Unless you have your own Hollywood style crew with technicians for every specialty- camera, lighting, sound, script, makeup, grip etc…, you’re more likely to be doing everything yourself on a shoestring budget. Have you ever gotten a great looking interview that shocked you with how mediocre or bad the sound was?

It might surprise you to know that professional soundmen don’t listen to the content of the speaker so much. I’ve often asked a soundman, “Did you hear what he just said?” and the reply was, “huh?”) Far from being asleep, the soundman was listening to the background for noise.

Why is Background Noise Such a Big Deal?

1. Background Noise is Exaggerated by Microphones

The human ear is a wonderful instrument. It picks up sound and sends it to the brain. The brain filters noise out and let’s you concentrate on meaning. The camcorder doesn’t have that kind of a brain.

2. Background Noise can Hurt Editing

If you have to cut a piece down, say from 20 minutes to 5, a noise suddenly disappears calling jarring attention to itself. Example- a loud jet passes overhead and trails out. But if you cut before it fades, it’s suddenly silent.

Sounds to Pay Attention to When Picking a Location

1. Exterior Sounds

  • Airplanes
  • Gardeners with lawn equipment- most prevalent in suburban neighborhoods in good weather
  • Garbage Trucks on pickup day- try to find out when that is.
  • Crowds of onlookers- “Hey Can I be on Camera?”

2. Interior Sounds

  • Crowds, as above such as inside convention centers, malls etc.
  • Generators and Fans
  • Overhead Fluorescent Light Hum in an otherwise quiet room.

Tips To Get Clean Sounding Video Interviews

You’re never in a sound vacuum- well almost if you are in a recording studio. You can minimize low constant noise, like pedestrian foot traffic or mechanical hum by microphone placement.:

1. Using an On-Camera Mic

If you have a microphone on the camera, place the camera as close as possible to the subject without crossing the forbidden wide angle closeup zone of distorted faces with long noses and big chins.

2. Using a Separate Lavalier Mic

You can clip a small mic on the subject, giving intimate close-up cound. You may not mind seeing the mic, or you may hate seeing it in the shot. Just remember if you hide it under a tie or clothing you invariably will get clothing noise. The pros have special materials to wrap the mic in to help with this, but you probably won’t be carrying them.

If you run the cable to the camera, it is something that people could trip on. There are wireless transmitter/receivers you could use, but now you have a new possibility
of wireless interference noise to minitor.

Make sure you coach your subject no to tap their chest, or it will sound like a huge explosion. If this happens try to repeat the question.

3. Using Directional/Boom Mics Over a Subject

This is more in the domain of the pros- don’t consider this if you don’t have a helper. It is a definite possible saftey hazard for tripping. I’ve also seen sitting subjects suddenly stand up and hit themselves on it! Remember the “bloopers” where you see the mic in the shot.

This happened more in the olden film days with “rackover” cameras (no full time viewing of the exact frame). Definitely not for run and gun shooting. In a controlled environment, it’s another way to get the mic close to the subject without necessarily having the camera close.

4. Using Headphones

Pros often use the earmuff style that cancels everything except the “track”. If you have someone else asking the questions, you could do this.  If not, use some headphones with silver dollar sized foam pads. This doesn’t shut you completely off from the outside world.

If you’ve predetermined that you have the sound “under control”, you can forgo the phone to keep intimacy with your subject. Some cameras have a little earphone on the camera, which can be helpful.

There you have it. You won’t get complemented on good sound, but you’ll certainly know if it is bad. Oh, and like the post movie trailer blurb- “remember to turn off the cell phones“.

About our Guest Expert: Rick Robertson

The last name may sound familiar, and that’s because Rick, is my father (Mark Robertson).  My dad, has more experience and knowledge about film-making than almost anyone – certainly more than anyone I know.  He has been a cinematographer and videographer longer than many of us have been alive.  He went to USC for his M.S. from the School of Cinema in 1968.

His resume is too long to go into here (and on IMDB – they only have a small portion), but some of the more noteworthy projects he was involved with include “This is Spinal Tap”, “La Bamba”, “Chuck Berry’s Hail! Hail! Rock-‘n’-Roll”, “The Larry Sanders Show”, “Michael Jackson’s – the Making of Thriller”, “Nova Science Now – SpaceShip One”, and more recently, projects with Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow.  His specialty and passion has been in handheld, documentary film-making. You can read more about Rick on his IMDB profile