Crack That Whip!

Jun 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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When film directors and actors revisit cherished characters and “franchises” many years, or even decades, after their initial successes, they do so at their own peril. The landscape is fairly riddled with long-delayed sequels and prequels that failed to measure up in the popular mind, from The Two Jakes (Chinatown II) to Godfather III to, yes, even the mega-successful recent Star Wars trilogy.

But the public has been clamoring for a fourth Indiana Jones adventure from Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford basically ever since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released in 1989. And now Indy is back — cue iconic John Williams main theme! By the time you read this story, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will have been in theaters for a week or more and both the critics and the public will have weighed in on whether the old Indy magic is still there. Sitting here writing about the film weeks before it opens, however, I can say this much: Everyone involved in the film seem to love working on it, and the post sound team, some of whom I interviewed right after the final mix was completed in late April, definitely believe that the film is up to very the high standards of the original 1980s Indy trilogy.

It helped that Spielberg was able to tap so many of the craftspeople who had either worked on the earlier films or who have been part of many or most of his more recent efforts. Editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams and sound designer/supervising sound editor Ben Burtt all helped on Raiders of the Lost Ark way back in 1981 and were integral to Crystal Skull. Among the key post-production sound personnel, co-supervising sound editor Richard Hymns was a dialog editor on Indy II (The Temple of Doom) and a supervisor on III (The Last Crusade), as well as several other Spielberg films; ADR supervisor Gwen Whittle was a sound editor on III; and re-recording mixer Andy Nelson has handled music and dialog for a dozen Spielberg films since Schindler's List. Additional sound designer and re-recording mixer Chris Scarabosio, fresh off an Oscar nomination for There Will Be Blood, has only been part of Spielberg's retinue since Munich, but he has roots that go back to the Young Indiana Jones television series (for which he won an Emmy), and he was part of the Skywalker Sound group that made the three Star Wars prequels, which were, of course, directed by Indiana Jones co-creator/screenwriter/editor George Lucas. So the connections, and people's affection for the material, run very deep.

Appropriately enough, the Crystal Skull post story begins with Burtt. “It started for me back in September [2007], when I went to L.A. and read the script in a secret room with a guard at the door,” he says with a chuckle during a break from mixing this summer's Disney-Pixar spectacle, WALL-E. “They were still shooting at the time, and I hadn't had a conversation with Steven yet. But I went through it, as I always would, making lists and noting questions and sort of deciding what are all the sounds I might need to make this movie? From the script, you can see there are going to be certain vehicles and certain weapons and locations, and you figure that for the Crystal Skulls themselves, you'll need a lot of supernatural sounds like we did for the Ark or other things in the past. Then Richard [Hymns] and I were able to go down on four or five occasions and sit with Steven at the KEM flatbed in a traditional film editing room — as we would have done back on the earlier Indiana Jones films — go through the film and look at each scene and discuss what sounds were needed in greater detail, and get Steven's ideas. Each time, I'd come back up here [to Skywalker Sound] armed with more specific marching orders as to what to do.”

Hymns comments, “Ben's approach is really unique with Steven because they're like a couple of kids — you put them together and everyone else becomes almost invisible. They talk in a language that most of us don't understand, like Steven mentions an old movie and Ben immediately connects, knows exactly the sound he's talking about — he might even have it in his library — and they move forward in that way. And they're always talking about movies from the past to relate to the soundtrack we're working on. To be in a spotting session with those two is a joy for me.”

In this case, Burtt says, “I knew from the beginning that we'd want to refer back again to some of the sounds we'd established in the earliest films because Indy still has a whip, he still has a gun, there are going to be fights and chases — though, of course, we wanted to do new things with those sounds, too. I always try to create a world of sound for each movie I work on. With this one, I knew we wanted to start by having the original library of sounds brought up to date because they really only existed on old quarter-inch tapes. Portions of them had been copied and digitized in a different manner over the years — some had gone to PCM and Betamax, or whatever we were using in the '80s. But I didn't trust those earlier generations, so I said, ‘Let's go back and restore the whole collection.’” Burtt's frequent sonic collaborator, Matt Wood, set up a work environment for Burtt's 24-year-old son, Benny, to transfer the analog tapes to Pro Tools via a mint-condition Otari MX5050 and Apogee A/D converters. Everything was classified in a Sound Miner database so that the editors could easily get to any sound.

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