Youth Without Youth

Jan 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Steve Shurtz

COPPOLA'S NEW (OLD) WAY OF FILMMAKING

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Tim Roth plays a professor who is miraculously made young again.

Tim Roth plays a professor who is miraculously made young again.

Francis Ford Coppola's first directorial effort in ten years, Youth Without Youth, might be called a Romanian film. Based on a novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade, the story is set in Romania before the outbreak of World War II and was shot on location there with a predominantly local cast and crew. Nearly all of the post work was done there, as well. Romania is a hot filming spot these days because of its diverse and appealing range of rural and city locations and the economic incentives of working in one of Europe's least expensive countries. It was important to Coppola that he be able to produce the film himself, so budget was a concern. In a sense, the film marks a return to the more personal style of filmmaking he enjoyed before his mainstream successes in the mid-'70s. And the financial approach is straight out of the playbook of B-movie king Roger Corman (for whom Francis once worked): Find talented young people eager to get a break on a feature film and use them. They're inexpensive, creative and adapt easily to difficult filmmaking conditions.

Coppola, who personally adapted the screenplay, was attracted to Youth Without Youth because the story explores a number of different philosophical themes, including inner consciousness, identity and time. At the center of the tale — which the director has likened to The Twilight Zone — is an aging linguistics professor named Dominic Matei (played by Tim Roth) who is struck by lightning and miraculously made young again, and with a superior intellect. While on the run from Nazis who want to exploit his mind, he re-connects with a flame from his past, a relationship now fraught with unusual dangers and repercussions.

Though Coppola did find most of the crew in Romania, there were a few notable exceptions including picture editor/re-recording mixer Walter Murch and sound designer/re-recording mixer Pete Horner.

Picture editor/re-recording mixer Walter Murch (left) and sound designer/re-recording mixer Pete Horner

Picture editor/re-recording mixer Walter Murch (left) and sound designer/re-recording mixer Pete Horner

Murch first worked with Coppola on The Rain People (1969) and was an integral part of the early days of Coppola's American Zoetrope Studios, along with George Lucas, Carroll Ballard, Bob Dalva and others. On such groundbreaking films as Apocalypse Now, The Conversation and The Godfather films, Murch worked in both picture and sound, and through the years he earned numerous awards for both picture editing and sound mixing, a rare cross-disciplinary feat in these fields at this level of filmmaking.

Pete Horner, an eight-year veteran of Zoetrope Studios, started in the transfer room and worked his way up to sound editor, sound designer and re-recording mixer. He works on the leading edge of digital audio, cutting with Pro Tools and adept at ICON mixing. He has the added advantage of having come into the post world using analog consoles and cutting mag. Now independent, Horner works at Skywalker Sound and elsewhere. He previously worked with Murch on Jarhead and has worked on many Zoetrope productions.

Horner's first assignment was to look into post. “I went over to Romania six months early to answer the question, ‘Can we do the sound post here?’” he says. “I spent a week there and I looked at the production building to see if they could also use it for the post-production. It was an old villa with high ceilings, creaky floors and a lot of marble. The second part of the question was finding personnel who could do this. It was a week of interviews of probably every sound person in Romania! Ultimately, I identified a team and I figured out a way that we could utilize the building.”

Horner found that nearly all the East European sound-for-picture editors used Sony Vegas workstations, but since Zoetrope already owned three Pro Tools TDM systems as well as an ICON console that had been purchased for mixing Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, the plan was to use that equipment, which would be shipped over, supplemented by purchasing four additional Mbox 2's with the DV Toolkit option and a Control|24 console. As it turns out, the Romanians were very adaptable and appreciated the experience on the popular platform. Horner notes, “I think that the platform issue is not a huge deal for someone who is an editor. Which keys you hit are different and the menus change, but what you're doing is the same. So I'm sure that there was a translation that they had to do, but they picked it up pretty well.” It helped, too, that sound effects editor Victor Panfilov already knew Pro Tools and could help others get up to speed.

FILM SOUND TECHNIQUE AND AESTHETICS

At Murch's urging, the sound crew diligently mined all the effects from the production soundtracks that they could. These elements provided much of the sound effects, ambience and backgrounds for the film. Murch had used this approach on earlier films, like Godfather II, and explains, “My aesthetic is to try to be as naturalistic as possible and to squeeze the production tracks really hard because there's great stuff in there that a lot of times just gets stripped away, kind of like a pressure washer — everything gets blown away except for the dialog and gets replaced with Foley. This was the opposite, which is: flip out things that don't work, save everything that does work, and then mine the production tapes — maybe in another take there's a clean set-down and that kind of stuff. Maybe in another scene there's something you can use.”

In addition to sound effects and sound design, whatever additional sounds were needed were created by location Foley, which is sound recorded in the real world, not a Foley stage, sometimes in rough sync for specific needs. Although the YWY production had built a small ADR room that could have worked for some of the Foley, the location approach was deliberately used for its naturalness. Horner says, “Vadim Staver, Foley editor and recordist, jumped in and really took this on. Vadim would go out with a microphone into real life, real spaces, and often perform them himself. He would watch it on a portable monitor held in one hand, he would hold the boom in the other, and he would walk. Sometimes he would rope someone into holding the mic for him, or he would set the mic somewhere, but I saw him actually recording, watching and performing all at once.”

Francis Ford Coppola gets behind the camera on the set of Youth Without Youth.

Francis Ford Coppola gets behind the camera on the set of Youth Without Youth.

When it came to sound design, one of the most challenging elements needed in the film involved special sounds for scenes that dealt with a shift in consciousness. Horner drew inspiration from a personal experience of an aural sensation that happens sometimes when he awakes from a deep sleep. This sound varies its characteristics depending on his level of consciousness. To re-create this sensation in sound, Horner used an unusual Tibetan musical instrument called a singing bowl, which in this case was a large crystal glass bowl. “It's basically the same concept as a wine glass [sound] but it's much larger,” he says. “The great thing about that is that it's almost exactly a sine wave, except that it's not. It has a sort of beating to it which I'm sure comes from the slightly imperfect shape of the bowl. So I began with that raw sound and pitched it and processed it in a number of different ways. I could get into this altered consciousness state using these sounds in a way that people wouldn't necessarily know that this was happening, but they would feel it. And then, depending on how the cut was made, it would either cut abruptly into real world sounds or it would hang over a little bit into the real world.”

Horner also needed to create sound elements that bring to mind the concept of time. The crew searched the country for the perfect clock tower to record, settling on the clock tower in the town of Iasi, near the Ukrainian border. Horner recorded the bells and got inside the tower to record the pendulum and other working parts, which he described as “wonderful.”

Before the excursion to Iasi, one of the producers questioned sending the sound designer, suggesting this might be a task for an intern. However, Murch intervened, explaining that there's something that happens when you send a sound person out to record a sound, “You get that sound but also usually get something else that you never would have been looking for.” Prophetically, Horner found just that: “The amazing thing is that in this same building was this museum of mechanical music players. On one end of the room is a music box and on the other end is literally a boom box with a little placard in front of it with ‘1989,’ so it's music reproduction throughout the ages. I found one instrument — this piano melodica — which is like a player piano: It takes this piece of paper that has punch holes through it and it strikes notes and it plays a tune when you turn the crank. But it was broken so it made a sort of cacophony of notes and it also made a clicking sound. If I turned it slowly, I would just get the clicking. If I did it quickly I would get this great cacophony, and all the way in between. So I spent a lot of time trying to get every single sound that I could out of this one instrument. The ladies who ran the museum kept looking at me funny — like why am I so interested in this broken instrument? — but what I came back with was this great little library of sounds. The cacophony turned out to be its own special thing, but the clicking became a very instrumental part of the opening of the film and is used other places in the film. In the opening he's in a nightmare and we're really sort of bending time and consciousness and this sound just flies around the room and creates this sense that time is not necessarily a constant linear thing.”

Murch elaborates, “The film begins with a very deliberate ‘tick…tock…. tick…tock,’ but then these other things start to happen which are temporal distortions — of ticking, and also chimes; [you have] chimes going backward, those sort of elements, which combined with the images that you are looking at, in the beginning, which are mechanical time things, but that are being distorted through a diopter. You get these very unusual visual distortions of timekeeping devices mixed in with romantic images of the girl that you find out that he lost. And also of his work, there are linguistic things in there as well. It is an overture of the themes, in an abstract way, the way overtures should be because you don't know how any of these things tie up with the movie yet, because it's just beginning.”

MIXING IN THE VILLA

Horner had committed to mixing the film in the villa, in keeping with the self-contained approach of making this film. Zoetrope's Robert Knox sketched the dimensions of a mix room — the standard room-within-a-room approach. However, the mix room was on the second floor of the villa, so there was concern about the weight of the materials. Therefore, the floor was not floated, the walls were not quite as thick or solid as they should have been and it was a small room, about 12×15 feet. The compromises made in construction meant that it was not completely acoustically isolated. But it was a 5.1 mixing stage with projection that successfully worked, even if the editors next to the stage could hear leakage on louder scenes. Monitors were Blue Sky SAT 6.5s and two SUB 12s, shipped, like the ICON and the rest of the equipment, from the U.S.

All the premixes were done on the ICON, with Horner handling the dialog, music and FX, while Murch was editing picture. When he came onboard as a mixer, Murch premixed the ADR. On the final, he had his hands on the dialog and music on the ICON, while Horner used a Control|24 to handle the SFX, sound design and Foley. So, each mixer had separate sessions on separate Pro Tools HD3 systems.

“The sessions were built such that the premixes were online the whole time,” Horner says. “Even when we were in final mix mode, the premixes were just a layer down, so we could make changes on the premix level and then switch back to final mix mode, with the exception of music. The music premixing was so DSP- and track-intensive that I had to do that as a separate session, print those tracks and then import pre-dubbed tracks into the session. In the case of dialog, Walter could always go back to the original recording without any processing or premixing I had done to it, but could also work in final mix mode.”

On printmasters, Horner was concerned about the translation of the mix from a small stage to a larger theater, especially on the low end. Since there were no Dolby-certified stages in Romania, the printmasters were done at Zoetrope's stage in Napa, Calif., on the same equipment flown back from Romania.

A RETURN TO ROOTS

Lead actor Tim Roth commented that he found working with Coppola and his lean, back-to-his-roots approach on this film to be rejuvenating as an actor. I asked Murch if he found it a similar experience: “Yes, because any time you do anything that you're doing for the first time, you have to go back to a part of you that's closer to your own roots and then reinvestigate it. This is the first film that I worked on where so much of the picture was digitally acquired. It makes you take a step backwards to say, ‘All right, what's the best way to approach this, both so I can feel comfortable doing this and more importantly, how can I take advantage of the strengths of this way of working?’ I'm sure that applied to Pete. The challenge of working in a different country, on equipment in a situation where there were so many new variables, was certainly similar to Zoetrope in its early days, [and also] in many ways to Apocalypse Now. We were doing so much that was new for the first time on that film, it just makes you have to come up with new ways of approaching the material. You have to rejuvenate, even to think about doing it.”

“Ultimately,” Horner adds, “this was working in the Zoetrope way, which is something I'm a big fan of, actually; it's something I have benefited from. Essentially, it's ‘Do more with less; let your limitations spur your creativity.’ I feel that I came through this rejuvenated in the sense that it was exhilarating. After having gone through it, I feel much more fearless than I was before doing it, because I've faced it and I've done it. I can find a way to make it work.”


Steve Shurtz is the former General Manager of the Saul Zaentz Film Center and former GM of EMI's Studios 301 in Sydney, Australia.






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