Tracklaying ambiences across picture edits

I have talked a little bit on this blog about how using different perspectives in background ambiences help create an interesting and more convincing bed for the soundtrack to a film. So far I've just discussed the field recording process, demonstrating how and why I try and capture different perspectives where possible when recording ambiences.

As I haven't written anything on sound editing yet, I thought I would talk about how and why I like to use different perspectives across different shots in a scene...

In filmmaking, the cuts between shots help the director to quickly inform the viewer of what, where, who and how things are playing out in a scene. A simplified example of a sequence you might expect to see could include; an establishing shot - maybe a wide shot of the location exterior, followed by a wide of the interior, where the action is taking place, and then a mid or close up shot resting on one or more of the characters as the scene starts to play out. Generally the transition between these types of shots tends to be a hard cut as opposed to a fade or another kind of transition, as this is what people are used to seeing and therefore the edit isn't distracting to the viewer. As sound editors, we are not so constrained with how we deal with the sound for these types of sequences, and have the luxury of being able to approach the design in a few different ways.

Depending on the style and pace of the film, it can be nice to try different things and use a combination of techniques. Whilst thinking about this for a recent comedy short I was working on, I came up with three different ways to design the sound for the transitions across a sequence that took place at the reception of a wedding, in a grand stately home. The scene transitions back and forth between three shots of different characters in the wedding, each having their own conversations about each other. All of the characters are in the same large room together, but on different sides, and the conversations are happening at the same time. In the end I settled on using a combination of techniques that I felt worked best for the film. I'll explain my thought process below. (Just as a quick aside - there are loads of ways to approach this kind of ambience sound design, many of which would have resulted in a much more creative, interesting sounding result than what I ended up with! Rather than a how-to guide or an attempt to explain 'best-practice', please read the following as more of a stream of consciousness as I learn my craft and try to improve!).

One way to deal with transitions across cuts in a sequence like this, is simply to ignore them! To approach the ambience as one continuous soundscape over the entirety of the scene from beginning to end. This may sound like the lazy approach, but it can be a useful technique to gel a scene together. Sometimes completely new sounds for each cut in a sequence just draw attention to the edits and distract the viewer from what is going on, especially if there are lots of fast cuts to capture the individual reactions of each character. Having a cohesive ambience throughout a scene lets the important elements of the soundtrack come to the forefront which allows the viewer to focus on the dialogue without being distracted. Ultimately, the ambience is there as a kind of 'base-coat' of paint that the more detailed parts of the painting can be layered up on.

Another way, is to gently fade between sounds, introducing new parts of the ambience whilst fading out others to smooth out any transitions. This is a great approach for calmer, slower films with lots of wide exterior shots, or for long scenes where you want to create a change in tension or energy throughout from the beginning to the end. I used this technique a little bit to try and glue some shots together, but it didn't work using it extensively over shot transitions like in the stills above.

The third way I want to talk about is using hard cuts synced with the picture edits. Transitioning from one shot to another like this really defines each shot as a separate moment in the film, and is useful to show that each shot is taking place in a different location or different time. Transitioning from shot to shot with a hard cut between different sounds maintains the energy of a scene, and can feel very fast paced and exciting. Car chases and fight scenes are one example where hard cuts between different ambiences can really work well!

For the wedding scene above, I opted to use a combination of techniques to try to get the background sounds to feel interesting, evocative and appropriate to the space, whilst maintaining a sense of realism, all without being distracting or overwhelming. For a wedding reception - the type of sounds I needed to fill out the backgrounds with were crowd recordings, cocktail party ambience and sounds that portrayed a fun, lively atmosphere. to add to the realism, and to build on these generic, distant sounds, I also needed some 'spot FX' that could bed in to th scene to make it more interesting and realistic.

Firstly, I laid down some nondescript, hubbub kind of crowd walla as a backdrop to build upon. The plan with this was to have it carry on throughout the entire scene to give some cohesion to the soundtrack and to give the impression of a spacious room full of people. Next, I needed some middle-distance sort of sounds. Again, these needed to be crowd/party walla type recordings, but with more discernible laughter and upbeat, bubbly conversation. (this is the layer that I ended up changing the most when cutting between shots). Finally, some closer sounds like champagne corks being popped, and clinking of glasses. (For this layer, I also ended up adding some Foley footsteps of guests walking past the principal characters from time to time.)

Now to talk specifically about perspective cuts...

Focussing on the crowd recordings - I knew that I wanted to maintain a low-level layer of distant walla throughout the scene, and across edits to help maintain a sense of space. The more middle-distance crowd sounds though, I used these to show the difference between the varying locations around the room. For the fancier looking couple in the top photo, the idea was to portray them as being more affluent and more involved in the party. The direction for how the couple in the bottom photo were to be perceived however, was more along the lines of being away from the main party atmosphere slightly, and sort of watching from the side lines. This direction really informed how to go about layering up the middle-distance ambience. For the fancy couple, I used closer perspective party sounds with more discernible laughter and louder braying voices. Adding in some individual laughs from nearby guests, and some high-heeled footsteps helped here too. The occasional champagne cork pop and cheer also added to this idea. In contrast, the less-fancy couple shots had a more distant crowd ambience with more reverb and panned wider and more into the surrounds to show they were not so central in the environment. I also panned some faint kitchen sounds and swinging service too to one side to suggest they were in the corner of the room, closer to the staff than the rest of the guests.

Luckily, I had access to some great interior party crowd and walla recordings which were captured from various perspectives from close to far, with differing mic techniques, from mid side to ORTF stereo and wide stereo. This was really useful in building up the background ambience, and meant that I could cut between these perspectives without it being jarring and distracting for the viewer. When the shots changed from couple to couple, I had these different recordings tracklayed over each shot with a short 1-frame fade at the top and tail. (This was a great tip I learned from my girlfriend, who is a sound-editing extraordinaire!) Because I had built up my bed of roomtone and distant crowd walla, these hard cuts between different perspectives didn't leave gaps or holes in the frequency spectrum or sound stage when they changed. They were noticeable changes in isolation, but when played with the dialogue and Foley on top, it left a sense of change in space without a noticeable bump. I did struggle a little with balancing the EQ between the closer and more distant perspectives, but after some tweaking and a few automation passes, it bedded in fairly well.

Cutting to the shots of the groom (middle still above), I wanted to give a feeling of isolation and loneliness. Here he is looking for the bride and is feeling worried. Cutting from the more densely-packed ambiences of the party, to him on his own on the other side of the room worked really nicely with hard cuts, and I was able to create a kind of subtle 'drowning-out' effect by cutting his shots with more distant perspective recordings, and by increasing the low-level walla. Hard-cutting from a closer to a further perspective for his shots highlighted the contrast between how he was feeling in relation to the other guests.

All in all, I think going to the effort of considering how to approach perspective cuts with background ambience can really help make things easier for the sound designer down the line. Having a good foundation with the ambience before starting on the other aspects of the soundtrack helps guide how I approach the rest of the sound. Personally I really like putting the detail in the backgrounds and getting them sounding just how I want before moving on to the other elements.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading! Looking back, there is a lot I would change in my approach to this film now, but it has been a great learning experience and I've found it really useful writing this post as a way for me to organise my thoughts on the subject!

If you are interested, the film is called 'Eve' and is directed by Joe Solomon. It will be shown at selected festivals in 2021.