If you've never heard of A Series of Unfortunate Events, chances are you don't have a young reader at home. The brainchild of San Francisco author Daniel Handler, writing under the nom de plume Lemony Snicket, the Series of Unfortunate Events books — currently numbering 11 — have sold many millions around the world during the past five years and have inspired a rabid following of nearly Potter-ian proportions. The books follow the seemingly endless misfortunes of the orphaned Baudelaire children (a teen, a 'tween and a baby) as they try to survive in a world of cruel, greedy and quite stupid adults. Snicket narrates the Baudelaires' adventures with the mock gravity of some 19th-century British writer, but in fact, the books are quite clever and amusing. The simple black-and-white illustrations by Brett Helquist depict an undefined time — it could be the 1910s or '20s, yet there are machines and vehicles that are not of that time — or any time, for that matter.
It fell to Brad Silberling, director of Casper, Moonlight Mile and a slew of TV series from Felicity to Judging Amy, to bring Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events to life on the big screen. Drawing from the first three books of the series, Silberling opted to create the Baudelaires' universe completely from scratch: Instead of finding real locations that might be appropriate to the stories, he chose to shoot the film on sets. Using Helquist's illustrations as a jumping-off point, production designer Rick Heinrichs (who worked on the fanciful Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow) and art directors John Dexter and Martin Whist have given the film an utterly unique look. Jim Carrey was cast in the role of the nefarious guardian of the orphans, Count Olaf, and Meryl Streep, of all people, was brought in to portray the protective Aunt Josephine.
“The author has created a fully realized world, and I think Brad Silberling has really succeeded in making it his own and putting it on film,” comments sound designer and supervising sound editor Richard King. “Brad has a great eye and there's a very cohesive look to the film. It's almost a throwback to classic Hollywood films like The Wizard of Oz, because it was shot entirely on soundstages using some forced-perspective sets to achieve a feeling of size and distance. Much of the film was shot in a mothballed Boeing facility in Downey [south of downtown L.A.] — the production crew built three of the larger sets in a gigantic hangar where the space shuttles were assembled. Brad was going for a particularly stylized look; obviously, it wasn't done to look totally convincing. The most difficult challenge with the sound was striking the right balance between scary and fun, as it needs to be both to some degree.”
King, who earned an Oscar last year for his sound work on Peter Weir's Master and Commander (see Mix, December 2003), notes that Silberling “had a lot of specific ideas as to the tone he wanted to set. He has a great ear and thinks a lot about sound even while he's shooting. That vision changes and evolves, of course, but he's quite good at seeing in his mind's eye the finished movie as he's shooting it, and that's one of the movie's strengths. It ultimately feels like the vision of one person who knew what he wanted.”
Supervising sound editor/sound designer Richard King in his studio.
The film was shot between October 2003 and May of this year, with Pud Cusack handling the production sound. Though one might think the soundstage would be a highly controllable environment, King says that Cusack had her work cut out for her: “There were a lot of fans running and a number of sound issues beyond Pud's control because the set in Downey was not a true soundstage so there was a lot of ambient noise. When you're in a scene in a rowboat in the middle of a lake and there are fans and generators running in the background, you have a problem. Still, we ultimately didn't have to do that much ADR. Most of the production sound proved to be usable.”
While the shoot was happening, King talked to Silberling about sound ideas for some of the film's unusual vehicles and for some of the more complex set pieces, such as one in which Aunt Josephine's house tumbles off a high cliff into Lake Lachrymose. “The Aunt Josephine character is obsessed with safety, yet she lives in a house perched over a lake that's filled with man-eating leeches,” King says with a laugh. “This house eventually is blown away in a hurricane, so we wanted to record some new house demolition effects. In fact, we'd been looking for a suitable structure for months and we finally found one right down the road in Burbank, of all places, and we've spent the last week demolishing it. We placed mics all over the house and used large hydraulic jacks to lift the house up and drop it, popped up large sections of the floor, toppled walls, et cetera. We also chopped down a large dead tree in the backyard and let it fall on the house, giving us a huge crash and thud. There were a lot of other sounds connected to that [scene], too. The house sags over the cliff and all the house's contents — the refrigerator, stove and furniture — practically come to life, screech toward [the children] and try to knock them down, so we spent a day and a night rolling and crashing appliances around and recording that.”
As for the carnivorous leeches, “We spent a day in a pool doing lots of little swimming and splashing sounds with fishing rods and other props, and then we tried [mixing in] some animal sounds and ended up doing a lot of human vocal sounds that we pitch-shifted and manipulated and twisted in Pro Tools. It may seem obvious, but you can often put more emotion into a sound if it's just performed by a human rather then painstakingly forged and shaped from other sounds.”
King's principal effects recordists were Eric Potter and John Fasal (both of whom worked on Master and Commander). Michael Mitchell and Hamilton Sterling were the effects editors on the show. For this film, King and crew decided to use the new HHB Portadrive 8-channel hard disk recorder for effects, which allows for up to two hours of 8-track 24/96 recording and nine hours of 4-track 24/48 recording. “On Master and Commander, we used Devas and DATs and we were really happy with them,” King says, “but the beauty of the HHB, which has only been on the market a few months, is that it's more channels and it's 96k, which allows us to record and subsequently manipulate the sounds at a higher sampling rate, which helps to maintain clarity.”
Another challenge for King and his team were the unusual vehicles in the story: a pair of “oddball cars,” as King puts it, a bizarre boat and a train. “They found these very strange cars for the shoot,” he says. “One was a Tatra — a Czechoslovakian car from the early '60s — and the other was a heavily modified stretch Chrysler from the '60s. The cars used in the film were operable and they both sounded unique, so we ended up recording them and using them pretty much as-is for the film. When they show the movie in Czechoslovakia, everyone will probably say, ‘Oh, it's a Tatra, what's so unusual about that?’ But in America, they'll see that the car looks odd and the windows are a peculiar shape.” Plus, they've been modified to have other gadgets in them: “One of the cars has an old mini-Nagra open-reel recorder in the dash. All the mechanisms and devices are created with a sort of Edward Gorey look — 20th-century gothic. At the same time, some things are oddly familiar. There's a scene where Count Olaf locks the doors to his car and it beeps with the normal beep you'd hear on a modern car alarm. Brad loved the contrast of having this normal car alarm beep with the completely bizarre vehicle.
On location in Downey, Calif., with one of A Series of Unfortunate Events' "oddball cars".
“There are places where the sound is oddly simple, where [Silberling] is going for a mood or feeling rather than going for the literal sound of the environment. And sometimes it's funnier if you've got a device or contraption and the sound is one or two clever sounds instead of a big complex mechanism. There's a scene in the film where [the children] are crossing Lake Lachrymose in a ferryboat. They're in a car that's on the ferryboat, and when we cut outside, we see that it's just a driver reading a newspaper who's peddling a gigantic paddle wheel. It's a guy on a stationary bike with this giant paddle wheel beside him, so we made the sounds very simple to accentuate the ludicrous image. It's meant to be a little magical and out of the realm of reality — it's a parallel universe.”
As is the case with so many films today, the sound editors were hampered somewhat by having to work on scenes featuring CGI effects that were delivered late and in various stages of completion. King has been working with effects re-recording mixer Anna Behlmer, “pre-dubbing for weeks and weeks and weeks,” he says. “It's a very complicated film on every level. A big visual effects show is a moving target as the effects shots change as they evolve toward the final version.” If Behlmer is onboard, re-recording mixer Andy Nelson usually is, as well; he handled the dialog and music mixing. Additionally, Michael Magill and Hugo Weng were dialog editors, Chris Flick supervised the Foley and Linda Folk was the ADR supervisor. The film was mixed on a Neve DFC at the Howard Hawks stage at Fox Studios. Thomas Newman's score was recorded at Fox, as well.
And though the final mix was still a week away when King and I spoke in mid-October, he was quite impressed by the craftsmanship that had already gone into the film. “It's a cool movie for kids,” he enthuses, “because it's scary — which they like — but through their own talent and cleverness, the kids ultimately prevail. The children are the wisest characters in the movie. The adults are either evil or stupid, which I think confirms a lot of kids' deepest suspicions about the world. And, of course, the door is also left open for a sequel.”
Three books down, eight to go! Can you say “franchise”?
Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor.