An Interview with Kelly Baker – By Nic Brown

Hollywood for years doing sound design he’s got an impressive list of credits including the Academy Award winning film “Good Will Hunting”. But Kelley got tired of the big studio world and started making independent films. Now he spends most of his time, when he’s not making independent films, helping other filmmakers by sharing his experiences. He lectures at Universities, film festivals, and any other place where people want to learn about the craft of making movies. His first book: “The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide Part 1: Making the Extreme No-Budget Film” is a witty, informative and irreverent look at the art of making movies. As the title promised though, it is only part one. Baker spent the past year interviewing some of the film industry’s best and brightest in the field of sound and he’s just released his second book “Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide Part 2: Sound Conversations with (Un)sound People”. B-Movie Man Nic Brown had a chance to check out the book (every bit as good and informative as the first one and well worth the price) and he got to catch up with Kelley while the Angry Filmmaker was on a speaking engagement in the Windy City.

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Nic- Kelley, it’s great to talk with you again. I have to say I just finished your new book “Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide Part 2: Sound Conversations with (Un)sound People” and I really enjoyed it.

Kelley- Thanks Nic, it’s good to talk to you again too. Glad you enjoyed the book!

Nic- Thinking about some of the things you cover in your book, I was recently at the Derby City Film Festival in Louisville, KY and I heard an independent filmmaker ask the following question: “I have a Cannon BLAH BLAH BLAH camera with a BLAH BLAH BLAH lens that shoots in BLAH BLAH BLAH. So what microphone is best to plug into the camera to record the sound?” If you had been the one he asked, how would you have answered?

Kelley- [Chuckling] I wouldn’t plug any microphone into that camera. I would get an auxiliary mixer and run the mixer into the camera. Sound is at least 50% of your movie and my whole thing is that people who just plug a microphone into their camera aren’t getting good sound. I mean it works a little bit but depending on what they’re shooting, they should be using some kind of small shotgun microphone like a Sennheiser or EKG. Those are wonderful shotgun mics. As Glenn Trew points out in my book, a lot of times filmmakers will go with a wireless mic and the sound you get from a wireless microphone is inferior to what you get from a boom mic.

Nic- But a wireless microphone is right there on the actor. Why wouldn’t it be just as good or even better than a boom mic?

Kelley- That’s the problem – it’s right there on the actor. The best way to get sound is to point a boom mic at the actor’s mouth. When you use a wireless mic or a lavalier microphone, it’s below the actor’s mouth, usually on the chest and more often than not, it’s covered up with clothing. So what you end up doing is putting a piece of cloth over the top of the mic. How do you expect to get really good sound that way?

Also, if you listen to something recorded with a wireless mic, it sounds a little unnatural or disjointed when compared to something recorded with a boom mic aimed at someone’s mouth.

Wireless microphones have come a long, long way from what they were, but regardless if you put the mic under layers of clothing and on someone’s chest, away from their mouth, you’re just not going to get the same quality of sound.

Nic- Talking about this brings me back to some of the great anecdotes and advice that’s in your new book “The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide Part 2: Sound Conversations with (Un)sound People”. Why did you write the book and what’s it about?

Kelley- You know I’ve been so frustrated over the years, hearing so much bad sound from independent films and talking with so many filmmakers who just don’t understand how important sound is to their movies, that I finally just took matters into my own hands. I got in touch with some of the people I knew: location recordists, picture editors, post supervisors, dialogue and music editors, sound designers and mixers, a foley walker, and I got them to talk about what makes good sound and to share some of the hints and tricks that they use. A lot of their tips are not real expensive, simple, even common sense, but they’re things that filmmakers don’t think about. In one place I wanted people who have great reputations talking about the subject. Among the people I talked to we’ve got 16 Academy Awards, a bunch of Emmys, and a lot of other award winners. So these are respected people in their fields. They have a great deal of experience and hopefully they’re going to be able to help filmmakers make better movies by improving the sound.

Nic- Speaking of the Academy Awards, they were held yesterday and “The Artist” won Best Picture for 2011. I’ve heard a lot of people call that a silent movie, but it’s not is it?

Kelley- [Chuckles] No it’s not. It has no dialogue, well except for the end, but there is sound. The film has music, it has sound effects, it’s got all sorts of stuff in it.

Nic- Do you think it would be more difficult to work on a film like that, with no dialogue, from a sound perspective?

Kelley- That’s an interesting question that I haven’t thought about. For a director it’s a much harder movie. In the old silent films you had to have music and you had to have title cards to help the audience understand what’s going on. I haven’t seen “The Artist” so I’m not sure if it uses title cards or not, but the actors have to be pretty expressive to move the story along without dialogue. The other thing about that is it’s amazing what you can do with sound effects to give a sense of place or mood, things like that.

Nic- You mentioned using music to help the audience know what’s going on and I know in your book there’s a discussion about not just the use of music, but how it’s sometimes used too much in film.

Kelley- I find it interesting that one of the guys who was most adamant about not using too much music has been a music editor for 30 years. Music can be incredibly effective when it is used correctly, but as filmmakers I think a lot of people get lazy and they throw in wall-to-wall or a lot of music just because they feel the need to fill it out. They feel they need to use music to help the picture flow, but if you use too much, the music just gets in the way and it lessens its effect.

I’m not against music, but I am against it being used too much. Unfortunately that’s what seems to happen often so instead of letting actors emote, what we do is we ask the actor to emote but then we throw a sad song on top of it, so even the dumbest person in the audience realizes “oh this must be a sad moment”, even though we know his dog just died.

Nic- Going back to the Oscars. I saw that “Hugo” won Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing—

Kelley- And I disagree.

Nic- Why do you disagree?

Kelley- “War Horse.” Gary Rydstrom and Tom Johnson did an incredible job. Gary Rydstrom has already won seven Academy Awards and he’s been nominated fourteen times. He did “Saving Private Ryan” and “Jurassic Park” and he did a fantastic job on “War Horse”. It’s a really cool, imaginative and a complete soundtrack. The whole sound crew on that film deserves some notice for their work. I also think the sound crew on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” did a phenomenal job as well and those are a couple of friends of mine: Michael Semanick and David Parker.

Nic- You interviewed Gary and Tom in your book didn’t you?

Kelley- Yes, I talked with both of them. In fact, they were working on “War Horse” when I interviewed them. Tom and I were actually roommates at USC and Gary was about a year behind us. I still get together with those guys all the time; they’re a hoot and really good friends. Tom has won two Academy awards and Gary seven, so that really speaks to the quality of their work.

Nic- You spoke with so many different people doing so many different jobs in film production about sound, so can you tell us what you think it takes to be good at doing sound for film?

Kelley- Part of it is having an overall knowledge of film making. It’s not just knowing about sound; you have to know what the director is trying to do. What is the point of the film? What is the story? I think a lot of times, the best sound people are the ones who know the most about the whole filmmaking process. When I was doing sound work I always approached it not as a sound guy, but as a filmmaker thinking about what I want to do here. What are these sounds going to signify? How can I help complete a character and let the audience know who they are just by using some simple sound effects and backgrounds? You have to set a tone and build on a place with sound.

Good sound is one part attention to detail, but you also need to get the dialogue recorded on the set. Good dialogue recorded on the set always sounds better than ADR, no matter who’s doing it.

Nic- What? You don’t subscribe to the idea of “We’ll fix it in post”?

Kelley- I hate that phrase. You’ll always spot ADR dialogue in a movie and you’ll cringe when it goes by. If you’d paid a little more attention to detail or hired a better location recordist, you wouldn’t need to do that. Really you shouldn’t have to do that because we’re all professionals right? So you shouldn’t have to fix it.
I’ve had to do ADR on some of my own films, but that was truly a last resort. I try to give my sound people plenty of time and room to work. On one of my films, we were shooting in a location that was just bad, but we needed that location and we couldn’t get around it. When I did that though, we didn’t just ADR a few of the lines that were bad. I actually decided to ADR the whole scene. So I got both of the actors in place and had them working opposite each other. This way everything sounded consistent and we used the mic from the location so no one has ever spotted those two scenes.

Nic- That is a real accomplishment because usually it isn’t that hard to spot dialogue that is just dropped in.

Kelley- Well and I cringe ever time I see one of those scenes because even if no one else notices them, I certainly know where they are.

Nic- One of the things that I thought was interesting about the range of people you spoke with in your book was that you didn’t just talk to sound editors; you spoke to picture editors as well. The title of the chapter was “Cutting Film with Sound In Mind”. Why is that important and how do you do that?

Kelley- The two editors I spoke to for that, Harry (B. Miller III) and Lee (Haxall) both used to be sound editors and they had moved up from that. So when they’re editing a picture, they are thinking ahead to what the whole film is going to sound like. But, they can also listen to stuff and tell if something can be fixed and doesn’t need to be ADR-ed or if it does, they look for a different performance. A good dialogue editor can go through different takes for a scene and look for a better performance for various words or phrases and actually lay them in and get them to match to a different take. Some picture editors are very good at doing that as well. So that’s why thinking about sound also happens in the picture editing.

Nic- Do you think that most picture editors take sound into consideration that way?

Kelley- I don’t think a lot of sound editors take sound as seriously as they should. Both Harry and Lee and a bunch of other picture editors I know will cut in temporary sound effects and backgrounds as they’re making their picture edits because that is successful. Lee even talks about the fact that she, as a picture editor, has to make her dialogue as smooth as possible because that helps the edit work as she’s cutting the picture.

Nic- One of the questions you ask a lot of the people featured in you book is: what are some examples of movies that you think anyone interested in working with sound in film should look at?

Kelley- You know that’s one of the problems with our job. If we’re doing sound design right it’s invisible. No one thinks about the sound so no one knows you’re there. If you want to see some films with good sound though, look at the opening of “Saving Private Ryan”. The opening is amazing; it’s all told from the men’s point of view. So the only time you hear a gunshot is when one of them is actually shooting the gun. What you’re hearing most as they storm the beach is the bullets coming at them. The whizzing, the ricochets, or when someone is hit. You’re not actually hearing the gunshots as the bullets are fired at them. I find that fascinating. It’s taking the point of view of the little guy on the ground.

Another amazing scene is the opening of “Once Upon A Time In The West” with the sound effects and everything. There is almost no dialogue in that scene, only four or five lines as I recall, and there is no music. What you have are sound effects telling the story and you know who are the bad guys and the good guys… if you can say there are any good guys.

There’s David Lynch and he’s extraordinary with his use of audio as well. Listen to any of Lynch’s films. He really uses sounds, even simple noises, to the utmost. Or anything that Walter Mirisch has done. I love “The Conversation.” He cut that and he did sound design. A great film that had the visuals and the audio coming together in amazing ways.

One of the things I like to do when I’m teaching a class is I’ll show them both openings to “A Touch of Evil”. There’s the original opening with the Henry Mancini score, which is awesome. Then you watch the scene from when Walter Mirisch re-did it and put it back to the way that Wells had wanted it. Now the score and the credits are gone. You’re hearing more sound effects and background like the cars and the sounds of the café and it’s fantastic. I thought the original opening was brilliant; Mirisch’s is even more brilliant.
They both work well, but you can see the difference with the music taken out.

Nic- You have a whole chapter in your book dedicated to “the most incorrectly used phrase in filmmaking”. What is it?

Kelley- Oh I know this one! It’s sound designer. Sound designer, when it was originally conceived, and I think it was actually coined by Francis Ford Coppola with Walter Mirisch in mind, refers to the director of sound. They are in from the beginning thinking about sound and sometimes they’re on the set working on dialogue and backgrounds. Gary Rydstrom will sometimes bring sound effects out to the set for Spielberg to play and help set the mood and the tone for the scene, and then they’ll get used later on in the film. A sound designer is responsible for all aspects of sound from recording on the set to editing and post production. Most of the time when they would bring me in on a project, it would be after it had already been shot and I’d be working with rough cuts and trying to fix problems. Many of the people who take these sound designer credits now don’t come in until that point as well so they’re not involved in the sound from the beginning. To me they’re sound editors, sound engineers, sound supervisors, but they aren’t true sound designers the way the phrase is intended.

Nic- I’m going to borrow another question you asked a lot of filmmakers in your book and ask do you still like working with sound in films?

Kelley- [Laughs] You’re asking me that? The whole thing is that I love what I do and I’m a filmmaker. I like to give a shout out to the guys who do sound. I’m not Gary Rydstrom, I’m not Walter Mirisch, those guys are brilliant. I’ve made a living doing sound, and I enjoy doing sound on my own films and every now and then I don’t mind doing it for friends. But I’m no longer a practicing sound designer. To answer your question though yes I love it. I love what I do. I get paid to make movies and God I love it now probably more than I ever have. But I’ve always been a filmmaker first and a sound guy second. You know I’ve got the best fucking job in the world.

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To pick up your own copy of one of Kelley’s books or to learn more about him visit: