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On the Cover: Fantasy Film Center Reborn

It is rare that a story about an iconic, large-scale, world-class studio closing is followed—in this case nearly a decade later—by a story of its successful rebirth. It just doesn’t happen. Technologies change, people move on, other facilities open to fill the void. But it can happen, as it did this year with the reopening of the fabled Fantasy Film Center, at the corner of 10th and Parker in Berkeley, Calif.

Actually, the reopening is part of an even more improbable story that involves the larger Fantasy Studios and its successful navigation in the mid-2000s through a change in owners and looming mothballs. In short, the music studios themselves were closed and staff laid off in 2007 by Concord Records, which had purchased Fantasy Records from Saul Zaentz and his partners in 2004. The building and the studios were taken over by local developers Wareham Development.

“Wareham had a great deal of interest in keeping it a media building and understood the importance of Fantasy Studios and how they should stay alive and vibrant,” says Jeffrey Wood, who had been a resident producer in the building since 1995 and since the end of 2007 has served as Studio Director. “My belief was that there was still a need for large-format studios. People still have a need to play together in a large room. Everybody said, ‘You’re crazy! Why are you doing this?’ But Wareham was very supportive and we put together a business plan. Then the financial crisis hit, and everybody again said, ‘What are you doing?’ We cut down from four rooms to three rooms, and over the next few years we  built up the business. And for the last five years we have been booked constantly.”

But in closing the fourth room (Studio C, reopened this year as the home to Michael Romanowski’s Coast Mastering), and in having the good fortune to have the other three booked, Wood and his team had run out of space, and in 2011 started looking at the possibility of reopening a film mix room, to address the coming boom in sound for picture. There were already two mix theaters in the building, along with a host of independent film editors, sound editors, mixers, documentary filmmakers and screenwriters. It had been that way since Saul Zaentz opened the building and subsidized the arts through rent subsidies and reduced rates on facilities. Wareham was continuing the tradition. Three years ago, Avid moved into the second floor.

“I got all the re-recording mixers I knew at the time and asked them what they thought of us building a mix room, of refurbishing a theater,” Wood recalls. “They all said, ‘Great!’ I asked how much business they could bring me, and they all looked at the floor.” He laughs. “So we let it go at that time. But the world has changed from five years ago, and one of the main changes is the concept of the tech companies producing content. All these independents are thinking, ‘Why aren’t we the next Netflix? Amazon does content.’ Then we started to get some work from gaming companies. They all want to produce narrative content. We want to help nurture a new type of market, from documentary films to virtual reality.”

A year and a half ago, after lengthy research and even lengthier consultations from throughout the post-production industry (including Steve Shurtz, who had run the film center for many years and now heads the Cinema Group at Meyer Sound), Wood decided the time was right. From Fantasy Studios, he had the infrastructure in place, the scheduling, the billing, the maintenance staff, the engineers, even the echo chambers and plate reverbs from the studios downstairs—he just needed to adapt it all to a whole new clientele. And he needed to update the Alan Splet Theatre, pictured on this month’s cover.

The first call Wood made once he decided to move forward was to Skywalker Sound, the nearest competitor, to let them know what was going on. All was good. The second call he made was to Jim Austin, chief engineer at the Film Center from 1985 until its closure in 2005. He knew the room better than anyone. Working with Alberto Hernandez and James Gangwer from the Fantasy staff, Austin oversaw the buildout.

Renowned architect/acoustician Jeff Cooper built the Fantasy Film Center theater (later renamed the Alan Splet Theatre for the late Bay Area sound designer) back in 1980, while Austin was head mix engineer at Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco. Austin’s first real visit to the space was in 1984 to help rebuild the console so that it could use two 6-track mag recorders for the re-recording mix of the Oscar-winning Amadeus. He returned the following year as chief engineer.

The side-wall, multifaceted balconies help provide more natural time arrivals, but made the positioning of the surround speakers more challenging. Photo by Kyle Hixson

Over the two decades, mixed in with work on films including The Right Stuff, Amadeus, Good Will Hunting, The English Patient and so many others, some upgrades were made to the room, most notably replacing the Altec speakers behind the screen with bi-amped JBLs, moving the mix platform slightly closer to the screen during a console change in 1996, and projection system upgrades in 2006 when it was turned into a screening room and the console removed.

When he received Wood’s call, Austin knew that the room was solid acoustically, but the speaker system would have to be updated, a console put in and they would have to start from scratch electronically with all-new wiring. The equipment package was already decided: an Avid S6 console and Meyer Acheron monitoring system.

“Part of it is that it’s all family,” Wood says. “Steve Shurtz from Meyer and Pete Bouton from Avid have been invaluable for their support and guidance.” Wood laughs. “But the joke is that we shop locally. Avid moved into the building a couple of years ago, on the second floor. And Meyer is about three blocks away. But they’re also the best for the type of work we’re doing. We wanted a good, working surround room. Even though we have Galileo’d up as far as the routing to make it an Atmos room with the addition of speakers only, at this point we want a good working surround room.”

Besides the installation of the S6 and general oversight on the job, Austin was primarily responsible for the monitoring system. He had extensive experience with both Avid and Meyer, having supervised numerous installations of each up at Skywalker Sound. The Fantasy Film Center system now includes three Acheron 80 screen channel loudspeakers, 10 HMS-12 surround speakers, two 650-P subs and a Galileo 408 and 616 for system drive and management.

“The screen speaker openings had to be resized,” Austin explains. “The Meyer speakers are amazingly compact for their power. They’re actually a little smaller than the JBL boxes. We put a slightly new platform in that I like to use so the speaker can turn and get very close to the screen—a very thick plinth, where the speaker sits out slightly proud of the opening, very close to the screen. The Meyer speaker has a built-in system where you can tilt it. I usually tilt it 6 to 9 degrees. That keeps the reflection off the back of the screen from going back into the speaker; it minimizes the comb filtering. And Jeffrey put in a fabric screen at my suggestion, which is the best you can do to minimize the effects of the perf screens. You now get a much smoother overall frequency response into the room. The subwoofers had been updated in 2006 and didn’t have to be touched, just rewired and ready to go.

“The surround speakers were the trickier part in that room because it’s quite a multifaceted wall system due to those balconies,” he continues. “And there are two pillars that are structural elements. We eyed it and used the laser and came up with the best location for the surrounds. And we left a known position for a forward surround speaker if Atmos is added. The wiring and infrastructure are there.”

The new Fantasy Film Center fits right into the means of modern workflow—a multipurpose room that can switch from features to television to gaming to corporate to VR at the switch of a button. And Wood and his team are reaching out to any and all parties in sound for picture. Once the staff understood the process of audio post-production, they bought in.

“We rebuilt the whole business on quality of recording,” Wood explains. “Rebuilding the pianos, the microphones, the outboard gear, and having a full-time maintenance staff. But the quality of a studio isn’t about the gear; it’s about the staff. Allison Gomer, my studio manager, is simply the best at scheduling and overseeing everything. We have on staff the most talented young engineers in the Bay Area and have built the studio on the basis of the people and the rooms. We are reopening this room for all of the post-production community to do quality work.”

The first full mix in the new theater finished in August, for Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Steven Okazaki’s new film on the life of Toshiro Mifune, the famous Japanese actor of The Seven Samurai and Rashomon fame. Okazaki stated that he “loves the sound of the room, and he feels confident that the mix will sound great in theatrical release.”

“It’s a wonderful room for 7.1 work,” Austin says. “The wider balcony width gives you a little more natural time arrivals. More separation naturally. And yet it’s a very musical room, with all the wood and natural surfaces, the fabric, the old-style mineral wool. It’s very solid, very quiet, very tight in the low end. A very musical room, which works well for film, I think.”

“One of the things I always felt is that it’s one of the most comfortable mixing rooms I’d ever been in,” Wood concludes. “The warmth with all the wood, and the way it was designed it always struck me as a musical instrument, like walking inside a violin. I spoke with Jeff Cooper and he said that that’s what he felt, too.”