Sync Tanks - Part Three

SyncTankImageWith soundtracks much more dense than in the past, the present generation of moviemakers has seen an exponential growth in the number of people who work on the sound after the film has been shot. Last month in the second installment of Elisabeth Weis' articles we explored ADR and beyond.  In this, the final installment we pick up scratch mixes and temp tracks.

Scratch Mixes/Temp Tracks   
Today the tendency is to bring the supervising editor on earlier and earlier. The main reason is the changing demands for sound in early screenings. According to Kirchberger, this practice has engendered the greatest changes in the logistics of postproduction sound in the last two decades.  

As Lottman describes it, "On most A-pictures a sound editor will come on some time before the picture gets locked. You can't put them on too soon; that's too expensive. But you put them on, say, before the first screening. Now there's this big trend towards scratch mixes at screenings. Most directors don't want to screen a picture for anybody unless it has a complete and full soundtrack--a temp track with temporary sounds, temporary music and dialog to give the audience a preview of what the final, polished soundtrack will be like. They'll try to iron out a dialog scene where the sound shifts dramatically from cut to cut. They didn't use to do this at all. Now they do it on any mid- to high budget film. You try to keep it simple: you have just one sound editor and an assistant, perhaps."  

Because of demands for scratch mixes the sound editors are under greater time constraints than ever. By the first scratch mix, the editors must have cleaned up noticeable sound-image problems and supplied the major effects. Yet this is also the best time to introduce their most inventive ideas, while directors and producers are still open to experimentation.  

One result of scratch mixes is that they become weeding-out processes. During this stage sound editors, given the time, have a certain amount of latitude to present creative options to the director. One downside, says Kirchberger, is that if the director likes parts of the scratch mix, those sounds may never be refined even though they were just presented as a sketch.  

Music   
Like the Foley crew, the music personnel are a discrete department. The composer may be brought in as early as the first cut to discuss with the director and editor the general character of the music and its placement in the film.  

The person who spends the longest time on the scoring is the supervising music editor. It is the job of the music editor to spot every cue, that is, to make a precise list of timings--to the split second-- for each appearance and "hit" (point of musical emphasis) of the music. In addition, the editor will log all the concomitant action and dialog during each cue. The composer then has about six weeks to come up with a score. The supervising music editor will set up recording sessions, which for, say, thirty minutes of music, take four to five days. Each set of instruments has its own microphone and track so that scoring mixers can balance them.  

Apart from esthetic issues, film music composers must deal with particular technical requirements. For the sake of clarity, a film composer must orchestrate with instruments that do not overlap much with the frequency of the human voice or any dominant sound effects to be heard at the same time. In theory, composers keep in mind any anticipated noises for a sequence so that the music and effects aren't working at cross purposes. In practice, music editors often serve as master tacticians caught between the work of the sound editors and the composer who says: "Dump those goddamn sound effects!"   

The scoring is also affected by the need for scratch mixes, for which the music editor has had to select temporary music. This may be a counter-productive trend. The editor will probably use music that was composed for an earlier film. As the producers and directors get used to their temporary track they often want something similar, so the composer is inadvertently rewarded for not straying far from what has already proved successful.  

One of the more positive changes in scoring practices has been made possible through computer programs and synthesizers for musicians. Instead of presenting their ideas to the director at a piano, composers can now present them in a form "orchestrated" with simulations of different instruments.  

Re-recording (The Mix)   
The climactic moment of postproduction sound is called the "mix" in New York and the "dub" in L.A. On the screen the credit goes to a re-recording mixer, but that term is rarely heard in daily parlance, says Lottman; "If we said we were going to a rerecording mix, they' d laugh."   

At the mix all the tracks--singly called elements--are adjusted in volume and tonal quality relative to each other and the image. (At some mixes the music editor and effects editors may be sitting at the "pots" controlling their subsets of tracks.) During the mix the director and/or picture editor will decide with the mixer which sounds should be emphasized. A composer can find that a particularly inspired fugue has been dropped in one scene in favor of sound effects or dialog. However much effort the composer and effects editors may have put into their creations, their efforts are sub-sentient to the ultimate dramatic impact of the overall sound plus picture.

Asked what makes a good mixer, Bochar says, "The best mixers, like Richard Portman, Lee Dichter, and Tom Fleischman have the ability to leave their egos at the door. No one has to lay claim on the track. Mixing becomes an experience, as opposed to a job and drudgery. When those moments hit, it just Soars."  

The top mixers are orchestrators who create a sonic texture. You can' t have wall-to-wall noise, says Rydstrom; like music, the sound effects have pitch, rhythm, and pace which must be varied to create interest and may be manipulated to raise and lower dramatic tensions.  

The mixer also has to equalize, blend, and balance the tracks for the seamless, invisible style that characterizes Hollywood style cutting. Thus, at a minimum, the mixer must match sounds created by dozens of technicians in different times and places. The engine roar of a 1954 Chevy may include sound obtained from a stock library, recorded on the set, and augmented with new recordings during postproduction. It may have been "sweetened" with synthesized sound. But it has to sound like one car.  

Mixers have a number of tools. Equalizers and filters, for example, can boost or decrease the intensity of low, middle, or high frequencies in order to make dialog or sound effects match those that came from microphones and sources with different characteristics. Filters are also used to eliminate unwanted steady frequencies, such as the buzz of an air conditioner. In dealing with image size, the mixer adjusts perspective (determined mainly by the ratio of direct to indirect or reflected sound), which can be manipulated through the addition of artificial reverberation.  

Great rerecording mixers are artists as much as technicians. The mixers' console is their palette: they have an infinite number of choices for blending. Their tools can be used in expressive ways. For example, an annoying voice can be adjusted to sound more screechy, or the roar of an approaching truck can be made more ominous. At the mix some of the many sound effects are heightened and others are lowered or eliminated. Sounds can be emotionally effective even when they are reduced to near inaudibility. (See, for example, the sidebars on Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia.) And the most eloquent " sound" of all may be silence. In our age of dense soundtracks, the sudden absence of noise can have a stunning impact.  

A mix on an average A-picture combines at least forty to sixty tracks, and perhaps hundreds. Therefore for manageability of dense soundtracks there may be any number of premixes, wherein groups of tracks are combined and equalized in relation to each other. For example, twenty- four tracks of foleys may be boiled down to one or two six-track elements. A typical final mix might begin with seven six-tracks: two six-tracks each for effects and foley, and one each for backgrounds, dialog, and ADR. Dialog is usually mixed first. In Murch's words, "Dialog becomes the backbone of the sound and everything else is fit into place around that."  

Given that a mix costs from $400 to $800 or more an hour, sound editors do as much in advance as possible so that the mixer can worry about the bigger balance rather than hundreds of small adjustments. With track separation, the remixed tracks need not be permanently wed to one another. If at the final mix of a car crash, the director chooses to emphasize one sound of shattering glass, that specific element can still be manipulated if necessary. Often the director or editor is given a choice among several types of sound for a given effect.  

Technology has inevitably affected the esthetics of the mix. A few decades ago, merely pausing to make a correction would create an audible click, so an entire reel had to be mixed in one pass or started over. Then, with the advent of "rock 'n' roll" systems, mixers were able to move back and forth inch by inch. Once consoles became computerized to "remember" all the mixer's adjustments, says Murch, he was able to think in larger units. "You take a sweep through the reel, knowing that there are certain things you're doing that are not perfect. You get the sense of the flow of a ten minute or longer section of film, rather than doing it bit by bit. So you go through in ten minute segments until you've got the basic groundwork for what you want, knowing that there are things wrong in there that you can fix later. It's like a live performance: sometimes there's something that happens spontaneously that way, that you can never get when you're trying to do it inch by inch. Thus automated mixing allows you to work in large sections but it also encourages you to be very finicky about small things and it doesn't penalize you for that."   

The end product of the final mix is not just one printmaster from which domestic exhibition prints are struck; effects, dialog, and music are kept discrete to allow for release in different formats ranging from monaural optical 16mm tracks, to multi-channel digital systems, to foreign versions minus the dialog.  

Directors and Sound   
The soundtrack is perhaps the most collaborative component of filmmaking. It is created by all the personnel mentioned above plus their assistants. Nevertheless, the editor and ultimately the director do call the shots. How do sound personnel communicate with directors?  

There have always been a few directors particularly attuned to the expressive potential of sound; these include Robert Wise, Orson Welles, Robert Altman, and Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock, for one, usually prepared a detailed list of sounds and was actively involved in choosing them. (For the sound of the knife entering the body in Psycho's shower scene, Hitchcock did a blind sound test among different types of melon, finally settling on a casaba.) These sound-sensitive directors often incorporate sound as part of the basic conception of their films. For example, Hitch experimented with expressionistic sound (Blackmail), interior monologues (Murder), subliminal sound (Secret Agent), and electronic sound (in The Birds, which orchestrates computer-generated noises and has no underscoring).  

Other directors do not think creatively about sound but choose personnel who do. These directors may have unerring instincts for the best sound when presented with several specific options. Most directors, however, do not use the expressive potential of the soundtrack and leave sonic decisions up to their staff.  

In general, the younger generation of filmmakers are more savvy than their elders. For one thing, they were part of the revolution in music technologies. For another, they were probably exposed to sound courses in film school. According to Murch the very raison d'etre for Coppola' s team in creating Zoetrope was to have their own sound facility. And a few of today's directors consider sound an equal partner with image. (But even these directors still may have to figure out how to convey their sonic ideas--Jonathan Demme has been to known to ask his sound editors for "something blue.")  

The best way to appreciate the expressive possibilities in an American soundtrack is to study in great detail virtually any movie by the sound-sensitive directors, such as Altman, the Coen brothers (try Barton Fink) or David Lynch, among independents. To find the most interesting soundtracks in other Hollywood productions, check the sound credits. The most respected sound designers and supervisors may be called technicians, but their artistry can be heard in all the films they touch.