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WB Sound 80th Anniversary: Studio on the Cutting Edge

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By Thomas J. McLean
In the 80 years since Warner Bros. put out the first �talkie� on Vitaphone with Al Jolson�s The Jazz Singer, constant change has been the norm for sound crafts in the motion picture industry.
That�s something that the sound department at Warner Bros. Studios Post Production Services has kept in mind all these years, and today it maintains a pioneering position within the industry by keeping its ear to the ground and adapting to the ever-shifting needs of the industry and its clients.
The biggest investment the studio has made in sound post services is its revamped and renovated sound facility, which opened two years ago, and was designed and built with the needs of sound crews and filmmakers foremost in mind. It features an all-digital environment based on Pro Tools HD, and incorporates workflow solutions that let sound supervisors, editors and mixers work more creatively at a time when schedules, budgets and crew sizes are shrinking even as expectations of quality are growing.
Kim Waugh, senior VP post-production services, says it�s very important � and suitably appropriate � for the sound department to listen to its clients and adapt to both changes in technology and the way people want to work.
�We�re moving them into smaller rooms, more cost-effective environments and environments where budgets can be met and the product can be turned around in a shorter period of time, resulting in higher quality and a zero rejection rate,� he says.
The department�s services may come from a large studio, but they�re packaged more like a boutique operation. �We�ve been able to build boutiques to support different needs and different business units as opposed to just one large department that goes, �Well, we can sort of fit that work in because we have capacity,�� Waugh says. �That�s really a large key to our success.�
Supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay, whose credits include Terrence Malick�s The New World and the upcoming I Am Legend, says Warner Bros. offers a nice mix of independence and freedom. �(Filmmakers) like to be able to have their privacy and anonymity, and work on their projects and not feel like they�re part of some huge corporation,� he says. �But they also like to be able to have the good facilities, like the big-time movie people that they are.�
�In a funny way, it doesn�t feel like a big company, it�s a small company,� says Richard King, an Oscar-winning sound designer and editor who recently worked on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward John Ford. �I know it is connected to a huge corporation, but I interface with a small number of people on a day-to-day basis.�
Doing all this requires more than just the latest technology, and the studio has invested a lot of effort into assembling a talent pool and staff that establishes and supports good relationships with and meets the creative needs of filmmakers.
Waugh says encouraging that kind of culture through transparency and good communication between business units was one of his main goals when he came to Warner Bros. in 2004. �I rely heavily on individuals within these business units,� he says. �We�re meeting on a weekly basis or more often than that to discuss exactly where we need to be.�
Streamlining workflows has been essential and reflects growing trends in the overall sound community, where technology allows changes to be made right up to the very end of the filmmaking process. It also allows, and in some cases requires, a blurring of the lines between jobs that were once distinct. Today, more sound supervisors also are mixing, and work is less likely to get bogged down in technical requirements as digital tools allow for a level of flexibility unimagined 25 years ago.
�It really has come down to the individuals who are dealing with new ways of working,� says Waugh, who sites Lievsay and Tim Chau, who recently worked on Rush Hour 3, as examples of supervisors who also mix.
�I like to have a small crew and keep people on the show for a longer period of time,� says King. �When they�re in a crunch they�re all able to pick up the slack in another department if needed.�
The need to work more efficiently has led to some interesting workflow solutions, Waugh says. �When we get into situations where we have shorter schedules to work with on the re-recording side, a number of sound supervisors and designers premix material in a Pro Tools environment and deliver that material to the dubbing stage as predubbed elements,� he says. �Not only does it give the mixer the ability to work with material that�s already tastefully prepared, we also maintain the ability to break it apart again when mixer or other creatives want to change it.�
That turns time that in the past would have been spent sorting material on the stage into time working on the mix itself, Waugh says. �Those relationships between the sound editors and the mixing environment, those relationships have become far closer over the past 10 years.�
Other innovations are to be found in areas beyond the feature film realm. The studio�s DVD audio-mastering department, headed by Tim Hoggatt, uses a quality control system that enables tracks to be analyzed in advance to determine the amount of cleanup work required. Hoggatt manages a crew that operates with two shifts a day five or six days a week, and turns around hundreds of titles with a 100 percent acceptance rate, Waugh says.
Audio restoration is a more complex area, as each project has a different scope. Sometimes, it�s as simple as doing a pass on the sonics and converting from mono or stereo to 5.1, Waugh says. Other times, it�s going into magnetic tapes and finding missing dialogue or music and restoring it to the mix.
Television sound is another fast-evolving area where the pressures of time are especially acute for sound supervisors who usually oversee more than one show. For example, Walt Newman has handled, in addition to other programs, the NBC series ER from its inception in 1994, while Mike Lawshe oversees two complex sci-fi offerings in Supernatural and Smallville.
�They�re turning out feature level work within a five day period,� says Waugh. �It�s an enormous amount of pressure.�
The studio also began doing sound for video games about a year and a half ago, and while it�s so far only a small part of the studio�s business, its work has already been recognized with awards.
The blurring of lines also is happening between sound and other post departments. WB is among the increasing number of facilitie
s � Sony and Wildfire among them � that package sound services with DI.
�It�s terribly evident that a large number of filmmakers who are posting on the lot also see a great advantage in working on the DI at the same time at the same location,� Waugh says. �It�s definitely a new trend that will continue.�
Waugh says he is proud of his department�s success in the industry, which he measures in ways both abstract and concrete, from Alan Murray winning the sound-editing Oscar for Letters from Iwo Jima, to the extensive close relationships the facility has forged with other studios and filmmakers and the demand for its services among films with budgets large and small. �We�re doing a large number of independent films for studios that respectfully look at our talent and look at our servicing and prefer to be with us,� he says.
But there are challenges to overcome in this environment, including a failure to mentor new talent and help them develop into the next generation of superstars. �There are fabulous mixers out there, but when they retire, it�s going to leave a void,� Waugh says.
For the future of both Warner Sound and the sound community, Waugh sees today�s trends continuing. �Further advances in technology will help streamline the processes we�ll need to accommodate both the pressure that production and post prod are under,� he says.

Written by Tom McLean

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