When the Cinema Audio Society nominated sound mixers Michael Clark and Claes Nystrom of L.A.-based Bouquet Post for their sound mixing efforts on No Way Out: The Fall of Saigon, it was welcome recognition for a project that brought with it technical difficulties and challenging deadlines.
The two-hour doc, commissioned by NBC News and executive produced by Craig Leake of Pacific Pictures in L.A., looks at the last few weeks of the Vietnam conflict and the fall of Saigon through the recollections of 11 U.S. soldiers who experienced it first hand. Says Leake, ‘Rather than try to tell the whole historical sweep of Vietnam – we deliberately avoided getting into the whole debate of should we or should we not have been there – we made it a personal story about these Americans.’
To avoid talking heads, Leake decided to marry news footage shot during the war with the stories of the survivors. ‘As it turns out, there is very compelling footage of people tying to escape the advancing North Vietnamese troops,’ says Leake. Footage recorded by journalists, Vietnamese soldiers and American military personnel was gathered from nine sources, including BBC Worldwide and the archives of NBC, CBS and ABC – most shot on 16mm film.
‘Sixteen millimeter film is the worst [sound] recording medium in use today,’ says Bouquet’s Nystrom. ‘It has a very limited bandwidth, which means low frequencies and high frequencies are not picked up, so it sounds telephone-y.’ Additionally, the material was 25 years old. Explains Greg Lanesey, general manager of Bouquet, ‘Filling out 25-year-old sound with today’s technology is like putting today’s race car up against the race cars of 1972. We had to find a way to effectively mix the two so the new sounds didn’t remind you that the other stuff was recorded so long ago. There were also problems with the sound in terms of distortion, hiss and general muddiness. We had to clean it up and then make it work in what is now pretty much an all-digital world.’
Nystrom and Clark spent three days in the mix room – at a rate of about US$2,500 a day – armed with Mac G4 Pro Tools, Tascam MMR-8 hard disk recorder/players, and Yamaha 02R mixer boards. The mission was to enhance the sound from the archival footage, but not bring it up to today’s standards, as the contrast between new sound and 1960s film would be too jarring. Explains Nystrom, ‘Today’s computer technology allows absolute control of the sound elements (volume, frequency, dynamic range, etcetera) down to the fraction of a frame. We took out and replaced small, bad pieces of old sound in an old clip and replaced them with small, good pieces of old sound from the same old clip. In many cases, however, the sound was so bad we had to add our own sound effects. It’s a detailed process applied to many sounds individually.’ The digital sound effects were made to blend smoothly into the archival footage by adjusting the bass and treble levels. Ultimately, they made the old sound a little better and the new sound a little worse.
To speed the process along, sound effects were added during the picture edit. This kept costs down by reducing the time spent on a sound stage and gave the editors more control over the sound by allowing them to better communicate their ideas to the mixers. Says Leake, ‘It’s our standard procedure in non-linear editing to do as much sound work as we can. You want to collaborate with a sound mixer at the end, because you need someone who is doing that kind of work every day and will really pay attention to detail. At the same time, if you can give a mixer an accurate and full representation of what you were thinking when you edited [the picture], the better off everyone is going to be with the end result.’
Lanesey agrees, but cautions filmmakers to ensure the sound is properly loaded into the Avid: ‘That’s how we keep costs down for indies. We tell them to bring in the sounds they like; when we put [the sounds] in the big room, you hear them and if there’s something that’s a quick fix, it’s not going to cost anything.’ Adds Nystrom, ‘That’s why we could mix the film so quickly. The Avid editor did a really good job pre-editing the sound, so we could start mixing right away.’
No Way Out aired on MSNBC last spring and carried a budget of about US$250,000.