If the world of sonic storytelling known as motion picture sound editing contains one immutable truth, it is this:
There’s Always Something.
Even at the very pinnacle of the profession, with the most noise-conscious directors, the most-skilled on-set mixing engineers, the best mics, it’s almost impossible to stop unwanted clicks, hisses, clunks, and pops from sneaking onto a dialogue track. For sound editors Curt Schulkey and Aaron Glascock, the highest expression of their calling is crafting the aural component of a director’s creative vision, as they did for George Clooney on Good Night and Good Luck. But a good chunk of this tag-team’s work is, was, and always will be what Schulkey calls “housekeeping.”
Leaning back on the couch inside an editing suite at the Warner Bros. Studios lot in Burbank, Schulkey, whose lengthy list of credits includes Insomnia, Being John Malkovich, and The Empire Strikes Back, describes a particularly annoying sound that made it onto a dialogue track in his and Glascock’s current project, ATL.
“We have a scene in this movie where there’s two guys driving in a car,” he says. “They were actually driving the car instead of being towed, and it was a ’79 El Camino that’s sending out ignition bursts that are interfering with the radio mic, so every two seconds there’s a ckk-ckk.”
Back in the old days, a bug like that might have caused cats like Schulkey and Glascock to throw up their hands and beg the director to get the actors back into the studio for an ADR session. But on ATL, as on Good Night and Good Luck, digital saved the day. Bundling in the plug-ins (Sony Oxford Restoration Suite et al) for restoring old, degraded recordings they got to work. “We’re not restoring old recordings, we’re restoring brand-new things they shot last week that are just messed up and have issues with noise,” Schulkey notes. “The software doesn’t know that that’s not a record snap or pop or whatever. So we use all of those things for slightly different purposes than that for which they were intended.”
“As a sound editor, you develop this ability to become a scavenger, and you’re always changing the interface of tools or solutions or sound effects,” Glascock says, perched in his swivel chair in front of his monitor and mixing board. “Our job is to find the best sound or set of sounds to work dramatically, but that’s not always the sound you’re ‘seeing.’ There’s a certain amount of sleight of hand involved, and we do that with the tools too.”
This sonic legerdemain used to be a much more physical process, involving heavy cans of film, bulking editing machines, tape, and razor blades. “You’d come to work in clean clothes and leave in dirty clothes,” Glascock says. Now? Well, ATL will be mixed on an Icon console on Stage 6 at Warner Brothers, and it’ll be a virtual mix until the very end. “That’s fairly rare in medium- to large-size features, to remain in that world,” Schulkey says. “It takes some horsepower out of the systems that a lot of people don’t have. Luckily, Warner Bros. does have that right now.” As far as other favorite tools, Schulkey says they are using a lot of impulse-response reverbs, both for creating environments and matching post-production and production dialogue.
Glascock relates how he and Schulkey will often try to pull a fast one on Pro Tools. “The current version of Pro Tools is very rigid as to how it will search and find a missing file,” he says. “We’re doing all kinds of 24-bit OMFs, which the current Avid doesn’t allow for. So we revert to an older version of Pro Tools that allows us to be a little bit more sneaky about locating sounds and telling it one thing and doing something else with it.
“The use of tools for something else is something we do all the time,” Glascock says. “It seems like all these plug-ins are designed for music use. We use them to make things sound weird or funny or interesting or abstract.”
And the nature of the business means that they need all the help they can get. “The sound mixer on the set has a very difficult job in that he’s the last person who’s consulted about location and recording conditions and setup,” Glascock says. “I think it’s really hard to end up with a perfect track. There are a few guys who can. We’ve been very fortunate on some of these movies to work with great mixers, but we’re always going to be repairing stuff.”
Of course, if the offending sound is strong enough, no fancy plug-in is going to make it disappear entirely. “There are some people who believe there are miracle tools that can make it all sound great,” Schulkey says. “There are no miracle tools. The best of all the restoration things make improvements, but they don’t fix it, they don’t completely fix it. One of the most powerful tools we have is just to re-record it. Unfortunately, that hurts the schedule, it hurts the budget, it hurts performances sometimes. But that is one of the most significant tools we have, which we don’t ever like to use, because it loses a certain amount of freshness and vitality that’s in the original track.”
Glascock notes that some directors flat-out refuse to use ADR in their films, which can work if those same directors make a strong commitment to not making the sound designers’ jobs impossible: towing cars (and boats) instead of driving them, closing doors instead of leaving them open, and being very careful about where they put the finger food.
“We were on one set when they were filming a scene, and we kept hearing this funny noise behind us,” Schulkey remembers. “There were chafing dishes for the craft service table with hot snacks on them, bubbling through the scene. That’s the kind of thing; it’s really hard to keep control of everything that’s going to ruin the sound on the set. There’s always something that’s making noise that they can’t control. We have to be prepared to fix things as best as we can.”
On Good Night and Good Luck, Schulkey and Glascock faced an interesting challenge: weaving together the sounds of archival footage and those of present-day actors. “When I talked with [producer , director, and star] George Clooney as he was in preproduction on that, he played music that he thought would be in it, he played me scenes of movies that were done in that period, and had this kind of quality to them that he wanted to capture,” Glascock recalls. “He didn’t want it to be the conventional-sounding film. He didn’t want to make full use of every bell and whistle that every theater has. It needed to keep a focus and not lose its shape.
“One of the areas that we had to be careful about was not to over-polish it,” Glascock adds. TV broadcasts of the McCarthy era “wouldn’t have sounded pristine then.”
“Across the board, with all of these tools, you can’t use them as erasers,” Glascock stresses. “Especially when working with new recordings and doing EQ, you have to be very mindful of the integrity of the content. On Good Night and Good Luck, we had to be aware of how things were recorded back then, and they would have only sounded so good. We weren’t going to add noise to everything else that was good to level it out, so we had to find a happy medium.
“In some cases, what we represented might have sounded a little better than what a typical television show would have sounded like in that moment — though I don’t think we went too far,” Schulkey says. “I don’t think there were any scenes in there that really represented the TV I had in 1960. It was set in the CBS News studios where they did have reasonably decent equipment, so we didn’t have to worry about making it sound really bad.
“I think our approach on all of that is much the same as our approach on anything else that we do,” Schulkey continues. “The vintage footage had problems, and we improved them, found a level at which we would be happy with them. It’s the same with a lot of production sound on any movies, where we get it and it has some problems, and we try to figure out how to fix it. About the only thing we degraded to match back to the old stuff were some questioners in some of the interviews were being played by a modern-day actor, so the actor’s voice had to be put in there and made to sound as if it was in the same world.
“But it’s really pretty easy to degrade sound,” Schulkey concludes. “It’s harder to make it sound good. There’s all kinds of things we can do to make it sound bad, and we know ‘em all,” he adds with a grin.