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SFP: “Quantum of Solace”


The new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, picks up just a couple of minutes after the last one — the wildly successful Casino Royale — left off. “This one opens with quite a bang, which is an Aston Martin being chased by two Alfa Romeos through the Italian hills,” says effects re-recording mixer Mark Taylor, who, along with virtually the entire British sound team, worked on both films. “And it literally does kick in about 30 seconds into the movie — we’re immediately thrown into full-on action, which was tough in terms of finding a benchmark for [sound] levels and where we were going to go from there. So we just kind of hit a blow to the head and hope they like it,” he adds with a chuckle.

Bond audiences want to be grabbed by the throat and taken for a ride, and the opening pre-credits sequences are justifiably legendary, arguably the most anticipated part of every 007 film. So what better way to get the audience’s blood flowing than a hair-raising chase, with Bond spectacularly ruling the road in an Aston Martin DBS, the supercharged descendant of Bond’s Goldfinger car from 35 years earlier?

Fortunately, Taylor had lots of great raw sound material at his disposal, thanks to the work, months earlier, of supervising sound editor Eddy Joseph and his team of effects recordist/editors: sound designers Martin Cantwell and James Boyle, field recordists Dave Mackie and Russell Edwards, and production sound mixer Chris Munro. Much of the engine material was captured up in England’s Midlands at Aston Martin’s headquarters, putting the cars on a “rolling road” (actually, a chassis dynamometer, which allows the car to remain in a fixed position while the engine revs and the tires spin as if they were on an actual highway) and then recording from multiple angles.

In that particular case, Cantwell had a Sound Devices 744T hooked up to a Schoeps M/S mic setup in the interior and two Soundelux cardioid condensers, one above the engine and one two meters from the exhaust; Mackie also ran a 744T, with two piezo mics under the engine and under the differential, and two Sanken CSM 7s, one at the front and one at the rear; Boyle had a Nagra ARES-BB with Sanken CMS 7 and a Sony PCM D-50 with built-in X/Y four meters from the rear of the car, on the ground; while Edwards had a 744T, two DPA 6042s inside the car and an SM58 at the back near the exhaust. There was also an unmanned Fostex FR2 with a Neumann RSM 191 pointing at the middle of the right side of the car, about four meters up. Also at the Aston Martin facility, the team went out on a “brake strip” — an eight-lane, two-mile straightaway — to record speed passes, swerving passes, accelerations, gear change passes, and starts and stops, with rigs both in the car and outside along the roadway.

Once the needed FX had been recorded, “James Boyle laid up the sound effects for that section,” Taylor says, “and then we kind of remastered the engines down at Real World — where we premixed — through vintage valve gear: We used Tube-Tech and Crane Song compressors and some Pultec EQs, just to give it some grunge, but so it still had a presence and it maintained that presence through the sequence. We did the same thing with some of the explosions in the hotel collapse sequence in reel six, just to get the energy. Then we re-recorded them back through a 2-inch [tape machine], as well, just for the extra analog feel.”

Well, reading that sort of description might make one think this is a typical James Bond film — and in a way it is: There are several big action pieces, including brutally realistic fistfights, a big boat chase, a dogfight between a DC-3 dual-prop plane and a little Marchetti stunt plane, a couple of shoot-outs (of course) and the aforementioned hotel collapse.

But this is also a James Bond film with a somewhat different vibe, as Eddy Joseph learned when he, Boyle and Cantwell first met with director Marc Forster to look at an early cut. It was clear that the German/Swiss director, who had never made an action film before (but was Oscar-nominated for the genteel Finding Neverland), wanted to take a somewhat different approach from his Casino predecessor, Martin Campbell.

“When I first met Marc,” Joseph says, “he said, ‘What I want is I don’t want to do this as a Bond film. I want to do this as an independent movie.’ And I said, ‘Forgive me, but I can’t do it like that. I have to do it first as a Bond film and then we’ll try to do what you want — if you can help us a little more with what you really mean by “independent movie.”’ And then he said, ‘In a car chase I get bored,’ and then he explained that what he meant was that it doesn’t have to be all noise, that there are other ways of portraying these action sequences. So we went away from that a little confused, but it made us think, and that’s probably what the whole meeting was about from his perspective. I believe the expression these days is he wanted us to look at the film from ‘outside the box.’ And we did.”

Dialog and music re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith, who has worked with Taylor on seven films, including Casino Royale, comments of Forster’s approach: “What’s interesting is that to date, the Bond movies — and action movies in general — tend to be quite literal. You usually hear what you see, and you want to excite the audience and give them exciting sounds and music to give it the pace and feel. What Marc wanted was to get away from that literalness and take it into a slightly more subjective point of view. I think the feeling of the Bond movie this year is very much based on Bond himself, feeling what he’s feeling to an extent. And I think Marc wanted to have the score, particularly, do a lot of that work and tell us what Bond was going through. It works really well and it moves the film into a slightly different place.”

For instance, there is a major action scene that takes place during a performance of the opera Tosca at the amphitheater in the Alpine town of Bregenz, Austria, “and the opera drives the sequence,” Taylor says. Adds Joseph, “Every shot is a different perspective of the opera — which is really well-done — and to show what the place is like, where people are and so on; there’s a different perspective and slightly different angles all the way through it, and all the music has been mixed that way and all the sound effects with it so everything has its own space. It’s a really interesting mix and a good achievement. Then we go into almost like a dream sequence, which is a shoot-out, and it’s quite unusual the way it’s mixed. At one point during this stand-off, it goes quiet — almost no sound — and then it goes into like a slow-motion sound sequence where the music is kind of drifting off. And it’s very selective in what you’re hearing: Which of the gun shots should we play? Should we reverb that or play the reverb off the rear speakers only? There were all sorts of different things we could have done. I think that’s the sort of thing Marc was keen on doing. It’s not the sort of thing you would have done in a previous Bond film. You’d have gone for the big sounds — the big gunshots, the big explosions.”

By contrast, there is a particularly graphic fistfight scene early in the film that is, as Prestwood Smith says, “gritty, brutal and hard, and it’s the lack of atmosphere and ambience and music that makes it feel different. We avoided all temptation to — forgive me for using the word — ‘Hollywood’ it. We ended up pretty much using the sync track with some carefully placed Foley for a nearly mono section. It feels nasty and real, like you came into a room and it’s two people having a fight. The lack of effects and music support is part of what makes it work as well as it does.”

Still, the sound team had ample opportunities to play FX in big ways at different points in the film. The airplane dogfight, for instance, involved bringing five recordists to Dunsfold Airfield south of London and “miking inside, outside, from a distance, in the air, on the ground, absolutely everywhere,” Joseph says, “over-covering because if you’re going to have a couple airplanes [to capture], you’re going to have the pilots and health and safety and nurses and catering and marshalls and all the rest of it, so you might as well have three or four sound recordists because it really doesn’t add very much to the budget! So we over-cranked, but we made sure we got the best possible sound so we could then play around with it. We had the luxury of a little bit of time because we got going early. But we also knew that the score was going to be big there — it had this pulsating score and a lot of it was in the same register as the airplane sounds, and we couldn’t re-pitch the airplane so we had to find [sounds] that worked with the score.

“There’s also a boat chase and we went onto a lake and recorded that the same way — with a team. We recorded everything. We even went to Germany to record a unique electric car at a research institute. It’s a hydrogen-fuel-cell car and it’s very weird — it sounds almost like a dentist drill. But it makes the scene work because it’s different and also a real thing.”

David Arnold, who has scored the past five Bond films (beginning with Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997), worked closely with the post team, providing music for the temp mix from past scores that was similar in feeling to what he would be writing for Quantum, or actual demos from his score-in-progress. “He came onboard very early because Marc was keen to get something slightly different out of David this time or push him a step further,” Prestwood Smith says. “Marc and Matt [Chesse, co-film editor with Rick Pearlson] kept directing him to get what they wanted from a very early stage. So that mood was established early on and we almost inherited it in a way, and it helped define how we shaped the sound.”

Mark Taylor describes the score as “more eclectic” than Casino‘s, “with a more ethnic feel in places,” reflecting some of the exotic locales such as Haiti and Bolivia (actually shot in Panama and Chile, respectively). Still, there is a big traditional score recorded at AIR Studios in London.

When it came time for Arnold to complete his score, “David stuck to the feeling of the temp quite tightly,” comments Prestwood Smith. “And Jeff Foster, the music mixer, actually had our temp tracks on his mix stage when he was mixing the music. We decided last time out [on Casino] that it was really useful because he could hear what he was up against. It meant we were sort of singing from the same sheet fairly early on, which made life a lot easier and is one reason [the final mix] went so smoothly. It helped, too, that it was the same bunch of people again, so in a sense we already knew what kinds of things worked and what didn’t.”

As noted earlier, the extensive pre-dubbing took place at Real World studios in Bath, Somerset, about 100 miles west of London, over the course of about a month. Taylor says that editor Chesse “liked the idea of being away from London so we could concentrate. It worked really well being residential. It meant you just focused on what you’ve got to do, and if you want to run on a bit into the evenings or whatever, you can without any financial penalties.”

Prestwood Smith, who has a place in the countryside not far from Real World, says he did pre-dubs for Casino at his house “and [the most recent] Harry Potter, and all sorts of other things, but it was getting a bit unwieldy at home having editors around the kitchen table with the Pro Tools. A mutual friend put Peter [Gabriel, owner of Real World] and me in touch with each other, and I went over and decided to put my little room there. They built me a little premix room there with a [Digidesign] ICON. Then we developed the big room together into a mix stage, which has been very successful for us.” That big room already contained an SSL desk (Gabriel is part-owner of the company), but it was augmented with a 24-fader Neve DFC and a couple of ICONs. “I like the DFC’s summing matched with the versatility of the ICON,” he comments. “It’s a great combination. It means you can get right into the tracks on one board and then sum everything really tightly and use all the great-sounding processing on the DFC.” That particular DFC is a smaller version of what he and Taylor did their temp and final mixes on at DeLane Lea’s Studio 1 in London, “but in terms of processing, it’s not far from what we can do there.” These days, Prestwood Smith makes liberal use both of plug-ins — including Waves and the TC Electronic VSS3 reverb — and outboard models like the dependable Lexicon 960L.

The sound team did a temp dub for the film over the course of five days at DeLane Lea, and Forster seemed quite pleased with what he heard, to the point that he requested very few changes between the temp and the final. And, Taylor says, “He constantly referred back to that: ‘That’s not the way we had it in the temp.’ ‘Okay, we’ll tweak these up or down or whatever.’ He’d made up his mind about what he wanted and that was pretty much it, which was great for us. He had his reference point, which was the temp, and any question marks we had when he wasn’t there we’d refer back to that.”

When it came to the final, Taylor adds, “Marc was very much hands-off during the mix. He would much prefer for us to put a reel together, have him come and see it, and then give us his notes. I think I’m right in saying every action sequence we played him, he didn’t change anything — he was happy with what we’d done, which is unusual, but quite pleasing. [Laughs] I think he realized we’d done it before and that’s what we do, so he let us go.

“We’d done our experimenting and tried out a lot of things [in the temp] and he was seemingly happy with them, so we knew we were on the right track,” says Joseph. “Hopefully [in the final] we’ve improved it that final 20 percent, as you’d expect. The main difference, of course, is we had the final music for the final, and we’d also seen all the [visual] effects, though that didn’t really change much. We had premixed this film really carefully, so the final ended up being fairly easy as these things go. We had longer hours on Casino Royale. I really can’t complain about this one.”

Taylor agrees: “It was mostly a lot of fun and not that stressful.” For everyone except for James Bond!

Blair Jackson is the senior editor of Mix.