PopMark Media/Studio Unknown's Confessions of a Small Working Studio—Balancing Act: Craft Vs. Business

In life, there’s a lot to be said for generosity, right? It really does go a long way, and if you believe the adage “What goes around, comes around,” it’s especially poignant. However, in bus 5/02/2011 10:16 AM Eastern

Sound designer and film recordist Kevin Kniowski

In life, there’s a lot to be said for generosity, right? It really does go a long way, and if you believe the adage “What goes around, comes around,” it’s especially poignant. However, in business, there’s a point at which going overboard with generosity means shooting yourself in the foot; it’s a delicate balance. For some reason, sound designers have earned a reputation for being some of the most “generous” folks around—at least in the eyes of filmmakers. But it only has to get obnoxiously out of hand if you let it. The sound designers featured in this month’s column have mastered the fine art of making amazing things happen within the confines of a budget. While they’ll admit they still went a little above and beyond, these composers were able to prevent themselves from total exploitation by effective communication and considerable imagination. 


I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand it when someone tells me, with absolute and excited certainty, that he or she is going to deliver on a project, only to find out later that there was no way it was ever going to happen. Lip service. If you’re a sound designer, be upfront with a filmmaker from the beginning about what you can and cannot do with the budget and timeframe you’ve been given. 

In fact, communication is largely indicative of the success or failure of a film’s audio post process. Sound designer and film recordist Kevin Kniowski of New York’s SixDotsSound knows that well. While he recognizes that he has to use restraint when taking on projects simply because his true passion for the craft can put him in the vulnerable position of going far beyond what he’s getting paid to do, he also knows that being honest about expectations is imperative.

“Fortunately, when I was approached to do audio post on Second Story Man, the filmmaker was very blunt about the budget, so I had a clear idea of what I would have to work with,” says Kniowski. “However, before I said yes or no, I read the script, watched the film and took about a week to contemplate my decision. Even though I loved it, I also had to seriously consider if the project was something I could tackle based on the issues that I would have to correct, the timeframe I had to work within and the budget I had to work with.” Kniowski says that by watching a rough cut, he can usually determine around how much time he’ll need to spend on a project, realizing that, in the end, it will take up to three times longer in reality. Ultimately, Kniowski took on the project, but it was after getting real about what would be required and having honest conversations with the filmmakers about what he would be able to deliver given the budget and time frame. 

The good news was that the film’s director, Neal Dhand of Discreet Charm Productions, was not only excellent about communicating his vision about the project, but he also had a true understanding and appreciation of the importance of sound design. While he hadn’t consulted with Kniowski during pre- or production (according to Dhand simply because he hadn’t found Kniowski yet), he definitely was thinking about audio post during the filmmaking process.

“Before I began working with Kevin, I had a lot of talks with my producers and other creatives about the sound, and things like where the music would die out and the audio cues would take precedence,” explains Dhand. “In fact, there were multiple occasions in which I was framing shots with the audio in mind. I’m not a musician or audio guy, so I couldn’t use sound tech language to tell Kevin what I was looking for. We developed our own sort of language to communicate, primarily through the emotions of a scene and the feelings the characters were experiencing.” And while Dhand admits that there may have been times in which Kniowski could have been frustrated with this approach, it wound up becoming an integral part of the process and forced the two to go through a whole range of sounds that resulted in some happy accidents. “Sometimes, we’d stumble upon a sound that wasn’t what I had originally wanted, but it totally worked,” says Dhand. “The whole experience really helped the film to evolve and pushed it to a point that I never would have imagined.”

Much like Kniowski, sound designer Tim Barker benefited exponentially from The Arbor filmmaker Clio Barnard’s ability to communicate her ideas, her respect of sound in film and his previous experience with her on a short film 10 years prior. “The great thing about Clio as a filmmaker is that she knows what’s involved in sound design and she knows what she wants,” says Barker, whose credits includes more than 50 films; his latest project is the major motion picture Deep Blue Sea, which stars Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. 

In the case of The Arbor, Barker was able to have discussions with Barnard about this very unique project prior to production. “In some ways, the audio post-production phase really started before the shooting for the film took place,” says Barker. The documentary is unusual in that the dialog was recorded without images and the actors that were used to “voice” the dialog used a playback device to lip sync their parts.

“The dialog was recorded in interviews and then pre-mixed prior to post-production.” Couple that with the fact that the budget was tight and the turnaround time was short, Barker knew that he’d need very clear direction from Barnard to pull it off. “The discussions Clio and I had enabled me to deal with the sound design elements early on, so by the time shooting had begun a lot of elements were already in place.” For instance, there were scenes that were to be shot in an abandoned hospital but, in the film, the setting was a house, and the emotional undertones that had to be created were unpleasant memories and grief. “I had the benefit of being able to talk to the filmmaker prior to shooting and be on set during production. This enabled me to think about what I could do in audio post to bring these emotions to life and tackle other challenges.”

Sound designer Tim Barker (seated) with a boom operator

Sound designer Tim Barker (seated) with a boom operator

A scene from <i>The Arbor</i>

A scene from The Arbor


Planning was part of the scenario for Barker, but given budgetary and time constraints, both he and Kniowski also had to rely on serious ingenuity to pull a rabbit out of the hat on their respective projects. For Barker, the process that he refers to as “reverse ADR” was a first for him, and thus required an unconventional approach. “The set up for The Arbor was quite unique in that we were capturing nat sounds through a boom mic that was actually pointed away from the actors and into the environment,” he explains. “This was really confusing to the boom mic operator. [Laughs] Meanwhile, the dialog audio was being pumped to the six actors through earpieces so that they could mime their parts, and we were capturing the natural sounds of the environment as they did their lip-synching. I had anticipated that capturing the natural sounds of the environment would be important to bring a ‘realness’ to the film since the actual voices were recorded in interviews with 'real' people about their 'real' lives." Barker used a Sound Devices hard disk recorder and Avid Pro Tools on his laptop to transmit pre-recorded dialog for lip-syncing. The approach paid off well, as the blend of the two audio components was harmonious. 

Another innovative approach that worked well involved a slow-motion scene. To make the scene more believable, Barker slowed down and pitch-adjusted the vocal track in Pro Tools to enable the actress to lip sync her scene in slow motion rather than forcing the editors to rely on often pricey and time-consuming visual effects. “The effect was great in that a very dreamy quality resulted, which is exactly what the filmmakers were looking for,” explains Barker, who conducted the audio post work at Clarity Studios in England.

Barker was able to accommodate the budget without compromising on quality when it came to creating the segues between locations in the film by repurposing sounds that Barnard had used in another of her short films. These sounds included wind and creaky noises, which were important for establishing the two different worlds represented in the film. “Because the moods of Clio's two films were similar, lifting some of the sounds from her short film and using them in The Arbor wound up working perfectly,” says Barker, “and it saved us time and money.”

Kniowski was also able to think well on his feet—especially the scenes in which he had to develop an effective way to generate voices that were supposed to be coming through the wall of the main character’s rundown apartment. “The main character in the story, Arthur, winds up hearing voices of the people in the adjacent apartment and ultimately realizes they are part of a sinister plot,” explains Dhand. “The challenge was determining the exact quality of these voices so that they were logical, believable and audible enough so that the audience could distinguish what they were saying, but not so obvious that every piece of plot-critical information was front and center.”

His approach involved a combination of experimenting with different frequencies, different actors’ voices and different techniques. One of those techniques involved PVC piping. “Taking a cue from Walter Murch, I went to Home Depot and bought 10 feet of PVC and metal pipe and recorded dialog through these items. Then I ran the audio through Pro Tools and played around with dropping out some of the muddiness and making sure that certain words were slightly more audible than others.” Kniowski also used digital filters to make certain elements less clear to give the tone of the voices added authenticity. “In the beginning of the story, the filmmakers wanted the audience to think that the voices were all in Arthur’s head, but as the script goes on, it becomes more obvious that the voices are real, so to accomplish this I used more reverb to give the sound a more washy, blurred quality."

Kniowski also had to get creative when it came to re-creating an important scene that involved snow. “The film was shot in February in upstate New York in a very wintery climate, but I didn’t start mixing it until August,” says Kniowski. “When you go outside in February, things sound a lot different than it does in the summertime, so I had to come up with a cost-effective way to create a wintery environment.” To re-create footsteps in the snow, he went to an ice rink and recorded himself and Dhand walking through snow that had been dumped from a zamboni. “A lot of times, working with a limited budget actually causes you to get even more creative than you would have because you have to put more of yourself in it.” 

While both Kniowski and Barker admit that their work on Second Story Man and The Arbor exceeded their budgets, they also cautioned fellow sound designers to exercise discretion. “My ultimate goal is to make sure that my client is happy with what I deliver, and I will work on a project until I feel it is acceptable," says Kniowski. “At the same time, I have to monitor myself and force myself to stop if I see that I’m putting too much time into a project and not getting a fair amount back.”

PopMark Media is a creative partnership developed to help music industry professionals, filmmakers, advertising agencies and business professionals make sense of the changing requirements, develop effective strategies and stand out in a sea of competitors. The company offers innovative and personalized services that include a full range of promotional, social media and strategy consulting; original music composition, jingle production and music supervision; and sound polishing services for various projects.

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!