Making a Fan Film – Part 7: Sound and CGFX

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Some time ago the last of these articles was posted and at that time our Hellblazer fan film was well into the post-production process, we’d edited the shot footage and colour corrected/graded the whole thing.

This left us with just the computer-generated special effects and the sound mix to do… No problems, right? The finishing line was in sight… Only it turned out not to be, getting these elements into place took longer than I could have possibly imagined, but as is so often the case it was simply unavoidable, for numerous reasons.

Like with the colour grading, circumstances led to me having to tackle the sound myself, with no prior experience, which would have been bad enough if I even had an ear for decent sound, which I don’t, at all, so quite the amount of learning was required before I even dared to put my toe into the proverbial pool, this was followed by a course of trial and error that was really quite horrendous.

Meanwhile, Steve Askey, my CGFX guy (mentioned in previous articles), being the rare talent and über friendly guy that he is, had a waiting list of films he had to work on, and Hellblazer was third in the queue, which, though stalling the post-production, actually played into my hands of needing time to get my head around sound.

As with other stages of the filmmaking process I was dealing with elements of these processes simultaneously, but for ease of purpose I’ll talk about them both separately.

 

CGFX

Having dealt with computer generated special effects on some previous films and having talked to Steve about this film specifically, I knew how he would need the scenes that he would be applying the CG to. The problem with the fully graded footage that we had put together is that we’d added levels of filter that contained not only colour corrects but also textures and lighting adjustments.

This would be something of a problem if we sent it to Steve in this fully finished form, because, while preferable to work on the colour corrected footage (avoiding us tinkering with his work with our own colour corrections), adding texture to his FX would be a huge pain.

The solution to this was simple, we just had to make sure that all the texture in our own After Effects timeline where on their own layer, which could be shut off so that the footage for the sections he would be working on could be rendered up with only the colour corrections applied… This is all boringly technical, I know, but without this process Steve’s job would have been many times more difficult.

The best advice that can be relayed about this process, if indeed you are working with a more technically savvy FX person, is to work with them closely, they’ll know exactly what they need, so follow their instructions to the letter and there will be no qualms about formatting and so forth. I’d also say that you should give them the footage they need to work on in as big a file as they can manage. The footage will have to be compressed at some later stage so you are best retaining as much size as you can at this point to keep all the footage looking the same.

Before I sent any footage though, Steve spent the majority of the time he was working on this project on some short, fully CG scenes that I needed. Here I needed a fly modelling in the computer, so we could cut to an extreme close up of it, as well as having it buzz around the characters in some other composite shots.

Here’s were it gets too technical for me to explain, but boiling it down to its basics, Steve spent ages meticulously modelling and animating the CG fly, that in its raw form looked like so…

Pre-detailed fly model

Pre-detailed fly model

But once he’d added many layers of texturing and details, it winded up looking like this…

Finished fly effect

Finished fly effect

Once these sequences were completed I started sending him the half stripped back, rendered footage that required composited CG. With this he motion tracked the shots and created the FX to place into the scene. In the designing of the FX he had my storyboards and some pretty vague descriptions to go off, otherwise I left him to do what he can do far better than me. He sent me test footage on a regular basis but we were so on the same wavelength that I rarely had any notes to give him.

Once he’d finished all the effects shots he sent them back to me as animated sequences, which appeared as sequences of hundreds of PNG files. I had no idea what to do with these, but as it transpires introducing them back into my After Effects timeline was pretty easy, when selecting to import a new file and selecting the relevant sequence, the program itself automatically brought in all files as a single movie sequence. I only had to make sure it was set to the correct frame rate.

These sequences should be the exact length of the clips that you rendered them from, so from here it was a simple task of putting these sequences to their correct place on the timeline (I just plonked them on a layer right on top of the ones they’d been rendered from), then I turned back on those texture and lighting layers we had created and viola, the visual picture was fully completed…

Composite effect shot

Composite effect shot

Sorry that all got technical again, but it’s the best way of describing the complicated ins and outs, whether you understand the terminologies or not.

I think, as is true for many technical jobs on a film production, it’s very important that you have a good understanding of the disciplines that you will be making demands of, if not exactly on a technical level then certainly in the broader sense, it save on making other people’s jobs significantly harder from your lack of understanding, or to add hours/days/weeks on to their work-time by being unsure what you want from them as well as not knowing how to achieve your vague ends after a relatively open brief… no one likes hearing a sentence start “can you just…”, because “can you just…” could mean another week’s worth of work. Know what your “can you just…” suggestion means to a person, and judge if that avenue needs exploring at all, ESPECIALLY when people are working for free.

I had wanted more FX shots such as eye replacement for the demons, which Steve was willing to do, but I had a loose deadline (the release of the TV show) and we’d already hit it, so I forwent them for purposes of time saving (filmmaking IS compromise!), also the eyes of the characters were largely caste in shadows, so it may have been redundant.

Anyways, the timeline in After Effects now complete it could all be rendered up and placed into the edit proper in Premier Pro. Tweaks to the edit are easier to do on the rendered layer here than in After Effects… Well, that’s what I did anyway, when, as a whole, some of the cuts felt clunky with applied sound…

Speaking of which.

 

Sound

If you’re at all familiar with filmmaking then you’ll know that the sound is so remarkably important that it beggars belief, it can literally make or break your film irrespective of the quality of everything else in the project. See, if the sound is poorly put together or is in any way not seamless the audience will just know; they won’t necessarily know WHAT is wrong with the film, there will just be something that is grating or jarring about it. A poor looking film can be made to seem professional with decent sound and editing but a good looking film can be rendered amateurish with bad sound.

As mentioned I was forced to use this project as a trying ground to build my own skills in the sound department; first let me state that this is far from an ideal situation and if you have the alternative choice of finding an experienced sound person, go with it; unfortunately finding good sound people are like finding good drummers for your band, they’re pretty rare, and when you do find them they’re already busy with other projects. Another alternative is to just build your skills on ‘less important’ or test projects.

As I’ve said, I didn’t have the luxury of much spare time, so learned as I went. As is life, I acquired the knowledge and skills needed to complete the task from a combination of book reading and You Tube videos. The books were best for learning about sound theory, but it’s a massive subject that people spend years perfecting, so in truth most of what I was reading went right over my head but I got a grasp on the fundamentals, which can get you a long way if you plan to keep things simple.

There were a surprising lack of good instructional sound videos on You Tube, but doing a broader search I found some pretty good videos made by Adobe themselves, and as I was primarily using Adobe’s Audition to do the sound, these proved invaluable, especially as they outlined the very things that I had no idea how to do and that I’d not considered that important until I’d learned some stuff.

The first piece a good advice is to keep a backup copy of all your raw sounds, which is to say the sound you picked up on the day or otherwise acquired, you’ll be manipulating these sounds and if you go and irreparably ruin one or more of them it’s comforting to know that you can just import the original piece again.

I shan’t bore you with every learning curve I hit along the way, but I will give you a rundown on what processes had to be done, just to give you an insight on what a gruelling task working on the sound mix is.

The first job is to listen to all the sound you got on the shoot. From here you note all the takes that are good and the track numbers of the takes you actually used in the edit. Obviously it’s best to work with the dialogue belonging to takes you used, but for myriad reasons it’s usefully to have many other options. I found here that despite our on-set sound person, Sarah, doing an excellent job with levels and such, there was just no avoiding the background hum of the various theatrical lighting set-ups we were using, as well as that annoying background chatter, creaky chairs and squeaky floors.

So the next task was to painstakingly ‘clean up’ every dialogue track as well as using these tracks to synthesis ‘wild sound’ (background noise of the environment that I neglected to actually get on the shoot day), so that the edited dialogue tracks could be placed together smoothly with the edit points disguised. Even with all this done, there were still parts of the dialogue track that I found irksome, but not having the ability to do re-shoots, you can only work with what you have.

Adobe Audition's rather complicated set-up

Adobe Audition’s rather complicated set-up

Knowing that this wouldn’t be enough to fully cover up the inconsistencies of the dialogue edits I’d already decided to have the story take place in the back room of a night club, so some convincing, none-licensed dance music had to be acquired. Luckily I have a very talented musician friend called Adam Marsh who specialises in dance music and he was happy to supply me with tracks, he was even good enough to mix the tracks together to portray a banging DJ set. After listening to this music it kind of broke my heart to dampen it so that it sounded like it was coming from rooms away, but did it I did and it really pulled the dialogue track together.

The on-set sounds we’d picked up on the shoot were a little too muddy and inconsistent to use, so yet again, taking advantage of my sound girl Sarah’s expertise and access to kit, we produced a selection of foley sounds, which is another word for generating the incidental noises that happen around us in life. Using a recording studio, a bag full of props and an edit of the film on my laptop, we created all the sounds needed to bring a filmic poker game to life, so there was lots of card flipping and chip moving, not to mention walking about, pouring water and rustling greaseproof paper.

These all fell into the mix easy enough with a bit of added reverb and some volume alterations. Next I needed sound effects, which are the less common sounds the film required. Some stuff you can scrounge out of other people’s sound libraries, some you can find on online sound libraries and purchase, these can be easily altered to work well enough in your film, some have to be created from scratch. The latter went beyond my newly attained skill-set, so once again I called on Sarah (seeing a pattern?), who, looking at the footage, created some brilliant and otherworldly sounds that fit right into the sound mix.

All that done and the soundtrack was complete, right?! Nope. It’s one thing for the sound to be good on the high quality headphones or monitors you need to reliably work on sound, it’s quite another for your film to sound good on all the devices and through the different quality speakers it will be viewed on/listened through. So you need to render a draft version of your film and play it through numerous qualities of speaker.

Realising that a You Tube video would be watched on phones, laptops, desktops and on TVs, I watched it on all of them and through different quality headphone, making notes on which sounds and dialogue had to be altered to be passable on the various outputs. This is a little disheartening as it means you have to lessen the quality on some stuff just so it can be heard on crap speakers (bassy things for the most part), but after several run throughs of this tiresome process, you’re film is about done, as indeed this one was.

I think the sound mix I put together is perfectly passable, with the inclusion of Sarah and Adam’s stuff adding much needed professionalism, but in all truthfulness, viewed with an experts eye, or ear in this case, I believe the sound mix on this film is its weakest element. There are always positives though, in this case I now have a much better ear for sound than before I started and from a directorial point of view I will be much more aware of sound issues on set, stuff that can be dealt with on the day to nip issues in the bud in post.

 

So that’s the film finished… well not quite, there are other things to be included and done, such as your credits; we at Waking Dream take pride in our credit sequences, so I put a pretty energetic one together using collage, Photoshop and After Effects, in accordance with a slammin’ rock track supplied by a brilliant local band called Little Mammoth, but these can, of course, be as simple as you want to make them, be they scrolling or just a page full of names.

You also have to export your film to the correct specs, which may vary depending on how you will be presenting the film. As a fan film, the only real outlet for our film is online sources, so this was a pretty easy task… but all this isn’t too interesting.

So, for all intents and purposes, I’ve guided you through the whole production of our film. Was all the effort worth it? Well I guess you’ll have to judge that for yourself when you give it a watch.

I sincerely hope this series of articles has proven eye opening to anyone interesting in film or anyone wanting to get into indie filmmaking. I genuinely believe that it’s closer to real no-budget filmmaking than any filmmaking book you are able to buy, most of which pre-suppose that you at least have a few tens of thousands of dollars to spend.

I don’t expect you to be able to go out and make your own film from just reading it, but take this advice and you just might; do your research, make lots of friends and connects, watch lots of films, work on lots of sets and practice, practice, practice… basically, work really hard and don’t rely on shortcuts. Good life advice in general.

Richard
A UK based Contributor; Richard Reynolds splits his time writing articles and interviews for Fanboy Confidential with running his own comicbook shop, Ground Zero Comics, as well as sticking his thumb in far too many pies, including illustration, writing and filmmaking, he also consumes fiction in all its forms like its going out of fashion.

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