In the Moment

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"He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough."
Lao Tzu
Father of Taoism

When is enough, enough? When do you stop finessing, polishing, correcting, perfecting, or otherwise fixing something important you're working on? When you're done – either because of deadline, budget, or exhaustion – are you satisfied? Something I like to say about my favorite projects is that I'm never really done with them, I just ran out of time. But usually, I'm content with the outcome. We rarely have the luxury (or burden) of revisiting a project much later and "correcting" or finishing what was left undone. If I have to go back in too much later, I find it difficult to muster up the same emotional commitment I originally had. I was "in the moment," when I was making it, and "the moment" is difficult to re-create.

It's like Kirk Gibson trying to re-create his game-winning home run in the 1988 World Series, only this time hitting it farther for more emphasis. Or Michelangelo re-sculpting David with a little more detail in his hair. But lo, some people have tried. As much as I love George Lucas and his attention to detail, I found it disheartening when he went back into the original first three Star Wars films and added scenes. I understand (though I don't like) adding effects that were impossible to do in the 1970s. But those movies were magical as they were and should stand in history as snapshots of how Lucas elevated movie making at the time. Jeff Lynne of ELO is another tweaker and re-recorded 23 classic ELO songs in 2012. What? They're great as they are – or were.

I bring these up because of something actor Steve Zahn said in an interview on WEKU-FMs Eastern Standard, which by the way is produced in our studios here at Dynamix. Zahn was telling host Tom Martin that performing ADR (dialog replacement in films) is difficult because of the length of time between filming and ADR. It can be months or years later, and the actor has to recreate a sliver of a scene that they may have been originally engrossed in for weeks. I've worked with Steve going on over ten years now, and I can vouch for his statement that he always wants to know why a line is being redone. If it's a line change, new dialog, or scratchy audio, he wants to know what value the revision has. He said that in his experience, viewers subconsciously know when a line has been dubbed, even a word or two. He argues that a performance captured on screen is "the moment" that can't be faithfully re-created later without compromise.

Zahn brought up another point about ADR: when the audio is only marginally noisy, such as clicks, clothes movement, or background sound, is it really necessary to redo the line? He points out that some directors, producers and engineers want that perfect sounding track, and getting there by re-cutting dialog can adversely affect the final product. Naturally, I see both sides of the argument on this one.

The engineer in me wants a perfect sounding track free of noise and clicks, with balanced levels and a full range of frequencies. But capturing sound on set or location is one of the most difficult, under appreciated, and misunderstood jobs in the audio industry. Even on a tightly controlled sound stage, extraneous noises, scratchy costumes, HVAC, and mic placement can cause headaches. Exteriors increase headaches by a hundred fold. Clean audio capture 100% of the time is impossible, so in projects with decent budgets, actors go into filming knowing there will probably be ADR on the back end. But any location engineer worth their salt will work towards minimizing post-production problems and ADR.

The director in me wants to just let the magic happen. I always tell my students that the priority is to capture the moment: the performance, the event, the news happening now. Use what's at hand. They don't have to have the latest, greatest, or most expensive gear. If they are prepared, use good equipment and solid technique, then they can capture something really magical. Our job as audio engineers is to stick the mic in the middle of the action and get out of the way. Unless the audio is really poor, the thing that most people care about is the moment that was captured, not how noise-free the recording is. So if Elvis lands his flying saucer in my backyard and wants to entertain me, I'm going to make sure I have my microphone in the right place from the get go. Because all anybody will be talking about is how good Elvis still sounds singing Blue Suede Shoes from the steps of a UFO.


I Saw Elvis in a U.F.O.

Elvis singing Blue Suede Shoes

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