Deep trouble

For the second time in 12 months, the movies are dragging us beneath the waves for our entertainment. Richard Buskin talks to the sound team behind Sphere

HAVING DIPPED our heads beneath the waves with this year's blockbuster movie, Titanic, it's time to break out the snorkels once again as we immerse ourselves in the sound recording and postproduction on Sphere. Directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L Jackson. The film is based on a novel by Michael Crichton and employs enough sci-fi staples to make it an action-packed project worth investigating.

Indeed, this tale of the investigation of an alien sphere by an American spacecraft and the monstrous manifestations of the subconscious mind (shades of Forbidden Planet, which was itself based on Shakespeare's The Tempest) features a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-style giant squid to occupy our heroes, while the inherent properties of underwater filming also served to keep the sound crew more than busy. You see, Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson is not a man who likes to leave the audio to ADR. Rather, he insists on retaining as much of the production sound as possible, an admirable approach that is evident in the more naturally energetic on-screen results, yet this is nothing if not a challenge to those who realise his sonic ambitions, most of whom have already worked with him on previous pictures.

ss0398am01'I've worked with Barry Levinson since Rain Man in 1989,' says sound designer, Richard Beggs, who operates out of his own home while most of the post work on the new film was done at Lucas Digital's Skywalker Sound facility near San Francisco. Beggs first became involved with the project in July of 1997 while shooting was still taking place and continued to work on it for seven months.

'After a 2-picture layoff this film represented a logical progression in relation to the collaboration that has existed between Barry and I during the past decade,' he explains. 'Obviously, over the course of several pictures we've developed a kind of style, as well as a way of dealing with certain problems, and there's a stylistic path that I follow that Barry apparently thinks is sympathetic to what he's doing. As a result, there weren't any specific directives regarding the concept of the sound.

'I read the script at a fairly early stage, thought about it, went on location a couple of times, got a feel for what was happening and looked at the dailies. At the same time, Barry talked about the picture and how he saw it; he didn't talk about it in sound terms, but described the mood and atmosphere that he envisaged for what I guess could be called a psychological underwater thriller. My previous picture with him had been Sleepers, whose soundtrack was fairly innovative, employing abstract sounds in very expressive and emotive ways. For me that is kind of where the meat is, and so he obviously saw this picture as an opportunity to push that idea even further. He basically said, "See how far you can take this", and that was it--meaning that I was off on my own.

'Of course, there were several specific things that he wanted to make sure I dealt with. There are hundreds and hundreds of details in the picture and some of them that were important to me he wouldn't think about twice--they would never occur to him until he heard me do something to them or about them. On the other hand there were also things that he was concerned with that didn't strike me as particularly outstanding. You see, by a certain stage on this project I'd formulated an approach--almost an architecture
--for how the sound would develop and behave, and to that end I divided the picture into three parts, tying in with the points at which things go in a certain direction. For one, the characters lose their power support system and communication with the surface, and the on-screen incident that underscores this consists of a large umbilical cord becoming detached from the craft and disappearing into the darkness. An announcement is made to the crew that they're now on emergency power, and obviously things are about to happen in this completely artificial environment. For me, from a sound perspective, this was a hinge point; a lot of electronic equipment that contributed to the general ambience of the place has shut down and we're left with a more bare-bones approach, so the texture would have to become more open and transparent, with fewer high-technology sounds being audible.

'That, at least, was the plan; although it's not quite as obvious in my telling. Still, it's there, operating in a more unconscious way. You know, nobody knows what has happened but things are, in fact, different. That was the first mood shift, and then the second point that delineates between the second and third act occurs after this kind of apocalyptic encounter with the giant squid, a manifestation of what's going on in people's psyches. Two crew members are killed as a result and then there's a fire, following which the place is a wreck but it's still running. Now, therefore, this decayed, decrepit aspect creeps in; everything is dark and in half-light, the red warning indicators are constantly giving this sort of low-level throb, the place has been ruptured and it's leaking, and so there's this almost cave-like sound along with a kind of exaggeration of the essential functions of the habitat.

'This, therefore, was the concept that I discussed with Barry. He agreed to it and the finished picture more or less conforms to that, even though nothing, of course, ever works out exactly as you planned. Meanwhile, within that context, Barry really wanted things to sound broken in the end and dangerous, compared to the beginning of the film where he wanted to downplay the idea of any threat. For instance, when we first encounter this sphere, this alien object, composer Elliot Goldenthal had scored it very dramatically, but Barry then asked, "Why are we afraid of it? It's awfully early and we don't know it's dangerous". He wanted to play that card later, and so that kind of thinking is what helped shape the various stages.'

The composer rescored the said scene.

THIS EXAMPLE of the director paying attention to detail was fairly broad, however, compared to the minutiae that captured his attention on other occasions. Sample the scene where Dustin Hoffman backs up and bumps into a metal equipment trolley, causing a loud and sharp clattering sound. This was initially retained from the actual production footage, yet, at the point where Hoffman appears to have stopped moving, another clattering sound occurred as a result of something that had been teetering on the edge. Accordingly, being that this errant object couldn't be seen, the sound that it made was edited out. Levinson wasn't happy.

'Something's missing,' he complained at a subsequent screening. 'It doesn't sound the way I remember it.' Only Richard Beggs could recall what he was talking about, and so the spurious sound was reinserted. Fine, except that later on the effects crew would be redoing all of the effects that Beggs himself hadn't personally created. One of these, of course, was the sound of Hoffman colliding with that damned metal trolley, and so once the editors got their hands on the relevant scene they came up with a sound that they considered to be infinitely better. 'They', because, after Levinson heard the re-re-re-edited effect he exclaimed, 'What's happening? This sounds even further away'. Things were amended once more, but this kind of incident kept repeating itself because few people could accept the notion that the director would care about such seemingly trifling matters when he had so many more major issues to concern himself with. Wrong.

'They're all judgement calls,' says Richard Beggs, 'and if I had been on my toes enough I would have made an announcement earlier to the effect that, despite what anyone thought about something being right or wrong, it would be in the picture if that's what the director wanted. I, however, never made that distinction to the crew, and so to some degree what happened was my responsibility. Still, that's how our concerns could differ.

'I came onto the project at a fairly early stage with just my assistant, and from the very first cut I started providing sounds to the cutting room, making it easy for them to incorporate things into their ongoing mix. Rather than be surprised on the dubbing stage
--which is often the case--unlike a lot of other directors Barry would much rather know what's coming. In fact, on previous pictures he would come to the dubbing stage after having worked on the picture's development for a year or year-and-a-half, and he would have a very clear idea in his head as to what it was going to sound like. Maybe he never articulated it, but there was some idea there. Then, if he suddenly heard something and it didn't conform with this idea, even if it was terrific, he would be so thrown that his initial reaction was to reject it. So, this method of working where the soundtrack develops along with the picture is what we now do.'

A lot of the Sphere's effects are original, Beggs having recorded them with an HHB DAT and Neumann SM191 stereo mic. At the same time, for his own home-based editorial work, alongside a minimum of outboard gear such as an E-mu Systems E4X Turbo sampler and a pair of Lexicon 300 processors, he employed a 32-track Sonic Solutions system. His assistant, Nicole Bugna, used a 12-track Sonic Solutions setup and these two workstations were linked together via Medianet, Beggs asserting, 'I'm a real Sonic Solutions kind of guy', while admitting that, relative to the modus operandi at the Pro Tools and Waveframe-dominated Skywalker facility, he's in a minority. Consequently, all other effects were done on Pro Tools, while Foley was carried out on Waveframe.

'Thinking that the film was going to be released sometime last year we started pre-mixing it in the fall,' says Lora Hirschberg, who dealt with the sound effects and Foley while Tom Johnson mixed the dialogue. 'Richard Beggs brought special tracks that he had constructed in his studio to the dub stages here at Skywalker Sound, and we mixed his sound effects, those that our regular sound effects editorial crew had put together and then the Foley. We pre-mixed all of that here on an
80-input SSL 5000 and the final mix started shortly after the New Year on Mix Stage A, which has a 150-input Capricorn digital console. Richard usually generated somewhere between 20 and 50 tracks, whereas the effects department probably had about 40 tracks when they worked on the attack by the giant squid. At the most I'd say that there were maybe 70 raw tracks in ss0398am09 the bigger scenes.'

'We pre-mixed to 6-track mag, and then, because there were a load of picture changes, we actually loaded the mag back into workstations in order to be conformed. That way we didn't have to go back and update all of the mag premixes; we just played them back off of a workstation and re-recorded them during the final, using the workstation to do the fixes where the picture changes had taken place. We'd have to either lengthen or shorten any backgrounds we'd done and resync any hard effects.'


SUPERVISING sound editor Tim Holland was in charge of the audio crew at Skywalker for what he describes as 'the nuts and bolts kind of work', while Michael Silvers supervised the dialogue. 'I tended to do a lot of the bashing and crashing things for scenes such as the squid attack and the fire,' explains Holland, who has now worked on three of Barry Levinson's films. 'The effects editor, JR Grubbs, and I sat down with Richard at the start of August and divided up what we were going to do. To give credit, Richard actually had the bulk of the impact--he did the art. We, on the other hand, also did the Foley; footsteps on steel gratings and so on.

'In terms of ADR, the vast majority of the production dialogue was retained. Steve Cantamessa, who recorded it at that double tank in Valejo [California], did a really good job. Barry really liked the sound that came from the mics that he used underwater, and so when we came to do the looping--which was mainly for added dialogue--Michael Silvers took a couple of those diving helmets to the ADR stage. The actors, however, didn't want to wear them as they were so uncomfortable, so instead they took the mics out of the helmets and rigged them up to Telex headsets. Using the same mic really helped match the sound, and Tom Johnson would process it until it was exactly the same as what they got from production.'

And the mic that Steve Cantamessa used? 'It's a microphone developed by Ocean Technology Systems in Orange County [California],' he says. 'We'd called just about every company that manufactures diving sound equipment and OTS seemed the most competent and this mic worked very well. It's basically a very noise-cancelling microphone, a hot mic, and it enabled us to get fairly clean dialogue underwater.'

Cantamessa, who has worked on Barry Levinson's last five pictures, was involved with Sphere for about a year before it was made as there were several initial audio problems to be tackled.

'For one thing, the sets were very restrictive and it was very difficult to get a microphone in overhead,' he says. 'Still, it all worked out. The shots were tight enough that we were able to use a Sennheiser 416, which is what I like best, and when the headroom really got too cramped we used a Schoeps with the angled adaptor on it. That would enable us to work within, like, two inches of headroom, so my boom man, Gary Thomas, was able to work alongside a couple of cameramen... You had to get along with everybody because it was like jumping into your closet.

'Apart from the underwater dialogue there was also dialogue when they were wearing suits out of the water. We basically used a hard-line Duplex system which went into a mixing panel on the deck when they were in the water, and that would allow us to record their dialogue and them to hear the other actors underwater. We had the mics coming into different channels and we had a return going back into the water so that they could all hear each other. When they were on the spaceship they then walked around in different helmets, as the ones for underwater weighed in the region of a hundred pounds. These ones were much lighter and we figured we could all hear each other--there were even holes for ventilation--but it didn't take long to find out that wasn't so. We therefore used the same microphone tied into a Vega cue system that was all RF, and we branched off of that with an Lectrosonic UHF radio mic transmitter. I took the feed off of that and then the Duplex system worked for all the actors so that they could understand each other.

'Going into the water, we'd initially tested a wireless communications system in a pool and in the ocean and it worked very well. However, when we got into the tanks the filtering system in there which was ionising the water created loads of tiny bubbles. These basically would break down the sound signal. We were already going to use the Duplex system for the close-ups, so, assisted by the stuntmen, we now ended up also running it down the actors' legs and using it for everything.'

Bubbles aside, the sound of the actors' breathing was another vital issue.

'In terms of concepts for the habitat, air was real important,' says Richard Beggs. 'I mean, breathing's important, right? At all times the characters' very existence is tied to a rare mixture of gasses down there, and so early on I decided to use that to provide environmental background and dramatic effect. On the level of reality, all of the production recordings of the actors when they're wearing their deep-sea diving suits include the sound of a valve through which air is fed in and ejected. This isn't in real rhythm with their breathing, but sort of tracks it on a demand basis.

'So, I took some of the production sounds of breath and breathing as well as these valve sounds, put them in the trusty E4X and did the usual kind of tricks, slowing them down while not lowering the pitch.

'I subsequently developed a vocabulary of breathing and breath that ranged from the very, very abstract all the way up to the stuff that's very real. I gave a lot of the real stuff to the dialogue department so that they could enhance the production dialogue track, and then retained the stranger material in order to create a sort of breathing texture. There are two different versions of this, and those play simultaneously whenever they're in the space ship. Then there's this low, heavy breathing which relates to the sound of sleeping--a lot of bad stuff happens when this one guy is sleeping and dreaming, even though the others don't make the association early on, and so the sound of that breathing becomes a motif. Initially this is restricted to the interior of the spaceship itself, but later on you hear the sound everywhere, almost as if it's taken on a life of its own... A hokey idea, but t think it probably works.'

'It's a very interesting film,' says Lora Hirschberg. 'As a psychological thriller, the story isn't totally linear, and so a lot of the changes that they made involved switching scenes around and changing the order of some things. There were also a lot of transitional elements to go in between scenes, and so whenever any of those transitions changed we'd have to remix them.'

'Sphere changed a lot while we were working on it,' adds Tim Holland. 'In fact, it's one of the hardest movies that I've ever done. A lot of picture changes came rather late in the process--much more than on Barry's other films--and, while it's obviously done to make the movie better, that kind of thing creates big problems for the sound department. It's very easy for the picture guys to make an 8-frame trim somewhere but we have to then trim all of these tracks, and what's even worse is when we have to fill in where they've inserted new material. They actually had a small reshoot twoweeks before the end of the final mix, but, you know, Barry is a really nice guy and a talented guy, so it's a pleasure to work for him.'   
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