Dear Doc Doctor:
Many people suggested that I add more narration and music to my documentary, which I did, but now other people are saying there is too much of both. How do I achieve the right balance between image and sound in documentary film?
Before you figure out where others want you to be, let’s make sure you know where you are. Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and draw a line along the center of the page. At one end, write “purist verité documentary”—under that: “no narration, no interviews, no music” (think Albert Maysles). At the other end of that continuum, write “essay/editorial documentary” –and under that: “lots of narration and interviews, music OK” (think Michael Moore). This last part about narration and interviews means you. How large of a presence do you want to have in your film?
Maybe you are more of a Maysles type, verité filmmaker but you’re not a purist, so you feel comfortable with some music, interviews, and some narration to clarify what the camera can’t capture. You are committed to documenting reality and your voice and vision comes through in your choices of camera angles and characters, but nothing else. Images and direct sound prevail, and external sound, such as narration and music, are scarce.
Or maybe you are more about doc-commenting—which is to say, rather than being an invisible bystander, you are interacting with reality. You are interested in exposing and exploring the issue from a clearly stated point of view, conveyed through narration, a careful choice of interviews, and your placement in the film as a character—a columnist talking to the audience. Images abound but they are at the service of your narration—ultimately your script.
The right amount of anything in a film—action footage, narration, music, interviews—has a direct correlation with where you choose to position yourself, which in turn affects the amount of time and struggle you will be facing in the cutting room. Award-winning producer and director Lilibet Foster, of the verité style documentary Brotherhood: Life in the FDNY, shared her thoughts on the subject: “There are narration-led documentaries, which take less time and effort to make if the script was conceived before shooting. Then there are interview-led films, which you can cut together to be the backbone of the entire story. It’s a manageable process, but you will have to sort through transcripts and create a script rather than writing your own voice-over from scratch. And finally there is scene-led or verité, which is most challenging and takes the longest because the scenes are made up of action and verité dialogue rather than a previously conceived interview or voice-over script.”
In all, there is no right balance to achieve, but rather a conscious choice to be made about what style of film and filmmaker you want to be.
Dear Doc Doctor:
I can’t afford sound editing or sound design. I’m not even sure it’s right to do sound design in a documentary. Can I do without them?
Sound editing and design, and in some cases even mixing, are often forgotten or neglected as a second cousin of picture editing. By the time most filmmakers are done with
picture editing they are not only exhausted and short of time to make their festival deadlines, they are also very short of money. Many rush through or skip sound editing altogether. The consequences, however, are more far-reaching than what meets the eye, or in this case, the ear.
Chief-mixer and co-owner of Splash Studios, Peter Levin, says: “As a mixer I often get projects that haven’t been sound edited, and then we have no choice but make the mixing session into an edit session. Mixing and editing require different skills. I like doing it, but it’s a bad use of resources. So what appears to be saving money by eliminating a step, ends up being very costly and frustrating for both the filmmakers and myself.”
Sound, like images, create a world that needs to be coherent and cohesive. Our eyes are fairly trained (courtesy of MTV) to follow a continuum of images no matter how many jump-cuts we see—our hearing abilities are not quite there yet. I have viewed rough-cuts with audiences, and received ambiguous feedback about the structure of the film or the clarity of a scene. After editing the sound, without touching a single image frame, the test audience will then ask what we had changed in the scene to make it flow so well.
As per your inquiry of sound design, some filmmakers squirm at the thought of adding any sound or effect that wasn’t captured originally by the camera. Others happily add suspense-like vibratos or pigeons gabbling to complete the ambience. It all depends on the intention. However, unlike most fiction films, you can do without sound effects if that’s your choice.
Ultimately, you want your film to offer an honest yet engaging experience to the audience. You want them to experience reality, and most often, reality has sound. It’s your job to reproduce the easiness by which we can hear natural sound. And so, budget restriction and deadlines notwithstanding, do edit your film’s sound and most importantly, do not forget to record room tone. A minute spent during the shoot is several hours saved in the sound edit room.