Searching For Sugar Man

As a filmmaker, one of your biggest goals is creating great work that is moving and memorable. While there are no guarantees in business or life, I wanted to share an example of a movie that succeeded in moving me. Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of a a charismatic Mexican-American singer/songwriter named Rodriguez.

Back in the late 60’s some music producers heard Rodriquez playing in a Detroit dive bar and thought they had discovered the next Bob Dylan. So they made a record. The record was distributed to all major outlets…

And then the record bombed.

After a second attempt and another failure, Rodriquez was dropped from the label. He put his guitar away and went back to his construction job.

Meanwhile, the South African movement against apartheid was building momentum. And unbeknownst to anybody in the states, including Rodriguez, his music quickly became the voice of millions!

Here is the Searching For Sugar Man trailer:

Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, I think this is one of the most moving documentaries out there. The pacing, structure and emotional punch puts this on my list of top-ten documentary case studies.

Also notable was some of the challenges Bendjelloul had to overcome to bring this story to the screen. “I thought that the fact that this really happened – and the way it happened – would be enough to attract investors. But in the end the story attracted everyone except the investors.” Bendjelloul said.

Searching For Sugar Man took three years to complete! While this would be enough to deter most filmmakers, Bendjelloul pushed forward. While working a day job for money, he was able to edit his film on Final Cut Pro. Additionally, he utilized $500 midi software to compose a dummy for the original score.

Upon competition, the movie had a great festival run and made it’s way into a Los Angeles theater, where I presently shed a few tears of joy. Kuddos to Bendjelloul for having the tenacity to finish what he started.

Anyway, if you want to find out more, check out The Official Searching For Sugar Man site.

Audio Production Engineer

You can’t fix audio in post  I mean, you can. Assuming you have the money and the time to record ADR and hire a group of audio professionals, you can probably fix some of your audio. But as guest poster Tony Tartaglia shares, having a skilled and thorough audio production engineer is an essential part of making a quality, polished film:

As an audio production engineer, I have viewed a lot of independent films and documentaries, and the one thing that stands out more than the quality of the filming and special effects, is the soundtrack, or lack of a proper one. Many independent films and documentaries sound weak or hollow, and in others, the music bed overpowers the dialog tracks.

What makes the audio weak or hollow? Most low budget film makers use a quality camera with an attached microphone, so the distance from actor to camera is the same distance from actor to microphone, greatly reducing the sound pressure level arriving at the microphone while allowing other noises to enter the microphone. The further the microphone is from the source, the more open and hollow the sound is.

Try this experiment. Video a friend speaking any lines at a distance of two feet, now do the identical shot from a distance of twelve feet. It should be quite obvious which one sounds better. The shot from two feet will sound better but look bad, while the one shot from twelve feet will sound bad but look great.

A common remedy for this bad audio is to add music to the track. All this does is further bury the dialog, making the film a chore to listen to, and detracting from the essence of what is being said. In some cases, there is so much noise in the audio tracks, that the film is not even worth watching.

Just to be fair to the videographers out there, I researched two Sony professional handy cameras: the DSR-PD150 which retails for approximately $1300, and the HVR-Z7U which retails for approximately $4000. I found a very curious fact. The two cameras sport the same microphone: the ECM-XM1 which retails for $129. Apparently, the extra $3000 for the HVR-Z7U went into the video capturing and not the sound capturing. Why?

Sony, as with all of the other professional camera manufacturers, realizes that the onboard microphone is for reference audio, and not for the sound track. On board microphones that are rigidly attached to a camera body pick up every noise that is generated within the camera and, worse yet, every noise that is transmitted through the camera, the “handling noise.” For anyone who’s been to a live event and someone bumps into a live microphone or tries to grab a live mic out of a stand, you know what I mean.

Professional sound companies use two microphones that conform to industry standards: The Sennheiser MKH-416 which retails for just under $1000, and the Schoeps CMIT5U which retails for $2100. These microphones are used in dialog acquisition by the boom operator for the sound recorder, and the purpose is to place the microphone closer to the speaker or actor than the camera. Trained boom operators can move the microphone to and fro without generating noise, thereby getting a cleaner sound. This is where it starts, getting the cleanest sound possible into the film.

Next time we will look at the roles of the on-set sound team.

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Tony Tartaglia holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree awarded from the International Academy of Design and Technology in Tampa, Florida and owns his own mixing and editing studio. Tony can be reached for consultations and audio production through his website at [email protected]