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Blockbusters Too Expensive for Cheap Post-Production

Today’s box office favorites rely heavily on the impact that their images and sounds have on the audience. It is no wonder then that audio post-production is becoming more and more significant in the overall film-making process, ensuring that stringent requirements are met without compromise.

Steinberg interviewed long-time Nuendo user John Ross, audio post producer for an array of Hollywood movies and founder of 424 Inc., on his preferences, studio setup and the film industry.

Your company 424 Inc. is among the world’s leading post-production facilities. What do you consider to be the key drivers of success in your business?
Basically, the thing that we tried to do right from the get-go is find innovative solutions for pre-existing problems. The original impetus for going into Pro Tools as opposed to some of the earlier systems, like Fairlight and Synclavier which were around in those days, was that we wanted non-monolithic technology. In other words, what this allowed us to do was to set up an environment that let us control some of the directions of hardware and software, in that we were using components and not a total solution. For example, the early Fairlight systems that we were using were pretty much a standalone computer, a custom-built computer, and if they decided to have a certain form of tape stream backup, you had it, if they decided to implement certain hard drives, you had it, if they did not, you did not. What was happening basically in the PC market at this point in time was that you had various manufacturers making backup software and networking software, and we were basically missing out on all these various components. That’s when Pro Tools first sort of shone a light being that it was sort of a component system that you could apply to conventional PC or Mac, and it would then take on the properties of that particular device. In other words, if you wanted networking, you got yourself a networking card, if you wanted to backup, you used the backup software that was available and, essentially, it was not a total monolithic solution but a component-based system. It indeed served that role for quite some years. Later on, it became more and more monolithic. For me, Pro Tools somewhat eclipsed their original intent. And I see new companies like Steinberg as being the modern solution to this old problem. You can, even more so than you could in the past, customize systems. You can customize how you work with that particular system, whether you want to work across networks, even the type of platform you are using. And some of the basic technologies embedded in Nuendo, such as the networking and being able to stream and play audio across networks and things like that are almost impossible to do in Pro Tools unless you go to the Fibre Channel environment, are quite attractive. So, I see a great future for Nuendo in that it is the perfect solution to an old problem.

Last year you worked on the successful movies 17 Again starring High School Musical star Zac Efron and Disney’s Hannah Montana starring Miley Cyrus. In what sense does Nuendo touch these films?
The level of involvement with Nuendo is different on both movies. I personally did not mix the Hannah Montana movie, but I did mix 17 Again. What we do here is basically mixing. So we have a Euphonix System 5, a full-blown hybrid system which basically has the full DSP backend as well as the EuCon capability, EuCon being the language speaking to Nuendo, Pro Tools and various other workstations, but it is by far the most mature in the Nuendo environment. We get a lot of the editing done from outside houses and, in Los Angeles, most of those houses work with Pro Tools. But what happens is I do dialogue and I prefer working in Nuendo in this environment just because certain things are a lot faster in Nuendo than they are in Pro Tools. So, in the case of 17 Again, the dialogue editing was originally done on Pro Tools and we transferred across to Nuendo using the SSL program Pro Convert with latest revisions. And now that I obviously have the whole session in Nuendo, I can apply some very wonderful post-production plug-ins, such as Post-Filter that I know is designed specifically for getting rid of problems within the dialogue realm, such as finding a fundamental of a tone that might exist in the room and getting all the harmonics of that and notching that out. I do my dialogue pre-dub within Nuendo virtually on the System 5 surface. So essentially it’s laid out across the surface and I’m working with it as if it were a conventional console. And then what I do when we get to the final is — now all the various elements come in, all the sound effects, all the music, foley, all the various components — I will then leave that virtual pre-dub playing back on the System 5 surface and route out of Nuendo in a conventional output configuration that would be similar to how one would print conventional pre-dubs and then make a conventional Euphonix DSP console on the backend of that. So I can work in the traditional format but at any point in time flip into the non-linear world of virtual pre-dubbing and continually update events. That has been my tool of choice, for quite some time, for Sex and the City, for lots of films that we’ve worked on. The other nice thing about Nuendo is some of the VST-based plug-ins that are available. We basically built these reverb farms, if you want to think of them that way. There’s one machine on either side of the console, on the dialogue side and on the effects side. And what theses things do is that they basically carry up to 12 instances of Ultraverb and various other reverbs that are essentially our reverb boxes. The nice thing is that the controls for the automation for these boxes basically lay out on the surface of the System 5, so we can get into editing the minutiae of the reverb presets quite easily. So essentially we have what we’ve considered to be reverb farms, all running within Nuendo. And it’s amazing with some of the new hardware you can get many, many instances of quite power-hungry reverbs running in the Nuendo environment. So, at any point in time, there’re quite a few Nuendo sessions running with us regardless of how the movie was prepared, whether it is in Pro Tools or whatever. On some the shows where we have total control we will do all the editing in Nuendo which is our first choice, but given that we’re often one of the steps along the way, the decision as in what workstation is the prevalent one is done before it gets to us — but either way, Nuendo touches all of these films.

You’ve been using a System 5-MC dual-operator, which you upgraded to a System 5 hybrid dual-operator station last year. What are the advantages of the Nuendo/dual System 5 combination that help you in your daily work?
Yes, it was always a dual System 5. It started out as a dual System 5-MC and is now dual System 5 hybrid, the difference being is that it has a conventional Euphonix backend plus the Euphonix EuCon environment. So it’s the best of both worlds. This gives us the ability to work with conventional mixers, people who have been used to working with large-format mixing consoles. They can work on the Euphonixes as if it were a familiar piece of gear and then add this other layer of workstation control on top of that. The System 5-MC is purely workstation control and it’s somewhat far into more conventional film mixers. The mixers who have the experience and have been around long enough to have a good track record have cut their teeth and been working with large-format mixing consoles for many, many years and that’s their tool of choice. So we have to adhere to both worlds and the System 5 hybrid basically does this perfectly. Along the way we’ve been able to introduce the joys of Nuendo to a lot of these folks and the general consensus is that it is a pretty amazing tool.

You mentioned Sex and the City: The Movie which grossed more than 400 million dollars at the box offices. How did you use Nuendo in that movie?
Working on Sex and the City was pretty much the same as with the other shows that I just described. One thing that was wonderful when working in the Nuendo environment was coping with the very tricky dialogue issues of the show in that they were shooting in New York, which is not the quietest city on the planet and they were shooting in some cases in Central Park, and there were scenes that were essentially slated for ADR that nobody even thought possible to resurrect from the noise conditions in which it lived and with some work with some of the plug-ins within Nuendo, Post-Filter and various other things, we actually got it to be quite usable. In fact there are scenes that are in the movie that nobody in the production, on the producing side, thought would ever be used and that they would have to be ADRed — and ADR is always the second choice in that the performance is never quite as good. So we were able to resurrect quite a few scenes from that film and I can honestly say that Nuendo helped quite significantly in that process.

On a more general note, what do you see as the current trend within the film-industry? Has anything changed during the last few years?
I think what has happened in our industry is that the middle tier to lower tier films have been attracted by sort of the icon world — a guy with a workstation pretty much doing everything — and those films typically are driven by budget and for them it seems like a neat idea. The only thing is that it has somewhat commoditized that market in that because there are so many driven and the tools are so cheap they have dropped the average price down on all the players in that particular world so like the music industry resorted to being an almost, you know, the term music industry being a contradiction in term, I see a trend in the smaller movies where that is starting to happen. On the other side, for the medium to upper-scale movies, they are not driven by the same thought pattern. The audio post or the post-production is so insignificant in the cost of the actual film itself — it’s too expensive to do it cheaply. So what they tend to do is that they tend to find people who’ve been around for a while, who except no compromise and those are the people that these folks tend to work with. These people tend to find solutions that are appropriate as opposed to solutions that are cheap. As a result there’re the large-format mixing consoles and anything that is basically a solution to a problem that might exist is the tool of choice. I see a great opportunity in this world for the marriage between Euphonix and Steinberg being quite useful in that Euphonix is branded on the high end and I’ve seen personally how we have been able to expose some of these types of players to the world of Nuendo and they’ve actually accepted it quite openly. Basically these are people that look at process and not the price, so this is a good thing.

Thank you very much for your time, John!