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6 Things You Must Do For Film Festival Audio

We’ve all sat through our fair share of film festivals. And for those of you who have been to Sound Advice or are an MZed Pro Member, you know I’m always talking about why those films “look” so amateurish – it’s not the film festival look, it’s the Film Festival Audio. In this article, I’m going to share with you some newly gotten wisdom on how to deliver a film to a festival (NOT a distributor) so your film festival audio rocks instead of whimpers.

The Basics

I went to the “Dances With Films” festival in Los Angeles last weekend to see the world premiere of a film we did all of the audio

Even at prestigious festivals, theatrical levels are a-whack.

for. Everything from ADR to SFX to foley to the final 5.1 mix. We didn’t do the music, but everything else was us. I was anxious to hear what our mix would sound like in one of the world’s finest theaters: the TLC Chinese (formerly Mann’s Chinese) Theater in the heart of Hollywood. You know, the one with all the cement hand and foot prints in the ground in front. Of course, we weren’t in THAT historic theater, but we were in an adjacent theater, and by all appearances it was up to spec.

This film was a short in a block of competition shorts. I had expected our -23 dBlufs mix (standard) would be every bit as dynamic and compelling as the rest of the films. We also figured that our commitment to powerful immersion would powerfully show up the competition. What happened was something else entirely.

The Competition

Because few filmmakers understand audio – and few surround sound studios understand deliverables – none of the films adhered

Most filmmakers don’t mix their festival entries to spec.

to the dialog norm standard of -23 dB lufs. In fact, one film was so loud (although it was a good film) it hurt to listen to. My guess is it was around a -8 dB lufs. Ouch. When it came time for our work to be heard, it was by far the quietest of the lot. And you know what I think about things being un-loud.

We also did our best to really throw ambiences into the surrounds as well as hard sound effects. And although our surround mix was far more noticeable than any other film, it still felt low in volume.

From a frequency perspective ours was far superior to any, because we employed our knowledge of the sensitivity of the brain to contour our mix so it was easy to listen to. All of the other films suffered from the usual 2.5kHz horror and weirdness around 120 Hz. Still, the theater really didn’t have the same kind of LFE intensity or high frequencies we expected. And this was so after we had added a strong slope and 5.0 low frequency shelf boost… Whether this was an “X-curve” thing or just the dynamics of the room filled with people, we were disappointed with how the sound showed up.

From an ambiences perspective we were also disappointed. The client wasn’t sold on having our usually immersive ambiences, and they had us turn them down. We were upset, because we didn’t fight harder with the client to have the ambiences louder. As it turned out, they had us pull the faders down on ambiences about 3 dB more than we’d have wanted to create immersion…and the film performance suffered. It was further exacerbated by the low-level overall.

What Did We Learn?

The first thing to understand is that our mixes have historically and perfectly translated to theatrical performance. Our conclusion

Mix your festival entry louder than normal to compete.

is that a film festival – even one as prestigious as Dances With Films – doesn’t care about regulations or standards and, instead, balances the average of a block of films instead of balancing each individual film to a standard. This means that “loud” films will have the “softer” films feel even softer. Same with frequency and surround performance.

What Do We Do Moving Forward?

The next project we mix for a Film Festival will have the following attributes: and we suggest you do the same until someone at the festival gives you push-back:

  1. Mix at -9dB lufs dialog norm. This will have your film be substantially louder than what’s normal, and although you’ll lose some dynamic range, you’ll gain it in being the loudest film – thereby the most well-liked.
  2. Tune the surround speakers at -4.5 or even -6 dB (meaning the levels to the speakers will be that much louder). We normally do -3 dB, but in this case our mix could have used a stronger surround mix.
  3. Tune the LFE at -1 instead of -5 dB for the same reason.
  4. Add an additional 3 dB to the already strong 6 dB of high frequency shelf to all full bandwidth channels.
  5. Add an additional 3 dB to the already strong 4 dB of low-frequency shelf to all full bandwidth channels.
  6. Do our best to educate the filmmaker on the importance of stronger ambiences – and understand that at a -9 dialog norm, those ambiences will be naturally louder than they would be in a -23 mix anyway (worst case).

If you’ve got a different experience – it’s okay to rant about these crazy settings – let us know!

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