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Intensity, Environment, and Figure/Ground in Digital Video Sound

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 3/17/2010

Learn how to craft digital video sound with intensity, use to establish the over all environment, and applying the figure and ground dynamic.

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    Many Aspects

    Film as a medium is composed of two equally important elements, sights and sounds. The equipment that home digital video producers are often working with tend to not give the versatility to sound recording as it does to visuals. Correct sound often takes external microphones and serious attention to post-production sound mixing, and because of this it is common to ignore it. When you are considering sound while you are recording, you must think about the ways it works as an aesthetic element. There are a variety of aspects to sound that can help you decide how to approach it while you are in production, and what to do with it while you are editing.

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    Sound itself, as a physical element, travels in waves. The intensity of the sound is measured in amplitude, and this determines the volume of the sound. This volume is measured in decibels and commonly measures from -20 db, which is basically no sound, to +3 db, which is higher than full levels with lots of cracking and distortion. When you are editing your film you need to keep an eye on the audio volume levels to make sure the sound is as great and consistent as possible. You always want to keep the main sound, and not background noises or music, between 60% and 100% amplitude. Never let the sound go above +2 db or under -15 db. Sound is also composed on wave frequency, measured in Hertz, and Pitch, which indicates where on the musical scale a sound fits. These elements are not quite as important when recording sound from a scene, but it is still a good idea to consider that sound is measured in a multitude of ways because it has a variety of aspects to it.

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    Establish the Environment

    When recording sound for use in your video project you need to understand what types of recorded sound there are and what use it has. This is one way that the videographer presents context for the sound and visuals that he is using in the video. Natural sound, which is just the base sounds of the environment you are recording in, is important for establishing the location and its features. It will give context for the situation, the levels of intensity for what is happening, and even a better idea of the physical landscape. An example of this is if you are recording a parade in a busy urban environment, it is important to get the sounds of that city neighborhood so the audience can begin to get a feel for the area. You can also use sound effects to establish some of this.

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    In human visual theory there is the observation that humans see two different layers of subjects and events, which is called the difference between the Figure and the Ground. This theory holds equally true for sound, where the figure is the sounds that are featured more prominently and the background sounds are less focused on. This means that the sounds of the two main subjects in the frame are going to be the subject of the audience and the background sounds of the park they are sitting in is of less concern. When shooting you must remember that Figure sound is the most important to record clearly, and during editing it must be louder than the background sound. If this difference is not maintained you will have a cluttered mess where the viewer will just switch back and forth between the sound sources.