SFP: "Australia"

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



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Photo: James Fisher

Photo: James Fisher

Director Baz Luhrman's highly anticipated November release, Australia, not only marks a significant departure from his stylized “Red Curtain Trilogy” that began with Strictly Ballroom in 1992 and included Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001, his most recent film), it embraces the sweep, grandeur and vibrant storytelling of the great latter-day epics, from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to Out of Africa and A Passage to India. The simple title hints at the film's ambition — to tell a tale that says something about the power of this massive, fascinating and largely unpopulated land. At its heart, though, is a more intimate human drama about an Englishwoman in the mid-1930s, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who follows her husband to the Belgium-sized cattle station he owns in Australia's Northern Territories and which she inherits. A few years later, to save her land she and a local cattle drover (Hugh Jackman), with whom she falls in love (of course) undertake a long and perilous cattle drive north to the port city of Darwin, which is bombed relentlessly by the Japanese beginning in February of 1942 (two months after Pearl Harbor), eventually prompting a large exodus south to escape the horrors of war. Along the way they encounter a number of interesting and unusual characters — including aboriginal natives — and travel through a variety of breathtaking terrains, from the desolate Outback to incredible gorges.

The film has been a thoroughly Australian production — shot (mostly on location) and posted there with nearly the entire crew culled from Down Under, with the notable exception of L.A.-based re-recording mixers Andy Nelson and Anna Behlmer — who were flown in and did their work in a new mix room outside of Sydney — and Shawn Murphy, who mixed David Hirschfelder's score in a studio at the Sydney Opera House. Nelson and Behlmer were Oscar-nominated for their work on Moulin Rouge, as was Australia's production sound mixer, Guntis Sics; Australia's supervising sound editor Wayne Pashley didn't work on that film, but was an FX editor on Strictly Ballroom years earlier and has since proven himself working as a supervisor on such internationally popular Australian productions as the two Babe films and the recent animated smash, Happy Feet. In separate interviews — Pashley and Behlmer from the mix stage at Atlab, right outside of Sydney; Nelson at Fox in L.A., where he was working on the final mix for Madagascar 2 in between jaunts across the Pacific to work on Australia — the post principals stressed two main points: that Luhrmann's film really does represent an unabashed return to an earlier epic style of filmmaking and that Australia itself is a major character in the film, which required special treatment from the sound team.

Of course, technology has come a long way since Paddy Cunningham took a mono Nagra out into the desert to record ambiences for Lawrence of Arabia. To capture the unique sound of Australia's myriad natural locations, Wayne Pashley had more modern tools at his disposal, including Sound Devices 744T recorders and, most significantly, a SoundField surround microphone.

“It's B-format,” he says of the SoundField SPS 200, “so it's W-X-Y-Z configuration [central reference, front/back, left/right, up/down], which was fantastic, particularly in the Outback, because it gave us a huge amount of length and height and width, and the sub channel was terrific as well on all the winds and on the dynamics between high-end bird life and the winds that were going through eucalyptus trees and across salt plains.”

Pashley notes that filming in desolate areas posed an incredible challenge to Luhrmann and the crew. “No one has really filmed extensively up there in the Kununurra region near the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territories. And to actually maneuver a crew of this size — some 300 to 350 people — to an area like that, with all that heat and dust, was quite remarkable. I imagine that when David Lean was filming Lawrence of Arabia, it was a similar exercise. Plus, we had all the livestock that was brought in [for the cattle drive]: 1,500 head of cattle and the brumbys [Australian wild horses]. It was quite a logistical feat.”

Pashley did his ambience recordings in many of the same locales where Luhrmann and company were shooting, “sometimes following a day behind so it would be as quiet and pristine as possible. Also, I'd go further afield,” which sometimes involved a certain amount of peril: One day, traveling alone, he drove 50 kilometers off an already obscure dirt road to record the wild sounds of a particular river bed and some distant falls. “I knew there were a lot of crocs and deadly snakes there,” he recalls, “so I had to be very careful, and the sun was going down so I'd have to work quickly. At one point, I turned around and the tire was flat in about three feet of dust; the tire was completely covered. And I didn't have a satellite phone and there was no cell phone reception, so I thought here's a 50k walk!” Fortunately, he did have a spare tire and lying in the dust he managed to change the flat, and eventually ease out of the perilous location, finally arriving back at his base at around midnight.

The SoundField was also used in many other settings, Pashley reveals. “Every evening at the ‘homestead’ set, I'd get the mic out as the sun was setting, and we'd have 150 brumbys come hurtling around the homestead and I'd be doing the pass-bys and all the whinnies.” At one point, too, he had the SoundField mic mounted on the back of a rider to record the brumbys so they would “thunder through the audience's ears.” He adds, “I also did all the vehicles in 5.1 because it was so quiet, there was no traffic or aircraft, so it was the perfect opportunity to get all the pass-bys on the dirt roads with all these 1930s vehicles, from Chevrolets and Fords to army vehicles.”

Pashley says that recording with the SoundField gave him more flexibility than more conventional stereo recordings because the mic “comes with a plug-in called the Sound Zone that imports the digital B-format file and lets you select not only 5.1, but 6.1 or 7.1, and you can also go stereo or mono fold-down within its own infrastructure, so when something is more of a spot effect, I would then make a choice as I was listening to it — whether to focus it, push the sub. You can actually re-shape the recording as you mix it down to whatever format you like.”

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