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High Strung, a recent movie with a lot of "violin-playing action" (never thought I'd say that), dubbed all of the violin playing. The actors are good violinists, but I am also a violinist and so it was easy for me to see that their bow movement did not line up with the violin soundtrack.

It would take a lot of work for a violinist to sync his bow to a soundtrack. For all I know it might be impossible for some of the virtuoso-level pieces in this example. Or it may take so much practice to manage syncing to a difficult section while moving or coordinating any other direction that nobody bothers. And maybe it's not worth it: Other people watching the movie with me were unable to detect the poor syncing, even as I pointed it out (yeah, I'm fun to watch movies with ;). Is this just one of those things that is considered "good enough" for mainstream audiences?

My question: Is it necessary to dub stringed instruments for high-budget films? E.g., is it still not possible to mic a violin on a movie set to get theater-quality sound? Or for challenging instrumental performances do they just need to tell the actors, "Act, and don't worry about performance flaws, because we'll dub sound in post."

My understanding is that it is standard practice for movie music and dance to be synced to studio-recorded soundtracks, and for actors often to sync just to a beat instead of the full audio that will be mixed over their performance. Obviously synchronizing isn't a problem for singing and dancing the way it is for more "virtuoso" instrumental performance. I'm just wondering what factors are driving the decisions on this.

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After a 3 year hiatus I return with an answer that I hope doesn't get torn to shreds by newer members here:

I'm going to start out with a more general answer: NOTHING done as a corrective measure (ADR, 'fixing in post', etc.) is necessary to do on a film set if it is properly planned for and solutions are brought to the table well enough and early enough in pre-production. It all depends on the directors, producers, and other team members of the production crew cooperating with each of the other departments and deciding what takes precedence for that given scene.

Does the violin performance play such an important role in the storytelling of the film to warrant ensuring the performance is captured perfectly? If it does, and each of the other departments agree, then solutions are worked out to capture it: be it with hidden mics, proper lighting that allows for a decca tree setup if it is more than one violin or simply agreeing not to give any verbal instruction during the take so you can record the sound properly, or you pre-record and play back that pre-record through speakers on set so the actor can follow along. It may also mean that the music editor is on set and ensuring perfect sync and dumping it into Logic or Pro Tools on set to ensure this before shooting is called for that day. In this case, it starts with meeting on it early and go over solutions as to how to make it work. Don't wait until you arrive on the set and argue with the lighting team while you drink your add-shot dirty-chai lattes that their lights get in the way of your mic placement on that violin, and don't be surprised if the director gives you a confused look if you ask for another 2 takes of that musical performance because it needs to sync to a pre-recorded track. The pre-prod meetings or some sort of coordination before shooting day should hash all that out. This is where it is decided that No, the real wind in DiCaprio's hair on the bow of the Titanic is more important than capturing the dialogue - the wind machine takes precedence, and it'll get handled with ADR.

That being said, sadly this is not normally the case today where the Sound Department gets full cooperation from each of the other departments on a shoot. However, this does happen sometimes and audio is given free reign! Some examples of this can be seen in the film Hurt Locker - they created a prop helmet to be able to capture the dialogue from the bomb suit in the most intense scenes of that movie. Per interviews I have seen, Tarantino has been known to re-light an entire scene if the production sound crew has difficulty getting close enough and achieving good tonality with their mics. Personally, I would love to see how the music was recorded for the film "Whiplash" - amazing performances caught on film and who knows how they did it? Good stuff. I wasn't at any moment thrown off by something out of sync in that movie - maybe I was too enthralled in the story.

Sorry for diverging, but I think your question is best answered with making sure you get your hands on the script early, going over with the departments before shooting how to get what you need, and hopefully the director is tracking enough with the entire process (production, editing, post, etc.) to make it happen with the least amount of headaches in post production.

  • Thanks: Good general answer! It does leave me wondering what sorts of things are so hard to mic outside of a sound studio that the sound director doesn't even bother to try. Like, "No, I don't have to see the set to tell you that if the wind machine is blowing her hair on a wide shot we're going to need ADR." Or, in this case, "No, you can't have a wide shot of a violinist who's moving around while playing and get steady sound. We just don't have mics that can do that!" Or is this more likely a case of, "We can dub violin, and nobody will notice but other violinists, so don't bother?" – feetwet Apr 29 '16 at 17:37
  • Sometimes (usually?) overdubbing elements like a musical instrument performance or singing is just a lot cheaper than trying to capture high quality sound on location. It's not just violin, it's all instruments. Most of the time, the actors shown "playing" instruments don't even know how to play the instrument they have on-screen, so there's no point in trying to capture it. – Todd Wilcox Apr 29 '16 at 18:17
  • @ToddWilcox - Yeah, watching scenes cut around actors who can't even pretend to play the instrument their character is supposed to be playing is tiresome. This particular movie piqued my interest because it was clear that the actors could play the instruments at the level shown, to the point that (as with many singers) they are probably the same performers who recorded the tracks that were dubbed over the scenes. Couple that with the dissonance of bad syncing that (at least to me) is so clear with violin and I am left wondering, "Why?" and "Did they have to?" – feetwet Apr 29 '16 at 21:46

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