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August 2014
Issue: January 1, 2013

Audio For Independent Films

By: Jennifer Walden
It can be hard to identify an indie film these days. Budgets can rival that of blockbuster films. Major indie films can have star-studded casts. It’s not easy to glean from a preview if a film is truly an independent film or not. The difference lies in the creative chain of command, and who has the final say over what makes the cut. 

DJANGO UNCHAINED

Django Unchained is one of those films that doesn’t say “indie” at first glance, with its all-star cast and Oscar-winning director who had his hand in absolutely every aspect of the movie.


“Django Unchained is a classic spaghetti-style western with a southern flair,” describes Wylie Stateman, supervising sound editor on this latest effort from Quentin Tarantino. The film follows Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in the deep south who is sold to a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Django has been separated from wife, and Schultz offers to free Django and help rescue his wife in exchange for help in hunting down and killing the ruthless Brittle Brothers. 

Stateman, supervising sound editor at Soundelux (www.soundelux.com), is no stranger to Tarantino films. He worked on Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Kill Bill: Vol.2, Grind House and Inglorious Basterds. Stateman calls Tarantino a “final-cut” kind of director: a director/writer who is actively involved in every aspect of the film. For Django Unchained, Tarantino had several criteria for the soundtrack. It had to be analog, spirited and sound like a classic western that just might have featured a young Clint Eastwood. “Through the sound effects and the mix, we really dealt with a style, a pacing, and an acoustical palette that was true to his desire,” explains Stateman.


To collect sounds for Django Unchained, Wylie Stateman (pictured) and sound editor Dror Mohar created their own reverbs and echoes in Death Valley, Zion Canyon and Monument Valley.

The music for Django Unchained starts with the original 1966 title song for Django, a film directed by Sergio Corbucci. From there, it’s an eclectic musical journey that includes tracks by Jim Croce, Jerry Goldsmith, Ennio Morricone, Tupac and James Brown, and an original song from Jamie Foxx. The songs that were recorded from vinyl were taken from Tarantino’s personal collection. He wanted all the pops and hiss of the vinyl recordings to remain in the track because these analog artifacts contributed to the feeling of a classic 1960’s spaghetti western. “For Quentin, it time stamps it,” says Stateman. “He very much wanted this film to feel as if its roots were a product of a certain era, and vinyl is the perfect way to accompany that feeling sonically.” 

Tarantino chose the order of the songs and Stateman and his crew created sound design that was sympathetic to the rhythm and tone of the songs for the soundtrack. Sound effects editor Harry Cohen sifted through the music tracks and created a sonic palette that would tie the music and sound design together. “The pitch and the rhythm were established, and we connected to that with the sound design,” says Stateman. “We provided the smear that helps blend the track, and makes it a part of the visual image.”

A challenging aspect of the sound design was dealing with changes in time, for instance, using slow motion within an action sequence, or having the juxtaposition of a scene within a scene. Stateman needed to punctuate those events in a way that would complement the music’s rhythm and pitch. “Depending upon where that music came from, there are elements that are set sonically. We had to be quite flexible and work to create a consistent sound while also instilling the illusion sonically. The film is a rich tapestry of time, pitch and tempo.”

Since Tarantino wanted to create a soundtrack with an analog feel, all the sound design elements are from naturally-occurring sources. Instead of adding reverb or echo created by a plug-in, Stateman and sound editor Dror Mohar created their own reverbs and echoes in three different locations: Death Valley, California, Zion Canyon in Utah, and Monument Valley, Utah. Those locations were where many classic westerns were shot. Stateman and Mohar traveled hundreds of miles beyond the tourist areas to find the most remote and acoustically beautiful locations. Using a signal cannon (so they weren’t shooting live rounds of ammo in a national park), they recorded the impulse responses created deep within those natural canyons. 

They captured the sound using a DPA 5100 mobile 5.1 surround microphone and a Sound Devices 788 digital recorder. “We recorded echoes that sometimes had up to five repeats, and it was all absolutely, brilliantly clear. No algorithm could duplicate what you find in a series of box canyons with 1,000-foot vertical spaces of stone. It was such a beautiful place to record.

Stateman used those impulse responses to build every gun sound in the movie from scratch. “Every gun shot was a custom analog-acoustical sound. Normally, you might derive these echoes from a Lexicon reverb device, or TC audio reverb device. All of ours were made from organic, field recordings made in one of those three locations.”

The film begins with the main character, Django, in chains. Stateman syncopated the sound of chains to the opening music. The chain sounds, along with the other Foley in the film, were created from materials that were as era-specific as possible. Since the film takes place in the 1860s, the chain sound was created using hand-forged iron chains from 150 years ago. “If you take a piece of modern, machine linked chain, every link sounds the same,” he explains. “If you take a chain that was made on an anvil, hand-forged by a blacksmith, every link sounds different. It has a much more musical quality, a much more randomized quality.”

For Stateman, independent films provide the opportunity to create a movie that’s true to the director/writer’s vision. According to Stateman, Django Unchained is a movie that Tarantino has wanted to make for many years. “His desire, his personality, his script, his direction, creates an opportunity for us to help him complete his dream. Working with a director, the mission is very clear. Working with an independent project, the approval process is highly streamlined. We were making a Quentin Tarantino film, full stop.”

The final mix was completed exactly one year after the first day of production. Re-recording mixers Michael Minkler and Tony Lamberti completed the final 5.1 mix at Todd AO in Hollywood on a Euphonix System 5 console. Django Unchained opened in theaters on Christmas Day. 

EMMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES

Gary Coppola is a freelance re-recording mixer who has recently been working out of  Santa Monica’s Lotus Post (www.lotuspost.com). His past work includes many independent films like Bend It Like Beckham, Friends With Money and Super. For him, Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is a story that hasn’t been done before. “Sometimes an independent film starts off with a great idea, but getting that through to the end, and getting perfect results, can be very difficult to coordinate. The director, Francesca Gregorini, had a great vision for how the film comes together. I think everything works beautifully in this film, from the music, and the sound design by Paula Fairfield, to the direction of the performances, and the cinematography. It all just comes together and it really works.”

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, which is competing in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, follows Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario), a troubled girl who becomes interested in her new neighbor Linda (Jessica Biel), who resembles Emanuel’s dead mother. 

Throughout the film, there is a dreamy, watery aspect that stems from an underwater dream sequence. According to Coppola (www.soundsatisfaction.com), the dream drives the emotional center of the film, as well as defines the parameters for the music and sound design. Water infiltrates many scenes in the film, through we don’t find out why until later. “It all goes together around this [water] theme. That is one thing that works so well in this film, the way that was all conceived and executed.” 


Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes: Working out of Lotus Post, Gary Coppola handled the music and dialogue in the mix.

Being a musician, Coppola typically handles the music and dialogue in the mix process. The score was composed by Nathan Larson, and the soundtrack includes licensed songs by Agnes Obel. “Francesca put in several montage sequences set to music by Agnes Obel, “ explains Coppola. “Her music was pretty spectacular. There is a French pop feel to it.”

An important scene in the film is a dream sequence that takes place underwater — that was shot within a water tank on-set. For the sound design, Paula Fairfield, a freelance supervising sound designer/editor, had the challenge of expressing the emotion and beauty of the scene through sound. The dream is the emotional climax of the film, and it explains the significance of water. 

According to Fairfield, “The theme of water envelopes the film. It’s everywhere: the opening and closing credits, a wave machine in the baby’s room, the waves and water that make up Emanuel’s dream world, tears, the womb, and everything in between. It all culminates in this beautiful underwater dream of Emanuel’s, where mother and child and daughter unite.”

Fairfield loves underwater soundscapes because it allows her to push the limits of how things might sound and still be believable. She collaborated with director Gregorini on shaping the sound elements of the scene. “This scene, so beautifully created by Francesca, was one of those cherished moments you get from time to time as a sound designer,” she explains. “It is startlingly beautiful to look at, and I think the score and the sound design complete an emotionally immersive scene.” 

Fairfield was able to create the sound design to the score, helping to seamlessly integrate it into the music for a cohesive sound. “It is wonderful for this type of film, which needs a delicate hand, to have the score to work against,” she says. “Luckily, I had a great deal of it well in advance of the mix.”

While there was some ADR work on the film, the director preferred to use production dialogue. Coppola typically likes to start with EQ when working on these tracks. He also likes to zoom in on the waveform in Pro Tools and use the pencil tool to redraw any problems he sees. “Pro Tools allows you so much flexibility to manipulate the sound all the way down to the waveform level. If there is sibilance or ticks or other things that you don’t want in there, instead of just chopping it out — what used to be done in the old days — you can just go in and really find what’s wrong with the sound at the waveform level and with the pencil tool, redraw it.” 

Coppola also uses the Cedar DNS 2000 to remove broadband noise that can’t be removed using EQ, as well as the iZotope RX plug-in. Cedar isn’t a “set it and forget it” device, he says. “You have to shape it and perform it along with the dialogue to get the best result. It’s a very dynamic tool.”

Coppola considers independent films his speciality. His 15-year career started with work on early films produced by Anthony Bregman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Friends With Money) and Ted Hope (21 Grams, Super). “I like working with writer/directors. I like the intimacy of a small crew working together on a project that’s interesting and unique. There is something special about independent films that appeals to me.”  

The final 5.1 mix was completed on Stage 1 at Lotus using two Avid D-Commands tied together with three Pro Tools system. Coppola’s re-recording mix partner, Michael Perricone, handled the sound effects, background and Foley. Lotus Post “has a really nice facility that’s perfect for independent film. Stage 1 is 40-feet wide and 60-feet deep with a high ceiling. You get a real theatrical experience.”

WARM BODIES

Love can fix anything, even your zombie boyfriend. Warm Bodies is a heart-warming romantic “zomedy” slated for theatrical release this February, just in time for Valentine’s Day! The main zombie, R (Nicholas Hoult), falls in love with the girlfriend of one of his victims, and she reanimates his heart. Eventually, he becomes more human, and the change spreads to the other zombies, transforming their world. “It has a lot of heart, and in the end, the message is that love will deal with anything,” says Chris David.

David, re-recording mixer/president of LA’s Wildfire Post (www.wildfirepost.com), and supervising sound editor Martyn Zub worked closely with writer/director Jonathan Levine to craft post-apocalyptic sound. The first challenge was to create three definitively different “worlds” in the film: the outside world where zombies and nasty zombies called Bonies live, the zombie-free zone inside the wall, and then the world before it all happened. 

Another challenge was making the overall feel of the sound transition from the cold harsh world of zombies to a warmer place, to reflect the change that occurs as love gradually restores the zombies to humans. “From a vocal point of view at the beginning of the movie, you get nothing more than a grunt from the zombies, but by the end they can talk like human beings. The transition slowly evolves during the movie.”



The biggest challenge was creating the zombie vocals. There are two distinct zombie classes: the human-like zombies and the Bonies, which are a group of mean, skeletal creatures who are more like monsters. To create the sound of the Bonies, Zub began by playing around with screeches and scrapes, animal noises and ape sounds. “One of the main characteristics to the Bonies’ sound was using a dolphin screech that was sped up and played with a human element as well. There was a lot of back and forth between the director and editor Nancy Richardson until we found a happy medium that we could start moving forward on.”

Zub then created a dialogue signal chain that contained the EQs and pitch shifter that were added to the Bonies’ vocalizations. “We were very mindful of trying to steer away from the classic zombie sound that everyone knows and associates themselves with. Bonies have unique characteristics about them, and I think we achieved that sound pretty well.”

In addition to the vocal sounds for the CG Bonies, Zub also worked with Foley artist Ellen Heuer to create their sound movements. “We weren’t too sure what type of surfaces they would be touching, or what type of skin they would have. Because they’re called Bonies, we played around with the idea of, every time they move or step down, you’d hear a knuckle break, or a knee click, or a bone snap, or something like that with some sort of dry, leather skin-type movement.” The CG Bonies also kept Foley editor Brian Dunlop busy. With the visual effects being updated throughout the post process, Dunlop spent a lot of time re-syncing the Foley to the new picture. There were a lot of footsteps, with packs of zombies walking through airports and various streets in the abandoned post-apocalyptic city. “There is a lot of shuffling and dragging of feet,” jokes Zub.

The human-like zombie sound incorporates a combination of human sounds and animal noises. On the ADR stage, Zub performed many of the human sounding elements that were added to the zombie vocals. “Back in the day when I was a young teenager in Australia, I’d do the singing/screaming type of vocals you’d hear in metal bands. Now I can just get on the ADR stage here and record a whole heap of various screams. I then manipulated those and combined them with animal sounds.” He says the goal was to keep the sound more organic and to feel as real as possible because there was a love story element to the film. “We did a lot of layering of voices as opposed to manipulating it digitally with processors.” 

Since several of the human-like zombies gradually transitioned back into human beings, David needed the actors to perform a series of zombie sounds that ranged from grunts and groans, to almost talking but still sounding like a zombie, and finally to sounding normal. “On top of that, we had a whole range of treatments on those performances to give us different types of zombie sounds.” 

While most of the zombie sounds recorded on-set were later replaced in post, the lead characters’ zombie sounds were the original on-set performances. 

One challenging scene, David recalls, was when the girlfriend, Julie (Teresa Palmer), was trapped with R on an airplane grounded on a derelict runway, which was essentially his home. Julie tries to leave, but she attracts the zombies surrounding the plane. R comes to her rescue, and helps her escape. “Getting the right blends of zombie vocals was a difficult thing because the zombies had to notice her, and then hone in on her, and then get threatening, and then kind of lose the thread when R helps her. That whole thing, with the different flavors of zombie vocal work, was really quite challenging.”

Wildfire, which handles all aspects of post — from picture edit and visual effects to the sound design, Foley, ADR and final mix — caters to indie films. The audio post side of the business offers two dub stages with Harrison MPC4-D consoles. Pre-mixing and editing is done in Pro Tools 10, so they’re able to undo anything that makes it to the dub stage, which now houses Meyer EXP series speakers. They use the Acheron 80s for L, C and R, 12 HMS-10 surround speakers configured in four sets of three speakers for L and R side surrounds and L and R rear surrounds. They also use five X-800C subwoofers. Their loudspeaker management is controlled by two Meyer Galileo 408s.

Keeping everyone in the facility on the same page helps the post process run smoothly. Since the approval process in independent filmmaking is so streamlined, being able to meet in the hall for a quick chat, or having the director step in for a quick listen (and approval) is one reason why Wildfire is ideal for indies. “We can get focused on the project without distraction from other things,” explains David. “You end up in very close contact with the filmmakers, the picture editor and the director.”

Zub agrees: “Having access to the editor, the director and everyone on the same floor of the building, that was a huge advantage. In the very first weeks of editorial, I would be creating ideas and unique sounds for the film, and we could narrow them down quickly and progress from there.” 

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Michael Suarez, re-recording mixer at Goldcrest Post New York (www.goldcrestfilms.com/postny), was the supervising sound editor on Merry Christmas, a story about nine well-to-do New Yorkers who celebrate Christmas on a budget at a bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania. Director Anna Condo created a film with no script, featuring nine characters, she says, which was shot in two-and-a-half days, using three cameras running simultaneously. How do you make a film without a script? According to Suarez, “Condo created background stories for all the characters, and then gave ‘character bibles’ to the actors, who then created the story based on what their character was like. Condo gave all the actors a chance to steal the show if they wanted to. It was cool because it seemed like it was scripted at times, but it wasn’t.”

Not surprisingly, it took a long time to edit. Condo spent three years in picture edit. There was only a single take of each shot. For dialogue, Suarez spent a lot of time with Condo deciding what line was the most important. There was no ADR work on the film, so Suarez relied mainly on the actors’ lav mics and the occasional boom mic when there was one available for the line. “You wanted to hear all of it, but only one character could stand out at a time. We had at least five mics going at once and it got really tricky. We had to decide which ones we wanted to keep because of the phasing issues. If there was a boom on the scene, and we didn’t want to hear the character up front, then we’d use the boom mic to make it sound more in the perspective of being in the next room.” 

Considering the number of lavs, and a few boom mics as well, Suarez was impressed with how well the dialogue was recorded on-set. With no chance for ADR, having clean dialogue was hugely important. His biggest issue was phasing. “About 85 percent of it was clean. So there wasn’t too much noise reduction going on. On a few key scenes, I used the Waves WNS plug-in, and also the Oxford DeCrackle by Sonnox. I love that plug-in. If there was a scene with a little distortion, or crackles, I would use that and it would definitely take the edges off the distortion.”

Suarez also handled the sound effects and Foley with help from sound effects editor Mark Amicucci, also located at Goldcrest Post New York, and Foley artist/editor Julien Pirrie, at Goldcrest Post London. This was the first time they used Goldcrest London for Foley footsteps and Suarez was extremely pleased. “It took a huge load off us, because there were a lot of characters moving around at the same time. Julien Pirrie did a great job on it, so we were able to concentrate on all the other specifics. That was the first time we did that, and it really worked out; I hope we get to do that again.”

Merry Christmas had many dinner scenes, and a lot of wine drinking. Suarez relied on Amicucci to create all the Foley specifics, such as “wine glass put downs,” and to also to build up the background sounds and sound effects. “Amicucci did all the sound effects and background sounds, and then handed them over to me while I was doing the dialogue edit. In between, I started mixing both of those together, and while I was doing that, he went back and started doing all the Foley.”

The final 5.1 mix was completed at Goldcrest New York on their largest dub stage, Theater A, using Avid’s 16-fader ICON. For Suarez, mixing the film in 5.1 was a challenge. “It was a challenge because there were only two music cues throughout the whole film, one in the beginning and one at the end. We built up layers for the background because you don’t want it to feel too empty. The majority of the film took place in the house. We worked with fireplaces when we could, some winter air sounds and occasionally a crow sound you would  hear through the window. There was a lot of room tone, and no music. Overall, it worked out great because you really focus on the characters.” 

While independent films may offer more creative freedom, the budget can be a bit restricting at times. “For this, it would have been great to do some ADR, but you have to work with what you have. The biggest obstacle was budget.”