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.

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