Always Mixing

Aug 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Mel Lambert



Education Guide

Mix is gearing up to present its longstanding annual Audio Education Guide in its November 2014 issue. Want to have your school listed in the directory, or do you need to update your current directory listing? Add an image, program description, or a logo to your listing! Get your school in the Mix Education Guide 2014.

Chris Jenkins (seated) and Frank Montano worked on Watchmen.

Chris Jenkins (seated) and Frank Montano worked on Watchmen.

Given the complexity of high-action movies, and the fact that technology-savvy directors retain their creative options right up to the final print-mastering stage, re-recording mixers face some difficult choices. “As soon as I had read the script for Watchmen, I knew that we could use an extra three to four weeks on the mix,” recalls Chris Jenkins, who, with Frank Montano handling sound-effects tracks, mixed dialog and music for director Zack Snyder's film about costumed super-heroes in the dystopian world of an alternate America. “But you never get the luxury of working in a linear fashion on a very special effects-heavy film that won't be locked [until close to print mastering]. The schedule just didn't allow us that luxury; it's always fluid. We joke now that picture and predubs aren't locked; instead, they are ‘latched’ — the film is fastened together, but not necessarily glued together!”

Typically, an effects-laden motion picture will be assigned an eight- to 10-week mix schedule, with five to seven days of dialog predubs and 15 to 20 days of effects predubs, followed by a four- to six-week re-recording and print-mastering schedule. During predubbing, the myriad component elements prepared by the film's sound-editorial team will be submixed into either a left-center-right perspective or a full 5.1-channel surround sound balance.

The Jenkins- and Montano-helmed mixing project for Watchmen ranged over a total of three dub stages at the Universal Studios lot in preparation for a 5.1-channel surround sound mix, a 2.5-hour IMAX version, which Jenkins supervised in Toronto, plus a DVD Director's Cut and a second 3.5-hour DVD that included a pair of additional features on the movie's comic-book origins and complex back story. “Once we had seen the movie,” Jenkins continues, “Frankie [Montano] started to make a map with the supervising sound editor on how he was going to lay out his predubs.

“I like to start at least three days — maybe a week — ahead of him. If they want Frankie to get started as well, he might start with Foley predubs or something like that while I get started on my dialog. But we try and rebel [against that idea]. I like to prepare one to two production-dialog predubs, a couple of ADR predubs and a group predub for at least three reels so that Frankie can be running those into the monitors as be begins his effects predubs and can design his mixes around the dialog. He'll build between 12 and 14 predubs for separation, but I wait to do my group walla until the end of the predub schedule.

“The idea is that when you're building the architecture of the soundtrack, you are also building the final mix desk. And Frankie is also writing automation data when he's building his predubs. Because our [Harrison] consoles have 512 inputs, Frankie can put up the dialog predubs and then volume-graph my sessions to make any overall dialog-mix refinements as he goes; that information stays with the session. Then he starts adjusting his effects tracks against those levels, all the time writing automation data. It is important that we are able to put up a reel that has maybe 30 predubs and music and play the whole [soundtrack] for the director.”

“We had maybe 300 channels of effects on some of the busier reels,” Montano recalls. “For some of those reels, my working in parallel with Chris lets me ‘shape’ the Foley and hard effects around the premixed dialog.”

Watchmen was a very extended project; our final mix was five or six weeks,” Jenkins offers. “In theory, as soon as I have completed a reel of predubs and Frankie has completed a reel of effects predubs — five days into the premix stage — we can play a trial mix for the director. We also did three or four temp mixes, I recall.”

To handle the two extended DVD mixes needed for Watchmen, Jon Taylor and Christian P. Minkler mixed, respectively, dialog/music and effects on Universal's Dub 6 stage. “There was 25 minutes of new footage used on the two DVD projects,” Jenkins explains. “We cloned our mixes for Jon and Chris [available over a SAN network], who added several transitions for the Black Freighter animated feature [and other bonus material]. The studio wanted everything done simultaneously, with the full complement of M&Es and foreign-language mixes on all of the four soundtracks. We were working on the Watchmen project for a total of five months.”

“The key to successful predubbing,” Montano states, “is that all three consoles at Universal — Hitchcock, Dub 6 and Dub 3 — match the same technical footprint. We are able to send console automation over Fibre-Channel networks, along with access to the source elements and stems [available as Pro Tools sessions]. We can also edit each other's automation data across all MPC Series consoles used for predubbing and final mixing. Actually, when I'm premixing on one side of the desk, I'm also making final passes on the effects section as I go.”

“In terms of passes under automation,” Jenkins adds, “five years ago we might be making 200 passes through finals; these days, we are doing 2,000 passes, maybe more on some larger films. So when I sit down with Frankie on day one of final mixing, he already has between 300 and 400 passes of console automation on his effects section, as he is balancing hard effects against backgrounds, and then Foley against that. Consequently, a lot of his ideas are there in polished form, even at the start of finals. It saves a lot of time.”

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