NEW YORK — Creative audio work is never more rewarding than when it serves to tell a compelling story. Audio post house HOBO (www.HOBOaudio.com) found such a story in Documented, a powerful new documentary feature written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and co-directed by Ann Lupo.
Documented, which was an official selection at AFI Docs Film Festival in June and will make its international premiere at IDFA in Amsterdam, tells the story of its director, Vargas, an acclaimed reporter whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and Huffington Post. He made his own headlines in 2011, when he wrote an essay in the New York Times Magazine disclosing his own status as an undocumented American. The film takes an unflinching look at Vargas’s decision to become the most famous undocumented immigrant in the nation.
With such an emotionally charged film, deft audio work was key. Like most documentaries, the project offered a unique set of audio challenges. Compression issues, poor source audio quality, and some really loud cicadas were just some of the problems HOBO confronted.
Bowler and HOBO’s senior audio engineer Chris Stangroom spoke exclusively with Post about their work on this important documentary.
POST: How did you first get involved in Documented?
BOWLER: “Ann Lupo, the co-director, called us after hearing about our work though another client. We did an initial screening and once we signed on to the project we learned they needed to work fast. The deadline for the AFI Documentary Film Festival was just weeks away, and we still needed to lock picture. We completed a stereo mix in time for the AFI Docs festival, then further refined that mix for a screening at Facebook’s headquarters with Mark Zuckerberg a few months later. We’ve just now completed the third and final mix for festival screenings.”
POST: Documentaries are notorious for their poor source audio. What was source audio like for Documented?
BOWLER: “During our initial screening, we noticed the sound was inconsistent, particularly the dialog tracks. From there, Chris evaluated the specific audio needs of the film and developed a plan.”
STANGROOM: “We knew a handful of scenes were going to be problematic from a noise standpoint. In particular, a scene at a Mitt Romney rally in Iowa, where the audio was recorded with very heavy compression. Because of that compression, each time Romney stopped speaking, the general noise from the rally would boost up crazy loud. We handled some of those issues with manual volume rides, but also employed a slew of other noise-reduction tools and tricks. Over the course of the entire film, we used Izotope RX 2 to reduce noisy source audio and remove very specific sounds, like a car honk, microphone bump or cicadas — any sounds that were getting in the way.”
POST: Speaking of cicadas, they were a big problem in another scene, right?
STANGROOM: “Definitely. There was an interview with a local farmer in Alabama where they cut between a few different interviews at his farm and all of them are at different levels with the sounds of cicadas blaring in the background. We didn’t want to completely get rid of them because that's what the South sounds like, but we needed to minimize them and Izotope RX was unbelievably useful for that scene.”
POST: The tools are great, but do you worry about relying too much on the technology?
BOWLER: “The tools we have nowadays are far more effective than what was available five or 10 years ago. However, that means directors today have a greater expectation that the dialogue will sound as clean as possible, which for documentaries, can be the most problematic aspect of the work. So we start by focusing on the scenes that will need special attention. But to your point about technology, tools should serve the sound, not the other way around.”
POST: How did Documented evolve creatively for you?
STANGROOM: “Originally, we were supposed to do a simple stereo mix for the AFI Docs Festival, but as I got to work on the project, I saw the potential to enhance some of the more dramatic moments through sound design. We brought on Chris Davis to spend a few days filling out any scenes in the film that seemed too empty from a sound standpoint. We added ambiences to set the film’s atmosphere and we hit a lot of details throughout the film to maintain a sense of realism — footsteps, crinkling paper, mopeds — lots of sounds to give dimension to the soundtrack. By adding these elements, the viewer becomes even more engaged in the story.”
POST: It sounds like this project was special for you?
BOWLER: “Yes it was. We were able to combine our technical and creative skills with the film’s emotional power, and the results are very moving. America is a nation of immigrants and Jose’s movie touches the heart because it is both a personal story and a much larger socio-political story. We’re honored to play a small part in bringing this story to life.”
Watch the "Documented” trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wspfU828qQM