Monday, November 29, 2010

Marko Mäkilaakso's "War of the Dead"

It has been a long and interesting journey for the makers of this film,  but after five long years, World War II action/zombie flick, War of the Dead (formerly known as Stone's War), has finally finished its final sound mix and print master.

Dead follows the exploits of a team of Finnish and American soldiers who are sent into Russia on a secret mission.  There, they uncover an abandoned Hitler-funded experiment to create an army of the undead, one which he had been testing on captured Russian soldiers.  For first time film director Marko Mäkilaakso, this huge undertaking has turned out successful, and I'm sure War of the Dead will go on to make some noise around the world.

Marko, Monkeyland Stage B, final day of mix
Per Marko, the behind-the-scenes antics involved in making this film would have made a great documentary (a la Terry Gilliam's "Man of La Mancha").  Everything from natural disasters to running out of funding plagued the production and post production process of this film.  Yet, despite all the hassle, War of the Dead has already secured distribution in over 20 territories throughout the world.  While the U.S. is still up for grabs, I am confident that someone will take note of this film's designy production values, stylistic picture cut (by Michael J. Duthie) and bombastic soundtrack.  War of the Dead will be screening at the Berlin Film Festival in February of 2011.

Dead first came to Monkeyland Audio back in 2007-08.  It didn't matter that the film's first incarnation lacked many of the final visual effects; the large amount of high-intensity gun battles, zombie attacks, wire work and insanely dark and scary locations had a Pavlovian effect on our sound effects crew.  Here was a golden opportunity to create something big, bold, heavy, gutsy and explosive and we couldn't wait to get started.

Sound Team of the Dead:  Greg, Steven, Rick, Alex and me

For the sound design team, War of the Dead has been a delight to work on.  On the Foley front, mixer Greg Mauer and artist Rick Owens undertook the awesome challenge of bringing the film's intricate details to life.  The work is rich and detailed, covering everything from the soldiers' heavy footfalls (on a myriad of surfaces) and the movement of military battle gear, to the tightly choreographed hand-to-hand combat sequences.  The foley work alone raised the adrenaline level of this movie 100 fold!  Well done guys (and congrats Rick on your new baby)!  

Greg and Rick, Monkeyland Foley Room
The foley was cut by two editors fresh out of recording school who were new to Monkeyland at the time: Caleb Easter and Zac Anderson.  I supervised their work (which was good!) and made sure it was prepped tightly enough for panning and perspective purposes.

The sound effects crew was made up of two young editors, Alexander Pugh and Jason Shaffer, and the task presented to them was to bring the noise!!  Guns, explosions, guts and gore.  You name it!  Both Alex and Jason were with us on the initial pass back in 2007, but when the film returned to Monkeyland this past summer, it was Alex who wrangled all the previously cut sessions and brought the work to a whole new level of intensity with another solid hard effects pass.  Nice work team!

I put together all the ambiences and backgrounds, blending the real with the surreal, and weaving in and out of both quite regularly throughout the film.  In my conversations with director Marko, I explained my approach to creating mood and preparing ambient tracks, and he was quite happy with the results.  Designy themes also came out of the sphere of ambiences, meant to play organically in the scenes and serve as a glue to bring together all the elements that make up the sound design.

Steven Avila was responsible for designing the zombie voices for this film, and though some of the voices had been covered by members of the loop group during ADR, Steve's vocal prowess brought a new layer of terror to the voices of the undead.  Director Marko agreed!  Needless to say, his design replaced all the group material.  Steven also created themes for the big moments of revelation, as well as provided original and terrifying stingers, whooshes, impacts and booms.

After comping all the above mentioned elements together, and giving the comped work an additional healthy pass of design, tweaking, leveling and processing, I had Marko come in for a review of all our work.  He was absolutely ecstatic and loved every bit of our work.  Of course, he had a few notes, but nonetheless he was excited to hit the mix and confident that it would go well.

I should make mention that the film's wonderful score was composed by Neal Acree and Joel Goldsmith (son of legendary film composer Jerry Goldsmith).  In the case of War of the Dead, the infamous battle between music and sound effects was fairly non-existent, as both sides of the sonic "war" played their parts well, leaving enough room for each other to spread our respective wings and be featured.  Thank you gentlemen for your outstanding and professional work!

The final sound mix indeed went really well, thanks in part to our re-recording mixing team of Kelly Vandever and Mark Rozett, but also thanks to Marko for maintaining his vision and making sure what he heard in his head came through loud and clear on the screen.

Serious enthusiasm for a project can result in great work.  Though we didn't get to interact much with Marko from the start, we were fortunate to have gelled with him on a subconscious level because everything came together better than expected and Marko left Monkeyland with a great sounding film.   

Trip, Brian, Alex, Owen, Marko, Kelly, Steven, Mark and me

I would LOVE to upload some of our sound work, but I'd probably get in trouble if I did, so you'll just have to wait till next year!

Many blessings.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Sonic Philosophy: Upping Your Game

Along my mad journey, I've read dozens of books, articles and interviews about designing sound.  I've watched a good number of how-to videos on Youtube from passionate industry professionals and amateur sound enthusiasts alike.  I have also enjoyed countless conversations with fellow editors where we exchanged tips, tactics, approaches and philosophy on creating interesting and unique sounds for a film.  All in all I've come to really appreciate two important concepts:

Creativity has no bounds and every mind is beautiful.

There are so many great sound editors and designers working in film, television, video games and other types of media, and each one of them brings with him or her a wealth of know-how and style.  Also, the myriad of tools and instruments available to a sound editor are endless, and combined with the infinite depths of the human mind, there exist limitless possibilities for creating new, different and exciting sounds.

Sadly, there also exists an equally endless list of constraints that can limit a sound editor's or designer's range of motion on a project.  Though the focus of this blog is not to rant about those roadblocks, I feel it is important to mention at least a few of them and share my thoughts in regard to them:
  • Budget
  • Schedule
  • "Temp love"
  • Other
In many instances, the budgets allotted for post production audio as well as the claustrophobic schedules are oftentimes typical obstacles in this industry and, given a particularly dry climate, can put an even more painful crimp in an editor's game.  Some editors work well under pressure and sometimes their best work can emerge as a result of it.  But this is not always the case everywhere.

I find it curious that post-audio sound is oftentimes relied upon to "save" a film, yet in those cases, the amount set aside for sound editorial and final mix don't seem to ever equal the amount of work expected.  Having enough time and a decent budget in which to deliver stellar work can fare well not only the editors, but for the clients as well.

Overcoming temp love can be an equally nasty fight, particular if the director is adamant that we include and incorporate the temp sound job his or her picture editor has cut into the timeline.  In some instances, the picture editors have zero love for the temp sound effects in their OMF delivery, and their sounds are meant to be placeholders that convey the type of sound needed, as well as the pacing, timing and mood.

Sometimes however, we encounter some picture editors who fancy themselves sound designers and are militant when it comes to having their sounds play front and center (regardless if they are cliche sounds, low-res, mp3s, etc.).  Occasionally, their design is actually quite excellent (as is the case for picture editors Danny Saphire and Raul Davalos, A.C.E ).  In any case, it is important to keep the clients' vision in mind, communicate vigorously on what they need sonically, and offer to enhance and build up the existing OMF sounds using the audio tools and skills we have at hand.

Other:  Certainly there are quite a number of other obstacles that can inhibit an editor's creativity.  Most are pretty obvious.  A few that come to mind are:
  • "Green" director
  • Director not privy to budgetary constraints
  • "Too many cooks in the kitchen"
  • Last-minute or unannounced picture conforms
  • Not having a post-super to crack the whip
Upping Your Game
So how do we get past these obstacles?  Unfortunately, there are tons of cosmic red-tape to cut through, unfair business trends to "de-trend", bad filmmaking habits to kick, "fix it in post" type of myths to debunk, and so on and so forth.  But despite the many roadblocks we may encounter, my advice to all sound editors, seasoned and new, is this:  

Always find the best way to do your part in making the project successful.

As a strong believer in and seeker of the "silver lining", I tend to view each obstacle as a character-building challenge rather than as an end-of-the-world problem.  I feel that as sound editors, there is plenty we can do on our own to at least help alleviate some of the pressures and stresses that befall us.  Overcoming the above-mentioned obstacles begins with overcoming the roadblocks within ourselves, and requires much practice, time, training and above all, a desire to become an efficient and fluent masters of our trade.  

Since I consider my blog site a place to reflect, learn, share and figure things out, (and definitely NOT a place to bitch, rant or "boo-hoo"), I'll share my take on how to deal with tough constraints:

I call it "Upping Your Game."   It is a long-term commitment, one which starts right now.

Operating on the assumption that the above-mentioned roadblocks won't be going away any time soon, here are a few of things I've done to make myself a valuable asset to the team:

Long Term Solutions

  • Strive to learn something new with each project, be it a new, efficient way of cutting, or a bit more about customer service and how to relate to a new client
  • Get feedback from your supervisor, re-recording mixer(s) and the clients during the editorial process and after the mix, and learn from what they tell you.  Apply that feedback on the next project.
  • Optimize cutting templates regularly
  • Discover faster and more efficient ways to cut and present sound effects
  • Learn and implement new ProTools shortcuts regularly (preferably daily)
  • Know the sound effects library inside-and-out
  • Avoid cliche, trite and over-used sounds
  • Experiment with plug-ins and other tools to create new sounds from existing ones
  • Create and Save custom settings for ProTools' AudioSuite Plug-ins
  • Record custom sounds
  • Take classes or refresher courses in sound editorial and design.
  • Take classes on picture editing, screenwriting, film producing, etc., in order to become more well-rounded asset to the show
  • Visit other sound or film websites
  • Share your knowledge with other editors; learn from them as well
  • Participate in forums
Short-term Solutions

  • Establish brutally open and honest communication with your supervisor and/or client
  • Leave nothing to chance in the spotting sessions.  Make sure you walk out with a clear cut idea of where the client wishes to go heavy on the design, where to let the music play through, etc.  You can earn yourself some valuable time which can be used for your editorial.
  • Figure out the rhythm of each project and come up with a game plan to efficiently and creatively get it done right and on time
  • Respect the terms, roadblocks and challenges placed before you
  • Remain focussed
  • Do your best
Seriously folks, if you're going to make a movie, remember that post-production sound CAN truly bring your film to new levels... but don't think of your film sound as an afterthought.  Start right away.  Get to know your production sound crew and let them get as much coverage as they need.  It could save you lots of money in the end.  And when you're ready for post, please share your thoughts with your editorial crew.  Let them share your cinematic vision and give them enough time to impart their wealth of sonic madness onto your film.

I heartily welcome the opinions of other sound and picture editors, directors, producers, supervising sound editors and post-production supervisors.  Please chime in and share some of your experiences here, as well as present a few solutions if possible! 

Thank you for reading!

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