Skywalker Sound: State-of-the-art
Written in May 1998 by Mel Lambert
It is no secret that seasoned filmmaker George Lucas is as interested in advancing the technical state-of-the-art in motion pictures as he is directing action dramas for the silver screen. Realizing that, in many ways, he needed to innovate new image-manipulation and sound-design techniques that are now pretty much taken for granted, during the mid-Seventies Lucas founded Skywalker Ranch in Northern California. Laid out in a relaxed, campus-style environment, with plenty of views out of low-rise, brick-clad buildings onto the rolling hills of Marin County, some 40 miles north of San Francisco, Skywalker Ranch soon set new standards as the development center for computer-generated images, innovative sonic treatments and a host of related technologies. (Including co-development, with Convergence Technologies, of the much admired EditDroid and SoundDroid systems; Lucasfilm recently sold the technology to AVID, and is said to be currently working with the firm on the next generation of electronic editing equipment. But that's a story for another day.)
Today, the Lucas organization consists of four companies: Lucasfilm Ltd., (which handles all of George Lucas' feature film and TV activities, as well as the business activities of the THX Group and Licensing); LucasArts Entertainment (which develops and publishes interactive entertainment software for worldwide distribution); Lucas Learning Ltd.; and Lucas Digital Ltd., which is dedicated to supplying the digital needs of the entertainment industry for visual effects, and audio post-production. This latter company is comprised of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), an industry leader for CGI, animation and related visual effects ("Lost World," "Flubber," "Men in Black." "Mars Attacks!," "101 Dalmatians," "Twister," "Mission: Impossible," "Dragonheart," "Jumanji," and hundreds more), as well as Skywalker Sound, one of the largest full-service audio post-production facilities in the industry.
"That is still a widely held impression throughout the industry," she confides. "Yes, several of the 'Star Wars,' 'Indiana Jones' and related projects were edited and mixed here. But that is just a fraction of the literally hundreds of movies that have passed through these rooms. No, if we relied on George's films paying the freight - and he is a busy guy after all - we would have had to close up shop years ago!"
Borders is proud that Skywalker Sound can attract business from a wide cross-section of filmmakers. "We offer a compete, one-stop service," she says, "from production recording to final soundtrack. in any format from Dolby Surround thru 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and DTS on up to eight-channel SDDS. Alternatively, we have a number of well-equipped editorial suites that can be used to prepare [sound and picture elements], as well as digital-capable dubbing stages. In addition, we have state-of-the-art Foley and ADR stages and what we consider to be our flagship Scoring Stage. In fact, something for everyone."
Skywalker also markets its services to first-time directors and independent producers. "We are a cost-effective facility," Borders considers, "that can offer services for a wide cross section of films and documentaries, for example. And we have an ulterior motive, of course, in attempting to appeal to lower-budget productions, as well as the Hollywood Blockbuster. We like to expose new directors to what we have to offer here, introduce them to the latest advances in technology, and let them form a working relationship with our talented team of editors, mixers and support staff. Our rates are highly competitive with Los Angeles, for example, but we can often reduce overall costs for a movie because of our enhanced efficiencies."
And if a client cannot come to Skywalker, then the facility has another ace up its sleeve, Borders explains. "We can use digital audio tie-lines to link us to anywhere in the world." Digitized audio is transmitted via T-1 telephone circuits, and can be synchronized with film and/or video projectors at the local and remote location via timecode; suitable offsets are dialed into the synchronizer to take into account the propagation delay. "In this way, filmmakers in distant locations can listen to soundtracks being completed in Northern California, and vice versa. This capability also provides our client with the opportunity to effectively work in any location during the mix process." The system was used, for example, during dubbing of "Hercules" to let Disney executives in Glendale hear temp, premix and finals as they came together at Skywalker.
"We are proud that Skywalker Sound has been associated with 10 feature films that have won Academy Awards for best achievement in sound and sound effects editing," Borders acknowledges. The manager served for some 17 years as supervising sound editor on a number of leading movies. "From its inception, George [Lucas] always wanted Skywalker Sound to be on the cutting edge of new technology. He continues to be one of the biggest supporters of the new technology - fully embracing it and finding it exciting, in all aspects of filmmaking, including sound. At Skywalker, with George's total support, we continue to offer our clients the best talent using the best tools to provide the best audio quality."
Recent films completed at the Skywalker Sound include Robert Redford's "The Horse Whisperer" for Disney; "Great Expectations" and "The Newton Boys" for 20th Century Fox; "Sphere" for Warner; "Wag The Dog," for New Line; and director James Cameron's Christmas blockbuster, "Titanic," for Paramount/Fox.
Being away from the city in 2,600 acres of countryside, complete with a lake, has its own inherent appeal, Borders concedes. "Filmmaking, but its very nature, can be highly stressful. There are continuing deadlines and the need to stay focused on the project at hand. We find that directors and their staff can come here to Skywalker, and escape the pressure of life in the big city; to stay focused on the project and end up with a superior product." Skywalker also offers a number of self-contained one, two- and three-bedroom suites and apartments where clients can hole up for part or the entire duration of a movie project. Amenities include a Fitness Center with heated pool, racquetball/volleyball, handball court and aerobic room.
"All of our sound editors, designers and dubbing engineers," Borders continues, "also respond favorably to our relaxed, 'campus-style' environment we have engendered here in Marin County." The post facility includes several well-appointed dining areas where staff gather regularly to compare notes on current projects, and enjoy a healthy meal, courtesy of the in-house catering staff.
The Scoring Stage at Skywalker is certainly impressive. The recording area measures 60 feet wide by 80 long, with 30-foot ceilings, and is capable of easily accommodating a 125-piece orchestra. A series of adjustable acoustic systems - including double-sided, reflective/absorbent panels along the walls, and in-ceiling moveable surfaces - allow the RT60 reverberation time to be adjusted between approximately 60 milliseconds and three seconds. A total of three isolation booth along the back wall each measure 16-by-16 feet, with 12-foot absorbent ceilings; a fourth booth is located close the control room window, with doors leading into the creative areas.
A separate machine room to right of the control room houses a variety of analog 24-tracks with SR noise reduction and digital multitracks, including Tascam DA-88, Genex GX8000 MO and Sony PCM-3348 DASH-format transports. Attached to the control room is a producer's area and lounge. Control room monitors comprise soffit-mounted, multiway systems designed by leading producer-engineer Alan Sides, and similar to the units installed at his Hollywood and Nashville Oceanway facilities.
In addition to handling scores for such films as "Mars Attack!," "The Game" and "Titanic," a number of artists have recently recorded albums on the scoring stage, including Isaac Stern, The Kronos Quartet, Harmonia Mundi, Linda Ronstadt, Pearl Jam and Phillip Glass. Recent sound-design commercial projects include spots for clients such as Nissan, Honda, Chevy Trucks, Sprint, Pepsi, Supercuts, Saturn, Levis, Pioneer Home Theatre and Eveready Energizer, amongst others.
According to Judith Sherman of The Kronos Quartet, "For classical recording, the Scoring Stage could not be more perfect. The resonance of the room is warm and even over the frequency range, and its length is controllable; the control room is an accurate and flexible listing environment."
Formerly equipped with an AMS Neve VR in-line console with GML moving-fader automation, during the Summer of last year the control room was upgraded with a new 72-input/48-buss AMS Neve VXS Scoring Console with Flying Fader automation. Compared to the VR that it replaces, the VXS features an optional Direct-to-Fader Input Module that bypasses the channel module's front-end/EQ section, and provides direct signal flow from tape machine to fader during remix, thereby eliminating electronics from the signal path.
The VXS MultiFormat version also offers PEC/Direct paddle switches for monitor select and arming record modes for external audio/video transports, as well as advanced features for surround-sound mixing and scoring, including support for three additional ATRs, mag dubbers and/or a second multitrack, plus an independent mono or stereo dialog input. Up to eight discrete output busses are available, either as mono sends or as four stereo pairs; recall that the VRP scoring/multiformat panel for older-generation VR consoles offered access to just six busses. Assignable joystick panners and dual-track faders for music and dialog returns are available as options.
As recording engineer and staff mixer Lesley Anne Jones explains, the new VXS is quieter and smoother sounding than the VR it replaces. "The VXS definitely sounds more open and 'silkier' than its predecessor, particularly in terms of high-end sonic openness, and overall 'punch' in the mid-range." Neve's design engineers have streamlined the front-end electronics sections to further exclude crosstalk, noise and errant RF signals, a development that is said to have resulted an overall signal-to-noise ratio some 8 dB quieter than the VR; 6 dB better that the VR Legend.
"The VXS is one of the quietest analog boards that I have ever used," Jones continues. "I've mixed a number of jazz and classical sessions here on the VXS, and have routed mixes directly through the board to the Capricorn in 'A;' this analog board has never been a limiting factor." Regarding the pros and cons of analog topologies versus all-digital designs, Jones feels that there is some advantage to using analog. "For example, it's very useful to be able to patch analog compressors and EQ directly into the analog signal chain without having to travel through multiple stages of A-to-D and D-to-A conversions.
"And since I can patch pre-amps directly through to the multitrack busses, we often use the board to simply monitor the returns from the tape machine. I can preserve signal transients by bypassing as much or as little of the console during tracking, and then use what I need to mix the recorded elements. The VXS is a very flexible design."
As session engineer Bob Levy recalls, "The score for 'The Game' was recorded directly to 20-bit Genex [GX8000 magneto-optical recorders]," prior to direct digital-to-digital transfer to various 20-bit Sonic Solutions workstations for music editing. Mixer for "The Game" soundtrack was freelancer John Kurlander, an industry veteran who recently relocated to these shores after several years as scoring mixer at Abbey Road Studios, London.
"We also have an extensive sound-effects library," Borders continues," that can be accessed via a high-speed network from most of the editorial suites, as well as the dubbing stages. In this way, effects can be auditioned in real time from virtually any of the many production and editing environments, and then transferred to the workstation's hard drives, prior to being cut and synchronized to picture.
"An advantage of the eight-track WaveFrame system is that it is plug-and-play compatible with the new Tascam Digital Dubber, which we are currently evaluating for use on the re-recording stages." Recent projects completed on WaveFrame workstations include Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," a WW2 drama starring Tom Hanks, and "Sphere," with director Barry Levinson for New Line Pictures; sound editors on the latter movie included Linda Kay Brown and Michael Silver.
A central machine room houses six-track mag dubbers, in addition to analog and digital multitracks. "We normally premix to six-track mag," Borders offers, "as well as the new Augan and Tascam hard disk systems, which we used experimentally - along with mag - during 'Contact.'
Formerly, Mix "A" served as a Foley Stage; it re-opened as a fully refurbished dubbing stage during May 1997. The control room houses a fully-automated 96-fader AMS Neve Capricorn Digital Console, capable of addressing 176 analog/digital inputs sources. The board is equipped with three Assignable Facilities Units (AFUs) that can be used simultaneously by up to three operators; an assignable joystick can be allocated to whichever section requires that function during any stage in the mix process.
As Borders explains, "These recent upgrades and enhancements throughout [the facility] are in preparation for George Lucas editing and mixing the first of the 'Star Wars Prequels' here later this year." (The next "Star Wars" episode is scheduled to begin mixing in January/February 1999.) "For these and other reasons, we just had to install a digital console in 'A,' along with digital dubbers and random-access video projection.
"And because of the full-automated features of the Capricorn console, we plan use Mix 'A' for more demanding mixes." The Capricorn was first used to prepare final mixes for "Contact" with lead mixer and sound designer Randy Thom. And it was pressed into service most recently for predubs and finals on "Titanic."
Both Mix "G" and "D" house identical 64-input three-man Solid State Logic SL-5000 Series analog consoles that were used to mix such films as "The Lost World," "Hercules," "The Game," "Great Expectations" and various IMAX presentations. The smaller dubbing environments - Mix "E," "F" and "H" - are equipped with a variety of mixing systems, including a smaller-format AMS Neve Capricorn digital mixer in "F."
THX-approved loudspeaker components within the front speaker baffle wall include units from JBL and Electro-Voice, powered by QSC amplifiers. Low frequencies are handled by a Kintek subwoofer system, while an array of 22 Boston Acoustic units provide surround coverage in the rear of the theater. Overall Noise Criteria within the theater is rated at less that NC 20.
Sound Designers' Personal-Use Rooms:
Rydstrom consider the role of Sound Designer as setting an overall "sonic signature" for the soundtrack. "It also means that one person can provide a consistent feel to the material, and ensure an attention to detail that a team of editors cannot often maintain." And, as Skywalker Sound's Head Mixer, Rydstrom is often behind the console in Mix "A." "For 'Titanic,' we developed unique sounds for every part of the ship, so that the audience would follow more easily the movements between decks and various areas."
"That involvement," he considers, "means that I can bring a higher degree of intimacy to a mix, and often act as an unofficial 'Director of Sound," much as a DP [Director of Photograph] would follow the process through picture editing, transfer and color correction.
"Not every detail is necessary on a soundtrack; you can easily get lost with specifics. I believe in the philosophy of 'Less is More' - the soundtrack is there to focus the audience's attention on the drama and content, not to distract them [with unnecessary detail]."
By way of an example, Rydstrom cites the first appearance of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in "Jurassic Park." "There is no huge roar; rather a simple cup of water with ripples in it, and a gentle vibration, to suggest the presence of something very menacing. In many cases, 'minimalism' works far better that maximum impact."
"We consider our primary advantage to be an informal 'Team Spirit'," Gloria Borders offers. "We can bring a lot of talent to bear on the crafting of a film's soundtrack, or simply offer the services of a talented Sound Designer. That flexibility and awareness of a director's sensibilities means that we can offer a palette of services here at Skywalker Sound. It's a wonderful creative environment with a truly creative team for professionals."
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