Neil Young’s 1982 Film Restores Lost Sound & Dialogue using Unique Audio Techniques
Toronto International Film Festival: Shakey Pictures is proud to announce the World Premiere of Human Highway (Director’s Cut) at the Toronto International Film Festival today. The director’s cut version of Neil Young’s mind-bending 1982 post-apocalyptic musical comedy conceived in the cauldron of Cold War America, in which the rock legend writes, directs and stars alongside an eclectic and eccentric cast including Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Dennis Hopper and members of the band Devo. Human Highway was painstakingly restored using modern techniques for high quality sound but done without violating the intent of the original sound mix. Restoration difficulty was further compounded by the fact that several of the original masters were missing.
Human Highway – Take One
Production of the film began in the late 1970’s and led to an eventual screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 1982. However, mixed reactions from the assembled audience of film buffs and music fans gave the producers cause for reflection and they immediately went back to editing, resulting in parts of the movie being strewn about all over the cutting room floor and destined to be forgotten and left behind.
Thus began an epic journey to find the elusive missing footage that would help piece back together their original vision of a possible future. Digging through over thirty years of archives, the team at Shakey Pictures was then tasked with locating, cataloging and viewing every element ever associated with the film in the hopes of finding the masters.
The Quest for Lost Audio
The first step in the search was to identify the master analog multi-track tapes so they could be restored and transferred at high resolution for digital assembly and surround sound mixing. To begin with the highest possible sound quality, the original 2″ 16-track multis were converted at 24-bit/192-kHz. However, it was discovered that that the music and dialogue tracks were not on separate tracks but rather were already mixed on these master reels.
Montage of the original Human Highway tapes and reels – Shakey Pictures
The team went back in the vaults again to find the 16-track reels with isolated dialogue and music, but other than locating music on 1/4″ reels, there was no source material with the master dialogue. So as a final step, the search was on to find the original Nagra reels to get clean dialogue. The dialogue reels were located, and incredibly – the original Nagra IV-S machine was found – the exact same machine that had actually been used on set in 1982. Originally introduced in 1971, the Nagra IV-S recorded two-track stereo. It had dual level pots, limiters, and equalizer presets and was considered the highest quality in its time.
With the tapes and the reels in hand, each Nagra reel had to be reviewed to locate the exact takes that were used for the film. There were then transferred to high resolution so that the post-production process could begin using the best sounding and cleanest sources. “As I listened through boxes of Nagra reels, I really felt like a fly on the wall of the set” said Will Mitchell of Shakey Pictures “Often tape was rolling wild both before and after takes, so I got to experience the process and understand just where the crew was in capturing the master performances. As with many films, the improvised lines on alternate takes were incredibly creative and fun. It was clear that this was a fun shoot.”
“Worldizing” Re-Mixing Technique
A unique audio technique – called “Worldizing” – was applied to scenes for the Director’s Cut. Rather than applying a plugin or an effects processor to flat or dry audio, Shakey Pictures used Worldizing to give the sound great depth, dimension and realism by playing the audio back in a suitable acoustic space and then re-recording it. This resulted in real world ambience and reflections, something that digital production can only approximate. Some examples of Worldizing can be heard inside the garage at Otto’s Corner, during the radio broadcasts and in some of the music. These Worldized tracks were also used as a blended effect to create the foundation for post-production.
Surround for Climactic Dream Sequence
Once in post-production, one of the major challenges of mixing Human Highway was dealing with all the separate elements. Because it was mixed so long ago, it was difficult to find the pieces all in one place. Quite often each mix would start with a partial stem with dialogue and effects and music all mixed together. Then, later in the workflow, the effects and music were mixed together, but the dialogue separate and isolated.
But this was not always the case; often the discreet stems would have just dialogue and no effects and music, or just effects and no music and dialogue and so on.
It was a significant and time consuming effort to equalize and blend multiple sources into a seamless track. “Working with all these sources was very much like an Easter-egg hunt”, said Tamara Johnson, Sound Designer and Re-recording Mixer of Post-Apocalyptic Studios. “The goal was to make the film’s ‘Linear Valley’ setting seem very normal – although was far from it! So to lull the audience into this normalcy, the background mix is stereo and dialogue and effects, mono. No panning was used, the sound is pure and comes straight up the middle into the audience.”
The film then builds up to the climactic scene when Neil Young’s character “Lionel” suffers a bump on the head and drifts into an intense ‘dream sequence’ that sees Lionel become a rock star and performs a ten-minute studio jam scene where Young and Devo play together.
Neil Young and Devo in Human Highway’s Dream Sequence – Shakey Pictures
Now that the audience is conditioned to the stereo/mono effect, the goal was to shock them by introducing new sound elements for this dream sequence. The objective was to make Lionel’s dream sequence ‘huge’ using surround elements with wide and isolated channels swirling around the room. “We tried to make this scene larger than life”, said Johnson. “It was vital to have a high quality surround mix with no phasing or delays so I used Penteo to upmix backgrounds and music into 5.1 Surround for this pivotal dream sequence”.
The crowd surround elements were mixed around the room, effectively placing the viewer in the middle of the scene so that the audience becomes ‘Lionel’ for that intense moment. The film closes when Lionel wakes up and finds himself back in ‘normal’ Linear Valley – the dream is a fantastic contrast to reality.
About Shakey Pictures
Shakey Pictures, founded in 1972 by Bernard Shakey has over 40 years filmmaking to its credit and has produced such memorable titles as “Journey Through The Past”, “Rust Never Sleeps”, “Human Highway”, “Solo Trans”, “Muddy Track”, “Weld”, “Year Of The Horse”, “Silver and Gold”, “Greendale”, “CSNY/Déjà vu”, “Heart Of Gold’, “Trunk Show” and “Journeys”. For more information see the official Toronto International Film Festival Website: http://www.tiff.net/festivals/thefestival/programmes/specialpresentations/human-highway
or our website: http://tinyurl.com/ncfn2yu
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