By Jennifer Walden
A decade in dog years is said to be roughly equivalent to 70 human ones. I think that calculation holds true for technology too. Okay, maybe not to that extreme, but it does seem that way.
Richard Linklater, director of the new film Boyhood, which was shot over a 12-year period using the same cast but different tools must certainly feel that way. Let’s not even get into the different camera formats and focus on the audio. The first six years of production audio were captured on now-defunct tape formats, making the audio post process dicey at times, to say the least. Cross your fingers, hit play on the deck and pray the magnetic emulsion on the tape didn’t deteriorate. That is, if you still have the proper deck to play back that tape.
Linklater is known for his dialogue-driven movies like his trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Also for his visually unique film Waking Life. But it was the classic Dazed and Confused that ignited the careers of Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey and Parker Posey, just to name a few.
The director/writer’s latest offering, Boyhood, follows the story of Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane), as he ages from five to 18. The film was shot in short segments, starting in 2002 and finishing in 2013. Even though it’s a scripted film, there is a documentary-style feel because the audience actually watches as actor Coltrane grows up before their eyes. Boyhood premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival with much acclaim and is currently playing in theaters nationwide.
Solving An Audio Puzzle
Tom Hammond, supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer/owner of Soundcrafter in Austin, Texas, has been working with Linklater since Before Sunrise in 1995. Hammond works alongside Wayne Bell, who handles everything from sound effects editing and sound design to dialogue editing, particularly the challenging dialogue tracks.
In addition to the technology, the methodology used to record Boyhood also significantly changed over the span of filming. During the first year, in 2002, production sound was recorded on 2-track DATs. Picture editor/co-producer Sandra Adair and her editorial team took those DATs and created QuickTimes of the production dialogue, even the wild lines not associated with picture. “During post, it fell to me to dig through and find all the alternate takes,” explains Bell. “Sandra and her team did a good job of keeping all that material from the DATs really organized so we didn’t have a huge amount of hassle keeping up with it.”
The second year was delivered on ADAT, a disused multi-track format that could simultaneously capture eight audio tracks onto a Super VHS videocassette – yup, Super VHS. Luckily, Soundcrafter maintained their ADAT machine and was able to transfer the material. “It was a very primitive format,” says Bell. “We did a long transfer process for those, just letting the tape roll and recording it into Pro Tools all at once. Fortunately, we did get all the material off of the ADATs.”
The third and fourth years were recorded with a 6-track portable location recorder, the Fostex PD-6, which used double-sided 8-centimeter DVD-RAM disks. After that, notes Bell, the production sound mixer switched to file-based digital recorders. In addition to the OMF from editor Adair, Soundcrafter had all the original production recording files from which to pull alternates. In addition to different sound formats, Bell and Hammond also had production notes from different sound mixers. “We went through at least four different production mixers, some of them are better notetakers than others,” says Bell.
Once all the original material was digitized and organized, Bell meticulously cut the dialogue together. He went back through the years of production dialogue to find cleaner versions of lines. On occasion, there would be only one take of a line. For example, Hammond notes a scene in the film where, during a party, a girl is singing. The room is filled with people drinking and the track is riddled with loud glass clinks that don’t always line up to picture. “Although we tried, there was no way to find a fix for that because of the way the music was recorded,” he says. “The performance was actually recorded in front of the camera and not a pre-record. There was essentially only one component, so there were no alternates to go to.”
For the 2.5-hour film, there were only 35 lines of ADR, which were all recently recorded, with the exception of one scene in which a young Mason and his dad (played by Ethan Hawke) go for a swim. The two are undressing down to their shorts so the production mixer wasn’t able to put a mic in their clothes. The noisy scene was shot on the Pedernales River in central Texas. Director Linklater knew he would need actor Coltrane to do the ADR on that scene right away, before his voice changed. “That was in 2006,” explains Hammond, who recorded and mixed the ADR. “We did ADR only for Ellar because we had to get his voice how it sounded at that time. But for Ethan, we recorded his ADR earlier this year.”
Syncing the ADR into the river scene was the biggest mix challenge for Hammond. He would work on the scene for a few hours, make a few edits, change EQ, add reverb using Avid’s ReVibe plug-in and add Foley and backgrounds. Then he would revisit the scene days later. “You always have to come back to it after a couple hours or a couple days and listen to it again and then you’ll hear what to fix to make it work even better,” he says.
There is no score for the film. The music comes from the production tracks. Hammond used the Waves UM226 stereo-to-surround plug-in to spread the tracks out into the 5.1 setup. The mix, Hammond notes, is fairly simple. In addition to being a dialogue-driven film, director Linklater is sensitive to any sounds that unnecessarily draw the audiences attention. Hammond and Bell had to carefully choose and place sounds to fill the backgrounds and build up the world around the characters without being obvious in any way. They often used physical cues from the actors, like head turns, as the motivation for a sound to happen. “It’s a learned art in how to create something that brings alive the world around the characters but does not draw the director’s ear,” says Bell. “It’s become a finesse act to slip things in that will fly by Rick [Linklater].”
Soundcrafter is currently building a new facility in Austin that should be completed within a year. The new studio will feature a Dolby-certified dub stage for print mastering, Foley and ADR stages, as well as suites for editing, mixing and sound design.
Jennifer Walden is an audio engineer and freelance writer based in New Jersey.