03 December, 2009

Wired for Sound

I knew in an academic sense that the sound mix was going to change the film - improve it in tremendous ways - but it seems that there is little that can prepare you for the impact that a high-end sound mix can provide you.

Sharpe Sound has been Vancouver's "go-to" sound studio for film pretty much since the industry took off in the '90s.  Paul Sharpe who founded it turned down the opportunity to mix Schindler's List so that he could focus on opening his studio.  It is a wicked establishment.  Their halls are pretty much wallpapered with their nominations and awards.  Several of those awards were won by our Sound Supervisor, Bill Mellow.

I've known Bill for about a decade now through a mutual friend, Scott John, who is an associate producer on "Beast."  When I met Bill I was working in a smaller capacity on another independent film and he casually offered to help on the audio for it.  I am not really sure why that offer was never taken advantage of - it was not my call at the time, and the sound on the film in question was in the end practically ignored.

I think that at the time Bill was interested in taking on a project the size of a feature for the bigger credit (though I am assuming his intention as part of my own personal narrative).  When Craig and I were in early pre-production on "Beast" I remembered Bill's previous offer.  We - Craig and I - knew that sound was an area that we had very little acumen, even in terms of administrative planning and figured that we should at least talk to someone to get the lay of the land.  I called Bill and we met and bought him some beers and chatted.  I was crossing my fingers that at some point further down the line we could spin this preliminary meeting into some kind of practical assistance.  I figured that by that point Bill's need for bigger & better credits had largely out-walked his desire to work on freebies.  I under-estimated Bill's exceedingly good character.

As we drove away from that meeting it hit me... "Holy shit Craig, I think we were just offered tens of thousands of dollars of post-production audio work for free."  I was still under-estimating what we would eventually receive.

That was over three years ago.

It's been a slow journey, and in the end we pretty much got the full treatment - edit, effects, foley, ADR & mix - and all from a studio that, beyond being outrageously generous, has also been incredibly patient with us, our first-timer mistakes, and a schedule which has shifted so many times that we ourselves are emotionally burned out from it.

The past two days have been "the show."  It was exhausting and exhilarating.

I've been in the big mixing rooms before (indeed the very room we worked in) and I've been involved in sound mixes on small films before - but never have I been in on a sound mix in the big-assed, full-on, state-of-the-art studio.  It might have been a touch intimidating at first, but overall it was like going to Disneyland.

Phil's photo from early in day one of the sound mix.

There were some points where things were frustrating - almost all of which can be chalked up to 'learning experiences' on our part.  There were a few points where we had to negotiate our way through creative choices made by various combinations of people in the room - and that too could have been more easily dealt with had we on our end been more specific in advance or had a bigger budget to apply to moving all our post-production forward more cleanly (but that is a reality of low-budget film-making).  And in the end the result has me elated.

It was good that Mike - our editor - was there.  He is the person who has worked most intimately with the final product and knows each moment in the film and what it is achieveing.  His eye... er, ear... for what was needed is much more specific than Craig's or mine could be.  Virtually everything he brought up were things that I would have noticed... days later, after it was too late.

I was also distracted... no, entranced by the quiet dance of the mixers.  Bill and Kelly have been working together behind mixing boards for a decade and a half.  Joe has been mixing with them for several years too.  It's amazing how well they know each other's work and process.  In the course of two days there were maybe two dozen times that they had to communicate instructions or questions to one another verbally - always on very specific things.  It was fascinating watching them roll back and forth from one station at the board to another, passing off control to one another without the tiniest outward cue.  Initially I couldn't even tell who was 'in control' at any given moment, but I clued in soon enough.  Though I never did pick up how they managed to pass it off without stepping on each other's toes.

The foley (which had been recorded by Joe and another technician - Jean - who we did not meet, and mixed by Joe) was great - and with SO many group scenes could not have been an easy job.  Nailing the specifics of it was often surprizing - the exciting flourishes that called attention to details that might otherwise get missed.  (Case in point that will mean nothing to anyone who hasn't seen the movie - the ratchet on the Princess's fishing-float 'ear-ring'.)

Watching (and more to the point, listening) to Kelly re-edit dialogue and music on the fly was very cool too.  At one point he took an edit that Mike had done that had seemed passable at the time and re-edited it seamlessly and with flourish that left us feeling kind of sheepish.  His other work was equally well executed, but if I get to every specific I'll be here forever.

The same can be said for Bill.  Several times he was put in a position of having to create new effects out of whole cloth, or adjust the sound edits of CG that had been massaged.  Suffice to say that all this only adds to the degree that I'll be thanking Bill for the rest of our days.

And then there is the music...

We have two different composers on the film - Luke (who was also our Location Sound Mixer) and Phil.  In general Luke dealt with the grittier sounds and Phil with the emotionally delicate sections.  Luke's music is more guitar driven, while Phil is more orchestral.  Both ventured into maritime sounds and into each other's prime territory - Phil does have a guitar-centred theme that pops up twice in the film and Luke nails the emotional drive of several important scenes - elevating one in particular (so hard to talk directly about this without giving spoilers) from heart-breaking to tragic.  Both of them did a great job and at times surprised me with how much they were able to bring to the table.  The temp music was effective, but the music that has been tailored for our specific moments makes such a spectacular difference.

And this is to say nothing of the two songs added to the film by The Pucks.  One of which Kelly found himself bopping to long after it was over.  One was written for the film and appears 3/4 of the way through - the other is our end credit sequence and was a most fortuitous find.  (Both songs are on their latest album, Martha.)

It was also the first time I got to see the film on a big screen - and while it was a low-res version that was playing 'hot', it was pretty cool to see the film so close to how it will be in it's idealized final version.  Indeed, the 'money shot' of the film - with the sound effects added was something I was not prepared for.  I had only ever seen temporary versions on laptops.  Last night at 9pm, if the audio had not been turned up to eleven, I would have been heard to mutter "Oh my god..." under my breath.  It was a good thing.  It was also hardly the only time.  The confluence of sound, finalized effects that I was seeing for the first time, and seeing the film twenty-feet tall was inspiring.  Expriencing the build up to the set-piece scene that Keith sold the film to me on was fantastic.  The characters are getting excited, there is a flurry of activity, the music is pulling the viewer along whether they like it or not... I couldn't help getting caught up in a scene I've seen dozens of times before.  Truth be told, I think I might have been more excited for the characters than I was playing one of those same characters in the same moments we were acting.

When all was said and done I was a bit overcome.  Even though we had pretty much watched the film in clips 10-90 seconds long at a time, the impact was apparent, and the enormity of the gift that had been given to us by Sharpe hit me like a tonne of bricks.  As I thanked the guys for their effort, the value they had added right at the end of what has been the work of over a decade in total hit me.  I had to stop talking, or I probably would have lost it and made a fool of myself.

Anyhow... it was pretty much the end of creativity on this film - and that in itself is a relief.  The work left to do is nominal.  By this time next week, apart from finalizing the end credits, we will have a finished movie.  Really, so far as I am concerned, I am no longer making a movie - I have made one.

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