SFP: "Australia"

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



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The film was also a novel experience for mixers Nelson and Behlmer, who left their comfortable home turf at Fox in L.A. for a new mixing room called Deluxe StageOne Sound. The duo has worked together for about 14 years now, growing into perhaps the most respected mix team in Hollywood and earning Oscar nominations for such diverse films as Blood Diamond, War of the Worlds, The Last Samurai, Seabiscuit, The Thin Red Line and Evita. Nelson says, “We went down and looked at a couple of other facilities in Sydney and I went to look at the facility that mixed Happy Feet, and I liked it a lot but the room itself was rather small — sort of like our predub room here at Fox, which is a bit small for a big-scale picture. So this studio called Atlab, on the outskirts of Sydney — it's actually a printing laboratory and they have DI suites and everything — said, ‘Look, we have this huge space out back where we were thinking of building a mix room — maybe we could do it in time for Australia.’ So I went back to L.A., thinking, ‘Gosh, this is a huge step; will it really happen?’ Sure enough, it happened. I went down there to do some fine-tuning, and it turns out it's a really great room; without a doubt, the premier room in Sydney.

“It's a little smaller than the big room here at Fox,” he continues, “but it's got the Neve DFC console we use, the Pro Tools recorders and the acoustic design work was done by David Schwind [of Charles M. Salter Associates] out of San Francisco, who's a top designer and did our room here [in L.A.]. They really jumped in with both feet so I'm really excited about it. I don't think there's any doubt that many resident Australian directors are jumping to get in there, which is great for them. But we are the first.”

Anna Behlmer agrees: “It's a beautiful room. The console is a little smaller — a two-section instead of a three — but it's got the new metering that lets you know on the screen whether EQ is in or if you've got an aux send in or any processing in the strip; it lets you know just by looking at the meter bridge.

“The room sounds a little different than what we're accustomed to and that took a little time to adjust to. When we first walked in, it seemed a little dry, but Andy was here a few weeks before me and he was on top of it in terms of getting the Dolby rep out and putting up some baffling and getting it to soften up a bit. But it's improved, and we've actually taken some of the material we've done back to our room in L.A. and played it to see that it's translating well, so that's been comforting. To open a new room and do a big film like this in it is a big deal, and it's gone really, really smoothly.”

Nelson, who mixes dialog and music, says that much of the former was replaced through ADR. Though everyone agrees that production mixer Guntis Sics did a fine job on set, there were often natural elements (wind, animal sounds, etc.) or man-made factors (wind machines, the director barking instructions on a megaphone and such) conspiring against getting a totally clean production track. As is increasingly common with large productions that stretch over many months, “ADR was done all over the place; wherever the actors are,” Nelson says. “Nicole's been in a few places, Hugh has been mainly in Sydney. Wherever they are, though, they've got to get back in character and that can be tough for them. I don't think the actors like it, but often there's not much choice. [The dialog] has been prepared to go either way [production or ADR], and I'm sure Baz is no different than most directors — he'll try to use as much of the original recording as they can. But there are definitely a lot of places in the film where, for various reasons, it's better if we go with new loops.

“I'll show Baz the best I can get [the production track], and then it's up to him to say, ‘It's not good enough, let's go with the loops.’ Or he might say, ‘Even though it's not great, let's stick with it because the feeling is so good.’ I have to wear the two hats of either being the purist, saying, ‘Nothing beats the production from the performance standpoint,’ or being the realist, who says, ‘If no one can hear it, what good is it?’ And, of course, the danger with working on dialog is the more familiar with it you are, the more you assume people will understand it. But if it's even borderline, there's a good chance they won't understand it, so you might have to lose a few percentage of the performance but gain the clarity [with ADR]. If you're an audience member, there's nothing worse that saying, ‘What did he say?’”

Pashley adds that it was important to him “to have the dialog leap from the screen and be strong and clear — and to transcend the thick Australian accents and the pidgin dialect [spoken by the aborigines]. I want the dialog to be as bold as the land because we're telling a story here.”

From her standpoint, too, FX re-recording mixer Behlmer suggests, “More replaced dialog gives me a little more leeway. It allows more of the effects to be used because they're not provided in the production tracks, and it creates greater width and space in the track because when you've got a heavy production track, it tends to suck all the sound into the middle. When you don't have that, you have a greater sense of space and your surrounds play better and clearer, so it's a good opportunity.”

Pashley says that Behlmer made a complete separate predub of the 5.1 atmospheres he'd recorded “because it's such an important element,” Pashley says. “As I've said, we're almost treating the land as a real character; it needed a predub based around it like it was a single character, almost like it's a dialog track.”

And though the atmospheres that Pashley provided were rich and detailed, there was still plenty of room for Behlmer to get creative, adding more stereo atmospheres, touches of reverb, synth tones, different winds or other evocative elements to individual scenes. “I'm still using a [Lexicon] 960,” she says, “and I'm using a couple of synthesizers to enhance the low end to the boom channel and even in the mains a little bit to give size and weight to it, like in the cattle stampede, which is a great scene where you really want to feel what's going on up on the screen.”

Behlmer also notes that “the film has a theme of mysticism and spirituality that runs through it — with the aborigine characters — and in some of those scenes, the sound treatments are sort of surreal and we're trying to give those situations more of a magical feel, using ambiences in interesting and unusual ways. There are mysterious characters who have their own special signature sound, and situations where the world sort of goes away and we're focused on an event in an interesting way.” Including the bombing of Darwin, which could have been handled as a straightforward munitions extravaganza, a lá the film Pearl Harbor, but which Luhrmann has chosen to depict partially from the far-off perspective of aboriginal natives seeing what was once exclusively their homeland destroyed from a distance.

In an informative podcast on the official www.australiamovie.com Website, Luhrmann also weighed in on the importance of the creative use of the ambience tracks: “Layering that atmosphere is very important. In a naturalistic sense, you might just reproduce what's there [visible in the scene]. But it can [also] be employed to create drama. For example, in a scene where, say, Lady Sarah Ashley is inside her bedroom, she can hear noises outside, but the dominant sound is [the aborigine known as] King George chanting, and there's also the night sound of the crickets and the feeling that the world is vast and broad and she's a tiny person in this huge space.”

When the interviews for this article were conducted at the end of September, there was still a long way to go in the post process, including layering in David Hirschfelder's score — which Nelson describes as “a mixture of classical orchestral and a really interesting weaving of aboriginal music” — and the overall final mix. But it was clear from speaking to some of the sound principals that Luhrmann has achieved something special with this thoughtful and involving paean to his native land.

Nelson says, “There's something about this film that is refreshingly nostalgic — I don't like the word ‘throw-back’ because it's not that. But it's great storytelling in the classic sense. It's a way of taking you to a place you normally wouldn't experience. It accomplishes what the great movies have always done.”

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