SUPER SIZE ME
STROTHER BULLINS spoke to the entire two-man crew that helped Morgan Spurlock bring his fast-food documentary to our screens.
In February 2003, director Morgan Spurlock began an experiment in filmmaking that would take his work to the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and subsequently to cinemas throughout the world. The idea was interesting and provocative, but simple: he would eat nothing but McDonald's fast food for a month and film the entire process. With no idea of the impending outcome, the initially thin and fit Spurlock had gained 11.25kg by the end of the ordeal. In addition to this dramatic weight gain, his health spiralled downwards; his cholesterol levels reached 230mg/DL, body fat increased from 11 percent to 18 percent, and he felt increasingly lethargic and generally unhealthy as the month progressed.
The resulting documentary appropriately called Super Size Me riveted Sundance audiences and grabbed the attention of major motion picture distributors, which is quite an impressive feat for a film humbly made with a team of two - Spurlock and an associate with a DV camera. But beyond Super Size Me's seemingly simplistic message, the film comments on the eating habits of millions and the negative effect it can have on their lives.
Agreeing to work on the film after seeing an early cut, Sound Supervisor and Mixer Hans ten Broeke clearly knew that Super Size Me was something of epic proportions, (pardon the pun). "After I met with Morgan, they sent me a four-hour cut," explains Broeke. "They originally cut 280 hours of footage, and as I watched this four-hour cut, I thought, this would be a great film. It's not just about obesity; it's about what's happening in people's daily lives, what's happening in the school systems, and so much more."
Happy Eating Music
Early in the film's creation, Spurlock met with friend, Grammy-winning engineer and talented composer Steve Horowitz, who had previously worked with Spurlock on the Internet-based-show-turned-MTV-hit I Bet You Will. Knowing Spurlock's inventive work, Horowitz jumped at the chance to compose all the music for Super Size Me, despite the fact that the production didn't have much of a budget. "I knew Morgan from working with him at the height of the dot.com boom," recalls Horowitz. "At that time, he started the show I Bet You Will on the web. He had asked me to do all the audio and music, so we did 40 episodes - all desktop - and I was recording, playing some guitar, and putting samples together. It was subsequently sold to MTV. So when he came to me with Super Size Me - 'I've got this idea, I'm doing this film, and I don't have any money.' - I wouldn't have pulled a freebie for anyone in the world except for Morgan."
While composing for Super Size Me at his home studio - which features a Digi 001 interface, PreSonus breakout box and a 'tricked out' Apple G3 running Pro Tools and Logic - Horowitz found that sunnier, happier musical themes worked well for the story. "I wanted to make the music every bit as fun to hear as the film is to watch," tells Horowitz. "I wanted the music to be in direct contrast to the horrible things that were happening to Morgan. We came up with this one theme that I refer to as 'Happy Eating Music.' Every time he goes into a McDonald's and orders, you hear this music. It becomes this important and interwoven theme."
In finding the right instrumental and stylistic voice for the happy music, Horowitz relied on 'All-American' musical vibes. "As we were going through the film," he explains, "one thing that worked repeatedly was a doo-wop style, and Morgan really likes blues. It gave things a better sense of Americana - the fast food drive-through, burger joint vibe. When I look at a picture, I usually hear things. When I had an idea for a tune and sang something, he was in total agreement."
A Daunting Project
To understate a simple truth, films with small budgets require inventive methods of finding their way to completion. This inventive approach also includes creative recruitment of professionals for completing the film. So with Horowitz persuaded to contribute his musical prowess the director unconventionally looked to the 'information superhighway' for a multi-hat-wearing sound supervisor.
"I saw Morgan advertising on the Internet - of all places - for someone who could do audio post, sound effects, mix, record voice-overs, and so on," recalls ten Broeke, an engineer and 13-year veteran of the audio post industry. "I answered the advert, sent a resumé, got together with him and Steve Horowitz, and we all hit it off."
After the meeting, ten Broeke quickly had his hands full with the film's audio production as Spurlock converged on Red Cottage Productions, ten Broeke's own audio post facility centred on a Pro Tools system using a Digi 002 integrated control surface. "Morgan was up here to work soon after our meeting, and we started with voice-overs. He gave a lot of OMF to me, which was from what they were laying out in Final Cut Pro. It all worked pretty decently." Luckily for ten Broeke, he was the required audio post jack-of-all-trades. "I'm thankful that I had a lot of experience beforehand, because it's a daunting project where I realised I'm cutting dialogue, I'm editing dialogue, I'm recording voice-overs, I'm doing sound effects, and I'm mixing the film."
Some of the biggest challenges in mixing Super Size Me dealt with sometimes-troublesome dialogue recorded on the DV camera. According to ten Broeke, 80 percent of his work was improving dialogue quality. "With him and his cameraman - who was also the soundman - doing it alone, there were many situations where the levels were too low, and/or too hot," remembers ten Broeke. "Overall, I think that they did a pretty admirable job, considering that it was just the two of them with a DV cam, travelling around the country. I had to fix dialogue in places where they absolutely wanted to keep the scene."
Getting Ready For Sundance
The bar was considerably raised when the team found out about the imminent Sundance screenings. "We had a window of about a month to get ready for Sundance," explains ten Broeke. "They were kind enough to let us submit our film late. It was all 16-hour days, seven days a week for a solid month. With this guerrilla-style of filmmaking, Morgan would give me what I thought was the final cut, and then they would be constantly chipping away at it. That can be a pain when you're not dealing with the final picture. But to film it in February, get me on board in late August, and have the finished product at Sundance in late January, is a very short period of time."
The team wanted to make sure that everything was perfect before it reached Sundance, especially considering that a major distributor could grab it afterwards. "At that point, I started to get a little more serious," remembers Horowitz. "We knew that once the cut was done for Sundance it could possibly be bought, and once it was bought, it could be game over - no more changes. We wanted to make sure that from that point, it was all that it should be. We brought in live musicians, and did some live cues that I wanted to jazz up a bit. We made sure that all of that was ready for the Sundance cut."
On the audio post side, ten Broeke transformed the original 'television-style' mix into a more theatrical-orientated production. "Since Morgan's idea was to submit this film to as many film festivals as possible, we knew that people would mostly watch the tape on television, maybe with stereo, maybe not," he explains. "With that in mind, we created a television-style mix, maybe more compressed than you would normally do for the cinema. When it became apparent that we were going to Sundance, we took everything back to square one and rebuilt the mix with theatrical viewers in mind, and monitors were calibrated for 85dB SPL at sitting position. We had fixed gain monitoring as if you were sitting in the cinema, and went at it like that."
Working the majority of the time from his facility, ten Broeke later moved to New York City's Sound One studio to correct some minute audio details only a world-class scoring stage could uncover. "I have a small space to work in, and I was doing nearfield monitoring," says ten Broeke. "But I was pleasantly surprised when I went to the screening -- the mix translated very well. Of course, when it was picked up, Samuel Goldwyn Films got some more people involved because, not only do we have to deal with the panic of actually going to cinemas, but also we have to take the video and bump it up to film. At that time, we decided to take the mix I did into Sound One --the premier facility in New York to mix your film - and went through it, adding a bit of finesse to things that could benefit from the bigger space. We also encoded Dolby LCRS there, just to have some kind of surround element. Since it is a documentary, there's not a lot to throw into the surrounds, but everyone agreed that it added a little more life to the tracks."
Super Sized Hit
Since its Sundance stint, Super Size Me has been the subject of many articles, debates, and even ridicule from the McDonald's corporation itself. Those are major accomplishments for a film with such humble beginnings, and if anyone is excited about Super Size Me's super-size success, it's the film's audio team. "People like it because it's a combination of thought-provoking film and entertainment," Horowitz waxes prophetically. "I feel really fortunate to be a part of such an important film." Super Size Me is released throughout Europe in July and in the UK in September.
Project: Super-Size Me
Sound Supervisor/Mixer: Hans ten Broeke.
Score Composer/Engineer: Steve Horowitz.
Report: Strother Bullins
Original URL: http://www.audiomedia.com/archive/features/uk-1002/uk-1002-finalcut/uk-1002-finalcut.htm
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