PopMark Media/Studio Unknown's Confessions of a Small Working Studio—Balancing Act: Craft Vs. Business

May 2, 2011 2:16 PM

Sound designer Tim Barker (seated) with a boom operator

Sound designer Tim Barker (seated) with a boom operator

A scene from <i>The Arbor</i>

A scene from The Arbor


Planning was part of the scenario for Barker, but given budgetary and time constraints, both he and Kniowski also had to rely on serious ingenuity to pull a rabbit out of the hat on their respective projects. For Barker, the process that he refers to as “reverse ADR” was a first for him, and thus required an unconventional approach. “The set up for The Arbor was quite unique in that we were capturing nat sounds through a boom mic that was actually pointed away from the actors and into the environment,” he explains. “This was really confusing to the boom mic operator. [Laughs] Meanwhile, the dialog audio was being pumped to the six actors through earpieces so that they could mime their parts, and we were capturing the natural sounds of the environment as they did their lip-synching. I had anticipated that capturing the natural sounds of the environment would be important to bring a ‘realness’ to the film since the actual voices were recorded in interviews with 'real' people about their 'real' lives." Barker used a Sound Devices hard disk recorder and Avid Pro Tools on his laptop to transmit pre-recorded dialog for lip-syncing. The approach paid off well, as the blend of the two audio components was harmonious. 

Another innovative approach that worked well involved a slow-motion scene. To make the scene more believable, Barker slowed down and pitch-adjusted the vocal track in Pro Tools to enable the actress to lip sync her scene in slow motion rather than forcing the editors to rely on often pricey and time-consuming visual effects. “The effect was great in that a very dreamy quality resulted, which is exactly what the filmmakers were looking for,” explains Barker, who conducted the audio post work at Clarity Studios in England.

Barker was able to accommodate the budget without compromising on quality when it came to creating the segues between locations in the film by repurposing sounds that Barnard had used in another of her short films. These sounds included wind and creaky noises, which were important for establishing the two different worlds represented in the film. “Because the moods of Clio's two films were similar, lifting some of the sounds from her short film and using them in The Arbor wound up working perfectly,” says Barker, “and it saved us time and money.”

Kniowski was also able to think well on his feet—especially the scenes in which he had to develop an effective way to generate voices that were supposed to be coming through the wall of the main character’s rundown apartment. “The main character in the story, Arthur, winds up hearing voices of the people in the adjacent apartment and ultimately realizes they are part of a sinister plot,” explains Dhand. “The challenge was determining the exact quality of these voices so that they were logical, believable and audible enough so that the audience could distinguish what they were saying, but not so obvious that every piece of plot-critical information was front and center.”

His approach involved a combination of experimenting with different frequencies, different actors’ voices and different techniques. One of those techniques involved PVC piping. “Taking a cue from Walter Murch, I went to Home Depot and bought 10 feet of PVC and metal pipe and recorded dialog through these items. Then I ran the audio through Pro Tools and played around with dropping out some of the muddiness and making sure that certain words were slightly more audible than others.” Kniowski also used digital filters to make certain elements less clear to give the tone of the voices added authenticity. “In the beginning of the story, the filmmakers wanted the audience to think that the voices were all in Arthur’s head, but as the script goes on, it becomes more obvious that the voices are real, so to accomplish this I used more reverb to give the sound a more washy, blurred quality."

Kniowski also had to get creative when it came to re-creating an important scene that involved snow. “The film was shot in February in upstate New York in a very wintery climate, but I didn’t start mixing it until August,” says Kniowski. “When you go outside in February, things sound a lot different than it does in the summertime, so I had to come up with a cost-effective way to create a wintery environment.” To re-create footsteps in the snow, he went to an ice rink and recorded himself and Dhand walking through snow that had been dumped from a zamboni. “A lot of times, working with a limited budget actually causes you to get even more creative than you would have because you have to put more of yourself in it.” 

While both Kniowski and Barker admit that their work on Second Story Man and The Arbor exceeded their budgets, they also cautioned fellow sound designers to exercise discretion. “My ultimate goal is to make sure that my client is happy with what I deliver, and I will work on a project until I feel it is acceptable," says Kniowski. “At the same time, I have to monitor myself and force myself to stop if I see that I’m putting too much time into a project and not getting a fair amount back.”

PopMark Media is a creative partnership developed to help music industry professionals, filmmakers, advertising agencies and business professionals make sense of the changing requirements, develop effective strategies and stand out in a sea of competitors. The company offers innovative and personalized services that include a full range of promotional, social media and strategy consulting; original music composition, jingle production and music supervision; and sound polishing services for various projects.

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