the eve of the release of the first all-digital Hollywood picture, Richard
Buskin speaks to the crew behind a new sci-fi blockbuster, and discovers
a postproduction schedule that would exhaust even Lost in Space's Robbie
NOBODY EVER PRETENDS that film work is easy, but even by Hollywood's manic standards, this takes some beating. The location is Todd-AO in Los Angeles, the date is 10th March 1998; a bunch of bleary-eyed professionals are working from 9am until midnight seven days a week to complete the final mix on Lost in Space. Shot entirely at England's Shepperton Studios between March and July of 1997, directed by Stephen Hopkins and starring William Hurt, Gary Oldman, Matt Le Blanc and Mimi Rogers, this is a high-tech, big-screen update of the 1960s TV series about the trials and tribulations of the space family Robinson together with Dr Zachary Smith and Robbie the Robot.
The past few months have seen three temp mixes, multiple editing, the predubs and now the final mix. Today it is Tuesday. On Friday the team is scheduled to fly to London to commence work on the mag mastering. Just over two weeks later Lost in Space will open in the US. Nevertheless, at the time of my visit to Todd-AO's refurbished and equipped Stage1 (more of which later) and nearby Studio C, there are still half a dozen London facilities cranking out the visual effects and sending them to LA via ISDN, where they are converted to PAL 25fps Beta SX. That means the post guys are, in numerous cases, mixing the sound without pictures and then remixing after either seeing the visuals or simply being corrected by the director.
'We've done a lot of manic projects but this is the worst,' says Chris Jenkins, the president of Todd-AO who is also mixing the film's dialogue. 'There's been no time for preparation, and let's just say that the fault for that lies with the nature of the movie. It's so huge, there are so many shots, and stuff is constantly being pushed back and back. Yet we have a release date to meet and we've got two studios up and running to somehow make that deadline.'
'Things have definitely been extremely compressed,' adds effects mixer Ron Bartlett. 'The lack of visual shots has been the hardest thing--it's not easy trying to do this job with about 500 shots missing, and we've often just had to make our best guess and then cross our fingers. We'll be mixing away and the director will come in and say, "Oh, no, no, no! In this sequence a huge rock comes down...", and we'll say, "There's a rock?" So it really has been crazy and a lot of times our predubs are useless. Chopping up the sound of a moving object, creating holes in it and trying to fit it to a new effect is just wrong. It sounds bad. So, in those cases what we've done is retain the pieces that are good, cut a mass amount of sweeteners to fix around that, and then make that all move in conjunction with what's supposed to be there.'
'Sometimes it feels like we're doing too much,' says supervising sound editor Eddie Joseph, 'but somehow we keep it all together. We have to. We've received the last visual effect and the film is completely locked just three weeks before we open, whereas normally you'd be locked before mixing. In this case, however, due to the complexity of the visual effects it just hasn't been possible.'
'Poor Eddie could hardly do any sound design because he was always chasing temp dubs,' adds Chris Jenkins.
Joseph commenced work on the project in his native England, and, as initially described to him, the overall idea was to aim for that sci-fi movie staple; 'something different'.
'We've had Star Trek and Star Wars and so on, and the objective for this film was to go another stage,' he continues. 'Stephen [Hopkins] actually wanted to make the spaceship more organic--even though everything is high-tech it's only set about 60 years in the future, so a lot of the things are still going to be the same as we know them. The robot, for instance, would be servo-constructed but would still have the cyber equipment in there to give it a more snappy, sleeker sound. That, therefore, is what we were generally going for; a combination of sounds that you'll know and understand together with others that you won't recognise.
'I've done big films before but this is the first sci-fi movie that I've worked on, and so whereas normally I would never have thought of employing a sound designer per se, in this case I've brought in people who could do a specific job for me. For instance, there's a musician who I met at Pinewood Studios who helped me design some "zaps" and moves for the robot. He could use music samples to achieve this, rather than me simply utilising a real sound, and the robot therefore ended up with servo parts and movable joints and interesting little noises as well... It's a fairly conventional-looking robot, a very heavy machine, and he runs on treads, and we put an enormous amount of low end into the tread sound so that it becomes a formidable machine in itself. There again, while we tried to give a servo to the trunk and head movements, he has two regular arms and two smaller arms and for those we created little zippy sounds just to help identify how the different areas work... Sometimes you can use things that you never would have thought would work, and people accept it.'
As for the oyster-shaped spaceship that the Robinsons travel aboard, Joseph describes this as, 'a very beautiful, sleek beast. It has its own kind of life force in that it has this throbbing sound, instead of a constant noise which a lot of other movie spaceships have. Again, it gives the impression that, while it's a machine, there's also something organic about it, and we don't always achieve that because we can detract from what's going on by being a bit too clever with the all of the different sounds. You start with nothing and therefore you're scared that people are going to think that it's a set. As a result you probably put in more than you should to start with, and you then start taking things away. If the music is good--which it is--and if the dialogue is important--which it often is--then of course the backgrounds and effects have to be supplementary; the normal mixing procedure, not always adhered to, but we've at least tried to do that.'
WHILE EDDIE JOSEPH works with a DAR Soundstation, other sound crew personnel were employing Waveframe, Audiovision, Pro Tools and Fairlight. To that end, the MMR8 was the recording medium of choice because of its ability to interface with all of the aforementioned.
'The MMR8 is a great medium,' says Eddie Joseph. 'If you want to do changes on the stage the MMR8 will plug into a Waveframe or whatever, you can do a file edit, put it back again and it's done, and you haven't actually transferred anything out.'
According to Joseph, sound editor Ron Eng convinced everyone that the MMR8 route was the way to go on the Lost in Space project: 'We could do a master and he could then unplug the drive, put it into his Waveframe on the stage and edit, whereas a Fairlight doesn't interface with the editors unless you're using Fairlight. We had a change yesterday on Reel5, for instance, and it probably took Ronnie 15 minutes to do the form on the three master stems as well as seamlessly fill in some backgrounds. In that way it's incredibly fast. Plus, Ithink mixers will enjoy using the MMR8 more and more because they can hear backwards and it locks in instantly. I wish we had more here, we haven't got enough. We've only got about eight and we really need 15. We hang the rest of the predubs on DA-88.'
Meanwhile, with the use of Todd-AO's new AMS Neve DFC consoles--installed on 5th December, operational 6th February--Lost in Space is the first all-digital Hollywood picture (discounting the mag mastering). In this respect the Americans have thus far lagged behind the Europeans, and Chris Jenkins doesn't only put this down to cost-effectiveness.
'Until now, nobody has built a digital desk that can handle film mixing,' he states. 'We've used everything that's out there, because mixing has become so convoluted that we're running two consoles. Even with our bigger boards we're running extra consoles--another 72 inputs or another 38 inputs, like everybody is--and the digital boards that we've used have just been terrible. The monitor busing, the panning; they're all geared towards making records, whereas the DFC is the first all-digital desk that we've seen that can conform to realistic film needs. We had its predecessor--the Logic 2--in here two years ago and it was terrible; we actually had two of them and they were an absolute nightmare to work with.'
Todd-AO now houses a 3-man DFC on Stage 1 and a 2-man version in Studio C. 'The DFC is based on the same processing engine as the Logics, but we've redesigned the surface so that it's more user-friendly in the film environment,' explains Hugh Gwilym, the AMS Neve product manager who was nearing the end of a babysitting stint at Todd-AO when I was there. 'Basically, that consists of the busing structure and also the channel sub- structure. The busing structure is completely soft in this environment, customised so that it's organised in stems as the film mixers are used to, and on each of the assignable channel strips the busing is presented accordingly. Then, in terms of the layout of the channel strip, the parameters and the facilities that film mixers consider to be the most important have been laid out closer to the surface, and we've also redistributed them on the same page. At the same time we've introduced some additional facilities, such as linking parameters, while the console can be run in multiple sections.'
'This board is just remarkable,' Chris Jenkins agrees, with regard to not only its practicality but also the digital sound. 'Compared to where you are with analogue boards and analogue outputs the difference is just black and white, and I wasn't quite prepared for that. I don't think anyone was. I don't think they were aware of what the gains would be as far as closing the loops on things. It happened so fast in this company; between December and February the world completely changed with regard to the work process, how stuff sounds, how it gets around the place. Nobody could have foreseen us doing things on the scale that we now are for this picture, because we reinvented everything. I'm constantly running around and yelling at people, saying, "You still put tones on the head of a drive because it's a drive". We're going to take all this stuff to England without lineup tones, the labelling isn't right, and this all because we truly have thrown out 75 years of professional audio discipline. It's exhausting to see what people are going through to impose all of the old practices on the new technology.
'The shift in culture is just stunning. We have one guy who does everything upstairs, and the reel changes that used to take an hour will now take him maybe 45 seconds or a minute to set up all of the audio for the show. He'll pop in half a dozen drives and the videotape picture and it's there. Nevertheless, it's funny how it's perceived--I remember, we were temp dubbing and we had everybody in Studio C, and because it took two-and-a-half to three minutes to change a reel instead of one minute people suddenly became really tense and uptight! Never mind that it took a twentieth of the time that it used to take.'
'Using the digital console is such an advance,' adds Ron Bartlett. 'What you put in you get out. There are, of course, some really nice things about mag--the flow of the way you work--but now at least we don't have to worry about machines being lined up properly, Dolby SR cards and the headroom on that. The speed is lightning fast versus rolling down a 2,000-foot roll of mag and trying to cut a predub, and not being able to do a crossfade or anything to fix it with. You know, we would get rolls of mag chopped up and then a bunch of sweeteners to fix it, whereas the guys will now just fix it in their workstations. So, that's a huge help.
'We bought the console and bought all of these A-D convertors together with some digital--definitely more analogue than digital--assuming that people were going to come in on 2-inch analogue mag and some digital workstations. Eventually, we thought, things would cross over totally to digital, but the very first show, whoosh, they were gone. We didn't touch one piece of mag. It was unbelievable, but who could have known? Really it was down to having to put this show together in the time required that meant we had to do things this way. We called around town and got all of the MMR8s we could find, we had two stages going in the same PAL setup, and hooking that all up was an amazing task. The engineering department deserves a hand, because just to get all of this gear to work within our compressed schedule was shocking.'
Bruce Broughton composed the film's bombastic music score which was recorded at Abbey Road in London and then mixed by Mark Smith in LA. Indeed, Smith, who worked on the effects predubs together with Ron Bartlett, really got himself out of jail when--as per the two men's usual procedure at Todd-AO--he switched to the music mix while Bartlett continued to deal with the effects. After all, it wasn't the music which was thrown into turmoil by the constant flow of visual effects being sent via ISDN from London.
'I'm out here in the sunshine talking to you while the others are sweating it out in there,' is how Smith succinctly summarises the situation. 'You know, what with all of the dialogue changes, ton of ADR that has come in since we predubbed, sound effects literally being spotted as we go along, and all of the picture changes and conceptual changes on top of that, these poor guys are going crazy. Meanwhile, I'll lower the intro a little and relax. As any of the music guys in town will tell you, we've got a great gig. Because, as important as the music is--it's the emotion of the movie, often driving the film along and linking scenes together--by its very nature it's not something that you can just cut in one place and pick up elsewhere. It has to flow from Reel 1 until the end, and so there are restrictions as to what you can do to it.
'Meanwhile, for my part, having already predubbed the sound effects I know where all of them are, and so I know what's working with the music and what isn't. The music is a fact of life, whereas in most cases the sound effects aren't. The dialogue is also a fact of life, and so it's really good to know what does and doesn't work with the music.
'The music came to me on eight tracks with a left-centre- right orchestra, left-centre-right synthesiser, choir tracks and two tracks of percussion. The percussion mainly comprised close-in mics from the live orchestra as well as the occasional overdub; the synth parts were very, very minimal; and the choir performed a very important part of the score, with female voices split from male voices
'Stressing the importance of carefully programming the Neve DFC in order to achieve the desired results, Smith asserts that, in this respect too, the music mix represents the relatively easy option. 'With music you have a beginning and an end, and you have spaces to set up the board,' he explains. 'The sound effects, on the other hand, are going constantly, and so you have to be very careful in setting up the console, while dialogue is marginally easier; there are pauses in the dialogue where you can actually go offline, set up your mix and punch it in. Still, music is the easiest thing to work on with this console because you do have the time, and it sounds fabulous.'
Still, if the Lost in Space dialogue has been easier to mix than the effects, Chris Jenkins could be forgiven for not noticing. Thanks to the usual extraneous noises caused by locations, sets and costumes, not to mention the more-than-usual number of film revisions that have been deemed necessary throughout the months, about 90% of the dialogue has been looped.
'Everyday we loop,' says Jenkins. 'We'll have the actors in all day on the stage, and we'll finish mixing at one in the morning and then somebody will come in because another ten lines need looping. Still, I have to say that Stephen Hopkins is just the most enthusiastic, hard-working guy. He's doing this and he's doing visual effects as well and keeping all of these balls in the air, and he's working his tail off to do it. He's a great guy to work with because he never lets it get him down, but we're quickly coming to the realisation now that we have three more days to work on two artist reels. We usually have three days a reel, but we keep cutting time off the schedule. There again, this is not a crew that likes to compromise at all because they are trying to do their best work, so it's a constant struggle--not to mention the fact that we've got an entirely new system; new workstations, new consoles, new everything. That's been the nature of Lost in Space.
'We really are in the trenches on this project,' concludes Mark Smith, 'but we'll all go on to other movies and look back on this as a tremendous bonding experience. Everybody's got a great attitude and we are having fun, even though things have been--how should I put it--very, very labour intensive.'
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