Lost, The Final ChapterMIXING MOVIE-STYLE SOUND AT DISNEY POST PRODUCTIONS 1/21/2010 1:27 PM Eastern
It’s mid-morning in Walt Disney Post Production Service’s Room Six, and the sound editorial team for ABC Television’s Lost is taking notes from executive producer Bryan Burk on an opening episode from Season 6. “We need to make the traffic sounds more frantic, with more horns,” they hear over a Polycom Internet link from Burk’s office in Santa Monica, Calif. Normally, the executive producer will be here in Burbank for the review process, but today he’s caught up with a series of meetings on the West Side and cannot make the date. “When the cab leaves I need a lot more car horns,” he continues. Overnight, Burk has received a DVD of the work print, with a premix of the soundtrack. Notes were returned earlier via e-mail, and now the mixers and editors are responding to these detailed comments.
The hour-long drama series first came to our TV screens in September 2004 and was an instant success for co-creators Damon Lindelof, J.J. Abrams and Jeffrey Lieber. Produced by ABC Studios, Bad Robot Productions and Grass Skirt Productions, Lost has now reached its final season, as it follows the lives of plane-crash survivors on a mysterious tropical island somewhere in the South Pacific. Because of its large ensemble cast and location filming in Hawaii, Lost is said to be one of the most expensive TV series ever staged.
Lost has developed a large cult following and earned a well-deserved reputation for intricate sound editorial that would not seem out of place on a motion-picture soundtrack, let alone a one-hour dramatic action show. That sonic attention to detail has been maintained throughout the past five seasons, and now the crew is focusing on Season 6—including the two-hour opening to air on February 2—during which the character arcs launched more than half a decade ago will be resolved, and we will learn how they came to be trapped on The Island with interlinked fates.
“We’ll cut some alternatives,” agrees Lost’s supervising sound editor, Tom de Gorter, in response to a quick glance from Scott Weber, sound effects re-recording mixer, currently seated at the Avid Digidesign ICON D-Control console that dominates the interior of Room Six. “Let’s move on to audition some of the music cues,” offers music editor Alex Levy, who today is manning an Apple Powerbook carrying the studio’s side of the videoconferencing link to Burk’s office. They roll picture and timecode, with the producer receiving a synchronized QuickTime image and a 2-channel downmix from the ICON’s 5.1-channel balance. It’s a quality compromise, but the setup enables Burk to hear the track against picture. “That cue looks a little late,” Burk offers. Levy, seated beside producer Ra’uf Glasgow, responds quickly and nudges composer Michael Giacchino’s cue forward a few frames on his Pro Tools workstation. The music cues are recorded weekly using a 20-piece orchestra.
“Any luck?” Weber asks de Gorter. “I have some alternate traffic sounds,” the supervising sound editor reports, as he uploads the material to Disney’s hard-drive server, where it is imported directly into Weber’s Pro Tools session as timecode-synchronized tracks. The mixer begins to try out each new sound effect against picture using headphones; the large D-Control console comprises, in reality, two completely independent sections that can be declutched from timecode sync and run separately. In front of him is an array of LCD monitors that display separate Pro Tools sessions for Foley, backgrounds and hard effects; a screen in the center of the console shows the master Pro Tools recorder for multichannel stems and print master. The effects-playback screens serve as a rolling cue sheet, as he continues to audition and process the new traffic sounds.
At the right-hand side of the ICON D-Control console, Frank Morrone, dialog and music re-recording mixer, is handling balances and initiating playback using the onboard Soundmaster ION machine control and PEC/DIR paddles, which are used to record updated stem mixes as the session progresses. Like Weber, Morrone has an array of LCD screens in front of him that display Pro Tools sessions for music, ADR and dialog playback; the fourth display shows his primary dialog Pro Tools session, with active plug-ins and insert routing.
“At 11:00 minutes we added a harp in place of that solo piano note,” Levy confirms for Burk as they continue to review music-cue changes. “Did I ask for that?” the producer queries and, after a brief discussion, they decide to retain the original piano-based cue.
Dialog elements being replayed in Room 6 were captured several weeks before in Hawaii, either on location sets or within a series of purpose-built soundstages. “The shoot runs from August until the end of April,” explains production mixer Bobby Anderson, who has been with show since Season 3. “I use a Copper Model 106 mixer into a pair of Fostex PD-6 timecode recorders as main and backup. I deliver the dialog elements on two DVDs that contain the main mix on track 1, boom on track 2 and iso mics on the remainder; we may have up to eight or nine actors on a busy scene.” All tracks are recorded flat and wide, with no EQ and maybe a little compression to prevent overloads. “I like to give it all to editorial,” Anderson says.
Back in Burbank, the data DVDs are turned over to assistant sound editor Joe Shultz, who ensures that the correct production sound is married up with the video workprint produced from telecine of the location film. “The Fostex records at a sample rate of 48.048kHz/24-bit against 30Hz non-drop timecode, which pulls down during transfer to Pro Tool as 48 kHz to match the 29.94Hz frame video workprints [and broadcast HDTV visuals]. I start pulling elements as soon as possible”—prior to the director’s cut and the network cut—“so that the tracks are ready for dialog editing.”
Working with an EDL (edit decision list) from the locked picture edit, dialog editor Maciek Malish builds his Pro Tools session to ensure that the timecode-tagged dialog elements are in sync with picture, adding alternate takes if he thinks they may be needed. Malish has been working on Lost since Season 1. “We also spot the locked picture to determine what shots need to be looped and what backgrounds will be needed,” he says. Backgrounds and walla are recorded as an 8- or 16-track Pro Tools session over two days by The Loop Group. “We record ADR here at Walt Disney Post,” if the actors are on the West Coast, “or in Hawaii, either because of technical problems or to add lines, as necessary.”
Foley is recorded and edited by Geordy Sincavage during a two-day session at his downtown L.A.-based facility, Sinc Productions. “Lost is a really busy, sound-detailed show for Foley,” Sincavage explains. “Footsteps are a big thing since we need to match sets that may have wooden and linoleum surfaces. To provide flexibility for several scenes filmed inside a temple, we had three discrete types of stone and concrete surfaces. I also used close and distant miking to offer variation—getting back 10 to 15 feet to make it sound more natural. We also record cloth sounds and other contact effects—the show’s producers like a lot of sonic detailing.” Foley is edited by assistant sound editor Shultz, who for most shows delivers six tracks of feet, four or five tracks of props and additional cloth sounds, etc.
Working under de Gorter's supervision, sound effects are edited by Paula Fairfield and Carla Murray at MHz Sound Design; both sound designers joined the show at the beginning of Season 3, and have worked together for 12 years. Compared to other one-hour drama shows, “Lost is an extremely busy TV show,” Murray says, “with sound-designed moods and signature textures,” including The Island disappearing at the end of Season 4 and the flash-forward sequences initiated in Season 5.
Fairfield works primarily on backgrounds, vehicles and ambiences, while Murray looks after hard effects; they both work on sound-design elements. “The show is wall-to-wall effects,” Fairfield stresses. “We like to offer lots of options for the re-recording stage; we put together everything we can think of, although they may be dropped later. We also carefully catalog everything so that the same sound signature will be used; for example, the same gun in each episode.”
The sound designers deliver two Pro Tools sessions: one of mono/stereo (and occasionally 5.1-channel) hard effects; and backgrounds in 4, 5.1 and 3-channel/LCR formats. “We have standard templates that we worked out with Scott [Weber],” Fairfield offers, "so that the materials are delivered in a consistent format for each show. For most episodes we might deliver up to 150 tracks; for the Season 5 two-hour finale”—and the opening episode for Season 6—“we produced close to 500 tracks; there were a lot of late decisions on those shows!” “We can turn around a show very fast if we have to,” Murray adds, with a knowing smile.
Companion ICON Control Surfaces for Effects/Foley and Dialog/Music
Morrone and Weber’s D-Control console features 16 on-surface faders for dialog/music and 32 for effects/backgrounds/Foley. Each section offers custom faders that can be used in one of three modes: Custom Groups, for which faders can be arranged and built in any order and configurations recalled with a single button push; VCA Master and spill, in which the VCA group masters can be spilled into the slaves within a defined section; and Custom Fader Plug-In for mapping controls of favorite plug-ins onto faders.
Each D-Control section can control up to four Pro Tools HD systems from each surface, bank switched one at a time. “We run 72-channel HD6 systems for the effects and mix systems,” Weber explains, “plus 32-channel HD2s for Foley, BG, music and ADR/group playback, a 32-channel HD1 for music playback and a 56-channel HD2 as stem recorder, all running on Mac Pro [computers].” Playback monitors comprise three M&K MPS-150 active cabinets on stands in front of the mixers for LCR, plus the room’s subwoofers and surround units.
“Our overall stem masters are actually multichannel aux faders that are used to build an entire submix. For instance, on my section I have an aux fader as a 6-channel effects master that receives the effects mix before it routes to the recorder. Here I put a brickwall limiter, like a Waves L1 or McDSP ML4000 set at -2 dB, to keep the input from clipping on loud effects; this also gives me a trim on every channel just like you find on a traditional console. That is followed by a 3-band Massenburg EQ and then an ML4000 compressor/limiter. I start the mix with only the limiter active, and insert EQ and compression as I need them” to minimize the DSP load. “I do the same with reverb and sub sends.
“On a typical session,” Weber continues, “all effects are routed through a 5-channel master chain that has an L1 limiter, Massenburg EQ and sends, set to a ceiling of +18 dB for the effects stem. As well as a 5-channel chain, I also have a stereo chain to spread things into 5.1 using a combination of Dolby Surround Tools, Waves PS22 Spreader, delays and some stereo reverbs. I can call up the stem masters on a custom-fader bank, just as I would my reverb returns or guide tracks. The VCA-style faders control groups of pre-assign tracks from the [Pro Tools] editor. For example, my basic 64 effects tracks are controlled by eight VCA Masters in groups of eight tracks. This is our fourth season mixing on ICON.”
One of the effects mixer’s biggest challenges is maintaining detail within a very dense and complicated soundtrack. “When we are asked to make the scene be music-driven, have the effects play at a ‘10’ and still be able to clearly hear every line of dialog—that is, indeed, a tall task! It’s a dance, and we are getting better at taking things out to make room for other things to play. The first pass on the show is our best effort at presenting the soundtrack as we think it should sound.”
“My dialog-processing chain within Pro Tools,” Morrone advises, “comprises a McDSP ML4000 compressor/limiter routed into a Massenburg EQ , followed by a McDSP de-esser and then into a NJ575 Notch Filter, as necessary, and finally into a Waves LZ limiter to hold everything back to the ABC/Disney delivery-reference level. I set up the Custom Faders as Dialog Master, ADR Master, Group Master, Music Master and Overall Master for Dialog, ADR, Group and Music, and finally Reverb Return Master. That way I can easily control the submix stems on a single fader or then spill them out across the same 8-channel bank to refine individual front-channel and surrounds for the 5.1-channel submixes and final. We print stems of music, dialog, foreign dialog, ADR, Futz and principal effects, plus a group stem, which streamlines the preparation of M&Es for foreign-language versions, which we develop after print mastering.
“Although I try not to EQ the music tracks, I have a Massenburg [Pro Tools] plug-in across the Music Master that I use to roll-off or brighten the tracks; I sometimes use a McDSP Futz filter to mimic a source cue being replayed on a radio, for example.
“Since we don’t get the luxury of a pre-mix on dialog,” Morrone continues, “while Scott [Weber] does a pass on effects—or vice versa—I am premixing tracks via headphones.” The mixer’s biggest challenge is cleaning up production sound and eliminating noise on the tracks. “Our production mixers do a great job,” he concedes, “but, unfortunately, they can only do so much with some of the locations they have to work with. Getting the production to work on the beach is always a challenge because certain characters don’t project, and then dialog is tough to pull out of the backgrounds.
“If somebody could invent a performance plug-in to help get in and out of ADR, I’d be in heaven! You can have a perfect EQ match but it is often difficult for actors to get back into the moment. I have had instances where I’m pulling one or two words out of the ADR and using the production for the rest of the line. Consistency is important; I always store different reverb treatments with specific notes because we often came back to them in a later season or in flashbacks.”
In terms of overall loudness—and ensuring a consistent mix for surround, stereo/LtRt and mono playback—“We always mix hot for TV, but still have to maintain dynamic range,” Morrone advises. “It becomes a fine dance. All of the sound-design sequences are checked to make sure that they will translate, but we are always aware that the 5.1 mix will have an afterlife on DVD. We do a separate LtRt pass to tame the stereo mix and, again, maintain dynamic range.”
As the review session continues in Room 6, Burk is commenting on sound effects for a critical scene within a large temple and pool. “We need deeper bubbles,” he offers. “And can we take out the low end so that it doesn't sound so much like a Jacuzzi?” Weber makes a note and huddles with de Gorter. “We have three stereo pairs of water sounds,” the supervising sound editor advises. “Can you make the drips louder,” Burk queries? They hear the result. “It sounds better,” Burk agrees, “but keep out the rumble. And it sounds too ‘drippy’—maybe we can back off the drips?” The team concludes that the material they have will need to be recut to offer more options, so a call goes out from de Gorter to the sound designers to prepare some alternates that will be available the next day for review. “We need separate elements to fulfill the producer's requirements,” de Gorter confirms. The mix continues.
Mel Lambert heads up Media&Marketing, a full-service consulting service for pro-audio firms and facilities.