A Game Changer…
Something important has happened in this most recent cycle of films, something has dramatically altered the way we do sound for film and television. A few existing technologies were used in a bold and direct way. It was an aha moment in pre-production that has changed what is possible.
We are commonly using nonlinear, file-based systems for lightweight, multitrack field acquisition. This approach evolved from the pioneering techniques created for, and applied by, Robert Altman and his Production Sound Mixers, Jim Webb and Bob Gravenor. They muscled these innovations into the world of mechanical filmmaking, where every track existed in physical space, later to be edited by razor blade and splicers on sprocketed magnetic stock. The mechanical version of this method has long been relegated to the history of our process. But this way of applying multitrack technique has become the norm.
We have also become accustomed to the ease and economy of applying CGI techniques for creative control of images. The art of visual effects has exploded exponentially, most often applied to create visual fiction born of the imagination, or for the removal of incongruous visual elements from the frame, such as telephone poles, skylines from the wrong century, or uncooperative natural light sources.
Recently, these tools were brought together and applied with a different mindset regarding the sound work. Different in the sense that their application was premeditated. A creative premise was brought to the table by Sound Mixer Simon Hayes and embraced by Director Tom Hooper, the producers and the actors. (The multi-part article detailing his team’s navigation of their journey on Les Misérables continues in this issue of the Quarterly.)
Les Mis, winner of this year’s “Triple Crown” of BAFTA, CAS and Academy Award (Oscar) for sound, is a benchmark. It changes the conversation about how we do sound for film and television.
From where I sit, it seems we have arrived at the place where we can re-think the conventional notion that a great deal of our creative energy needs to be expended on hiding microphone placement to protect the image at the expense of microphone placement to optimize the quality of the sound.
I was fortunate enough to be in London for the BAFTA Awards this year and spoke at length with Simon Hayes as well as with Tom Hooper about his experience with this technique and I asked Tom several key questions. First, how did he feel about the overall approach of capturing the vocal performances live, for use in the finished film. He glowed as he happily described going for the recordings “on the day” removed the need for prerecording all the actors as well as minimized/eliminated the need for a traditional ADR budget and schedule and most importantly, qualitatively, the performances were dynamically organic, in the moment, and filled with the genuine emotion the characters needed to move the audience. Huge collateral benefits were had from the actors’ and cinematographer’s and wardrobe departments’ point of view, as they didn’t need to worry about their wardrobe being problematic or the microphones, booms or lavalieres, being seen. It was all built in to the approach.Wondering whether all this joy had the sour taste of rocketing the overall budget into the stratosphere, I asked Tom the key question of cost, and dear friends, here’s the kicker to this creative breakthrough. Hooper, with a gleam in his eye, spit it out like a shot. Total cost for using CGI for microphone removal on Les Mis was, wait for it…
A mere $160,000!
…This is a nominal amount on a film of this scale. This number does not even take into consideration the enormous savings of pre-record and post production if the film had been approached traditionally. A massive win-win for all parties concerned, most significantly, the creative entity of the film itself.
Consider the creative, logistical and financial benefits afforded to our industry if we migrate to this approach as the new normal, a game changer by any measure and certainly a dramatic underline of the great creative contribution the sound team makes to any film or television effort.
In accepting her Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in this film, Anne Hathaway made history by singling out and thanking personally, Production Sound Mixer Simon Hayes and his team for their contribution.
President, IATSE Local 695