By Randi Altman
It is a story that those of us who grew up in the New York area know well. Back in the ‘80s, triplet brothers separated at birth were reunited, after two of them attended the same college within a year of each other — with one being confused for the other. A classmate figured it out and their story was made public. Enter brother number three.
It’s an unbelievable story that at the time was considered to be a heart-warming tale of lost brothers — David Kellman, Bobby Shafran and Eddy Galland — who found each other again at the age of 19. But heart-warming turned heart-breaking when it was discovered that the triplets were part of a calculated, psychological research project. Each brother was intentionally placed in different levels of economic households, where they were “checked in on” over the years.
Last year, British director Tim Wardle told the story in his BAFTA-nominated documentary, Three Identical Strangers, produced by Raw TV. For audio post production, Wardle called on dialogue editor and re-recording mixer Nas Parkash, sound effects editor Kim Tae Hak and Foley and archive FX editor editor Chad Orororo, all from London-based post house Molinare. The trio was nominated for an MPSE Award earlier this year for their work on the film.
We recently reached out to the team to ask about workflow on this compelling work.
When you first started on Three Identical Strangers, did you realize then how powerful a film it was going to be?
Nas Parkash: It was after watching the film for the first time that we realized it was going to be seminal film. It’s an outrageous story — the likes of which we hadn’t come across before. We as a team have been fortunate to work on a broad range of documentary features, but this one has stuck out, probably because of its unpredictability and sheer number of plot twists.
Chad Orororo: I agree. It was quite an exciting moment to watch an offline cut and instantly know that it was going to be phenomenal project. The great thing about having this reaction was that the pressure was fused with excitement, which is always a win-win. Especially as the storytelling had so much charisma.
Kim Tae Hak: When the doc was first mentioned, I had no idea about their story, but soon after viewing the first cut I realized that this would be a great film. The documentary is based on an unbelievable true story — it evokes a lot of mixed feelings, and I wanted to ensure that every single sound effect element reflected those emotions and actions.
How early did you get involved in the project?
Tae Hak: I got to start working on the SFX as soon as the picture was locked and available.
Parkash: We had a spotting session a week before we started, with director Tim Wardle and editor Michael Harte, where we watched the film in sections and made notes. This helped us determine what the emotion in each scene should be, which is important when you’ve come to a film cold. They had been living with the edit, evolving it over months, so it was important to get up to speed with their vision as quickly as possible.
Documentary audio often comes from many different sources and in varying types of quality. Can you talk about that and the challenges related to that?
Parkash: The audio quality was pretty good. The interview recordings were clean and on mic. We had two mics for every interview, but I went with the boom every time, as it sounded nicer, albeit more ambient, but with atmospheres that bedded in nicely.
Even the archive clips, such as from the Phil Donahue Show, were good. Funnily enough, you tend to get worse-sounding archives the more recent it is in history. 1970s stuff on the whole seems to have been preserved quite well, whereas stuff from the 1990s can be terrible.
Any technical challenges on the project?
Parkash: The biggest challenge for me was mixing in commercial music with vocals underneath interview dialogue. It had to be kept at a loud enough level to retain impact in the cinema, but low enough that it didn’t fight with the interview dialogue. The biggest deliberation was to what degree should we use sound effects in the drama recon — do we fully fill or just go with dialogue and music? In the end it was judged on a case-by-case basis.
How was Foley used within the doc?
Orororo: The Foley covered everything that you see on screen — all of the footsteps, clothing movement, shaving and breathing. You name it. It’s in there somewhere. My job was to add a level of subtle actuality, especially during the drama reconfiguration scenes.
These scenes took quite a bit of work to get right because they had to match the mood of the narration. For example, the coin spillage during the telephone box scene required a specific amount of coins on the right surface. It took a numerous amount of takes to get right because you can’t exactly control how objects fall and the texture also changes depending on the height from which you drop an object. So generally, there’s a lot more to consider when recording Foley than people may assume.
Unfortunately there we’re a few scenes where Foley was completely dropped (mainly on the archive material), but this is something that usually happens. The shape of the overall mix always takes favor over the individual elements that contribute to the mix. Teamwork makes the dream work, as they say, and I really think that showed with the final result.
Parkash: We did have sync sound recorded on location, but we decided it would be better to re-record at a higher fidelity. Some of it was noisy or didn’t sound cinematic enough. When it’s cleaner sound, you can make more of it.
What about the sound effects? Did you use a library or your own?
Parkash: Kim has his own extensive sound effects library. We also have our own personal ones, plus of Molinare’s. Anything we can’t find, we’ll go out and record. Kim has a Zoom recorder and his breathing has been featured on many films now (laughs).
Tae Hak: I mainly used my own SFX library. I always build up my own FX library, which I can apply instantly for any type of motioned pictures. I then tweak by applying various software plugins, such as Pitch & Time Pro, Altiverb and many more.
As a brief example of how I completed sound design for the opening title, the first thing I did was specifically look for realistic heartbeats of six-month infants. After successfully collecting some natural heartbeats. I then blended them with other synthetic elements as I started to vary the pitch slightly between them (for the three babies), applying various effects, such as chorus and reverb, so each heartbeat has a slightly different texture. It was a bit tricky to make them distinct, but still the same (like identical triplets).
The three heartbeats were panned across the front three speakers in order to create as much separation and clarity as possible. Once I was happy with the heartbeats as a foundation. I then added other sound elements, such as underwater, ambiguous liquids and other sound design elements. It was important for this sequence to build in a dramatic way, starting as mono and gradually filling the 5.1 space before a hard cut into the interview room.
Can you talk about working with director Tim Wardle?
Tae Hak: Tim was fantastic and very supportive throughout the project. As an FX editor, I had less face to face with him than Nas, but we had a spot session together before the first day of working, and we also talked about our sound designing approach over the phone, especially for the opening title, and the aforementioned sound of triplets’ heartbeats.
Orororo: Tim was great to work with! He’s a very open-minded director who also trusts in the talent that he’s working with, which can be hard to come by especially on a project as important as Three Identical Strangers.
Parkash: Tim and editor Michael Harte were wonderful to work with. The best aspect of working in this industry are the people you meet and the friendships you make. They are both cinephiles, who cited numerous other films and directors in order to guide us through the process — “this scene should feel like this scene from such and such movie.” But they were also open to our suggestions and willing to experiment with different approaches. It felt like a collaboration, and I remember having fun in those intense few weeks.
How much stock footage versus new footage was shot?
Parkash: It was all pretty much new — the sit-down interviews, drama recon and the GVs (b-roll). The archive material was obviously cleared from various sources. The home movie footage came mute, so we rebuilt the sound but upon review decided that it was better left mute. It tends to change the audience’s perspective of the material depending on whether you hear the sound or not. Without, it feels more like you’re looking upon the subjects, as opposed to being with them.
What kind of work went into the new interviews?
Parkash: EQ, volume automation, de-essing, noise reduction, de-reverb, reverb, mouth de-click — Izotope RX6 software basically. We’ve become quite reliant upon this software for unifying our source material into something consistent and to achieve a quality good enough to stand up in the cinema, at theatrical level.
What are you all working on now at Molinare?
Tae Hak: I am working on a project about football (soccer for Americans) as the FX editor. I can’t name it yet, but it’s a six-episode series for Amazon Prime. I’m thoroughly enjoying the project, as I am a football fan myself. It’s filmed across the world, including Russia where the World Cup was held last year. The story really captures the beautiful game, how it’s more than just a game, and its impact on so much of the global culture.
Parkash: We’ve just finished a series for Discovery ID, about spouses who kill each other. I’m also working on the football series that Kim mentioned for Amazon Prime. So, murder and footy! We are lucky to work on such varied, high-quality films, one after another.
Orororo: Surprisingly, I’m also working on this football series (smiles). I work with Nas fairly often and we’ve just finished up on an evocative, feature-length TV documentary that follows personal accounts of people who have survived massacre attacks in the US.
Molinare has revered creatives everywhere you look, and I’m lucky enough to be working with one of the sound greats — Greg Gettens — on a new HBO Channel 4 documentary. However, it’s quite secret so I can’t say much more, but keep your eyes peeled.
Main Image: Courtesy of Neon
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.