Sound advice. A conversation with Mark Edward Lewis.
We get it.
Whether you are a one person band or part of a larger production crew, there are a lot of decisions to make when it comes to the visuals of your story—camera, lenses, filters, settings, stabilizers, lights, etc. Each of these decisions profoundly affects your films and, as a result, takes up a lot of your priority as a storyteller.
But, here’s the thing: at most, visuals are only half of your story. The other half—sound—is just as important. Some say, it’s even more important.
Then, why is it so often overlooked and neglected?
It’s complex, and thus intimidating.
The truth is, it’s actually not that complex.
Well, if your goal is to become a world renown sound designer, it’s probably pretty complex. But for most of us—filmmakers—our goal is to tell amazing stories, and understanding sound and how to use it effectively isn’t as complex as it seems.
Really, all it takes is about 8 hours of your time.
Recently we chatted with Mark Edward Lewis, veteran sound designer, technical director and co-educator to Frank Serafine of the Sound Advice tour, about the importance of sound in filmmaking. With more than 25 years dedicated to mastering an art that is part of his DNA, Mark walks us through his journey to becoming a sound designer and some tips on how you can improve your audio right now—with gear you likely already own.
You've been a composer and sound designer for decades. What drew you to sound in the first place?
It was 1977 and I was sitting in Mann's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and I was sure at 6 years old that I wanted to be a paleontologist. I was sure of it. But it was in that moment when that Star Destroyer glides across the screen—everybody like me in the theater was like, whoa, we've never seen this before or heard it before. John William's great score and George Lucas' amazing vision—we were all hooked. And that was it. I was like, I got a be a part of whatever makes that. And for me, because I'm the product of two professional musicians and I was already a blooming little pianist at the time, I realized I wanted to write music for film.
After all of these years, what keeps you living and breathing sound?
Being a classical and a jazz commercial trained pianist is kind of my first language—I don't exist in the world that is anything but full of music. In fact, while we're talking the air conditioner is singing to me in my hotel room with a gear that needs to be slightly more oiled, and the traffic outside, and just the general ambiance of these ugly florescent lights—it's always speaking to me. I love being in that harmony with it, and being able to make my own music and my own expressions to move people.
What's wonderful about being in film and production is you're not limited to music. You can yell, you can scream, you can fire guns, you can be quiet, you can fly through SCI-FI fantastic things, you can hear grass, you can hear air, which you can't hear otherwise. You can make things happen that are completely unmusical even though it's all kind of musical. It's probably because I was raised in a family of professional musicians that it's just in my DNA. I didn't really have a chance to do anything else and fortunately I had aptitude for it. It's what I live and breathe. As much as I love cinematography and telling the story visually, I'm very glad I wasn't born eighty years earlier when there were silent films as they probably wouldn't appeal to me very much.
There's a number of notable quotes out there on the importance of audio, sound, sound design, etc, in filmmaking. In your opinion, what role does sound play in filmmaking?
The gist is three aspects of sound that move in multimedia: Sound effects, dialogue and music. But what do they each do?
Dialogue: Its primary purpose is telling the story. It isn't about emotion. It isn't about anything else. Specifically, its best use is telling the story and, depending on the wealth of the writer (in terms of their richness as a writer), sometimes it's deceiving the audience, which is even better. In real life, dialogue is absolutely never what's really going on, it's somebody trying to always divert you from what they're really feeling.
Sound Effects: Sound effects are terrible at telling a story. Horrific. But they're awesome at immersion. We use ambiances, foley, sound effects, artifacts, and all kinds of things to create immersion.
Music: Its primary purpose is moving people emotionally. Now that's not really rocket science but consider this—if dialogue doesn't do it, and sound effects don't do it, then the only thing that really does it, is music. So we can take a scene of our heroine and our hero making love and put horror music to it, and it doesn't matter how good of an act or how provocative the lighting, the audience is going to hate it. They'll think it's awful. That's the power of music emotionally.
What I tell directors is that dialogue's always going to be there, we're always going to hear it and that's fine. Now let's make a decision. Do you want immersion or do you want emotion? That makes it so much easier for them to go, oh, we need to be in the scene. Okay, great. We need to move to emotion.
"Do you want immersion or do you want emotion?"
Is this a balancing act, where you're choosing your priority on either immersion or emotion?
Yes, because you don't want both banging around. You can't have everything loud. Well, you can, it just tires you out if you extend it very long.
If sound is as important as it is, why do you think it’s so often overlooked—especially in indie filmmaking?
The reason sound is overlooked is because nobody understands how it works and why it works.
If your brain didn't lie to you constantly about sound, it wouldn't be that interesting. If sound wasn't running at 48,000 frames a second instead of 24 frames, which video is, then it wouldn't be a big deal. If your brain wasn't as in tune to audio at 20,000 times the speed that it is digitally well then it wouldn't be a big deal. But it does, your brain has that kind of resolution and no one really understands without training and experience, especially with the filmmaker coming fresh out of school.
How do I turn the brain's hyper-attuned ability to say what's real and what isn’t? How do I turn that off? How do I lull it to sleep while the brain's still able to cognate my story and my character? That is the magic of audio. Then, how do I move it into what I want it to feel so that the audience is ultimately, unless you're making an art film, moved to a call to action or to spend money?
That's what audio does and only audio can do it.
It’s a knowledge gap and that's what the Sound Advice tour is about. It so aptly named because there's so much bad advice about how to do it, even among professionals. Frank Serafine has graciously allowed me to tag along and we've put together a show that really gets down to the basics which I believe most filmmakers, including some of the biggest names we know, don’t really get. We know they don't get it because we look at their films and they're missing the point of how audio works.
It's almost like you can use a sword to just flash through something and of course it'll do that. You can also, if you're well skilled, use the sword to have open heart surgery, if you're incredibly well skilled. The more well skilled you are the more you get your point across.
What's one thing that filmmakers can do right now with the equipment they own that can improve their sound?
You'll hear me say it over, and over, and over—post-production starts in pre-production. It's really simple. Most filmmakers go to locations and go, "Great, it looks great, sounds wonderful." And then the sound guy shows up and says you can't record anything here. Why not? There's power lines everywhere. Well what does that mean? Buzz.
Bring the sound mixers in—both your recording mixer and your post-production mixer—early. Make that happen. Just like you would bring your visual effects supervisor on location scouts, bring your sound effects and senior sound designers too. And don't be hasty. Stay for another five or six minutes on your location scout because that train just might go by there or that airplane. There's nothing worse than getting on set and we're waiting for a plane.
Next, never go over zero on your meters. Never. Never. Never. NEVER. In other words, when it goes in the red, do it again. Just do it again. You can turn something up but you can never get back lost data.
And when you’re mixing, what you first grab when something is too loud or too soft shouldn't be a fader, it should be your EQ. If something's grossly loud or grossly soft, fine. But, if you're like, "I just need it to be softer." No. Reach for an EQ and see if you can take out the expending frequencies instead of just pulling the whole thing down.
If you never go over zero and you reach for an EQ in post instead of a fader, you're going to have 50% better sound right off the bat.
"Post-production starts in pre-production."
Define better: what is adjusting that specific EQ going to tangibly do for that specific sound?
Think of it like opacity in Photoshop. If I've got a big red circle but it's blocking my big blue circle, and I want to see the whole blue circle and I absolutely cannot move the red circle, what do we do? Well we move the blue circle to a different place. But I don't like it over there, but at least I can see it. Well that's like pulling a fader down. Well it's too loud, but I like it there, but it's too loud. So I have to pull the fader down and now it's too soft but at least it's not interrupting my dialogue, whatever this other thing is.
Say it's an explosion. I really, really, liked this explosion. It's really exciting but the guy talks over it so I have to pull it down and now I don't have the drama. I don't have the punch but at least it's not blocking my dialogue. Okay, good plan. How about we use opacity, like we do in Photoshop? That's what EQ does, I can take out the explosion, the same frequency that is mashing over the dialogue. And then the dialogue can fill in that hole, since the dialogue is a much narrower frequency band than the giant explosion and it's massively broad frequency spectrum, I can just let the explosion bang away and pull it out from those frequencies where the dialogue lives and it doesn't compete anymore. They get to coexist in frequency, if you will.
Any other things a filmmaker can do right now to improve their sound besides going to the Sound Advice Tour?
If you've got a boom mic, that boom mic is suppose to be pointing at your actors mouths—not at the floor. If you're like, I have two actors, I'll just put it between them, you're not going to pick up anything but the floor. Point it at their mouths. A boom op must know the scenes and the script for that. Point the boom mic at the actor at the appropriate moment, and then the other actor, and then the other actor. That guy or girl is a busy, busy, busy, boom operator.
"You can turn something up but you can never get back lost data."
Outside of the technical skills required to master the art of sound, in your opinion, what are the other skills or talents that are required in the art of using sound effectively?
I think in the capture part, it is about a technician, a mechanic, being methodical—not a lot of creativity, unless you start running into trouble and then you get to be creative and figure out how to solve things. The process of recording should be followed to a specific protocol, which is not that difficult. It just takes physics but when you get into post-production, then we’re talking about the design of sound, with music, and dialogue—it's wildly creative. Like in athletics, cross-training is always good. The more disciplines you have under your belt, the better off you are in handling any situation.
How much of what you've experienced in your life as a sound designer is tied to the Sound Advice tour? Not only hearing the sound of grass as you explained earlier, but also understanding how important that is in the process of bringing stories to life?
Well, I've started a kind of a name for myself as the sound guy, the music guy turned filmmaker. So all my filmmaker buddies, whom I'm very close with and really appreciate their work, would come to me for sound advice. I don't mean like sound advice, but sound advice. It's so great to be able to tell people the secrets that I've learned.
I didn't go to film school. I was in college—composition major—where I learned all this stuff from people like Frank Serafine, Michael Lehmann Boddicker, J.A.C. Redford, and Herbie Hancock when I interned with him. Just guys who've done it for years, who've mastered so many parts of it but I've had the benefit and the luck of being able to, if you will, cross train with all these various disciplines in music, editing, sound effects, mixing, vinyl, and re-recording.
To be able to take that knowledge and build Sound Advice around what Frank has done, and be able to assist him and have the information that both he and I share put out to all of these constituents who are eager and want to come here, is incredibly exciting.
Is there anything that you want to share with filmmakers looking to attend the Sound Advice tour?
Our intention is for students to walk away completely inspired to redress how they move their audiences with sound in all of their productions, and that they're given the tools that not only inspire them, but make it so much easier to do that at a professional level or even in a way that was never accessible to them before.
With the knowledge Mark has on sound, we’ve only just managed to scratch the surface from our brief time with him. Definitely check out the Sound Advice tour—spend a day with Mark Edward Lewis and Frank Serafine as they demystify sound for filmmakers.
"I just wanted to put out my take on the Sound Advice Tour. I am relatively new to cinematography, but I have been working with sound since 1996. I started with 4 track recorders and moved to Pro Tools. WOW. I got some filtering/EQ techniques that I had never even seen, and the section on ADR was INCREDIBLE. So what I am saying is that it was totally worth a day off work, being on the road at 5am and getting home at 10pm (1.5 hour drive each way).
Met a great bunch of people in my region to network with, and I got so very much information as well as having a great time. If you are on the fence, I say go. Totally worth it."