Flashback: Nobody Walks

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Dig It recently completed all of the sound editing, sound design, and mixing for the film Nobody Walks, which will be premiering at the Sundance Film Festival 2012 in the Dramatic Competition. The film, directed by the talented Ry Russo-Young, stars acting veterans John Krasinski, Dylan McDermott, and Rosemarie Dewitt, as well as some great young talent in Olivia Thirlby, and India Enenga. The story is about a 23 year old woman, who travels to L.A. from New York, to finish the sound design and mix of her short art film.


This project posed some interesting challenges in audio post, especially with the production sound. The project shot on 16mm film. We don’t see many projects shooting on film these days, and in the last 5 years or so, the way that people are dealing with the film elements has changed. 5 or 10 years ago, when most people were still shooting indie features on film, DV and MiniDV were the most common formats for creating “dailies”. Most of you probably know what dailies are, but just in case, dailies are videos made every day with that days shooting footage, which have the sound and the picture married together. This can be used by the director, DP, and producers to view the material shot each day and make sure they have what they need. It is necessary to create dailies when shooting film, because the sound is always recorded separately, so you can’t watch the picture and sound together unless you marry it on some format. 


Back when videotape dailies were the norm, the common practice was to stripe these daily tapes with new continuous timecode.  This made it easier to load and work with these tapes in a picture edit system. There were even something called “Flex Files”, which were supposed to have information on the timecode relationship between the individual audio takes and smart slate numbers, and the newly striped timecode on the dailies.  I could go on and on about this, but it has really become the stuff of the past, and I suspect this paragraph has already started to glaze your eyes over. The point of all this is that with videotape dailies there was, however tenuous, a relationship between the timecode of the original production sound files and the timecode of the dailies. So if you needed to go back to the original sound recordings to reload that audio, there was a way to figure that out.


Now fast forward to 2012. On Nobody Walks, they had to make dailies to view the sound and the audio together. Since no one wants to be bothered with videotape and videotape machines anymore, and rightly so, these dailies were created as quicktime files with stereo audio attached. These are very useful in viewing the material, but have no traceable relationship back to the timecodes of the production audio files. In this scenario the dailies were loaded into a picture edit system, and the film was edited with these quicktimes.


The problem in this case is that the project was originally recorded using a muti-track hard disk recorder, that records on 6 total tracks. So a mixdown of the individual audio tracks was what ended up on the quicktime daily files, and then in the picture edit system. The problem with a mixdown of all of the production audio tracks is that you are married to noise or bad sound that was on your worst sounding tracks.  For example: if the boom mic track was good and clean, but one of the lavelier microphones was distorted and noisy, then all of the sound on the mixdown would have the noisy lav sound married in.


An equally big problem with mixdowns is phasing. It is just simply an inherent problem when recording with multiple microphones. The major issue between lavelier microphones, worn by the actors, and boom microphones is delay. Because the boom mic is almost always further away from the actor’s mouth than the lavelier, there is often a delay that exists between them.  The boom mic lags behind the lavelier mics, and that is how it gets recorded on the tracks. The delay causes a phasing effect when these mics are played together at equal volumes. You can really tell that you have a phasing problem when you experience signal cancellation.  If you play both the lav and the boom together and it sounds thin, mute one or the other and see if it sounds fuller.  If both mics sound full on their own but together sound thin, then they are “phase cancelling” each other to some degree. The easy workaround is to use only one of the mics, or if you need both, then use more of one mic than the other. Something like a 60/40 blend or 70/30 often does the trick.  If you need both mics to play at pretty equal volumes to get the best sound, then you will need to “phase align” them. This can be achieved by zooming way in on the waveforms, until you get the solid line, and sliding the sync of one of them to match the waveform of the other precisely. You can start nudging by sub frames and then nudge by the sample to get them really tight.  I find it’s often in the range of 5 subframes or so. You may also find that the waveforms of the two mics are inverted.  In that case you will need to highlight one of them and use the Audiosuite Invert tool to flip the waveform to match.  Once those waveforms are lined up and tight you should be able to play those mics together with much better result.


To get back to the situation with Nobody Walks, we were stuck with mixdowns when we received the audio tracks via OMF transfer from the Final Cut Pro project they had been editing in. As I explained earlier this means that there was no traceable time code relationship between the audio clips existing in the edit and the original individual multitrack audio files.  There was no other choice at this point but to do a manual load and resync of all of the individual production tracks, recorded on location, to match the mixdown audio clips that we had in our audio session. This is long, hard, and tedious work, and usually takes about 5 days in the hands of an experienced and speedy audio editor.  We call this a “manual audio conform” and should be avoided if possible.


In working on this film, we knew that the audio would not be the best it could be unless the original multi-track files were loaded and conformed. So that means it just had to be done. We needed to be able to choose the best mics at any given moment and align lav and boom tracks when necessary. It was a hard reality for all to face, but absolutely the right decision.


All that being said, the sound for the film turned out very well. Nobody Walksis a really good film and will get a great deal of attention at Sundance and beyond. The highlight of the work we did at Dig It is actually the sound design, created by Rich Bologna. Look for another article about that coming up soon. 

Thomas Efinger