DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY FOR UK FILM
Anvil Post Production and Videosonics
adding all-digital dubbing consoles
Written by Mel Lambert in May 2004
Gone are the halcyon days of the UK-based film industry.
There was time, not too many decades ago, when a large number of UK-financed and -produced
movies were regularly making the rounds throughout the world. But it is a profile that's
changed dramatically in recent years. Movies such as "Four Weddings and a
Funeral," "Trainspotting" and, most recently, "The Full Monty"
have surprised even their investors with the phenomenal success they've enjoyed on these
and other shores; the trend for profitable, small-budget productions is increasing.
And the financing of such movies has moved away from the
conventional film companies, towards hybrid associates between the familiar UK-based
broadcasters, including BBC Productions, Channel 4 and many of the Independent Television
Companies- notably Carlton TV and Granada TV- as well as insurance companies and other
financially-endowed organizations. By taking advantage of current cost- and
time-efficiencies of digital post production, plus other factors, an increasing number of
UK-produced films are reaching movie houses throughout North America.
Just as importantly, the renaissance in British film
production means that the local post community is seeing an increase in sessions from
UK-based film producers and directors. And, as I discovered during recent visits to two of
the country's leading film post-production facilities, there is a pressing need for
efficiency and new technologies: both Anvil Post Production and Videosonics Cinema Sound
have responding to these changing requirements by installing all-digital consoles to their
state-of-the-art facilities. Anvil recently added a Solid State Logic Avant Digital Film
Dubbing Console- with a second scheduled to be installed in mid-July [ 2004]- while
Videosonics now offers an AMS Neve Digital Film Console in a new THX-Certified room.
Digital Technologies: Cost Efficient and Enhanced
"Without a doubt," offers Dennis Weinreich, Managing Director of
Videosonics Cinema Sound, "digital technologies have made us more cost effective at
what we can offer the budget conscious [UK movie and TV] producer. There is no denying
that an all-digital signal path can provide enhanced quality in the final mix," the
American-born, former music producer states. "But, for our facility, digital lets us
offer more creative options for a director, and streamline the process from editorial
Established in 1983, Videosonics has an interesting
history. As Weinreich recalls, "In 1980 the [British] government published a White
Paper stating that, by 1984, independent productions should account for 25% of programming
shown on UK television. Although that goal was never achieved, it did encourage the
development of independently-funded film and TV productions, a market segment that we saw
as representing new business opportunities." And in 1982, an additional UK TV channel-
the commercial Channel Four- began broadcasting a number of new programs from both
the network and outside production companies.
Set up initially to provide audio post for television-
including the successful "Mr. Bean" series, starring comedian Rowan Atkinson-
Videosonics currently operates a pair of multi-room facilities within the Camden Town
district of North London, and specializes in all aspects of post production from the
simplest voice over to the complete sound design and dubbing. The majority of rooms
feature digital storage and replay systems; a number offer consoles that provide an
all-digital signal path.
Current film projects include "Burning Up (Vigo)"
for Impact Pictures/Nitrate Films, "Love Is The Devil," a BFI/BBC co-production,
"The Titchborne Claimant" for The Bigger Picture Company, "Tangier
Cop" for La Sabre, and "24:7" for Scala Productions; television works
ranges from "Donald's Lot" and "Heaven On Earth" for Red Rooster Film
& Television, to "The Unknown Soldier" for Carlton Productions.
"Our Hawley Crescent location houses Studio One,
Studio Two and edit suites," Weinreich explains. Designed for mixing documentaries,
sitcoms, variety shows, TV dramas and similar fare, Studio One features a 24-fader/72
channel AMS Libra console with 24-track AudioFile, linked to Tascam DA-88s and Akai DD8
eight-track MO recorder/players for digital mixdown. (The Libra replaced an SSL SL-6000
console at the end of 1997.) Intended more for documentaries, corporate videos, trailers,
news and current affairs, Studio Two features a 32-channel SSL SL-4000E console with
G-Series automation, linked to a 16-track AudioFile, DA-88s and MO recorders, plus analog
24-tracks and a selection of outboard effects.
Close by, in the firm's Delancey Street facility, are
located Studio Three, Studio Four, Theatre I, Theatre II, plus several Editorial Suites
(or "Prep Rooms," as they are referred). Again handling a wide cross section of
multi-channel film and TV projects, the all-digital Studio Three houses a
16-fader/32-channel AMS Neve Logic 3 console with built-in AudioFile, plus companion Akai
DR16 16-track workstations and DA-88s. A companion recording area handles ADR and Foley
sessions, as well as commentary/voice-overs. Studio Four also features a recording area
that can accommodate a large number of actors for radio-drama recording plus an extensive
Foley area; control-room hardware centers around 48-channel SSL SL-6000E console with
G-Series automation, linked to a 16-track AudioFile, DA-88s and MO recorders.
Videosonics' Theaters I and II: All-Digital Film
"Theaters I and II are our 'Aces in the Hole' for film directors and
producers," Weinreich considers. "When the time came [in 1995] to move into
feature-film dubbing, we decided to build a pair of rooms that were not only technically
advanced, but which would meet the demanding expectations of the most critical film
director. We needed rooms with audio monitoring that would translate to cinemas all over
the world." Theatre I and the recently completed Theatre II are reported to be the
only THX-Certified dubbing theaters in the UK; overall acoustic design was by Andy Munro
of Dynaudio Acoustics, with input from consultant Sean Davis.
Compact in size but with a 12-foot screen, Theater I
features a 28-fader/112-channels AMS Neve Logic 2 digital console with integral AudioFile
Spectra hard-disk editor; pre-mix recording and final mix is to Akai DD1500 MO and DR-8
hard-disk recorders. But it is Videosonics' new Theatre II- or "Big Blue, " as
it's fondly called; a reference to the room's azure decor- that is the core of
Weinreich's forward-looking plans. Equipped with an AMS Neve Logic Digital Film Console
(DFC), the new room features lay-up/replay from a pair of onboard 24-track AudioFile MT
editing systems, and stem/final mixdown 32 tracks of Akai DD8 MO recorders.
Already happy with his Logic 2 console, Weinreich was
particularly excited about the fact that the new DFC variation "adds automated
pre-mix routing to the existing list of features. Our new console is a 64-fader frame with
a minimum of 160-channel capability and, if required, two-man operation. We currently have
48 faders fitted to the system, and could in theory access some 224 channel paths; we may
increase the fader and I/O capacity in the future. But, since we have four layers per
fader, and the ability to control up to eight simultaneous pre-mix signal paths from a
single fader, we think that we have enough capacity at the moment."
Weinreich and his team of sound editors and mixers are very
familiar with random-access digital audio workstations. "Three years ago, when we
upgraded Theatre I with an AMS L2, it was in response to the fact that producers coming
from a TV background were used to working with DAWs, and expected the same speed and
efficiency on the dubbing stage; particularly their ability to quickly handle picture and
"More importantly, there has been a dramatic change in
the funding of UK-produced films. We are seeing an increase in the number of films with
budgets of less that £1.6 million [around $2.6 million]. The British Screen Institute
[using money from the National Lottery] offers funding up to £800,000, with TV companies
like Channel Four and BBC Productions coming up with a matching balance.
"For those types of film on a tight budget, we
developed a package that might involve £100,000 for editorial and dubbing: between 15 and
30 days of sound editorial within our AudioFile-equipped Prep Rooms, followed by 10/15
days on the re-recording stage. Only digital technology and convenient file exchange via
removable hard drives lets us be that cost-efficient, yet offers the creative options
directors demand these days,"
Standard film-dubbing procedure at Videosonics involves
editing source materials, effects and music on AudioFile or Pro Tools workstations,
pre-loading cues to the console's built-in AudioFile, and then premixing to multiple Akai
DD1500 16-track magneto-optical recorders. "The DD1500 is cheaper than [adding extra
AudioFile capacity], and lets us access more tracks as necessary." Premixed music and
other materials might be replayed directly from DA-88 or hard-drive/MO recorders;
four/six/eight-track stems and finals are normally made to DA-88 plus Akai DR16 hard-disk
and DD8 MO systems. "And since both our L2 and new DFC feature built-in AudioFiles,
we can re-edit source elements or dialog tracks on the stage if necessary, or maybe select
new sound effects."
The first feature film to be dubbed on Videosonics' new DFC
by lead mixer Tim Alban and assistant Hugh Johnson was "Titanic Town," a
contemporary drama set in Belfast, and starring Julie Walters. "Foley and ADR were
edited to AudioFile and then transferred via removable hard drive to the DFC,"
Weinreich recalls. "Dialog was auto-conformed on AudioFile using an EDL outputted
from the LightWorks [picture editor], while effects were edited by Simon Gershon on
another AudioFile. We premixed from AudioFile tracks to five DD8 MO recorders- two
effects, plus dialog, music and Foley- and then made stem recordings, finals and
[5.1-channel] print masters to more DD8s." Print masters also contain a Dolby
Surround Lt-Lt mix for the optical track.
"We normally print a reel at a time from the DFC's
Encore Automation; we are so confident that the automation system is reliable and
bullet-proof. We do have PEC/Direct [switches] on the DFC [to provide punch-in recording
during a mix]. It comes in handy for group monitoring and the odd drop-in that comes up.
In fact, this switching has proved more valuable than we could have imagined, but not as
the designers intended. As a central monitor-selection panel it is very useful. It also
tie into the automated bus system.
"Tim and Hugh were already familiar with our L2, so
the process of acclimatization on the DFC was pretty fast. And we had already done a TV
drama series using our Libra system [in Studio One] and were thus familiar with the DFC's
new Encore Automation system." At the time of writing, the facility was preparing to
redub a movie titled "Catching Fire," directed by Julian Temple, followed by
"The time savings and efficiencies we realize with the
L2 and DFC are important to our streamlined operation," Weinreich concludes. "A
major advantage is that, if there are picture or editorial changes, we can quickly recall
all of the channel/submix levels, EQ and pan settings and be back to where we were during
the mix. We have no reservations at all about installing a DFC in Theatre II; our clients
and mixers have been utterly satisfied with the decision."
A different type of digital mousetrap: SSL Avants
at Anvil Post
Across town at Anvil Post Production, in the Uxbridge suburb of North West
London, current co-directors Ken Somerville and Alan Snelling relate that the facility was
opened in 1952, following closure of the government-run Crown Film Unit. "We expanded
with a move to Korda Studios' Denham location in 1968, and handled a lot of film music
between then and 1980," Somerville recalls, including "Chitty-Chitty
Bang-Bang" and the "Star Wars" trilogy." In 1980 Korda Studios were
demolished and Anvil lost its large scoring stage.
Anvil subsequently formed a liaison with Abbey Road Studios
as Anvil Abbey Road Screen Sound, and took over running of one of the studio's large
rooms, with scoring engineers Eric Tomlinson and Allan Snelling. That alliance ended in
1984, following the purchase of Abbey Road Studios by Thorn-EMI, and Anvil moved to a new
location within the Rank Film Laboratories facility, to concentrate primarily on TV dramas
and feature films. In 1993, following a fire, the post complex moved into its current,
purpose-built facility, which comprises a main Dubbing Stage, a pair of Post-Sync and
Foley/ADR Theaters equipped with Mackie 8-Bus consoles, and a number of editorial suites.
Recent films to have passed through Anvil include "Pride and Prejudice,"
"Kidnapped," "The Waking of Ned Divine," and "Her Majesty Mrs.
Brown," as well as foreign-language dubs of such films as "Babe,"
"Golden Eye," "Lost World," and "Independence Day."
"We have been using [TimeLine] WaveFrame workstations
for several years," Somerville continues, "both to edit sound elements and to
provide random-access playback on the stage. And we were also using [Tascam] DA-88s for
ADR and Foley recording, as well as stem and master recorders. But we soon realized that
our [non-automated] Soundcraft Series 3200 console in the Dubbing Stage was long overdue
for an upgrade." Equipped with just 52 input channels, the Series 3200 was set up for
two-man operation, and provided bussing to 24 group outputs and eight additional busses;
it also featured a custom-designed PEC/Direct panel and monitor matrix.
Having looked at what was available from various
manufacturers, Anvil recently ordered a pair of SSL Avant Digital Film Dubbing Consoles:
one for a new purpose-built Dubbing Theater constructed in a space formerly occupied by
three film-cutting rooms; and another to be installed in mid-July as a replacement for the
Series 3200. "We wanted to remain on-line with the analog console," Somerville
explains, "and decided to outfit the new room first. That way we could train our
staff without having to turn away business."
Both Avants feature a 72-fader frame configuration fitted
with 48 on-surface faders. Each channel strip can control up to four signal paths: two
with EQ and dynamics, and two Predub inputs with automated panning and routing only. The
total of 192 available inputs hence comprises 96 full-specification sources plus 96 premix
inputs. A built-in 64-by-8 monitor matrix is featured, along with up to three
recorder-control/monitor panels for multiple operators.
A Hub Router and DiskTrack recorder enables available I/O
resources to be shared between the two dubbing theaters. An SSL Audio Preparation Station
will also allow off-line transfer of sound files into the integral DiskTrack. Avant was
designed specifically for film re-recording, and large-format video post production. Its
design is based on Axiom technology, but with changes to both the control surface and
signal processing to suite the specific application.
The new Avant was recently put through it paces on Irish
director Cullum Villa's film "Sunset Heights," which was mixed by Alan Snelling.
"The Avant sounds great and offered comprehensive automation," Snelling
considers. "The parametric EQ, in particular, is very powerful, and resets with
stunning accuracy; I can recall an entire control surface and I/O routing setup in a
couple of seconds, allowing me to re-create a mix very quickly and efficiently."
To streamline his learning curve during the re-recording of
"Sunset Heights," Snelling decided to predub source elements to Tascam DA-88 and
MO recorders. "Of course, I could have used DiskTrack to both replay elements and
record various pre-mixes. Eventually, when we have more experience with the system,
that'll be the way we work. In the meantime, I replayed elements from WaveFrame [and other
edited sources] against picture from a [FED] V-MOD [100 random-access video deck], and
recorded six-track effects and music premixes, plus LCR dialog and stereo Foley to a pair
of DA-88s." The final six-track SRD and Lt-Rt print masters were dubbed to an Akai
DD8 MO drive.
"The Avant's Bay Swapping functions allows me to
remain in the sweet spot, as I [bank-switch arrays of eight-channel bays] via programmable
macro keys to my central mix location. But the surprising bonus of this [all-digital]
design is the built-in input and output routing. During the past 10 days [while completing
predubs for 'Sunset heights'] I have not touched the patchbay once! I can access any input
source via the Hub Router and insert outboards as necessary. I can cross-connect sources
and destinations just as easily- it's a great time saver, both during a dubbing session,
and between dubs as I reset the console to handle different sources and recorder outputs.
And I just love the fully-automated EQ, panning and dynamics."
And, until Snelling fully masters the Avant's comprehensive
snapshot and dynamic automation system, he plans to utilize the console's PEC/Direct
switches to punch-in on the DA-88 submixes and finals. "The integral timecode
synchronizer and machine control handles the V-MOD, a pair of DA-88s and a master MO
recorder very efficiently. Eventually, I plan to work with 'Virtual Reels,' and make a
final recorder pass under automation, but until then my current technique works
"Yes, our two new Avant-equipped theaters represent a
bold step for Anvil," Somerville concedes. "In embracing the advantages of
digital technology we will be enhancing considerably our long-established service to the
film and TV community. We chose the Avant [because] we perceived that Solid State Logic
exhibited a great deal of lateral thinking and could provide us with a more comprehensive
studio solution. While such features as automation are obviously very important, it's the
overall flexibility and expansion capabilities that Avant offers our clients that
convinced us to go in that direction."
For more information:
Videosonics Cinema & TV Sound, 68A Delancey Street,
London NW1 7RY, United Kingdom.
+ 44 (0) 02 7209 0209; fax +44 (0) 20 7419 4470; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anvil Post Production, North Orbital Road, Denham, near
Uxbridge, Middlesex UB9 5HH, United Kingdom.
+44 (0) 1895 833 522; fax +44 (0) 1895 835 006; email@example.com.
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