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Making Contact 

Sound designer Randy Thom and dialogue rerecording mixer Tom Johnson talk to Richard Buskin about their work on the new sound-led sci-fi movie, Contact 

ss0997ab05From its opening sequence, Contact is clearly aimed to impact the senses of sight and sound with equal intensity. Starting with a tracking shot, we travel backwards through space as well as figuratively through time by way of the increasingly distant broadcast signals emanating from earlier decades. This is a portent of things to come, as later on we follow Jodie Foster while she manages to pick up sounds and pictures that are being transmitted from another planet, before travelling to said planet courtesy of an eye-catching, ear-popping, speed-of-light journey straight out of 2001: ASpace Odyssey. 

Randy Thom, who previously supervised the sound on Robert Zemeckis' Oscar-winning picture, Forrest Gump, was the director's natural choice to serve as the sound designer on his latest film. This assignment began with the start of shooting in the fall of 1996, although Thom's work began in earnest at Skywalker Sound in early-January of 1997. Phil Benson was hired as the supervising sound editor to oversee all of the other editing staff, most of whom came aboard in March. After editing and temp mixing had taken place, premixing then began around the end of May, while the final mix was completed on 2nd July. All in all, a fairly pleasant schedule, and, as Randy Thom realised very early on, a dream project. 

'A lot of the film is played through the point of view of Jodie Foster's character, and point-of-view sequences in movies always provide field days for the sound people,' he says. 'Sound is such an emotional thing, and if the audience is perceiving what's going on in the story through the filter of each of the characters, then that gives me a lot of latitude to play with the sound. It enables me to use, in some cases, slightly exaggerated or odd sounds in a way that I couldn't do if a sequence is shot more objectively.' 

Given that, in the film industry, sound work sometimes amounts to embellishing a fait accompli, Randy Thom stresses the importance of meeting with the production designer, the director of photography and the writer very early on during a project. This way the sound person can coordinate what he wants to do in line with the others' objectives. 'On Contact this cropped up in lots of specific ways,' he says. 'One example related to the sequence when Ellie travels to the far-off planet. The visual effects people wanted to fill the frame with things moving by all the time--hundreds or thousands of points of light or other objects moving through the frame so that it looks like she's travelling through a tunnel. Well, that's fine, but the problem for sound in that instance is that if you have 20 objects that are more or less of equal value being panned from, say, the left side of the frame into the centre and then back through the surrounds in the theatre, what you have in the end is pink noise. You're not going to be able to distinguish the objects from one another or get any sense of movement, because there are going to be loud sounds in every channel at all times. 

'So, what I urged them to do--and luckily Zemeckis agreed--was to focus on a few objects that she's flying by, rather than have 20 or 30 or 100. That would ensure that there would be some dynamics, and that I'd be able to emphasise the sound of a lightning flash, a brilliant burst of light or whatever it may be. In turn, the audience can actually hear that sound move from the front to the back of the theatre without having to compete with 20 other sounds. 

'The trick in movie making, and certainly no less mixing sound for movies, is to focus the attention of the audience. It's very misguided to think that every element has to be in play at all times, because then you just end up with visual and aural noise.' 

Selecting which visuals are to have an allotted sound can be a tricky process, yet, in the case of Contact, Randy Thom's life was made easier due to the production designer and director of photography taking him seriously and actually designing the sequence. Consequently, there were often only one or two things moving through the frame at any one time which were logical for Thom to focus on. The related sounds would be brought to the foreground, while in the background there was a general wash of movement sounds. 

'One of the great things about creating sounds that accompany visuals for the movies is that audiences will go out of their way to accept whatever you present to them,' Thom asserts. 'As long as it seems to make dramatic or emotional sense, and if they can somehow rationalise consciously or otherwise that this one object should be a little bit louder than the others, then they'll tend to buy it. However, if I or someone else hadn't been there to suggest that too many visuals of equal value would wind up causing both me and the sequence a problem, probably nothing would have been done about it. 

'Obviously, I'm not saying that sound should rule films, but so far through movie history it has tended to go much too far in the opposite direction. One misconception that many people in the film business have--even directors and producers and editors--is that if you want great sound in your movie you don't really need to think about sound early on. All you need to do is hire a sonic genius, and that's so misguided and wrong because no matter how talented you are as a sound person, when you're handed an almost complete product that doesn't have hardly any room to do anything interesting with sound, your work's going to be fairly mundane. It's funny that a lot of lip service is paid to this idea that film making is a collaborative effort, that this synergy takes place between the visuals and the sound, and it's all sort of organic and unified, but when it comes down to actually doing the work very little attention is paid to those ideals.' 

Early on, Thom and Zemeckis agreed that the space ride sequence would play most strongly if the viewers feel on a subconscious level as if they are experiencing the journey from Ellie's vantage point. This could be achieved in a number of different ways, including literal point-of-view shots, and extreme close-ups of Ellie's face and hands, as well as whatever she is doing. 

This ride scene is an example of how the special effects and point-of-view shots can be one and the same. An altogether different yet equally informative sequence in terms of how the sound is handled takes place towards the end of the film, when Ellie is interrogated in court. This is shot more or less objectively--the viewer doesn't get the impression of being almost inside her. Accordingly, the sound is fairly predictable. There is some murmuring, people shift in their chairs, the 
air-conditioning system whirs gently, and so on. However, at the very end of the scene, there's a subtle change of gear. 

'At the point when the camera moves in for a close-up of Ellie and she is at her highest level of emotional intensity, we dropped out every sound except her voice,' says Thom. 'That has two effects: One is that it focuses your attention on her, and the other is that it brings you into her mind-set or point of view much more than if we had left all of these competing or distracting sounds in there.' 

While bombast is often far easier to deal with from the sonic standpoint than anything subtle, Robert Zemeckis was fairly bold in terms of his use of silence on Contact. Sample the film's aforementioned opening, when the camera pulls back from earth and the viewer sees entire galaxies flashing by while old radio waves fill the air. Eventually, we reach the point where the earliest broadcast has been passed by. The sound of static ensues. Then there is nothing. 

'There's silence for about 45 seconds,' says Thom, 'and I can't tell you how much guts it probably took for Zemeckis to have that take place three minutes into his $100m film. There are very few directors who would have done that. The temptation is to cover it with music in order to convey to people what they should be feeling from moment to moment. Zemeckis, however, was brave enough to allow it to be silent, and as a result I think it's a very powerful sequence.' 

When Jodie-Ellie finally arrives on the distant planet, it has the appearance of one of the more glamourous locales in a Club Med brochure... as seen through the eyes of someone who's just swallowed half a tab of LSD. There's a sandy beach, rippling water and tropical vegetation, yet the colours are all slightly out of whack. Call it exotic surrealism. 

'Zemeckis wanted that beach sequence to be artificial for lots of reasons,' says Thom. 'One of them is that he wanted to leave question marks in the air as to whether Ellie went anywhere or whether the whole thing was, in fact, in her imagination. If we had fleshed out that sequence with a full set of sound effects at all times, I think it might have left the audience with too solid an impression that she had actually been somewhere. So, what we ended up doing on the beach--in line with what Bob Zemeckis had always wanted to try--was to focus on only one sound at a time, not including the music and the dialogue. 

'In terms of effects, you typically only hear lapping waves, or you only hear the wind in the palm trees, or you only hear the sound of her father scooping up a handful of sand, but you rarely hear any two of these mixed together. What Zemeckis hoped this would achieve was to reinforce the idea of an artificial environment, and I think it also helps reinforce the feeling of seeing things through Ellie's eyes. It's like a dream, and, in philosophising about movies, it's often been said that people perceive films in very much the same way as they perceive their own dreams. It's a highly stylised, focussed and emotional experience, and so the more stylised and focussed that it is, the more it seems like she's having a dream.' 

Indeed, subtlety is one of the keys to why the sound in Contact works so well. From the start there is some pretty heavy panning, between left and right and front and back, yet the sound team successfully negotiates the fine line between the effective and the crass. 'There's a saying that we often quote around Skywalker Sound that comes from Jim Cameron,' notes Randy Thom. 'In the middle of a mix someone played a sound for him, and he was obviously ambivalent about whether that sound was too over-the-top or too exotic for use in the film, so he said, "You know, there's a fine line between art and dog-shit!" 

'Zemeckis has traditionally been very careful about panning. He didn't want anything panned in Forrest Gump, and that was almost entirely the case, even in the Vietnam battle sequence where you get the impression that you're hearing these bullets whizzing over your head. In fact, the bullets were never panned into the surrounds, although the way in which it's shot and the sounds make you feel that they are. Zemeckis is very aware of alerting the audience to the contrivance of the whole thing, and sort of waking them from the dream of the movie and reminding them that they're watching a movie. 

'I think there's a lot to be said for that. With many action-adventure films, especially in recent years, the impulse is to play them as if they are theme park rides and forget that they're movies, even though you're going for every visceral thing. That means panning sounds when sometimes it's not even justifiable. So, what we tried to do in Contact was to only pan things when the visuals and context supported this. There's an awful lot of material that we could have panned but didn't, and there are also sequences which I was amazed Bob allowed us to play as discreetly as we did, placing sounds only in the left or right surround. In fact, when I mix any film I tend to be a little more conservative than the average mixer in terms of panning.' 

ss0997ab10Still, it was thanks in large part to a new mixing console at Skywalker that the pans in Contact could be executed so efficiently. This was the AMS Neve Capricorn, which, Randy Thom nevertheless admits, he and some of his colleagues initially had certain reservations about. 

'Like a lot of people I still wasn't sure about all-digital consoles and everything being automated,' he says. 'You know, I love the idea that it can happen, but it's pretty difficult to move from the work environment where only faders are automated, into automating equalisation and panning. Suddenly you have to think about those things beforehand, and it just changes your mind-set. For instance, if you want to equalise a piece of dialogue that runs from 100' to 120', you have to consciously think about automating only during that stretch of time in a way that you don't if, obviously, the automation isn't an option. 

'Therefore, Dennis Sands, who was the music mixer on Contact, Tom Johnson the dialogue mixer and I were all filled with trepidation in regard to working on a completely automated console. However, the impression that I think all of us had in the end was that it's a wonderful tool. Like most new tools it doesn't save any time, but it allows you to try things that you never would have tried otherwise. 

'The panning of the music and the other broadcast elements in the film's opening sequence couldn't have been done in the same detail if we hadn't had automated panning. We were panning literally hundreds of sounds from the front of the room to the back of the room and from the back to the front, and I can't imagine how we would have accomplished that without the Capricorn. It would have taken weeks just to do that one sequence.' 

For his part, while Randy Thom was doing his effects premixing on the Capricorn, Tom Johnson had to premix the dialogue on an SSL G-series board. He then used the Capricorn for the final mix. 'I liked it quite a lot,' he says. 'It was great for panning, and I was also able to ride a lot of EQs on dialogue, which was really nice, and it would play back that stuff. So it had tremendous advantages for me. Now I'm back on an SSL for the premixing of dialogue on Titanic, and I really miss the Capricorn. It's a whole new way of working. There are definite disadvantages to looking at a display on a console instead of at a screen while you're EQ'ing, but I think the payoff in the end is worth it.' 

The dialogue which Johnson had to work with was recorded on DAT and transferred into Studioframe digital editors. Very well recorded, about 75% of the production dialogue made it through to the final cut. ADR was only necessary during the noise-infested action sequences, such as Foster's space trip to the beach. 

'The main noises I had to deal with came from the VistaVision cameras that Bob was using,' says Johnson. 'However, Jodie Foster is the best looper I've ever seen in my life. She would not only match her performance, but, in my opinion, often do a better job. So, there were a lot of places where we were able to go from production to ADR and back to production without any problems. It was a dream for me.' 

ss0997ab06Meanwhile, less than ideal on Contact was the manner in which visual effects kept arriving during the final mix. 'Everything was always changing,' says Randy Thom. 'They actually had too many visual effects to do in the allotted time, and it was frustrating to me because often I would create a sound for a given visual and then a couple of days later I would see a new visual which didn't match the sound at all. So, I'd have to start over again.' 

Thom mainly uses Pro Tools for his sound designing. He likes the versatility afforded by the availability of so many third party plug-ins, and feels that provides the designer with the most latitude to modify sounds. 

'The latest version, v4.0, is great because all of the plug-ins now can be automated,' he confirms. 'I've really become seduced by using the volume graph, where you can essentially draw how loud you want the sound to be over the waveform, and I've gradually been weaned away from faders. As a result, during my design and early premixing of films I now almost never touch a console. I use the console for monitoring and I do virtually all of the mixing inside Pro Tools. 

'Being able to see the waveform, it's very easy to amplify or attenuate a single syllable of dialogue, or very precisely finesse the entrance of a sound. The automation works similarly, and so I've just fallen in love with that. We did the temp mix for Contact--which was actually pretty elaborate--entirely inside Pro Tools in a dining room in Santa Barbara. The same was the case--even though the mix was less sophisticated--on Forrest Gump. Zemeckis lives in Santa Barbara and so he typically rents a large house to edit his films in... I'll be very surprised if, during the next few years, films don't start to be mixed in directors' houses, or at least in the editorial suite, and I think it'll be a good thing.' 

One Contact sequence which Thom didn't design the sound for was the one in which the space project is sabotaged, leading to explosions, fire and assorted pyrotechnic mayhem. A heavy duty action scene for the guys... yet it was a woman, Terry Ekton, who was mainly responsible for the sonic excitement. 

'We have this tradition at Skywalker of jokingly referring to "boy effects" and "girl effects",' says Thom. 'Traditionally, the boy effects have been the gunshots, whips, alien roars and that sort of thing, while the girl effects are the winds and so on. Occasionally it has been true that the boys have wound up cutting the boy effects and the girls have done the girl effects, but in this case I thought it would be great to get Terry to cut the explosion sequence. She did a marvellous job, putting together the explosions and pieces of metal flying through the air... I guess I'm tempted to say that it's a slightly more tasteful explosion sequence than I might have expected to get from a man, but I don't know if that's true. 

'One thing that I should say in terms of the general philosophy is that usually the role of the mixer on film soundtracks is vastly overrated. I've been on both sides of this argument, in that I edit sounds, I fabricate and design sounds, and I often wind up mixing sounds--sometimes the sounds that I've done, sometimes the sounds that other people have done, and I've mixed dialogue, music, whatever. Well, for a complicated set of reason the rerecording mixers often get a lot of the credit that is actually deserved by the people who have found and fabricated the sounds, before then handing them to those mixers. 

'In general, if I had to choose between a great sound editor and a great sound mixer on a project, I would probably choose to have a great sound editor and a mediocre mixer rather than the opposite. I think so much rests on the choices that you make about what sounds to use. You can smooth things out and you can enhance a little bit when mixing, but the principal thing is to start with the right sound.' 

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