Mixing Sound for Film Production
How important is it for film editors to use sound and sound design when cutting a film?
Very important. Bad sound is much more distracting than bad image quality.
Leave some breaks in the ambiance, omit an important foley effect, make the dialogue uneven, and audiences will perceive your film as amateurish, even if the visuals are stellar. Listening to an uneven soundtrack puts tremendous strain on the cognitive brain functions, and creates a feeling of discomfort. Surprisingly, viewers are much more forgiving about low quality images than low quality audio. Adding immersive sound to your film can make them forget about some underexposed or shaky shots.
Editors put an effort into making sure that the soundtrack for each preview print is as smooth as possible. Then a sound mixer works on the final print to create the perfect movie experience.
When exactly does a movie go to sound mixing?
Is it after or before the movie is edited?
Sound mixing starts after the edit reaches picture lock, a stage where the director intends to make no more changes that would affect the duration of the print.
Some VFX shots or placeholders may still be replaced after picture lock, but no major editing changes can be done that would affect the dialogue, foley or music tracks.
Why doesn't the editor work the sound already?
They do. Depending on the type of the project, several preview prints may be made (for test screenings, producers or client feedback, etc.). The editor has to make a great effort to make sure that these prints have adequate sound quality that does not distract from the experience.
We set dialogue levels, smoother out the ambiance, add placeholders for music and important sound effects. These are indications of what the director wants the film to sound like. They get replaced and/or cleaned up during mixing.
However, mixing and editing are very different jobs with different skills required, so the final mix is left to a professional sound mixer.
How many movie cuts are made (e.g. theatrical cut, director’s cut, etc.) and why?
The examples you mention (theatrical cut, director’s cut) are released cuts of a film.
A production company typically aims for a single version (cut) of the film to end up in a distributor’s hands. For a feature film, this is called the “theatrical version”.
For subsequent distribution channels, new edits may be made. For example, a director’s cut may be released on DVD/Blu Ray. A “family-friendly” cut may be created for TV broadcast to qualify for a less restrictive content rating (e.g. less violence or nudity, softer language). A different version is often created for in-flight entertainment. Sometimes a distributor may require an edit specific to their target market because certain countries and/or audiences have cultural or religious restrictions on content.
In summary, each released cut is typically motivated by a distribution opportunity.
During the post-production of a movie, a great number of versions are created, but only a few of these are released to the public. These unreleased versions are referred to as “preview edits” or “screens” (in the olden days of celluloid we called them “work prints”).
These are associated with milestones in the editing process, such as producers’ or distributors’ screenings, a
udience test screenings, or collaborations with other departments like VFX.
Depending on the complexity (and flexibility) of the material, a feature film may go through dozens of these milestones — and so dozens of preview edits — before getting released.
The last milestone is to create a version for distribution (e.g. theatrical). The industry term is that the edit reaches “picture lock”. As the name implies, this is a cut where no more visual changes are intended to be made, so the film can proceed to audio mixing, final grading, and mastering. How important is it for film editors to use sound and sound design when cutting a film?
How important is sound design in films?
Good sound design can add dimensions to a movie that are not possible in any other way. Unlike the way we relate to the most visual stimulus, sound can act subtly and powerfully on psychology and emotions without a viewer being aware of it. Of course, the sound is powerful in making a film feel complete, but merely laying in sound effects and dialogue is not designing sound - it’s editing sound. Editing sound for a movie is in itself a demanding and skilled craft, but designing the sound is another thing altogether.
A good sound designer will use all the sound components at his/her disposal to shape the sound to reflect the intent of the story in literal, psychological and emotional ways. It’s not a matter of coming up with ‘cool’ sound - as many people think - but instead, a process which looks at the movie as a whole, and deploys the many possibilities of sound to aid the director’s aim to take the audience into the world of the movie. Sometimes - often - you won’t even notice the good sound design, because it’s achieved its purpose without taking you out of the moment.
Just like the photographic look of the film, or the sets, or the costumes, or makeup, sound works best if it’s a properly designed and truly integral part of the process. A good director will always place great importance on sound design.