Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Field Trip: Warner Brothers Studios

A Hollywood landmark!
Once you hear it, there’s no mistaking what you’re supposed to see – the oafish Patsy clomping together two coconut halves, always two steps behind Arthur as popularized in the 1975 cult classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But where did that idea come from? Where did this style of sound design emerge?

Sound effects first became incorporated into the “talkies” in the late 1920s with the work of audio pioneer Jack Foley. The field he developed – the art of creating and recording live sound effects (often with unconventional materials) in sync with a finished reel during the post-production process – revolutionized motion pictures in the early years of cinema and continues to permeate the industry today. This type of work is rarely required within the scope of traditional theatre (unless it is a specific choice for the production), so it was a real treat for the MFA sound design students when we had to opportunity to explore the sound stages at Warner Brothers Studios, taking an in depth look at one of their Foley facilities.

This field trip (coordinated by Professor Vincent Olivieri as part of DRAMA 255: Trends in Modern Sound Design) began on the cool morning of December 6, 2019. After we carpooled up to Burbank, we left our vehicles with the valets and made our way past the multiple ongoing studio tours to the commissary where we grabbed a quick bite to eat and some hot joe (side note: they have a killer breakfast spread). After a few minutes to take in the enticing aromas of scrambled eggs and bacon, we headed back outside to meet our host Alyson Lee Moore, an accomplished Foley artist with over thirty years of experience in the industry, half of which she has spent with Warner Brothers. She is also a two-time Emmy award-winning Foley artist (a recent win shared with the department for their work on HBO’s Barry) with numerous Golden Reel nominations from Motion Picture Sound Editors.

One "street" of the studio

Alyson first took us around the various sets situated about the lot – a small township built out of scenic skeletons and optical illusions meant to be filmed from specific angles. Each unit is highly configurable – some even had false walls (they were quite convincing, even up close) creating striking visual partitions within the spaces. Everywhere we looked, there were full crews of carpenters, electricians, and stagehands hard at work preparing for the next set. At times, I felt a bit like a pedestrian on a construction site, but no one seemed to mind us: they are likely used to random people walking about. We also spotted some unique staged statements scattered about meant for quick selfies from tourists. We obviously had to take a few for ourselves…

MFA Sound Design Students, 2019-2020

Next, we headed into the museum on the lot where technical aspects from titles in the Warner Brothers catalog were on display – from the beautiful gowns worn by Lady Gaga in A Star is Born (2018) to a scenic reproduction of Central Perk from Friends (1994-2004) or the forced perspective table used in The Hobbit (2012). Towards the end of our stroll through the museum we exited off into a small enclosed room. Here, the audio from the film Gravity (2013) was played in a stemmed format so that we could listen to the sound effects, recorded dialogue, and soundtrack independently. Afterwards, we listened to all three together to hear how the tracks were crafted to complement each other – the spatialized mixing in ProTools really brought everything to life. We concluded in, where else? The gift shop!

Costume pieces and props from A Star Is Born (2018)

One of the many stages located on the lot
Next, Alyson took us around for a peek at some of the various sound stages while we waited for the working Foley artists to go to lunch (we didn’t want to disturb them while they were working). There were dozens of various sizes (some akin to aircraft hangars), and most of them had full crews within loading in the next production or striking the previous one. Each stage has a unique placard located next to the entrance with a comprehensive list every title that had been worked on in that space. Then, we meandered through the main properties storage facility on-site which, to me, looked more like the best stocked antique store that you could ask for. Alyson said that this was a frequent haunt for her, as many of the items required for Foley could normally be considered props. We finally came full circle, ending up back at the commissary where we departed for the recently vacated Foley studio.

The Foley studio, which was underground in the post-production facility, was comprised of a main room where all of the actual Foley would take place, a kitchenette-style area with large tubs for water work, a smaller side room dedicated for storage, and a control room complete with studio-grade recording equipment. From Alyson’s description, three artists would be working in the facility for a given project – two Foley artists and a mix engineer. She also let us in on some of the more… unique sounds that she has had to come up with over her career, like the use of semi-frozen gelatin to capture the likeness of footsteps on an alien planet. The main space was full of odds and ends (all noisemakers), a pit full of sand, gravel and debris, and some great shotgun microphones. After she fielded our questions for a bit, we had a chance to make some noise of our own. Then, we headed upstairs towards the daylight and contemplated lunch. 

As the day ended, we headed out with Alyson to one of our favorite cafes right as an afternoon downpour swept over the city. We spoke more with her about some of the specifics of her work, but also what she enjoyed doing in her free time, ongoing hobbies, and the ever-present question of work/life balance. Something that I found insightful is that although longer hours are sometimes inevitable, her daily schedule was fairly regular with hours from around 8 am to 5 pm. After the rain let up a bit, we said our goodbyes and made our way back to Irvine.
All in all, it was a fantastic day full of spectacle and even more insight into a boundlessly creative line of work. Throughout the tour, one descriptor kept coming to my mind that perfectly encapsulated the career and underlined its inherent connection to live theatre - resourcefulness.

I’m incredibly grateful that we had a fantastic quarter in our Trends class last fall and that so much of it was able to be spent out in the field or exploring other industries within sound design; this final excursion was the perfect cherry on top.

Biggest of thank yous to Vincent Olivieri, Alyson Dee Moore, and all the wonderful folks at Warner Brothers.

Photos by Garrett Gagnon, Vincent Olivieri, and Meghan Roche.

Field Trip: Backstage Disneyland

When I told friends and family that my class was going to get to go on a backstage tour of Disneyland to learn about their audio & other tech systems, I think they may have thought I was reading them a page from my dream journal. I have had a longstanding love of theme park history and design that started when I was a kid visiting Disneyland--asking Cast Members (the Disney term for "employees") annoying questions, using terrible dial-up internet to scour the ‘net for ride show scripts, reading every book on Imagineering that I could, and eventually keeping lists and notes and spreadsheets about how the park has changed over time and how it might operate. (Okay, maybe it was a little bit of an obsession. It's fine.) 

(Ah, I should quickly interject here that I'll be using a lot of parentheses in the post ahead--I was perhaps a touch too excited in revisiting the trip & wound up with a lot of vaguely-related sidenotes...sorry about that!)

Getting to combine theatre tech with this longstanding fascination is something I was looking forward to for weeks, so I am happy to report that when the day finally came, it somehow managed to surpass my already-high expectations.

Because Disney has some somewhat strict policies re: secrecy of backstage magic, there’s a limit to what I can share, but here’s a breakdown (sorta) of the day:
  • We started out at TDA (Team Disney Anaheim, a giant complex of what seemed to be primarily administrative buildings) and met our host, Jerry, who is an Entertainment Manager for Technical Services and whose history with the company goes back almost 25 years across a variety of roles! (We also discovered that I have photographic proof of having met him while he performed one of these roles in the late 90s, which was WILD, but due to Disney Magic reasons I’m not sure if I can share much more about that here, unfortunately…
  • We saw where the fireworks get shot off every night behind ToonTown--for the last 15 years or so, Disneyland has been using a somewhat unique technology to set off their fireworks which significantly reduces both the smoke and noise produced by the show. (If you’re at all interested in the history of their fireworks show and how they used to be set off, as well as how Disney pioneered the use of music synchronization with pyrotechnics, I highly recommend giving this podcast episode a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1DRHSCuqyI
  • We also saw where the parade floats are all kept when not “on-stage” and learned how audio gets distributed to (and from) them. (There were a number of Entertainment and Imagineering employees also gathered in the warehouse to test out a future parade addition, but that one is definitely going to need to stay a secret for now.)
  • The very first steps we took “on-stage” were somewhere most of us hadn’t had a chance to see yet: the brand-new Galaxy’s Edge expansion! It was gorgeous, the complexity of the audio alone was kind of mind-blowing, it really contributes a lot to the storytelling the land is able to pull off. I got to talk to a Stormtrooper who snuck up on me and accused me of having Rebel sympathies (and who, we learned, uses a crazy sophisticated system to talk to people in a way that allows them to personalize every single interaction while keeping a consistent voice, more Disney magic I probably shouldn’t divulge here) AND try the infamous Blue Milk. (It was $8, VERY sweet, and had a texture that turned out to be deeply polarizing among those who sampled it.) 
Backstage photos at Disney are very against the rules, so this is, unfortunately,
one of the few photos we have from the day. At least we look very cool in it?
  • We visited the venue for Mickey’s Magical Map in the large outdoor Fantasyland Theatre venue (which, fun fact, initially started out as a teen night club in the 1980s, more info on that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqgJ0N99eGg) and got to take a peek into the booth of the theatre before watching the show, chatting a bit with the show’s audio technician and stage manager. It was a good show, but because of the noise of the nearby passing train and our lovely VIP seats (which had our backs against a pretty reflective wall) the overall mix of the show was pretty loud. It took us a minute to recover. (I personally loved watching the little kids get totally enthralled in the action onstage, though.)
Waiting for the show to start! (I think? I am just now noticing that Garrett and
Jack are very focused on something up front...)
  • Lunch! We took a break from walking around the park, and grabbed a bite backstage at one of the Cast Member eateries backstage.
  • AUDIO CENTRAL. Okay, again, not sure how much I can divulge here, but the bulk of the audio for the park (especially for parades and other outdoor shows, area music, etc.) is controlled from one very fancy room sitting right above one of the guest-accessible levels of a Main Street, USA building. And when I say fancy, I mean that it sort of resembled a TV show art director’s idea of what a theme park command center might look like--shades all drawn, two people behind glass at giant control desks with many monitors flashing different numbers and graphs, a wall of video feeds and light-up maps of both Disneyland and Disney’s Californa Adventure…et cetera. (I just found an old Disney Parks Blog post about Audio Central that is relevant here, though it is 5 years old and they have since doubled the size of the facility and apparently updated a ton of the gear. Check it out: https://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/2014/03/behind-the-sounds-inside-audio-central-at-disney-california-adventure-park/)
  • Backstage at Frozen in the Hyperion Theatre in Disney’s California Adventure! Because it was a “dark day,” we did not get to see any action happening, but it did mean that we got to walk around the entire theatre without worrying about a huge time crunch. We saw the set-pieces and crazy costumes backstage (sidenote: the troll costumes are TERRIFYING without any actors inside of them), learned how some of their very intense automated lighting tracking worked, and walked all around the house of the theatre--clapping and marveling at how remarkably acoustically dead of a space the designers of the theater managed to make.
  • Finally, we got back to Disneyland and walked through the park to see parts of the Christmas parade that was running at the time. It was pretty neat to see in action all of the technical elements we had even learning about all day, and a nice way to put a bow on the end of the day.
This blog post is now approximately 4 times longer than I was told it should be, so I’m going to go ahead and wrap things up now. TL:DR? Theme parks are very cool and very technologically complicated! And we got to go learn about it for a day!

I leave you now with a photo of these two outrageously photogenic Disneyland ducks:

It's amazing how advanced Disney's Audio-Animatronic tech
has gotten over the years!

Sunday, January 19, 2020


Lots of Company! Life is Company! Love is Company!

...Sondheim wrote a hell of a show in Company. The unique Sondheim harmonic structures, overlapping vocal lines, and thick orchestration do not escape this show. I have only had the privilege of designing a Sondheim show twice before (Gypsy and Into the Woods), so I was thrilled at the opportunity when I learned I was going to be designing Company as the season opener.

When I was thinking through an outline for my design process, there were a couple specific challenges to overcome and goals to meet.

First of all, the show was in the Irvine Barclay Theatre (IBT), which is a fantastic 750-seat proscenium theatre, and our usual venue for the season opening musical. However, as this venue is also its own business entity, we don't get to call the shots in the same way as we might in a UCI educational venue. We couldn't configure the equipment with as much flexibility. We had very strict hours during which we could work; being forced to leave the theatre at midnight during tech week is both a wonderful and terrible thing! And lastly, we didn't have free access to the venue until load-in, so a lot more guessing and relying on CAD drawings are necessary to put the design together before load in.

Secondly, some of my design goals caused some challenges around what gear our shop was able to supply. In a venue the size of the IBT, I wanted arrays, rather than point-source boxes, as my main system. And, being a musical theatre production, we used a left-center-right speaker position as is typical of most amplified musicals. Our main line array cabinet of choice at UCI is the Meyer M1D. We have 16 of these boxes, so I opted to use 8 per side for the L and R hangs. We were then fortunate to receive a little extra funding and rent the newer Meyer LINA system as the center hang (10 LINA cabinets).

My overarching goal of this design was to create a great sounding, reliable musical theatre system. Immersive audio and surround sound are hugely popular explorations in modern sound design, but for this show I wanted to instead focus that energy on perfecting the fundamentals. The show also did not call for a huge amount of additional sound content and effect. I added some NYC soundscapes from time to time, as well as a few incidentals where called for, but for the most part, anything more complex started to step on the score's toes.

The Barclay has a few in-house QSC KLA12 boxes per side, but given some of the restrictions mentioned above, we had much more control bringing in our own M1D arrays. Being able to rent the LINA array for the center vocal system meant that I had an amazing level of quality to work with. The groundplan, section, and array drawings show where I ended up with the system.

As you can see, the system also includes front fills, balcony fills, and "side fills," which were two Meyer UPJs hung immediately next to the LINA array, but focused toward the far outside sections of the orchestra level closer to the stage. This is the area the LINA didn't quite cover within a 6db tolerance. With those UPJs and the front fills (Meyer UPMs), the orchestra level had even coverage everywhere except for about 4-6 seats.
Arrays and front fills just after the truss went up.

In the last year, we have also acquired a slew of new equipment to fold into our designs. The main impetus was the old and decrepit nature of our former large-format mixing console. The Avid VENUE from years past was falling apart physically, and becoming quickly outdated as an educational tool. We're now using an Allen & Heath dLive system, consisting of the dLive DM48 MixRack with S7000 surface, and several digital snakes (DX32 and DX168) for expansion. This system finally allows enough I/O to handle most modern designs without restriction. The following shot of the tech table shows the control software for the dLive system. It also shows the Allen & Heath IP8, which is an amazingly versatile fader bank that gives me control of the system in a much more intuitive way without being at the console.

The wireless mics used on performers were the Shure UHF-R series that have been so ubiquitous in the last decade (or two...). We were able to use DPA 4061 microphone elements on all of the UR1 body packs, double miking our lead, "Bobby," since he is so rarely offstage. The fantastic A2 crew, trained by assistant sound designer Kyle Causey, was always keeping tabs on the status and performance of each mic, such that we didn't have any major incidents during the run of the show. They were using Wavetool, which is on the screen of the iPad in the previous picture. It's a software that combines the RF monitoring of Wireless Workbench with audio monitoring capabilities to let them look and listen for each microphone on a computer, iPad, or iPod Touch anywhere on the deck. This was our first show using Wavetool, and it proved to be an awesome update to the A2 workflow here!

Another purchase we've made in the last two years is Waves SoundGrid. This is an external FX processing server that loops into the console via an expansion card - it allows us to add any Waves plugins to the live effects chain in the console! In this case, I was able to use Waves plugins like their DeEsser, RVerb, TrueVerb, C6, and a few others to augment the limited processing the board can do. At the far end of the FOH table picture is the monitor with control software for SoundGrid. In front of the S7000 is our mixer/A1 JJ Margolis, who was thankfully able to put up with me during this whole process! The picture was candid for JJ but less so for Amin, our QLab operator.

The orchestra was the last major piece of the [sound] puzzle, and in this case, they were located on stage, between the NYC buildings and the actor platform. Having the new digital snakes with the Allen & Heath equipment made it so much easier to integrate the orchestra into the system. Because of the orchestra's location, there was a pretty large distance from them to the audience, so amplifying them and keeping their stage sound level under control was more manageable than I anticipated. The actors had the advantage of being closer to the orchestra at all times (though we still used a full stage monitor system). And, I actually found it much easier to get a consistent orchestra/vocal blend throughout the audience since the orchestra was not immediately in front of the front row! I didn't snap any up-close pictures of the orchestra, but this might give an idea of their relation to the audience:

I was lucky to have mixed the season opening musical the year prior, Legally Blonde, with Jack Bueermann as designer. That show was also in the Barclay, so I was able to get a grasp on how to work best in the space and what might work best when it came around to designing Company. Because of the extra obstacles that working in the Barclay introduces, I tried to be ahead of the game in as many areas as possible. I was able to start thinking about system design options the previous Spring, and got the bulk of the drafting completed before we came back to the Fall quarter. I was met with a constant feeling that I was missing something, or something was bound to go wrong, but in the end the preparation paid off, and the team was able to get every piece of the puzzle together. I was able to enjoy working in the Barclay and felt rewarded by the success of the show.

Assistant: Meghan Roche
Assistant: Kyle Causey
Mix engineer: JJ Margolis

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Field Recording, Crystal Cove State Beach

Last fall, I took the students in my Trends in Modern Sound Design class (all six MFA designers, and a few music PhD students) to Crystal Cove State Beach to do some field recording.  We divided the class into three groups: one group made b-format and spaced pair recordings, one group made co-incident pair stereo recordings, and one group made close-up mono and other recordings.  We talked about how to plan for a field recording trip, but each group of students had to plan, prep, pack, and carry their own gear.

We started out at the central section of the beach, where there are few cafes and lots of people. Some groups chose to wander far from the people to get some isolated sounds, but others chose to embrace the public and get some 'folks at the seaside' recordings.

After that, we packed up and drove the north edge of the park, which was virtually deserted except for a few seagulls.  We hoped to get some sounds of sea spray on rocks, but the surf was decidedly down that day.  Oh well.  At least we got a great sunset!

The student are now madly editing the sound effects and editing metadata.  Once that post-production process is complete, the sounds and metadata will be uploaded to our sound effects server so that the UCI Sound Design community can have access to it in perpetuity.  Once all that is done, I'll share some examples here!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Track and Field 2019

In my Trends in Modern Sound Design class, we often do an iterative hot-potato project called Track and Field.  It's an opportunity for the students to work on efficiency, conceptualization, and workflow. Here's how it works:

1) On the first day, each student brings in a 30-second piece of audio of their own creation.  The audio can be anything, from field recordings to original music to a short narrative. Students bring in both a rendered audio file and individual stems, and may spend no more than 60 minutes in the studio working on it.
2) Each submission gets passed to another student, then uses the original material as the starting point for their own work. Again, they must limit themselves to 60 minutes of studio time and 30 seconds in duration, but other than that, they can do anything they want. Students turn in both a rendered audio file and individual stems.
3) We repeat that over and over, with a matrix set up in such a way that each student gets to work on each thread.

This quarter, I had nine students, so there are nine threads.  I've taken each thread and strung each iteration together in sequence, so you can hear how one thread changes as different designers get their hands on the material.  Enjoy!