Hearing the Script

I have read many scripts prior to undertaking the sound work on films over the years. I think my most memorable experience was reading the first 5 or so pages of Tod Solondz’ Happiness. A few minutes into it, and I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. It was clear, at a glance, that it was pure brilliance.


It is often the case that either a director or producer will send me the script of a film early on. It is always interesting to read the script for a promising film and to start to really consider what the sound will be like. When I am reading I think of many aspects of the sound. I think about overall design concepts, challenging locations, challenging FX scenes, storytelling FX, difficult scenes for recording dialogue (and therefore even possible ADR), and how sound can be woven in powerful ways to complete the film’s vision.


One of the first things I think about is location. Basically, where does the film take place and what are the specific challenges of each scene’s environment? We worked on a very cool film called Europa. It takes place almost entirely in a spaceship headed to Jupiter. In actuality, it was shot in a plywood box set in Williamsburg Brooklyn. The script was compelling, and it was immediately clear that the film would require some interesting custom ambient drones and tones and a lot of technology sounds. In Europathey also walk on the planet surface, which is made of ice, and it is constantly cracking and shifting, so that will be another custom FX challenge. 


Another factor I look for right away is the action quotient. Car chases, fight scenes, sports scenes: these are probably going to be time consuming and difficult to build. We posted an article previously that talked about the complications of designing a car chase for Universal Soldier - Day Of Reckoning,directed by John Hyams. I know if John Hyams is describing an action sequence, it’s gonna be epic, and he is going to expect the sound crew to go big. Fight sequence punches and guns can be a real challenge as well.  It usually requires just the right type of sound to make these FX feel authentic and impactful, so extra time in design will be required for all of these action items. 


Dream Scenes and slow motion sequences are other things to keep an eye out for. Dream sequences are a wide-open opportunity to showcase some surrealistic design. Because dreams are so subjective, the real challenge may be in figuring out what the director envisions. This is often a case of trial and error, where we work up some design ideas, play them for the director, and then get specific feedback to start to shape the scene. The goal is to find out what is working early on, so that the direction can be established and the real detailed design can follow suit. Slow motion shots or sequences offer similar challenges. It is an opportunity to get the sound design cranked up. The obvious choice is to pitch down sounds, but also look at highlighting certain specifics and back-grounding all other sounds. Creative drones and tones will usually be a critical element in these design moments.   


I also take note of certain unique sound challenges, that I know will be hard to tackle, like a peculiar car. Where do you find a whole set of auto recordings for a beat up 1980 Ford pickup with a bad muffler? It’s probably not going to be in any existing commercial sound effects collection, so I am going to push the production to make sure they get a comprehensive set of recordings for an unusual vehicle when on location. This can be difficult because indie film productions are usually very tight in terms of time. I try to impress on both the director and producers that they need to find a way to get coverage in these cases, if they want the sound to be right. When we did the sound work for Ramin Bahrani’s, At Any Price, Zac Effron’s character drives a dirt track racecar. After reading the script, I requested that we try and send one of my engineers to accompany the production crew to the dirt track to get some custom sound recordings as they were shooting. The shooting schedule was too hectic to really allow the time for that, so we decided to hire a local sound guy to go back to the track, where they shot those scenes, and record the car. Ramin’s producer, Summer Shelton, has a special touch when it comes to getting things done. She was able to persuade the people, who originally provided the racecar for the film, to meet our local sound recordist with the car at the track and do a custom record session for that car. The result was a great set of recordings that perfectly fit the car and would help us really amp up those scenes.


When I read a script, and the location is so unusual that I know we will have difficulty editing in appropriate ambiences, I often suggest that we try and get a 2ndunit location recording person on the set. Ideally this would be a recordist that could run ahead or trail behind the main crew at each location and record authentic ambiences and specifics. In an earlier article I wrote about the film, The Forgiveness of Blood, called “Authentic Ambience”, I spoke about this. In that instance, one of the producers played the part of the extra sound recordist and captured the ambience of rural Albania, depicted in the film. 


Another benefit that can come from reading the script, as a sound supervisor or supervising sound editor, is the opportunity to consult with the location sound recordist before the shooting starts. I like to talk with the sound recordist to find out what equipment they will be using, and how they plan to cover difficult scenes. I remember one instance when I read a script with a dialogue scene that took place on the Brooklyn Bridge walkway. I not only could talk with the location recordist about the difficulties of miking the scene, but I could also say to the director that this would be a scene that requires extra attention on sound and possibly tighter shooting angles, and that even with the best effort, it may have to be redone in ADR.   


There is no better way to get started on a film project than to read the script. Not only will you better understand what will be needed, but you will have the opportunity to see the project unfold and come alive over time. How does that sound? 

Thomas Efinger