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SFP: “Australia”


Photo: James Fisher

Director Baz Luhrman’s highly anticipated November release, Australia, not only marks a significant departure from his stylized “Red Curtain Trilogy” that began with Strictly Ballroom in 1992 and included Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001, his most recent film), it embraces the sweep, grandeur and vibrant storytelling of the great latter-day epics, from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to Out of Africa and A Passage to India. The simple title hints at the film’s ambition — to tell a tale that says something about the power of this massive, fascinating and largely unpopulated land. At its heart, though, is a more intimate human drama about an Englishwoman in the mid-1930s, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who follows her husband to the Belgium-sized cattle station he owns in Australia’s Northern Territories and which she inherits. A few years later, to save her land she and a local cattle drover (Hugh Jackman), with whom she falls in love (of course) undertake a long and perilous cattle drive north to the port city of Darwin, which is bombed relentlessly by the Japanese beginning in February of 1942 (two months after Pearl Harbor), eventually prompting a large exodus south to escape the horrors of war. Along the way they encounter a number of interesting and unusual characters — including aboriginal natives — and travel through a variety of breathtaking terrains, from the desolate Outback to incredible gorges.

The film has been a thoroughly Australian production — shot (mostly on location) and posted there with nearly the entire crew culled from Down Under, with the notable exception of L.A.-based re-recording mixers Andy Nelson and Anna Behlmer — who were flown in and did their work in a new mix room outside of Sydney — and Shawn Murphy, who mixed David Hirschfelder’s score in a studio at the Sydney Opera House. Nelson and Behlmer were Oscar-nominated for their work on Moulin Rouge, as was Australia‘s production sound mixer, Guntis Sics; Australia‘s supervising sound editor Wayne Pashley didn’t work on that film, but was an FX editor on Strictly Ballroom years earlier and has since proven himself working as a supervisor on such internationally popular Australian productions as the two Babe films and the recent animated smash, Happy Feet. In separate interviews — Pashley and Behlmer from the mix stage at Atlab, right outside of Sydney; Nelson at Fox in L.A., where he was working on the final mix for Madagascar 2 in between jaunts across the Pacific to work on Australia — the post principals stressed two main points: that Luhrmann’s film really does represent an unabashed return to an earlier epic style of filmmaking and that Australia itself is a major character in the film, which required special treatment from the sound team.

Of course, technology has come a long way since Paddy Cunningham took a mono Nagra out into the desert to record ambiences for Lawrence of Arabia. To capture the unique sound of Australia‘s myriad natural locations, Wayne Pashley had more modern tools at his disposal, including Sound Devices 744T recorders and, most significantly, a SoundField surround microphone.

“It’s B-format,” he says of the SoundField SPS 200, “so it’s W-X-Y-Z configuration [central reference, front/back, left/right, up/down], which was fantastic, particularly in the Outback, because it gave us a huge amount of length and height and width, and the sub channel was terrific as well on all the winds and on the dynamics between high-end bird life and the winds that were going through eucalyptus trees and across salt plains.”

Pashley notes that filming in desolate areas posed an incredible challenge to Luhrmann and the crew. “No one has really filmed extensively up there in the Kununurra region near the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territories. And to actually maneuver a crew of this size — some 300 to 350 people — to an area like that, with all that heat and dust, was quite remarkable. I imagine that when David Lean was filming Lawrence of Arabia, it was a similar exercise. Plus, we had all the livestock that was brought in [for the cattle drive]: 1,500 head of cattle and the brumbys [Australian wild horses]. It was quite a logistical feat.”

Pashley did his ambience recordings in many of the same locales where Luhrmann and company were shooting, “sometimes following a day behind so it would be as quiet and pristine as possible. Also, I’d go further afield,” which sometimes involved a certain amount of peril: One day, traveling alone, he drove 50 kilometers off an already obscure dirt road to record the wild sounds of a particular river bed and some distant falls. “I knew there were a lot of crocs and deadly snakes there,” he recalls, “so I had to be very careful, and the sun was going down so I’d have to work quickly. At one point, I turned around and the tire was flat in about three feet of dust; the tire was completely covered. And I didn’t have a satellite phone and there was no cell phone reception, so I thought here’s a 50k walk!” Fortunately, he did have a spare tire and lying in the dust he managed to change the flat, and eventually ease out of the perilous location, finally arriving back at his base at around midnight.

The SoundField was also used in many other settings, Pashley reveals. “Every evening at the ‘homestead’ set, I’d get the mic out as the sun was setting, and we’d have 150 brumbys come hurtling around the homestead and I’d be doing the pass-bys and all the whinnies.” At one point, too, he had the SoundField mic mounted on the back of a rider to record the brumbys so they would “thunder through the audience’s ears.” He adds, “I also did all the vehicles in 5.1 because it was so quiet, there was no traffic or aircraft, so it was the perfect opportunity to get all the pass-bys on the dirt roads with all these 1930s vehicles, from Chevrolets and Fords to army vehicles.”

Pashley says that recording with the SoundField gave him more flexibility than more conventional stereo recordings because the mic “comes with a plug-in called the Sound Zone that imports the digital B-format file and lets you select not only 5.1, but 6.1 or 7.1, and you can also go stereo or mono fold-down within its own infrastructure, so when something is more of a spot effect, I would then make a choice as I was listening to it — whether to focus it, push the sub. You can actually re-shape the recording as you mix it down to whatever format you like.”

The film was also a novel experience for mixers Nelson and Behlmer, who left their comfortable home turf at Fox in L.A. for a new mixing room called Deluxe StageOne Sound. The duo has worked together for about 14 years now, growing into perhaps the most respected mix team in Hollywood and earning Oscar nominations for such diverse films as Blood Diamond, War of the Worlds, The Last Samurai, Seabiscuit, The Thin Red Line and Evita. Nelson says, “We went down and looked at a couple of other facilities in Sydney and I went to look at the facility that mixed Happy Feet, and I liked it a lot but the room itself was rather small — sort of like our predub room here at Fox, which is a bit small for a big-scale picture. So this studio called Atlab, on the outskirts of Sydney — it’s actually a printing laboratory and they have DI suites and everything — said, ‘Look, we have this huge space out back where we were thinking of building a mix room — maybe we could do it in time for Australia.’ So I went back to L.A., thinking, ‘Gosh, this is a huge step; will it really happen?’ Sure enough, it happened. I went down there to do some fine-tuning, and it turns out it’s a really great room; without a doubt, the premier room in Sydney.

“It’s a little smaller than the big room here at Fox,” he continues, “but it’s got the Neve DFC console we use, the Pro Tools recorders and the acoustic design work was done by David Schwind [of Charles M. Salter Associates] out of San Francisco, who’s a top designer and did our room here [in L.A.]. They really jumped in with both feet so I’m really excited about it. I don’t think there’s any doubt that many resident Australian directors are jumping to get in there, which is great for them. But we are the first.”

Anna Behlmer agrees: “It’s a beautiful room. The console is a little smaller — a two-section instead of a three — but it’s got the new metering that lets you know on the screen whether EQ is in or if you’ve got an aux send in or any processing in the strip; it lets you know just by looking at the meter bridge.

“The room sounds a little different than what we’re accustomed to and that took a little time to adjust to. When we first walked in, it seemed a little dry, but Andy was here a few weeks before me and he was on top of it in terms of getting the Dolby rep out and putting up some baffling and getting it to soften up a bit. But it’s improved, and we’ve actually taken some of the material we’ve done back to our room in L.A. and played it to see that it’s translating well, so that’s been comforting. To open a new room and do a big film like this in it is a big deal, and it’s gone really, really smoothly.”

Nelson, who mixes dialog and music, says that much of the former was replaced through ADR. Though everyone agrees that production mixer Guntis Sics did a fine job on set, there were often natural elements (wind, animal sounds, etc.) or man-made factors (wind machines, the director barking instructions on a megaphone and such) conspiring against getting a totally clean production track. As is increasingly common with large productions that stretch over many months, “ADR was done all over the place; wherever the actors are,” Nelson says. “Nicole’s been in a few places, Hugh has been mainly in Sydney. Wherever they are, though, they’ve got to get back in character and that can be tough for them. I don’t think the actors like it, but often there’s not much choice. [The dialog] has been prepared to go either way [production or ADR], and I’m sure Baz is no different than most directors — he’ll try to use as much of the original recording as they can. But there are definitely a lot of places in the film where, for various reasons, it’s better if we go with new loops.

“I’ll show Baz the best I can get [the production track], and then it’s up to him to say, ‘It’s not good enough, let’s go with the loops.’ Or he might say, ‘Even though it’s not great, let’s stick with it because the feeling is so good.’ I have to wear the two hats of either being the purist, saying, ‘Nothing beats the production from the performance standpoint,’ or being the realist, who says, ‘If no one can hear it, what good is it?’ And, of course, the danger with working on dialog is the more familiar with it you are, the more you assume people will understand it. But if it’s even borderline, there’s a good chance they won’t understand it, so you might have to lose a few percentage of the performance but gain the clarity [with ADR]. If you’re an audience member, there’s nothing worse that saying, ‘What did he say?’”

Pashley adds that it was important to him “to have the dialog leap from the screen and be strong and clear — and to transcend the thick Australian accents and the pidgin dialect [spoken by the aborigines]. I want the dialog to be as bold as the land because we’re telling a story here.”

From her standpoint, too, FX re-recording mixer Behlmer suggests, “More replaced dialog gives me a little more leeway. It allows more of the effects to be used because they’re not provided in the production tracks, and it creates greater width and space in the track because when you’ve got a heavy production track, it tends to suck all the sound into the middle. When you don’t have that, you have a greater sense of space and your surrounds play better and clearer, so it’s a good opportunity.”

Pashley says that Behlmer made a complete separate predub of the 5.1 atmospheres he’d recorded “because it’s such an important element,” Pashley says. “As I’ve said, we’re almost treating the land as a real character; it needed a predub based around it like it was a single character, almost like it’s a dialog track.”

And though the atmospheres that Pashley provided were rich and detailed, there was still plenty of room for Behlmer to get creative, adding more stereo atmospheres, touches of reverb, synth tones, different winds or other evocative elements to individual scenes. “I’m still using a [Lexicon] 960,” she says, “and I’m using a couple of synthesizers to enhance the low end to the boom channel and even in the mains a little bit to give size and weight to it, like in the cattle stampede, which is a great scene where you really want to feel what’s going on up on the screen.”

Behlmer also notes that “the film has a theme of mysticism and spirituality that runs through it — with the aborigine characters — and in some of those scenes, the sound treatments are sort of surreal and we’re trying to give those situations more of a magical feel, using ambiences in interesting and unusual ways. There are mysterious characters who have their own special signature sound, and situations where the world sort of goes away and we’re focused on an event in an interesting way.” Including the bombing of Darwin, which could have been handled as a straightforward munitions extravaganza, a lá the film Pearl Harbor, but which Luhrmann has chosen to depict partially from the far-off perspective of aboriginal natives seeing what was once exclusively their homeland destroyed from a distance.

In an informative podcast on the official Website, Luhrmann also weighed in on the importance of the creative use of the ambience tracks: “Layering that atmosphere is very important. In a naturalistic sense, you might just reproduce what’s there [visible in the scene]. But it can [also] be employed to create drama. For example, in a scene where, say, Lady Sarah Ashley is inside her bedroom, she can hear noises outside, but the dominant sound is [the aborigine known as] King George chanting, and there’s also the night sound of the crickets and the feeling that the world is vast and broad and she’s a tiny person in this huge space.”

When the interviews for this article were conducted at the end of September, there was still a long way to go in the post process, including layering in David Hirschfelder’s score — which Nelson describes as “a mixture of classical orchestral and a really interesting weaving of aboriginal music” — and the overall final mix. But it was clear from speaking to some of the sound principals that Luhrmann has achieved something special with this thoughtful and involving paean to his native land.

Nelson says, “There’s something about this film that is refreshingly nostalgic — I don’t like the word ‘throw-back’ because it’s not that. But it’s great storytelling in the classic sense. It’s a way of taking you to a place you normally wouldn’t experience. It accomplishes what the great movies have always done.”