorded that line in ADR, and the Dialogue Editor will send a cleaned-up version of it to the mixer, or the SPFX Editor might just take a random scream from the library and mess with it until it sounds distressed and awesome.

Our Film Collaboration

With all the sound that comes after the film’s been shot, what the hell were we even showing up to record?

Ostensibly, just the dialogue, even though we still need to roll the recorder during scenes where no one talks.

The first day or so we recorded, we had a few scenes like this, where we’d record a minute’s worth of audio with only 5 seconds of “stuff that makes sound” happening. It was a little distressing, but as the days wore on, we began to feel a certain pride in even capturing those non-moments in the best detail possible.

I think that’s one of the “things” about production audio, to try to record everything as if your microphone was the first and last stop for sound in the entire film. Sure, you really just need to try to get the dialogue, but why not take some pride in it?

The film is probably several months away from post-production and all those extra sounds being added in, and way before then, some producer somewhere is going to want to see progress on the film. And that progress will have a soundtrack: yours.

It’s basically a two-part process, creating that soundtrack.


Booming is holding that giant black pole with the fuzzy blimp at the end of it, ever-so-slightly off screen, and maneuvering this into position to capture the best quality sound you can. Before we started this, I thought it’d be pure grunt work, but now I’m starting to see that it’s a real art form for the guys who make a living out of it.

You don’t just point the thing and stand in one spot until they turn the cameras off. What if the actors are moving around, turning their mouths? Standing up into sitting down? If you aren’t constantly tracking the actors’ mouths with your mic, a lot of that dialogue will end up getting up recorded “off-axis” (e.g. hitting the microphone from a less than ideal pickup angle), and those lines will lose a lot of body and presence in playback. They will sound “thin.” That can be patched up, to an extent, but if it can’t, you may be calling those actors in for ADR later. And Mrs. Daniels’ rate to fly down to LA and re-record dialogue in a studio is not cheap.

So you move the mic around a lot to follow the actors’ mouths (hope you’ve been studying the script!). But now the director wants to try another shot, start with a wide angle and then come in close, maybe pan around a bit. You need to know what that camera will and won’t see at all times and have the good sense to stay out of it – tricky with a lot of motion. Don’t forget that your boom pole’s probably got a big mess of cables drooping down from it, as well; don’t forget that those cables make noise when they clack against it. You’ll probably have to find a new position to stand in. You might even have to climb something.


Mixing is holding the recorder (or another few pieces of related gear) shown at the top of this post, pressing record when the take starts and twisting volume knobs to make sure everything is coming in at a good volume. That’s the simple version. If it’s a nice, quiet indoor shot with little movement, just you and one guy with a boom pole, it can be a pretty relaxing affair.

Now you’re doing a slightly more involved shot, and you’ve got the boom operator’s signal plus the incoming feeds of two tiny clip mics to balance against each other, it gets a little more involved. Now you’re doing that shot on a dock in the pouring rain** and have to worry about the mics getting wet, sputtering and fuzzing out and ruining the entire take – even the perfectly sound boom track – if you don’t turn them down fast enough.

You’re watching battery levels, always.

The actors go from talking to shouting to pushing each other, thumping one another on the chest right next to your delicate little clip mic, and you have to ride that volume knob the entire way to keep the signal from clipping and becoming distorted.

And if anything in that take doesn’t go right for sound, you need to speak up and get it re-shot or let the director know (easy when the director loves the sound crew and you’re ahead of schedule; probably not so easy on a multimillion dollar film), or it’s your butt on the line when that sub-par sound is playing for the producer in LA who’s reviewing the day’s takes.

**That rainy scene happened for us, and it was trying as hell. None of us ever want to go back to Cates Park, North Vancouver, ever again.

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure who works harder – production sound guys or editors – and I think it’s just safest to say that capturing and creating great sound is equally tough, that you’d have to be equally insane to want to do either one for a living. I can say that I have way more respect for the production sound types after this experience, though.

Film sound guys wake up early, rush around, wait, have to deal with team dynamics, endure shitty weather, stay on their feet all day – but they get paid for it, the weather is sometimes gloriously sunny, and it’s sure as hell fun. By the end of our collaboration, our little sound crew was pretty tight with those film students. We had a blast.

Now that I’m back in front of a glowing rectangle and cutting sounds in Pro Tools all day. It doesn’t rain indoors, but I can’t say which side of the process I enjoy more. I was hoping to rule things out with this program, make my decisions about the future a little simpler, but the doors won’t stop opening.

Fingers crossed to land some great work on either end this program’s finally out.


JT April 29, 2011 Reply

This was superb. More more more

Stephen Saldanha August 12, 2011 Reply

This is great, I like the info about production sound, that stuff I know least about. It’s seem like a very tricky job especially after watching SoundWork Collection’s interview with the production mixer for The Kings Speech.

Luca August 22, 2011 Reply

Thanks Stephen, I really appreciate it. I saw that video as well, and I wonder how much of those crazy micing techniques (like the overhead plant mics in that underground wine cellar) ended up making it into the film; it seems like some of that would have been a bit too distant, or off-axis, or just not great, but those guys know what they’re doing, right?

Haven’t gotten a shot to do any more production sound since this post and really craving it now that the weather’s so nice over here. Someday..

Again man, appreciate the readership!

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