Carving out the Couplets

By Comer, Brooke | American Cinematographer, July 1992 | Go to article overview

Carving out the Couplets


Comer, Brooke, American Cinematographer


When Orson Welles was filming Othello in the late 1940s, it was standard to shoot the original production sound directly onto 35mm optical negative. This scratch track was believed to have been used for the looping of all of Othello, a practice not uncommon in European films as a way to accommodate many different languages. After looping and building complete sound effects and music tracks, and again recording the sound on optical negative, the sound was mixed or dubbed. Then a generic music and effects track was made. Both optical negatives, the final mix, and the M&E were among the original audio elements located by Michael Dawson.

Universal's staffers, including supervising editor John Fogelson and sound supervisor/ re-recording mixer Ed Golya, were originally asked to clean up the optical final mix and augment some of the sound effects for stereo. A completely new soundtrack was also in the works, but the Universal contingent was well prepared. "We've restored old wire recordings," says Murray Alien, former president of Universal, "though nothing as mammoth as this."

Saks came to Universal with only the composite track. The big problem was sync. During the looping process of the early 1950s, the Shakespearean actors delivered brilliant readings in the studio. Alas, these readings rarely matched the performances on film. Some of the looping, it is suspected, was done wild. It is known that Welles himself looped at least two of the characters, tf not more. The original dialogue editor, given the existing technology of the time, could only do so much to restore sync.

Saks and Dawson asked the Universal team if it was possible to recover the sync of the dialogue. Because of music and effects under the dialogue, the task could be accomplished only if the original dialogue tracks were found; the tracks would make it possible to stretch and compress syllables and remix the new dialogue with the original M&E in order to reduce the amount of sync distraction inherent in the original mix. No original dialogue tracks were found, however, leaving the restoration team wondering if the sync could be improved with the elements at hand. The Universal task force thought they could try by carving out the dialogue from the original mix. Fortunately, the music and effects were mixed low, underneath dialogue. The music was re-recorded and the effects were augmented with additional ambience for surround channels, which would help mask any changes occurring under the resynced dialogue.

Five mixers - Golya, Lucas Bower, Bob Bennett, Steve Wilke and Terry Shilling-carved and re-synced dialogue with the help of assistants Dave Lewis and Tim Reisig. Alien oversaw the project and kept the flow going. First, optical positives were made of the original soundtrack. Ten individual reels were made and transferred to DAT in sync with time code so that the film soundtrack could be retired. Then, the digitally based elements were transferred to workstations - two New England Digital Direct-toDisk systems and three AMS Audiophiles.

The carving process took six months and was done via the development of cues within the DAWs (digital audio workstations). Re-syncing was achieved by time-scale modification of individual syllables or phrases. Many times there were words in the soundtrack that didn't exist at all in the picture. Each reel was re-synced about four times, subject to approval by Fogelson and Golya.

After the carving and resyncing process, the prepared tracks were then transferred to DAT and sent to Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California, for Sonic Solution's NoNoise processing, which was handled by engineer Scott Levitlin. Videotapes of each reel, with time code and the resynced track, were then given to Michael Pendowski, the project's music director. …

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