Room Tone and Its Visual Equivalent

6 05 2010

This blog hasn’t touched on technique a whole lot during the first half of the Sparrow Songs year, but as we enter the second half I’m going to work to add more posts on techniques we’re using.  I want to do this, in part, because it seems to be something that folks are interested in, but also because I’m learning so much by making these films and I know a lot of lessons go unlearned for having not been written down.

Technically ‘room tone’ is the recorded silence of a room.  Sit quietly, with all distractions turned off and you’ll hear that wherever you are has it’s own distinct silence – a refrigerator hum, the fan from the building next-door, etc.  Sound recordists make a point of recording this so that during editing when a gap appears in the dialogue the editor can drop in a piece of room tone that then covers that gap.

In practice, the recording of room tone offers the closest thing to meditation that a production can have.  Someone calls out that room tone is being recorded and every one sits silently or stands in place and statue-still for a full minute.   On big movies, it’s a remarkable thing to watch simply because these are the few moments of the day that are completely quiet.  Even on our small two-person shoots it’s a nice moment and gives both Michael and I and our subjects a little break.

At some point – during Episode 2, I think – we started rolling the camera while we recorded tone as well.  The result was great.  Here, all of a sudden, you have thirty seconds or a minute of just someone’s uninterrupted gaze.  The subjects sit quietly or fidget — whatever it is they do they’re usually not thinking about being on camera — which affords a certain honesty in their movements and expressions.  These moments lend a certain tone and credence to some of the pieces.  In Porn Star Karaoke you can see them strung together at the opening of the piece.

I’ve never tried just rolling the camera for thirty seconds to a minute during a narrative piece, but my sense is that having footage of your actors during quiet moments would bear fruit as well.

Now having said all this, I completely forgot to do any of it during Episode 7, which will be up in the coming days.


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