Fall is in the air, and the regular baseball season is about to give way to the playoffs and then the World Series. So when supervising sound editor Paul Soucek called the Mix offices and said he was doing a baseball movie with the mandate to make it “not sound like a baseball movie,” we asked him to write about it.
Mr. 3000, from Spyglass/Touchstone, is the story of Stan Ross, an arrogant Milwaukee Brewer who quits the game once he gets his 3,000th hit, leaving his team in a lurch during the playoffs. Years later, it's revealed that there's been a miscount and Ross is three hits shy of possible induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The now rusty Ross must re-enter the game to reclaim his fame. You can guess the rest.
Mr. 3000 brings Soucek back together with director Charles Stone III, whom he had previously worked with on Drumline.
From a sound perspective, “crowd movies” are challenging. The goal is to provide a “you are there” sonic reality, but avoid making the track sound like a wash of white noise. A cheer is a cheer is a cheer, and the challenge is to fuse the sheer mass of the crowd with sprinkles of detail that anchor it in reality.
During our work on Drumline, we dealt with crowd issues, but on Mr. 3000, we wouldn't have the dozens of marching band performances to “hide” behind: The crowds would have to live on their own, augmenting the dramatic ups and downs of numerous lengthy game sequences — from the massive roar of 10,000 excited fans to almost complete silence within the few frames it takes for a fastball to “pop” into the catcher's mitt.
In September 2003, I met with Charles, picture editor Bill Pankow, dialog editor Dan Korintus, ADR editor Gina Alfano and sound effects editor Brian Langman for an initial spotting session. Our consensus, conceptually, was that baseball movies tend to sound like — well — baseball movies: The guy hits a homer with a big bat “Thwack!” and the crowd cheers. Charles and Bill wanted something different.
THE FEEL OF THE GAME
The production arranged for us to meet with Vito Vitiello, producer of events for the New York Mets, and source and temp score music editor Nick Meyers, who would handle the many “needle drops” — bursts of music or organ flourishes that take place in response to what's going on during the game — and the multitude of other source cues throughout the film.
Vito screened each game sequence with us, giving us a play-by-play of what would be happening in the crowd and what typical stadium source cue might be concurrent with game activity. Meanwhile, much of the game's binding sonic thread would be the voice-over of veteran sports broadcaster Dick Enberg, as scripted by Charles. This spotting session enabled us to come up with something of an orchestration, which proved immensely useful as we proceeded toward shaping the track.
In preparation for the first temp dub, Langman started shaping crowds culled from a wide variety of libraries, notably from the Ascent Media Creative Sound Services effects server in Hollywood.
Dialog editor Dan dove into his work dealing with the tremendous amount of track work from the Avid, which came over via OMF. His first goal was to split materials out so that they were easier to mix, segregating what would be “futzed” (filtered for stadium P.A., through a television, etc.) and splitting sound effects that we had given to the picture department vs. what had been recorded on location.
Production sound mixer Steve Aaron had done his best to capture crowds, but he was facing a tight shooting schedule and the ambience of open-air stadiums, complete with overhead jets and a Jumbotron screen that hummed and buzzed like a nuclear power plant. Korintus then had to meticulously mine the bits and pieces of usable production crowd material, knowing sound effects would provide the “glue” of the crowds but production would anchor them in the actual locations.
Eventually, group ADR (recorded later by ADR supervisor Laura Graham in L.A. would provide the final human layer to pepper through crowd sequences, but for our first temp dub, we would rely on effects, crowds and whatever Korintus could salvage from the location recordings. During our first temp in early November 2003 — with re-recording mixers Leslie Shatz and Michael Barry at Sound One's Stage 1 in New York — we quickly learned that our “wall of sound” fears were a reality.
An audience is only able to process so much aural information at once; at a certain threshold, the brain just shuts the ear down. Our barrage of cheers, Dick Enberg's play-by-play, the stadium P.A., onscreen dialog and needle-drops through the P.A. were beyond the shutdown threshold. Given the temp dub's immense time constraints, Charles had to make rapid-fire decisions about what the aural focus of any moment should be. We knew that we needed a more dynamic crowd.
THE ROAD WEST
Following the first temp, the picture department moved from New York to the Disney Lot in Burbank, Calif., and we began what I fondly refer to as the “transcontinental shuffle.” Often, the charge of a supervising sound editor is not only working with the creatives, but dealing with the logistics of scheduling materials. We knew that turn-around of picture changes was going to be down to the wire, so old and new sound elements would be conformed to the picture re-cuts at the last minute. We literally hit our second temp (Disney's Stage A with Shatz and David Parker, mid-December 2003) “hot off the hard drives.”
In addition to proceeding toward the final dub (which had been delayed from early January to early February 2004), I worked with supervising sound assistant Mike Poppleton and Sound One chief engineer Avi Laniado to map out our equipment line-up out West.
Our “migrant” New York City crew — yours truly, Poppleton and music editor Nick Meyers — flew out to L.A., praying we would be met by our “main” and “safety” mix materials on the Disney Lot, even though they had left New York only hours before. Poppleton and I went straight from LAX to Disney, met up with stage editor Jen Ralston and spent a very long day making sure our Pro Tools rigs worked, sessions opened, etc. Because of the tight turnaround of picture changes — and the volume of elements to conform — we had only two reels ready for the stage.
Back in New York City, the “home team” was churning along on outstanding reels of picture changes. As they finished each one, revised sessions and associated materials would be put up on the Sound One FTP server and downloaded to the stage at Disney. It proved an enormous time/cost savings that couldn't have been done even a few years ago.
Likewise, owing to workstation technology and an evolving method to the madness, we are now able to deliver conformed elements — from the original units through pre-dubs and stems from the previous mix versions — that slide through like butter. The crew is careful to provide only new or “patch” tracks in areas where there are picture changes. This raises the stakes on the editorial end, as much of the “smoothing out” that used to take place on the dubbing stage now takes place “inside the box.”
TEMP 2: DYNAMIC CROWDS
Working with re-recording mixers Shatz and David Parker, we picked our moments carefully during temp dub 2, using the bulk of our time focusing on several key game sequences that are pivotal to Stan's rise and fall and — I won't give away the ending.
We did a lot of what Charles and I called “aural focus-pulling”: using sound to shift audience attention from “watching” the game to getting inside Stan's head while he's at bat. At those moments, we stripped away the detail crowd and left the generic roar of the masses. This bed would then melt away to what I called the “psycho crowd,” which was a blend of underwater ambiences, a crowd I had pitched down and treated to within an inch of its life and a mix of several altered winds.
The resulting effects bed was ostensibly a smooth wash of sound and worked beautifully with the score that could live and breathe comfortably on top of the design transitions.
While the variety of “Stan's brain” sequences had the same sonic motif, we always introduced new elements to take us in or out of these moments. Sometimes getting out of these transitions was as simple as an over-the-top bat crack to “thwack!” us back to reality; other times, we used some of the stunning visual effects — the point-of-view of a baseball as it's hurtling toward the catcher's mitt — to sneak in the kitchen sink (jet flares, screams, reversed gunshot decays, basically whatever “felt” right for the moment) and quickly ramp the audience from Stan's brain back to the game.
In one of my favorite transitional sequences, the crowd is rhythmically chanting, clapping and stomping in the stands. The chanting disappears into a reverb that fills the room, the “loose” crowd clapping crosses into a tighter effects crowd clapping and the stomping melts into depth charge explosions and a gated kick drum.
Mixers Shatz and Parker did a tremendous job blazing through picture changes and taking temp dub 2 to the next level. We also gained tremendous insights in terms of articulating our crowds and getting a leg up on how to approach our subjective sound moments for the “real” mix.
Thanks to the ever-changing nature of film schedules, our real mix — the final dub — was blessedly delayed a month. Shatz and Parker would be moving over to Van Helsing, and we would be working with Disney's A-team of Terry Porter and Dean Zupancic in the main theater.
Historically, we've delivered magneto-optical disks for stage playback. This is a real-time process requiring an average of 30 minutes per 8-track unit. With 48 tracks of dialog, 90-plus tracks of effects, 48 tracks of principal and group ADR, 32 tracks of Foley and backgrounds, this would've meant 125 hours of laybacks — or, roughly three crew weeks we didn't have.
So I sat down with assistant Poppleton and Sound One engineer Laniado and designed a new approach, which we dubbed the “Uber Dubber.”
We would not lay back units; instead, we would rely on a Hemi-powered Pro Tools system dedicated exclusively to playing back units through the various waves of pre-dubs. Flanking this 96-output Pro Tools|HD system would be two 32-output dialog/ADR and effects/background/Foley fix stations. Not having to lay back playback units saved us from serious headaches — and thousands of dollars.
Except for a mid-mix temp dub 3 that incorporated some new scenes (and had us working until 4 a.m. on a very rainy night), our final on Mr. 3000 could not have gone more smoothly. Without technical deadwood, we were able to take time to focus on experimentation with sound design moments. Porter did a phenomenal job cleaning up some difficult production tracks, and Zupancic brought his impeccable craftsmanship and creativity toward realizing Charles' vision on effects and design.
Thanks to an incredibly talented sound team and a remarkably communicative director and editor, we were able to create a solid mix for Mr. 3000 that is less about baseball and more about Stan Ross.
I recall a printmaster playback with a studio executive, who is rumored to never say anything positive, saying, “The crowds sound great.” Whew! Then a colleague who came to the same screening said to me, “You know, this track is kind of…crazy…” Even better.
To end up with a track that everybody is pleased with is kind of an anomaly. We were all delighted to make a “baseball movie” not sound like a baseball movie.