Lighting and Sound, a perfect team
Blog reader KJ writes:

What I have little to no knowledge about is sound and lighting. Do you have any good suggestions about how to learn about those things? Kansas University’s classes on lighting are theatre-oriented. Also, what are some good websites that talk about what lighting and audio equipment to buy? I can find camera reviews but have no idea what to look for as far as those things go.

KJ, these are two big topics and ones that I myself often admit to being very ignorant of. Still, it should be good to write down what I think I know and let the world wide web correct me. I’ll tackle sound first, since I’ve been making a concerted effort to fill that gap in my knowledge.

Basics of Movie Sound

There are two domains of knowledge in film sound: conceptual and practical. On the conceptual level, a sound designer, takes great care and effort to decide what music, sound effects and dialogue are being heard at any given time and how they are presented or mixed. It is not unknown for people to be intentionally surreal in the domain of sound. Kubrick would use sentimental songs for counter-point to dark images, such as a Marine unit marching to “Micky Mouse Club” or the nuclear destruction of the Earth to “We’ll Meet Again”. In the movie Missing, all door slams are dubbed with gunshot sounds. In Any Given Sunday the sounds of football are mixed with animal sounds, like lion roars. In movie montages, often the dialogue between characters will be removed from the soundtrack entirely, since what is being communicated is primarily visual. And so on. This is very much its own creative discipline, as I learned from the book Sound Design by David Sonnenschein (this blog’s review).

Practical sound knowledge I would further subdivide into production and post-production. A sound recordist on set knows what microphones and recording units will be needed to capture the sound appropriately. He or she also knows where to place those microphones. I’ve heard it said that placing a mic near where someone’s chest cavity resonates provides richer, more attractive sound than near the mouth where the sound is riddled with hisses, lip-smacks and other gobstops.

Until the DV revolution, sound was often recorded to completely different media, DAT being the standard. Also, minidisc portable recorders are now popular, but they are being supplanted by actual hard drives. There is no reason a robust laptop can’t be engineered for field recording. Bad location sound is probably the number one problem for films of all types and budgets. I’m a big advocate of treating sound as fully half the set-up and half the expense of a production.

Once the sound is recorded, is has to be edited and mixed. There are several dark arts to making bad sound tolerable and good sound great that together are known as sweetening. One book that shed some light on this for me was Audio Postproduction for Digital Video by Jay Rose (this blog’s review).

As for equipment, here is a basic list:
–portable recorder and media
–shotgun mic (the Sennheiser ME-66 or ME-67 with K6 Power Unit are the standard and toegether run about $500)
–telescoping boom pole with shockmount for the shotgun mic and windsock
–at least two wireless mics and reciever unit (another big chunk of change)
–headphones that cover the whole ear for the recordist and boom op
–masking tape, camera tape, electrical tape and any other kind of tape you can find

Of course, if you’re shooting a documentary you might be able to get away with only a shotgun mic mounted on the camera and wired lavaliere mics for interviews.

Basics of Movie Lighting

If you want to know how the pros do it, read American Cinematographer magazine until it starts to make sense. This will take three or more years. I’m sure there are good shortcuts, but the people I know who know about lighting have all done this. At first it all reads like a bad science report: HMIs, ASA ratings, degrees Kelvin. If you keep going on film shoots, gradually the jargon starts to sort itself out. It’s an expensive subscription, but most libraries have it. If they don’t, ask for it. Beyond that, I’m far from an expert in this area, so here is the gun-to-my-head version of how it seems to me from the base of a steep cliff…

Big lights means big electricity. Which means you need your own generator and wiring. Which is why films have electricians in their credits. You also need to be able to mount the lights, which means a number of portable stands designed for different occasions, and a large grip crew to mount and move them for every shot.

Lighting kits seem to come in two flavors, chocolate and vanilla– I mean, daylight or artificial light. If you’re using the sun as a key light (the principles of theatrical lighting still apply), you need fill (often a reflector will suffice) and maybe some kind of tent to take down the sun if it is too harsh. (Another blog post on low-budget lighting kits.)

If you’re using artificial lights, you might still need to pretend there’s sun. Daylight has a bluish quality to it, so certain lights are balanced to re-create that effect on film. Your average lightbulb has a tungsten filament, which burns slightly orange. These two common hues give us the two common color balances for film stocks and now digital cameras: daylight and tungsten.

(I’ve gotten into big arguments over the ‘sunlight is blue’ statement before so let me say a bit more. Our brains naturally balance whatever light we see towards white just like our brains naturally filter out background sounds and let us home in on the sound we want to hear. This is proved by film and video, which are objective recording devices. They don’t know what color equals white until you tell them, just like the lens of the camera doesn’t automatically know what you want to focus on in the scene. That said, no famous cinematographer tries to present a perfectly clean, white-balanced image. On major movies, the DP and the director will instead spend weeks, even months with a very expensive professional colorist to create a look for the film. A basic orange hue might be used to communicate that the scene takes place at sunrise; a contrast-y look might be used to suggest the comic-book source material. And so on.)

If you go to any trade show, it seems half the displays are related to lighting. There are so many different types of lights, some filmmakers have made it a point to use only practical lighting, which is to say, only regular store-bought lamps. Still, these filmmakers will replace standard, power-saving bulbs with high-wattage ones. Both video and film seem to need more light than our eyes. It is a common misconception that video requires less light than film. In fact, it requires more to achieve the depth-of-field and sharpness of film. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Allen Daviau doubles the size of his light kit for digital shoots.

Recommended Websites

B&H out of New York City stocks everything and seems to set the price point for all kinds of professional equipment. Their staff is uniformly knowledgeable but not uniformly friendly. Some get testy when you ask questions. Some are very helpful. It’s a crapshoot.

Rental houses, on the other hand, always seem to bend over backwards to help you learn about equipment. They know that the more you know, the more you’ll want the good stuff (which is also the expensive stuff). If you are serious about renting from them and paying them good money, then have no shame about asking questions, coming in for weeks ahead of the shoot to practice and shoot tests, and hitting them up for gems of wisdom. Rental houses also sell off used equipment from time to time. Good deals can be found.