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Post Production Journal: Sound for a Short Film
By Carmen Borgia

ď...plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.Ē Dwight D. Eisenhower

Planning for postproduction can be a mystifying process. There are so many variables involved that it may seem pointless to plan anything at all. While there are true-life tales of technical horror and ruined finances, and Iíve been involved in a few, in the end itís usually not so bad. Rather than preach a litany of correct behavior, Iíll take you step by step through the audio post of an actual project with a modest budget. There were enough bumps to make it interesting, so Iíll give it to you straight.

The film is ďWell Fed & ComfortableĒ, written and directed by Lou Howe, a Harvard undergraduate film student who has graciously consented to air his process. All production personnel were undergraduates and volunteers. Louís script was good enough that he was able to cast a top-shelf professional actor, Tony Roberts, in the film.
The usual Harvard undergrad project is shot on 16mm and cut on a flatbed. Lou had done one film this way and found the process satisfying. However, for his thesis project, he wanted to carve out his own path and work with the kinds of systems that are widely used professionally, so he purchased a copy of Final Cut Pro for his laptop. He set out to do as much of the work as possible on his own system, but knew that he would do a video online and a professional sound edit and mix. His goal was to continue working on the film using his own gear after the close of the semester, and to be able to learn as much about current post practices as possible.

He shot his film on 16mm with sound recorded to a Tascam non-time code DAT machine. Slates were done the old fashioned way, with a clapper. Lou shot his film in New York City over several weekends; that and the distance from Cambridge resulted in different people crewing on each day of shooting.

Things were going well until the imposition of a true New York moment. At the end of a shooting day, some one stole the sound bag with the DAT machine from Louís car. The machine had the tape with the dayís sound in it, and the audio was lost. Of course, this was the day with Tonyís scenes. Lou decided to defer the problem to post and ADR the scenes. The rest of the shoot went as planned, with the usual mix of good and not so good recording quality that tends to accompany student productions.

Lou transferred the film dailies to Digibeta masters MOS and dubbed to DVCam for editing in his Final Cut Pro system. He checked out another DAT machine from the Harvard production office and plugged it into his Mac via a thirty-five dollar iMic interface, through which he transferred the audio for editing. He synchronized his dailies in FCP and then began cutting his film. He wasnít particularly happy with the overall sound quality, but assumed that it was inherent to the production recordings and went ahead with the edit.

At this point Lou called on me to engage in some complimentary audio post supervision. We discussed the missing sound and the cost and effort involved in replacing the dialogue. I explained that looping a scene with no production sound as a reference would probably result in poor sync, and asked if he might be able to re-shoot the scene. He discussed it with Tony, who did not have the time to re-shoot, but felt he could do the ADR in an hour or two. We also planned the rest of the audio post at that time allowing 2-3 days in total for ADR, sound editing, and Foley as well as a day for the mix.
We started with the ADR. Because he had edited the two problem scenes with no sound whatever, Lou wanted to bring the ADR selects back into his FCP system to sync and be sure the cut still worked before proceeding with the rest of the post. One of the big problems with looping an MOS scene is determining the actual lines the actors spoke on the set. Lou reviewed the shooting script and spent an evening scrutinizing each mouth movement to determine the exact lines spoken. He got ninety percent of it figured out, and would consult with the actors for the rest during the session.

As the ADR date approached, I discussed the project with DuArt sound designer and mixer Kevin Wilson. An experienced dubbing engineer, he knew whatever was looped would also require the addition of detailed ambience and effects, including Foley of all movements. A couple of days before dubbing, Lou provided Kevin with final picture on tape for the two scenes we had to loop. We digitized the picture into Pro Tools and we were ready to begin.

We did separate looping sessions with Tony Roberts and then Mike Hoagland, the other actor in the two scenes. It took about 4 hours to do the thirty or so lines. Both actors were well prepared and supplied all of the energy necessary to make the scenes work. With the addition of Foley and ambience, we all felt that that the ADR would be undetectable.

Around that time, I met with Lou in Central Park to do some field recording on the Fostex FR2. We got some great stereo ambiences that perfectly fit the looped scenes, as well as wild sounds of joggers and close micíed footsteps. This location-specific sound would be essential to help the ADR play transparently. The flash card format of the FR2 meant that I was able to log all takes in the field and transfer them by USB as wav files into our Pro Tools system. Zippity zip!

Then we discovered another problem. Kevin noticed pervasive noise in the OMF that Lou gave us from his Final Cut system, so we set up an A/B test. When we listened to the original production DAT against the sound from Final Cut, we were distressed. The iMic hardware that Lou had used to load in his audio was not of high enough quality for the post process. Though the audio was at full resolution 48 Khz, the quantization noise from the cheap converters was clearly audible to all of us when compared to the original DATís. Rather than try to de-noise it, which would have added artifacts, we chose to re-import the DATís as sound files in Pro Tools, and then give the files to Lou to re-sync in FCP.

After re-transferring the DATís and handing them off to Lou, he called me to tell he had found the sound from one of the missing scenes! There was no sound report from the production mixer, a fellow student, and there were no logs for the missing tapes. When Lou listened to the sound files from the newly transferred DATís, he heard the elusive voices of Tony and Mike. The embarrassment of poor logging aside, we were very happy that the original takes had been located. Kevin chose to use production sound on the newfound scene instead of the ADR, which meant we now had only one looped scene. Since we had not yet done the Foleys, it saved us a bit of recording and editing time.

We did the video online and the sound work at the same time. We figured that Kevin could get through the editing in two days, and the mix would take less than a day. We knew that the mix might go a bit long due to the ADR, which requires a more detailed approach.

The big day finally arrived, and Kevin and Lou started mixing on a Pro Tools HD3 system with a Control24 mixing surface. Kevin used a favorite tool, the Cedar DNS1000, to de-noise the sound from a couple of troublesome scenes with high levels of traffic noise. In one scene, a few of the lines recorded off mic didnít blend in well. He programmed a reverb from the Waves Renaissance plug-in to help smooth it out. In an unusual scene that takes place inside a tent in an apartment during a party, he cheated the music down to emphasize the emotional space in the tent.

Kevin said, ďLou had a clear vision of what he wanted, which made the mix easy because he could make decisions quickly.Ē Kevin also noted that the editing and particularly the A/B test, where he pinpointed the badly transferred audio, was a real lifesaver. ďIf we had been trying to figure that out and clean it up during the mix, it would have taken a lot longer and certainly wouldnít have sounded as good in the end.Ē
Lou felt good about the mix. He particularly enjoyed the collaboration, and felt comfortable speaking up to get what he needed. We mixed the film in stereo and finished it on Digibeta for theatrical screening at Soho House in New York, where the invited crowd had a visibly good time. Lou is in the submission zone now sending the piece off for festival consideration. I believe it will get some good play.

I asked Lou what heíll take away from the project. He said that he made a lot of mistakes and learned from all of them. I would add that despite the technical problems, he ended up with a great little film. The writing and acting are excellent; the film plays well sonically and visually. He may have ultimately figured out all of his problems on his own, but I think that his decision to use a post facility for finishing work was a good one as we were able to help him resolve some accumulated technical issues. Although there were a number of wrinkles to iron out, the budget didnít get out of hand. He ended up spending a bit more for the re-transfer of the DATís, but the rest came out in the wash.
Ok. So, things didnít go exactly as Lou originally planned. All told, I would say that this project was on the difficult side of average in terms of technical issues. But with the dizzying selection of workflows out there, itís unusual to have a project that doesnít have some kind of quirk. The important thing is that we got it done right, and now the film is out there finding its audience.

................................................................................................................

Carmen Borgia is the head of audio services for DuArt Film & Video in New York City. He oversees a post production sound department that provides mixing, sound design, restoration, transfer and printmastering. His department caters to independent projects in all formats from mono optical up to digital 5.1.

 

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