by scott aruti
The 1978 film Superman is a landmark in surround sound — it was the first film released with stereo surround channels. Part of the truth in the movie’s tagline — “You will believe a man can fly” — came from the fact that you could hear him “fly” around you. Now, the film is ready to come into people’s homes on DVD with an modernized surround soundtrack, bringing it up-to-date with today’s technology.
The person focusing on the mission of bringing Superman’s sound into the 21st century is Jay Nierenberg, supervising sound editor of SoundStorm. Surround Professional caught up with Nierenberg to discover just what was involved in the Superman project, and what kind of obstacles presented a challenge for him during the remix sessions.
“The remix of Superman presented a unique challenge for me,” says Nierenberg. “There were what seemed at times endless possibilities for new and improved sound design. Yet, I realized early on that I would be responsible for preserving much of the original sound. Fans of the original would apparently be very unhappy with us for ‘changing’ anything. Of course, the original masters were practically unusable.”
It was Nierenberg and team SoundStorm’s primary goal to evaluate the condition of the film’s original 70mm six track print master — and any other mix masters that were discovered during this period of re-building the movie’s audio tracks. After doing their best to properly read the tones on these 22 year-old mag masters, Nierenberg and team played them back on a mixing stage at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, CA. What they discovered was that the condition of that 70mm 6-track was surprisingly good in certain areas and shockingly poor in others. Nierenberg was instructed to use as much of this master as possible in his remix as a base element; the result, as he later discovered, turned out to be a mixed blessing.
According to Nierenberg, the only other final mix masters that were recovered from the original London facility that housed Superman’s sound material were mono stems. “These were depressingly inadequate by today’s standards, but I needed to use the dialog stem extensively because it was the only source of separated dialog available to me,” he explains. “Actually, the situation was kind of interesting; we did find some miscellaneous boxes of mag that turned out to be elements from an early temp dub. We stole from these whenever possible because, for some reason, the quality was slightly better. One of the problems with those elements, though, was that this temp didn’t include most of the ADR that is present in the final. After some searching, a portion of the original ADR 1/4-inch rolls were found, and so we looked for some specific lines that would help us reconstruct some scenes using the temp dub track. Some were found, but most were not.”
After hearing how poorly the Superman stems sounded (as Nierenberg described it, “thin, noisy, almost distorted at times”), team SoundStorm realized that the dialog elements for their remix would be a real puzzle to solve. It seemed it would take more than standard mixing console EQ to correct these problems. SoundStorm’s approach in this case was two-pronged. First, Nierenberg completed research on the most current audio restoration techniques being used. He called in Greg Geddes, owner/operator of Novastar Digital Services post audio facility in Hollywood, CA, and asked him to conduct tests on the dialog stems using any and all techniques at his disposal. The results were encouraging, and Geddes and his people took over work on the stems for the entire project.
For the second part of their two-pronged approach, the SoundStorm team then determined exactly where they could (and couldn’t) use the original 6-track print master, since the dialog from this element sounded much better than the stem. Nierenberg and crew then built all the dialog like this using elements from four different sources — indeed defining and tackling the challenges of their “puzzle.”
There were, of course, many parts of Superman where Nierenberg and his team couldn’t use the print master at all due to the complexity of the sound effects remix. “All of the big action sequences and special sound design moments were remixed from scratch using all-new sound effects and sound design created at SoundStorm,” explains Nierenberg. “I took very special care to match the original sounds — not the audio quality of these sounds (after all, the point of this entire project was to create a 5.1 mix worthy of today’s theaters and DVD players) — but the ‘essence’ and ‘character’ of them. With regard to the less subjective sound effects, such as the sequences with the trains, the airplane, the helicopter, crashes, missiles, earthquakes, and the like, we searched through our extensive library for just the right elements. We were looking for sounds that would bring Superman into the 21st century, yet at the same time remain loyal to the original material.”
When it came time to remix the audio sequences for the pure sound design elements such as the Krypton environments, the Fortress Of Solitude, and the Superman flying scenes, it was necessary for SoundStorm to go a step further. Nierenberg asked his sound designers, Tim Walston, Tim Gedemer, and Charles Deenen, to closely examine the original sounds and even break them down to determine exactly how to re-create them to sound the same — only with a much superior audio quality.
SoundStorm spent nearly three weeks pre-dubbing special effects for the Superman project; there were literally hundreds of units prepared per reel, separated into hard effects, background effects, Foley (new Foley was recorded for many sections), and design. Some reels ended up boasting as many as 20 special effects pre-dubs. The final took Nierenberg and his team at SoundStorm almost three weeks to complete, not including making Dolby Digital and SR print masters and new M&E print masters for two different versions of the movie (the original cut for the re-release and the re-edit including additional footage for the DVD).
Nierenberg sums up the logistics of the film’s final mix and his thoughts on what contributed to making the Superman 5.1 soundtrack such a success: “The implications of the soundtrack’s final mix actually began with a surprising discovery made in London — the original mixdowns (6-track mag masters) from the original John Williams scoring sessions. These were actually in great shape and sounded wonderful when we played them back on the Warner Brothers scoring stage. They were immediately digitized into Pro Tools and given to the music editor on the project. He re-cut every cue from these mixdowns and we were able to remix virtually all the music in the end. This was definitely a tremendous accomplishment and huge part of making the new 5.1 mix brilliant. I must also credit a number of individuals who contributed to this ‘high-flying’ success: music editor Bob Garrett, re-recording mixers Dan Leahey (FX) and Steve Pederson (dialog and music), and Special Edition re-release and DVD producer and editor Michael Thau.”
For more details, call Jay Nierenberg of SoundStorm at 818-558-3300, or visit www.soundstorm.com.