There’s a lot of noise coming from your local cineplex this summer, and that’s a good thing. Sure, everyone remarks on the stunning visuals for the season’s blockbusters, but without the sound, there’s no way to immerse yourself in the story. Here, Surround Professional takes a look at two high-profile summer movies — each challenged with creating worlds that viewers have never heard before (all right, they’re both sequels, so maybe the worlds aren’t completely new, but the sound is).
So dim the lights, throw some popcorn on the floor, crank up the AC, and check out these surrounds of summer.
Welcome to the Machine
Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines hits theaters with a sound and sight spectacular. By Perry Sun
One of the most anticipated movies for the 2003 summer season, Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines marks the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the protagonist Terminator. He faces a newer, technologically superior female Terminator, known as the T-X, with incredibly destructive capabilities. Terminator 3 (T3) features Jonathan Mostow at the helm, known by some film sound creators as being keenly astute with sound as an essential component of the motion picture experience. Mostow had previously directed U-571, a film well-known for its sonic creativity and prowess.
This latest installment in the Terminator series continues a legacy of creative and technical film sound milestones. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released in 1990, was the first movie released in Cinema Digital Sound (CDS), a short-lived film sound playback format that was the first to offer 5.1 digital channels. The Terminator was originally released in 1984 with a mono soundtrack, but the latest re-release on DVD featured an all-new Dolby Digital Surround EX soundtrack, with not only effects-laden pans all around the room, but also the essential sounds of the Terminator drawn from those originally created for Terminator 2.
To lead the soundtrack postproduction for Terminator 3, supervising sound mixers Kevin O’Connell and Greg Russell were called upon to lend their creative talents, along with supervising sound editor Stephen Flick. O’Connell and Russell have garnered a substantial number of Oscar nominations and other honors over the years for their work.
The Technical Details
O’Connell and Russell have been based at the state-of-the-art postproduction sound facilities at Sony Pictures Studios for several years, having leveraged their creative talent and the recently upgraded technology in the production of high-profile movie soundtracks that include Pearl Harbor, as well as Spider-Man (for which Flick was also involved) and The Patriot. Pre-dubbing and final mixing for T3 was performed in the Cary Grant Theatre, the largest dubbing stage in the facility, on a Harrison MPC mixing console. Editing was performed on Digidesign Pro Tools workstations. All recording and mixing was on TASCAM MMR8’s, with monitoring via playback through Sony’s DADR machines. At all stages of pre-dubbing and final mixing, eight tracks of audio were employed; the final theatrical release was 8-channel SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound), as well as 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS.
The music score, by Marco Beltrami, was delivered to Kevin O’Connell with a total of 16 tracks. O’Connell subsequently mixed the 16 tracks to an 8-track pre-dub. The final mix featured the five screen channels with prominent music and effects content. “This was a mix with five bold channels across the front,” says Russell. “There was nothing timid about them.” The reason, which will be explained further, was that Mostow wanted a really big sonic presence, which would be well-served by the full acoustical output of all eight available channels.
The dialog for this movie was primarily sourced from the production recordings, along with what O’Connell described as a minimal amount of ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement, also known as looping). This was especially unusual for an action film, for which effects tended to predominate the sound mix, but O’Connell felt that the production dialog was in good condition for use as the foundation for the final mix stem.
Sound Mixers As Editors and Sound Designers
Not only did the sonic crew face the usual challenge of crafting a new soundtrack with its own creative identities and attributes, but O’Connell and Russell also had to come to terms with an unusually hectic mixing schedule for the summer blockbuster season. Final mixing for T3 had concluded by the end of April, well in time for the July 2nd release, but the early finish was necessary due to the fact that producer Jerry Bruckheimer had also commissioned the supervising sound mixers, longtime collaborators, to work with the soundtrack for Bad Boys II, another high-profile summer release.
The soundtrack postproduction took place at the same time the visuals were still evolving — this, of course, was a very heavy visual effects movie with lots of CGI. During pre-dubs, the crew was working with rough animation shots, and therefore editing and pre-mixing their work in conformance to visuals that were far from complete. As the production progressed toward the final mixing, the images had evolved, and so that often meant re-editing and even sound designing in accordance to the new versions of the scenes. The newfound discovery of details from the CGI in a new work print often meant the necessity to sweeten existing effects or add new ones. As a result, O’Connell and Russell became active collaborators in sound editing and sound design with Flick and the editing team, something unconventional for their usually predominant roles in finalizing the sound mix. “Normally, only about 5 percent of the sound editing is done during the final process of mixing,” says O’Connell. “But for this film, about 25 percent of the editing was performed during the final mixing.” As he notes, there is a rationale for having a range of effects possibilities in the preparation of pre-dubs. The interpretation of a single, specific effect, by itself (when heard by the supervising sound editor, sound designer, etc.), can be different than that resulting from the same effect in combination with other soundtrack elements heard during temp dubbing.
Mostow’s Enthusiasm With Film Sound
As the dynamic, spatially energetic soundtrack of U-571 might have indicated, Mostow is a big fan of movie sound, and a big believer in its primal role in delivering the motion picture experience to the audience. Because of this, Mostow took on a very meticulous approach in the production of the T3 soundtrack. Often, the director and sound crew would carefully analyze every part of the film, just to make sure that the result was to Mostow’s satisfaction. “He considers himself a student of sound, which he is. He’s really into the sound, more so than any director we’ve ever worked with,” states O’Connell. “We’ve even spent two hours on a single effect, just to get what he wants.”
O’Connell also said that Mostow’s idea with the soundtrack for T3 was to deliver a high-energy, intense sonic experience, from beginning to end. The director had a desire for the soundfield to be active throughout the film, even in the absence of loud, dimensionally aggressive sound effects. “He wanted the audience to go home exhausted,” recalls O’Connell. “From the time the movie starts to when it ends, he wanted the soundtrack to be driving, pulsing, and delivering at every second, with no rest!”
But Will It Be Too Loud?
With Mostow’s desire to deliver a consistently high-throttled sonic experience, the supervising sound mixers were further challenged by the need to deliver at substantial intensity throughout the duration of the film, without testing the audience’s hearing limits. O’Connell and Russell had crafted the soundtrack for Argmageddon, which had been widely publicized a few years ago for its high sound pressure level content. Since then, they have been wanting to ensure that they could deliver an involving, very energetic sonic experience when desired, without the fatigue from excessive loudness. But when asked whether T3 would have the potential to be overly loud in a typical movie theater, O’Connell admits that the dynamic range did push the limit for what he and Russell would have desired, but also was confident that the end result would not challenge sound system capability or moviegoer tolerance.
Perry Sun is with Widescreen Review, and can be contacted at [email protected].
Rocking The Cradle of Life
Lara Croft’s gReatest adventure yet — the first major studio film mixed entirely in Pro Tools. By Steve Harvey
This year’s blockbuster movie season is fast becoming the summer of sequels, with a host of favorites from years gone by eager to take another bite of the box office cherry. Back from a two-year absence, Angelina Jolie return as the title character of director Jan de Bont’s Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, this time on a mission to save Pandora’s Box.
Sound design, effects cutting, and the final re-recording sessions were carried out simultaneously at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, CA, and at England’s legendary Pinewood Studios, north of London. Sound designer and supervising sound editor Steve Boeddeker at Pinewood and sound designer and re-recording mixer Randy Thom at Skywalker initially had some concerns about the number of effects tracks that would be arriving at the re-recording stage. As a precaution, they eventually elected to remain in Pro Tools from start to finish, a first for Boeddeker and, as it turned out, a work method with some tremendous side benefits.
“It’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” reports Boeddeker, whose credits since joining Skywalker Sound in 1995 include sound design for From Hell, Tomb Raider, X-Men, and Fight Club, for which the team received an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Effects Editing. In the past, he says, he has observed a certain reluctance to implement new technology, perhaps due to inertia, with participants unwilling to alter their proven work methods, or with studios unwilling to risk using equipment with as yet unproven reliability.
“In this case we didn’t have either of those,” he continues. Concerns about running out of inputs on the mixing console led to a decision to run with Pro Tools all the way through to the mix stage. “I’m not at all a proponent of cutting a million things. The one right sound is the right sound. But when you have visual effects and changes that are happening at the last minute, you have to be as flexible as you can.”
With that in mind, the film offered a good opportunity to try out the new work method. “Everybody working on the film was working in Pro Tools, and was pre-mixing their own stuff, doing 5.1 panning and moving things around. We started building up these master sessions that had everything we thought you would want to hear.”
Boeddeker’s initial fear was that the temp dubs would be unmanageable. “I find that the best way to know if you’re ready for a temp is to play something that works before you take it to a stage. We’d all get together every couple of days and run through a reel or a scene that we’d been working on. Occasionally we would make mixes and send them to Randy at Skywalker and he would send us stuff back.”
A temp dub became unnecessary, and it was decided to remain in Pro Tools through to the final mix. “All of the sounds that were cut and panned and mixed in Pro Tools were split out as if they were predubs. Then we predubbed from them. So we’d go into the mix theater with all the panning and levels done.”
He elaborates, “If a car goes from left to right, it pretty much goes left to right. There’s no subjectivity — it’s right or it’s wrong. Each of these predubs still got laid down by themselves, but it was already worked out. What was nice was that it was worked out in the context of all the other sounds. So when we were finished premixing this way, we could basically play all of our premixes together and know that our relative balance was fairly close.”
“Then,” continues Boeddeker, “the really cool part — and the thing that I’ve been wanting to do for so long now — is that instead of mixing to any kind of a dubber, we mixed straight into another Pro Tools. We were doing 24-bit Pro Tools sessions with five-track predubs, playing almost 120 tracks on a couple of reels.
“We would gang similar things out of the same outputs as if they were predubs. So, for example, say there was a predub of guns. When you go and final, you have one master fader controlling the predub of your guns. But if you go and look at the Pro Tools session, there are actually three separate 5-channel tracks, in this case, that compose that predub. If you determine that you want to goose one or two of them, you can go into Pro Tools and give it a quick volume graph.”
According to Boeddeker, the benefits of premixing in context within Pro Tools have been tremendous. “We have one session that has all of the predubs in it. They give us a change note, and we go into that session. You can play everything together in context straight out of the Pro Tools or you can solo the individual elements and fix them.”
Boeddeker’s assistant at Pinewood, John Warhurst, has experience supporting large disk arrays, which has been a boon on the project. “He has been a great technical resource, figuring out how many tracks we can reliably pull off of a single SCSI drive, and how we can mirror them so that if one drive goes down we can immediately hook up another.”
The result has been that every reel of the movie is available for playback on the stage at the same time from Pro Tools. “So if the director says, ‘Can we try this music cue in reel three,’ and we’re in reel six, we just shut down the session and open up another, pull up the picture and the music, and off we go.”
The very idea of premixing was turned upside down, says Boeddeker, “Because you don’t have to commit things. Like the guns, you can keep elements separate. Whenever we would finish premixing a reel we would spend a couple of hours going through and rebalancing the elements to one another. But we did it in Pro Tools, so that automation went with it. If I was going to listen in my design room, it sounded the same as in the theater. If we had to conform the reel because of picture changes, it went along with that.”
That took the premixing process and turned it into more of a creative process. “When we went into the room to mix we had all the standard mix stage equipment, except we were not necessarily having to use it to fix things. We started from a place where we knew that it worked and tried to elevate it to another level.”
And although the film was mixed on Pinewood’s Harrison and AMS Neve consoles, Pro Tools offered a further layer of control there, too. “Randy has done some really bold mix moves by going in and just drawing volume graphs in Pro Tools — things that I don’t think you could possibly do with a mixing console.”
The increasingly ubiquitous presence of Pro Tools throughout the film post process may well herald an evolutionary change on the mix stage. “The console has become a completely different beast. Gary Summers, who did the dialog mixing, has been mixing to and from Pro Tools for a couple of years. He’s just as likely to grab the mouse and do some adjustments as to grab a fader. The key thing seems to be that you’re getting the best of both worlds.”
For more information, visit Skywalker Sound online at www.skysound.com.