Advertisement
Current Issue
April 2014
Issue: September 1, 2003

Audio For Film

By: By Christine Bunish

If you think audio post production is not prone to change compared to the rapidly-evolving fields of nonlinear video editing, visual effects and graphics and animation, then think again.

In days gone by, re-recording mixers brought tracks they had recorded on the set to the dub stage and mixed them, essentially re-recording what they had done before. But today, "we're responsible for taking thousands of raw elements and blending them to make things sound real and draw out emotions," says Ron Bartlett, re-recording mixer at Warner Bros. Studio Facilities in Burbank.

His colleague, re-recording mixer Mark Smith, believes the position is analogous to that of cinematographer in "using technical processes to achieve an artistic endeavor."


Sync Sound recently completed work on It Runs in the Family. Grant Maxwell (pictured above) worked with Ken Hahn and Howard Bargroff on the final mix.
The Smith and Bartlett team has many movie credits, including Eminem's 8 Mile, which posed challenges in dialogue and music. "The entire score is based on the Academy Award-winning song, 'Lose Yourself,' that Marshall [a.k.a. Eminem] wrote, beginning with a concept which his character developed during the course of the movie," Smith reports. "We had to start with the music sounding very rough, then develop and hone it as he did. Director Curtis Hanson wanted an almost documentary sound to the film; it takes an incredibly slick job to make something sound unpolished."

They also strived to keep scenes of club performances intimate while working hard to make dialogue intelligible, maintain the casual feel of guys hanging in Detroit and talking over each other.

Smith and Bartlett's stage, like all the mixing stages at Warner Bros., is equipped with an AMS Neve DFC console. "We installed the first one," Bartlett recalls; the team was instrumental in contributing ideas on the design of a viable feature film desk to Neve engineers building the console.

INDIE work

Although Paul Michael may officially be called a recording engineer at New York City's Magno Sound & Video (www.magnosound), he performs mixing, sound editorial and sound recording on a day-to-day basis. "There are no clear delineations between job categories here at Magno," he explains. "It's always been that way, but lately the lines have become more and more blurred," especially when he's working on independent features with budget constraints - some of which may have been crafted by inexperienced filmmakers who haven't planned for audio post.

"It's a rude awakening for a lot of people," Michael says. "They tilt their budgets toward preproduction and production and don't realize what happens at the end. They're out of money and time, and although they may have beautiful, well-edited visuals, what do they do about the sound that holds the whole project together?"

With no formal job categories to restrict him, Michael is able to take an "all-encompassing" approach to audio post that efficiently manages filmmakers' time and money, and holds one person - him - accountable. Ideally, he likes to meet with filmmakers early on to de-mystify the audio post process. He'll team with Vito Hughes from Magno's video side who can field questions about telecine, editing and the conform - disciplines whose jobs remain distinct.

Michael's Dolby-certified Studio C boasts a custom 160-channel SSL Avant console, a 48-track Digidesign Pro Tools, a 16-track Sonic workstation with NoNoise, a 35/16mm film projector and large-screen video projection, a full complement of outboard equipment and vintage gear from Magno's 52-year history.

Michael recently worked closely with Chiaroscuro Pictures' Elizabeth Dimon on her independent thriller Private Property. With Michael's help, Dimon did as much audio post as possible during her Avid edit; she cut music and dialogue, added room tone and sound effects.

"Elizabeth almost did a pre-mix," he explains. "When I got the OMF I just leveled out the voices and smoothed dialogue transitions so the mix time - the higher-priced session - could be kept to a minimum."

Michael often teams with a sound designer, but on Private Property he performed sound design functions himself. When he got to the last few minutes of the film, which had no dialogue, he questioned why there was only music and no ambiance or sound effects. Michael was told that no sound man had been available that day. So he did Foleys to replace the missing sound - water, feet splashing in the surf and running in the sand, zipping a jacket - in Studio C's iso booth.


Soundelux's Mark Stoeckinger went for accuracy and drama when working on The Last Samurai, which stars Tom Cruise.
No Boundaries
England's Reel Sound Ltd. (011-44-778-5572-307) and New York City's Sync Sound (www.syncsound.com) shrank the globe and linked continents when they teamed on It Runs in the Family, featuring three generations of the acting Douglas family... the legendary Kirk, his son Michael and Michael's son Cameron.

"This film was different from any other I've done," notes Reel Sound supervising sound editor Max Hoskins, who had previously worked with the film's director Fred Schepisi on Last Orders and Fierce Creatures. The picture was shot in and around New York City and Michael Douglas, who produced with brother Joel, preferred to remain in New York for the audio post. But Schepisi was eager to reunite with Hoskins whose Reel Sound operates from England's Pinewood Studios and Shepperton Studios.

Hoskins could move to New York for a six-month period but couldn't bring his own team for such a lengthy stay and didn't know anyone in the city. "That's what's important... having people around you can work with and trust," Hoskins emphasizes.

So Reel Sound set about melting boundaries of time and location. Hoskins settled in at Sync Sound where he was linked to three sound effects editors at Reel Sound's Pinewood branch, four Foley artists at Berlin's The Sound Company and composer Paul Grabowsky in Australia. "I was working with personalities I knew, and it was as if all of them were in my room," Hoskins declares.

Although he delegated portions of the audio post outside New York, Hoskins maintained control at Sync Sound where the dialogue edit and four temp mixes were done, and where the final five-week mix was performed by re-recording mixer Howard Bargroff, who came over from England, and Sync Sound's Grant Maxwell and Ken Hahn (who mixed The Hours and Empire). "Bringing it back to one central base where you have the joy of finishing is what it's all about," Hoskins declares. "Fred and Michael gave us total trust to achieve the desired results, and I've never had a film go so smoothly and easily."

Hoskins was tied to England, Germany and Australia by high-speed Internet connections. For near realtime communication during the entire mix, the European teams began work five hours later than customary to align themselves with Hoskin's sessions in Sync Sound's Digital Cinema mixing theater, which is outfitted with an AMS Neve DFC desk and full-size film screen. "It's quite important for a director to have that big image," says Hoskins. "They need to see and hear what it will be like on the final day."

Grant Maxwell met Howard Bargroff just a day before they started mixing, but Bargroff's familiarity with the console meant "the two of us were able to jump on it and start mixing," Maxwell recalls. "Usually you spend at least half a day setting up, but Howard was ready to go."

Hoskins was extremely impressed with Sync Sound. And Maxwell echos, "It was an amazingly smooth-running operation. It's quite remarkable that the technology could bring together all of us in different places."

FEATURE-LENGTH DOC

At Warner Bros. Studio Facilities (www. wbpostproduction.com), re-recording mixer Ken Polk has been talking sound with director Terry Benedict for almost two years. Benedict's The Conscientious Objector is the first feature-length documentary lensed with Panasonic's VariCam HD camera. It's the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector serving as an unarmed Army medic in World War II, whose extraordinary heroism on Okinawa - he saved 75 fellow soldiers in a single battle in 1945 - earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor.

"We're treating the film as if it were a normal feature," says supervising sound editor Gregory M. Gerlich, who is concerned with dialogue, sound effects, backgrounds, Foley and narration for the project which integrates new footage with archival clips. "We're trying to have the audience re-live the experience with Desmond - the danger on a daily basis, the feel of the war itself."

Gerlich says Benedict's 220 HD master tapes were miked with both a Neumann microphone to achieve a warmer tone, and a Sennheiser for a different ambiance in certain scenes. "We have both of those independent tracks to work from. The production sound was very well recorded," including the tracks from Doss's recent Okinawa visit. "In some cases we have up to 100 tracks - it's not straightforward two-channel but full theatrical 5.1 surround."

By steering sounds around the room, Polk's 24-bit 5.1 mix is designed to give audiences a real taste of being there. "5.1 allows me to go in and out of the archival footage using the back, front and sides to make transitions, or I can focus Desmond on just one speaker," Polk explains.

Gerlich and Polk's tools on Stage C include an AMS Neve DFC, Pro Tools and Fairlight workstations for editorial.

"We believe the sound will truly dramatize Desmond's situation and impact the viewers in a profound way," says executive producer Gabe Videla.

SOUNDS OF THE SAMURAI

Not all audio post challenges derive from an evolving industry. At Soundelux (www.soundelux.com), an Ascent Media company in Hollywood, supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger is striving to "find a way to meld good drama and historical accuracy" for the Warner Bros. epic The Last Samurai. The film, starring Tom Cruise and directed by Ed Zwick, depicts the samurais' battle against the emergence of a modern Japan - and a modern Japanese army - in the 19th century.

Stoeckinger did "a fair amount of historical research to determine the authenticity" of the correct Japanese dialect for group ADR and just the right bird sound effect for rural Japan. "One scene that's difficult to design is the first time we meet the samurai who are ready to overrun the Japanese troops," he says. "What sounds would we hear in the distance to make it seem imposing? A musical instrument? Conch shells? A charge of horses? I used various aspects of all of them."

To capture the real sound of samurai swords, Stoeckinger staged a recording session featuring martial artists brandishing their weapons. While the session captured the authenticity of the swordfight and was "amazing to watch," the real sounds were not very dramatic on their own, he reports. But they served as inspiration for sounds that might be more impressive on screen, such as the metal warble of swords "singing" and a "real blade-y sound" often pieced together from other elements.

Stoeckinger says production sound mixer Jeff Wexler "did an amazing job of getting good, rich recordings at all times, which is really hard to do. We don't want to have to do ADR if it isn't necessary." But he will book ADR stages to replace or add dialogue as the motion picture takes shape.

Stoeckinger does all his work on a Pro Tools system, which "allows us to make sounds and know what we have before we go to the mixing stage. By crafting those sounds here instead of making choices on the stage, it's a very efficient process." The Last Samurai was recorded in 24 bit, which "can provide a lower noise floor that allows you to capture a certain subtle quality in the voices with minimal noise," he points out.


L-R: Director Terry Benedict worked with Warner Bros.' Ken Polk and Gregory M. Gerlich on The Conscientious Objector.
Sound editors on The Last Samurai include Alan Rankin, Michael Kamper, Jon Title, Randy Kelley, Ken Johnson, Laura Harris, David Cohen, Bruce Tannis, Kelly Oxford and, at times, many others.

THREE GENRES AT ONCE

Providing top-to-bottom audio, "everything except production mixing," the sound services department at Universal Studios in Universal City (www.universalstudios.com/ studio) caters to feature films and top-tier TV programming, says senior VP of sound services Chris Jenkins.

The department meets the needs of both Universal and third-party clients with three large feature stages, including the Hitchcock Theater, all of which are outfitted with Harrison MPC consoles; the first digital MPC with new IKIS worksurface was recently installed. There are three more mixing stages for TV, two ADR rooms, a Foley room, an all-digital room for independent features, plus a full complement of projection rooms for screening all formats from digital video to 35mm and 70mm.

Additionally, the extremely successful two-year-old BluWave Audio division has two large mix rooms for trailers and restoration; four digital mastering suites for DVD mastering, standards conversion and foreign-language mixing; three transfer core rooms in an isolated 5.1 environment; and three Sonic clean-up rooms.

But what makes Universal's cutting-edge gear sing are "three of the best mixing crews in the world," says Jenkins, who is himself a supervising sound mixer. "There's no pigeon-holing. They are capable of going back and forth from one genre to another."


At press time, C5 sound editor/sound supervisor Phil Stockton was busy working on Jim Carrey's upcoming Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
A quick look at their credits confirms Jenkins's assertion. Andy Koyama and Chris Carpenter, who man Stage 3, mixed Meet the Parents, the Austin Powers movies and the summer hit 2 Fast 2 Furious. Three-time Academy Award winners Greg Landaker and Steve Maslow on Stage 6 are equally at home with star-driven action vehicles as with the Jim Carrey comedy, Bruce Almighty. And Jenkins and his mixing partner Frank Montano, who work in the Hitchcock Theater, have done everything from installments of the Star Trek franchise to The Sum of All Fears and A Beautiful Mind. Jenkins is a two-time Academy Award winner, netting Oscars for The Last of the Mohicans and Out of Africa.

Not long ago Bruce Almighty, The Italian Job and 2 Fast 2 Furious were on the stages simultaneously.

The three films were challenging in terms of turnaround time and the complexity of their soundtracks, he says. An action flick like 2 Fast 2 Furious was out to "top what happened in the first picture," while for the comedy Bruce Almighty, "dialogue was king. A comedy might have its pratfalls and bursts of action, but if you don't hear the words, you don't get it. You need to hear every little nuance of the performance."

The sound department is gearing up for a busy fall with another diverse slate of Universal features: the epic vampire tale Van Helsing, the action-adventure Riddick, the George Romero-inspired Dawn of the Dead, the Meet the Parents sequel Meet the Fockers, and the thriller The Bourne Supremacy, plus many non-Universal releases.

REALISTIC SUB SOUNDS

Paul Ratajczak, president and supervising mixer of Glendale, CA's Mercury Sound Studios (www.mercurysoundstudios.com), has over 450 movie credits to date.

Ratajczak recently outfitted his two THX-certified, 5.1-capable theater-sized mixing stages with Euphonix System 5-F consoles. "In the past, the technology limited us in accomplishing the images we had for our projects," he says. "Now we're able to tweak and enhance scenes until we achieve the director's vision. Everything is at your fingertips."

The consoles are gaining in popularity for feature film mixing worldwide. "Both of the Lord of the Rings movies and Blackhawk Down, which won the Academy Award for best sound, were mixed on System 5s, to name just a few," Ratajczak notes. "This gave the consoles a lot of credibility."

Mercury Sound's stages are also equipped with Pro Tools|HD systems and the latest outboard gear. ADR and Foley digital recording stages and complete digital sound editing suites are networked directly to a central RAID system and to the stages for rapid revisions and conforms.

The company handled all of the audio post, including ADR, Foley, editorial and the mix, for the upcoming feature The Devil and Daniel Webster, starring Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins. Euphonix's System 5 gave Ratajczak great flexibility in coping with editorial changes throughout the mix. The film's orchestral score by Chris Young was recorded in Seattle and remixed on one of Mercury Sound's dub stages. "It's a luxury to be able to mix the score on the same stage where the movie is being finaled," Ratajczak observes. "This way you know exactly how it's going to translate."

Mercury Sound is currently providing a complete sound package and mix for In Enemy Hands (a.k.a. U-Boat), an intense World War II submarine drama starring William H. Macy, Lauren Holly and Scott Caan. "Glen Auchinachie, our sound designer, did a great deal of research and field recording to create the most authentic sound to distinguish between the German and American submarines," reports Ratajczak. "Regarding Foley, we discovered that German subs of the era had wooden floors while the US subs had metal floors. We also developed different environments throughout the subs to make a distinction between each area of the boat such as the engine room, torpedo room, control rooms, radio room, etc. Our extensive sound design is the result of a talented and dedicated staff that layered 300 to 400 tracks. I am very excited for the future technology of sound!"

SOUND DESIGN FOR A SPOTLESS MIND

At press time, sound editor/sound supervisor Phil Stockton, VP of New York's C5, Inc. (www.c5sound.com), had just begun working on the latest Jim Carrey vehicle, the Focus Films black comedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

"We've already provided them with pre-mixes of dialogue for certain scenes and sound effects, which they cut into the Avid tracks," Stockton reports. "Then we did a couple of temp mixes, one for a preview at the end of July."

Working toward the final mix, C5 has begun effects design, Foley recording and dialogue and ADR editing. "We're more responsible for the soundtrack before the mix than usual," Stockton reports. "So things will be a lot closer to done in the prep stage than usual." Stockton just had a spotting session with the director.

With a plot about a man and a woman who get each other erased from their memories, the new movie is fertile ground for innovative sound design. "There's lots of equipment and machinery that's hooked up to people," says Stockton, who notes that the actors also hear voices in their heads. "So it looks like an opportunity to go wild with big sci-fi-style sound effects, but director Michel Gondry wants a more natural, minimalistic approach. He doesn't want to call attention to the time jumps with unrealistic sound effects."

C5 sound effects designer Eugene Gearty is re-recording sound from the movie in situ, including dialogue, for a more natural sound, Stockton explains. In addition, C5's sound effects editors are networked to a mammoth library consisting of sound effects from films, popular collections and custom recordings. "We'll have access to the library, do some original recording and Foley the whole job," Stockton says.

C5's Manhattan facilities occupy three floors of buildings across the street from each other. Two floors are dedicated to the company's original Foley studio (a new Foley stage is located in Northvale, NJ); Foley editing; a small mixing room; and effects editing. The second building's single floor houses the dialogue and ADR department, which is outfitted with approximately 25 workstations, almost all of them Pro Tools.