The Real Poop
Stop, hey, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down.
A sound editor's job is to take all of the sound actually recorded while on the set of a film, polish it up, match it up with the final footage, and create whatever other sounds, music, or effects are necessary to create the desired mood or add a sense of realism. Obviously, if you're doing sound editing for a Will Ferrell movie, you don't have to worry about the realism so much. But the other stuff still applies.
"But who is this sound editor person?" you ask. "I've seen plenty 'Making Of' featurettes—that's right, I watch the bonus features—but I've never seen a sound editor hanging out on set. Where are they hiding?"
While the average film shoot takes two to three months, with dozens of people (or hundreds, if it's a really big film) working night and day to get that thing in the can, it might take a year or more after filming has wrapped before the final product is completed.
And for their toiling during that year, sound editors can make a good chunk of change, pulling in about $52,000 per year (source). Does that figure resonate with you at all?
Those who work in the industry know that post-production is the real time-consuming part of the process. From the film editor who pieces all of the usable takes together, to the re-recording mixer who finalizes all of the sound, the work is slow, painstaking, and pretty lonely. (If you've got a stuffed animal, you might want to clear a spot on your desk so it can keep you company.)
Somewhere between the film editing and the final mixing is the sound editor.
He or she starts out with a smattering of sounds that are provided from the filming—the audio of the actors delivering their lines, along with recorded white noise, background audio, etc.
The next step is to add many sounds that couldn't be recorded live (such as gunshots or explosions), or which can be enhanced by selecting a similar sound from the sound editor's library. (That dog didn't bark loudly enough? Fix it in post.)
There's also the music that has been recorded to accompany particular scenes throughout the picture. The sound editor must take all these pieces, add some flair of their own, and string them all together so they fit cohesively with the visual movement of the film. You can't really have a bomb going off while someone's lips are moving, or have a tearful ballad playing during the designated "fart scene."
Also, if there's no usable dialogue at some point, for whatever reason (helicopter was going by overhead, actor had a case of the mumbles), one or more actors may be asked to come in to record their lines over again...which the sound editor will then dub into the film. Gotta get those lips right.
A sound editor does all this from a DAW (digital audio workstation). This advanced piece of equipment stores, in individualized files, all the sounds the editor will need to access. The DAW allows them to synchronize each sound with individual frames from the film.
If you were to take a look at the screen without knowing anything about sound editing, you'd probably be a bit lost—it's about as esoteric as an aircraft's cockpit controls. All sorts of wavy lines, fluctuating bars, and cryptic numbers. But hey—if they can understand it all, more power to them.
Sound editors work on a freelance basis, and it's therefore a good idea to join the Motion Picture Editor's Guild. They're a union that looks out for all post-production editors by providing pensions and healthcare, and by making sure no editor is exploited by any employer.
Sound editors are hired by and work for the producer of a film, but because their employment is only temporary, they need to know that someone has their back. And also that if something happens to their back, their health plan will allow them to take care of it.
To give you a better idea of a job well done in sound editing, here are a few films that have won an Academy Award in sound editing.
- Inception. Christopher Nolan's sci-fi action film took its characters—and its audience—inside the world of dreams. There's no way to actually record what stuff sounds like to our unconscious sleeping minds, so Inception's sound editors had to create a world of sounds that'd seem believable to all of us dreamers out here.
- The Hurt Locker. War films have a good track record in the sound editing department. Part of this is because believable sound is essential in these films—you want the gunshots, the explosions, the military planes flying by overhead, and the whistling of bullets or missiles to draw you in and make you feel like you're right there.
But perhaps even more important are the moments of near-silence. A character breathing heavily just before an explosio...the cries of children heard very faintly in the distance...a robot shuffling quietly across the sand toward the bomb it's intended to defuse. These suspenseful sounds add to the intensity of each scene, without being all up in our faces about it.
- The Dark Knight. Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh, duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh…Batman! Rather than going for camp, this Batman franchise features inventive weaponry, imaginary vehicles, and a slew of gunshots and explosions that all need to be accompanied by realistic sounds.
When watching this movie, the sound enhances the film and allows us to more easily and fully accept the fact that a guy who refuses to use guns survives onslaughts of foes wielding automatic weaponry.
This gig isn't for everyone, but if you're the most patient person you know and you love fiddling around on computers, or just want to be part of the film industry and wish to put your technical skills to work, there could certainly be some sound editing in your future. If so, go ahead and retreat inside your cave, do your stuff, and we'll see you when you re-emerge in the spring.