Following a successful film fest run that included winning a 2018 Independent Spirit Award, and being named a 2017 official selection at Sundance, the documentary Quest is having its broadcast premiere on PBS this month as part of their POV series.
Filmed with vérité intimacy for nearly a decade, Quest follows the Rainey family who live in North Philadelphia. The story begins at the start of the Obama presidency with Christopher “Quest” Rainey, and his wife Christine (“Ma Quest”) raising a family, while also nurturing a community of hip-hop artists in their home music studio. It’s a safe space where all are welcome, but as the doc shows, this creative sanctuary can’t always shield them from the strife that grips their neighborhood.
New York-based audio post house Hobo, which is no stranger to indie documentary work (Weiner, Amanda Knox, Voyeur), lent its sonic skills to the film, including the entire sound edit (dialogue, effects and music), sound design, 5.1 theatrical and broadcast mixes.
We spoke with Hobo’s Chris Stangroom, supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer on the project about the challenges he and the Hobo team faced in their quest on this film.
Broadly speaking what did you and Hobo do on this project? How did you get involved?
We handled every aspect of the audio post on Quest for its Sundance Premiere, theatrical run and broadcast release of the film on POV.
This was my first time working with director Jonathan Olshefski and I loved every minute of it, The entire team on Quest was focused on making this film better with every decision, and he had to be the final voice on everything. We were connected through my friend producer Sabrina Gordon, who I had previously worked with on the film Undocumented. It was a pretty quick turn of events, as I think I got the first call about the film Thanksgiving weekend of 2016. We started working on the film the day after Christmas that year and were finished mix two weeks later with the entire sound edit and mix for the 2017 Sundance film festival.
How important is the audio mix/sound design in the overall cinematic experience of Quest? What was most important to Olshefski?
The sound of a film is half of the experience. I know it sounds cliché, but after years of working with clients on improving their films, the importance of a good sound mix and edit can’t be understated. I have seen films come to life by simply adding Foley to a few intimate moments in a scene. It seems like such a small detail in the grand scheme of a film’s soundtrack, but feeling that intimacy with a character connects us to them in a visceral way.
Since Quest was a film not only about the Rainey family but also their neighborhood of North Philly, I spent a lot of time researching the sounds of Philadelphia. I gathered a lot of great references and insight from friends who had grown up in Philly, like the sounds of “ghetto birds” (helicopters), the motorbikes that are driven around constantly and the SEPTA buses. As Jon and I spoke about the film’s soundtrack, those kinds of sounds and ideas were exactly what he was looking for when we were out on the streets of North Philly. It created an energy to the film that made it vivid and alive.
The film was shot over a 10-year period. How did that prolonged production affect the audio post? Were there format issues or other technical issues you needed to overcome?
It presented some challenges, but luckily Jon always recorded with a lav or a boom on his camera for the interviews, so matching their sound qualities was easier than if he had just been using a camera mic. There are probably half a dozen “narrated” scenes in Quest that are built from interview sound bites, so bouncing around from interviews 10 years apart was tricky and required a lot of attention to detail.
In addition, Quest‘s phenomenal editor Lindsay Utz was cutting scenes up until the last day of our sound mix. So even once we got an entire scene sounding clean and balanced, it would then change and we’d have to add a new line from some other interview during that decade-long period. She definitely kept me on my toes, but it was all to make the film better.
Music is a big part of the family’s lives. Did the fact that they run a recording studio out of their home affect your work?
Yes. The first thing I did once we started on the film was to go down to Quest’s studio in Philly and record “impulse responses” (IRs) of the space, essentially recording the “sound” of a room or space. I wanted to bring that feeling of the natural reverbs in his studio and home to the film. I captured the live room where the artists would be recording, his control room in the studio and even the hallway leading to the studio with doors opened and closed, because sound changes and becomes more muffled as more doors are shut between the microphone and the sound source. The IRs helped me add incredible depth and the feeling that you were there with them when I was mixing the freestyle rap sessions and any scenes that took place in the home and studio.
Jon and I also grabbed dozens of tracks that Quest had produced over the years, so that we could add them into the film in subtle ways, like when a car drives by or from someone’s headphones. It’s those kinds of little details that I love adding, like Easter eggs that only a handful of us know about. They make me smile whenever I watch a film.
Any particular scene or section or aspect of Quest that you found most challenging or interesting to work on?
The scenes involving Quest’s daughter PJ’s injury through her stay in the hospital and her return back home had a lot of challenges that came along with them. We used sound design and the score from the amazing composer T. Griffin to create the emotional arc that something dangerous and life-changing was about to happen.
Once we were in the hospital, we wanted the sound of everything to be very, very quiet. There is a scene in which Quest is whispering to PJ while she is in pain and trying to recover. The actual audio from that moment had a few nurses and women in the background having a loud conversation and occasionally laughing. It took the viewer immediately away from the emotions that we were trying to connect with, so we ended up scrapping that entire audio track and recreated the scene from scratch. Jon actually ended up getting in the sound booth and did some very low and quiet whispering of the kinds of phrases Quest said to his daughter. It took a couple hours to finesse that scene.
Lastly, the scene when PJ gets out of the hospital and is returning back into a world that didn’t stop while she was recovering. We spent a lot of time shifting back and forth between the reality of what happened, and the emotional journey PJ was going through trying to regain normalcy in her life. There was a lot of attention to detail in the mix on that scene because it had to be delivered correctly in order to not break the momentum that had been created.
What was the key technology you used on the project?
Avid Pro Tools, Izotope RX 5 Advanced, Audio Ease Altiverb, Zoom H4N; and a matched stereo pair of sE Electronics sE1a condenser mics.
Who else at Hobo was involved in Quest?
The entire Hobo team really stepped up on this project — namely our sound effects editors Stephen Davies, Diego Jimenez and Julian Angel; Foley artist Oscar Convers; and dialogue editor Jesse Peterson.