designer Randy Thom and dialogue rerecording mixer Tom Johnson talk
to Richard Buskin about their work on the new sound-led sci-fi movie,
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
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
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.'
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
'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
'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
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.'
Original URL: http://prostudio.com/studiosound/sept97/pp_contact.html