Human speech has huge potential as an element of sound design. Dialogue—words, breaths, sighs, etc.—can be performed, and edited, to function like music in a film, so that tempo, dynamics, and harmony in dialogue carry as much meaning—sometimes more meaning—than the definitions of the words being spoken. This is a vast, mostly unexplored territory, and I think it's one of the most artistically exciting facets of the future of film sound design.
Director of Sound Design, Skywalker Sound
There's no such thing as a “typical” small feature film, so it's difficult to describe a typical sound team. Whom you work with, where you work, and how you work—these realities have changed over the past few years, and there's no reason to think that things will stabilize any time soon.
The makeup of a postproduction sound team—especially on low-budget films—is a rather ad hoc affair: more like a pickup basketball game than a rugby team. Crews vary in size and composition based on a tricky balance between the film's needs and its budget.
The boss. Commonly the only member of the sound team hired directly by the production and usually selected by either the director or the picture editor. The supervising sound editor has the enviable task of bringing the film's sound to life, enhancing the narrative, developing characters, focusing the viewer's attention, and boosting emotions. He has the unenviable job of finishing the sound within budget, on time, and balancing the needs of the sound crew (who must remain loyal to him), the director (with whom all film birthing pains are shared), and the producer (who pays the bills and is often unimpressed with excuses for cost overruns or delays). Since so much of the job is administrative, the supervising sound editor must be as nimble with Excel as with Pro Tools.
This one is tricky. Not long ago, in the days before hair designers, lifestyle designers, and food designers, this term was used to describe specialists subordinate to the supervising sound editor who were called in to make the sound for extraordinary scenes or to create specific moods—such as a spaceship escaping a black hole—beyond the scope of the normal sound team. These days, there is a blurring between sound designers and supervising sound editors. For some reason, the term “designer” carries a swagger lacking in the clerk-like “supervisor.” It's more and more common for one person to wear the hats of sound designer (artist) and supervising sound editor (manager).
Essential in the sprocketed world, the first assistant sound editor is increasingly hard to find in budget sound cutting rooms. Her role, far less defined than in the past, ranges from obtaining and preparing all necessary material from the picture department (a hugely important task) to setting up and managing the cutting room, locating alternate takes, and fending off the world. A good assistant is worth her weight in gold, but it's ever harder to convince an independent producer to spring for the extra salary. Fight to have an assistant, even if only part time.
In non-union work you'll almost certainly have to do without an apprentice—nowadays often called “intern,” perhaps to avoid payment. Apprentices are there to learn—cutting room techniques, protocol, and discipline—and to erase lots of fantasies about sound postproduction. They help the sound editors by loading and archiving sound materials, transcribing scenes, and performing similar tasks.
On action films it's easy to understand what the sound effects (SFX) editors do. A helicopter crash, or a motorcycle chase, or Bogart and Hepburn riding the rapids in the African Queen, are obvious examples of sound effects editing, and are usually the kind that win awards. But most of the miracles performed by SFX editors go unnoticed by the public. Every scene, even the quietest middle-of-the-night conversation between two people, will be populated with small “background” sound effects that aid the dialogue, influence the mood, create a rhythm, and motivate characters' actions. On smaller films, it's common for the supervising sound editor or sound designer to do at least some of the sound effects editing. On miniscule films, the supervising sound editor is the sound effects editor (and the Foley editor, the dialogue editor, and the backgrounds editor).
The dialogue supervisor (big films) or dialogue editor (small films) is responsible for all production sound editing (i.e., if it was recorded during the shoot, it's the dialogue editor's responsibility). Whether removing noises, replacing bits of dialogue from alternate takes, organizing and smoothing tracks, or preparing the track for ADR editing, the dialogue editor must create a seamless track in preparation for the dialogue premix. On large projects, a dialogue supervisor oversees a team of editors.
Inevitably, certain lines will need to be rerecorded after the shoot. Technical problems, impossible recording conditions, new lines for story enhancement, and a director's yearning to “improve” an actor's lines are but a few of the reasons for bringing the talent into a studio to rerecord lines. The ADR supervisor works with the director and picture editor, as well as the dialogue editor and supervising sound editor, to create a list of lines in need of rerecording. The ADR supervisor directs the actors in the recording session and creates a plan for the ADR editor. It's the ADR editor who matches the countless takes of loop lines to the dialogue track, finessing for sync, delivery, pitch, and attitude. On smaller films, one person will usually be both supervisor and editor. On microscopic films, the dialogue editor wears all of these hats.
This one is tricky. Any reasonable person, when presented with the title “ADR mixer,” would assume that this is the person who mixes the ADR during the dialogue premix. Not true. The ADR, or “postsync,” is recorded in a studio, but must perfectly match dialogue that was recorded in a limitless number of locations. The ADR mixer is responsible for this match. She selects and places the microphones, manipulates the electronics, and positions the actors for the best match to the original recording. She must also do whatever it takes to get the best take from actors who may fear the ADR process or feel that it undermines their original production performance.
Every film needs some help from Foley, which at the very least is used to cover holes caused by ADR and fix a few disastrous omissions of action. As budgets increase, Foley can take on an ever-escalating narrative role, adding color, texture, and character. Any film destined to be dubbed into foreign languages requires Foley wall-to-wall. The Foley supervisor collects requests from the supervising sound editor, director, and picture editor, and then compiles the complex list of sounds and props needed (this process is called “spotting”). He supervises the Foley recording sessions as well as the editing.
Together these Foley artists bring you the actual sounds that liven up the track, enhance the drama, and cover gaps. The Foley walker must figure out which prop or shoe/surface combination will produce the right sound, and the Foley engineer is responsible for all technical considerations, from microphone placement to track layout.
Whether footsteps or key jangles, most Foley has to be edited after the recording session. Foley editors must, of course, get everything into sync, but that's the most superficial aspect of their work. Rearranging a series of footsteps for maximum dramatic effect or structuring the elements of a body fall to suggest more than meets the eye is their job. Dedicated Foley editors won't be found on smaller films. Instead, an SFX editor will handle this responsibility.
Few people understand the music department. For one thing, the music editor often reports directly to the director, not to the supervising sound editor, and so usually is a bit of an outsider. She must work closely with the film's composer to “fit” the score onto the film and seduce acquired music into the film's structure.
Sooner or later the film gets mixed. The mixer has to make sense of the scores of tracks generated by the sound guys, and from that create a soundtrack that works with the narrative and creates a soundscape that pulls people into the film without calling too much attention to itself. Somehow, it usually works. With the rerecording mixer comes the answer to the question: can you fix this in the mix?
A sound postproduction crew is hierarchical. There are apprentices, assistants, editors, and a supervisor. This may ruffle some egalitarian feathers, but the system is designed to get things done and to constantly train the next wave of editors. Study all you want, read all the books you can, but editing is still largely learned on the job, and nothing beats working under experienced craftspeople.
The gig [dialogue editing] today is the same as it was when I entered the business: to present dialogue with as much technical perfection, artistry, and intelligibility as time and skill allow.
Richard Fairbanks, rerecording mixer