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Hi folks, I was working on a short film the other day and came upon a re-occuring situation that I wanted to get your take on. One of the scenes takes place in a kitchen. It was raining outside and you could see rain and water dripping off the gutters out the windows so I added some rain and dripping sounds and EQed to make it sound like it was on the other side of a window. The question is where to pan it? The first shot is a full 30 seconds and the windows are hard left. But then it cuts to the other character's POV and the windows are hard right. Then it jumps back and forth several times. Automating the panning makes sense, but having the backgrounds jump around with every cut is very distracting. The director didn't want to call too much attention to the rain so I kept it low and center. I'm curious what other approaches one might take to this situation and panning of backgrounds in general when camera angles are frequently changing. The same question could applied to distance perspectives. What are different approaches to handling sonic perspective when the visual perspective jumps around?

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This is an excellent question, because it can make the difference between a smart and efficient BGz edit versus drastically over-cutting. –  Stavrosound Aug 22 '11 at 7:19

9 Answers 9

Hi Brendan,

There are no hard and fast answers... much depends on the story and the director. Above all else, sound and the mix MUST serve the story. That means that sometimes panning the bg sounds will be appropriate - other times it should be left alone. By panning the sounds you immediately draw attention to them. If that serves the story - say the sound of an evil character walking in another room searching for our hero - then it would be appropriate. On the other hand, if drawing attention to the element would be distracting (esp. to the director), as in the case of the rain above, you're better off leaving it. Remember, film sound is NOT reality, but "an entertaining perception of reality" (David Yewdall).

Subtle shifts however can be very effective in giving location clues. If you want to hear some great perspective shifts re: rain specifically, check out "Panic Room" - Ren Klyce changes the bg's to wonderful effect when the action changes from the upstairs to downstairs, from the hall to the room and so on...

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By leave it alone do you mean panned center or keep the panning of the original shot? –  Brendan Sep 5 '10 at 22:43
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In this case I would probably keep it panned center or give it a bit of equal stereo spread. Generally you could keep it panned somewhat off to one side, assuming the editor is not "crossing the line". In this case, since they are doing that your best bet is to keep it center or equally stereo. I'm assuming they were using the "jump" of having the window change sides as an artistic choice, and not just bad editing. –  Sonsey Sep 6 '10 at 0:46

I just saw Black Swan the other day and I was impressed by the sound work. One thing I remember was in the scenes where they are dancing in the ballet studio. There was a pianist accompanying them in the room as they rehearsed. The camera tightly follows Portman as she spins dancing around. The piano (which is in mono) is panned to match the movement of her head, so we hear what a dancer would hear during rehearsals. It's great POV sound work and really gets us in the characters head, but it is also distracting in a good way. There's great use of this POV panning in the Hurt Locker and Children of Men to name other examples.

A mono rain against window hard panned to match camera perspective would be really distracting unless it is serving a story point. The idea of using rain recorded at different angles and cutting between them on every shot also sounds distracting to me. I am convinced that the human ear is hyper sensitive to changes in the stereo/surround field; which is probably a survivalist trait which has kept us from getting hit by a car as pedestrians more than a few times in our lives.

If I were looking to create a non-distracting rain on window ambience I would consider a few things:

1) Start with your rain on window panned to match the camera perspective, ideally on an establishing shot which tells us we're in a house and it's raining. Then move it to the center on the next shot and keep it there. Your panned rain serves its purpose of establishing a sense of place and then gets out of the way. I doubt your audience (with the exception of a few sound nerds) will notice that you've given up on perspective after the first shot. I've seen some seasoned sound editors ignore perspective when cutting backgrounds, especially on scenes with rapid picture cuts.

2) Even though the rainy widow might be on the left in the first shot, think about the sound of interior rain. You most often hear it all around you inside. The sound of rain off of the roof, sliding down exterior walls, or slapping off of a surface away from the window. Create a stereo/LCR/quad/surround ambience that matches this feeling, but doesn't pull the ear too far to one speaker. Pan one stereo window recording of rain to the front speakers, and perhaps a more distant rain interior to the surrounds. That way you convey the depth of the space without a bunch of panning. Once you have a nice enveloping ambience, you'll find that you can use additional mono rain sounds (with perhaps a touch of stereo verb or slap) panned here and there to spice it up a bit,

Just my 2 cents. Good luck.

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Totally agree with you on Black Swan - thought the work with the Piano was incredible. –  Noiseboy Feb 13 '11 at 10:45

If you don't want to draw attention to panning movement, you can always put together & predub layers that are effectively a constant perspective/point of view, then on other stems predub subtle elements that follow the cuts/perspectives to varying degrees. Then its a far less confrontational (either/or) scenario to try small degrees of the additional elements. A good mixer will 'feel' where to add such elements so they don't distract or draw attention to but gently support the drama etc...

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I'm glad you mention this Tim, the "feeling" aspect. Because that's where I usually determine where I park a spotted BGz sound in the edit - it's usually an intuitive, gut reaction and it always stays there to not draw attention to itself, unless for some reason it must be panned elsewhere. –  Stavrosound Aug 22 '11 at 7:18

This website is great, thanks for the valuable information. I figured I would share my thoughts since I have just wrapped up work on a major hollywood film. Although only the sound assistant, I was working directly with the supervising sound editor and learned quite a bit. The question of panning backgrounds came up a lot. It was the first time this post-production house worked with this supervising sound editor and they weren't sure what he wanted. One of my many duties on the film was to keep feeding the supervisor all of our tracks for him to incorporate into the session. So I was present when he was listening to all the work. Generally he never wanted any background tracks panned unless directly necessary for the story to work. Even for FX he found that there was too much excessive panning. There was a scene with an exterior shower that was edited so that the shower was shifting all over the place. One sound editor had meticulously panned each shower element to follow each cut. The effect was very impressive and worked very well, but the supervising sound editor couldn't keep it. It was incredibly jarring no matter how you treated it. In fact, now that I think about it he didn't want any foley panned either.

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In addition to asking my question here, I've been asking other local engineers and paying careful attention to background panning in the movies I've been watching. I thought I would share what I've found.
Keeping things panned center is certainly the easiest option and is precisely what I ended up doing in the scenario I first asked about. Sonsey makes a good point that the approach taken depends on how much attention one wants to draw to the sound in question. I received an answer from Justin by e-mail which didn't show up here for some reason. He brought up the idea of having the same background but recorded from different angles (or processed to sound like different angles) and cutting between those. Another local engineer I talked to suggested establishing a sound and then obscuring it somewhat. In the example above, with the rain against the window sound, I could have panned my rain hard left like it is in the scene and a little louder to establish it's presence, then snuck it back down and center as the scene begins to cut back and forth from one over the shoulder shot to the next.
Aside from keeping things panned center and the ideas I just shared, does anyone else have any thoughts on how to handle noises that change location with camera cuts?

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I always keep in mind that if the picture is telling you one thing then the sound can tell another –  Chris Feb 10 '11 at 5:53

I would accurately pan the rain at the start of the scene and have it identifiable, then gently make it quieter and move it to the centre, so that it does not distract from the dialogue. Once the audience has identified that it's raining you only need the subtlest of cues to remind them that it is still raining.

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if im understanding it correctly, then both the characters are in 1 room and the camera changes according to their POVs and depending upon who is talking. Hence the window on the left or right positions.

In such cases i try to follow realism. Imagine u and i talking in room. We both are hearing the same ambience, which is surrounding us, so it shouldnt jump or pan constantly as the camera angle changes.

For a surround mix, i prefer to duplicate the stereo ambience track and assign to front stereo and rear stereo pair.

for a stereo mix, i'd prefer to keep the ambience stereo, dialogues centred, more emphasis on the dialogues...no matter how the camera moves... as long as the scene is the same, the ambience sound should be the same, is my understand

any comments?

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I would keep it low and center, as well -- there may be other windows off screen that could be bringing in the sound of the rain.

For quick perspective jumps, I hate panning atmos with each cut because it'll become jarring to the viewer.

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For me, it'd depend a lot on how much dialogue is going on and if the rain has anything to do with thematic elements or subtext. In Flags of Our Fathers, when the general is walking on the beach alone, the waves are heavily panned. But little else is going on! In other scenes with a lot of dial or other hard fx action, not so much panning.

Technically, in order to achieve the panning, you would want to use perspective splits. Find the frames where the cuts happen. Then, cut the sound and split it to a secondary track, using overlaps of a frame or so and little fades if it's popping. By doing this, it's way easier to set up panning and levels and keep them consistent for each angle.

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