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The long road to restoring Neil Young’s ‘Human Highway’

By Jennifer Walden

In one or two words, how would you describe rock legend Neil Young? Folky? Serious? Environmentally-conscious? Politically-conscious? How about “goofy?” Yes, goofy.

I was recently surprised to learn that Mr. Young does indeed have a silly side (one with a message, of course), as is evidenced by his comedic musical Human Highway (1982), which he wrote, co-directed (under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) and starred in along with Dean Stockwell. The film also starred Sally Kirkland, Russ Tamblyn, Dennis Hopper and Devo band members.

The film, an apocalyptic satire set in the Cold War era, follows the inhabitants of a small town positioned near a nuclear power plant. Young plays a nerdy mechanic named Lionel who dreams of being a rock star. One day a limo driving his rock idol Frankie Fontaine (also played by Young) pulls into his gas station. Lionel insists the car needs repair.

While working on the limo, he bumps his head and dreams he’s the rock star. When Lionel does wake up he realizes a global nuclear war has begun. Being a musical comedy, the film of course ends with a spirited musical number: the cast’s dancing ascension up to heaven accompanied by harps.

Second main

Human Highway was recently restored, re-edited and completely remixed in time for a screening of the new director’s cut on September 10 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Heading up the restoration project was Shakey Pictures’ producer, Will Mitchell, who filled me in on the Human Highway’s past, and the painstaking search for elements to recreate the film in accordance to Young’s specifications.

The On-Ramp
Shooting for Human Highway, funded by Young’s Shakey Pictures, began in 1978 — capturing footage of Young performing at The Boarding House in San Francisco and on location in Taos, New Mexico. Shooting was completed in 1981 on an LA soundstage where they built a set of the film’s diner and gas station.

nuclear glow

Human Highway originally premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 1982, but received mixed reviews. So, Young and his longtime producer Larry ‘LA’ Johnson (with whom he started working with at Woodstock) began re-editing the film.  “As they cut it down,” says Mitchell, “they literally left footage laying all over the floor. It just got stuffed in the boxes.”

During the ‘80s, Young and Johnson went back to the film several times, with different editors, trying to figure out how to best work the cut. The film was eventually released on laserdisc and VHS in 1996 to more favorable reviews. “They finally got it out in the world, but Neil still wasn’t happy with where it was, so around 2000 he and Larry Johnson started looking for lost footage, but without much success.”

Mitchell points out that Young’s projects typically start and stop over the course of years. In 2010, Young once again returned to the film and asked the Shakey Pictures crew to find everything they needed to completely recut and remix the film. According to Mitchell, “We went out to Spy Post in San Francisco and transferred all the original negatives, everything we had, which was about 90 percent of the film. For what remained, we had to find our best digital copies and try to match that with color and everything. So now we had a big restoration project ahead of us.”

Finding the original content was a huge challenge!

Once all the negatives were compiled, the film was recut by editors L.A. Johnson,  Benjamin Johnson, Toshi Onuki, Mark Faulkner at Broken Arrow Ranch and Upstream Multimedia. They took the new edit to Headquarters in Burbank for extensive restoration on the picture, including color correct and dust removal. With the picture now being restored, Mitchell turned his attention to sound. “I went to Chace Audio in Burbank. Working with engineer Brian Ghear, we transferred all the original 16-track 2-inch master audio reels; some of them were music, and some were effects.”

Mitchell logged all 30 reels as they were transferred, keeping note of what was on every track. “Things were all over the place on these tapes, but we found everything we needed. The only thing that was really a problem was there were no clean dialogue tracks. The dialogue and music were already premixed.”

The Remix to 5.1
Young wanted to remix the entire film in 5.1, and not just add in the extra voiceovers and radio spots on top of the old stereo soundtrack. Without the original clean dialogue tracks there was no way to remix the film. Mitchell returned to the film library in search of the clean dialogue takes and the clean music tracks. “I found the music on ¼-inch reels and transferred all those at 24-bit/192K in Neil’s recording studio Redwood Digital. But, there was no clean dialogue.”

Nagra Recorder

Nagra Recorder

Mitchell located the original Nagra reels, and the original Nagra recorder that was used on set to record all the dialogue. He poured through every box. Going one by one, he listened to the entire production of the film and found the exact takes that matched what they had for guide audio. He transferred those takes at 24-bit/192k, and gave them to the editor to rebuild the dialogue on the entire film.

In the film, there is music coming over the radio, a radio station announcer and even commercials on the radio to help the viewer better understand what’s happening in the fictitious town of Linear Valley. Mitchell played back and re-recorded all the radio sound elements at Young’s ranch. “I went into some appropriate spaces on Neil’s ranch and ‘worldized’ the sounds in different ways so they would fit with the particular space in the movie they were supposed to be in.”

Re-recording mixer Tamara Johnson at Post Apocalyptic Studios in Pasadena, California, cleaned up the original audio tracks and premixed the film at Post Apocalyptic, working in-the-box via Avid Pro Tools on an Avid ICON. Mitchell notes the film mainly employs the L-C-R channels across the front, focusing the audience’s ears forward. Then, during the pivotal dream sequence where Young’s character Lionel becomes a rock star and jams out with Devo, the soundtrack moves into the surrounds, enveloping the audience into the sound of the scene.

young young 2

Johnson used the Penteo plug-in, developed by Audiotech Digital, to upmix the stereo backgrounds and music into 5.1 surround sound. According to Audiotech, Penteo does not introduce any phasing, delays or any sonic artifacts to the stereo tracks when upmixing to 5.1, and therefore Penteo downmixes back 100 percent ITU to the original stereo.

The film got its final mix by Johnson on the dub stage at Westwind Media using an Avid ICON. It was mixed at 24-bit/96k, and the Blu-ray copy of the film will offer discrete uncompressed 24-bit/96k stems in 5.1.

On the Blu-ray, the viewer will have an option to listen to the surround sound completely uncompressed, with no Dolby and no DTS, in the highest quality possible audio that was never compressed.

Young was always a part of the restoration and remixing process, reports Mitchell. “He was right there in every step of editing the picture; for the final mix, he was there in the room supervising. It was quite a journey for all of us, and we had a lot of fun doing this with our crew here at Shakey Pictures.”

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