Guest Contribution by Scott Kramer
With Haunting Melissa, we sought to bring feature film quality sound to an iOS app. It was an incredible experience, so when Neal Edelstein asked me to join the Hooked Digital Media team for Haunting Melissa: Dark Hearts, I jumped at the chance. Like many of us, my “day job” is designing sound for feature films and television. Hooked is breaking new ground by delivering filmed content via an app, and we thought the sound should be high-quality but also pioneering.
With that in mind, I entered an R&D phase to develop new standards and technologies for this medium. I’m a firm believer in mixing a project in the format and monitoring environment where it will most commonly be heard. We decided to mix these stories on headphones in the hopes that the audience would prefer that experience over the apple device’s built-in speaker, and we’ve found that they often do. Next, I began to research ways to deliver a truly immersive experience using an ordinary pair of headphones.
The foundation of research into simulated surround comes from Head Related Transfer Functions, which are biological responses humans have evolved to locate sounds in our environment. If you’re not familiar with these concepts, take a minute to read this fantastic wikipedia article about it. For Haunting Melissa, I created an encoding process within Pro Tools that exploits HRTF and phase relationships so that I could work in virtual surround and pan sounds beyond the usual Left-Right headphone field. We’re able to make sounds seem to come from behind or even slightly above or below the viewer. This is the “secret sauce” that we feel makes our soundtrack shine.
It’s important to us that Hooked apps deliver a cinematic experience while also competing with other apps, and these were my guiding principles in determining audio levels. Like many of us, I’m sick of the fatiguing audio we hear in so much of the pop music and network television produced today. I wasn’t interested in having the loudest app, but rather in nuanced storytelling though sound. It was also very important to Neal that the project have quiet moments, and that the loud moments have real impact. Thus, I set my nearfields and Pro Tools gain structure for a standard 79db SPL television mix. We adjusted the headphone amp so that the dialog was comfortable and the loudest moments were just slightly uncomfortable. This gave us a pretty fantastic dynamic range with headphones, which I tried to preserve by limiting the overall mix by -7dbfs. This resulted in exactly what we wanted – a balanced experience, never fatiguing and perfect for complex storytelling.
THE DESIGN PROCESS
Technology is wonderful, and I had quite a time finding new techniques and standards to take app sounds to an exciting new theatrical level. However, as many of us in the business know, production value is labor-intensive. What made the greatest difference for me on this project was Neal’s confidence and the resources to assemble a killer sound team. I was fortunate to work with Jo Caron in Quebec for foley as well as Ryan Collins, Dave Esparza, Mark Messick and Mel Lewis in Los Angeles for sound design and dialog. Each of them brought years of experience on top feature films and television shows to the project, and the results are truly special. Jo went above and beyond by providing full coverage, even for what would normally be carried in sound effects or backgrounds. When I found foley coverage for trees blowing in the wind, I knew he was truly excited about the project. For one of the supernatural characters in the piece, Jo provided 3 layers for footsteps alone: a footstep pass, a movement pass and a ligament pass to simulate an injury the character had sustained.
Dark Hearts in divided into 25 chapters which range from 1 minute to 20 minutes in length. We wanted each chapter to be different and interesting, while maintaining signature sounds for specific environments and characters. I started the design process early with work picture prior to picture lock. I gave this picture to several on the design team, and we all worked on our ideas independently. I then presented these “sketches” to Neal and we picked our favorite ideas to develop further. In this way, I guided the main design concepts while encouraging everyone on the team to create whatever inspired them.
Once picture was locked, I assigned chapters to each of the sound designers while handling others myself. I tried to handle most of the chapters involving our primary location, the Strogue house, while assigning other chapters to my team which had unique locations that only appear once or twice. Once I got the work back from everyone, I added some elements and made adjustments to ensure continuity. The guiding principle for us was that sound design should flow naturally from the situations and locations depicted. Everyone delivered fantastic, unique work and it was a joy to mix.
As budgets have been shrinking, more and more sound designers are mixing their work as they cut it, and this project was no exception. Each sound designer presented the work as they wanted it to be heard, so the final mix was a matter of adjusting those mixed FX and BG elements against dialog and music. Neal hired Martin Tillmann and Joerg Huttner to write the music, and we held a joint sound and music spotting session to stay on the same page creatively. This was a first for me, and it really helped both teams to sync and pick areas to focus on. We discussed that while sound design can go a long way in helping to tell the story, music is often more effective for carrying the emotional core of the piece. Martin and Joerg delivered on this mission with a fantastic theme and score tailored to the arc of the story.
In terms of my Pro Tools mix session, I worked with 10 dialog tracks and ADR tracks for each of 9 characters. For two of the supernatural characters, we doubled and tripled the ADR recordings to allow for more thickness in the vocal design, and I used VocAlign as well as elastic audio tracks to sync these recordings. I also carried 8 Vocal Design tracks with extra sends for reverbs and plugins. I used Phoenixverb Surround for this project, with outstanding results. The most processor-intensive plugins in the session were real time instances of SoundToys’ EchoBoy and Crystallizer. Since I mixed in the box, I found that pre dub groups were less important, so FX were handled via 2 5.1 groups with 40 tracks each, and backgrounds were handled by 2 5.0 groups with 26 tracks each. Foley was mixed as delivered in 20 tracks. Joerg delivered music in stereo stems – Big Drum, Small Drum, Strings, Electric Cello, Keys, Drones, Synth and Other and Reverbs.
DYNAMIC STORY ELEMENTS
One major way in which releasing content via app is different is that the app can be continually updated. In the tech world, products are never done. Hooked introduced and feature called Dynamic Story Elements, in which a chapter can change each time it’s viewed. A visual effect can be removed, a different take can be used, or the length of a chapter can change. Following the mix, I saved a separate copy of my master session for these DSEs. Each one required something different. In some cases I could simply conform the stereo final mix. Sometimes I would add or remove sound elements to reflect the changes in the alternate version, then do a conform to accommodate length changes. These alternate versions keep the story fresh, invite multiple viewings and definitely get the fans excited on twitter. A fun part of Haunting Melissa is the conspiracies and alternate stories built into the script. It’s a film, but it’s also a puzzle.
Hooked Digital Media is a unique hybrid of tech start-up and film company. Working on Dark Hearts was an opportunity for me to embrace that and to innovate. I had a blast developing ways to make apps sound better, and I’m excited to carry these concepts forward with other projects. At the end of the day, what makes any project sound great are resources and attention to detail. I feel blessed to have had both on Haunting Melissa: Dark Hearts.
Scott has supervised sound and mixed since 2000, and worked with Hooked Digital Media on The Secret of Haunting of Melissa. He honed his craft at Todd-AO and continues to work among the talented people of Wildfire Post. Scott works on a variety of projects, with particular emphasis on artful independent films. Having experience on major studio projects allows him to use the best practices when supervising, editing and mixing with Integrated Post.