Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sync Production Sound

A reader asks:
What is sync sound? Why has America been using it for so long and Asian cinema hardly uses it? One of the excuses they give is that their environments are so noisy and another is that it adds about 25% to the budget of the movie.

"Sync Sound" simply means that the sound is in sync with the picture. In this case, they are implying "Sync Production Sound," which is sound recorded on the set, in sync with the camera. (There is also "Post-sync Sound," where Dialogue and Sound Effects are all supplied in post-production in the form of ADR, Foley, and Cut Effects.)

Sync sound of any kind began in the US. The film industry in general became strong in the US long before it did in any other country. (That's not to belittle French cinema, who really created the art, but they did not market or expand their business the same way that Hollywood did.)

In the late 20s and early 30s, almost all US film went to sync sound. As a result, scripts became more like plays and Broadway musicals. So for almost 80 years, American audiences have been trained to hear the sound quality of production sound as normal, and when we notice that there is ADR (post dialogue) and Foley (post sound effects for movement), it seems phony and manipulative.

Even in early film, the international market was very important, and although there were different models for dealing with foreign distribution, most countries wanted (and still want) dubbed versions of the films. Since the US had practically a stranglehold on the market for decades, most foreign filmmakers growing up in other countries saw all films dubbed and heard that as normal. (Truffaut talked about this regarding his films.) As a result, it was normal for them to record all dialogue in post-production. This allowed them the freedom to shoot wherever and whenever they wanted and not have to worry about getting good production sound.

However, I find both of the arguments in your question to be untrue. "One of the excuses they give is that their environments are so noisy." If we can get good production sound in Los Angeles with dozens of freeways and several airports, I'm sure they can shoot in Asian and European cities and get good production sound. (Many American productions have done so!)

Also the idea that it is cheaper to do in post is ridiculous. Even if you plan on recording the dialogue in post, you still have to record production sound so that the people performing the lines have a reference for sync. If you have that same crew record it correctly in production, you're done, period. If you re-record the dialogue in post, you have to pay actors to come in and redo it, you have to rent the studio, you have to hire someone to record it, you have to hire an editor to put it in sync (because almost no actors can do ADR in sync) and you spend more time in the re-recording mix trying to make it sound "real." Plus, you have to spend more time mixing in Foley and backgrounds to replace what was also lost from production. On top of that, most actors give a better performance in the field, surrounded by real people and a real location, as opposed to being in the sensory deprivation tank of the ADR stage, where the actor is wearing headphones, looking at a video monitor and staring at their own lips to make sure they are in sync.

Recorded well in the field, every line of dialogue will have the proper perspective, will have the accompanying movement and background sounds, and is likely to be a much better performance. Recorded in post, even under the best of circumstances, it is very difficult to make it sound real.

Truffaut eventually changed late in his career to using production sound on movies like SMALL CHANGE. However, in what many consider to be his best film, THE 400 BLOWS, every line of dialogue is recorded in post-production. Considering that the main character is a child actor, it's an even more amazing performance to know that he had to do it all in post. So it certainly can be done, but it's rare when it's done well.

On the other hand, in many countries, dubbing is all they have ever heard, and when you play an American film without dubbing, they hear the sound quality a "far away" and "muddy." So a lot of it is simply what you're used to. We had a group of Vietnamese filmmakers visit USC a few years ago, and they couldn't believe all the trouble we went to in order to get good production sound when "you can just do it all in post much easier." There was no way to change their attitude. And I don't see most countries changing any time soon.

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