From Photography to Filmmaking: Crafting an Auditory Experience

Green Heron (Butorides virescens) on Cypress knee.

Green Heron (Butorides virescens) on Cypress knee.

In last month’s column in From Photography to Filmmaking, we started to think about sound and how sound can help to shape and craft our story. Today, I’d like to expand on that a bit more and walk you through how I put together the audio for my latest short film from my project Filming Florida.

I spent the first few weeks of the year filming and photographing in south Florida and spent four or five mornings working in Sweetwater Strand in Big Cypress National Preserve. My latest short film explores the transition from night to dawn in the swamp. When I was filming this particular piece, I went about things a little differently since I was also using this as an opportunity to test out a bunch of new equipment. With all the testing of a new camera, I was not focused on recording audio. As a result, two days before the planned release of the film, I had a fully edited film, but it didn’t have any audio to go with the visuals. This afforded me a very interesting exercise–setting out specifically to record audio that matched the visuals for the film. I’m not saying that this is the best way to do it, and in fact I’d much rather capture high quality audio while I am filming, but it was a valuable experience. Take a moment to watch the film and then I’ll walk you through my approach.

My approach to creating the audio for this piece was to consider what sounds and noises evoke the images and feel for the piece I want. As I had been shooting this peice, I spent a bunch of mornings starting out in the swamp when it was pitch black and one of the sounds that stuck in my mind was the haunting and distant call of three species of birds I heard almost every morning–Great Blue Herons, Barred Owls, and Red-shouldered Hawks. I knew I wanted the opening of the film to feature this distinctive and echoing call.

The next segment was a bit odd in that the Black-crowned Night-Herons themselves rarely made any noise. They mostly sat silently, only calling when disturbed or flying to roost. So for the segment, I really only needed ambience that was basically sounds of the swamp without any big loud calls of any particular species. The next major segment featured the roosting White Ibis, and this is where the audio really steps up as the hundreds of birds create quite a cacophony, but it doesn’t’ just start all at once. A few birds start honking, then a few more, then wings start to ruffle, and then finally, they take off in waves which can be very loud. I continued with this thought process knowing that I needed decent dawn ambience for the vultures, the dawn landscapes, and then finally the Green and Great Blue Herons, including a decent splash for the Great Blue Heron when he struck the water.

The next day I had a decent mental list of recordings I needed in order to craft the story and support the visuals I had captured. I spent the morning working through the list as the dawn broke, capturing each sound that I needed. This approach turned out to work well and I was pleased at how the audio came together in this piece. As I said before, I’d always rather record the audio at the same time as the video, but that may not be possible where you are working. There may be other people around and tlaking in the background, there might be a road nearby, there might be a really loud cicada calling in the bush next to you, or you might just have a equipment problem. However you capture your audio, whether it is in sync with your video or after the fact, remember to focus on creating audio that supports your visuals and helps to suggest or conjure up images in your mind’s eye that match your visuals.

Next month, I’ll conclude our examination of audio for video by looking at some of the equipment and a basic technical overview of ways to capture good quality audio without investing a small fortune.

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