Mallboy

Sound Design

Mallboy (6 excerpts) 12'02" stereo mix © 20/20 Productions 2000

Background

Mallboy is a feature film funded by the Australian Film Commission, SBS Independent and Showtime. It has been developed by writer/director Vince Giarrusso and producer Fiona Eagger. The story follows young Shaun - living in a dysfunctional outer-suburban home environment and continually on the brink of slipping into petty crime.

Essentially naturalistic in tone, Mallboy focuses on the relationship Shaun has with his mother and his father - whom has separated from the family and remains involved in light criminal activities. Shaun's mum fantasizes of the family getting back together, but both Shaun and his father realise this is unlikely. Shaun's mum clings to him, yet by the film's end she must come to turns with eventually parting ways with her son.

The film is shot on 35mm and mixed in Dolby Surround. It premiered at the 49th Melbourne International Film Festival in 2000.

Credits

2000

Sound design, film mix, music supervision, score engineering - Philip Brophy
Sound effects recording - Jennifer Sochackyj

Overview

(The following is excerpted from the presentation of Mallboy's soundtrack at the 3rd Cinesonic International Conference on Film Scores & Sound Design. A complete transcript is included in the book Cinesonic - Experiencing the Soundtrack.)

Defining Roles in Pre- and Post-Production

Film composers or sound designers may think they work in isolation, but they don't. Your craft and equipment and work methods might be your own, but all your creative ideas have to be channelled through other people. I always encourage film composers and sound designers to be as experimental and inventive with their ideas as possible, but that's only the start of it. You then enter a process of collaborative negotiation to figure out 'what is best for the film'. That's a phrase Fiona has taught me the value of on many occasions. As a sound designer, you may have a great idea, but you have to question whether that idea is suitable for the film as a whole or for a particular scene, or for a certain tonality or direction of the film.

The great thing about working with Fiona is that she has an expanded notion of what it is to be a producer. She does not stick with either the temporal or monetary divisions which usually govern a film's breakdown into pre-production, the shoot and post production. Granted that all productions have, broadly speaking, to be managed in that manner, Mallboy gave rise to many opportunities that allowed for a deviation from those divisions. Even though these deviations may have been slight requests on my part - like having meetings during pre-production about how the sound would be mixed in post- production - the fact that Fiona would OK these requests ended up having enormous ramifications for how the sound and music worked in concert with the editing.

For me, working on Mallboy was a test to see whether my sound design theories could be put into practice on a professional feature film that wasn't overly experimental or intellectual - the kind of thing with which I am normally associated. Most important, I wanted to see if I could effectively employ a radical approach to managing the complete sound post-production, and still achieve a respectable, industry-standard, non-alienating film.

There are very few directors who are also musicians. I don't mean those directors who did a bit of jazz piano once and can maybe play a few notes. I'm talking about someone who has worked in recording studios and toured with a live show, and dealt with all the different creative processes which arise from composing solo, performing live and working with a band. And it's the rock and pop industry that gives people that experience; you don't get it elsewhere. Having someone with a background like Vincent, from The Underground Lovers, making a film gives you such a rich opportunity to see what kind of direction will result. On Mallboy it worked beautifully because I could use a lot of shorthand with Vincent in terms of talking about mixing, cross-fading, equalization and things like that. It allowed a more expanded means of dialogue.

However, this is not to say you can’t have that with a director who is not attuned to music or sound or hasn’t had that experience before. If a producer recognises in the beginning the importance of how the composer and sound designer can talk to the director, then the producer can usher that in, even at the pre-production stage and during the shoot. It may only require a few sessions where you just play a bunch of records among each other to get a sense of your tastes and preferences, and what you each think is an interesting sonic period in the history of record production. Such simple discussions can have profound effects later on, even when you don't appear to be directly influenced by them.

There's always an incredible pressure in sound post-production due to time running out, and that's when you need to become a bit more automatic and instinctive in your dialogue with other people, and if you have a couple of meetings beforehand to attune everyone to orientations and preferences in sound and music, the dialogue in that final pressured period could be better. Frankly I don’t know how sound designers and film composers can do their work when they're meeting a director or producer after the picture has been locked-of. You would be coming in very cold to that situation.

Technical

(The following is excerpted from the presentation of Mallboy's soundtrack at the 3rd Cinesonic International Conference on Film Scores & Sound Design. A complete transcript is included in the book Cinesonic - Experiencing the Soundtrack.)

Negotiating The Purpose of the Score

A debate developed over one particular cue placement. I had place it and thought it added some insight into the film’s character, Shaun. Fiona disagreed and said it was announcing too much too early in the film. The debate was actually not over cue placement, but an interrogation of the 'map' of cues throughout the film. In the end, Fiona was right on this. It may have been good to put the cue there to give a bit of personal insight into Shaun, to let you know that the kid is not just a little mongrel, but that he is thinking a bit. My preference for the cue being there was based on my being too concerned about that very issue. Fiona's point was about the overall experience an audience would get coming into the film as a fresh story. Her concern was to not have an audience thinking so early that it's a melancholic-downer kind of film, because we needed to save that for the end where things become considerably sadder. So the idea was to keep the energy level up at that stage.

This is something that film composers, cue placers and music editors have to be very aware of When you read interviews with film composers there is always a lot of talk about synchronizing music to individual and separate scenes, but very little discussion about the totality of a score or a film. In Mallboy we were very flexible with the cues and their placement because we were very aware of the totality of the score and the 'map' or cues. When Vincent and the film's editor Mark Atkins were doing the rough-cut, they did a series of cue placements. We had all the recorded sketches of the cues, and then Vincent and Mark placed the cues in a certain configuration - but that first placement of the cues was exceedingly melancholic throughout the whole film.

So then we tried to formulate a better 'map' of cues following lines of counterpoint - like placing sad cues when characters are actually happy, and leaving silence or sound or their face or performance for moments when they're truly sad.

My experience is that the flexibility of this particular process - which involves more discussion between people than when sticking to a technological platform - is far more flexible than anything I’ve ever encountered in the 'digital environment. People working with non-linear systems go on about how you can do anything and place any sound or image anywhere, but at the end of the day those people tend not to explore any radical use of those options. They often end up doing predetermined and predictable things; they don't engage in any real dialogue with others, nor negotiate ways of being flexible. Technology doesn't achieve that; talking with people does.

Defining an Approach to the Sound Design

Very early on, when I was still configuring my computer system for the sound post- production of the film, I had this particular scene up, and I tried a few placements of sounds to check how the system was running. Now whenever I do placements of sound - that is, putting up a sound against an image to check matches in its duration, density, tonality and so on - I always play around with putting things too early or too late, or extending them beyond the scene or starting them before the scene. I never time things obsessively and match them perfectly, which is what sound editors tend to do first. So with these sounds deliberately 'displaced', I then process them further on my sampler into three channels and put them together. When the sounds were combined, they formed a strange kind of orchestral gesture which shifted vibrantly through the surrounding sound space. Listening to it, I thought it might be too weird, like I'd just grabbed those sounds and done this gratuitous processing to them, not fully thinking things through.

Then I thought I'll play it to Vincent and Fiona and gauge their response. As it ended up, it was very good for me to have done that because it set a level as to how 'unnatural' the sound could be while still matching the naturalism of the film. In fact, that's the only scene where we really go so 'unnatural' with the sound.

I think it's a good idea for a sound designer to pick a scene in a project early on and try something out like this. Don 't think of servicing the job; just loosely improvize something that pleases you. Preferably try a scene where you've been inspired by the images or whatever. Then early on rather than later, play your sound sketch to the director and producer casually just to get an idea as to what kind of ballpark they are looking to play in. Doing it with that scene in Mallboy was productive because it circumvented potential problems later on. It helped us clarify this idea of the relation between the characters' internal worlds and their external worlds, and a lot of things started falling in place with the sound design after that. They weren ' t just I my I concepts of sound design; once again, they arose from our discussion about the mall, and what Vincent was saying before with his ideas about this internal world of the characters.

Another important aspect of the sound post production. management greatly facilitated this approach to improvising and shifting between internal and external. Mallboy had around 25 hours worth of location dialogue and atmosphere - a standard amount for a feature shoot. Post-production sound recordist jenny Sochackyj recorded about 17 hours worth of sound environments and sound effects -not standard for feature shoots.

Basically, I designed the sound a bit during the shoot, but mostly during the rough cut. I then charted the film after viewing the fine cut. From the chart, I had broken the film down into 78 environments, specific to the sound design. From these I drafted a list of sound effects and atmospheres which I got Jenny to record:

9 internal sound effects (tight stereo)
2 external sound effects (tight stereo)
2 internal sound effects (MS stereo)
9 internal atmospheres (tight stereo)
9 external atmospheres (tight stereo)
14 internal atmospheres (MS stereo)
37 external atmospheres (MS stereo)

I was then able to freely draw upon this incredible library of sound effects which were very specifically focused on the sound of northern suburbia. The great approach Jenny takes to recording sound effects entails her not just going out and grabbing something on the list, but letting the tape roll while she is recording. From the large-scale environmental recordings she'd made, I was able to go through and select all different bits and pieces. Through that, I was able to try letting a piece of her recording play that little bit longer and carry over into the next scene, or start the whole sound earlier and do an advance-fade. That approach added an incredible degree of naturalism to the sound design, because I wasn't multi-tracking a whole lot of sounds to fabricate atmospheres. I was literally allowing the sound to breathe a bit; to occur more naturalistically.

One scene which demonstrates this involved the sounds of parklands. Now, my memory of parklands is not just of birds and dogs; it's also of kids on mini-bikes and the occasional gunshot. And sure enough, Jen ended up getting a single gunshot in her recording, and we've actually used that in the film. There's one scene where in the distance you hear what sounds like a car exhaust backfiring with gorgeous outdoor acoustic reverb on it. That section of tape is just playing out naturally: it's got all the birds, but it's also got bikes and a gunshot. You don't notice it when you're watching the film. It's not as if you think, 'Oh, my God, what was that gunshot?' In fact, no one even commented on it. It seems natural because - and this goes against the conventional way in which suburbia is still sound-designed in movies - suburbia can be very noisy. It's full of interference. Maintaining that sense of noise in both the outdoor suburbs and the inside mall was crucial to building a realistic base for the sound in Mallboy. Establishing a specific library of sound effects recording and not using pre-recorded CDs will allow you to free yourself up to do a more interesting sound design.

Producing & Mixing the Score

The scene in Mallboy where the kids are sniffing glue comes from having developed the score sketches during the edit, and it is probably the scene that best demonstrates the potential of this method. It works entirely against the convention of a director sitting down with a composer and doing what they call a 'spotting session' and saying, 'we need sad music here, we need chase music here, we need music to symbolise his mother here,' and so on. The composer goes away and does what the director asks. Then it fits or doesn't fit, and there is negotiation from that point on, whereby the process is to deliver a series of 'spots'. Actually I was very scared that Vincent and Glenn were going to go all 'movie-soundtracky` and think, 'Oh right, now we're composing music for a film, so We'll abandon every-thing we've ever done as guitarists and synthesizer players in The Underground Lovers and pretend to be "film composers".' As score producer, my main aim was to make sure Vincent and Glenn did exactly what they already do really well, and not deviate from that. I wanted to make sure they imported that into the film.

The best way to facilitate that was to start recording music while still rough-cutting. Across two weekends we recorded the sketches that Vincent and Glen had composed. It was very important that we recorded all those sketches without looking at any images. It was like we were recording an album. Most of that material appears in the film. It was recorded live onto eight tracks of a DA-88. It's all done with multiple microphone placements so that we could directly import those early sketch sessions into the final score sessions. All the electric guitar tracks involved three mike perspectives. Even when it sounds acoustic, it's coming from an amp. We'd have one mike on the front of the amp, one mike in the back, and one mike sticking, say, in a metal heater two metres away. The sketches were all recorded in a garage space with concrete floor and a high wood ceiling - very live and reflective.

In the final score mix, I placed the front mike track to the left, the rear mike track to the right, and sent the off-amp mike track to the surrounds. This generates a very acoustic, naturalistic ambience, but it is rendered though an unnaturalistic tri~configuration of a spatial recording of a single event. Its density and fullness does dt come from being multi-tracked in the conventional sense. The sketches were also important for instigating the surround-sound recording of the music, as the music was never recorded in stereo, but always mixed into three channels due to this film being Dolby Surround (left, centre, right, mono surround and subwoofer information). So that process was very important and getting that in at this stage, even though it was tense time- wise, as we were trying to do it while doing the film and everything else.

Editing and Positioning Source Score and Songs

A vital issue which should govern music supervision is plausibility through historical and sociological accuracy. The Lobby Lloyd tracks are from the early seventies and are very much in the Australian skin-head boogie style of the period. Other tracks from Ram Jam, The Saints, The Angels and others cover the mid-to-late seventies. With the music supervision we thought, 'OK, we need something that's slightly dated but cool to these people; something that's maybe a bit punky but it's gotta be macho, because boogies biker yobs in the late seventies called punks poofters.' All these sentiments had to be musicologically and culturally figured out. As a music supervisor, you must be aware of what it is to be a consumer of music. Your track selection has to embody and reflect the taste, sense and even politics of the characters who are listening to it onscreen. Your overall selection of tracks should make up a kind of 'map' which socially posits and roots the characters in accordance with the story.

Yet even though that map might make sense, dramatically it might not perform so well at key moments. The mood might be wrong for the scene. Or, as music editors have often commented, you might play a scene by itself with a song and it is great - but what is the effect of the scene with that song after you've had two other scenes with their own songs? It's the aggregate and combined effect that determines the development of that map. The only way to work it out is to keep shifting the tracks until you get it right.

Surprisingly, the real problems with music editing in the Mallboy party sequence arose in figuring out how to finish a track at the right time without it sounding chopped-off or unresolved, and how to start the next track, especially when there was no jump cut in time. Considerations like: 'What's the point at which we actually start the party music?’ ‘Why does it start there?' and 'How does it start without interfering with them talking in the following scene?'

One important sound issue which was discussed and instigated during pre-production was the use of some thump tracks. Thump tracks are still not used a lot, and I don't know why. I've even been on other projects where I've done thump tracks and then they just di ddt bother using them. There are many different ways to produce and employ thump tracks. An original version was, I believe, developed by Chris Newman for A Chorus Line. Basically you have a piece of music to which people onscreen are meant to be responding - as in listening to it, dancing to it, even slightly swaying to it. You take that track and roll off all the frequencies above 40 Hz which leaves you with a deep, heartbeat- like thumping drone. That would give you a vague sense of the timing of the song, and it can be played back on set or location - on a stage, party, bar or whatever - while you record the location dialogue of the actors. When you get back in the studio, you. roll off everything below 40 Hz of your location dialogue recording, which roughly leaves the frequency range of the human voice. The recording is never purely silent, but once you put in other atmospheres you don't even notice whatever little bits of low level noise might have been left from the re~EQd thump track bleeding into the vocal mikes.

It's so important to do this in any kind of scene where there's a party and a group of people yelling and interacting, especially if they're improvizing and talking over each other. It allows you to keep the naturalistic dialogue performances and the energy of group of people. It's fair enough to ADR just two people together, but to recreate the interactive energy of a bunch of people is far more difficult, whereas it happens so easily and naturally on location when everyone's vibing off each other as performers.

An even better reason for using a thump track arose with Mallboy: we did one for a song which we ended up not using. We had recorded all the dialogue with the song playing in the background (no matter how softly, for the actors to move in general time to the music) we would have been stuck with their dialogue track containing the music bleeding through. It would have been a nightmare to clean up and gate, and even worse if we tried to ADR it.

There are reasons of expediency and budget management specific to the industry for why you would go to a music publisher and have the company act as a music supervisor. That is the commonly done thing in many Australian films now: you go to a record company - in fact, a number of record companies - and you get the A & R people from the different companies to compete with each other and deliver a complete package of tracks for the whole film. That is actually not music supervision - it's A & R bombardment. All you get is those party tapes that record companies send to potential film producers. That's all very well, but someone at the end of the day has to make some kind of holistic decision for the service of the film as opposed to the soundtrack album. That's what I'm speaking of as a music supervisor. There are many kinds of music supervisors who are all important in their own way, but this project di ddt need a party tape soundtrack. It needed songs for the film.

After positing Lobby Lloyd and everyone agreeing that he would be great for the flavour of the party, there was an idea to have one Lobby Lloyd track featured: ‘Mama Don’t You Get Me.' Out of the party sequence's eight songs, it's the only song which operates as the score; that is, it comes up in volume as the other sounds fade back. The song contains sounds like a theremin, but which are in fact an early use of guitar synthesizer. Its combination with the straight ahead boogie is unique. It was thus an ideal track that combined the musicological tone of the era - it fits the biker lifestyle of the people in the film - with a sort of trippy feel in the party as everyone is getting more and more stoned. This unique tone of the song was extended by mixing its ending with some of the score elements that Vincent and Glenn had done with guitar. The resulting scene features a morphing or mutating between the two. You cadet really tell what is the original source song, what is the music cue, and what are actually the sound effects coming through - they all blend and blur into each other.

What greatly aided that sonic fusion in many moments throughout the film is the fact that the music Vincent and Glenn did was never clearly music per se, but something that always bordered on being sound, on being noise. The production of the recording and their performance foregrounded and privileged electric guitars with feedback, fuzz pedals and amps - not to gratuitously signpost yobbo energy, but so that the score could function as a textural palette for the film, rather than a series of conventionally composed cues. Very often there are bits in the film that appear to be sound atmospheres, but they're actually bits of reverb or fuzz of the guitar. The score was treated in a very malleable way.

Mallboy involved a lot of music editing. A track like The Angels' 'Take a Long Line' has been cut up into six beats, four beats, half a verse then a full chorus. It's all timed to not get in the way of the action; to make sure when the chord changes it's in a wide shot; to position cymbal crashes away from dialogue and so on. However, a track like The Saints' 'Know Your Product' came to us with a very clear stipulation that we couldn't cut it in any way whatsoever. They were cluey about that, and more and more composers may end up doing the same. Even though I'm a composer myself, I don't think it's necessary, because with good music editing you can chop things up seamlessly. So a lot of the songs have been cut to fit as music, but The Saints' track had to be left whole. It certainly posed major problems in getting it to fit properly. The only way we could effectively get out of the track was to have one of the characters with her back to the camera appear to rip the record off, scratching it in the process.

Music editors traditionally are editors who are musically trained as opposed to just responding to rhythms in a sonic fashion. In the old Hollywood system, if a music cue suddenly had to be 18 percent shorter, a music editor would be the person who would harmonically and rhythmically ensure that the cuts of the truncated cue still made musical sense. Otherwise you would have someone with no musical car just going in and cutting away, creating sudden changes in key and beat. The craft of the music editor still exists today in all sorts of ways, be it with scored material or sourced material.