The Sparring Partners

David Fincher's The Fight Club is in the heat of postpro, demanding the authentic noises of the fist fight. These may not be to everybody's taste yet are an essential part of the movie. Richard Buskin hits the sound crew on their jabs


THE SICK SOUND of a punch. You have heard it thousands of times in countless different ways and in a variety of movie settings, ranging from the brutal in-ring thuds of boxing films such as Rocky and Raging Bull to the explosive sounds of 'chop-socky' pictures such as the Kung-Fu cycle of the seventies. In practically every case, the audible result is a wild exaggeration of the real thing, conveying the full power, pain and impact of throwing or receiving a blow to the face or body. So, how do you mix things up a little when the director of a new action movie wants his actors' punches to sound different yet equally convincing? Well, there is always the option of smashing some walnuts inside a chicken carcass...

'We've experimented with all sorts of different things,' says Ren Klyce, the sound designer on director David Fincher's latest film, The Fight Club, starring Ed Norton, Helena Bonham-Carter and Brad Pitt. 'Shattering chicken carcasses with baseball bats, cracking walnuts inside them, smacking around slabs of meat with pigs' feet, and then processing them... We've done it all, and as a result of this project our 'punch' library has become quite extensive. When you hear the punches in a film like Rocky they usually just use one punch over and over again; it's very muddy and dark, and kind of boxy sounding. David Fincher, however, was much harder to please, and so we had to come up with some very different sounds.'

'Originally we were aiming for the punches to be lifelike,' adds Malcolm Fife, who mixed Foley on the picture. 'Our Foley artist was John Roesch, and, together with Hilda Hodges, he did a bunch of temp tracks with big punches that sounded like they were from a bare-fist fight. In fact, while Mary Jo Laing and Caroline Tapp were taking care of the recording and mixing on the other side of the control room glass, John was just punching himself or some props --heavy bags, leather items and pieces of meat--that had worked well over the years, and it sounded really good, with a real kind of painful, close feeling. However, it didn't marry well with the music and the design low frequencies, so as we went along we started to beef things up. In turn, that caused quite a debate on the mix stage.'

Ren Klyce and Malcolm Fife have both worked with David Fincher before, on his films The Game and Seven. Together with fellow engineer David Gleeson --who also participated in the premixes, temp mixes and sound design for The Fight Club--they co-own Tyrell Studios, a facility in Sausalito, California that opened in 1997 and now caters to several different pro areas, ranging from feature films and commercials to music projects and design work. Fairlight and Pro Tools systems are based under the same roof, as is surround-sound capability and a Sony MXP 3056 analogue console that has been refitted with API EQ and mic preamps, as well as GML automation.

'A primary motivation for starting our own studio was the fact that our design work was getting so complicated,' explains Fife. 'It would be interwoven with dialogue, music, Foley, and so forth, and Ren would be trying to create these complicated integrated mixes that would fit together. A big problem with a lot of big films is that all of the layers are being developed independently, and no-one really knows what they are going to sound until it's too late. You end up doing a lot of cutting on the sound stage, and so that's why we decided to build our own rooms in which we could hear everything the way it's supposed to be long before time runs out.'

Audio post work on The Fight Club began in February 1999, a temp cut being done to the video output of an Avid system in order to provide the director with instant feedback and the Tyrell crew with the opportunity to try out their design ideas. All of which brings us back to the combat sounds that David Fincher was concerned about fitting together.

'On a lot of movies everybody works in their own little world, and then it all comes together at the end and everyone tries to figure out why it's not working,' says Malcolm Fife. 'In this case, however, we've actually been taking mix stems from the stage at Skywalker, playing them in our own room, adding sweeteners, mixing and getting great results.

'David Fincher has very strong opinions about what he wants to hear in terms of the Foley, but the problem is that on a project like this there is a wide variety of opinions. You know, what sounds like a really nice, hard, painful punch to one person might sound like cardboard to another. Or it might sound good in one context when you're just listening to the Foley predub, but then when you try to add music and roaring crowds it suddenly sounds really patchy. At the same time, if you listen to it for too long you start to fall in love with your sound, no matter what it is that you're doing, and so sometimes it can be heartbreaking to spend a lot of time on a scene only to find out that the director hates it for the same reasons that you love it. That means you've got to amend your taste a little, and usually you can. It's all about opinions, and there's not really a right and wrong.'

'Typically you sit with the director at the outset of a project and spot the film head to toe, with him or her dictating what he or she wants and where,' adds Ren Klyce. 'However, in David Fincher's case, he won't really sit down and do a traditional spotting session at the outset. Instead he'll sort of spot sporadically throughout the shooting and the editing. He likes to hear material as he's cutting and picture editing, so I would usually send different examples or 2-track composites for him and his picture editor, Jim Haygood, to cut in. What's great about the opportunity to do that is the fact that they get used to hearing material which is either very close to being complete or a facsimile of what they will ultimately hear. That prevents the situation where you get to the mix and they just dislike everything; they dislike the direction of the ambiences, they dislike the direction of the punching sounds... In a way, David Fincher's very smart getting the people to start early.'

Still, is there a flip side to this approach, whereby Ren Klyce is more in the dark at the outset?

'Yes, that is the flip side,' he confirms. 'But it's also good, because the extra time enables me to kind of experiment and try different things. That's what is really, really good about working for David.'

The level of drama in The Fight Club varies with each fight, with most of the duels taking the form of blood sports between friendly combatants as opposed to straightforward slugfests between sworn enemies. As a result, the Foley team had to convey a general feeling of fun and excitement in addition to all of the pain. Nevertheless, due to the stylised nature of the movie's more notable fights, their initial quest for audio realism sometimes evolved into audio surrealism.

'I think the chicken carcasses, meat slabs, pigs' feet and so on sound pretty good,' says Klyce, 'but when we'd get to the editing stage David Fincher would hate everything and we would have to start all over again.'

So, said director's method of spotting throughout the shoot and edit does not always preclude the good old 'scrub it and do it again' routine.

'Well, no, not to mention the fact that he would often still be cutting the film,' says Klyce. 'That was very taxing for the entire crew, and it was very, very difficult to keep up the spirit and momentum of the editing guys without getting fatigued and disheartened. They keep changing the darned film and the sound is linear even though the picture is vertical, so if you have A, B, C and D in terms of the sound and they want to swap A with D you then have to deal with a situation where A used to trail into B. You can tell the director about that sort of thing but he'll just think you're a cry-baby. "Deal with it!" So, you can't complain, but at the same time you're getting pressure from the studio as to why things are going over-budget.'

This having been said, a highlight of The Fight Club project for the Foley crew was the opportunity to actually make use of a 3-storey house that had been constructed for filming on the Twentieth Century Fox lot. Creaking wooden floors, 14-foot high ceilings, glass windows and multiple surfaces, together with the kind of acoustics that one would associate with a C19th San Franciscan home, were all made available to Foley, and these were duly capitalised on with a portable DAT machine and Hi-8 playback system.

'We had no synchronisation process,' says Klyce, 'so we'd actually just yell out "three-two-one," snap our fingers in place of a slate and walk around the house and record things. Then, after we edited it, Michael Semanick did a terrific job in the mix. As a result, in the finished film there's a wonderful scene where people are walking all over the house; Helena Bonham-Carter will walk up the stairs and Michael will pan it behind you via the surrounds, and then Brad Pitt will walk in and go up the stairs and she'll walk back down, and there'll be this wonderful circular sound which is in the actual acoustic space.

'Speaking of which, there are a lot of fights that take place in basements, and for these we tried out all sorts of fancy Lexicon 480 treatments on the punches and also on the yelling, but they didn't quite work for our mix tech, Jurgen Scharpf. Well, they have this wonderful basement at Skywalker Sound, and so he set up a speaker in there and stereo microphones, and we spent quite a bit of time getting the levels right, and then we'd playback the sounds in the basement and rerecord them. That turned out really great--we call it our "worldizing chamber"--and the funny thing is that once in a while we would hear somebody walk by and we'd laugh among ourselves at how he or she might be freaking out when hearing the sounds of people yelling in agony.'

Meanwhile, in addition to all of the effort spent on the fight sequences, another challenging scene featured a major car accident.

'It's easy for that kind of scene to simply be loud instead of paying attention to detail,' Klyce explains. 'You don't want it to be just one long 20 or 30-second ear-splitting thing. It has to be loud and visceral, but at the same time it also has to be spooky, allowing for slow-motion shots intercut with ones at regular speed, and incorporating the sounds of metal and glass, the exterior rain, Brad Pitt tumbling in slow motion and having his cheeks pressed against the glass, and various other wonderful images. It's hard to achieve that.

'Surprisingly enough, the most difficult things are often those that nobody notices; subtle things like ambiences and textures. For instance, one of the characters in the film, Marla Singer--played by Helena Bonham-Carter--lives in a tenement in a bad area. Well, how do you convey that without having an establishing shot of the slum? The answer lies in the things that people don't notice while they're just listening to the dialogue; the sound of a baby coming through the wall of the tenement, the sound of a television coming through the wall, the sound of downtown transit buses rather than cars. Those are actually the most fun to do but they are also very difficult, because as you cut them in and then you mix them you start paying attention and eventually you become obsessed. There's also the placement of those specific little sounds that no one notices; the sound of someone coughing or--as in a scene set in a hofbrau --people serving cappuccino and setting up tables. We put a lot of effort into recording all of these things in a proper acoustical space.'

While the Foley was recorded on MFX3+ at Warners Hollywood, ADR for The Fight Club was recorded on Pro Tools at Disney. The dubbing was done at Skywalker.

'We would have liked to use the MFX3+ for the ADR as well, and we asked to,' says Malcolm Fife, 'but while we had control over the design portion of the project and the Foley, we were also working in conjunction with a big facility and had to go along with what was best suited in that respect.

'We use the Fairlight for feature films and commercials because we get to take things directly off the Foley stage. Having been in contact with it on a few shows we decided that the Fairlight would also be best for our mix room at Tyrell, and going from the mix back into the edit room to conform is seamless. There's no special conversion or wave-form generating necessary like there is with Pro Tools, and the MFX3+ is particularly good for Foley and ADR because when you're recording one channel at a time you can put in lots of layers. There again, the picture changed so rapidly on this project that, on a couple of occasions, we actually started on a particular reel and halfway through recording it they chose a new version that was so different that we decided to continue with that version without missing any new scenes. I therefore conformed the Foley on the MFX3+ right there on the Foley stage, and sometimes if you're working with other formats that can be a bit trickier to do. However, the only hassle that we had was making fresh cue sheets before we started.

'We do a lot of the initial cutting of effects on the Pro Tools at Tyrell, because our libraries are all Pro Tools and there are a lot of plug-ins. However, the Pro Tools is a terrible mix recorder. It's no good for remote punching in and out, it doesn't have a lot of professional features and it's not as reliable as the Fairlight, but it's a very good editing machine for design purposes.'

Tyrell also has a DAD Plus Digital Audio Dubber, and this was transported back and forth between there and Skywalker to deliver Foley elements during the mix of The Fight Club.

'The DAD played back 24 channels of Foley and we mixed that to 8-channel pre-dubs,' says Fife. 'We actually did transfer those pre-dubs so that they could join the rest of the effects and dialogue pre-dubs on MMR-8 at Skywalker, but the Foley elements were retained on the dubber for the mix.'

The final mix for The Fight Club was carried out on the Neve Capricorn inside Mix Room A at Skywalker, with Todd Boekelheide taking care of the Dust Brothers' music score, while Michael Semanick handled the dialogue and David Parker mixed the effects. Richard Hymns was the sound supervisor.

'On a lot of shows no one really cares about the Foley,' says Malcolm Fife. 'They disregard it and you can do pretty much whatever you want, but that isn't the case with David Fincher. He cares a whole lot about Foley and so we've really done a great deal of it on this film, doing several things over and over again to please him, please ourselves and make it all fit. That can be a pain in the butt, but I do like it, because my job would really suck if every project was one of those where no one is concerned with the Foley. It's only fun doing Foley when you're working with people who are really into it, and you can do what you want knowing that if you get it right they'll appreciate it and use it in the movie. As a Foley editor a lot of what you do people don't care about--you do the rubbing of skin and the picking up and putting down of knives and forks, but this film is really about contact between people; often just two of them, no shirts, no shoes, involved in a brawl. In scenes like that you can sweeten things with effects, but if you don't have good Foley the whole thing just won't work.'   
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