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STROTHER BULLINS talks to Skywalker Sound's Gary Rizzo about his dual role as Supervising Sound Editor and Sound Re-recording Mixer for the most commercially successful documentary in history, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Sound Editor and Re-recording Mixer Gary Rizzo is no newbie to documentaries or - as he prefers to call them - 'non-fiction' films. After years of working on a variety of well-received IMAX and various other documentaries alongside massive Hollywood blockbuster-style feature films, Rizzo was tapped to serve dual roles as both Supervising Sound Editor and Re-recording Mixer for what has become the most successful documentary in history, Director/Producer Michael Moore's riveting and controversial Fahrenheit 9/11.

"In terms of standard documentary films, none that I have done before have been as commercially successful or as popular as Fahrenheit 9/11," understates Rizzo. "I can't say that I had an extraordinary amount of background in non-fiction work, but I did have enough to feel comfortable with getting involved in something like this, and I certainly didn't approach it with any fear."

Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Fahrenheit 9/11 has proved to be a film simultaneously loved and hated, divisive and unifying, critical yet hopeful. The film critically examines United States President George W. Bush's methods of handling of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Gary Rizzo, approached the job without "any fear"

"If the success of Fahrenheit 9/11 opens up more opportunities for documentaries to be seen and opinions to be shared, it's nothing but a good thing for everyone," reasons Rizzo. "At the time, we had no idea how successful it would end up being."

A Better View

While Rizzo readily admits that serving as both Supervising Sound Editor and Sound Re-recording Mixer on Fahrenheit 9/11 was a lot of work, it also gave him a better view of what Moore envisioned his film to be. "In the film world, those two jobs are generally separate," he explains. "One person takes care of the editorial of the sound and another person mans the mix. I don't mind doing both, and actually, I kind of appreciate it. The more time you spend with the project editorially and the more time you spend with the director in an atmosphere where you are building and constructing the tracks, the better view you have of the project from the director's eyes. You simply have better opportunities to figure out exactly what the director is trying to accomplish with the sound."

Michael Moore (right) and Sgt. Abdul Henderson on Capitol Hill attempting to convince congressmen to send their sons to Iraq.

After Rizzo accepted the dual role job, Sound Editor Scott Guitteau was promptly invited to join the sound team. "I hired a dear friend of mine who is - well - definitely on the left side of things," chuckles Rizzo. "I knew that he was the perfect guy to work with me on this, based on his political views and the creative input that he would bring to the project. Between the two of us, we took care of the entire sound/post-production track."

Working At A Rapid-Fire Pace

Rizzo and Guitteau began work on Fahrenheit 9/11 at Skywalker Sound, but after only two weeks they moved to Moore's New York office for approximately ten more weeks of editorial work. Once in New York, Rizzo and Guitteau configured a video projection/5.1 monitoring environment - based around a Pro Tools|HD rig and a Mackie Control GUI interface - in Moore's own office. "Michael knew that he wanted something special and different for this film, something that he had never gotten for any of his other films," illustrates Rizzo. "He wanted to dedicate as many resources as he could for us, so he moved out of his office to allow us to use his room as a 5.1 sound studio for building the soundtrack."

With the film's picture editing department a halls-length away from the two-man sound crew, picture changes ebbed and flowed at a rapid pace. "As they would make changes, we would get them and immediately start work on them," tells Rizzo. "Now that sounds really great - like, 'wow, what a perfect, creative environment to be in' - but as great as it was, it was equally challenging. Picture changes are coming in rapid-fire. Because of the arrangement, they felt as if rapid-fire picture changes could be made and that we were going to keep up. That was really hard."

The unique work flow of the film didn't stop with the sound editorial's close proximity to picture editing either. "The film was broken down in a unique way," recalls Rizzo. "It wasn't separated into reels as a typical film would be but into conceptual segments. If you've seen the film, you know that it starts with Michael's, 'Was it all just a dream?' segment, leading into the theory of how the election was stolen and so on. Each one of those parts were broken down into a segment. From our perspective, the breakdown was difficult to manage because there were so many different sections that were changing so often. Luckily, the crew was small enough where - from a track management view - it was relatively easy to keep everyone informed."

For Rizzo and Guitteau, working only seconds away from all of Fahrenheit 9/11's source media and its chief caretaker - Archival Producer Carl Deal - was especially helpful when the duo was faced with troublesome audio. "Carl is one of the most amazing people I've ever met," praises Rizzo. "He was not only responsible for the licensing for use of all the footage in the film and getting the source material, he made sure that we had everything we needed. If we had a real 'dog' piece of audio we would turn to Carl. He would do additional research to see if there was something better somewhere out in the world. He was a huge help, and many times he really pulled the rabbit out of the hat."

EdiTrace To The Rescue

For picture cutting, the picture editors on Fahrenheit 9/11 used an Avid media composer, which is a video-based - rather than a film-based system. Because there aren't many video re-conforming solutions for video-based picture work, Rizzo chose to use EdiTrace, a program that provides a detailed list of changes between picture cuts in an edit decision list - or EDL - format. "We found EdiTrace after doing a lot of research on our options," Rizzo says. "EdiTrace will create a change note and will do the first auto-conform of a Pro Tools session to get it into a current picture sync. And for this film, it was key."

A secret service officer confronts Michael Moore across the street from the Saudi embassy in D.C.

Numerous selections of archival footage from many sources required varying amounts of restoration, whether it was using basic equalisation, complex filtering, or advanced noise reduction programs. "Through plug-ins and Pro Tools, we made sure that everything was automated," explains Rizzo. "When EdiTrace did the auto-conform, the plug-in automation was conformed with it. It was imperative that we have an auto-conforming solution to allow us to keep up with the picture department yet maintain all of the decisions for Pro Tools plug-ins. We were making thousands of those decisions daily, and all of them had to stay in sync with the current picture."

Reality Rules As much as Rizzo, Guitteau and Moore were concerned with the audio quality within Fahrenheit 9/11, maintaining a clear sense of sonic reality was of the utmost importance. "That's something that really needs to be stated," says Rizzo firmly. "Michael wanted to make sure that every detail presented in this film - whether it be visual or sonic - was truthful. He had no intentions of stretching things to any degree. If anybody had the ability to step forward and say, 'Ha! That's a sound effect,' you're busted. For instance, during the Iraqi War sequence, we wanted to make the bomb sounds big and real, but our number one rule was, Don't Doctor It Up. For creative input, we brought in some of the cameramen that were there shooting the footage we were using and other people that were there in Iraq during March 2003 when the bombings began."

During the film's highly emotional September 11 sequence, the screen is completely black for 90 seconds and the audience's attention is solely turned to sounds of the tragic day. According to Rizzo, this gutsy filmmaking move was a testament to Moore's confidence in audio's ability to effectively convey such a poignant moment in time. "It's a risky move," he explains. "You're providing no visual information for the audience to guide them to where you're trying to take them emotionally. But I think that it's a great indication of the respect Michael gives to sound as a medium."

For the sequence, every sound was captured on the day of the attacks within a few blocks of the World Trade Center. Rizzo: "Michael told us, that he wanted to make this a dedication and a tribute to the people that were there and on the streets within five or six blocks of the World Trade Center when the terrorist attack happened. He wanted to present the scene in a truthful way, and in a way that people haven't experienced it to better simulate what it was like to be there on that day. We did a restoration pass for every piece of audio that's there, a sound editorial pass to find out how each piece fell in line with everything else, and a mix pass within the 5.1 environment. With every sound, we intently questioned all sonic and emotional integrity."

'The Best Audio' Is Relative

While work for Fahrenheit 9/11 continued on to the final mix stage, Moore was still recording many of his final voice-over passes. Rizzo had brought in his recording rig to get the best tracks possible, but - following Moore's proven philosophy throughout the production of the film - the 'best' audio for the film wasn't always the most pristine.

"Michael cares a lot," says Rizzo succinctly. "He knew that the quality of this film needed to be something beyond anything he had ever done. That being said, as we were re-recording VO lines with my Schoeps mic and Grace pre-amp digitally feeding Pro Tools to get the most pristine recording, sometimes he still preferred the read of what he had originally done. His scratch VO tracks were recorded in the Avid cutting room; the window was open, you could hear New York City traffic and Avid fans spinning in the background. Still, he often felt that the emotional content of his original read - when he was assembling the picture and seeing it for the first time - offered the best performance and inflection. And to him, that was ultimately more important than the pristine recording."

Project: Fahrenheit 9/11

Studio: Skywalker Sound

Supervising Sound Editor and Sound

Re-recording Mixer: Gary Rizzo

Report: Strother Bullins


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