Three-Quel Spring

Jun 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Though director Steven Soderbergh's three Ocean's films are visually arresting (he is the director of photography, too; Stephen Mirrione edited them), they are driven more by dialog than by action. The intricacies of the story are usually revealed through often-subtle character interactions instead of by big visual payoffs, so getting crisp, clear production recordings is essential.

Ocean's Thirteen crew, from left: mixer Paul Ledford; David Katz, video assist; Ross Levy, utility sound; and boom operator Randy Johnson.

Paul Ledford has been the production sound mixer for nearly all of Soderbergh's films, all the way back to the director's breakthrough, sex, lies, and videotape. In fact, Ledford and Soderbergh go back even further — Ledford was a student at LSU when he befriended the 14-year-old Soderbergh. “We got to go down the road together with our passions,” Ledford says during a break from scouting locations for Bertrand Tavernier's upcoming film, In the Electric Mist. “I got lucky that Stephen that he was able to bring a few of us along as crew.” (Supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake has also been a fixture of Soderbergh's productions and worked on all three Ocean's.)

Because the Ocean's films are ensemble pieces that often have many important speaking roles within a scene, capturing the production dialog can be a complicated affair requiring multiple radio mics in addition to deft overhead work by Ledford's regular boom operator, Randy Johnson. “Any time we had all of them there, all of them talking, those were big challenges,” Ledford notes. “There are so many people to deal with, to get all the [track] assignments and everything hooked up and ready to go isn't easy. And Steven's often happy to shoot available light, so you really have to be nimble and ready to go. Waiting on power is not something he's into. So I run all my cart on DC power.”

Ledford has used a different recorder for each of the Ocean's films: “Eleven was DAT through an Apogee A/D going 20-bit and then down to DAT [16-bit]. Ocean's Twelve was a [Zaxcom] Deva II [4-track hard drive, 24-bit] and now we've got the Deva V [10-track]. For this show, we used Lectrosonics 400 Series [RFs], with mostly Sanken COS-11 lavaliers, along with the Countryman B6, which has a low impact on wardrobe because it's such a small microphone. The Sankens match the Schoeps overheads very well.” He uses a Cooper 208D mixer after many years of relying on a Cooper 106.

“I do the A-to-D conversion in the Cooper and feed that AES to the Deva, and then we feed the isolated tracks analog,” he says. “We did a test and we didn't find any timing issues. The great benefit of working with Larry [Blake] all these years is together we've stepped through a lot of issues that you might not deal with on other films because you don't have access to the post sound people so early on. He's taught me a lot about doing the homework ahead of time.”

Still, Soderbergh can continue to surprise his colleagues. For Thirteen, he wanted to keep backgrounds going and alive on the sets, primarily to motivate the action through playback. “In one scene, we were running sound effects of helicopters, which weren't actually running — they were on a crane and gimbel,” Ledford explains. “Ordinarily, you would say, ‘We'll run the sound effect up to the dialog,’ but Steven said, ‘No, I want to run everything together and you'll get the dialog.' I thought, ‘Really? Okay, fine, let's see what happens.’ That's a place where using well-placed lavaliers is crucial. There were also scenes doing dialog with the 500-plus extras going at it in the casino and sound effects going through massive speakers.

“There were slot machines brought onto the set that were built for Thirteen, and while they were installing them we'd turn the normal noises off. But the people in the casino and the dice and the card-playing and the chips and all that play in the background and all make noise. Larry tells me that on Thirteen there's only a handful of lines that were changed or added for story purposes, but the production dialog is pretty much intact.”


When I reach Shrek the Third co-supervising sound editors Thomas Jones and Richard Anderson on the Howard Hawks soundstage at Fox, they're working on an M&E mix of Shrek the Third, “making it safe for foreign people,” Anderson quips. “I've noticed that with foreign versions of animated films I've worked on, including languages that are totally different than ours, like Chinese, how well it syncs. It's probably because there's exaggerated movements of the mouth.”

No question about it, working on animated features brings its own demands and challenges, but these two guys are masters of the genre. Together they've worked on such animated films as Flushed Away, Over the Hedge, Madagascar and Shark Tale, and Anderson's earlier resume includes Antz, The Lion King, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Anastasia and others. “Actually, we started out doing live-action films together,” Jones says. “I'd take care of the dialog and he'd take care of the effects, and eventually it carried over into the animated realm.

“Working with dialog in animation is a little different because when I record the group vocals, it's treated more as an effect than as real dialog — as opposed to a live-action movie where you're seeing people and you're filling them in and blending in ADR with production dialog. In terms of the dialog, and this carries over into the effects, because it's so clean and we have nothing we have to match into, you get to focus more on creating the emotion of the scene rather than trying to step around what already exists, like a live-action production track.”

This is the first Shrek film the duo has worked on, and from the outset they learned from producer Aaron Warner that there were a few ground rules for the sound. “Their approach is, as much as possible, to play the sound realistically,” Anderson says. “They don't go for the traditional exaggerated comedy sounds. They play it like a live-action film more often than not. Of course, there are exceptions to that. They'll sneak in a cartoon-y effect here and there — like Pinocchio's nose growing.

“In films like Over the Hedge and Flushed Away, you had this sound scale where you're dealing with the world as experienced by small creatures where normal human objects appear huge, so they had to sound big yet what the normal object would sound like. In this movie, even though it's a fantasy world, it looks very realistic, other than being a world with dragons and talking cats and the rest of it. There's also a wizard in there and that was a lot of fun because what does magic sound like?”

Although there were some carryovers in FX from previous Shrek films, including some of the dragon vocalizations and Pinocchio's nose, there was still plenty of new work to be done by Anderson and his FX team, such as various medieval mechanical machines “that were supposed to be fun and rickety but at the same time they had to be big enough that you believe them,” he says. “So we went through the library and found a bunch of wooden ratchety things and gears and squeaks and put them together in interesting ways.

“Tom and I both work for Technicolor Sound Services right now and we have quite a library at our disposal. And it became bigger when we became part of Technicolor. I had my own company, Weddington, and we had a library there that we'd had for years, and that got incorporated into the Technicolor library, so it's huge. Still, we love to record stuff. No matter how big your library is, there's always something you don't have.

Jones got into the FX game designing sounds for the “dronkeys” — the half-donkey, half-dragon offspring of Eddie Murphy's donkey character and the dragon who hooked up in Shrek 2. “What the hell does a donkey-dragon baby sound like?” Jones asks with a chuckle. “I used lion cubs, various birds, camel; we had some turkey in there.” Anderson: “That didn't make it into the final.” Jones: “They needed to sound like they're trying to communicate as opposed to just making noises. And they had to be cute.”

Meanwhile, on the dialog end, Jones had to deal with a perennial issue of animated films — dialog parts that are recorded years apart in different places. “They probably did the original recordings for this three years ago, and they've added things until very recently.” Anderson elaborates, “Or, as likely, they get a new idea, a new line, a new joke or whatever, they go back and get the actor, but now he's on location in Mongolia shooting a movie, so they have to find a studio there and they record him there, and maybe he has a bit of a cold that day, so you have all these pieces of dialog that were often recorded years apart and now at the final you're trying to mix it so it sounds like a coherent thing. Every animated film I've ever worked on has this problem.”

The film was mixed at Fox by the team of Anna Behlmer and Andy Nelson, who worked on the first two Shrek films, as well, “so we knew whatever we did we'd be in good hands,” Anderson says. “They always do good work.”

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