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.


Anonymous said...

"Also the idea that it is cheaper to do in post is ridiculous."

All the reasons you give for this are surely true in the US, but not necessarily in other countries where the system is used to working this way. For them, it might be more expensive to hire a trained production recordist.In old Italian films, I'm not sure anyone was recording any sound at all on set, to be honest. (Basing this on the terrible sync & interviews).
Also, these countries have dedicated actors who have been doing ADR all their life and are used to getting good performances in the booth.

In the end I agree: it's just what you're used to, but definitely it's changing in some places. (By the way, I do prefer Production Sound).

Regarding 400 Blows, it's funny... Mr. D. Hall always maintains that kids are naturals at ADR. :)

Bondelev said...

"Also, these countries have dedicated actors who have been doing ADR all their life and are used to getting good performances in the booth"

You still have to pay them.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I know. That was a response to the believable performance bit.


Anonymous said...

If you read foreign websites there is a lot of discussion of post filming recording. It also has to do with the accent of the actor or actress in countries where more than one language is spoken. For example recently in India an up-and-coming actress' voice was dubbed (supposedly without her knowledge--thus the controversy) to acheive a more metropolitan accent.

I have also read descriptions of Indian experience with sync sound and it sound like they could use some experienced sound editors.

Additionally there have been interviews with actors that are so used to dubbing post production that they will save their vocal acting for later and when confronted with sync sound recording have to get used to doing "everything at the same time."

Marcelo Teson said...

A small aside:

We were taught at USC (CTCS 200 and 201 to be exact) that before WWII film industries in Europe were just as strong as Hollywood - maybe not as strong, but certainly competitive, and Hollywood didn't export as much. It wasn't until WWII that production pretty much ceased in Europe, allowing the US to gain a foothold importing movies, from which they had 5 years of material to choose from. Europe has yet to recover from this dominance. Obviously that isn't the case in places like India and Hong Kong, and it doesn't affect your argument one bit, it's just an interesting piece of trivia.

Bondelev said...

Yes, you are correct, I was grossly simplifying the history of the business in order to keep the post on topic and a reasonable length. The economics of WW II changed the business forever.

Anonymous said...

While economics certainly contributed to it, the real issue was the brain drain from Europe to the US. Much of our so called "dominance" after WWII was the mass exodus of the most precious of capital, human brains, from Europe just before and after the war.

Anonymous said...

They mostly use production sync in the U.K. don't they? I always associate ambient acoustics with their productions.

Just a tangential aside, when the Lawrence Welk show went to TV he did the vocals with pre-records almost exclusively. And the interesting part, he pre-recorded the tap dancers and they had to foot sync the taps! For this reason, the performances were less spontaenious to keep the sync accurate.

Bondelev said...

>They mostly use production sync in the U.K. don't they?

Almost exclusively. (Of course, US movies were never dubbed when shipped to the UK, so they are used to hearing production sound as "right.")

Theatricallly trained actors tend to hate doing ADR, and in the UK, film actors generally tranisition from the world of theater. (Not always true in the US.)