Sync Tanks - Part Two

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. In this, the second installment of Elisabeth Weis' articles we explore ADR and beyond.  Next month in the final installment we pick up scratch mixes and temp tracks.

ADR   
Dialog that cannot be salvaged from production tracks must be rerecorded in a process called looping or ADR (which is variously said to stand for "automated" or "automatic" dialog replacement). Looping originally involved recording an actor who spoke lines in sync to "loops" of the image which were played over and over along with matching lengths of recording tape. ADR, though faster, is still painstaking work. An actor watches the image repeatedly while listening to the original production track on headphones as a guide. The actor then re-performs each line to match the wording and lip movements. Actors vary in their ability to achieve sync and to recapture the emotional tone of their performance. Some prefer it. Marion Brando, for instance, likes to loop because he doesn't like to freeze a performance until he knows its final context. People have said that one reason he mumbles is to make the production sound unusable so that he can make adjustments in looping.  

ADR is usually considered a necessary evil but Bochar has found there are moments when looping can be used not just for technical reasons but to add new character or interpretation to a shot. "Just by altering a few key words or phrases an actor can change the emotional bent on a scene."  

Sound Effects   
Dialog editors are usually considered problem solvers rather than creative contributors, but there's considerable room for artistic input in choosing and editing sound effects. For one thing, sound effects tracks are normally built from scratch. We would not want to hear everything that really could be heard in a given space, Even if it were possible to record only the appropriate noise on the set while the film is being shot, it wouldn't sound right psychologically. Sound is very subjective and dependent upon the visual context and the mood set up in the image. The soundtrack of real life is too dense for film. In the real world, our minds select certain noises and filter out others. For instance, we mentally foreground the person speaking to us even if the background is louder. On film, the sound effects editors and rerecording mixers have to focus for us.  

Focusing on selected sounds can create tension, atmosphere, and emotion. It can also impart personality to film characters. Walter Murch (the doyen of sound designers) once described the character sounds (in a film he directed) as "coronas" which can magnify each character' s screen space. A figure who is associated with a particular sound (often suggested by his or her clothing), has "a real presence that is pervasive even when the scene is about something else or the character is off-screen."   

Indeed, sound is a major means to lend solidity and depth to the two- dimensional screen image. Furthermore, new digital release formats allow filmmakers to literally "place" sounds at various locations throughout the theater. Thus sound can expand space, add depth, and locate us within the scene.  

A crucial difference between visual and aural manipulation of the audience is that even sophisticated audiences rarely notice the soundtrack. Therefore it can speak to us emotionally and almost subconsciously put us in touch with a screen character. In a film like Hitchcock' s The Birds, for example, any time we see a bird we know we are being titillated. But by merely adding a single "caw" to the soundtrack on occasion, Hitch was able to increase the tension without our being aware of his manipulation.  

To understand the manipulability of effects it is useful to know how effects tracks are created. A regular source of effects is a stock library, where sounds are stored on CD. The rest have to be recorded or combined from several sources. Foley is the "looping" of sound effects by a specialized department in a studio designed for watching the picture and creating the sounds at the same time. The process is named after its developer, legendary sound man Jack Foley of Universal. Because virtually all footsteps are replaced, a Foley stage usually includes several pits with different sounding surfaces on which the Foley artist will walk in time to the one or more characters he or she is watching. Clothing rustle (another sound we never notice until it's missing) and the movement of props such as dishes are likely to be recorded here as well. Even kisses are Foleyed. A steamy sex scene was probably created by a Foley artist making dispassionate love to his or her own wrist. The Foley crew will include the artist or "walker," who makes the sound, and a technician or two to record and mix it.  

Foley needn't be a slavish duplication of the original object. The sound crew can characterize actors by the quality of the sounds they attribute to them--say, what type of shoes they wear. To attribute some subtle sleaziness' to Nicolas Cage's lawyer in It Could Happen to You, Michael Kirchberger's Foley crew sonically added a squeaky shoe and rattling pocket change as Red Buttons walks around the courtroom. It's the opposite shoe of the one that squeaked in Jerry Lewis movies, says Kirchberger.  

Usually the more exotic--less literal--sounds are created by the effects staff. According to Murch, "That's part of the art of sound effects. You try to abstract the essential quality of a sound and figure out the best way to record that, which may not be to use the thing itself but something else." Thus, some sounds have nothing to do with the original source--the real thing would be unconvincing. Mimi Arsham, who worked on Ben-Hur, reports that the sound of a whip cracking was actually a hefty steak being slapped on a thigh.  

Most sounds need processing (fiddling with). The most common strategy is to start with a sound made by a source that is the same as or similar to what was photographed and then to distort it. One simple method is to slow it down or speed it up. Two other common processing tricks are to choose just part of the frequency spectrum or to run a sound backwards. As far back as 1933 the original sound man at RKO created King Kong's voice by playing backwards the roar of a lion he recorded at the San Diego Zoo. Today digital editing techniques have vastly expanded the possibilities: a sound editor feeds a sample of a sound into a computer, which can then manipulate it and provide a whole range of sounds from the original. One powerful tool is the Synclavier, which combines a computer sampler and a keyboard that can play a sound (or sounds) assigned to any of seventy-three keys with the stroke of a finger.  

New sounds can also be created by mixing disparate sources. In order to accentuate the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword, the final close-up of the typewriter keys pounding out the Watergate expose in All the President's Men combines gunfire with the sound of clacking typewriter keys.  

Many of today's sound effects are "stacked"; they are layers of combined sounds from different sources that often begin organically but are processed digitally. Kirchberger reports that he created the roar of the Komodo Dragon in The Freshman by starting with tapes of vultures recorded for Ishtar. The sound was processed, added to other sounds including a pig, and then vocalized through digital sampling. "I knew we had something that was vaguely reptilian. What made it 'talk' was altering the pitch as we played back the stacked sample. That gave it the vocalization we needed, as opposed to its being just a screech or a caw."  

Much of the freedom in sound design comes when making horror or science fiction films, where stylization is the norm. Most sonic sources are hard to identify unless we see them--and films of the fantastic have sources we have never heard in real life. So there is great latitude in deciding how something should sound.  

However technically sophisticated the equipment that processes sound, the original source can be quite mundane. Gary Rydstrom, the lead sound designer at Skywalker, likes to challenge listeners to a game of "name that sound," that is, to guess the sources of his sounds- -exotic noises he created from prosaic origins. One favorite tool, he says, is air compressed in a can. The source of the "sliming" noise in Ghostbusters, for example, is Dust-Off sprayed into Silly Putty. He is also proud of the sound of the mercury-like character (T-1000) passing through steel bars in Terminator II. Seeking a sound that was part liquid, part solid, Rydstrom came up with the sound of dog food being extruded from a can.  

The majority of the sound crew are not brought onto a picture until it is "locked," that is, the image is finalized. On films where sound is considered a major creative element, directors may hire a sound designer like Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, The Godfather) or Skip Lievsay (who creates sound for the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, and David Lynch). "Sound designer" is an elusive term which can refer to a person brought on to create just one kind of effect (for example, Bochar was hired late in the postproduction of Wolf just to create the effects that accompanied Nicholson turning into a beast). In some cases, however, sound designers are thought of as artists who are brought on staff during the planning stages of a film, along with the set and costume designers, and who do their own mixing. In these instances, the sound designer works with the director to shape an overall, consistent soundtrack that exploits the expressive possibilities of the sound medium, is organically related to the narrative and thematic needs of the film, and has an integrity not possible if sound is divided among an entire bureaucracy. A case in point would be Jurassic Park, where Gary Rydstrom first designed the sounds of the dinosaurs and then models were built to match those roars.  

On the average A-picture the first postproduction sound person brought onto the film is the supervising sound editor, who not only directs and coordinates the creative contributions of the postproduction sound staff but also must handle all the related administrative duties like scheduling mixes.  

Although the supervising sound editors are usually not consulted during shooting, in the best of all possible worlds they are in touch with the location sound recordist during and after the shoot so that their work can be coordinated. Bochar feels strongly that his work should start early on: "To me the whole adage is that postproduction begins the first day of production."  

Like most filmmakers, sound personnel work under extreme time constraints. One way for them to get a headstart is to work on a picture one reel at a time. Thus, if a director and editor are satisfied with reels two and three, they can send them on to the sound editors while they are still solving picture problems on other reels. 

Next month in the conclusion, Scratch Mixes and Temp Tracks