Distribution and the M&E (Music and Effects) Mix

The Japanese cover of Soul Searcher / Blade X
The Japanese cover of Soul Searcher / Blade X

While in Japan recently, I was finally able to get hold of that country’s version of my 2005 feature film, Soul Searcher. I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk a little bit about international distribution and the mysterious M&E mix.

The story of an ordinary guy who gets trained to be the new Grim Reaper, Soul Searcher was picked up for distribution by a small UK company called Wysiwyg Films (now defunct). After releasing it on DVD in the UK, they sold all the foreign rights (much to my chagrin) to American sales agents Loose Cannon. Loose Cannon put out a US DVD, aiming to misleadingly tap the horror market by adding a splash of blood to the cover art, along with a stock photo of a random hooded guy with glowing eyes.

Loose Cannon then sub-sub-licensed the rights to five other territories: Benelux, Russia, Argentina, Thailand and Japan. Russian pirates hilariously dubbed the film into their own language (see some clips here), but the only territory to officially dub rather than subtitle the movie was Japan.

Presumably because of the film’s numerous martial arts fights, the Japanese distributors paid more for the film than any other country: $24,750. I know this from the Loose Cannon sales reports that were eventually forwarded to me by Wysiwyg. The only reason I know anything else about the Japanese release is from extensive googling (using the actors’ names as search terms proved most fruitful) which led me to the Amazon.jp page for the DVD a few years ago.

At first I thought I’d made a mistake. The cover art displayed on the page was completely new to me, showing an unfamiliar man holding a huge sword (a weapon never used by Soul Searcher’s hero). Beneath that was the title, in both Japanese and English: Blade X. It was only after Google Translating the page that the customer reviews confirmed this was indeed my very own Soul Searcher. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reviews complained of the film’s lack of Wesley Snipes, the lack of correlation between the movie’s scythe-wielding hero and the cover’s sword-bearing imposter, plus many other flaws that are common to the English version!

Sadly, this is how low budget film sales work. The distributors know that the films are unlikely to generate much positive word of mouth, so they resort to tricking consumers into buying them with misleading covers and references to more successful films.

Left to right: the UK, US and Russian covers for Soul Searcher
Left to right: the UK, US and Russian covers for Soul Searcher. The Russian one is my favourite.

Anyway, when I saw that Amazon’s tech specs listed a Japanese audio track, I was desperate to get my hands on the DVD. But I could never find a seller who would import it for less than an eye-watering £40, so I waited, and in June this year I finally visited Japan and bought a copy.

But how does dubbing work? Well, amongst the delivery materials that a sales agent will require when you sell them your film will be an M&E mix – that’s Music and Effects. What this means is that you supply a version of the film which contains music, sound effects, foley, atmospheres, everything except the dialogue. This is one of the reasons for the existence of foley (footsteps, clothing rustles and other mundane sounds added to the film in postproduction); if you relied on the footsteps recorded along with the dialogue on set, those footsteps would disappear when you muted the dialogue tracks to produce the M&E mix.

Some of the buses in the Logic mix of Soul Searcher
Some of the buses in the Logic mix of Soul Searcher

It’s always worth running off an M&E version when mixing a feature, whatever you feel its chances of achieving distribution are. Trying to create an M&E track after the fact, when the mixer has moved on to other projects, the source files may no longer exist, etc, etc, is likely to be a real headache. Instead, take five minutes in your mixing session to mute the dialogue tracks and bounce it out.

Along with the M&E mix, sales agents will require a dialogue list – essentially a transcription of the film, so it can be translated ready for dubbing or subtitling.

The following video compares some clips from Soul Searcher, showing the original English versions, followed by the M&E track, then the Japanese dub.

The Japanese distributors made a good job of dubbing Soul Searcher. As far as I can tell, the voice cast seem to give decent performances, and the mixer has blended everything carefully together. I wonder how much this dub cost them? Undoubtedly, factoring in the manufacturing and advertising costs, and the $24,750 they paid to Loose Cannon for the rights, they will have spent more on the film than my investors and I did in making it (£28,000).

If you want to know more about distribution contracts, check out my post on what to look for in one, and for the full story of Soul Searcher’s financing, expenditure, and distribution revenue, look no further than this exhaustive, no-holds-barred video…

Distribution and the M&E (Music and Effects) Mix

The Importance of Sound Design

Here’s a quick demonstration of the huge difference that sound design can make. This video contains a scene from the final cut of Soul Searcher, but still with the original production sound, followed by the same scene after the processes of sound editing, design and mixing were completed.

The music makes a big difference, of course, but putting that to one side, the sound effects have really brought the scene to life. And bear in mind that I did the sound design on this film. If a proper, experienced sound designer had done it, I’m sure it would be a hundred times better still.

First of all, the location, the villain’s lair, has been given a character through atmos tracks. The fluorescent hum is actually a combination of an electricity substation, recorded outside a local shopping centre here in Hereford late one night, and my own voice humming, layered up several times. The human element adds some randomness and makes the sound more alive.

There’s also an airy sound which is my mum’s gas oven, representing a Bunsen Burner that’s established in the room earlier in the film. This high frequency sound lightens everything up and gives it a sense of space.

The thick chains which Danté is carrying were ingeniously made by production designer Ian Tomlinson out of rolled-up newspaper. Clearly it was necessary to replace the light, crinkly noises this made on set with the heavy clanks of genuine metal chain. These were sourced from an online library called Sounddogs.

The smaller chain was real metal, but you’ll notice in the production audio that what little sound it makes is weak and off-mike. This is absolutely normal; your sound recordist’s job is to get the dialogue as clearly as possible; everything else can be re-recorded in post and therefore each element can be miked closely for the best possible sound. Using a length of the chain which I had kept from production, I recorded the sounds of it being handled and dragged over the lip of the chest using a coffee table in my living room.

The chains are the MacGuffin of the story, so giving them thick, clean, satisfying sounds is vital to cement them as key elements in the audience’s mind.

Ideally the chest used as a prop would have been more ancient-looking, but that was the best one we were able to get on our budget. However, adding the sound of a friend’s squeaky bathroom doorknob as Danté opens the lid helped to age prop the little.

Finally, once all these lovely clean sound effects were track-laid, they were all treated with reverb by mixer Neil Douek, to help them feel real, to tie them all together, and to convey the scale of Danté’s lair.

How have you used sound design in your own films to help tell the story?

The Importance of Sound Design

How to Make a Fantasy Action Movie for £28,000

The last of the Soul Searcher anniversary featurettes is a completely frank and open breakdown of the budget. Find out how I raised the money, what I offered my investors, what distribution deals were put on the table, how much the film made worldwide and how much of that money came back to me (you may be shocked). Most importantly, discover exactly what was spent on each element of the budget, from travel and catering to make-up and lighting.

Corrections: 1. UKTI stands for UK Trade & INVESTMENT, not Industry; 2. After completing the programme I discovered two more distribution contracts I was offered, both from Californian companies. Neither offered an advance. One proposed taking a 25% cut of the profits, the other 40%; 3. I misspelt Kevin MacLeod’s name, apologies. Visit his website at http://www.incompetech.com

For more information on film distribution I recommend The Guerrilla Filmmaker’s Movie Blueprint by Chris Jones.

How to Make a Fantasy Action Movie for £28,000

Soul Searcher: Sound Design Breakdown

This video takes you through the many layers of sound created for Soul Searcher’s big battle scene in the villain’s lair, with subtitles explaining the creative process of choosing and recording the sounds. (This was originally an interactive bonus feature on the DVD release.)

Soul Searcher: Sound Design Breakdown

Soul Searcher: Deconstructing Props

Production designer Ian Tomlinson and assistant Vic Perry demonstrate how some of Soul Searcher’s props were made, including the drawbridge chain fashioned from rolled up newspaper and the plasma grenade that started life as a Jif lemon.

Soul Searcher: Deconstructing Props

Soul Searcher: 10 Minute Lighting Masterclass

Continuing the tenth anniversary releases of the Soul Searcher DVD extras, this week we have the 10 Minute Lighting Masterclass. It’s a quick guide to some of the basic set-ups and techniques used to give the film its cinematic, moody look. Since making this featurette digital cameras have improved vastly and so has my lighting, so these days I would light more subtly with fill and soft sources, but the basic building blocks in this video are still valid. Later in the week I’ll expand on some of those building blocks here on the blog.

Soul Searcher: 10 Minute Lighting Masterclass

Soul Searcher: Low Tech FX

In this 2005 featurette I break down many of the visual effects in my feature film Soul Searcher, revealing how they were created using old school techniques, like pouring milk into a fishtank for apocalyptic clouds. Watch the shots being built up layer by layer, starting with mundane elements like the water from a kitchen tap or drinking straws stuck to a piece of cardboard.

Soul Searcher: Low Tech FX

Soul Searcher Bonus Features to be Released

My feature film Soul Searcher started shooting on October 20th 2003. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the six week shoot, I’ll be releasing one of the DVD extras online every week starting this Sunday with the acclaimed feature-length documentary Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher.

Going to Hell was chosen by Raindance as one of the six best behind-the-scenes docs ever, alongside classics like Heart of Darkness and Lost in La Mancha. Here is the trailer…

In subsequent weeks you can look forward to informative featurettes on lighting, props and martial arts choreography, a breakdown of the sound design of a key scene and a look at how some of the visual effects were created in incredibly low-tech ways using ordinary household items.

Haven’t seen Soul Searcher? Check it out below.

Update: Going to Hell is now online.

Soul Searcher Bonus Features to be Released

What Could Have Been – or Could It?

A publicity shot of me from 2005
A publicity shot of me from 2005

I recently came across some unpublished blog entries I wrote back in April 2005 when I was trying to sell my feature film Soul Searcher. It’s amazing how close I seemed at the time to getting my big break. It just goes to show you how big a pinch of salt you have to take what sales agents tell you with.

The Secret Diary of Neil Oseman, aged 24¾

April 26th 2005

I’ve decided to start up this secret parallel journal because distributors are now getting interested in the film and from a business point of view it’s not a good idea to be putting too much info about offers and stuff on the website. Hopefully this journal will one day see the light of day.

Today the number of sales agents/distributors planning to make an offer on the film went up to four. Echelon Entertainment (Burbank, sales agents) and Foundation Films (also California, sales agents) joined Third Millennium (London – the only UK distributor interested so far) and CinemaVault Releasing (Toronto, sales agent) in the ranks of the keen. CinemaVault sent me through the official Offer paperwork today but I haven’t read it yet.

The main reason I wanted to write this secret journal is to tell you about the e-mail I just got from Echelon. They reckon there’s a US TV show called Soul Searchers and they want to change my movie’s title to “Grim”. Who the hell’s going to buy a film called Grim? I politely replied that I couldn’t find any mention of this TV series on the net and that it might not be wise to change the film’s title after all the publicity it has had.

Another great story of sales agent stupidity which I couldn’t possibly put on the site is that CinemaVault reckoned SS cost $500,000 USD to make. Hahahahaha! Christ, I’d be seriously worried if SS was the best I could do for half a million bucks. [It actually cost £28,000.]

I just read the CinemaVault contract [see my previous post for an analysis of this]. The list of delivery requirements is five pages long. I estimate producing all the materials to be a two month full-time job. Most ludicrous of all is they want a “cut by cut description of the action in the Picture” and T/C in & outs for EVERY LINE OF DIALOGUE.

April 28th 2005

I just found out that CinemaVault want to push for a theatrical release. Fucking YEAAAH!!!

[An hour or so later…]

Okay, now I’ve calmed down a bit.  I’ve recorded my thoughts on video for Going To Hell and I thought I should put some more in writing, only now I don’t know what to write.

Alright, here are the thoughts going round in my head right now:

  1. This is the FIRST company to make me a formal offer. They’re talking about probably a small US release, but what if another company proposes something bigger?
  2. SS hasn’t been to any festivals except Borderlines yet. That could be where the big boys pick it up. Surely I shouldn’t sign before it’s had a chance to go to Telluride, Raindance, etc? Though who knows if it’ll get in.
  3. Cannes of course is coming up. Perhaps I can meet Michael Paszt [from CinemaVault] face to face there. Should I fess up about the budget? (He thinks it cost nearly US$500,000.) After all, the fact that I made it for so little is a major publicity point.
  4. What will happen when I tell CinemaVault that there’s no 35mm print? Surely they’ve guessed that already, but what if they’re not prepared to bear the cost of it? Can I raise the necessary funds to pay for it, even with a sales agent behind me?
  5. These are HUGE, HUGE things I’m dealing with. Should I get someone who’s business savvy to negotiate this stuff?
  6. Who framed Roger Rabbit?
  7. Doesn’t the fact that I’ve had this offer mean I should be able to get more? I mean, now I can say I’ve been offered a theatrical release – surely other sales agents/distributors will come running? Can  I somehow use this to break into Hollywood?

The journal also includes a few previously unpublished thoughts from my trip to Cannes the following month.

I was feeling frustrated that I must seem to buyers like another punk kid with another lame movie. I had to tell them it cost $400,000 to make – if I’d have told them the truth they would either have ripped me off or not given me the time of day. The problem is that it’s not a good advert for me. If SS was the best film I could make for $400,000 I’d be seriously worried. I want to show them the Guardian article – explain how the fact that it was made for so little should be the cornerstone of the publicity campaign – the double-disc DVD, the making-of book. The El Mariachi effect. This is NOT just another low budget film. But I know that just another low budget film was all these people wanted.

Ultimately most of the interest trickled away. After initial enthusiasm and talk of theatrical releases, the sales agents retreated to much smaller offers (“maybe we’ll do a theatrical but probably not”) or stopped returning my calls. Soul Searcher failed to get into any major festivals and was released only on DVD and VOD by a small UK company that went bust shortly before the distribution term expired last year.

The moral of the story is that it can be extremely exciting to be offered a distribution deal, but these companies will have no qualms about leading you on. Most hope you’ll sign quickly, but you should never do that. Ask them tough questions – many won’t even reply and the rest probably won’t give you the answers you want, but you must know what you’re getting into when you sign away your baby.

What Could Have Been – or Could It?