Recording to Picture
In any type of voiceover recording situation, you may be called upon to have a video reference to record to. Usually done for timing purposes for an already edited picture, recording to picture can introduce its own set of challenges, but also can be a terrific tool in the session process. Whether commercial or long form, recording to picture ensures that your timings are correct; it takes the stopwatch out of your hand and allows you to more fully concentrate on the performance.
However, there are a couple of things that we should be aware of. To begin with, recording to a visual reference is something that the voice actor must practice to be skilled at. The first couple of times a narrator attempts to keep one eye on the script and the other on a video monitor, you can expect some missteps. However, as time goes on, the process becomes more natural, and the sessions begin to flow more smoothly.
In setting up for a session involving picture playback, make sure that your visual playback chain is as clean as your audio signal path. It becomes quite distracting to have an image that flickers, becomes pixelated, or drops out when you are trying to record, but, believe it or not, it doesn’t really matter if the picture is black-andwhite or color or if the resolution isn’t full HD quality. Those things aren’t the point—the timing is what it’s all about. Walter Murch tells the story of mixing Apocalypse Now to a reference video on 3⁄4-inch tape and in black-and-white. The first time he saw the film in color was at the premier! In the days of film, processing was costly, and color processing even more so; to provide a black-and-white work tape to the audio department made all the sense in the world and didn’t slow anyone down. Today, in the age of computer production and Quicktime movies, this process becomes faster and more cost-effective, and there simply isn’t any reason not to have a quality picture to work from.
You should always give the picture editor (or whoever is providing the visual materials to you) a list of specifications that you’ll need to do your job. This is part of the communication and documentation process essential to an effective workflow. Your specs should include file type—and size. Too large a video file can slow down and even crash audio workstations, and so we most times request something less than full resolution if it’s a long project. Of course, audio layout should be discussed; for instance, is the picture department going to be providing you with a separate OMF or AAF file with existing audio, or will a stereo track be sufficient for your needs? If they are providing more than two tracks of audio, do you have a preference as to layout? How about track names? Give these issues some thought when requesting what you are going to need for a smooth, trouble-free session. Then, when you receive the materials, take a moment and check them against your specs—send them back to be redone if they are not correct (don’t hesitate to send them back if need be; after all, others will do the same with your materials if you get it wrong). There’s a bit of a controversy these days on whether or not you should include a time-code burn window on the picture. A time-code window shows running timecode, usually located in the bottom quarter of the image, to use as a visual reference for sync and timing.
One school of thought has it that we just don’t need it anymore, because we have a continual code readout on our digital workstation’s main record window. True, I suppose, but I always request a burn-in for multiple reasons. The first is that you can easily check sync by matching the time-code number you see on the screen with the number on your workstation’s display. The second is that a visual indication of the time, flowing across the screen, gives an actor (or Foley artist) a cue point for when to begin delivering a line or performing an effect. It’s a “count down,” if you will. It also allows the actor a reference on how long they have to complete the line. I’ve worked with narrators so accomplished at recording to picture that, once everything was lined up in my workstation, we would drop into record, the actor would look to see at what time-code number his first line was to be delivered, and away we would go, working our way through the script, with his lines delivered exactly where they were supposed to be. If a mistake was made, or if the timing needed to be adjusted, we could back up, roll into that point, punch into record, and redo the line. At the end of the script, all of the lines were in place, and no editing needed to be done! Talk about time-efficient. Of course, the script had to be prepared in advance, with all of the time-code numbers clearly noted for the actor to begin in the right place, but this time spent was more than made up for by the time saved in the session itself, recording and editing. My advice to you is always, always, always request a time-code window with your picture and have the picture file remade if it’s not done correctly.
On the subject of delivery specs, just a quick word about one other thing that you should always request be included, and that is a sync pop. Also known as a two pop, sync bloop, and other names, this is an aural cue as to proper synchronization between picture and audio. Placed exactly 2 seconds before the first frame of picture and lasting for exactly one frame, the pop lines up with the 2-second mark in a visual countdown on the picture. By visually lining up the waveform of the pop with the “2” frame of the countdown, we know that both picture and audio elements are properly aligned. Coming from the old film tradition, the sync pop is still a useful tool today. With long-form projects, you might also request an end pop, 2 seconds after last frame of the picture, but this is usually done only in the film world and not necessarily for commercial or long-form narrations. However, it’s a nice reference to have and gives you peace of mind that your sync hasn’t drifted during the course of the program material. Utilizing the end pop, if a question of sync comes up later, you can always prove that everything was in sync when it left your hands.
As mentioned in an earlier chapter, you have to make sure that your actor can see the video monitor clearly; you don’t want it blocked by the microphone or the copy stand. This may take some repositioning of the microphone on your part, or possibly moving the actor a bit in the studio. Remember that our number one goal is to capture a clean signal, and the microphone positioning can’t be compromised, but please give the narrator a fighting chance of seeing the monitor. Also keep in mind that, besides looking at the monitor, she will be reading from her script, so that has to be positioned correctly as well. Although getting everything situated in the studio correctly certainly isn’t difficult, you have to keep these things in mind. Remember our motto here: The talent’s comfort is paramount to getting a good performance. You should check with the talent as to not only the preferred headphone level that you are sending, but also the balance between his own voice and the track coming from the video. Ask beforehand if the talent prefers a single earphone or the more common pair, open or closed design, or if no headphones at all is the preferred style of working. Again, it all comes back to the talent’s comfort and your doing anything in your power to achieve it.
Excerpt from Recording Voiceover by Tom Blakemore © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.
About the Author
Tom Blakemore has been an active audio engineer for over thirty years, working in film, television, commercial, and corporate communications as a supervising sound editor and mixer. His film work includes Emmy Award winning documentaries, Academy Award nominees, Directors Guild of America Best Documentary winners, and Audience Award winners at the Toronto, Chicago and Amsterdam Film Festivals. Tom lives in Chicago, where he is an adjunct professor at Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy teaching film sound, and is a member of the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) and the Audio Engineering Society (AES).