By Randi Altman
Margarita Mix, one of Los Angeles’ long-standing audio and video post facilities, has taken on virtual reality with the addition of 360-degree sound rooms at their facilities in Santa Monica and Hollywood. This Fotokem company now offers sound design, mix and final print masters for VR video and remixing current spots for a full-surround environment.
Workflows for VR are new and developing every day — there is no real standard. So creatives are figuring it out as they go, but they can also learn from those who were early to the party, like Margarita Mix. They recently worked on a full-length VR concert film with the band Eagles of Death Metal and director/producer Art Haynie of Big Monkey Films. The band’s 2015 tour came to an abrupt end after playing the Bataclan concert hall during last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris. The film is expected to be available online and via apps shortly.
We reached out to Margarita Mix’s senior technical engineer, Pat Stoltz, to talk about his experience and see how the studio is tackling this growing segment of the industry.
Why was now the right time to open VR-dedicated suites?
VR/AR is an exciting emerging market and online streaming is a perfect delivery format, but VR pre-production, production and post is in its infancy. We are bringing sound design, editorial and mixing expertise to the next level based on our long history of industry-recognized work, and elevating audio for VR from a gaming platform to one suitable for the cinematic and advertising realms where VR content production is exploding.
What is the biggest difference between traditional audio post and audio post for VR?
Traditional cinematic audio has always played a very important part in support of the visuals. Sound effects, Foley, background ambiance, dialog and music clarity to set the mood have aided in pulling the viewer into the story. With VR and AR you are not just pulled into the story, you are in the story! Having the ability to accurately recreate the audio of the filmed environment through higher order ambisonics, or object-based mixing, is crucial. Audio does not only play an important part in support of the visuals, but is now a director’s tool to help draw the viewer’s gaze to what he or she wants the audience to experience. Audio for VR is a critical component of storytelling that needs to be considered early in the production process.
What is the question you asked the most from clients in terms of sound for VR?
Surprisingly none! VR/AR is so new that directors and producers are just figuring things out as they go. On a traditional production set, you have audio mixers and boom operators capturing audio on set. On a VR/AR set, there is no hiding. No boom operators or audio mixers can be visible capturing high-quality audio of the performance.
Some productions have relied on the onboard camera microphones. Unfortunately, in most cases, this turns out to be completely unusable. When the client gets all the way to the audio post, there is a realization that hidden wireless mics on all the actors would have yielded a better result. In VR especially, we recommend starting the sound consultation in pre-production, so that we can offer advice and guide decisions for the best quality product.
What question should clients ask before embarking on VR?
They should ask what they want the viewer to get out of the experience. In VR, no two people are going to walk away with the same viewing experience. We recommend staying focused on the major points that they would like the viewer to walk away with. They should then expand that to answer: What do I have to do in VR to drive that point home, not only mentally, but drawing their gaze for visual support? Based on the genre of the project, considerations should be made to “physically” pull the audience in the direction to tell the story best. It could be through visual stepping stones, narration or audio pre-cues, etc.
What tools are you using on VR projects?
Because this is a nascent field, new tools are becoming available by the day, and we assess and use the best option for achieving the highest quality. To properly address this question, we ask: Where is your project going to be viewed? If the content is going to be distributed via a general Web streaming site, then it will need to be delivered in that audio file format.
There are numerous companies writing plug-ins that are quite good to deliver these formats. If you will be delivering to a Dolby VR (object-based preparatory format) supported site, such as Jaunt, then you will need to generate the proper audio file for that platform. Facebook (higher order ambisonics) requires even a different format. We are currently working in all these formats, as well as working closely with leaders in VR sound to create and test new workflows and guide developments in this new frontier.
What’s the one thing you think everyone should know about working and viewing VR?
As we go through life, we each have our own experiences or what we choose to experience. Our frame of reference directs our focus on things that are most interesting to us. Putting on VR goggles, the individual becomes the director. The wonderful thing about VR is now you can take that individual anywhere they want to go… both in this world and out of it. Directors and producers should think about how much can be packed into a story to draw people into the endless ways they perceive their world.