Documentary films stand or fall on the strength of their soundtracks — and when you are recording the emotional outpourings of a world leader, there are no second takes.
"I've always thought that sound is as important, if not more important than the pictures,” says Rich Symons. "Even if you screw up the camera shot, you can stick in a piece of archive footage. But the sound recordist is absolutely key. Given the choice between using the very best sound recordist you can afford or the very best cameraman you can afford, or even using the camera yourself, I'd be very tempted to say make sure you get that sound man right, because you can't do anything without him. You don't get second chances when you've got a president breaking down in tears, you have to get it down with every single nuance.”
Rich Symons has more experience than most of reducing presidents to tears. SOS readers with long memories might remember Rich from his days with one of this country's leading dealers of recording media to studios and video post-production houses. When demand for two-inch tape and DATs began to dry up, however, he moved on from the studio supplies business to pursue his dream of running an independent film company. Spirit Level Film have spent the last few years tracking down the world leaders responsible for various history-making events and unveiling the personal contexts — and costs — of their decisions in a series of feature-length documentaries. Parts one and two of The Price Of Kings focus, respectively, on Presidents Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres, while a forthcoming third episode brings to life the extraordinary story of Oscar Arias, former President of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
It's the sort of project that, in this day and age, might well be too ambitious or risky to be embarked upon by an established broadcaster, so it's fortunate that today's technology made it feasible for a relatively small independent company to pursue it. "Francis Ford Coppola was doing it 20 or 30 years ago at Zoetrope, so it's not unique, but it's much more doable now, because you don't need to spend more than five grand to own the equipment to produce a fully broadcastable film. We tend to hire the cameras in, just because they go out of date so quickly. But we own all the sound equipment, because that doesn't date nearly as quickly, and all the editing equipment. So we do pretty much everything in-house, with the exception of the very final stages of post-production with sound and grading.”
Through tenacity and hard work, Rich and his team of researchers secured access both to Peres and Arias, and other central figures such as Arafat's widow Suha. They also persuaded many former military and paramilitary leaders to talk on camera, including highly controversial and understandably reclusive figures from the Arab-Israeli conflict, some of whom had to be interviewed under less than ideal circumstances across the globe. Knowing these opportunities would never be repeated, Rich set out to make sure that nothing could go wrong. This meant selecting the right equipment, and hiring the best people to work it.
"There were some fairly unusual technical requirements at the sound end of things for this project. Unlike a feature film, you can't say 'Oh, can we do that bit again?' So we had to be relatively rigorous about the kit we spec'ed, because of reliability issues. I can't overestimate the importance of being really diligent with that stuff at the very beginning. We were shooting in rainforests [in Costa Rica], deserts and so on, and everything had to be bulletproof.
"There was a process where we were testing different bits of kit, not only for the sound but to see if we thought they would be reliable enough. Throughout filming and post-production, it was important to make sure that whenever we were giving notes on what we were hearing, that all the parties who were talking to each other were hearing the same thing. You need some kind of reference point, and in our case we had to find a pair of headphones that everyone was comfortable with, that were good enough and worked with things like iPhones and laptops [which were widely used for editing and previewing material away from headquarters] especially when the production spans several continents. There was a good two or three weeks where we had manufacturers sending us different sets of headphones from across the range. We ended up with [Sennheiser] HD650s, and then we used [Sennheiser] IE8 in-ears with our iPhones. They're not as open as the 650s but they're pretty good. I think there is a family sound to a manufacturer, and it's a big help.”
Rich's desire to ensure the programmes sounded as good as possible would eventually lead him to involve legendary music mixer Bob Clearmountain at the post-production stages. Meanwhile, the job of capturing audio on location was placed in the safe hands of leading sound recordist Simon Bishop. His role is a specialised one, demanding a unique blend of rigorous attention to detail, diplomacy, and the ability to adapt instantly to different circumstances.
"We usually arrive and are shown to a room which will be where we are to do the interview,” he explains. "The director and cameraman will be deciding on camera positions and so on, while I quickly assess what potential problems there might be, and ways that we might work around them. These might include traffic noises, or building noises such as air conditioning, or even that of other people working or going about their lives within the same or an adjacent building — TV in rooms nearby, secretaries answering phones, that sort of thing. Some of these noises can be dealt with — you can turn aircon or TV off, ask secretaries to not answer phones, or even unplug phones — but others, such as traffic, can be less controllable, in which case we might consider looking around for a quieter room nearby. Whatever we do, it is a good thing to be polite, but firm, to explain why, but overall to be swift in our discussions and decisions. Sometimes that's easier said than done with a head of state!
"My rule of thumb is to get the words clearly, and as painlessly as possible, bearing in mind that we may well be asking our interviewee some very probing or personal questions, in which case I don't really want to spook them with the paraphernalia of film-making — especially if they're not media-trained, like, for example, a wife or personal assistant to a president might not be.”
Although, in theory, there are times when background noise can serve as scene-setting ambience, Simon always seeks to minimise it, in order to capture the dialogue as clearly as possible. "I work on the basis that you can always add extra noise and sound effects, but it is far, far, more difficult to remove them after the event. If it is easy and convenient to make the background noise quieter on the day, I always say go for it.
"It is pretty impractical to achieve total consistency between different interviews done in different places. We generally don't get to do a recce before the event, so we pretty much have to take what we can get. That said, if we are careful about dealing with air conditioning and other extraneous noises, we are usually pretty much OK. The nightmare scenario for me is to see a shot of someone sitting in a comfy chair in a room, but to be hearing the full-on rhythm of life going on just out of view, maybe outside a window that's out of shot. You hear cars and horns and people and more, but none are seen in the serenity of the camera's shot. In that case we might have to have a bit of a rethink!”
Where possible, Simon likes to work with conventional microphones on booms, rather than lavalier or 'personal' mics. "I tend to use a short shotgun for the interviewee, as I find they tend to sound most natural and clear. It is the line of least complication for whoever we are interviewing. Personal mics tend to sound muddier, bearing in mind the less than ideal positions that we often have to put them in. They can pick up clothing noises, scratches and rustle, and, to my ear, sound unnaturally close. 'Boom is best' is my motto! A boom mic over the top usually sounds more natural, and allows the interviewee to move around within their seated position without going off-mic, while still giving me a crystal-clear recording of what they are saying.
"I generally have one mic for the interviewee and one for the interviewer. I usually set the interviewee's mic on an over-the-top boom arm. I have a neat adaptor that lets me rest my short mic pole on an unused lamp stand, over the top of the shot. I usually use a short, round-based mic stand for the interviewer's out-of-vision mic, underneath. If I have the ability to do so, I will record questions and answers to separate tracks, which allows post-production to sort out a better mix after the event. Things can get more complex when the interview's in another language, in which case you need to rig an extra microphone and headset for the translator, in another room, to feed into an earpiece for the person asking the questions. For example General Tawfiq Tirawi — at one time one of Israel's most wanted men — who we filmed in the 40-degree heat of Jericho at his Palestinian officers' training base.”
Once everything is set up to his satisfaction, Simon generally aims to find somewhere else where he can work without distracting himself or the interviewee. "My general view is to try and get everything right before we start, and then to leave them all to it and not to have to bring any attention to our being there and filming. I tend to prefer to get myself out of the way, in an adjacent room, or nearby, wherever the cables will reach and I can still be monitoring — this allows me to get on with labelling tape boxes, or to be uploading rushes to our storage computer if we are working fully digital, with files. Usually, I am able to set things up such that I'm confident that the interviewer and interviewee are unlikely to move away from my mics, so I can pretty much rely on them staying on-mic. If I can't get out of the room, I will look to find somewhere I can hide, especially from the interviewee's eyeline. I don't want to suddenly find myself in eye contact with someone just as they are revealing what goes through their mind when they send men to war, or how their relationship fell apart, or whatever. There were several times on location when the whole crew, including myself, were in tears, and it's easier if you're not in the same room!
"I try to leave things alone once the interview has started. If, however, the interviewee makes a huge change of position during the course of the interview, I might dive in and make a very quick adjustment to the mic position. Sometimes you just have to find a balance between getting the very best sound technically possible and disturbing the atmosphere mid-interview. The hardest call is when you see a president with tears in his eyes and he starts going off-mic. There are no hard and fast rules, but if I jumped up to adjust a mic at that point, I'd really run the risk of bringing them out of the moment, making them self-aware and jeopardising the rest of the interview.”
For The Price Of Kings, Simon obviously did not want to be experimenting with untried equipment, so he stuck to familiar names. "I used my pretty much standard kit. I have a Zaxcom Fusion mixer/recorder, which allows me to mix and record within the one box and to send a feed out to the camera as well. I generally used a Schoeps CMIT short shotgun mic as my main boom for the answers, and a Sennheiser MKH50 for the questions. Richard Symons wanted to build a kit for Spirit Level, the production company, to have and use for themselves, as it was likely that I might not be able to do all of their shoots. For this kit, I specified Sennheiser MKH60 and MKH50 mics, as they are rock-solid, and are pretty much universally known around the world, and of course they sound crystal clear, and work in almost any conditions. I also specified Sennheiser HD25 headphones, which are just about an industry standard, and also Sennheiser HMD26 headsets with a built-in boom mic for situations where we needed to do simultaneous translations.
"I generally record uncompressed 48kHz, 24-bit audio. I will apply bass cut as we shoot, and very occasionally a notch filter if there is something bothering me, such as a localised mains hum or whatever. My Zaxcom Fusion allows me to do this and I just feel if I can nail it on the day, then why not make it easier for post-production?”
"I send a guide track of my audio — questions on one track, and answers on the other — to the video camera as we shoot, and I also record a backup track to my Fusion recorder. As we are doing long takes — maybe 30 minutes or whatever length the camera's card can do — the easiest way to get sync is to simply clap your hands in front of the camera to give a sync mark. It is old-fashioned and simple, but it most certainly works. Because there are so few takes to sync up, it can be done in post in moments.
"It's all about the data handling these days. I label all my files with the interviewee's name as part of the filename, and they are all stamped with timecode and date metadata, so it should be pretty easy to find stuff for post-production. On The Price Of Kings, I did pretty much all of the DIT [Data Imaging Technician] work, so I would set up a folder for each day, and then a folder within for each interviewee. I would then put all picture and sound files for that interview into that folder, which made it pretty easy to find stuff for post. We made three copies of everything, and would split those hard drives between us when travelling, so that if something happened to one, there should still be other backups elsewhere. Occasionally, with some of the more politically sensitive material, we'll make even more copies and deposit them somewhere safe while we're on location.”
Each film in the series runs to approximately 75 minutes — a running length which had to be culled from perhaps 30 hours of raw interview footage, plus archive material and 'atmosphere' footage taken in and around the chosen locations. Editing was thus a massive undertaking, not simplified by the fact that interviews would often take the stories in unexpected directions. "That's the main difference between documentaries and feature films, I think,” says Rich. "With features, you've got your blueprint in your script, and then you go and shoot it — which is no mean feat in itself. But we always go into things with a blueprint that we think is the story, and inevitably it's a whole script rewrite in the edit suite. No matter what we think the story is, someone will turn around and look at you, or look away from the camera, or say something with a nuance, and it will turn everything on its head and you'll realise everything you thought you knew, had read about and researched, more often than not the accepted point of view, was wrong.
"We get all the interviews transcribed. We know what our original story was, and as we're running through our transcripts, we'll highlight stories and allocate them to different beats of the narrative. You might end up with what you think is a six-minute beat about Arafat and corruption, and you'll try and group all your interviewees' statements about that matter, and allocate them to that beat. Then we'll pop them on a timeline and slowly start whittling down a story. We use this great software called Scrivener, which is brilliant for organising long-form stuff.”
Early in the editing process for the Arafat film, Rich and his team decided that they needed some help to get the best from the audio side of things. As well as dialogue, they also had sound effects and specially written music from Stuart Briner and Tom McFarland to fit in, and it was initially for this reason that they turned to celebrated mix engineer Bob Clearmountain.
"When we got the music into the films,” explains Rich, "it started feeling like it shouldn't be background music, that it should be more of an integrated sound, and that's not easy. If you imagine a traditional film-sound post-production guy, that's not normally what they do. They normally have dialogue sitting above the music, and the music serves as a background or a cue to emotions. It felt like we were fighting with the music sometimes, and Bob, of course, is used to traditional music production, where the lyrics have to be discernible but they fit in with the music, they're integrated. We weren't sure if that could be done properly, and Bob was the guy who showed us the way.
"What takes us 20 or 30 minutes to arrive at when we're fiddling with a music cue in the edit suite, Bob does instinctively, through years of experience. He'll know if something needs to resolve, or you should fade out before the resolution to give dramatic impact afterwards. It's very tempting to chuck in the kitchen sink with a film so that every moment feels full, but then you totally lose all the dynamics you need to create drama.”
As far as Bob Clearmountain himself was concerned, this was a fresh challenge, and one he accepted with relish. "Although the actual mix of the music is similar to what I normally do, mixing a documentary film is quite different in that the music really has to take on a supporting role compared with dialogue. A great deal of the work goes into making the interview segments as intelligible as possible, with some of the accents posing an additional challenge in this case. Generally, the variance in voices and levels across the interviewees was tremendous, from the wife of a President quietly sobbing, to the guy who trained Carlos the Jackal shouting into the mic 'Yes, I declare I'm a terrorist! And proud to be a terrorist!'”
Today's multitracked music sessions can be complicated, but at least the mixer is usually dealing with only three or four minutes' worth of material at a time. With each Price Of Kings film, Clearmountain had to tackle not only multitracked music cues sometimes totalling 48 tracks or more, but also dialogue, sound effects, archive audio and background atmospheres across 75 minutes. "It can be daunting at first, but once you've run through the film a few times, you get to know where everything is. The hardest part is occasionally having to drill down to deal with something you may not have noticed was there before. Though, even then, so long as everything's organised into groups of dialogue, music, effects, archive and on-camera sound, it's pretty straightforward. I had lots of help from the director Richard Symons and my Pro Tools editor, Brandon Duncan.”
Despite Simon Bishop's good work, there was inevitably a good deal of variability across interviews recorded in different places, with different subjects, and the biggest challenge for Clearmountain was trying to bring a sense of consistency to the soundtrack. "We often had to rely on radical EQ, compression and noise-suppressing plug-ins, besides extensive level rides on the dialogue tracks. The differences in background noise on the interviewees is enormous on a project like this — from a backstreet bazaar in Jordan or the home of a president to refugee camps and bombed-out government buildings. A lot of it's about finding space between the spoken words where the louder sounds like gunfire, a riot, or explosions from on-camera footage can fit in without drowning out the sound of an interviewee in tears.
"As I've mentioned, intelligibility is a big factor. With many pop and rock records, you can get the basic idea of the lyric without actually making out every word. In one way, mixing dialogue is easier, in that there's usually no loud drums and distorted guitars to compete with! The other side of it is that very few of the people who appear in these films are media-trained, let alone trained in mic technique — and for this series you really need to be able to hear all the nuances. For example, when a President's mouth runs dry, you can hear it, and sometimes that can tell you more than what they're actually saying. Rich will be the first to admit that even when he recorded a guide voice-over [the final version was done by Helena Bonham-Carter], even under pretty controlled circumstances, mic technique is a lot harder than you'd think — and in any one of these films you can have as many as 30 different dialogue sources, including archive footage, to match.”
Andy Bradfield, who handled final mixing in London said, "Obviously the dialogue is absolutely key, and getting the balance between it and everything else in the mix was a real juggling act, made all the more difficult by the fact that you're trying to find a balance that will sound great in so many different listening environments: cinemas, home cinema, TV, desktop and laptop computers. If you think of the entire audio chain a project like this goes through, the range you can hear is actually pretty amazing — from a terrorist shouting to a President's wife starting to crack. It's all there.”
In days gone by, a series of films like these would have been made by national broadcasters, usually to strict length guidelines and as part of broadcast series. Spirit Level's independence gives them more flexibility over the format, and has also allowed them to explore a variety of licensing options. So, depending on where you live, The Price Of Kings might be on a free-to-air channel, a prestige cable network, or even in cinemas — or, as in the UK, on DVD and Blu-Ray. Either way, crying presidents have never sounded so good...
The technology of digital video cameras continues to develop at an incredible rate, and is already well past the point where independent film-makers can afford to hire equipment that easily reaches today's broadcast specifications. "The basic requirement is that you need to be able to shoot in HD, which is 1920 by 1080 pixels, and for broadcast you need a 50MB/sec data rate,” says Rich Symons. "We'll pretty much shoot with anything that will provide us with that — for the very last film we used Canon VF305s, but also Sony PMWEX1s and EX3s — generally coupled with fairly expensive Canon lenses.
"When we first started shooting the series, just for one camera you'd need three flightcases: the camera, the lens, plus a thing we used called a Nanoflash, which plugged directly into the camera's sensor output and gave you your 50MB/sec bit rate. Two years down the line, it's one flightcase, one camera — with the same quality optics and a 50MB bit rate. So it's got cheaper and more compact by a factor of three.
"We use two cameras to shoot everything on, and we have a third camera which is a £1000 handheld, at the upper end of the consumer range, which we use for the Interrotron [see box], and also for sneaky bits of filming. There's a lot of places you go and they'll look at you, and if you'd got a tripod with you and a decent-sized camera, they'll say no, but they'll let tourists go in and film. So we'll use these high-end prosumer cameras, and you can get really good pictures with them.”
If one piece of equipment was central to the making of The Price Of Kings, it's a device nicknamed the Interrotron. Rich Symons explains: "It's a piece of kit that was originally conceived of by Errol Morris — he used it in The Fog Of War — and it allows the viewer to look your interviewee in the eye. And it's amazing the difference that makes. If you think about it, you can see if someone's looking at you when they're 50 yards away. That has a very immediate, subconscious effect. What we were trying to do with the series was get on screen the intimacy of these guys confronting their consciences in a very private conversation, almost like a father and son. That needed intimate eye contact.
"The Interrotron is a two-way mirror which sits in front of the lens of the camera. It's an adapted autocue machine. Normally, you would project the words onto one side of the two-way mirror and the subject would read them — but what we do is project the interviewer's face onto the autocue machine, so my eyes are basically sitting in front of the camera lens. This means that the interviewee is looking straight into my eyes, and ultimately straight into the viewer's eyes, and reacting to my facial expressions. It's hard to overestimate the impact that has. As a viewer, you really feel they're talking to you.
"We sit behind a curtain, like the Wizard Of Oz's curtain, with an HD monitor so we can see what the camera is seeing. Sometimes we have to wear headphones, especially if it's a foreign-language interview or if they're hard of hearing. We interviewed a guy called Bassam Abu Sharif, who was responsible for hijacking five aeroplanes and bringing them down in the Jordanian desert.For his troubles he was sent a book bomb by Mossad, which didn't do much good for his hearing, so it was difficult to use the Interrotron with him, because we're further away than in a normal interview — behind the curtain — so he couldn't hear us, and though he lip-reads as well, that doesn't translate too well on the autocue screen. But, generally speaking, it works incredibly well. It takes a few minutes for the interviewee to get used to it, and before you know it they're engaged.”