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STROTHER BULLINS talks to Shepperton Studios' Head of Post-Production Sound Robin O'Donoghue about the facility's recent console upgrade and its first mixing job - Wolfgang Petersen's Troy.

In the increasingly competitive motion picture industry, each year marks a new level to which the bar of production has been raised. Nearly every action-based feature film includes incredible amounts of computer-generated images and spectacular, breathtaking audio. As these effects-heavy films win Oscar after Oscar - ie. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - filmmakers feel the need to push the limits of technological capability, both graphically and sonically.

This month marks the debut of director Wolfgang Petersen's war drama/action film Troy starring Brad Pitt, Peter O'Toole, and many other Hollywood heavy-hitters. Based on the Grecian story of war ignited by love between Paris, Prince of Troy, and Helen, Queen of Sparta, Troy is a film which will surely raise the aforementioned bar another notch. With massive summer box office sales at stake, the only way to take the production of such an action film is skyward.

At Shepperton Studios - the lauded post-production facility belonging to the Pinewood Shepperton Film Group - the staff has worked on many successful, big budget films and has always been able to gauge the evolving audio needs of the film industry. That mentality was applied when the studio installed a 300-plus channel, 72-fader Euphonix System 5-F digital film console in their premier room, the Korda Theatre. The 24ft frame System 5-F was selected to replace the existing MPC analogue desk shortly before the mixing of Troy began there. As a result, the new desk gave Troy mixers Mike Dowson and Mark Taylor the increased capabilities required for the film. And who knows? Awards may be awaiting for Dowson and Taylor, who are mixing the first film on England's first System 5-F.

Cautious, Crucial, Unanimous Decision

Robin O'Donoghue, Head of Post Production at Shepperton, knew that the selection of a new console was an incredibly important one. Every detail of information pertaining to the upgrade was crucial to the success of future Shepperton projects as well as to the facility itself.

"We were very cautious in purchasing the Euphonix," O'Donoghue explains. "It's the first one in England and, in my position, I was subject to a fair degree of pressure from other manufacturers as well as from my board. The board asked if I was doing the right thing. With it being the first one in the country, it was a natural query - why hasn't anyone else gone this route?"

Soon, the questions of O'Donoghue and his associates were answered, adding up to a litany of affirmatives for the System 5. One of the first things that prompted O'Donoghue to look to Euphonix was director Peter Jackson's installation of a System 5 in his New Zealand facility. "I was aware that he had equipped it with Euphonix," he says. "Ten years before, I had looked at the Euphonix desk for the mixing stage I was working in, but at that point, it wasn't really a film console. I was very curious as to why he had gone down this route; he's a very technical director, and his is a very technical operation. Obviously, they're on the case, and produced some very good soundtracks on all three Lord of the Rings films, subsequently winning massive numbers of Oscars! Here they are, using Euphonix, so I thought that we should look at it."

Another requirement - or "rule", according to O'Donoghue - in shopping for a new console was that manufacturer promises of future upgrades, fixes and features should not be weighed into the decision process. "Sometimes when you go to a manufacturer and ask them about something, they may say, it can't do that, but they can do it for you in a couple of months - they're writing new software. I made a rule that we only accept what we can see and know a desk can do. We will not take on any promises for the future. From my experience, the promises seldom come about."

When O'Donoghue invited Euphonix over for a demo, he and his staff were quite pleased with what they saw in front of them. "So they rolled it into the theatre, plugged it in, and it worked," he states plainly. "It worked through our monitoring system, just like that. I asked, how many layers it had and they replied, 'It doesn't have layers, and you can use any fader on any track'. Being a mixer that's used to a linear path with an analogue console, the idea that you could assign any input to any fader threw me for about five minutes. Once it all clicked, I knew that it was fantastic."

After a second and third audition, along with discussions with respected peers that were pro-Euphonix, Shepperton placed its order. "After all of this, there was certainly no question of quality with the Euphonix; The Lord of the Rings and other Oscar-winning films were being mixed on it, and mixers that I respect and admire are very happy with the [System 5-F]. By then, we - myself, Mike Dowson, Mark Taylor, Graham Daniel, and Richard Street - five well-respected guys that know their craft, took a vote. The vote was unanimous for the Euphonix."

Proving Itself

If the demands of Troy are any indication of future project demands at Shepperton (and you can bet that they are), the Euphonix System 5-F clearly has what it takes to stay in the Korda Theatre for quite some time. "Clearly, the desk is proving itself on Troy," O'Donoghue proudly states. "The fact that we can expand it, making it a bigger board or a smaller board, is wonderful. It has the capabilities of handling 380 inputs with no difficulty, although it only has 72 faders. If we have an even bigger film, we can easily plug in another core in the machine room and it can go to over 600 inputs."

Inside the Korda Theatre at Shepperton Studios... ... and outside Korda Theatre, Shepperton Studios.

Seeing this type of flexibility happen at Peter Jackson's Euphonix-equipped facility intrigued O'Donoghue, particularly when considering future projects. "Because we have three big stages at Shepperton, not all stages are doing massive films all the time," he explains. "You don't need three Euphonix desks all capable of handling 600 inputs, but you could have three Euphonix consoles capable of handling 300 inputs, then mix and match. We haven't done that yet at Shepperton, but now we can."

While the Shepperton team decided on the System 5 because of what it could do at the time of its audition, they can't help but be excited about its future possibilities. According to O'Donoghue, the desk presently offers plenty, but much more later: "The System 5 is at the very early stages of what it can do. In other words, I think that the Euphonix is only using about 20 percent of its technology's capability. I think that it's only going to grow to be better."

A Change of Methodology

With increased capabilities come increased expectations. For Shepperton's Mike Dowson and Mark Taylor, the mixing of Troy demanded more changes than simply upgrading their desk. It also required a change of mixing methodology.

"Troy is a busy film," says O'Donoghue, putting things simply. "There are a lot of tracks and one of the biggest challenges is the constant editing of film up until the last minute. We normally record on Akai DD8 and Merging's Pyramix DAW, but for Troy, Mike and Mark decided to play the tracks out of Pro Tools as supplied by the editor, mix them in the digital domain through the Euphonix, and back into the same Pro Tools rig. That way, we ended up with pre-dubs on the Pro Tools. As and when the changes come through, the editors can take drives and make clean, quick edits of the original tracks and pre-dubs, all at the same time. This made the constant changing for picture easier to solve, rather than having to dub off Akais back into Pro Tools, have the guys re-cut it, and go from Pro Tools back into Akais to mix. It's a new way of working for us, and has helped the process tremendously."

Although there are plenty of pre-dubs running during the mixing of Troy, the raw Pro Tools tracks are also readily available if any sound needs to be brought back to square one. "The boys are running about 20 six-track pre-dubs, broken down in different formats," explains O'Donoghue. "There are a lot of 5.1 pre-mixes, and many three-track pre-mixes if it's just stuff for the front screen. At the same time, with all of these pre-dubs, they're running the live tracks from Pro Tools. If the director wants to change any single thing, everything is running on the stage. This is what we're seeing - people want this flexibility so they can delay making decisions as late as possible."

Having this extra flexibility at the end of the process has become increasingly important in high-action, high-budget films. According to O'Donoghue, this assures all involved that things will be mixed to the pinnacle of possibility. "The final mixing of the film is clearly the final point of the process," he explains. "Up until that point, you shoot the film, you edit it, but the sound is always next, and it always seems to have the potential to get better and better. When you're finally on the dubbing stage, that's it - it's not going to get better. It's the end of the movie. Because of that, the director wants all choices and controls available to make the sound as good as possible."

Mixing engineer Mike Dowson confirms that the Euphonix installation was a smart decision, in the light of the Troy challenge: "The fact that with just a few hours of training myself and my co-mixer Mark Taylor have sat down at the System 5 and final mixed one of the biggest and most complex projects of our careers to date says an awful lot about the core design of the console.

"The ability for us to keep track of several hundred simultaneous inputs is essential and is no mean feat. This is accomplished easily with the System 5's comprehensive metering and the ability to adjust and store the layout of the channels to suit, even on a scene-by-scene basis if needed.

"The feedback of relevant information from the desk is always clear and informative. Reliability so far has been extremely good. This is an increasingly rare quality these days."


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