Learn How to Listen for Dialogue Editing

Dialogue in most videos is the chief means of conveying what the event is all about (theme), developing the story progression (plot), saying something specific about the people in the story (characterization), and describing where, when, and under what circumstances the event takes place (environment and context). […] The opening dialogue in serial dramas usually recounts what happened previously, tells where the story is now, and suggests where it may be going. […] All this information is contained in a few lines of carefully crafted dialogue.

Good dialogue seems to flow naturally. As most writers will confirm (…) good dialogue is meticulously constructed to sound and feel natural yet communicate a maximum of information. It should make you wish and said it that way.

Herbert Zettl (2008), Sight Sound Motion – Applied Media Aesthetics, 5h edition.

My first dialogue recordings (a very low-budget microphone for 3 actors, a crappy pre-amp, a noisy unaware crew and reverberant refrigerated place) weren’t very shiny, but I had to put so much effort in the editorial that I cannot count with my fingers the quantity of stuff I had to learn in order to understand how to turn shit into an acceptable and eventually not that bad product.

1) EQ – yeah, I knew what equalization was already, but being aware of voice issues, where the SS’s and Ssh’s are, where there is more energy, intelligibility, etc., is another story.

2) Noise reduction – ooh, here we go, thank you Wave’s C4 and iZotope RX for existing.

3) Quick editing quick skills – cut, cross, fade, duplicate, delete, scrub, etc.

4) Enhancing the narrative through mixing – yep, editing can be more than cleansing work, and you start to know how and what to put forward or back. Even the actors benefit so much with dialogue editing. As John Purcell (praise him too) said, let the tracks talk to you.

5) Understand that your work is invisible and if you have no feedback it’s because you nailed it – sorry, but that’s it.

6) Record better next time – Yes, you got a problem now, but you won’t need to have it again, right? For sure you now know what to do better.

In April 2013, I embraced a huge disproportional titanic project with about 20 actors on the set, including musicians. The concept is another thing far from usual film production, and this is not the place to discuss it, but it was because of it that now I know that maybe I am a little good on dialogue editing.

Luckily, I learnt extremely important things that had shaped my work from now on:

  • how to proper listen and doing levels, woow, what a huge difference! Automation is the key, and it’s almost unbelievable how speech gets clearer when volumes are set accordingly. Looking at the audio clip after the automation work is done may be dazzling! One will also be able to decorate backgrounds and other sounds around it with a nice display. And I promise you will have gain an incredible fast hand at automating.
  • take off before adding: any room has its tricky reverberant modes, combined with a microphone recording technique, an actor (or 20) and a crew. I always slide the eq’s points with high Q’s searching for that muffled frequency zone and push it down. With time, this becomes almost automatic and pretty fast. It will be similar for the sibilants. The hard part is to compromise the possible loss of bright with softening the sibilants.
  • Reduction / removal of the distracting noises: praise iZotope now! It is awesome.
  • It’s never done / it’s never perfect / it could be better – set a deadline, really. But make your best, it’s your name on it and it’s not only your work there. Plus, one needs to move on to other projects.
  • Know your limits – I had to recognize when I was not being productive any more, and ruining the track instead. Better to rest a couple of hours.

And all this comes from listening. It’s not something you can rush but it only comes from experience and taking time just listening. Having an experienced person guiding you in this process is priceless, as a lot of things don’t usually cross a newbie’s mind (or ears).

After being on this Noe’s boat, I noticed I doubled (at least) my work speed, and that my awareness for balance in a mix raised exponentially. When the project is then organised, the tracks indeed start talking at you. It’s very interesting how sometimes we have some power to address micro-emotions on the audience by the options the dialogue editor makes. We also practically make miracles on post-production (are we gods?) Speech can be a powerful thing, and in film we make that happen.

Happy dialogue editing!

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