I read somewhere that in films, images convey information and sound conveys emotion. The week I’ve just spent spotting the 5.1 surround sound mix for The Devil’s Tail has brought this into sharp focus for me.
Post sound work is expensive. A feature generally costs between 25 and 50 thousand dollars. The initial sound mix on the film as it played various festivals was mine, a stereo mix. This feature was intended for DVD and we were never going to do a 5.1 surround sound mix. I’m a generalist though, I do a lot of things fairly well, which is why I had the confidence to take on the many various tasks involved in making a feature film myself. I know there are a lot of people who are much much better at all the various jobs I took on, but they were not available to work on the Devil’s Tail for the terms I was offering. So, DIY.
I’ve always been a bit of a sound geek. There are about 60 pairs of headphones in my house and I’m still not satisfied. I used to wander around when I was a teenager with a Sony Walkman Pro and a nice stereo microphone, recording conversations and ambience, which I would later listen to at home, either recreating the original scene in my head or free associating to the ambience. When shooting a movie, I take sound very seriously, and if I get a little more money for the next shoot, the first thing I’m going to do is allocate some of that to getting better location sound equipment (i.e., a decent blimp for my mics, a better mount, a four track recorder/mixer, maybe some lavs).
I did what I could with the mix of The Devil’s Tail, but I was more painfully aware of my limitations both in terms of equipment and expertise in this area than any other. Most people found the mix I did acceptable.
Those people were not professional sound mixers.
Then, Nathaniel Warsh said as part of our deal for him to act as sales agent for the movie, that he would arrange for a proper sound mix, and said he knew a guy who would do a great job. I was concerned, because I didn’t want some cut rate hack who didn’t give a damn just throwing my audio into Pro Tools, doing some auto compression and normalizing then arbitrarily splitting it all into 5.1 tracks just to make a few quick bucks. I mean, I’d already sweated over this picture for two years from pre-production through festival presentation, and I still haven’t been paid yet.
We were told that the mixer’s name was George Flores, that he’d watched the DVD and thought the movie was very good, and that he was originally from Mexico. We figured, well, he’s Mexican and has good taste. Sounds good to me.
I sent all the raw tracks over to George. I assumed that he would do whatever he felt like with the sound and that we would argue about it later. I hoped it would sound better than my mix, and that he would bring some creativity to it.
Three weeks later we got a message that he had finished the first pass on the movie, and needed to book me for a spotting session.
Thus began two of the happiest weeks of my life.
George is an acute man of boundless energy who is passionate about cinematic sound design. His studio is a large comfortable room with a terrific set of surround Tannoy speakers state of the art Macs and an additional sound proof room for ADR and Foley recording. Directly over the work surface is a 47″ flat screen TV.
Chris Comrie in foreground seated, George Flores, standing arms folded.
He welcomed us, offered us excellent coffee, and sat Samantha and I in rolling chairs. George told us he had done a lot of work on the mix and was pretty happy with it although there were still some spots where he needed my input. I worried that that meant he considered the job to be more or less finished except for a couple of questions and that my further input would not be needed. Was this the paranoia of a DIY filmmaker, that nobody cares about my movie but me? Maybe.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. George told me to listen carefully and bring up anything and everything that concerned me. It was immediately clear that George had used my mix as a template to build on. I noticed that he had replaced the coyote howl I had placed under the title card with a much more impressive one and so it went.
Over the next several sessions we went through the entire movie, frame by frame. I was immersed in a beautifully balanced mix that enhanced the emotional impact of the movie incalculably. I’ve probably watched the movie over a hundred times now, but the effect of George’s mix was to make it seem like a new thing to me. He hand-sculpted every line of dialogue rather than using auto compression, so that the dialogue still breathes, has real peaks and valleys, and engages the ear rather than exhausts it. His expert and specific use of noise reduction successfully solved many of the inevitable issues of sound acquired in many very challenging locations (windy beaches, crashing waves, noisy city streets) and made the sound of the movie much more transparent.
George paid particular attention to building environmental sound in the mix. Our Mexican locations provide a lot of possibilities for creative mixing because there is a lot of life in them. The Yucatan is remarkable for its profusion of bird species, and George did a beautiful job of weaving specific birdsong under scenes in a way that subtly enhanced the emotional dynamics. It’s actually completely amazing what he accomplished in only 15 days. I was struck over and over by details such as pieces of Foley that George had performed himself (footsteps, knocks, fabric rustling, etc) to fill in the soundtrack. Any suggestions or requests I had were acted on immediately and with great efficiency. At one point our composer Paco wondered aloud if we could bring up the street sounds for the Merida city montage. I had blown away all the original sound for this sequence, preferring to just hear music. George asked me to provide the original files asap. I burned them on a DVD and gave it to him the next day, but George had gone on a tear and created sound for the entire sequence of people partying in the streets during Carnivale from his sound library and his own Foley performances. It was spectacular, and really made the sequence take off, far more than my original location sound.
I could go on and on, but this post is getting out of hand. In the end, the movie now actually seems to move faster and makes its points more effectively. What more could a filmmaker ask?
Thanks George, for your superb work!