"Nothing So Strange": Soon in Surround Sound - September 16, 2002
First off, in answer to what remains the most frequently asked question related to this movie--No, I don't know when it will be released in theaters or on video. We're working on it. It can take a long time for an indie film such as this to get into the market. When there is news, this website will have the info up right away. As always, though, thanks for asking.
And now, on to my essay, "What I Did Last Summer."
The festival schedule is usually pretty light in the summer, so way back in May I had decided that I would work on another project of mine, called "Bitch Creek," a survival film in the very early stages of development. Garland Slack, co-producer of "Nothing So Strange" and the instigator of this new project, and I had decided we needed to fill the summer with outdoor adventure activities and call it "research." We had plans to go kayaking, camping, fishing, river running, all sorts of stuff. We even had a few dates and places in mind.
Apple Computer intervened. Without even realizing it--I looked up today and thought, "Wait, is the summer gone already?"--I have frittered away the whole season playing with new software toys. Well, I did lot of other stuff, too, but my leisure time was not spent in the great outdoors. Since my adventure with the Florida alligators in June, I have done no nature-communing whatsoever. The "research" on "Bitch Creek" has gone nowhere.
Instead, I've been learning how to put together a surround sound mix and how to make a DVD. And that's why this diary entry is subtitled:
"The Death of the Post-Production Specialist"
On low-budget films, it's very convenient to have the director do all of the work himself on his home computer, rather than hire expensive specialists and facilities for this sort of thing. Robert Rodriguez, the guy who made his first feature for 7 grand, says he did the entire mix for "Spy Kids 2," a movie with a budget in the tens of millions, in his garage. He does his own shooting, cutting, sound, even some visual effects.
He also says he goes to bed every night with a stack of software and hardware manuals. This is where indie film is heading--as long as one person has the time and patience to learn all of these tools, one person can pretty much make a feature film. Editing and sound design and everything else associated with post-production used to make up a complex, mysterious territory that only a few, well-trained Guardians of the Secrets (editor, sound editor, mixer, post-production supervisor, color timer, the list goes on) could navigate. The director, especially the poor indie director, was at their mercy.
Not any more. Now we know they were all full of shit. Picture editing is not that complicated. One image follows another. Sound editing and mixing, ditto--you have sounds, how many and how loud would you like them? The main advantages that the Guardians of the Secrets once had were that they a) understood complicated tools and systems, b) they used them well, and c) they were employed by a facility that controlled access to prohibitively expensive equipment.
Not one of these is an advantage today. Editing rooms used to be extremely complicated, but flatbed editors and the physical bin system are now relics. And what they did--put one visual track in sync with two audio tracks--was really dirt simple. The machinery was complicated, but the result was not. Now you get get the result without all the machinery. What child can't understand iMovie? With just this simple editing tool, you can cut a movie with a picture and soundtrack as technically complex as many of the greatest films ever made. (Dogme95 doesn't allow you to do ANY sound editing, and yet "The Celebration" is a good, and good-sounding, movie.) The tools simply aren't that complicated anymore--they're intuitive instead.
Granted, a professional film editor or sound editor is still probably more skilled than you or I with these simple machines. But who cares? Skill used to matter when mistakes were costly, in terms of film or sound stock and, especially, time. But now mistakes are free. You make a mistake, just hit "undo." Try again, for free. And who cares about time? This is you in your apartment, not a crew of paid technicians in an expensive rented facility. Time doesn't matter. Keep making mistakes until you get it right. If you're behind schedule, just stay up later, for free.
This revolution brings filmmaking more in line with other arts. Imagine if a painter had to hire a specialist to make each kind of brush stroke for him. Or a novelist had to bring in a "verb specialist" and a "noun specialist" along with a "chapter supervisor." Or a composer had to hire different musicians to play the various parts of her symphony. Oh...well, that's still true. But the metaphor breaks down when you realize that a mixing board is nowhere near as hard to master as the trumpet (I've played both).
And for all the snobs and former Guardians of the Secrets out there who claim that there's no way someone can gain the artistry and perspective of, say, a 30-year-veteran sound mixer, I agree. That's a real loss. But there's also no way that even the best veteran sound mixer will ever understand completely, 100%, what it is that I want. No director is so skilled at communication that he can mind-meld with a hired craftsman. I may not ever have the skills necessary to work at a mixing stage and mix for any client who walks in the door. But I can mix my own movie. I know what I want. That direct link to the process is a gain that trumps any loss of professional expertise, at least for me.
The only catch to this digital revolution is that you do have to be willing to devote yourself to learning the tools. As intuitive as they are, there's still a learning curve. And that curve is where I've spent much of the summer. Surround sound turns out to be a lot easier than I thought. I put together 5 speakers and a subwoofer. I connected them to my Mac. And then I use this program, Bias Deck, to tell the computer where to send the sounds.
It's not that much more complicated than, say, Microsoft Word. There are a lot of functions to learn, but I just learn what I need. Turns out that surround location is the easiest part. Instead of the left-right panner, you have a circular one. It's a bird's-eye view. Just put the dot where you want the sound.
It's that simple. There are some "algorithms" to keep in mind, but that's not as hard as it sounds. You just figure out whether you want the track to sound like it is in a room, with reverberation in the other speakers, or whether it is in a fixed position. You can make a knock at the door sound like it really is coming from right behind the audience's collective head (despite the manual's recommendation, I don't like this gimmicky use of surround in movies--it pulls me right out of the story--but it's useful for music, where there's no suspension-of-disbelief issue). Or you can make a choir sound as if it is in a huge cathedral, with reverberation everywhere.
It's pretty cool. I'm going to be able to make the scenes of Citizens for Truth protests even more true-to-life. You'll feel like you're right there in the middle of a huge crowd (which is exactly where I was with the camera). And the 3D recreations of the crimes, which are already pretty dramatic, will pull you in even more, with appropriately creepy ambience all around you.
It's going to make the movie better--both in theaters and on DVD. And it costs about one half of 1% of the fee a professional facility would have charged for the same service. And it's going to sound even better than it would under those conditions, because I can toy with it endlessly (mixes are always rushed on indie films, and you always have regrets--at least, that's the way it used to be).
Oh well, there went yet another long diary entry praising the state of filmmaking technology. And I'm gonna do it again. Next time--making a DVD.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2000-2002 Unsharp Mask, LLC