I Think I Hear An Echo… Echo… Echo…

Sound mixing should be one of the most creatively satisfying parts of film making. The one I did last year wasn’t. Yesterday’s was. The trials and tribulations of what I did last year are elsewhere on this board–mixing desk crashes, missing sounds, inability to use effects processors, tracks all over the place and a general pointblank refusal to put things on the channels I wanted.

Yesterday’s session actually began on Wednesday with a couple of hours spent tidying up the tracks with the rerecording mixer. During this, I asked (and not for the first time) for certain specific sound effects, including various animal growls, a new train siren, train interior atmosphere, car screeching to a halt and so on.

The pre-mix process also involved tweaking the levels of some things and we moved the music around a few frames here and there to get the cues to work exactly. In fact, I phoned the composer who came in and got everything spot on.

Also while I’m there a chap comes and introduces himself, “Hello, I’m Colin. I’ll be doing the mixing for you tomorrow.” Hang on, I thought Peter was doing the mixing. No we’ve moved. We’re in Colin’s studio now and Peter and I are going to supervise everything. Oh, okay. I wonder what this will mean in practical terms until Peter shows me the studio later. What’s impressive are all the BAFTA award certificates on the wall outside with Colin’s name on. ‘Nuff said.

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Yesterday I went in early and checked out the tweaks and changes I’d asked Peter to make. Not only was it good, but it was very good. Very very good. For example, there’s a train siren which startles the character at the beginning of the film, causing him to knock off his hearing aid which he then treads on, breaking it and rendering himself deaf. A lot of the story follows from this so it’s an important plot point.

The original sound editor hadn’t included a train siren at all. Despite being asked several times. Despite being told why it was important. Nope. No sound effect. So our hero just knocks off his aid for no reason and then treads on it. The first rerecording mixer did actually find a siren effect. It was useless. One of those sirens that rises up from nothing and then fades out again. Not shocking or startling in any way.

Yesterday, Peter had done this: the siren was a harsh ‘Beeeep Beep!’ then the hearing aid comes off with a wooshing sound and then there’s a loud ‘Crunch!’ followed by a whistling noise and no other sound, to represent a hearing problem. Not only does the sequence work, but it has a rhythm: Beeeep Beep, stagger, Wooooosh, Crunch! Honestly, this is not just what I wanted, it’s better.

There are now animal growls in the van of the guy supposed to be transporting wild animals, establishing their presence. There’s a purring sound over the woman rubbing herself over her car, establishing that she’s nuts about it. The train interior shot actually has the noise of a train as well as a heartbeat effect (added by the original sound editor to make it feel more tense but he didn’t include train atmos, bizarrely). In short, Peter’s made lots of little things work.

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So, through the two soundproof doors and into the more money than I can afford rerecording studio which consists of several comfy black leather chairs facing a large projection screen, surround speakers and, in the middle of this tastefully appointed room, a large computerised desk–11,000 computer controlled motorised faders and other parts. Yes, for all you geeks, that’s 11,000 things which could go wrong.

We have to wait a bit because another guy, also called Colin, is also mixing a short film with Colin the rerecording mixer. Colin’s project, New Year’s Eve, has been the victim of a computer crash and somewhere somehow it’s muted out three lines of dialogue. I watch while they’re put in.

New Year’s Eve has been shot on Super16 and looks very classy. I’m impressed. My peers are actually working to a much higher standard than I thought so winning competitions isn’t going to be as easy as I might have believed.

The scene they’re working on looks like something straight out of a typical British romantic comedy. There’s a couple in a garden and the man in a suit is expressing regret that he’s forgotten the name of the girl he’s talking to. She doesn’t give him any help but sits there making him feel smaller and smaller. It’s very well written, great dialogue, well observed and engagingly played.

Then it cuts to a scene where people are wearing dinner jackets (tuxedos), bow ties and have Hugh Grant’s foppish hair style and manner. Colin will go far. In fact, he’ll go further now because I gave him the website addresses for Cannes and withoutabox, the festival entry site. He hadn’t actually planned on entering. Doh. I’ve helped the competition. Doh doh doh.

Mind you, wait ’til he has to pay for a 35mm blow up from super16. Haa haa!

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At last we start mixing Fate & Fortune. Colin, the mixer, plays the film through for the first five minutes. “You haven’t made it simple, have you?” he grins. “You know you enjoy a challenge,” Peter grins back.

The first sound is a rushing wooshing effect which I want to come from the back of the theatre to the front. We’ve laid down the tracks for the surround channels on two specific tracks. All Colin the mixer has to do is raise a fader on these. Oh, and get the level right at the right time and a hundred invisible things that are a result of his experience. Anyway, it takes him no time at all. Woooosh, woooosh, woooosh! We’re in.

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I foresaw two real snags with mixing (not counting computer crashes, which fortunately didn’t happen to us anyway yesterday). One is a scene in a car showroom which we filled with smoke on location and turned into something resembling a shrine with Toyota’s finest bearing down on it in a semi-circle. The second is a scene where the lead actress is scrubbing a floor in a takeaway and keeps going out to stroke, pet and kiss her new car, ignoring her whining boss until she eventually drapes herself languidly over the bonnet. (Yes, I am strange.)

The first scene is actually just a few shots with choreographed tracking leading into a medium two shot. However, the sound is very complex. There’s dialogue and sync sound on the centre channel. There’s music on the front stereo tracks. And there’s a disturbing whispering noise like something out of The Omen coming from all round. Together it adds up to something resembling The Addams Family crossed with Carry On Screaming.

This scene, as I expected, does take a bit of work but eventually we get the balance right and I think it manages to walk the fine line between dark humour and social comment on the (frighteningly necessary) evils of cars. It ends with a close up of a toy bear swinging from the driver’s mirror and a growling sound which overlaps a cut into the next scene and a close up of a stuffed wolf. All very jolly.

The other scene is more of a headache but I haven’t got the time, and more importantly the money, to sit and procrastinate. I have to make decisions. Snap snap snap. Don’t think. Just do. The problem with this scene is three-fold.

One, I’ve previously brought back the actor who played the kebab shop owner (Lou Dikros, geddit?) to revoice his lines for a better performance. This is called audio dub recording (ADR) where he matches his own lip-sync on screen and we rerecord his words. The trouble with this is, the sync sound actually has reverb on it–the echoes from the walls, ceiling and other surfaces you’d get in all rooms. The room acoustic. The ADR has none of this. So we’ve got to add it by processing it through an effects box.

Two, I want the music to take over the scene so we become as lost as the lead character (Marge) in her car-obsessed fantasy. This means that Lou’s words should become lost, like the teacher who sounds like a blah blahing horn in Charlie Brown or something. The scene is really a dance, to my mind, with Marge nipping outside to stroke her car everytime Lou leaves her alone and then coming back in to scrub the floor just in time for his return.

Three, given that the scene is really about Marge and the car, I should have got more coverage on her so that I could play it on her reactions more. [Sidenote: I was watching Alien this week and notice the whole chest burst sequence is all played on character reactions up to the point where John Hurt starts choking. There’s very little sync.] Anyway, I didn’t have the stock to shoot like that, so there’s lots of shots of Lou talking, which means it will look odd if we start processing his voice with effects to make him sound more irrelevant.

The solution to all of these has to be one or maybe two things to cover all the bases. What we come up with is a reverb effect on some of Lou’s lines which gets more exaggerated as the scene goes on. We also bring him down in the mix and bring the music up. We bring car sounds and other atmos down too.

I say “we come up” with this. Actually, the experts just smile at me and say, “Well, what would you like?” and I have to come up with the answers based on what I know. That’s often the way, by the way. You ask people to be creative and if it’s really bizarre they throw it back at you, the director, to sort out. Which is entirely right.

So we’ve got Lou sounding as though he’s talking from the end of a long tunnel, which is eventually the description I came up with that Colin could understand and dial up something for on the effects box. He actually found a reverb called ‘stairwell’ which could be configured for the audio being processed to sound like it was coming from a space with a variable number of floors. Colin used 21.

That’s nearly enough but not quite. I suggested we add an echo effect to the end of Lou’s lines, so they continue to hang there after he’s left and we cut back to Marge. “It used to be white, you know… you know… you know… you know…” Fortunately this studio has more than one effects box and we can do it. It works. We can now see (in my opinion) Marge’s indifference to Lou’s words and the madcap kind of dance she has going on between her car and the shop.

The rest of the sound mix is pretty much a matter of getting the balance right. Making things louder or softer and varying things in relation to each other. At the end I’m really pleased and we make two Dolby SR encoded DAT’s, one for the optical neg and one to send to the telecine people to put on the video. Hopefully those things will be done today.

Before I leave, I see Peter’s working on another short, this one directed by a cameraman. It’s a 26 minute period drama set in Ireland. It is absolutely beautifully shot. I’m going to compete with this person and other Colin for work? Oh wow! Best not to think about that. For now I have to crack on with updating my website and getting publicity postcards made.

It’s all go.

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