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Jon Vogl on Budgeting for Post Production Sound, Transitioning From Film to Digital Dubbers, and Con Air‘s Place in Sound History

Apex Post's Mix Stage

On a shady street in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District you’ll find Second Line Stages’ annex building, where Apex Post Production is located. Depending on the day you arrive, you might witness an ADR session for Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven or Ava DuVernay’s new TV show Queen Sugar. The man running the ADR session is Jon Vogl, a Los Angeles transplant and studio veteran who moved to New Orleans to take advantage of increased film and TV production in the state. In this sit-down we discuss the technological changes that he’s witnessed in his twenty-plus years working in post-sound and what those changes mean for independent filmmakers.

Filmmaker: How did you get started working in post-sound?

Vogl: I was in college [at UCLA] and studied music as a composer. I eventually earned a PhD. I loved electronic music, working with synthesizers and multi-track recording. In school, I discovered that film scoring would be a possible way to make a living with music. When I graduated, I decided that one of the best ways to find out how film scoring worked was to go work in a post-production company to see how that was done. I found a company that was a very reputable and popular place at the time, Todd AO Glen Glenn Sound in Hollywood. I must’ve sent about 18 resumes to them to just get a meeting. Todd AO Glen Glenn was an independent post production company, which I thought this was kind of fascinating — that they were working on these huge films that were being made by Paramount, Universal, Disney, Fox, Sony. I wondered why they would outsource everything to this independent post company when those studios have their own sound departments on the lot? The studio sound departments on the lot can only handle so much work. They were making 25 films a year and could only run five or ten of them, max, through their own departments.

I ended up getting hired to work in their film library, working essentially in the mail room making minimum wage, with the hope that I’d get an opportunity to work on their mixing stages. It was a union company and all these big films that I wanted to work on in any capacity were all union productions. It was catch-22 — you have to work on a film to join the union, but you can’t work on a film unless you’re in the union. So this company made a deal with me and said, “Find your way around and you’ll be in line. We could have the possibility of putting you in the union if you continue to work here.” For three months I worked in the film library. When my shift was over, I stayed five hours later and went into all these fancy stages and machine rooms, learned the equipment that these guys were using and hung out with them. I don’t know who knew I was doing it, but I was doing it. After two or three months of that, I was pretty proficient and a position did open up.

Later on, I had the opportunity to work at 20th Century Fox and was on staff in their post production department, doing many of the same things that I was doing at Todd AO but on even a larger scale, because now you had a a corporation that was not only doing the individual post production work, but they’re [also] a production company. I remember working on Independence Day. No film had ever reached $100 million at that point, and we hit it. Coming back to work that day, there was a big banner over the front of the lot that said, “$100 million.” We never made any more money as an employee, but it was fun to be part of something that was so successful.

When the economy took a big hit in 2008, I had already left Fox to open my own company. A lot of the independent work that I was getting out in LA dried up because the studios reigned in overflow work and reduced the amount of movies they produced. They used to produce 25 a year, now they’re down to 10 or 12. All of the independent operators ended up having a hard time working. Todd AO Glen Glenn had to close down around 2008.

Filmmaker: How has the scale of production changed due to technology?

Vogl: When I started we were working with 35mm film on the soundtracks, and every piece of film had a maximum of six channels. To have a 200- or 300-channel soundtrack, you had to be able to playback — do the math — 50 machines simultaneously that held 35 millimeter film. Each one of these machines was the size of a phone booth. You have these big spools of film that looks like regular film that’s screened, but there’s only magnetic acetate on the film, about 30 or 50 of these things synchronized together in a very large back room. You’d have two or three of these things together —100 of these machines lined up, holding these big things of film. When they started and stopped, it shook the ground.

Slowly, as digital became useful in film sound or sound in general, there was a long process of evolution. All the manufacturers would send us their equipment to try and tell them what was working and what wasn’t. It was this race to see who was going to win and get the contract to buy all the machines that were now going to take the place of digital Magnetek recorders that had been working for 30 years. Digidesign came up with their version called digital dubbers, because those big 35mm machines were called dubbing machines. These were little boxes that played back hard drives. At the time, everybody was not sure that they were going to work. So, the first few films that we tried them with, we did the film two ways. We simultaneously did everything on 35mm film and tried it on the digital dubber simultaneously in case it failed.

Filmmaker: Do you remember what film that was? 

Vogl: Con Air was one of the first ones, and Speed 2: Cruise Control. Those films took about six or seven months from start to end for us They had two crews working, so they hired double the number of people. There was a redundant backup, [but] at the same time, they were splitting the wires to run to both sets of machines. It worked and economized the ability to do it better quality. We didn’t have digital projection yet, but we had digital soundtracks. You would run a little coding on the side of the inside of the perforations on the film that would trigger a playback system in the theater that was digital. You had digital sound before you had digital picture.

Filmmaker: I have a friend who does a lot of post-work from his Macbook and that’s the way he learned. I feel that’s a radical departure from how you learned your craft.

Vogl: It’s a bigger topic, really. Does this job even exist? Major studios have certain expectations of a soundtrack on a major studio production, whether it be broadcast television or feature film. In order to produce a soundtrack to those standards, you have to work in an environment that can control those standards and, first of all, identify them. Working on a laptop on Final Cut Pro, you cannot identify, judge or confirm that those parameters are being observed. You have to have it in a space that is large enough. It has to be an acoustic environment. It has to be a professional setting, audio levels need to be a professional standard. There’s a lot of specifications that need to be met. Do it yourself laptop-based software, it’s fine if all you’re going to do is share something on YouTube or Vimeo, or even submit it to a film festival, but if you’ve only created it [on your laptop], do a really good job and get accepted into a film festival and guess what, a distributor sees it and actually wants to buy it? Then there’s going to be a conversation about you providing elements that are up to their industry standards, and you probably don’t have them, and that’s a problem.

Filmmaker: What audio production services do you offer?

Vogl: Our main services are audio post work for feature films and television. I do an awful lot of ADR recording for local productions or productions that have local artists from other films working on them. [We] also do complete post production sound packages, which includes everything from receiving and editing the original production dialogue to recording ADR, adding sound effects, design work on the entire soundtrack, sound effects recording and foley. We guide that process all the way through the final mix and the delivery and create the deliverables for the production for distribution.

Filmmaker: What does a sound editor do?

Vogl: Editing is the synchronization of audio to the action on the film. It’s done with dialogue, sound effects and music. You edit all three of those types of audio the same way physically, within ProTools, but they all have their own nuances for what is required in that process. The words have to match the person’s mouth’s movement. There’s also a lot of little noises or lip smacks.

Filmmaker: Or too many footsteps. 

Vogl: Yeah, little problems. Typically, we would remove all that stuff from the dialogue track and make it very clean. If we want to add that stuff back in, we do it through our sound effects editing process in a very controlled manner. Oftentimes, when it’s recorded along with the dialogue on the same recording, you don’t have control over the balance of those footsteps or lip smacks or anything that you might want to keep. It’s essentially married to that dialogue — it’s very hard to control the levels between the two things. To separate them, you edit, cut it away and place it on a different recorded track. In that process, you might find that, well, if I’m going to edit it away, I’ll go ahead and add something different that might sound a little bit better. The production recording engineer and boom operator, they’re trying to get the clean dialogue recording. They’re really not trying to get the footsteps or when they close the door. Sometimes they accidentally do, and sometimes those sounds are actually pretty good and we’ll use them. But most of the time, we’ll cut them away from the dialogue so we can isolate it.

With ADR, a lot of times those performances are really good, but they’re not the original performance in terms of synchronization. So we will go in and slightly make edits, move bits and pieces of words even. We’ll change the position of a syllable at the end of the word to match better their original performance. You can move around elements of a word or words within a sentence, but you also have to be very conscious of maintaining a natural speaking voice. You can’t just start shoving syllables together. It has to sound natural. So there’s a certain threshold to where you can move something within a word or a sentence and still keep that natural sound. 

Filmmaker: There’s no textbook or standard, right? I assume every actor is different?

Vogl: Some actors speak very quickly. They speak under their breath and they don’t enunciate very much. They might slur some words. Those are very difficult actors to edit or get clear-sounding dialogue from. Others may be trained a little bit differently and pay special attention to diction, enunciation and projection, and they’re very consistently facing the microphone. The understand how to get a good recording in their voice and they’ll go after that. I can often tell trained actors that come in here that have had a lot of experience.

Filmmaker: What about sound effects?

Vogl: The editorial process for sound effects is quite different, because you’re trying to add something in that didn’t exist already, or you want to enhance something. Oftentimes we’ll have a library of hundreds of thousands of sounds. We’ll selectively pick out the most appropriate sound for that action or movement. A car pulling up and stopping could be a combination of 30 different sound effects: the engine, wheels coming to a stop on the pavement, brakes squeaking, the door opening and closing, the key turning, the ignition turning off and the car being put into park. As an audience-goer, you don’t want to made aware of all of these different sounds. You want a car to sound like a car, so that’s what we do. But we also recognize that there’s all these different sounds and they all have to be captured and stacked together, balanced and in sync.

Filmmaker: If a sound is missing, someone will notice.

Vogl: There’s a subliminal notification, if you want to call it that: you may not notice exactly what’s missing, but internally you notice something is wrong. We’re trying to create this magical sense of created reality that’s authentic. The better that we can do that, the better the story is told. Really low budget films may not be able to afford to have all those footsteps recorded. That may be one of those things that you just can’t do. But know that we can get the door closes, we can get some of those elements of the car pulling up. We can’t get everything because we don’t have the resources, because every single sound effect that you add or reposition and then have to mix, it takes time. If the budget and timeframe are so limited that we can’t do all of that, we’ll have to pick and choose and get the most topical elements to cut sound for.

Filmmaker: What should you prioritize when editing a low budget film?

Vogl: Dialogue. If you can’t hear what people are saying and understand what they’re saying, then how do you tell the story? After that, we break our sound effects down into different categories. Hard effects are the sound effects that you visually see — movements of people, actions on screen that are directly associated with making a sound. If those are missing, than it’s pretty obvious. On the other extreme, there’s so many levels of detail. We have background ambient sound effects, the sound of a room or an environment. If you’re outside, you hear the wind and bugs or birds or cars in the background whether you see them or not. You can really liven up the environment with these ambient background sounds, and make it feel like a more real environment that you’re a part of. When [these sounds] aren’t there, it sounds dead. You’re not convinced subliminally that this is a real environment. The level of the budget allows us to go into great detail or not with those background ambiences. You can have one simple layer of a breezy atmosphere, or, if you have time, you can add some specific bugs or birds.

Foley is recorded on a stage. That’s typically footsteps, hand and body movements, real subtle stuff. Watch and look at what surface the person is walking on, what type of shoes they’re wearing. If it’s a concrete surface with high heels, you obviously a very different type of shoe and surface than if it’s somebody with tennis shoes walking on grass. If somebody changes from one surface to another, you have to time that. If you’re in a kitchen having dinner and you’re handling cups, pouring water and using utensils, those little intricate little sounds may not have occurred during the actual shooting, or maybe they did occur and they were out of balance with everything else and we had to cut them away. So we’ll go back and add those very tastefully.

Between the hard effects, the background effects, the foley, you start building a very deep and rich texture of many, many sounds. You blend them together and adjust the level and volume. All of that is done through the mixing process. Usually, one person will be assigned to each one of these tasks I mentioned. There’s one final group of sound effects, design effects. Those are a combination of music and sound effects, not anything that you would identify as being an object onscreen or part of the action. A lot of times, they’re transitional whooshes. In horror films you have stings where you have impacts or scares.All of these things are designed sounds, usually created out of a sampler or a synthesizer.

Filmmaker: What are some best practices you recommend for independent and low budget filmmakers, especially if they plan on working with a professional post house? How can they stretch their post budgets?

Vogl: Set aside a budget to work with that’s reasonable, that you would expect somebody to work with. When I budget films, I suggest that you spend 15 or 20 percent of your film on post production. Hopefully you can do that. As for sound in production, I would absolutely, without hesitation, say get a reliable, experienced production sound team: a production sound mixer, a boom operator, and a utility person that can help facilitate whatever the recordists or boom operator needs. If you can get good-sounding audio during your production, you’re 90 percent of the way there, literally. If you don’t, then any money that you have to produce a soundtrack is going to go towards repairing and rebuilding your bad production audio. If you get good production audio, then 90 percent of the money that you have can go towards enhancing your soundtrack, building detail and levels and cool stuff that can give you a really deep, beautiful soundtrack.

You know, I have this great stage and can work on really expensive, big soundtracks that have all of the expectations and technical stuff for the big studios. But I also like to cultivate relationships of aspiring filmmakers and work on a lot of independent films, and I just happen to have a great facility to be able to do that. So I can’t do it for free. I have employees that need the work or need to eat and be paid, so we need to have some revenue on every project that we work from. But we understand that the project expectations are often in line with the project budget. A Hollywood production that costs $10 million, they have a very high level of expectation and will require my services every step of the way, not just at the end. A smaller film that may cost $500,000 or a million dollars, they just want to get their film done and have something decent that they can present. I can work within any budget range, as long as there’s something to work with, and scale down the levels of detail and assess. If you have decent dialogue that’ll help us do more. If all we can do is clean up your dialogue, we’ll assess and try to make it work.

It’s tough. I would love to say that on a $1 million film you should budget $40,000 for your soundtrack. That’s four percent. That we can really work with. It used to be $100,000 was the minimum we could work with on a soundtrack. Now, with the technology, we work fast, we have to cut corners here and there. Wages have gone down. It’s compressed the market, so people will work for less. Unfortunately, that gets exploited. Expectations are higher, the turnarounds are shorter and the budgets are lower.

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