Mixing Amelia’s Letter

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Nico Metten works on the mix of Amelia’s Letter

Yesterday I attended the final sound mix for Amelia’s Letter, the short supernatural drama I directed last year for writer Steve Deery and producer Sophia Ramcharan. This is always one of my favourite parts of the filmmaking process; all the hard work of generating the material is done, and it’s just about arranging those materials in the right proportions to create a whole larger than the sum of its parts.

Mixing is harder the more tracks of sound you have. It took Neil Douek and I forever to wrangle the layers and layers of audio I’d laid into a decent mix for Soul Searcher (listen to a breakdown here), and The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot was a delicate balancing act with swordfight SFX, dialogue and a big orchestral score all going on at the same time (watch an interview with the mixer here). Stop/Eject, being quieter and less complex, was a breeze to mix (read the blog post here).

Amelia’s Letter was a little more complex than Stop/Eject, but not much. It was my third collaboration with gifted sound designer Henning Knoepfel, and my fourth with the equally gifted composer Scott Benzie, who both gave us excellent material to work with. In the pilot’s seat for the mix was Nico Metten of Picture Sound. Although I hadn’t worked with him before, he was very much in tune with what I wanted from the mix. In a nutshell, the brief was: make it scary.

If Amelia’s Letter succeeds, and I think it does, it should be by turns unnervingly scary and heart-breakingly sad. I did research the horror genre when I embarked on the project, but for the latter stages of preproduction and during the shoot (basically, whenever I was dealing with the actors) the important thing was that the characters worked and were empathetic; the sadness would naturally follow. I tried to avoid thinking of the film in horror terms at all during that stage.

Recording one last sound effect...
Recording one last sound effect…

But once we got to post, it was time to start thinking about creeping out the audience, and downright scaring them. As the last stage in the audio chain, the mix needed to play a big part in this. Nico agreed, and had already added some extra creepy sounds by the time I arrived. As we went through, we added in more impacts to the jumpy moments, not forgetting to keep things quiet in the run-up to those moments to make them seem even louder by comparison.

Just as, during the picture edit, Tristan and I had been reminded of the power of NOT cutting, during the sound mix I was reminded of the power of subtracting sound, rather than always adding it. In a couple of key places we discovered that muting the first few bars of a music cue to let the SFX do the job made for much more impact when the music did come in.

But the mix wasn’t just about making it scary. The film climaxes with a sequence of flashbacks and revelations that was tricky to edit and still wasn’t quite doing what I wanted. It was only at the scoring and mixing stage that I was finally able to realise that a clear transition was needed halfway through the sequence; as I said to Nico, “At this point it needs to stop being scary and become sad.” In practice this meant dropping out the dissonant sounds and the ominous rumbling, even dropping out the ambience, and letting Scott’s beautifully sad music carry the rest of the scene.

It never ceases to amaze me how the story shines through in the end. You hack away at this lump of stone all through production and post, and at the end you’ve revealed a sculpture that – though in detail it may be different – follows all the important lines of the writer’s original blueprint.
Now begins the process of entering Amelia’s Letter into festivals…

Amelia’s Letter is a Stella Vision production in association with Pondweed Productions. Find out more at facebook.com/ameliasletter

Mixing Amelia’s Letter

Recording Stop/Eject’s Music

Lorna Davies on cello. Photo: Owain Uylet
Lorna Davies on cello. Photo: Owain Uylet
Heather License on violin. Photo: Owain Uylet
Heather License on violin. Photo: Owain Uylet

Yesterday saw the recording of Stop/Eject‘s score at Worcester College of Technology with four members of the Film Orchestra.

Recording music is similar in some ways to shooting a film. Time is precious, and the composer (or director) is constantly having to make judgement calls: do we record another take, or do we live with what we’ve got and move on? Shall I play that take back to check it’s okay or is it quicker just to record another one? Do we go from the top again or pick it up part way through? Can I fix it in post? Am I giving the performers what they need in order to do their best work? Is what we’re doing going to work with the other elements it will be combined with later?

As is often the case, recording started very slowly and gradually sped up (out of necessity!) as the day went on, eventually finishing just in time before the caretaker locked up the building. It was fantastic to hear the score come to life and, as with our first collaboration (Soul Searcher), Scott provided more than one musical moment that made me all tingly. He will now mix the live violin, cello, flute and clarinet with a sample-based piano and other instruments to create the final music tracks.

You can see a very brief video clip of the music being performed on Stop/Eject’s Facebook page (Facebook account not required to view).

Engineers Kurt Teale (left) and Billy Craythorne in the control room. Photo: Owain Uylet
Engineers Kurt Teale (left) and Billy Craythorne in the control room. Photo: Owain Uylet

Big thanks to everyone who made yesterday possible: composer/conductor Scott Benzie, cellist Lorna Davies, violinist Heather License, flautist Sue Salsbury, clarinettist Jack Suttie, WCT staff Max Alexandre, Billy Craythorne and Craig Ward, student Kurt Teale, behind-the-scenes camera op Owain Uylet, and Jane Whittle, Simon Munn, Paul Bellamy and David Staiger for helping me get in touch with the right people to arrange everything.

If you’re in the Worcester area and you’re a musician who’s into your film scores, check out the Film Orchestra’s Facebook page.

Elsewhere in the world of Stop/Eject, the last of the visual effects shots are being mopped up, I’ve just heard the first draft of the sound design, Andréa Kristina’s song for the end credits is almost finished, and the last two pick-ups have been shot by Chris Newman and Sophie.

Recording Stop/Eject’s Music

The Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things

Paul Bellamy rehearses Colla Voce ahead of the choral recording for Soul Searcher in January 2005. Photo: Mike Staiger
Paul Bellamy rehearses Colla Voce ahead of the choral recording for Soul Searcher in January 2005. Photo: Mike Staiger

Next week we record the music for Stop/Eject at Worcester College of Technology with players from the Film Orchestra. I think it’s a shame that many low budget filmmakers are content to let the composer create the music in their home studio, often without using any real instruments at all. It’s true that it takes a little more organisation to record a score with live players, but the richness and authenticity of the sound you get is well worth the effort.

Let me explain how I was able to arrange this recording session, because it demonstrates the importance of building your contacts.

Once the score was written, I started with a simple shout-out on Facebook for musicians. This was seen by Simon Munn, who is part of my social media network because I gave a talk at the Worcestershire Film Festival, which he organises, last year. There are many benefits of giving talks, paid or otherwise (which I touched on in a previous post) and making contacts is one.

Simon put me in touch with Jane Whittle at the Film Orchestra, a group of amateur musicians based in Worcester. Several of their members expressed an interest in performing the music, so I knew that I needed to find a recording studio in Worcester to make it as convenient as possible for them.

Recording Colla Voce. David Staiger can be seen at the keyboard (top right). Photo: Mike Staiger
Recording Colla Voce. David Staiger can be seen at the keyboard (top right). Photo: Mike Staiger

Years ago I hung out with some friends while they were recording a demo for their band (King Monkey) at Worcester College of Technology, so I knew there was a studio there. I contacted Paul Bellamy and David Staiger, both Worcester-based musicians who were involved in the recording of Soul Searcher’s score back in 2005. I figured one of them probably had some link to the college and I was right; Paul works there. He put me in touch with the Head of Performing Arts and Music Technology, who was very enthusiastic about the whole idea, and from there it was just a case of working out the details. In return I offered to give a free guest lecture at the college, citing my prior experience at Hereford College of Art, the SAE Institute, etc.

There are two morals to this story. One is the value of networking, making new contacts and maintaining those contacts (which Facebook makes it really easy to do now). The second is, if you’re a young filmmaker struggling to get stuff made, remember that collaboration not only benefits your current project; you could be sowing seeds which will help your future projects too.

The Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things

More Random Updates from the World of Stop/Eject

Here are some more disjointed updates from the post-production of Stop/Eject:

Scott Benzie has written all of the score now. A few cues just need tweaking before we start to think about the logistics of recording it with live players.

The ADR session has been organised for next week. Standing variously for Automated Dialogue Replacement or Additional Dialogue Recording, ADR is the process of dubbing lines because of intrusive background noise or to adjust a performance, or even to add entirely new lines to clarify story points. This will be the first time the principal cast have been reunited since the shoot almost a year ago, and we’ll be taking the opportunity to record some extra bits and pieces for podcasts, DVD extras and sponsor rewards. Lots more news on that to come in the near future.

A VFX shot in progress by Mary Lapena
A VFX shot in progress by Mary Lapena

Work is well underway on visual effects. As expected, there has been a certain amount of attrition amongst the VFX artists, as paying projects understandably take priority. Nonetheless, several key shots involving frozen time and cloned cassette tapes are finished or nearly finished.

The opening and closing titles are being designed by Andy Roberts of speakersfive, who recently laid out the lovely illustrated script books for sponsors.

Two of the main extra features for the DVD and Bluray are near completion, with work on the menus underway and some commentaries to record in the coming weeks. Sophie Black and Chris Newman will soon be shooting another featurette in their part of the world, along with a last couple of pick-ups for Stop/Eject itself.

On Sunday I gave a talk about the whole process of making the film to the lovely folks at CEMRIAC in Worcester, and next Monday The Courtyard in Hereford will screen the trailer as part of Borderlines Film Festival.

In a nutshell, it’s all happening.

More Random Updates from the World of Stop/Eject

Random Events on Stop/Eject

Mystery grave
Mystery grave

Here are some of the assorted things I’ve been doing on Stop/Eject lately.

On Wednesday I returned to the Hereford cemetery where, almost a decade ago, in the small hours of a cold and rainy October night, I shot a scene from Soul Searcher. This time I was just there to photograph gravestones for a VFX shot.

On the same day compositing/rotoscoping artist David Robinson delivered the first offical VFX shot, a run-of-the-mill wire removal but extremely well done.

On Friday I recorded this thank you message for everyone who sponsored the project:

Apologies to anyone whose name I’ve mispronounced.

Yesterday Scott Benzie delivered a demo of his beautiful theme for Kate. Much as I liked the first piece he wrote – listen to it here – I felt it emphasised the film’s fantasy aspects too much, and this new piece instead concentrates solely on drama and emotions.

This morning I filmed the tape recorder for probably the last time – not for Stop/Eject itself, but for the DVD/Bluray menus. Tomorrow the recorder gets sent off to Henning Knoepfel so he can record some new foley effects with it (that’s with it, not on it). Henning and I had a great conversation about the direction the sound should take and I’m very excited about how it will turn out. More on that on this blog in due course.

Random Events on Stop/Eject

Music Cue Sheet

If your film gets picked up by a distributor, one of the many delivery materials they’ll ask for is a music cue sheet. If you’re unsure what one is or how to lay one out, take a look at Soul Searcher‘s as an example. See the Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook by Chris Jones and Genevieve Joliffe for more information on music cue sheets. For more on distribution and delivery materials, read this post about what to look for in a distribution contract.

Download Soul Searcher’s music cue sheet (.doc, 84kb)

Music Cue Sheet

Scott Benzie: Composer Extraordinaire

Scott Benzie conducts the Worcestershire Symphony Orchestra as they perform his score for Soul Searcher.
Scott Benzie conducts the Worcestershire Symphony Orchestra as they perform his score for Soul Searcher.

Today’s post is an introduction to Scott Benzie, composer of Soul Searcher, The Dark Side of the Earth and now Stop/Eject. (The series on VFX planning will continue next week.)

After becoming interested in music at a relatively late age, thanks to a synthesizer Christmas present and the inspiration of James Horner’s Krull soundtrack, Scott majored in music at Notthingham Trent University. In 2002 he wrote an impressive orchestral score for Jim Groom’s noir feature Room 36, conducting the Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra and recording all 50 minutes of music in a single day. Scott repeated this feat for Soul Searcher three years later, after responding to an advert I posted on Shooting People for a fully orchestral John Williams-style score – a goal which many people mocked as naïve or over-ambitious, but not Scott.

The composer’s other feature film credits include Ten Dead Men (dir. Ross Boyask), Fear Eats the Seoul (dir. Nick Calder), and Dinner with my Sisters (dir. Michael Hapeshis) which was released in UK cinemas last November. Several of Scott’s soundtracks have been released in their own right, including Room 36 which is available on CD from KeepMoving Records.

Scott recently took his first crack at some music for Stop/Eject and this is the result:

This is rough, unmixed and all done with samples. The finished version will, I hope, be recorded with live players. On Soul Searcher  we were able to persuade a choir and a symphony orchestra to perform Scott’s score for us. Here’s a clip from Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher covering the music recording, one of the few things that didn’t go horribly wrong during Soul Searcher’s creation. (Remember that you can watch Going to Hell in full for a small charge at neiloseman.com/soulsearcher and Soul Searcher itself completely free on the same site.)

Visit Scott’s website at www.scottbenzie.co.uk

Scott Benzie: Composer Extraordinaire

Free Music, Stock Footage and Sound Effects

A clip from epicslowmo.com
A clip from epicslowmo.com

For low-to-no-budget filmmakers, it wasn’t so long ago that stock footage and sound effects were out of our price range, and the only way to get music legally was to have someone compose it specially. Today the situation is very different, with plenty of sites out there offering material that’s not only free to download but royalty-free too. (This is an important distinction. Always read the license carefully to ensure that no further fees are due when the material is used in the territories, media and manner you wish to use it.)

Here are some of my favourite sites for free stuff. Again, please check the FAQs and licenses on these sites to make sure your intended useage is approved. If you’re serious about filmmaking, you’ll want to commission a composer, sound designer and second unit to generate original material for you, but we all have times when we need a quicker, off-the-shelf solution, and these are the places that help me out in those times.

Stock Footage

  • Detonation Films have a large number of explosions, smoke, debris and fire effects shot against blue, green or black for compositing into your own FX shots. Many are free, though there is a small charge for some. One downside is that, due to the site being quite old, the material is all in standard definition.
  • Epic Slow Mo have 20 HD clips for download, including money burning, TVs being smashed up, insects flying and even a wet dog shaking itself off – all in super-slow motion.
  • The official Hubble Space Telescope website has a number of “Hubblecasts” and other videos which you can download and use bits of in your own productions. It’s a great place to get CG animations of the sun and other heavenly bodies for your micro-budget sci-fi epic.
  • The Prelinger Archives are a collection of vintage corporate and amateur films, including such gems as Joan Avoids a Cold: A Health Film for Children (1947). These might be useful to a documentary maker looking for footage to illustrate a period or just for comic punctuation. There are even some clips from old movies.

Music

  • Incompetech is the home of composer Kevin MacLeod (not to be confused with Kevin McCloud from off of Grand Designs, or anyone from off of Highlander). Throw a stone on YouTube and you’ll hit six hundred videos that have his music on, because he gives it away completely free. All the music on the Stop/Eject pre-production podcasts and on my comedy documentary Video8 is from Incompetech.
  • CC Mixter is a site where musicians can remix each other’s work in an endless creative dialogue. It’s also very handy for filmmakers, since the Creative Commons agreement allows you to use the tracks in your productions (though beware that some tracks prohibit commercial use). I recently edited a film set at a party and we got all the background music from CC Mixter.
  • Jewel Beat‘s music isn’t free, but at 99 cents per track it’s as near as damn. It’s surprisingly high quality too, with many orchestral tracks (albeit using samples) that wouldn’t be out of place in a big movie. This is where I got the music for Stop/Eject’s trailer from.

Sound Effects

  • Free SFX has a wide range of noises and is always my first port of call when I’m hunting for a sound.
  • Partners in Rhyme has a collection of royalty free and public domain sound effects including animals, instruments, and human sounds and phrases.
  • Sound Jay is another handy library of free sounds.
  • All Music Library has a small collection of free sound effects.
  • Sweet Sound Effects has plenty of epic action sounds like helicopters, gunshots and even Star Trek-style transporter beams. Nowhere on the site does it specifically say these aren’t actual Star Trek sounds that have been ripped off though…

Do you know of any more sites I could add to this list? If so, leave a comment.

Free Music, Stock Footage and Sound Effects