Archive for February, 2010

Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Production Sound Mixer, Scott Clements, from the USA’s “Burn Notice”. He gave me some great information and a great insight to the life on set of a fast paced TV show.

CH: How old were you when you discovered your passion for sound?

SC: When I was very young, I had the task of video taping my mom’s ballet company performances. That led to my high school years where I always had a video camera in my hands. My main exposure to sound was through the high school band. When I was in college studying electrical engineering, one of my good friends (who was studying directing) suggested that I would probably enjoy a career in sound for the movies. Turns out, he was right!

CH: When you were first starting out, what was your process of getting involved in a project?

SC: When I was in film school, my classmates were always busy shooting some project, and I made sure I was their sound man. It didn’t matter what it was, I would be there doing sound. I quickly got a reputation as the class sound man, and next thing you knew, my classmates’ were landing on outside projects (no, or very low pay). Those productions needed a low to no pay sound mixer, so I would weasel my way into those projects. It turns out, there are a lot of people willing to give you a job if you will do it for free! The more projects you land on, the more your reputation grows.

CH: Tell me about your transition from doing “freebies” to getting paid for gigs.

SC: After I graduated, I found it very difficult to find anyone that was willing to pay me to work. The class that came after mine in film school was busy learning all about sound, and they had a guest lecturer coming in by the name of Peter. They asked me to come in and help Peter set up the equipment, just to make his life a bit easier. I was happy to do it.

After his lecture, we went to have lunch and I discovered that Peter had a job coming up, and the production didn’t have a boom operator budgeted for him. I told Peter that I would love the opportunity to come work for him… no pay of course. That shoot went well, and then Peter asked me to come on another short job where he didn’t have a boom operator, but on this one he was willing to pay me $50 out of his equipment rental. And there it was… I was being paid.

That job led to a longer job as Peter’s cable man, where again, he was paying me out of his equipment budget. After that, Peter landed on a TV pilot. That was a union job, and I joined the union and got paid union rates!

Next thing you knew, the boom operator from one of the earlier Peter jobs recommended me for a big feature, then that boom operator recommended me for another big feature, then that production manager recommended me, and then that sound mixer recommended me… you get the picture…

CH: You are the production sound mixer for “Burn Notice” on USA. What experience did you have to get you to that point and how did you end up getting the gig?

SC: When I made the step from boom operator to sound mixer, it was like starting over again. No one was willing to give me a shot as a mixer. I was looking for another miracle like the chance meeting with Peter. And it came from a production coordinator named Elaine. She was in a position on a new TV series where she didn’t have a “big” sound mixer to hire. She had used me on a smaller gig, and was willing to stick her neck on the line to give me a chance on this bigger series. The series tanked, but Elaine and her producer both liked me. They used me on a few more projects and things continued to go well. Lucky for me, I was riding along on their coat tails when they landed on the Burn Notice pilot. They sold me to their producers, and I have been on the show for three seasons, and we are about to start the fourth season.

CH: Who is on your team and how do you end up with them?

SC: I have been pretty lucky to have the same two guys working with me for most of my jobs; Fred Kupfer and Jacob Kemp.

When I first worked with Fred, he was the boom operator on a film, and I was doing playback and cable man. It was right around the time when I was ready to make the shift to mixing. Fred annoyed me so much, that I swore I would never use him when I became a mixer. When I started mixing, I landed an ultra low budget film. I broke my word and hired Fred because I knew he could get the job done. During that film, I realized how truly talented he is, and we have been working together ever since.

Jacob was in one of the classes in film school a year or two after me, and he was that years class sound man. We got to know each other pretty well and we managed to stay in touch over the years. Somehow, it just made sense when it was time for me to hire someone, that it would be Jacob. He is way over qualified for the job, but that allows me to use him in ways that I couldn’t use other boom/utility people.

The three of us have totally different personalities, and it somehow really makes the team work. I am so lucky, because I can now pretty much sit back and know that Fred and Jacob are taking care of everything.

CH: Miami is not a quiet place, and you’re just about always on location. What do you typically have to do in order to get it quiet enough on set to get good audio?

SC: Burn Notice doesn’t really have enough money to “lock up” the surrounding areas when we are on location, so we do what we can. Our locations department and production assistants are on top of it and really work hard for the sound department. Also, Jacob is constantly running around trying to quite things down. We had one location in the middle of a neighborhood where every house had a menacing dog outside. And the dogs were not happy we were there. They were barking like crazy. The locations department went out and bought some Jerky Treats, and when the director yelled “action”; production assistants, locations assistants, Jacob, and any other available person would throw a jerky treat to a dog. It bought us just enough time to get each take before the dogs would start up again.

Every location has its unique challenges, and you just do whatever it takes to quite it down. A big part of the sound mixer’s job is to not let other people “give up” on a sound problem. You must convince them that it can be fixed.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we have amazing “sound friendly” actors on our show. Many times the scene is saved by the actors simply stopping in the middle of the take because a plane, or truck, or a drunk is yelling something. When the sound problem stops, the actors continue the scene without missing a beat. I owe them a TON of credit for many scenes that I couldn’t have gotten without their professionalism.

CH: Does Miami in particular pose any unique problems to shooting a TV show or movie?

SC: Miami is a great place to shoot. We get to shoot in some pretty amazing houses/ mansions. We get to shoot at gorgeous beaches. Permitting is easy, and the people in the places where we shoot seem happy to have us there. It does seem there is a high rise construction project on every corner which presents its own sound challenges, but over all it’s a very film friendly city.

CH: Can you think of an example of a time when it was extremely difficult to get clean sound on set? What measures did you have to take to fix it? At what point do you give up and roll on it?

SC: We’ve had a few really bad sound days on set. One that stands out in particular was a day when we were shooting exterior at the American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami. We had over eleven pages of dialogue to shoot there. We were pretty close to, and right in the main flight path of the Miami International Airport. The main access bridge for the Miami Ports of Call (shipping) was only a few hundred feet away which had eighteen wheelers coming up and down every minute riding their “jake brakes” (take a look at the youtube clip for an idea of what jake brakes sound like.) There were bad sound problems constantly. And to make things even more fun, about five hundred yards across the water, one of the largest music festivals in the country was about to start their sound check and rehearsals. Tour and party boats kept cruising by to watch what we were doing and blasting their music to show how awesome they were.

The producers, director, and actors all told me I was just going to have to live with it, but luckily I convinced them that they couldn’t give up on me. We could get this. With a lot of patients from the actors and the director, we were able to work around most of the noises and they didn’t have to ADR any of those eleven pages. Locations did their best to buy us a bit more time on the music festival sound check. They managed to hold them off just long enough for us to finish our EXT work and move to INT car. The sound check was LOUD, but inside the car was just quite enough to save the scene.

We have plenty of days like this, but I don’t ever give up on getting useable sound. It’s rare that I am able to roll on a scene where I am one hundred percent happy with the sound I am recording. With each sound issue I try to determine: 1 – how much better I can make the sound (some times it’s a little bit, sometimes it’s a lot), 2 – what it will take to fix the problem and how difficult it will be (pretty easy, or very difficult), 3 – what it will cost me to fix it (production spends some money, the crew hates me, time off our day, etc). If it’s only going to make a small difference, but make the crew hate me and be unhelpful to me when I really need help, I’ll let it go. If I can save a scene from ADR, and it puts us behind schedule, then so be it… we will be behind schedule.

There are times when you are confident that it is impossible to get useable sound. For instance; if you have large, gas ritter fans creating a hurricane scene, you know there will be no useable sound. But that doesn’t mean you don’t keep your eyes open for opportunities to save the sound in certain shots by perhaps cutting the fans when they are no longer needed.

CH: How do you communicate with the director about the quality of the sound during a specific take? Do you communicate with him during the take? Do you ever call cut?

SC: I have a private slate mic line to the Comtek feed the director listens to. If I can communicate an issue during the take, I will. I may say “we should hold for this plane”, or “we should cut”. Then it’s up to the director to decide if they want to listen to me. If they keep rolling, I keep rolling.

CH: How do you deal with things when the director chooses something visual, or a performance, over the importance of the sound recording?

SC: Let’s be honest here. Other than the sound department, no other person on set would ever put sound before visuals or performance. I’ve always felt that the two most important things in a project are the story, and the performances. All other elements are there to serve those two things. One job of the sound department is to remind the director sound is a HUGE part of the performance, and that sound is integral to telling the story.

Many times people think they can fix a sound problem with ADR. They say things like “Ah, it’s easy. They’ll just ADR that line”. I am quick to remind them that it is not easy, and they will not be replacing that “line”, but instead, they will be replacing that “performance”. It’s really tough for an actor to reproduce a great performance while sitting in an ADR booth.

In regards to visuals and how they weigh against sound. That is totally a judgment call. For instance: if there are huge, noisy visual fx that are important to telling the story (i.e. a smoke blast, or helicopter taking off in the background), then I feel you should do your best to deal with the situation. However, if a piece of background set dressing (i.e. an electric fan) is creating a sound problem; I will fight to have it turned off. I may ask the director, “Is that fan running more important than the actor’s performance?” Sometimes, it’s a fine line between getting the sound, and getting yourself fired.

CH: Can you think of any specific times where your work has been compromised even though you spoke up to the director about it? How did the end product turn out?

SC: There are always battles that you will loose. It happens all the time, multiple times a day. You could fill a library with stories of sound mixers fighting stupidity and loosing. You just hope you win more than you loose… and by the way, no one would want to go to your library full of sound mixer’s lost battles.

As far as the end product in those cases… on most professional jobs, the end product is going to turn out great. You can’t get distribution for a film that sounds bad. End of story. Yes, they can fix it in post. It just costs a lot of time and money, and compromises the actors performances.

CH: How heavily do you feel that you can rely on post vs. having to fix things on set?

SC: The best solution is to always fix it on set. The cleaner the dialogue, the more time and detail post production can put into building the other elements. On Burn Notice, I know that every effort will be made to clean up my tracks. Our dialogue editor and re-recording mixer both have amazing skills with dialogue. I am amazed every time I watch an episode at what they were able to do.

Definitely some great information in there! Stay tuned for the second half of the interview coming later this week!

Mix Magazine has written an amazing article on veteran Sound Designer / Mixer Ezra Dweck, who has recently been contracted to help design an IED attack simulator for the training of US Troops. He was enlisted to capture and recreate, as acurately as possible, what it sounds like to a soldier inside a humvee to get hit by and IED. That sounds like a difficult, but incredible fun task! “Wait, you mean I get to blow stuff up, AND record it? Then you want me to play it back as loud as possible?” Sounds like a sweet gig to me :-)

The Audio Challenge
For the sound design, Dweck was tasked with coming up with as realistic a presentation of the sound inside a Humvee in patrol and combat situations as possible. The training Humvee will have five soldiers in it — four in the cramped main part of the vehicle, and one turret gunner on top partially exposed through the roof. “My initial idea was to investigate some 360-degree surround speaker systems, but they just weren’t feasible for the space inside the Humvee,” says Dweck. “I went through a lot of negotiations with the guys who are building the thing — a company called Technifex that does a lot of theme park stuff — and what I wound up with basically is 6.1, but not in a traditional layout inside the vehicle. So it’s five speakers in a normal L/C/R, Ls/Rs position, and then there’s a full-range, full-sized speaker mounted in the dash in the middle and a subwoofer in the engine bay where the engine would be. I did a bunch of research to find a full-performance, relatively small driver speaker I thought would work, and I wound up with a Meyer MM4XP for the five. It’s about the size of a 4-inch tile, but about six inches deep. They run on a 48-volt distribution system, but they’re self-powered. They’re good down to about 300 Hz, so I need the full-sized midrange speaker in the middle to kind of balance it out.

“Then on the exterior, mounted on this giant truss that the projectors are mounted on, I also have three speakers [JBL EONs] arranged left-center-right.”

Read the rest over at Mix Online

Cameron likes mother earth. We all do. But he really likes it. So much so that he decided to push for a DVD release date for Avatar to be on Earth Day (April 22, 2010). It actually seems a bit early for a DVD release for me, but he wants to make his point. This is only for the non-3D version however. Cameron told the Wall Street Journal that the 3D version won’t be out until the end of the year. I’m actually interested to see the sales numbers of the normal version vs. the 3D one.

If you’ve been wanting to take a return trip to Pandora, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment has you covered. James Cameron told The Wall Street Journal the company will release his mega-blockbuster, Avatar, on Blu-ray and DVD this April 22nd. Just in time for the globular masses celebrating Earth Day.

For those of you looking for all the bells and whistles, you’ll have to wait a bit longer. Cameron told the newspaper, “That’s our plan as of right now, and that’ll be pretty much bare bones. And then we’ll do a value-added DVD and a 3-D Blu-ray in I think November sometime.” A spokesman for Fox confirmed that the 3-D version is still in the conceptual stage and doesn’t foresee a November release.

See the rest of the story over at Cinematical

So I just saw Scorsese’s Shutter Island last night, and I have to say, I wasn’t as satisfied with it as I wish I had been. I’m a big fan of Marty, and you can rarely go wrong with DiCaprio, but this one just didn’t do it for me. There were more than a few very obvious ADR blunders, a number of sounds that just didn’t sound right, and a handful that were just plain confusing. Maybe it was the theater I was in? I doubt it, since its a new theater, and the film transfers were new since it was opening weekend…

As for story, lets just say it was very predictable, and the ending left me saying, “Really? They really just ended it that way?” I will say that there were a select few moments where I was pulled out of the theater and into the story. Once near the beginning, and once somewhere around a third through. No more than that though.

It got decent reviews, both by critics and viewers. Is it just me?

What do you think?

Blastwave FX and Avid announced a new Sound Design Competition with the chance to win more than $12,000 on Avid/Blastwave FX products!


-Submit: A 0:30 – 0:45 second video with stereo soundtrack. The total length should include the intro and outro video clips provided in the Competition Download Pack.
-You must use at least three sound effects from the competition download pack. You may process and distort these effects, but they must be somewhat recognizable.
-The intro and outro video clips must be used, and we encourage you to sound design them.
-Entries can be any style: real/surreal, with or without dialogue, with live actors, documentary style interviews, motion graphics, animation, etc. Some participants will inevitably disagree with the wide-open format, but we want to encourage as much outside-the-box thinking and creativity as possible.
-If you are one of the top twenty finalists, we will request the original Quicktime video.
-The one winner will receive a Turnkey Post System (see Info section above).
-Participants release all ownership rights related to their audio/video to Avid and Blastwave FX.
-Participants’ names will be withheld from judges.

Check out the rest of the info at Designing Sound!

With its stunning visuals and other-worldly (literally) creatures, Avatar needed to pack a huge sonic punch, or there was no way Cameron would be able to sell Pandora to the audience. When you need a post audio job that big, who better to go to than Skywalker Sound.

Skywalker Sound, stationed in George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, 45 minutes north of San Francisco, is the pinnacle of all that is sound design, especially when it comes to science fiction. With a staff stacked with the legends of sound design, such as Ben Burtt (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, ET, Wall-E, Star Trek, etc…) and Randy Thom (Star Wars, Cast Away, Harry Potter, War of the Worlds, a handfull of pixar movies, etc…), Skywalker is able to tackle pretty much anything.
Skywalker’s veteran mixer Christopher Boyes (Jurassic Park, LOTR, Pirates of the Caribbean, King Kong, Iron Man) was at the helm as Sound Designer, Re-recording Mixer, and Supervising Sound Editor. He did nothing less than to completely sell the world of Avatar, completely immersing you in Pandora’s glory (especially if you watched it in 3D in one of the chest-thumping IMAX theaters).
Sound blog Soundworks Collection has a great video interviewing Boyes about the sound design of Avatar.

With broadcast standards getting higher, home televisions getting bigger and better, and some home theater systems starting to rival some movie theater systems, its no wonder the production quality of Television shows has skyrocketed. The budget – and production quality – for some of these recent prime time TV dramas, such as 24, Fringe, House M.D., Bones, etc… rival, and sometimes surpass many independent feature films.

This brings me to ABC’s Lost. Lost is on its 6th season now, and has been shot almost entirely in Hawaii, as it lends to the “Uncharted Wild Territory” feel that the show is known for. If you are unfamiliar with the show, here’s a brief overview of the situation (won’t spoil anything for you if you’re planning on watching it). The show is about the passengers of a plane that goes off course and crashes somewhere in the general vicinity of Tahiti while on its way from Sydney to Los Angeles. Many of the passengers survive the crash and begin to set up camp on the island. As they soon find out, there are some strange things happening on the island, and they come across more than one strange animal in their travels during the first few episode.
This premise is a sound designer’s dream. It opens up a world of possibilities. “So, you’re telling me that these guys are on an island that nobody knows about, with strange animals, in a place that doesn’t seem to obey the normal rules of the universe?” Can you imagine the freedom a sound designer would have in this situation?
If you can’t, or if you can and just want to read about it anyways, go head over to Mix Magazine Online’s article about the Sound Design for Season 6 of Lost. Awesome article, tons of information.
If you’re still hungry for more behind the scenes info on the Sound Design of Lost, go check out this older (2007), but still awesome Lost Video Podcast:

Saturday night, February 7, 2010, I decide to make the the trek over to Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch of the Endeavour shuttle on mission STS-130 to the International Space Station. It was the last night launch ever for the current space shuttle fleet, and there’s a chance that space exploration will be stopped indefinitely after the 5 remaining launches.

1:00 am, Sunday morning (Listening to “Mr. Hurricane” by Beast)
So, knowing that I would regret letting this opportunity go by, I saddled up, geared up and set out to Titusville, FL with a few friends. Two minutes after leaving, I get pulled over for an expired tag (oops…), but I’m soon on my way again, mood unaltered by my $114 ticket, because I’m about to witness something amazing. Packed with me, I’ve brought a Sanken CSS-5 Stereo Shotgun, and a Sennheiser MKH60, and a windjammer for both. I recorded everything into a Sound Devices 744T, with a Sound Devices 302 as a Preamp for the MKH60 (since the 744 only has 2 mic preamps).

2:30 am, Sunday morning (Listening to “Kids” by MGMT)
We arrive in Titusville; it’s nuts. Apparently we aren’t the only people crazy enough to come out to see a 4:39 am launch in 40 degree weather. After searching for a parking spot for about 15 minutes, we find one on the grass in front of a condo building. The sprinkler system is on, so I have to time opening my door, grabbing my gear, and running, just perfectly, or risk soaking my portabrace bag and everything in it. Once I reached safety, I decided to explore a little. We had just driven down the coast (you could easily see the launch pad), and it was packed with people. There was no way I was getting clean sound, and I’d be nervous about the safety of my gear the entire time. So I decided to check behind the condo building we just parked in front of. Lo and behold – a private pier – directly in front of the launch pad. Not one single person on it. There was a covered porch at the end, with seating, controllable lighting, and a/c power. You couldn’t ask for a better spot.

Meanwhile, at Jetty Park:
My co-worker Lee has set out with the same rig I’m toting with me. He was around a ton of people near the ports in Canaveral. Lucky for him, he has his pre-roll set to 10 seconds. A cruise ship sails by and blasts its horn. He captures it beautifully. Great sound, great catch!

3:00 am, Sunday morning
We setup camp, sit, and wait… Watching twitter updates from NASA about the launch status. Weather went from go to red to go to red to go. We sat there straight until 4:45. Then it was announced – mission scrubbed. Rats. Pack it up. 5 hours wasted. We get back in the car and sit in a parking lot of traffic for 30 minutes before we even move. I get back home and into bed at 7am.

3:00 pm, Sunday afternoon
Wake up, make chili, hang with friends, watched the Superbowl outside by a bonfire and tiki torches while smoking cigars… Sweet way to recover from a long night… Geaux Saints!

12:00 am Monday morning
I make the decision to try again. I grab my gear, and head out by 1:00 am, this time with my co-worker, Jeff (armed with his D90 package). We head out to the same place as the night before. This time there is no traffic. Apparently we are the only ones crazy enough to do this two nights in a row, especially on a Sunday night.

2:00 am Monday morning (Listening to “The Walk” by Imogen Heap)

We arrive in no time at all and head out to our private pier. Getting nervous at this point because it’s cloudy and NASA reports that weather is red. Could this be a bust two nights in a row? After doing this two nights in a row, Jeff and I decided that we were completely committed, and that we would keep coming back until this dang this launched. It has to go up sooner or later, and we were going to be there no matter what.
I set up my gear and make sure everything is working. My biggest concern is levels – how loud will this shuttle be? Holy crap loud? I don’t even know how far I am from the pad exactly. I’ve since figured it out – the shuttle was taking off from Launch Complex 39 (coordinates 28.608901,-80.60478), I was on Indian River Drive. The pier is located at (28.609405,-80.805586). That’s 12.2 miles away. Not bad. That’s pretty much as close as you can get without paying money or knowing somebody. Anyways, I just decide to keep my levels extremely low for now, and just hope for the best.
4:05 am
After much deliberation Houston gives the all go! We’re filled with excitement – crowds in the distance being cheering a bit.
4:12 am
I grab my gear and hit record. I don’t have a real time countdown, so I needed to make sure I was ready.
4:14:08 am
The sky lights up – it looked like a sunset in reverse – if that makes any sense. I can’t even really describe it with any justice. Absolutely amazing. The most incredible part – I didn’t get any audio until 50 seconds into the launch. The sound is like nothing else. Amazing. I’ll post it to Vimeo as soon as I get the pics from the launch from Jeff.
4:30 am (Listening to “Writing on the Wall” by Underoath)
Pack it up and head home. Incredible. Won’t get to bed until 6 am and have to wake up by 11 am, but it was totally worth it. Traffic not nearly as bad as the night before. And I didn’t get pulled over this time. All in all, a successful weekend!
I was able to get a decent recording. the beginning of the launch was slightly overmodulated for a second, but I got it down quick with minimal distortion. although there was a creaky pier and some talking in the background, the main launch part was fairly clean. Again, I’ll get the sound up with pictures as soon as I can.
I love my job :-) Bring on the next adventure!!!
So what’s your favorite sound adventure? Any crazy things happen along the way? Was it worth it?
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New Web Page

So, after years of debating whether or not I should have a web site, and if I did, what I would even put on it, I finally committed and made one. Awesome. I used to make web sites when I was younger. I actually learned HTML and hard coded them in notepad in Windows 98. I sometimes even wrote code by pencil in a notebook and typed it out later (that was before I had a laptop…) Things are so much easier now. I just made myself a single page web site (more to come later) complete with pics, a twitter feed, blog syndication (from this blog), etc… in like 20 minutes. Awesome.

Now, here I am. My own web site and all. Content to come soon. I’ll be trying to blog about cool sound related (or at least tech related) subjects, current projects, epiphanies, experiments, etc…, and hopefully I’ll have a decent gallery up soon as well showing off some of my work. Stay tuned for that.

Off to work on my page again… Until next time.

First Post

I’m writing this first post to test out the functionality of my RSS feed through feedburner. I’m trying to figure out how to customize my feed and whether or not I want to continue to use feedburner or use iweb’s internal rss syndication.

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