Anyone can go viral, gain a rabid online audience, and/or transition their indie work into professional opportunities. And while the overall quality of successful shows varies (season 1 of The Guild, anyone?), there’s a base level of competency every creator should strive for so that the aspects of their show that ought to shine through have the opportunity to. Because how will anyone know how great your script is if the audio is so bad they can’t hear any of the lines?
I could ask 100 filmmakers who make 100 different kinds of filmed content and exactly 100% of them will tell you that sound is the most important facet of production to get right the first time. There’s a reason for that. Because hearing is a much more passive sense, audiences tend to be more sensitive to lower quality sound than their eyes are sensitive to lower quality video. Your audience might not be able to immediately realize the issue they’re having with your web series is the sound, but they’ll unconsciously know something is off and be less willing to continue watching.
The easy (ish) fixes:
- Record sound separately from your camera. Slightly more work/equipment? Yes. But not by THAT much, and if you absolutely cannot spare an extra set of hands to hold a boom or monitor a mixer, just set the mic on a table right off camera or mount it to the camera, and have whoever is pressing “record” on the camera press it on audio. You might need to sacrifice ultra wide shots and/or big camera/actor moves, but if you can’t find a sound person, maybe you should have started smaller anyways.
- Use the same equipment in every scene. Even if your location, crew, and circumstances change, if your primary audio source is a lavalier mic in one scene, it needs to be a lavalier mic in the next. Half the time the issue with bad audio isn’t the audio within a particular scene, but the lack of consistency between different set ups, forcing the ear to get used to 15 different and distinct audio qualities in a single 8 minute episode.
- Make sure the mic is the same distance from the actor in every frame. This is where a boom operator or lav is useful, because similarly to the equipment itself, sound quality varies drastically if the distance the mic is from the actor varies drastically, and people can tell.
- Monitor mid-scene. For both seasons of Brains, our primary (and often, only) source of audio was lav mics that connected to iPhones as recording devices. While the base audio quality of these mics was pretty good, because no one could listen to the takes while they were recording (since the iPhones were attached to the actors and there was no central mixer) we ended up with a ton of audio issues. Had someone literally just been able to wear headphones in listening to takes, we would have solved 99% of the problems we ended up with.
In my opinion, it’s more important to have decent lighting than an amazing camera. There are scenes from Brains season 1 (shot entirely on an HD camcorder from 2011. Read why here) that look higher quality than shots from other projects we’ve made with a Black Magic Pocket Cinema camera simply because the former had decent natural light in certain scenes. And certainly within that same season of camcorder cinematography there are shots that vary WIDELY in their assumed camera quality.
Same camera, different access to natural light
Framing is important too, even for the simplest or most minimalist project, but for that I’ll just say follow the rule of thirds and you’re 95% of the way there.
The easy (ish) fixes:
- Rely on natural light until you know someone who knows how to light. Even with a great camera, the difference between an underlit scene and a scene lit from a nearby open window is huge, and gives you a lot more options in post.
- Don’t point lights directly at your actors. Instead, diffuse lights with gels or sheer fabric or bounce the light off of a white wall or reflector so it’s not so harsh and more evenly lights your subjects.
- Watch a lot of tutorials for lighting and framing and make sure your director/DP does too. You can teach yourself almost anything with YouTube videos, and filmmaking is absolutely no exception.
Good writing is 100% subjective, except for all the times where it’s not very good. Even if the writing of your web series isn’t where you want the focus (say, if you’re an actor looking to showcase your acting chops on your own terms), if the script is no good, no one will be able to separate your chops from the words coming out of your chompers.
The easy (ish) fixes:
- Get your script read aloud long before filming. If you’re planning on acting in your series, don’t read the part you intend for yourself. Don’t worry about who you’re going to eventually cast, just get a bunch of actors together (not just friends- people who have trained as or are training to be performers) and hear your words. You’ll pick up on what looks good on paper but sounds bad said, what dynamics do and don’t work, and whether that three page dramatic confrontation really needs to be three pages. And by not performing your own part, you’ll get to watch someone else’s interpretation of the material and focus on the experience as a whole rather than patiently waiting to read your next line.
- Get honest feedback from people with your best interests at heart. Don’t just give a hater your script because you know they’ll be critical, but there’s got to be a happy medium between ‘hater’ and ‘your mom’ that you can get honest script thoughts from. Find someone who likes the kind of material you’re working on (ie- don’t get a comedy fiend to read your gritty, historically accurate script about 18th century monks), who will be honest without being cruel, who has an actual background in writing and/or producing, and who genuinely wants to help you achieve your creative endeavors.
- Don’t be defensive: you have to kill your darlings. This advice alone is worthy of its own article (and now is! Read here), but succinctly: not every less-than-favorable opinion about your work is inherently missing the point, and sometimes something can be good without being good in your script.
That’s it. Those are the three bare-minimum things you need to get right before your series is taken seriously. Should you also care about acting and production design and post production? Of course! But not everything can immediately be a priority when you have limited money. Are there exceptions? Absolutely! But wouldn’t you rather bet your budget and time on a project that doesn’t hope to be the one viral web series with garbage sound?