M. Night ShyamalanBUILDING A NEW TRADITION OF SOUND AND PICTURE 11/01/2004 7:00 AM Eastern
Night Shyamalan is something of a throwback. In today's Hollywood, where CGI runs rampant and blockbuster translates as huge action effects, Shyamalan remains meticulously attached to the intricacies of story. His scripts are worked and reworked, his story-boards are beyond thorough and his shooting ratio is low by anyone's standards, save perhaps Hitchcock. He has said on more than one occasion that he doesn't want to make movies in post-production.
And yet, this self-described technophobe, the writer/director/human force behind The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, has built a state-of-the-art picture and sound editing facility in a working 200-year-old barn on his 75-acre homestead outside of Philadelphia. In doing so, he has placed himself squarely at the forefront of a new style of film production, alongside directors such as David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez and Jonathan Demme, who have all brought the initial stages of post-production home where they can work on picture and sound editing simultaneously.
“This model made sense to me because I still feel very much like an independent filmmaker,” Shyamalan says, making it clear that he will continue to perform final mixes at major facilities, taking advantage of mixers' expertise. “This stays in the spirit of making a home-crafted product, which we then put out for everybody. It's homemade, and you can see the humanity on the screen. Even though my films may be perceived as blockbusters, their strength comes from the fact that you can see the human imperfections.”
In that independent spirit, Shyamalan shot The Village about 30 minutes from his home in the hills of Pennsylvania. He then brought picture editor Christopher Tellefsen and co-supervising sound editors Steve Boeddeker and Frank Eulner to his facility, where they literally worked days in the Avid/Pro Tools room and spent nights in the main house.
“This setup allowed it to stay very personal for me, with no compromise,” Shyamalan says. “If I needed to figure out a sequence in editing, I wouldn't have to leave the city to check the sound. We could do it right here. And we spent an enormous amount of time together discussing the sound and then watching it in the theater and coming back here [to the Avid/Pro Tools room] and walking through the sound design scene by scene.”
“Coming back here” simply involves walking across a central atrium-like lounge area, from screening room to workspace. Visitors enter the barn through an oversized period second-floor door (the working horse stable occupies the first floor) and are greeted by an open, exposed-beam, two-story pitched ceiling. To the right is the Avid/Pro Tools room, with iso booth, machine room and low ceiling. (Film cutting rooms sit above it, on the third floor.) To the left is the screening room, which takes advantage of the building's ceiling height. Each of the rooms has identical audio playback equipment. Each room can be tied to the other; each can play back any format. Various common areas, kitchens, lounges and the like fill out the facility.
After Shyamalan acquired the property four years ago, he brought in Toronto-based architectural/acoustics firm Pilchner-Schoustal to see if a facility was feasible. From the beginning, the mandate was to rip out the inside of the barn and then…make it look like a barn again.
“We got a call when they first started looking at the property,” recalls designer Martin Pilchner. “We took a drive out to this nice farm setting and, well, it was a bit of a mess. [Laughs.] Hay bales and tractors, gaps in the floors where you could see the horses, a lot of cross-bracing. I had this idea that it might be cool to have this intersection of the modern and the old colliding. Well, Night threw that right out [Laughs], so our approach turned to, ‘How can we be as contextual as possible? Be as true to the period of the building and the intent of a barn.’ That began the process, and we always sought to achieve authenticity.”
It simply became a different design game for Pilchner, one that his team tackled with a passion. Windows were “chipped” out of the 2-foot-thick rock walls and custom-manufactured in the original style. Door hinges were custom-made to resemble a blacksmith-type door strap. Old-style theater seats harken back to the 1920s. The oak wood was all cut from raw stock on a band saw right at the mill and delivered from Canada; off-the-shelf oak was too refined. The oak was then treated to match the 12×12 original beams, complete with pegs.
“We had to turn back the clock and ask, ‘If we had studios back then, what would they look like?’” Pilchner says with a laugh. “Marks were left in the wood like it would have been at the time. When we put in floorboards, we could have sanded and put on a nice finish, but that wasn't the idea. The more distressed and imperfect it looked, the more contextual it turned out, like an original barn floor. At the same time, we have a high-tech environment, with sealed doors and double-pane glazing. The structure is more thermally efficient than the house.”
Though the firm has done high-end home theaters, large multimedia facilities, tour buses and countless recording control rooms over the years, Shyamalan's project brought them a new challenge: combining picture and sound editorial in a single, relatively long and narrow workspace. In a sense, they had to serve two masters.
“As far as the physical layout of the room, with an upper and lower tier, the room was built for picture editing,” Pilchner explains. “As far as the sound system was concerned, audio obviously took on importance. The throw from the front speakers is consistent for the film mix position and it's the exact same sound system we have in the screening room, though the screen is a little smaller. And, of course, we have trapping cleverly concealed along the ceilings, side walls, back corner and some in front.”
Visitors enter in the back of the room, where custom furniture has been installed to house four Avid edit bays in an L-shape. The room then steps down (roughly three feet in building dimensions) to a ProControl/Pro Tools area, with outboard rack and full 5.1 Apogee monitoring with QSC amps. To the left of the screen is a small iso room for ADR work; it doubled as a Pro Tools editing room at times on The Village. To the right is the machine room, which also holds the tielines to the screening room and the rest of the building. Windows line the outside rock wall, as Shyamalan was insistent that editors be able to look out on the hills and not feel like they were “trapped in a warehouse.”
Building a multiformat screening room proved slightly more challenging, as the slope of the roof (the building is a designated landmark and the footprint could not change) was fixed and Shyamalan wanted to retain the high ceiling, though it didn't fit neatly into the optimum geometry. The room is not quite as long as the Avid space, as the projection booth occupies the back, but it is taller, as there is no editing room above it.
“Our first question was, ‘How are we going to make this all make sense?’” Pilchner recalls. “So we created a whole separate box that followed the outside envelope of the building. Then we came in with details and tiered it. We then started laying out the acoustic treatments and the speaker locations — we couldn't expose any mechanical elements at all. Then we had to bring down a fairly heavily isolated ceiling and add the acoustic treatments, again with some trapping up front. Then it was all structure.” The Stewart screen was custom-built within an ⅛-inch tolerance — it proved that tight.
“Our biggest issue, really, became the visual challenge,” Pilchner adds. “Everything seems to be happening up above the screen height, so we dropped some big chandeliers up there. We searched eight months for those.”
Virtually anything you can think of to deliver a mix on can be played back from the projection booth. Two 35mm Kinoton projectors are set up for Dolby and DTS 5.1 playback. A Runco DLP projector handles video playback from virtually any source — tape-based, hard disk — based — including the Avid output from across the hall.
“This was a complete departure from our normal approach to design, which is usually very modern,” Pilchner sums up. “Here we made something high-tech within a period environment. And it always boiled down to the littlest details. We could have easily thrown up fake elements that would have had the effect but not the integrity. You tend to get into it after a while: Here's the easy way to do it and here is the appropriate way to do it.”
“You can have an automated house that can do everything you could ever imagine,” Shyamalan adds, “but it ends up that the only thing that means anything to you is the little sketch that your son drew with a pencil on paper. And that's what scares me about technology. All this is convenience and wonder, but in the end, all you need is a piece of lead and paper to create an emotion.”
Tom Kenny is the editor of Mix.