Digital Beer Mats

One reason celluloid has survived so long is that it’s a universal standard. You can show a 35mm print running at 24 frames per second in any country around the world. It’s simple and straightforward. Essentially you just hold it up to a light source. Put the same movie on a disc and you end up with a coaster. The same can be said of any other file too. Digits are a means to an analog end.

Yesterday should have been the sound mix for The Car. I got to Mosaic about ten minutes late but Peter was working on something else anyway so I had to wait. No worries. I opened up the PowerBook and played around with the credits. It had only occured to me the day before that I’d have to give Dolby a credit, a condition for doing a Dolby encoded surround mix.

So, new credit added, although it looks like a digital freak in amongst the other credits which were cunningly crafted by printing them on sheets of paper and sticking them in front of a clockwork camera. Hey, I bet you didn’t know a clockwork camera only runs for 19 seconds, by the way. No, neither did I. I do now. The other thing I didn’t know was the benefit of putting through 100 feet of film as a test roll at the lab. Test rolls are free. I paid the minimum charge of £100. Drat.

I tool around and eventually Peter’s other project reaches its conclusion. The happy-go-movie fee-paying types leave the studio and we get everything copied over to a Jaz drive. Then we go round the corner to another company, Lipsync, where we’re doing the Dolby mix. They’re busy, we wait. Peter mentions something about a 48 hour film making project which happened last weekend. I make a mental note when he says both he and his son own DV cameras–you never know when you’ll need a camera–and meanwhile I rubberneck the premises.

Lipsync is a truly tasty facility house. They have pictures up on the wall showing some of the fantastic graphics sequences they’ve created. They have glass windows looking into some booths boasting a cornucopia of gadgets. And they keep their reception area stocked with glossy film mags and professional jailbait. No less than three Emma Bunton lookalikes giggle past before a runner appears with tea. In china mugs. Soho swirls soundlessly outside. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The runner returns shortly after to take us to Theatre One where we meet up with Mike the mixer.

Now here’s a thing–a strange thing. I’ve noticed that the more high spec, high tech a facility house gets, the more carpet they seem to have. Peter’s new studio at Mosaic has floor covering which goes half way up the walls, so we know it must be good. But it’s not enough. Lipsync’s carpet goes right to the ceiling. There’s no pulling the rug out from under these guys. It’s all leather sofas, halogen spots and tasteful wood niches which serve to both baffle sound and store manuals. One wall alone stands bare. Actually, it’s not bare at all. It’s completely covered by a projector screen. Directly opposite, across a floor space as big as my lounge, is a huge sound desk and, behind, a raised dias for producers to sit in swivel chairs while fretting over their budgets.

Mike is affable, paunchy and radiates the confidence of a man who knows exactly what he’s about. He has more jailbait on hand to help him. Carol loads Peter’s Jaz disk up on the Mac. She pulls the file across into ProTools. And it doesn’t load. Peter uses a different software and ProTools 6 doesn’t like it. They try another file. They try AudioFile, the software which is in the sound desk. Yes, the desk is another computer. Another assistant appears, this one apparently even younger than Carol, to try converting the file. Heads are scratched. Mike remarks that he’s been working since 7.30. It’s now 5pm. Rebooting the Mac into OS9 doesn’t help. Peter goes off to make more files.

When Peter returns, Carol and Mike manage to get all the audio files loaded into the desk. But not the timeline. This means the computer has a lot of sound clips but it doesn’t know what order to put them in. I dangle. Different people come in to help. I sit quietly in one of the leather chairs, silently fretting and idly wondering why the arms on the chairs don’t have frustrated gouge marks in from clenched nails. After forty minutes of this fun and games, we call it a day.

I should have guessed it would be a nightmare when I saw the sound desk. It looks exactly like the freakish automated monster Michelle used on Fate & Fortune. The nightmare one with all the programmable faders and gizmos. The one which looks impressive when it worked but crashed all the time. I put that jolly thought out of my mind. This isn’t the same studio, the same mixer or the same desk and Mike reschedules time for us on Friday afternoon. We’ll get the mix done, regardless of incompatible, incomprehensible computer files. Yes, as I said at the beginning, that’s why film exhibition keeps on rocking and a’rollin’. Analog rules. Well, for some things at least.

During a lull in file swopping, Mike says, “I miss sprocket holes. There was none of this incompatibility, no way you couldn’t play something back because it happened to be the wrong format.” “Yes,” remarks Peter, “someone came in last week with a project which had a lot of material with an old original soundtrack. You could hear every pop, crackle and drop-out.” Mike winces. “Ah, don’t. I was almost nostalgic for a moment.”

On the way out, we pass the obligatory trophy cabinet. It’s full of certificates and several small golden statuettes of faceless figures. You know the ones. Yes, those ones. The guy doing the mix has his name up there. Which is nice. “We love short film makers,” he says, “They come back later with great professional projects.” We love this attitude. Mike rocks. I don’t think he’ll be too worried that I can’t add any more credits to The Car. Well, we already have an award-winning writer on board. Heh.