Excerpts from Sound and Story in Nonfiction Film and Video: A practical Guide for Filmmakers and Digital Content Creators (Routledge) by Amy DeLouise and Cheryl Ottenritter
Amy DeLouise (Left) and Cheryl Ottenritter (Right).
Sound plays a vital role in effective video storytelling. Sound can bring characters and places alive. Sound can be subtle, too, and help the listener move with the story to a new emotional place. There are four main audio elements that can help you drive your story arc:
1. Sound to support human characters in your story
2. Sound to evoke place
3. Sound to support or elicit
4. Sound to deliver information
In this article, I’ll cover a few strategies that can make the difference between average and compelling work, through the use of sound.
B-roll Sync Sound Strategies
Everyone is usually focused on picture when it comes to b-roll, or background footage, for a story. But the sync sound that comes with these scenes can be essential to bringing the audience into the moment. Often I end up weaving this b-roll audio together with the primary sit-down interview audio to help tell the story. Of course, good sound mixing is a key to meshing those multiple tracks together seamlessly. To get good b-roll sound, set your subject at ease in a comfortable or familiar setting. Sometimes I’ll do an informal “interview” with someone while we are casually walking, and they are pointing out key locations such as at a factory or office. You’d be surprised how much of this could work in the final story, even simply as VO. Or I’ll have them drive with me and point out important places along the way. Or I’ll have them drive with another character in the story—let’s say a mom driving her son to school.
Have your main subject “wired” with a lavalier microphone.
Use a camera mic as a 2nd channel and backup.
Remember to capture “room tone” for each location to help with your audio mix.
The Importance of “Silence”
Speaking of room tone, let’s talk about silence for a moment. There are a few good rules of thumb on collecting room tone:
Always slate and record at least 30 seconds of room tone in each interview.
In a long interview, record room tone more than once—sounds can change over time.
Silence is valuable for more than ease of editing. Moments of silence can also play a role in your storytelling. A pause after a momentous emotional shift, or a pause between music tracks, can be vital for the audience to absorb the story. For those of us working in short form digital content, this is especially challenging. We always want to tighten up our edits for time.
After your first pass edit, add back some “breathing room” between scenes or soundbites to leave room for music, a sync sound-up, or simply silence.
Recording Wild Sound in the Field
H4n in the field
In nonfiction storytelling, we have so many wonderful opportunities—often missed—to bring characters to life through sound. Capturing wild sound in the field is one of those opportunities. One sound mixer I know, Mark Weber, told me this story: “I worked on a project down by a lake with marshland. There was all kind of wildlife—ducks, dogs, water noises — the location had such a character, so I was walking along the water and recording all these [wild sound] elements. The director said to me afterwards “I had all this music picked, but there was such richness in the ambience that it told a better story.” That’s your goal with wild sound for nonfiction, too.
· Schedule time on shoots to gather some “wild sound” to help establish a particular location or flavor for your film
· Use a Digital Audio Recorder like the Zoom H4n to record these separate tracks
Choosing a Narrator
When you are cutting a story, you may hear a certain type of voice in your head that you feel will work best for the narration. (Of course, some stories are best without narration, for a verité style.) It’s never too early to start listening to options for the voice of your story.
Compare both male and female voices for a particular role
Ask talent to record a sample of your script as an audition (within reason—usually 1 page max) to see how their voice works for your material
You can use the Wipster side-by-side review feature to compare different talent auditions
When choosing a narrator, consider the dialogue in your story. If the interviews are primarily with women, consider a male voice to give the story a tonal balance, and vice versa.
Voice range and tone in a narration track can offer needed contrast both to the other voices in the story, and to the music.
Music for Your Soundtrack
Music offers our most powerful storytelling tool. Think about how many times you have shared content on the internet where the shot is quite basic—perhaps a cell phone camera trained on someone speaking, but the audio is amazing. Consider, for example, the unlikely political campaign of Beto O’Rourke, who fought for (and lost) a Senate seat in Texas, but nonetheless garnered national attention for his Presidential run. One of his top outreach tools was social media. His response to the issue of players “taking a knee” during the American national anthem went viral. And a key reason was how that moment was married to an emotionally uplifting music score.
When building your soundtrack, experiment with different pacing, styles of music and instrumentation.
Sound has a vital role to play in your next video adventure. Enjoy the many opportunities audio brings for engaging storytelling.