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, 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 of 'making of' featurettes (good for you for watching the bonus features) and I've never seen one of them hanging out on set. Where are they hiding?”
While the average film shoot takes two to three months, with dozens—or hundreds, if it's a really big film—of people working night and day to get that thing in the can, it can take a year or more once filming has wrapped before the final phase has completed. 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 mostly pretty lonely. (If you've got a stuffed animal, you might want to clear a spot on your desk so he can keep you company.) Somewhere in-between the film editing and the final mixing is the sound editor.
He starts out with a smattering of sounds that are provided to him—the audio of the actors delivering their lines, recorded white noise. background audio, etc. Then he has to add to it many sounds which could not 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 is also the music that has been recorded to accompany particular scenes throughout the picture. The sound editor must take all these pieces, add some of his own, and string them all together so that they fit cohesively with the visual aspect 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 "fart scene." Also, if there is no usable dialogue at any 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. Got to get those lips right.
A sound editor does all this from his DAW (digital audio workstation). This advanced piece of equipment stores all of the sounds the editor will need to access as individual files, and allows him to synchronize each 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 nuts as an aircraft's cockpit controls. All sorts of wavy lines, fluctuating bars, and cryptic numbers. But hey—if he can understand it all, more power to him.
Sound editors work on a freelance basis, and it is therefore a very good idea to join the Motion Picture Editor's Guild, 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. You will be hired by and work for the producer of a film, but because your employment is only temporary, you need that added security that someone has your back. And, if something happens to your back, your health plan will allow you to take care of it.
So what are some recent films that have won Academy Awards for Sound Editing, and what made them so special?
• Inception. Christopher Nolan's sci-fi action film took its characters—and its audience—inside the world of dreams. There's not a way to actually record what stuff sounds like to our sleeping subconscious, so Inception's sound editors had to create a world of sounds that would seem believable to all of us dreamers out here. Since we all know what it feels and sounds like in our individual dream states, if a realistic environment was not successfully developed by the sound editors, our suspension of disbelief for everything else would begin to crumble. Like those buildings in the movie.
• The Hurt Locker. War films have a good track record in the Sound Editing department. Part of this is because of how essential sound is 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 explosion…the cries of children heard very dimly in the distance…a robot shuffling quietly along the sand toward the bomb it is 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! In this—another Christopher Nolan film (guess who sound editors would like to work for these days)—rather than going for camp, this Batman franchise strives to build an absolutely believable world in which a superhero and supervillain may conceivably exist. There is invented weaponry, imaginary vehicles and a slew of gunshots and explosions that all need to be accompanied by realistic sounds. When watching this movie, none of the constructed sound ever once pulls us out of the illusion crafted by the other filmmakers, but rather enhances it and allows us to more easily and fully accept the line we are being asked to buy into here. Hm…we haven't made a joke in a few sentences. Why so serious?
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 definitely 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 reemerge in the spring.