AIG Talks with Film Sound Designer Steve Munro

      Date posted: June 26, 1999

Andrew Marshall Talks to Acclaimed
Sound Designer Steve Munro

      This interview took place while screening The Sweet Hereafter, so there are references to some specific scenes. However, even readers who have not seen this acclaimed Canadian film will find insights into the recording techniques employed with film sound.

      Sound Designer is the credit Steve receives on this film, and it is a technical and artistic activity, one that has interested AM since he first started making voice recordings on a Philips mono recorder in the late 50s. In the production of a film Steve Munro both makes original recordings (usually 6-track) Ian Holm and Sarah Polley in the Sweet Hereafterand takes those already done and creates a context and meaning for them in the film. He also, in this age of surround soundscaping for film, creates and directs the mixdown of hundreds of elements of the final soundtrack for theatre and home multitrack versions of the film.

      He also coordinates his work with that of the location sound recordist, other ambient and effect recording engineers, and the final mixdown engineer, all of whom contribute to Steve’s own vision (audition?) of the soundtrack.

AM: Tell me a bit about how you recorded the original sound, that is, ambience and effects, for this film, starting with the scene where the lawyer, played by Ian Holm, gets trapped in a car wash.

Steve Munro in his Studio SM: We recorded 6 channel, so we set up my van with 4 mikes in the corners, a mike on the floorboards, a shotgun pointing straight ahead (ED: a “shotgun” is a highly directional microphone), and basically drove the van through the car wash several times.

AM: Where’s the car wash?

SM: It’s around the corner from where I live in Leaside [a section of north Toronto]. The effects pre-mix sounds wonderful, and the result is that in the theatre the effect just wraps right around your head. With the music in the finished film you lose a bit of that effect, though it works quite well.

With a lot of these ambiences we went out and recorded them 6-channel discrete, and as far as the imaging goes, it just makes a huge, huge difference. Often such things are just recorded monaurally.

AM: Would any of the dialogue in this film have been redone after shooting?

SM: I think the majority of it in the car wash was redone, but it must be said that Ross Redfern, the fellow who recorded the location sound [during filming], is probably one of the best location recordists I’ve ever heard. He will go to any lengths to get a good clean recording, even in an environment like this. If I remember correctly, the originals were incredibly clean, given the fact that they were sitting in a car wash.

AM: What kind of equipment would he use?

SM: I think it was a stereo Nagra, rolling at 15 IPS…

AM: Oh, analog…

SM: Absolutely, I think it was a 4S, timecode version, and he used primarily Schoeps microphones, and he may have used some Neumanns as well, if I remember correctly.

AM: A stereo mike?

SM: No, most location sound will primarily be recorded mono. The only thing he was really interested in was the dialogue, and that gets stuck in the centre speaker, anyway.

AM: For a typical scene in The Sweet Hereafter how many tracks would be mixed?

SM: I think we started off with, well, it wouldn’t be any more than 8 or 16 dialogue tracks, and there were about 40 or 50 effects tracks, and the music was brought in as a 5.1 mix. And the foley was in the neighbourhood of 32 tracks, which was pre-mixed down to 24.

AM: Was that done mostly inside?

SM: The foley? Yeah, the foley was done by Andy Malcolm, who rented a lodge up in Haliburton for a few days, and they shot on location, which was beautiful because the surfaces in the lodge were big open spaces.

AM:By shot, you mean recorded…

A Scene from the Sweet Hereafter SM: Yes, and he rented a school bus, so all the interior school bus things were done in an actual bus. Acoustically, all the exterior snow walking is with real snow. They sort of lucked out as far as that goes. It was so quiet up there, I think it was quieter than a studio, so they got some beautiful, beautiful recordings.

I love recording in the winter, especially after a fresh fall of snow, because it sucks up so much of the reflected sound…snow is a great absorber, so if you record in that environment when you get into the studio you can spatially match that much more easily. Personally I like recordings for film to be as dry and as clean as possible…it just gives you a great starting point.

Some of the natural reverbs and everything are beautiful, but you’ve got to be very careful to mix and match your reverbs. Otherwise you’re going to end up with competing environments.

But then, on the flip side of that, the film we just finished(Last Night), the Don McKellar film, there we did a lot of re-recording. The film was about the last day on Earth (It’s called Last Night), and we recorded a lot of ambient sounds that we thought you would be hearing in the city on the last day on Earth, all to DAT tape, nice and clean. Then I put a great big set of speakers on the back of a pickup truck with the DAT machine in the cab and a big power amplifier, and we went out into several environments at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and just cranked it two or three blocks away just to get the sound of it slapping off the buildings. The imaging was quite unusual, something I don’t think you could reproduce in the studio.

It was kind of fun to do sounds that way. The sirens in the city, their sounds, will change directions several times through the buildings, but I was absolutely blown away by how noisy the environment was…I thought for sure at 4 o’clock in the morning that it would be nice and quiet. We ended up going to an industrial park in Markham to record.

AM: How would you describe your job as sound recordist?

SM: Like being in a big sandbox…

AM: Tell me what you do on the course of preparing the sound for a film.

SM: The process is that I’ll sit down with the director and watch the film a few times, and talk about any ideas that he has.

AM: You mean, you don’t even start until after it’s shot?

SM: Yes, I don’t even like to read the scripts, I like to see a first cut of the film, and then after I’ve seen that, I’ll go back and read the script.

The reason is that I want to find out if there’s anything when I read the script that I understand or get that I didn’t when I first watched the film.

AM: You want to explore not the intellectual aspects of the film, but the sensual.

SM: Absolutely. In The Sweet Hereafter what I was trying to do was more or less get into the minds of the characters, you know, the emotional content of the characters in the sound as you follow these people around. It’s very much the same approach as the composer will take; he’ll meet with the director, and find out what direction they’re going, and develop what they’re trying to do musically. So, you progress from there. You try to develop an ambient signature. This film has got a lot of sound things that really have very little to do with what happens physically on the screen that will flow into or out of the music or become a part of it and work in conjunction.

AM: Because of the way the film is structured, being almost entirely flashbacks, there must have been a real concern for continuity in the sound.

SM: Continuity, and also contrast: you’re trying to define emotional space, as well as, you know, time spaces, so you have to keep those things in mind.

AM: Of course, the sounds of winter prevail in the B.C. scenes.

SM: All of these winter airs with the heavy cloud cover and the snow, these were all recorded up just south of Algonquin Park on a very frigid January day. Again, a discrete recording…we had 4 Schoeps microphones on the corners, and they were spread out quite wide; they were probably a good 40 feet apart between left and right at the front, and the back ones 60 or 70 feet behind, and these also about 40 feet apart.

AM: Just to get a big sense of space…

SM: And then, in the centre I had a shotgun mike sort of reaching way, way out. The idea was to create depth in the centre so the dialogue would sit here [close] and the ambience would just wrap around it, and I think that worked quite well.

AM: I think it’s one of the most effective aspects of the film.

SM: Recording outdoors in these conditions in this format was a real pain in the butt. We had a board, a little Mackie mixing board set up in my van and a [TASCAM] DA-88, and all the microphones were fed back into the van, but you can only monitor left and right or any other 2 channels, and you’re checking every combination to figure out whether you’ve got any phase problems; if you hear one microphone doing something bizarre, you have to figure out where it’s coming from.

AM: How do microphones behave in the extreme cold?

SM: They behaved relatively well. If there was any change in their frequency response I don’t know, because I certainly didn’t have time to do any tests, but as long as they were kept at temperature they were OK. Once those mikes got cold we left them cold. The biggest problem is keeping the microphones as bare as possible.

AM: Do you find that you have to use wind socks and Rykotes [filters that eliminate wind noise and shed water], and various other devices?

SM: Yes, they were all sitting in Rykotes. In fact, one day we were up in Algonquin Park, recording right on Lake Of Bays, and as the day wore on we started to get a heavy snowfall. The other problem you can have in an environment like that, where it is so, so quiet, because we’re recording out of a vehicle, you have to turn the engine off and let it sit for a good half hour until it cools down because it will be ticking and popping. With these microphones you’d pick these things up at 50 yards.

AM: How much dialogue replacement is normally done, and do you supervise that?

SM: It all depends on the film. On this film there was very little, again because Ross Redfern is such a wonderful recordist. He was working in fairly quiet locations to start with. I would bet it was under 10 percent. Whereas we just finished a film before Christmas that was probably 80 percent, and the general rule is, if you can keep it from location shooting, it’s better.

With the newer technologies out these days you can do quite a bit more at the start, and with digital editing, you can use alternate takes and put it together quite nicely. And you try to supervise it as best you can if the director wants to make changes after the fact.

AM: But you always do come in after the fact, don’t you?

SM: Yes, and the actors come in again after the fact, too. But, depending on where they are, it can be recorded, say, halfway around the world, through the phone lines.

The overall sound really is there in support of what’s happening on the screen. I'’ve seen it where if you’ve got a really strong story, as in The Sweet Hereafter, you want to provide this support…you’re not trying to create a huge soundscape. You really don’t want to distract the viewer, just take him on a little journey.

AM: Have you ever done an action film where you have to do a lot of slam-bang stuff?

SM: A little bit…I’ve sound edited action, but never really mixed one. I’ve gone after several action films, and it’s funny how they say, “Well, you’re the art film guy. You do the artsy stuff.” In my opinion, with that kind of film, you’ve got the blueprint…it’s already there. It’s not like an art film where you take a much more expressionistic approach to the sound. An action film is a different type of creativity, whereas this can be like looking at a blank page sometimes. You tend to experiment with several different ideas until you hit the sonic quality that works for the various scenes.

A Scene from the Sweet Hereafter With this scene that takes place in the barn, we ended up doing our own discrete [6-channel] recording. We went way out into the country to record a barn, and we got a beautiful recording; this barn was just a symphony of little winds whistling through the cracks, creaks, and so on…it was just lovely. We got about half-an-hour recorded, and all of a sudden it was [audibly] brought to our attention that there were train tracks about a mile away. So we listened to train horns for about an hour-and-a-half before we got cold enough to go find a coffee shop.

AM: Let me ask you about the technical side of things in terms of where film sound has come in the past few years, and where it’s going. When I toured the DeLuxe post-production facility in Toronto a couple of years ago the engineer commented that when they’d been using a pair of Sony 48-track digital recorders locked together the buildup of quantization noise was worse, that is, more audible, than when they used the 35mm analog magnetic tape recorders.

SM: We mixed this film all to analog…we used Dolby SR.

AM: That would give you a higher signal-to-noise ratio than standard digital, anyway, with about 75 dB on the analog tracks plus the 30 dB provided by SR, and about 10 dB of headroom in addition.

SM: Frankly, I don’t think you can beat 2-inch [analog] tape and Dolby SR…nothing sounds better. It just sounds so smooth, so clean…the SR is absolutely gorgeous.

AM: How do you feel about Dolby Digital?

SM: As far as the Dolby Digital projection or release format, I think it’s great. It gives you full range in the surrounds, and you get a lot more level to play with, and the imaging is far superior to 4-2-4 [Dolby Surround matrix], it’s night and day. I’ve seen this movie in several different screening environments, and when, if there’s problem reading the digital, it reverts to the 4-2-4, you lose the detail in the surrounds, as well as having the imaging tighten in toward centre at the front.

AM: So you think there’s a future for analog film mixing…

SM: Oh, I think that once the 96K sampling rate takes over, it’ll all be digital. Some people will still mix on 35mm because the digital route is still so expensive, but it’s inevitable.

AM: When I visited the Burbank Warner post-production facility several years ago, there were rooms full of these floor-to-ceiling 35mm machines. Now they’re probably all replaced with TASCAM DA-88s.

SM: When we used to do an average mix, we’d fill up the van in the morning with tracks [35mm tapes], load it all up at the studio, and do the same again the next morning. Now you can get them all into a briefcase, say, a dozen or so DA-88 8mm tapes. But I think that even this technology will give way soon to big hard drives.

AM: I can see that. After a computer hard-disc crash last summer I went from 1 gig to 8, and my 1-gig drive was replaced under warranty with a 2-gig, because they didn’t make the 1-gig any more. Our digital editor, Clive Allen, now has 18 gigs in his system.

SM: I remember the first film we did on a digital workstation was with a 1-gig drive and a backup 540-meg one…now we’ve got 30 or 40 gigs of storage space.

AM: Where do you see your business going beyond the rapid technological change?

SM: When I started there were only about three places to mix in Toronto, and then, you had to own your own splicer. Now there are just dozens of editing facilities for film or television.

AM: So Hollywood North will continue to flourish.

SM: I think if the dollar goes up it could kill it, because we’ve really become a service-based industry. Alliance-Atlantis are very much a player in the global picture, but a lot of the other stuff that comes up from the states could stay there. We’ve been through that before, but certainly the technical expertise and creative juices that flow out of Toronto will always be applied to our indigenous films.

AM: And you think more and more films like The Sweet Hereafter will be made in Canada?

SM: Certainly, all the ingredients are there. If you look at Atom Egoyan’s new film [Felicia’s Journey], he’s caught the attention of Hollywood, or certainly international producers or backers, so not all the money is coming out of Canada, but from the U.S. or Britain.

AM: So, are you just about to start on that?

SM: Just about to. You know, without Telefilm and other Canadian agencies, he might not have gotten this far. The nice thing is that there are quite a few independent film makers for whom the common thread is that they’re able to see their vision right through, where I don’t know that the studio system allows that. There are so many people [in Hollywood] with their spoons in the pots.

AM: I understand. My pet peeve with films is bad scripts.

SM: I think what happens a lot of the time is that a script is over-developed…too many processes after the original vision, so that by the end it’s totally homogenized.

I think the biggest problem we have in Canada is wrestling against the massive American distribution system. Alliance has become enough of a force that they’re able to play on that level, but the number of films I’ve worked on or that have been made in this country that just don’t get seen is staggering. There are a lot of great independent films that just don’t get to market…you can’t even find them in the video stores. Hopefully that’s started to change.

Editor’s Note: At Cannes 99, Felicia’s Journey, though praised by critics and loved by audiences, was shut out of the awards by a jury adjudicated by David Cronenberg.

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