The Role of Sound Design: From Early Editing Stages to Final Mix

Sound really is half the picture, so it’s just as important to focus on the sound edit while putting the picture together.

As I’m editing a scene, I try to clean up the dialogue as much as possible by applying an EQ filter using the Audio EQ tool. For example, if there’s a lot of hum in the background, I would tone down the low-shelf frequency and adjust the mid-shelf to make the dialogue a bit more crisp. I also use volume key-framing for more detailed work and to reduce sound distractions between one shot and the next. When you’re presenting the rough cut for the first time, you want to create the right environment for your story to sell the edit. You don’t want anything to pull you out.

Once I have a sequence together, I begin to quickly build an environment for the story by adding some atmospheric sound and sound effects. Not only will this help smooth out the cuts, but it greatly impacts timing by compensating for what lacks in the picture. At this stage, I alternate between editing picture and sound until they meet somewhere in the middle where I’m happy with overall pace of the scene (you can read about that in my previous post: “Film Editing – The Importance of Rhythm and Pace”).

I have an extensive sound effects library, some that were purchased and others that were collected over the years from various projects, and I would experiment with these effects and atmospheric sounds as early on as the rough cut. The aim is to create a believable world inside the film.

On a feature film that I edited recently, the story was set in a barren environment – No animals, insects, trees or any other living organism existed besides humans, and the director had decided that the film will not have any music. I had several sounds of different winds and sea waves in my library, so I had to treat those atmospheric sound effects as music. Hearing the sea slowly getting rougher and louder, or the wind gradually picking up speed can really add to the intensity of a scene, and the audience feel it without the need for a big orchestra to guide their emotion.

You have to be very careful when working with music in the editing stages. I would usually wait until I have finished the cut entirely before dropping in temp tracks. If a scene is paced correctly, then the music track would somehow fit in magically, but you cannot compensate for poor pacing or cover it up with music, it gets messy that way.

All the sound effects placed during the editing stage are used as a reference guide for the sound designers. Once the picture is locked, an AAF of all the audio tracks is exported from Media Composer to the sound team, which they would import into Avid Pro Tools as a blueprint for the sound design on the film. The sound designers work hand-in-hand with the foley artists to create custom sounds for every frame in the film, and to elevate the emotion within the story.

The final mix is the stage at which the film really comes to life in a multi-dimensional way – The image itself is flat, two-dimensional, but with all the sound elements applied, including the dialogue, foley, SFX and music, and with the directional sound design, the audience becomes surrounded within the environment of the film. Sound gives the picture depth.

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Building an Editing Career with Avid Media Composer

I started out as an assistant editor four years ago and was constantly switching between different nonlinear editing systems such as Final Cut Pro and Premiere. I had a basic knowledge of Avid Media Composer but knew that to step up my game and become a feature film editor, I would have to master the art of Media Composer.

To do that, I enrolled in an Avid training course at VET Post Production in London in January 2014, took the Avid Certified User exam and became the first certified Media Composer editor in Jordan.

Not long after that, I got my first feature as main editor on Zinzana. Initially the producers were looking for an editor to cut together the first 10 scenes so they could make sure they were getting the material they wanted, and I was in the right place at the right time, with the right set of skills. I wasn’t briefed before I started work; I just received a hard drive containing the footage.

I cut the scenes, and a couple of days later, I got a call from the director, Majid Al Ansari. I went to the set the same day, and he was very excited about the sequences I had sent. He said they were exactly what he had in mind for the edit, so I was brought on board to edit the rest of the film.

“Zinzana” means “cell” in Arabic, and the setting for the film is a cell in a rural police station in Jordan. The story revolves round Talal (played by Saleh Bakri), who is a recovering alcoholic and is in custody. Events take a bizarre turn with the arrival of a charismatic but clearly insane police officer (Ali Suliman) who wreaks havoc and threatens Talal’s family. From there, it becomes a game between the two men.

The film was shot on one set/location, so it was important to establish the environment without making the shots feel repetitive. I would sometimes resize them and shift their positions to make sure that the audience’s eyes follow the movement from one cut to the next, engaging them in the story despite its confined setting.

At the beginning I was working without an assistant, and I set up the project by myself in the way I’m comfortable with — syncing the footage, labeling the clips and organizing the bins. I was using Media Composer v8.4.2 on a Mac Pro with Nitris DX. The great thing about Media Composer is it allows me to do all that easily and efficiently, without holding up the assembly cut. I imported the footage as DNxHD36 and synced the audio instantly based on timecode using the Auto-Sync function, creating grouped clips for multicam shots.

The Commit Multicam Edits feature is one of my favorite functions. I would switch between camera angles in grouped clips as I was editing and then would use the Commit Multicam edit just before export to commit to my final choice of camera angle.

I always work with the standard Avid keyboard settings, but I map out the shortcuts Shift F5 and F6 to toggle between the Source/Record Editing workspace and Effects Editing. I had saved that shortcut to my command set a while ago, and now it’s a natural hand motion for me on the keyboard.

In terms of effects, Zinzana has a major sequence in which one character spits alcohol on a lit match to set someone else on fire. I had plates of the stunts blowing out real fire on set, so I used Animatte to isolate the flame and composite it on to the clean shots of the actors. Temp effects make it much easier for me as an editor to visualize the scene better and pace it accordingly.

The flashback scenes were probably the most challenging scenes to edit. They were shot against a black background and were not giving the right emotion for the story; instead of coming off as an ethereal, dream-like sequence, it was dark and confusing. I had to experiment a lot with the scene using crossfades, superimposing the footage and intercutting, as well as ramping time with key frames and adding audio effects to the dialogue. I managed to get the scene as close as possible to where we wanted it to be emotionally, which helped the director determine the exact shots and pace he would get in the reshoot, and it turned out beautifully.

Majid and I trusted each other from the beginning, and he let me complete the rough cut without any guidance or direction. I had the first cut ready within three or four weeks, and Majid and I worked on it at Optix, a post-production facility in Dubai. He had specific ideas of what he wanted to achieve, and he communicated his thoughts very clearly, which made editing a breeze.

Since completing Zinzana, I have been working on The Worthy, another Image Nation production that is set in a dystopian future. It was shot entirely in Romania, so for the duration of the shoot, I was working with a post team in Bucharest. We had two Avid stations set up and connected through a network server. The assistant editor, Natalia, would sync the material — which would include eight camera set-ups at times — and then save the bins for me in a folder on the server. This was very efficient for the tight shooting schedule that we had and proved even more useful when I had to move the edit to Dubai and still receive bins from the post team in Bucharest. I couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable and efficient workflow on what was a VFX-heavy film with a tight schedule.

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Film Editing — The Importance of Rhythm and Pace

How does the rhythm of an edit, or the pacing of shots, matter to the art of editing?

Setting the pace of an edit is vital to the storytelling aspect, and for establishing the general stylistic feel of a film. This rhythm is created by a series of beats, and cannot be determined by one or two consecutive cuts alone. It works very similarly to a music composition. The tempo of a piece of music is defined by the beats per minute of the underlying track. It determines the speed, or the pace of a tune. Without it, different instruments cannot come to play in unison or to create a cohesive sound. Just as a conductor sets the tempo for an entire orchestra, or a DJ mixes various songs together by beat-matching, it is up to the editor to determine an appropriate pace within each scene itself, as well as collectively for the entire film.

Timeline of the movie Rashid & Rajab (Produced by Image Nation, Abu Dhabi)

The skill of pacing does not mean moving at an exact measured pace all the time, but knowing when to cut out of a certain shot and into the next to create an engaging dynamic. An editor needs to know just how much time is necessary to give the audience a breather to absorb a moment, or when to trim and cut out of a shot before it lingers on for too long. These ups and downs, or waves, are important to avoid moving at a monotonous speed. In his book Art of the Cut, Steve Hullfish gives the perfect example of this by comparing editing to dance. “Dancers do not simply make a movement or a step on every single beat. Dance rushes forward, then holds, then flows elegantly, then spins and drives.” There are innumerable films to use as references here, but as I was recently watching Moneyball, I could not help but notice Christopher Tellefesen’s instinctive editing style. The scenes in which players were being traded over the phone had a fun, back-and-forth exchange between Billy Bean (Brad Pitt), and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). This dynamic was beautifully juxtaposed with the long and awkward, one-shot scenes of the players receiving the news that they have been cut from the team.

Editor Shahnaz Dulaimy

There is no rule or formula to follow to determine the pace and flow of sequences. I think that the majority of editors would agree that it is a matter of instinct, or according to Anne V. Coates, you must “have the courage of your convictions”. It cannot be taught as much as it is felt; you will know when you have made a good editing decision when it feels right emotionally. We all have that one friend who knows how to tell a good joke, or a good story. They know precisely when to hold on a certain beat, or when to pickup the pace to build up to a climax, and surely enough the audience react at just the right moment with a laugh or gasp. This is what editors are meant to be doing when cutting the story, whether by creating tension in long drawn out shots, or cutting an action sequence with a flurry of footage. If you know exactly what you want to be telling in every scene, then how to say it will follow naturally.

Apply the Timewarp effect to tweak the speed of certain shots

Generally, the actors or the genre of the film dictates the rhythm. Often times, however, that natural pace gets thrown off if an actor pauses a bit too long on a beat when delivering lines, or a camera movement is too slow or too fast that it does not feel right. During a viewing of a film I edited, the producers and I were very engaged in the story as it followed a steady, slow rising pace, but just as the action started to build up to one of the major crane shots in the film, the dynamic dropped instantly. The crane was too slow in comparison to the progression of the film up to that point. As a single shot (and probably the most expensive shot in the production), it was beautiful, but we all knew that it had to be cut up within a more propulsive sequence. On Avid Media Composer, I would usually apply the Timewarp effect to tweak the speed of certain shots when necessary. But, I do believe that if a shot is framed beautifully, the acting is adept, and the emotion is there, stay on that shot, because some moments are simply more genuine and powerful when there isn’t a cut.

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