The importance of good audio is unparallel. Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle says; “The truth is, for me, it’s obvious that 70, 80 percent of a movie is sound. “You don’t realise it because you can’t see it.
It would go without saying that more often than not, sound recordists and audio engineers are the unsung heroes of filmmaking. However, what happens when you don’t have a sound operator? It could be for a paid job, or it could be for a passion project which you are funding yourself. Sometimes life puts you in a tight spot and you have to push on, with or without an operator.
While camera technology has vastly improved over recent years, unfortunately, the onboard microphones have not improved that much. Lower budget cameras often include microphone jacks and the ability to control levels, but still the built-in microphone is not something to be used to capture final audio. Using the onboard microphone is the last resort. If you are without an operator, here are a few tips, ranked from the best possible circumstance to the worst, on what you can do to cross the finish line.
Microphone Stand/C-Stand Setup
If you have your own audio equipment, you are already in the second best position to be in other than having an operator. At at least at this point, the show can still go on. It then becomes about how to proceed. Here, you can swap recordist with a microphone stand or a c-stand.
You will need to place your microphone in the stand and position it as close to the actor as you can. Run through the entire shot to work out the average falloff for your sound levels. You want to be hitting -12db to -15db for your actor’s dialogue. Although you do need to factor in quiet and loud moments, as you are not going to be able to change the levels through the course of the scene, you’ll need to set the levels at a midpoint. Not too quiet, and not too loud. A grey area where you can higher or lower the sound in post.
- This is your best option for getting the best possible sound in a circumstance without a designated sound operator.
- If you keep your framing tight, you’ll be able to get good sound, if not excellent. Explain to the actors that they need to keep the dialogue at a constant sound level
- Limited camera movement and framing.
- Unable to mix sound.
Microphone Camera Mount
Depending on what model camera you have, you are more than likely going to have an input jack for either an XLR or a 3.5mm aux cable. Most prosumer cameras will have a placement for a microphone, and almost all DSLR’s have a hot shoe mount suitable for a microphone. This is going get you audio, but unless you are close to the actor, the noise to gain ratio is going to be pretty high. Unlike a field mixer, a camera is only going to have basic level controls. This set up is ideal for documentary filmmaking, but for narrative, it is not the best. If you are in a pinch and need to get audio; It is an option to take.
Image via B&H
- Operating the camera and the audio become a sole duty.
- The audio will be fed straight into the video, no need for syncing up in post production.
- Noise to gain ratio will be high if far away from the actor.
- No advance control over the audio mixing.
Lavalier microphone for ADR/Foley
This option is a great fall back for if you are doing an action oriented scene with little to no dialogue. While a lot of sound within an action scene is reproduced in post-production, you will still find a sound guy on set capturing the audio for either reference or actually to capture the sound if foley or time is an issue. By placing a lavalier on your talent, you are going to be able to pick up his movement, along with his or her breathing. It is a great workaround for capturing reference audio. You can buy a Lavalier for next to nothing, of course, they won’t achieve pro sound, but they are ideal for capturing sound references. A decent lavalier is the Aputure A.LAV, which you can pick up for around $35. No transmitter is needed as it can record straight into your iPhone.
- It will leave your hands free from audio
- Most of the audio will need to be completely reworked.
These tips are all based on the concept of having no sound guy and no boom operator. If you do have an extra set of hands then, of course, delegate that person to hold the boom if you have one. Although I will state, I’ve been on many shoots where boom operating has been transferred to someone who has not done it before, and the results are not that great. I feel like boom operators are sorely underrated regarding their job skill. There’s a lot more than just holding a pole towards the actors. They need to switch back and forth between actors, mind the framing, mind the on-set equipment, and of course manage their fatigue. While handing someone a boom pole is a much better option than everything listed above, it still has setbacks.