If you are making an independent film on a miniscule budget it is inevitable that some aspect of your movie will be compromised due to your lack of funds. The ultimate challenge for an independent filmmaker working with a shoestring budget is to some how make their movie look and sound like it deserves to be with the big boys on the film festival circuit.
While certain things have to be eliminated or kept to a minimum with a low budget film production such as special effects, makeup and lighting it is important to understand that the sound aspect of a low budget movie should never be compromised. Try sitting through a two hour movie that has a constant hum in the soundtrack and you will know what I mean. People will watch just about anything on the screen, but they will not listen to anything that assaults their sense of hearing.
The film industry began as a visual medium in which artists could be seen acting out stories on the silver screen, but in recent decades it would seem that the general movie going public is more interested in the way a movie sounds than the way it looks. Advances in sound technology have moved forward as fast as the advances in film and video technology have, but in the race for which aspect of a film people enjoy the most, sound is in the lead. Here is the proof: if you shoot a film with poor lighting, no costumes, no makeup and no special effects it is considered to be an artistic style of independent filmmaking called cinema verite. You can even scratch up the negative in the name of artistic license and people will still watch your movie. On the other hand, if you add some static noise to the soundtrack of a movie, mess up the lip sync of the dialogue or add errant sounds with no explanation then people will just think you are not an accomplished filmmaker technically. They will shun your movie.
Ever since the first sound movie, The Jazz Singer was made in 1929 on Stage 5 of the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood the movie going public has been spoiled. They have come to expect that when they see a movie they will not only see life up on the screen but they will also hear it too. There is a certain level of technical quality they expect when they see movie. However, when it comes to hearing a movie, things are quite different: their standards for sound quality are much higher than their standards for visual quality. The eyes have a higher threshold for pain than the ears do, and the brain of a typical human being cannot handle uncomfortable noises for very long.
The sound of a movie can be either real or surreal, but it cannot be bad. A film audience will not reject flaws in the visual esthetics of a movie as easily as they will reject a film for its poor sound quality. For instance, if the dialogue tracks of actors voices are too low it brings to the attention of the audience the fact that the actors voices were recorded. This can negatively affect their suspension of disbelief which reminds them that they are watching a movie, and not experiencing real life. It will ultimately affect their opinion of the film for certain.
The sound of a movie can determine whether or not it will be a success. The Star Wars movies owe much of their success to the sound designers and technicians who worked very hard to create alien sounds that complimented the visuals perfectly. They made those movies sound believable, literally, and that is a very hard thing to do in general when it comes to science fiction films.
The tools that are necessary to record, design and mix sound for movies have made great strides in terms of advancements. Only two decades ago there were only a handful of skilled sound recorders, designers, and mixers that provided the sound for movies. This was because the equipment was very expensive to purchase. A person who wanted to do this kind of work for a living would have to invest a large amount of money to buy a vast amount of equipment that filled up a lot of space. You would usually have to rent or buy a place to set up shop. On top of that you would probably have to take classes to learn the skills of sound for films. Nowadays, things are much different.
Advances in sound technology have made everything smaller, easier to learn and definitely more affordable. A small, inexpensive digital sound recorder and microphone can now be used to record sound that is indistinguishable from sound that was recorded on a much bigger and much more expensive Nagra reel to reel sound recorder. A good digital sound recording package can be purchased for less than $1500. Also, a person can buy a home computer setup with a sound design/mixing program for under $1000. Twenty years ago you would have to spend about $20,000 to buy comparable equipment. You can even learn the necessary skills using computer program tutorials on your home computer. The best part about is the fact that you can literally do all the sound work on an independent film production entirely by yourself.
If you are planning to make an independent film and enter it in film festivals you should make sure that the sound quality is as good as the best films on the festival circuit. You cannot settle for sub-par when it comes to sound quality. If you do, your audience will notice it immediately and this will cause them to no longer suspend their disbelief. When this happens you can be sure that they will become annoyed and head for the exits.
Michael P. Connelly is an Author, Artist and award-winning Filmmaker who writes on a variety of topics that effect people in their every day lives.