(click thumbnail)Producer/Director Brian J. Terwilliger interviews Sydney Pollack in front of his Citation X business jet.While Audio by Design usually examines issues relating to audio systems design and engineering, this month we’re going to look at another aspect of design—sound design—for the high-definition documentary feature “One Six Right,” by Producer/Director Brian J. Terwilliger.
Subtitled “The Romance of Flying,” “One Six Right” explores the history and excitement of general aviation through its main “character,” Van Nuys Airport in Southern California, and the people who work and fly there.
The feature’s title refers to the main runway coordinates at that airport, where Amelia Earhart broke speed records and where scenes from Casablanca were filmed. It is lensed in HD with Sony CineAlta HDW-F900 and HDW-F950 cameras, and mixed in 5.1 surround sound. The 73-minute documentary features from-the-ground images of a variety of vintage and modern planes taking off and landing, plus aerial photography, rare archival footage, on-screen interviews, and an original score.
Terwilliger, a pilot and private airplane owner who flies out of Van Nuys, was a featured presenter at the NAB2007 Sony CineAlta Lounge, “CineAlta-D/From Indie to 3D,” and Audio by Design caught up with him some time later to discuss his sound design philosophy for this feature.
“In documentaries, often times people don’t put a lot of effort into the sound. [The attitude is] you get what you get. But for me, every aspect of the sound design was to make the audio as polished as possible,” Terwilliger said, to complement the HD images from the F900.
“I truly believe that sound is more than 50 percent of the experience, and we went to great lengths to get the shots we did,” he said. “Sound is what pulls things together so that you believe what you see.”
SOUND DESIGN ON LOCATION
One aspect of the sound design was that, rather than using a narrator, the story is told through interviews and personal accounts of passionate pilots, historians, air traffic controllers and other flight enthusiasts, including such notables as Sydney Pollack in front of his Citation X business jet.
Most of the interviews were conducted in and around the hangars at the airport, using a boom mic recorded on one channel of the HDCAM, and a wireless lavalier mic on the other.
(click thumbnail)David Frazer operates Panavision’s Super Techno Crane.“We did 85 interviews at the world’s busiest general aviation airport,” Terwilliger said. “There are 1,200 take-offs and landings per day, one every 45 seconds. It was a nightmare for the sound mixer. We had to wait a lot of the time, and sometimes had to roll when an airplane flew over because that’s when we got the best story. But most of the time you never hear the airplanes in the background.”
In the end, Terwilliger never thought that noise was an issue during shooting, and many of the interruptions during filming became some funny outtakes that appeared on the companion “making of” DVD.
Interestingly enough the noise issue was one of the conflicts presented in the film, between the airport and its supporters and nearby annoyed neighbors. As explained in the film, one general aviation airport a week closes, and what once may have been an airport on the outskirts of town 50 years ago, now finds itself in the middle of residential communities.
At the same time, Terwilliger, through comments from the interviewees, points out what’s great about aviation, even though its heyday may be in the past.
And what’s great is the thrill of flying that is conveyed in the stunning aerial sequences with air-to-air photography of 12 airplanes, including colorful biplanes, and more than 20 visual effects shots.
An A-Star helicopter with a nose-mounted gyro-stabilized system called the Gyron was used to film the aerial sequences. But how do you capture the sounds of the airplane you’re filming while in the helicopter? You don’t. If you tried, all you’d hear are the rotor blades. So Terwilliger created a mix in post of what he would expect each plane, say a 1936 bi-plane, to sound like air-to-air.
Even for sounds captured on the ground, Terwilliger often needed to substitute appropriate wild sound for the audio captured in the field. To get the images he wanted, Terwilliger was very vocal in issuing instructions, sometimes to the detriment of the audio recording.
“It was more important to get the shot than get clean audio in those instances,” he said. But what the audio takes from the filming served as templates of how the sounds should be, and to make it easier in post production to verify, synchronize and replace the live sound with accurate and clean wild sounds.
Even though Terwilliger wasn’t wearing a mic when he was directing, he was close enough to the boom operator that his comments were picked up on tape. These were used, sometimes to humorous effect, in the companion DVD.
“The joke was that this was the first director’s commentary to happen during production,” Terwilliger said. “I was talking, describing, and directing so much while shooting B-roll that I drove the audio guy batty.”
To find clean replacement sounds for all the aircraft shown in the film, meant that Terwilliger had to travel to various airports, quieter than Van Nuys, to record the different airplanes from all angles—takeoffs, landings, engines idling and at different speeds, throttle up, throttle down. Each of these sounds is different, even from the same aircraft. Wild sound was also recorded at Van Nuys.
GETTING THE RIGHT SOUND
These unique sounds don’t come from effects libraries, which tend to be generic. This brings up another key aspect of Terwilliger’s successful sound design—authenticity, with every sound carefully constructed.
“Every plane has a different sound. A pilot knows the difference. I’m a pilot and am crazy about details,” Terwilliger said. “It has to be real. We needed the exact sound of each airplane, which is very important to authenticity.”
Much of the time during the wild sound recording sessions was spent waiting for a particular airplane to take off or land, but for some of the rarer or unique aircraft, Terwilliger sought the actual plane and directed its pilot to get the exact sounds he needed.
Wild sound was gathered using a boom mic and recorded on DAT, with each sound recording prefaced by an audio slate. Terwilliger later dove into the time consuming task of loading the DAT recordings into a large audio file, and logging each of the sound bites, some only 20 to 30 seconds long.
“I was the only one who could do it, since I knew the planes,” he said. And even then there were some, like the jets, that he had a hard time identifying.
During the final mix, “when I should have been working with the mix, there were a lot of times I had to leave to go and get a new sound,” Terwilliger said.
For more wild sound, Terwilliger tapped into a special radio transceiver to record onto DAT hours of air traffic control transmissions from Van Nuys. He needed to do this as B-roll material, recorded separately from regular filming. He later searched through the recordings to find just the right audio transmission that made sense with what a particular airplane was doing in a scene.
In the end, Terwilliger amassed a huge sound library that he said could be used for his future projects.
Next time we’ll take a look at Terwilliger’s sound design from a post production perspective.