Categories Menu

Posted by on Aug 28, 2008 | 2 comments

“The Dark Knight” (Pt.4) – Exclusive Interview with “Ambient Sound Designer” Mel Wesson

Batman-on-film.com (self explanatory) reported last fall that a man by the name of Mel Wesson posted on his personal site that he was to be the “Ambient Music Designer” on “The Dark Knight”. Not only was I excited that a Batman fan site was highlighting someone in the music department(other than the composer), I was intrigued with the idea of that job title. After some IMDB sleuthing I discovered that Wesson has been credited as “ambient music designer” or “musical sound designer” on over 10 films. So naturally, I had to approach him to find out what the job was all about…

• First check out this video from thedarkknightscore.com

DS: What does an ambient music designer normally do and how was that work unique to “The Dark Knight?

Mel: Well I can tell you it’s not all about soundscapes and relaxation tapes! Well, on BB (“Batman Begins”) and “TDK” I spent the initial months creating sounds and grouping them in moods and characters, things like ‘Oxides’, ‘Rage’, ‘Chaos’, ‘S-Laughter’. I’ve always found it easier to collate sounds in terms of food groups rather than just “Pulses”, ‘Percussion”, “Underscores”, etc., and anyway, that would’ve been a little unimaginative! An amount of this material first saw daylight in The Prologue. That was invaluable in terms of recognizing at an early stage how far this movie differed tonally from BB. As the team came together over at Remote Control I joined them and began putting ideas together through the reels; these went either directly to the mix or via Hans and James to brighten their days! In reality, every project is unique; Batman sounds only relate to the Batman characters and locations that’s all, it’s not like they’re interchangeable.

DS: Did your work in “Batman Begins” carry over to the sequel?

Mel: Absolutely. You need those familiar markers for continuity. Some sounds are more subliminal, you log them in your subconscious, others are more thematic. As an example, something like the Batflaps are highly visible – that’s the sound that kicks off both movies, as soon as you hear that you know you’re back in that world, then the Joker arrives and kicks the crap out of us all.

DS: Given the job title, ambient music designer, do you think about or approach music differently than other composers?

Mel:
I hope so, otherwise |’m out of a job! I’m not sure I know what goes through other composers’ minds but I’ve always been more interested in making the sound do the work as opposed to the notes. What the title gives me is the freedom to experiment without the restrictions of say, a more orchestral approach, but then my contribution has to complement and extend that world. It’s very satisfying when the two come together.

DS: What are your thoughts on the boundaries between music and sound design, if any?

Mel:
I wouldn’t differentiate between them sonically, but I’d say there’s a dividing line in whether you’re being figurative or abstract in the way you use sound. The priority for my work is with the score, what I do has to have some musical sensibility, whether it’s playing a supportive, colorist role or driving the structure from which a cue is built up. I always work with the sound design team in mind though, you have to be aware of what those guys are up to, and it doesn’t help if there’s half a dozen things all doing the same job at the dub, you need clarity, and everything has to be focused.

DS: I asked this of sound soup Richard King and now you: Nolan has said that TDK’s main theme is escalation. Was there an emphasis on the score to emote that, too?

Mel:
Hmmm…. I’ve not heard that phrase before, but you can’t avoid the way TDK racks up the intensity and the score is a vital part of the engine of that escalation, although the movie builds in an unconventional way. It was never going to be a question of car chase follows train wreck – the Joker monologues build as much tension as the action scenes; he really holds the audience by the throat, as does Hans’ one note Joker theme. It does nothing but escalate! I was very jealous when I first heard that one, I love the purity of the idea – it’s pure menace.

DS: Where does your work end? Since there’s potential for sounds you create to be altered, edited, or even omitted during the final dub, is the first time you see a film in the theater a surprise?

Mel: I’m not sure it ever ends. The only meaningful date is the print master, that’s the only time you physically can’t screw with things anymore! As you say, the final dub is open season for sound, but aside from fixes or specific requests my role morphs into more of a ‘doctor on call’ situation. It’s often the first time everything comes together as a whole, so yes…. there’s usually a few surprises! I don’t get too protective about my work though; if something doesn’t make it to the cut it’s for a reason and I’d sooner hear one sound cut through and have an effect on an audience than have a wall of mush that does nothing. It’s the end result that counts, but I still find it quite nerve wracking the first time I watch a movie all the way through in the theatre….

DS: What was your first gig like?

Mel: My first ‘Ambient’ gig was “Hannibal.” I’d played a more conventional role on “MI2,” and afterward Hans asked if I’d fancy being the audio “presence of Hannibal Lector.” It doesn’t take too much to convince me to come over to the dark side!

There was a lot of experimentation, no rules, no road-map, nothing, although there came a point when a number of people started to feel very uncomfortable about the sounds coming out of my studio… which was exactly what we were looking for! Working with Ridley Scott was a great experience, too. He was very receptive to the whole idea, very concise, very constructive, in fact I’d love to cook up some kind of ‘baptism by fire’ tale of adversity but in reality, “Hannibal” was just a great project. In the closing week or so Hans and I came up with the ‘ambient music design’ label; it’s come in pretty handy over the years…

Read More

Posted by on Aug 25, 2008 | 2 comments

MPSE Sound Show 2008

Continuing an unhealthy obsession with all things Batman, I am happy to announce the Motion Picture Sound Editor’s annual event at the Eygptian Theater in Los Angeles will be focusing on “The Dark Knight”. Below is a press release from the MPSE and check back this week for my final interview from the film with “ambient music designer” Mel Wesson!

THE DARK KNIGHT: The Sound Effects & Music Presentation

The MPSE Sound Show returns with an exploration of the sonic world of this summer’s blockbuster Batman movie “The Dark Knight.” Join award-winning Supervising Sound Editor/Sound Designer Richard King (“War of the Worlds,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”) as he presents his process of creating the soundscape for the Christopher Nolan directed film. Excerpts of the movie will be presented with special “pre-dubb” mixes to illustrate the variety of elements used to create an environment of serious sound. He will be sharing the stage with Music Editor Alex Gibson (“Live Free or Die Hard,” “The Prestige”), who will reveal the way the musical score was shaped to fit the dark narrative of good and evil. This special evening will take place Monday, October 27, at 8 p.m., at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California; 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Highland Avenue. General Admission is $10. Seniors and students with valid ID are $8. Members of the MPSE and American Cinematheque are $7. Tickets can be bought on Fandango.com and at the Egyptian box office soon(I’ll post links as soon as they’re available).

A co-presentation of the Motion Picture Sound Editors and the American Cinematheque. Made possible with support from Warner Bros. Pictures. More information can be found soon at www.MPSE.org or www.AmericanCinematheque.com.

Read More

Posted by on Aug 18, 2008 | 0 comments

Exclusive Interview with Tammy Fearing, ADR Editor on “Step Brothers”

Following all that production sound talk from “The Dark Knight” I knew I needed my next post to focus on something I never really covered here, ADR. In a mix, ADR and production dialog try to play nice, hopefully resulting in a pristine dialog track that keeps an audience engaged. Luckily, people like ADR supervisor Tammy Fearing are on call, ensuring the viewing public an enjoyable experience. Even better, she was willing to discuss her job as an ad lib wrangler on “Step Brothers”.

DS: What do your duties encompass as an ADR supervisor and what are the best or worst aspects of the job?

Tammy: My duties as an ADR supervisor are as follows: I spot the movie for production dialog that needs to be replaced and keep a current list of ADR requests from the picture editor and the director. During the ADR sessions I help the actor or actress match the original production dialog performance by suggesting changes in pitch or volume. I edit the ADR and turn it over to the picture editor after each recording session. I keep a transcription log of all the improv jokes that are recorded during each ADR session to help the director keep track of the numerous joke options for each scene. By the end of the film, that log is 15-20 pages long.
The best part about my job is being a part of an ensemble team during the ADR process. ADR is a great tool for the director to get more jokes into the film. During “Step Brothers” our director, Adam, wrote the jokes, the actor or actress would improv on the script, our picture editor, Brent, cut each scene so the timing of the jokes worked, and I made sure the ADR takes we recorded matched production performances in the scene. An ADR joke won’t play if the new line sounds different from the production dialog. Bad ADR is a distraction, while good ADR adds more laughs and no one ever knows it is ADR.

DS: Working with improv advocates like Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, how do you navigate through all the ad lib on the ADR stage and then in your cutting room?

Tammy: The picture editor gives me an edit of the scene that contains space for the ADR joke we are adding. The mock up edit allows us to record and playback the added ADR line to make sure it is working within the scene. During “Step Brothers,” director Adam McKay would write multiple jokes for each ADR cue. The actor or actress then performs the written lines doing several performances for each joke, including ad libs. We typically go into record for several minutes while the actor improvs. The challenge for me is to unobtrusively slip in directions of “louder please” or “try a little higher pitch” while the actor is improving. I am responsible for matching the ADR line to the production dialog in the scene. Adam works with the actor to come up with funny stuff but isn’t always aware if the performance will work in the scene. It is a team effort and is a lot of fun. After the session I cut Adam’s selected takes and give them to editor Brent White to cut into the picture. Brent shows Adam the different lines in the Avid and they choose their favorite take to put into the film for different previews. Our sound supervisor George Anderson, records audience reactions so we can determine which jokes get the best responses. At the end of the screening process the joke with the most laughs is usually the one that gets into the final cut.

DS: When directors or editors can’t make a looping session how do you have to adapt creatively or otherwise to the situation?

Tammy: My job is to help the actor get a performance that will work in the context of the scene. To do this I have to understand what each ADR line is intended to achieve, I need to know what the director wants so I can convey that to the actor, and I always have the actor perform several takes so the director has a few reads to choose from. If we are doing jokes I have the actor or actress improv on each line after the scripted jokes have been performed. In doing all of this I become the defacto director for the session when the director and picture editor can’t make it.

DS: Removed from the focus demanded of them on set, how do you reengage a frustrated actor, any specific examples?

Tammy: Do a few loop lines yourself and you quickly see how challenging it is to match picture sync and give a good performance months after the filming has ended. After doing a lot of takes on the same line an actor can get frustrated and loose energy. Here are few tricks I use when the actor has reached their limit on a cue: I ask them if they want to take a break or want to move on to another cue and come back to the problem cue later. Most actors will want to finish the line and get it right before moving on. Offering to return to the cue later seems to make the actor view the performance as a challenge. They will conquer the line- it won’t conquer them. Another option is to playback the scene with the last recorded ADR line in place. Playing back the scene lets the actor step back and learn what adjustments are needed to get a performance they are happy with.

DS: With that reliance on improv for the funny, on the Apatow Produced films you work on, does ADR ever steer a meandering story back on course?

Tammy: ADR is used as a tool for connecting ad lib material back into the scene or helping to transition between scenes. For example, in “Step Brothers” we have an exterior shot of a steak house in which Adam wanted to make it clear that we are at Derek’s birthday party. To do this we added Will’s ADR line “Happy Birthday Derek.” and Adam Scott’s ADR line “Nice gift TJ. Where are the rest of my gifts?” These 2 lines are heard over the exterior shot of the steak joint as a lead in for the scene. Example 2: For timing purposes, Adam deleted a scene of Will [Brennan] making plans to get his Mom and step Dad back together at the Catalina Wine Mixer and used ADR to convey this information. At the Catalina Wine Mixer Nancy greets Robert [Brennan’s step dad] by saying “How nice to see you here.” For Robert we added the over the shoulder ADR line “Brennan sent me an invite.” Will [Brennan] then walks up and in another over the shoulder ADR line says “I see you two are getting along.” By adding the 2 over the shoulder ADR lines we were able to keep the action moving forward but still convey the intent of the deleted scene.

Lastly, John C and Will [Dale and Bre
nnan] are talking about launching their new company, Prestige Worldwide. At the request of Dale, Brennan sings him a song and then starts giving excuses about why his performance was bad. Adam wanted to make Dale as sincere as possible about how much he loved Brennan’s voice so we added the ADR line “Your voice is like a combination of Fergie and Jesus.” Not only does the ADR line get the point across, but it gets a big laugh so it serves two purposes.

DS: What was your first gig like?

Tammy: My first gig as an ADR supervisor was “The Perfect Score” directed by Brian Robbins. The big challenge was the narration. Originally, the lead character, Kyle, was narrating the story but after several recording sessions the director decided it wasn’t working. He then had the character Roy, the stoner dude, do the narration. It completely changed the tone of the film and added a nice touch of extra humor. Narration is a tricky ADR beast. The two big pitfalls are an actor or actress tending to read the narration too fast or not keeping a consistent tone for the narration from scene to scene. My job is to make sure the narration is well paced and that the energy and tone are consistent throughout the film. We do many takes of narration which are then cut together to make the final performance that goes into the film.

A funny side note: In “Step Brothers” the “Playboy” lawyers informed us that we couldn’t us their brand name in any context using the word “masturbation”. Apparently their readers buy the magazine to read the articles. In the original tree fort John C and Will [Dale and Brennan] are looking at Playboys. Brennan comments “I still hate you, but you’ve got an awesome collection of Playboys.” Dale makes the joke “I’ve got some from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. It’s like masturbating in a time machine.” The Visual FX team had to change the magazine title to “Hustler”. We had to ADR Brennan saying “I still hate you, but you’ve got an awesome collection of nudie mags.”

Read More