Friday, September 24, 2010

"The Tomb" and Edgar Allan Poe

In 2008, I had the opportunity to share my sound design madness on a film based on a story by one of the true masters of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe.  Poe's words have always painted such lucid and terrifying sounds and pictures in my head that when I heard we would be working on a film inspired by his story "Ligeia," my creative wheels spun into overdrive.

Directed by Michael Staininger, The Tomb (originally titled "Edgar Allan Poe's Ligeia") is the tale of the seductive and beautiful Ligeia Romanova, a student of witchcraft who, in her effort to further finance an attempt to conquer death, enraptures the rich and successful scholar Jonathan Merrick (not The Elephant Man's Jonathan Merrick), pulling him into her dark and sinister world, and separating him from his soon-to-be-wife, Rowena.  This is a very liberal and unique interpretation of Poe's tale, and rightfully so since the page count for Mr. Poe's "Ligeia" runs about 10 pages long, give or take a paragraph or two.  Also, much of Poe's original story takes place in one location, and most of the action happens in the main character's head, as he anguishes by his wife's deathbed and is tormented by true love and loss.  Michael took the ideas, feelings and the sense of dread that the original literature invokes, and weaved them into an interesting and visually stunning tapestry, blending old world and pagan rituals with dark and modern witchcraft.

The initial spotting session involved the producer, director, picture editor, post production coordinator, and the composers.  There was lots of energy amongst the group, and I was pleased that our collective ideas gelled well in regards to music, sound design and dialogue.  During the session, and in further discussions and emails with both the director and picture editor, I drew upon my knowledge of storytelling, of developing themes and of Poe's literature to help elaborate and enhance the overt and subtle action in the story.

Before the film officially turned over to Monkeyland Audio to begin sound editorial, I was invited to two different screenings of the film.  This was great because it allowed me to experience the work in progress and start coming up with a mental game plan for the sound design.  Picture editor Danny Sapphire is an incredible, poetic and visual storyteller in his own right, and was able to bring the director's stunning vision to life.  His cut of the film really carved out great scenes where the sound design could stand out and be featured.

Our approach to sound design

With a strong team of like-minded sound editors aboard,  I set ahead to challenge myself and my team to really create a surreal experience while paying homage to a great American literary figure.  Sonically, there was much to experiment with, and we decided to tackle the soundscape by dividing the creative task into several parts:

Backgrounds and ambiences set the tone of the film, blending natural environmental sounds with drones and atonal elements to convey a sense of restlessness, impending danger, melancholy and plain ol' terror.  The ambiences evolved steadily throughout the film, drawing us further and deeper into the madness that the characters created for themselves.

There's a grey area we cross here in building backgrounds, one in which we dip generously into the sound design pool to create something organic yet supernatural.  We built layers of ambience to support and carry the sound design on those big stinger and scare moments.  It helped greatly that the film had such visually enticing locations, from windy cliff tops, a bleak and dreary mansion, spooky laboratories, an ominous cemetery and a seductive club scene.

For sound effects and foley, the directive was to try and achieve an interesting blend between archaic and sci-fi, combining creaky, rusty and heavy elements with hints of clean, clinical, modern technology.  Here's a sample taken from one of the film's elements, Ligeia's Soul Capture Mask:    Ligeia Soul Mask and Soul Capture Vial strapped on and engaged by peterdaniellago



Though I'd love to recap and discuss each and every single morsel of sound design that went into this film, for the sake of brevity (and so as not to give away every secret), I'd like to focus on some of my favorite elements, mainly sprinkling the soundscape with "Poeisms."


Sonic tributes to Poe in The Tomb

Call it a personal mission, but I wanted to inject subtle nods to Mr. Poe and his other great works throughout The Tomb, while remaining true to the current story being told.  Though not a direct note from our director, there were nonetheless many juicy spots throughout the film where I noticed we could make subtle references to some of Mr. Poe's other famous stories.  Many of these moments grew organically thanks to the great cinematography, a creative picture edit and the big visual effects.  For Poe fans, here are a few things to listen for:

1.  "The Raven":  Of course, how can we not acknowledge this one?  There were several obvious spots in which to recall the famous poem, as well as a few not-so-obvious spots.  The obvious moments were the ones in which a raven flies overhead, obviously.  Since the raven doesn't make his presence felt until the storyline takes us back to Ligeia's ominous Eastern European estate, we were able to keep the amount of references to a minimum.  Once home, the squawk of the dark bird can be heard in distant background as a purveyor of doom.

"The Raven" is also acknowledged during the appearances of Death, personified here as a hooded specter that haunts Ligeia.  As part of the "Death design," we demonically processed my voice crying "nevermore," alluding to the poem's famous line while warning Ligeia of the dangers involved in seeking immortality.

2.  "The Tell-Tale Heart":  The reference for this one came out of a creative decision from the picture editing department.  There's a moment where we transition across several characters in different nocturnal situations.  Though the sound of a heart beating has become quite a recognizable a movie cliche, I believe Poe's poem is what started it all.  In the case of The Tomb, we wanted to use a heartbeat as the central device that tied each character together, and given that one of these characters was on his hospital deathbed, the shape of the heartbeat evolved from mechanical to natural.  Slowly, as that heartbeat evolved, we took out all backgrounds, fx, foley, design and dialogue, leaving the heartbeat all alone, front and center, loud and up in your face, reminding us of what the unnamed narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" must have heard coming up from underneath the floorboards... and similarly, symbolizing the guilt that terrorized Jonathan in his sleep, jarring him awake.

3.  "The Pit and the Pendulum":  The reference here was a bit of a stretch, as an actual torture device was not employed in The Tomb.  However, during a dark and transformative moment for the young character Loralai, the filmmakers cut away to the slow swinging pendulum of an ancient grandfather clock.  Each time we cut back to the clock, we're a bit closer and the camera and lighting work to create an uneasy feel.  Sonically, we went from a smooth and steady pendulum to a more sinister sounding, heavy and creaking, archaic and mechanical, swinging axe of death. 

4.  "The Masque of the Red Death":  After having his soul stolen by Ligeia, one of her university professors stumbles back into the faculty cocktail party, his eyes leaking blood, his vision blurred by the red liquid...   The scene hints at "Masque," and good visual effects and picture editing gave us that "red death" point of view.  The sound design here included ghostly wails and deathly drones to support the actions of the poor professor.

5.  "The Casque of Amontillado":  Having perfected a way to capture souls, Ligeia keeps said souls corked in dusty wine bottles, in a cellar laboratory.  I am a big fan of irony, and the same way Amontillado sherry was used to trap the supposed-connoiseur Fortunato, I thought it would be nice to develop the basis for the soul captures and the soul vibrations from the resonance of wine glasses.  I employed the use of several different types of glass, including champagne flutes, pinot noir and chardonnay glasses, as well as glasses used for enjoying a good port.  I filled the glasses to different levels with both water and wine, wet my fingertips and recorded the sounds of my fingers along the rim of each glass.  In editing the sounds, I combined different tones together to create individual "frequencies" for the captured souls, some harmonic, some dissonant.  Check out the full design for what a captured soul sounds like:   Ligeia Successful Soul Capture, Full Design by peterdaniellago


6.  "The Fall of the House of Usher":  Ligeia's childhood mansion is large, dark, scary and "haunted." We approached the design for the house and the grounds as if this were the shell of a once-magnificent manor, and the third act of The Tomb surely allowed us to borrow generously from "Usher."  Having read "Usher" many times, I remembered the sheer terror that Roderick Usher must have felt knowing his sister Madeline had returned from the grave, and used that as an emotional basis for designing the ghostly and terrifying domain in The Tomb.


Epilogue


I wanted to share my experiences working on this film for quite some time now, partly because I put so much of my heart and soul into it, but also in part because I feel the sound design of The Tomb has gone a bit underrepresented in the press.  I've read quite a few articles about this film already, and except for giving the wonderful score (by Patrick Cassidy) a bit of positive praise, none have bothered to mention the rest of the film's sonic landscape.  I hope, then, that this brief blog can serve that purpose, and that it has helped shed a bit of understanding on how profound and impacting a good soundscape can be to a project.


The Tomb is scheduled for its U.S. DVD release next week (September 28th).  Please check out The Tomb's official website for lots more information (and to hear a bit more of our sound design)!

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Everything Must Go" sold to Lionsgate and Roadside!

The new Will Ferrell drama - Everything Must Go - sold to Lionsgate and Roadside for just over $3 Million at this year's Toronto Film Festival.  As a member of the sound editorial team on this film, I must say it feels really good knowing that such a "real" and touching film found a good home with a reputable distributor.  I really hope the marketing and publicity people really push it well because it deserves at least 1000 screens!


Trip Brock predubbing dialogue, Stage E
A big ol' thanks goes out to Beau Genot for trusting the Monkey crew once again with the audio post production duties on this film.  These tight deadlines can be quite grueling and stressful, but a good, strong sale in the end makes it all worthwhile (I'm just thankful to be working!).  

Thanks also go out to writer/director Dan Rush for letting us help tell his story.  I look forward to buying my ticket!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Weinsteins pick up "Dirty Girl" in Toronto

My edit bay at Monkeyland
See?  Hard work does in fact pay off!  Thanks to the kindness of writer/director Abe Sylvia, I was allowed an opportunity to work on a show that tugged at the heartstrings of Bob and Harvey Weinstein.  Dirty Girl's Toronto debut was a big win for Abe, and I can't wait what comes next for his film.  Theatrical release?  Straight to DVD?  We'll have to wait and see!

Click on this blog's title for a link to this really cool article from about.com, or scroll down to read my previous blog about our two Toronto-bound films.



Monday, September 13, 2010

Brian Jun's "Joint Body"

Writer/director Brian Jun made his home last week on Monkeyland's E Stage, where after several weeks of sound editorial, and ADR & foley mixing, he began his final mix on Joint Body.

Director Brian Jun during the final mix
I spotted the bleak drama with Brian sometime in August, and we had some really good discussions about where the film should go sonically. 

Brian, a gifted director, brought out strong and stoic, melodrama-free performances from his actors, and I wanted to make sure the sonic landscape helped mirror the pain and anguish they portrayed.  With most of the locations feeling inherently lonely to begin with (i.e., roadside motels, 24-hour diners, a hollow prison, a rural strip club), it felt right to me that our ambiences and backgrounds conveyed an empty and lonely "Twin-Peaks"-ian feel.

To start with, there was a bit of dodgy production audio (possibly something inherently goofy with the recording equipment and/or production microphones), which presented us with a bit of a challenge.  The trick here would be to cut the dialogue flawlessly and then experiment with ways in which to boost its volume and minimize the noise floor without making it sound overprocessed.  Skip Williams provided us with the edited dialogue, and Ben Whitver served as our ADR mixer.

Trouble on the dialogue front can sometimes be handled with a little help from our sound effects, and adding "layers of loneliness" could not only help mask some of the audio problems, but effectively provide the necessary sonic tone to the piece.
 
The sound effects team included Steven Avila and Alexander Pugh.  Our foley team comprised of Greg Mauer (mixer) and Tara Blume (artist).  They all did a great job in moving the story forward.

I comped, prepped and organized all the tracks, and added my own pass of sound effects and backgrounds to enhance the tracks the team delivered.

After reviewing all the new material with Brian, I handed the reigns over to veteran re-recording mixer Stanley Kastner who went on to whip it all into mix-ready shape.

Stanley Kastner, re-recording mixer
 Brian and Stanley hit it off just fine, and after a week of making strong creative decisions, the film's mixing was done.  They addressed the dodgy dialogue with a handful of different solutions provided by Waves and Cedar, as well as by sculpting through the various layers of backgrounds (which ranged from moody tones, buzzy lights, blustery winds, and other cacophonous treats) against the dialogue tracks in an effort to create tension and uneasiness.

Many congratulations to Brian on finally finishing Joint Body.  Working on this project was a pleasant experience for me.  I enjoyed sharing with Brian and look forward to seeing what he comes up with next!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Toronto Bound!

Re-recording mixer Mark Rozett on "Everything Must Go"
Festival season can be an exciting yet extremely hectic time for a post house, especially when you've got more than one film under the gun to meet that deadline for final submission.  This year, Monkeyland was lucky enough to be working on two Toronto-bound dramas - - "Everything Must Go" and "Dirty Girl" - - both of which feature strong and poignant storylines, excellent casts and solid direction.

Check out what the Hollywood Reporter has to say about them!

The two films came to MLA via post production supervisor Beau Genot, who pretty much set up shop at the studio for the entire summer.  We got to know his dog Buddy pretty well too!

We had very little time to get these films in shape for the mix, so it was uber important to that all editorial be as tightly prepared as possible.   


"Everything Must Go" spent all of last week on Stage A, with Mark Rozett and Trip Brock serving as re-recording mixers.  The film, a story about a down-in-the-dumps business man trying to come to clean up his messy life, was  written and directed by Dan Rush, and based on a short story by Raymond Carver.  The film stars Will Ferrell in a dramatic role and he does not disappoint (though you secretly hope he'd break out into some of his  Burgandy-esque shenanigans).   

I cut all backgrounds in this film as well as a good helping of the foley.  Though I wasn't available for the initial spotting session with the director and picture editor (Sandra Adair), I was nonetheless enthralled by the fact that most of the film takes place on Ferrell's front yard (I'll say no more so as not to spoil the story).  I knew immediately that the challenge was to build the sounds of a neighborhood that evolves from morning to mid-morning to noon to afternoon to early evening and late into the night.  It was a beautiful challenge for me since I enjoy the opportunity of enhancing the mood and feeling of a film via the environments natural to a film as well as those within a character's mind (which can evolve organically from the day-to-day sounds).

As the story evolved and the hero progressed through his arc, so did the sounds of the neighborhood change in response.  The wash of the distant traffic became the serene lull of swaying trees.  The hustle-and-bustle of a noisy yard sale transforms into a zen-like sunset, complete with the distant lullaby of peaceful birds.  

The mix went well and everyone was happy.  I'm sure it will do well at Toronto.

Some of the editorial and mix team for "Dirty Girl."  I'm on the far left;
Abe is wearing the hat.
"Dirty Girl" follows the lives of two hapless teenagers (the school's "dirty" girl and her in-the-closet pal) who struggle fearlessly with their identities.  The quirky duo make a cross country journey in which they discover much about friendship, love, life and most importantly, about themselves.

UCLA alum Abe Sylvia  wrote the script and directed the all-star cast which includes Milla Jovovich, Juno Temple, Tim McGraw, Dwight Yoakam and William H. Macy.  I first met Abe about four years ago when he brought his student film "My Mother's Hairdo" to Monkeyland.  We're happy he enjoyed our work and decided to come back!

I supervised the sound effects and foley editorial on this film, and was also responsible for the editorial on the film's backgrounds.  Abe is a stickler for evolving and interesting environments that convey both a literal and poetic interpretation of the landscape as well as the moods of the character, something I wholeheartedly agree with and strive to achieve on each project I work on.

After comping, prepping, smoothing, tweaking, building and leveling all the sound effects for this film, I scheduled a review session with Abe and picture editor Jonathan Lucas ("Corpse Bride").  We all hit it off well and had quite a productive and enjoyable time in the process.  We flung around lots of ideas and shared a few laughs too.


While "Everything Must Go" mixed away on Stage A, "Dirty Girl" set up shop on Monkeyland's newly refurbished B Stage.  Re-recording mixers Tom Marks and Kelly Vandever mixed dialogue and music, and sound effects, respectively.  Both films have been printmastered and have left the building, and should be in the final stages before heading off to Toronto.  

Great things can definitely come out of a good sounding film, and both Abe and Dan get it.  I thoroughly enjoyed working on both their films (despite the breakneck editorial schedule!) and wish Abe and Dan the best of luck in Canada.  I'm sure they will go on to do even greater things in the future.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Valerie Weiss' "Losing Control"

Me and Valerie at the film's first screening!
A fun and bouncy film with good energy and a spirited cast, Losing Control follows the misadventures of a young post grad-school woman (played by the talented Miranda Kent) on the hunt for the perfect love.  This off-beat romantic comedy was definitely a memorable working experience for me as all the important elements came together nicely from the start.  We were blessed with decent production audio and a flexible post schedule, and as a sound effects guy, I was glad to see the film had quite a number of good moments for knock-out sound effects work and creative design.  The most important element though was the fact that we had a receptive and collaborative director at the helm.

Writer/director Valerie Weiss (Google her story!) is super cool and charismatic, and as parents, the two of us bonded over our baby girls!  Her welcoming demeanor allowed for a great initial spotting session, which gave us a chance to really discuss how to implement sound design to effectively hit on the story's important points as well as bring out the piece's humor.

Our sound effects team included Steven Avila and Alexander Pugh, two of Monkeyland's brightest noise makers.  They provided a great portion of the sound effects work for this film, including the ambiences and backgrounds.  As supervising sound effects editor, it was my duty to compile, review and build upon all the cut effects, smoothing and leveling everything against the dialogue guide track, while designing specific moments for the film.  Once our initial pass was ready, I reviewed all the sound work with Valerie on Monkeyland's A Stage.  With each review session, we vastly enhanced the overall feel of the film, whether by enhancing the film's locations or by making some of the film's more outrageous moments pop with foley and sound design.
Monkeyland Audio - Stage B

The final mix was mixed by Trip Brock on Monkeyland's Stage B in mid August.  It went down without a hitch and Valerie was happy with the results.  As an added bonus, Valerie brought her family members to sit on the stage and watch the final printmaster.  I'm sure it was quite a treat for them to get the absolute first sneak peak of Valerie's film!

I guess working on Losing Control reminded me of one of the reasons I got into the film business in the first place: They said it would be fun... and this experience certainly was!  Thanks Valerie for trusting us with your film and I wish you much success not only with Losing Control, but with all future endeavors.



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