What is a soundstage? It’s a term we hear fairly often in film circles, but it’s usually assumed we know what it means. Don’t fret, we’re going to define soundstage and then look at some iconic examples. By the end, you’ll know what soundstages are and how they’re used. But before we get into our examples, let’s review where soundstages started.
Background on Film Soundstages
First, a brief history of soundstages
There’s a reason why filmmakers cite Murphy’s Law — whatever can go wrong, will go wrong — as a maxim of film production; because it’s true. Shooting a film or TV show on location can present a nightmare due to travel costs, bad weather, bad lighting, lack of power, etc.
But what if there was a way to avoid all of these challenges? Well, there is, it’s called a soundstage. But what is a soundstage? For a quick guided tour of one of the largest sound stages in the U.S., check out the video below.
A soundstage is a place where you can negate many of the most difficult aspects of film production. So without further ado, let’s dive into a soundstage definition.
What is a soundstage?
A soundstage is a building that’s used primarily for shooting films. These stages are typically large, warehouse-like buildings. They were conceived in response to the advent of sound in film in the late 1920s-early 30s to allow for live audio recording. Today, stages are used in conjunction with green screens to mix practical and computer generated effects.
Common Types of Soundstages:
- Large (Studio Soundstages)
- Small (Sets and Schools)
Why soundstages exist
Soundstages were created in response to the advent of sound in film. During the early years of cinema, the onus was on the filmmaker to make sure shots were clear and the film stock was maintained. But as technology progressed, filmmakers took on new responsibilities.
One of the most important breakthroughs in filmmaking was sound. For more on why sound is so important, check out the video below.
There’s no doubt about it: soundstages offer enormous acoustic benefits to filmmakers for recording live sound. The convenience of not having to worry about an ambulance driving by or somebody with a boombox is enough to make most filmmakers never want to shoot on location again.
But audio isn’t the only reason why these stages are used by filmmakers. They also make life easier for production designers and actors. Think about it: when everything is in one place, aka a studio lot, you have everything you need to make movie magic.
Inside a Soundstage Examples
What happens inside a soundstage?
Soundstages play an integral role in the “movie magic” of studio filmmaking. If you’ve ever asked, “how did they film that?” chances are they shot it in a stage.
One of the most famous examples of a fully built set inside a soundstage was Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic set in Rear Window. This next video compiles a time lapse of the whole film, and gives us the vantage of watching the whole set.
Hitchcock tasked designers Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson with building the set for Rear Window based on a Greenwich Village courtyard. The set was so elaborate that it included a fully-functioning drainage system!
For a perfectionist filmmaker like Hitchcock, a stage was the perfect place to shoot a film like Rear Window. It gave him complete control over every facet of production, from visual design to sound design to camera placement.
Modern Movie Studio Sound Stages
How are stages used today?
Due to the rise of computer generated imagery and visual special effects, these stages have somewhat changed in function. Although soundstages still exist at studios like Paramount, Warner Bros. and Universal, the massive space of their interiors aren’t always needed.
Take Disney’s The Mandalorian for example: showrunner Jon Favreau opted to shoot most of the scenes inside a small set, surrounded by LED screens. For more on this breakthrough filmmaking process, check out the video below.
So instead of having to physically build the sets, digital artists are able to use Epic’s Unreal Engine to design the spaces virtually. Those spaces are then transposed onto LED screens. It’s a brilliant strategy for filmmakers to toy around with if they’re presented with the opportunity to use the technology.
Today, some studios have retrofitted soundstages to record late-night talk shows, others use them for live performances. For example, the Emmy Award winning Grease: Live was filmed on the Warner Bros. backlot in 2016.
Two stages were used for the film’s interior sets and various parts of the backlot were used for exterior shots.
Paramount Studios has 30 stages ranging from 5,500 sq. ft. to 18,775 sq. ft. The smaller soundstages are mostly used for TV productions while the bigger stages are usually reserved for large scale sets. You don’t have to be contracted by a studio to use a soundstage. If you’re a filmmaker who just so happens to have a lot of money, you can always rent one; just like Tommy Wiseau did when he made The Room.
A Filmmaker’s Guide to Movie Sound
Remember, soundstages were conceived in response to the advent of sound in film. It’s one thing to know why a soundstage is great for recording sound, it’s another to know how to use it. In this next article, we break down movie sound effects to find out the best strategies for incorporating diegetic and non-diegetic sounds. By the end, you’ll be ready to apply innovative sound techniques in your own movies.