Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Creating Film Sound: an interview with Richard Beggs, pt.1

by Matteo Milani - U.S.O. Project, February 2011

Richard Beggs, sound designer and re-recording mixer, has worked in his career with directors like Francis Coppola, Ivan Reitman, Mel Brooks, Barry Levinson, Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola (including her latest "Somewhere" - Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice Film Festival 2010), and Alfonso Cuarón, among others.
He won an Academy Award for Best Sound for Apocalypse Now (1979) and has received many Golden Reel Award nominations as sound designer and mixer for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), Children of Men (2006).
Beggs teaches film sound at the California College of the Arts, he is an associate fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University, and sits on the board of directors of the San Francisco Arts Education Project.
Trained as a painter, Beggs received a B.F.A from the San Francisco Art Institute and an M.F.A. from the California College of the Arts. He exhibited at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at Oakland Museum of California. A native San Franciscan (1942), Beggs has his sound studio at the San Francisco Film Centre in the Presidio of San Francisco.

[a shot of Richard Beggs in his studio - photo © R.Beggs]

Matteo Milani: I'm very curious about your sound education background, and how you entered the movie industry. Can you tell me about it?

Richard Beggs: I have no formal film or audio education. I had no professional aspirations in this regard. I'm self-taught. During the sixties I was, in the parlance of the time, a "hi-fi bug" and had a consuming passion for classical music that tended to the modern and contemporary. These two interests helped prepare the way for what would eventually become a career in film sound. My vocation and training was to become a painter. My formal education consists of a bachelor’s and master’s degree in fine arts.

During the mid-sixties, my enthusiasm for audio technology and music led to a period of volunteer field recording for KPFA radio, a listener-supported radio station in Berkeley, California. By this time my hi-fi system had come to include an inordinately expensive, semi-pro 1/2 track recorder and four AKG condenser microphones. I recorded lectures and concerts, whatever the station assigned me and I had time for. I really had little understanding of what it was I was about, but KPFA was a nonprofit public radio station and so it dealt with my learning curve, which was often painful for both of us. It was during this period that I was asked to record a chamber music concert independently of the radio station. A fee was mentioned by the musicians and I realized that people would actually pay me to indulge my passion for music and audio. I could support my painting and my family by working as a recording engineer on a part-time freelance basis and devote the bulk of my time to painting. Or so I thought.

I was fortunate in having a technical mentor during those years who taught me the audio engineering principles and practices that allowed me to eventually become professionally viable. My skills with a soldering iron and audio schematics developed along with razor blade editing and microphone technique. Business is not my strong point so client relations and a crude, business sensibility were slow in developing. I ran more on enthusiasm than common sense. A small, garage recording studio in my home was the result. Rock and roll was how I spent most of my time along with field recordings of chamber groups and the occasional symphony orchestra but over time advertising work and documentary scores became increasingly important. These more “fiscally viable” clients often provided more creative latitude and problem-solving opportunities along with a habit of regular payment for services. The idea that there were clients to whom the idea of paying was not an annoying hindrance to creativity but instead a professional obligation was a revelation. The issue of painter versus sound designer remains unresolved.

I eventually moved the studio from the home garage environment to a more professional location. In 1972, together with a partner, I leased the old Kingston Trio Studio in the basement of the Sentinel Building in San Francisco's North Beach. Over several years time, the studio developed a clientele. A part-time audio engineering job I held at Cal State University Hayward’s music department soon gave way to full time demands at my studio. My partner went to NY to pursue fame and fortune, and I hired my first employee. It was my first experience with delegation and surrendering complete control of what till then had been a totally personal, one man undertaking. It was difficult and still is.

In 1974 the director Francis Coppola bought the Sentinel Building and moved in with his film production company, American Zoetrope. In 1976 Francis purchased a controlling interest in my studio and we formed Beggs/AZ. The partnership moved the studio overnight from 4-track capability to 16 and eventually 24 tracks. The studio continued with it's original clientele for several years. Along with a lot of head-banging rock and roll and other album projects, I was doing work for Sesame Street and national and local radio and TV advertising.

When post for Godfather Part ll started, the studio began a fitful transition from music and commercials to feature film. In 1977 Francis bought my interest in Beggs/AZ and put me to work on Apocalypse Now. My first full-tilt foray into film. He talked to me in abstract generalities about the sound of the picture and the areas he would like me to work in. I was so enthused I generated a slightly corny but earnestly felt, 20-minute "tone impression" mood piece that expressed my idea of what Apocalypse Now might sound like. It was an unsolicited demo. I don't remember him ever saying anything about it. The studio was four-walled for 2 years and I became fully committed to film sound. 

[YouTube - “Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Sound Design of Apocalypse Now” featurette]

MM: What did Apocalypse Now represent in your sound career?

RB: Apocalypse Now marked the beginning of my career in film. Few are fortunate enough to have a picture like that as a first film. Apocalypse Now set the bar very high. That experience and its fallout opened many doors and created many opportunities. My hope is that I’ve been able to follow through and have lived up to my initial success. The entire experience was transformative. Apocalypse was like dropping acid and it went on for two years.

[Beggs was not only the music re-recording mixer, he also recorded the narration (by Martin Sheen) and was one of the six synthesists who “realized” the score by Coppola and his father, Carmine.. The first ghost helicopter, the classic sound effect that opens the film, was created by Richard Beggs on a Moog synthesizer.] 

Larry Blake, Apocalypse Now REDUX, 2001

MM: How do you fabricate the "Ghost Helicopter" sound of the title sequence?

RB: There were many helicopter sounds in the film. They came in two forms, organic and synthesized. I created all of the synthesized helicopters from scratch with pure synthesis. These synthesized elements could stand on their own or were used to sweeten "real" effects. They would often transition between real and synthesized. The synthesized ceiling fan in the title sequence that becomes the Huey landing in downtown Saigon is a synth to real transition.
At the time, Moog synthesizers had no storage capabilities. No samples. Sounds were created from raw waveforms or white noise or played through a synthesizer and manipulated but not stored. I made the helicopter sounds in real time performance, utilizing white noise, envelope generators, filters and a clock driven sequencer to create the modulated, rhythmic patterns of the rotors.

[R. Beggs and R. Thom discuss and examine the sound design of the opening shot of the movie]

[When Willard finally arrives at Kurtz's compound, he is met by an army of natives who shoot a barrage of arrows at him. How was this sound created?
Richard Beggs recorded a stick of willow that you could whip through the air. Then they dumped it over onto a twenty-four-track multitrack and just repeated and repeated it, creating layers of sound on different tracks staggered out of sync. So we had twenty-four tracks of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, placed in the space.]

Walter Murch, Sound-on-film: Interviews with Creators of Film Sound by Vincent LoBrutto, 1994

MM: Is your job like a calling, a passion you had when you were young?

RB: At its best, my job is a calling, to use your phrase. The irrational dedication and inhuman schedules of the early days have been muted a bit, but if I'm working on a good picture with a good crew and have that fundamental creative identification with the project, it's a work of passion. Maybe my approach is more tempered and measured these days, but I still feel that rush when a scene’s working, when I've managed to connect with the essence of the project and I think to myself, "I made that happen." In this business, a potential downside to this consuming creative commitment is that it contributes to making one an easy target for financial exploitation. Enough exploitation and passion falters. Art and finance are uncomfortable bed-mates.

[Fog City Mavericks]

MM: You're a pioneer, together with others Bay Area "Mavericks": you were in the right place at the right time to do the right thing. Do you consider yourself lucky to have lived that time in movie history?

RB: Yes, I consider myself lucky. My introduction to the industry was served with a silver spoon. I was brought into the business, I didn’t seek it. I was in league with a brilliant, forward-looking director who placed tremendous stock in creativity and innovation. Francis made a point of demanding these virtues in the creation of his sound tracks. My colleagues and co-workers on Apocalypse Now were accomplished, dedicated players. It was a first film experience that defied convention. I had no standard of comparison and no preconceptions. I knew though, that I was in an exceptional situation with a group of exceptional people. All movies couldn’t be made like this. To my knowledge, multi-track capabilities and skills that I had learned in my music studio had never been applied to feature film production before. To me it made perfect sense and I plunged in, way over my head.

My first serious bruising was when I was nonchalantly presented change notes. I had never seen a change note in my life. When I saw my first and it was explained to me, the pain began. All the fluidity and speed of the 24-track recording format suddenly bogged down in the quicksand of conventional film post-production. The advantages of my native working format, which made sprocketed film technology appear like a vestige of the stone age, were now accompanied by serious liabilities. I won’t bore you with the gory details. It turned out that the technology was at a turning point and it was worth pushing and pursuing despite the inefficiencies. Over the next several years the system came to work and pay dividends in it’s own clumsy, maddening way. If I had come to the project with a practical, traditionally grounded background in film post I may have dismissed the entire notion out of hand. I would have missed out on a preliminary phase of what ended up as the digital revolution. How many sound editors could prepare, mix and audition 22 tracks simultaneously in their cutting room in 1977? Few if any. You could do more than cut sound, you could design sound, assuming a certain amount of patience.

Another advantage of entering the industry in the ‘70s was the exposure to both the pinnacle of analog technology and the arrival of digital and all its possibilities. I know where I came from and I know what I’m doing… most of the time. Film based analog protocols still exist in the digital film world, most with good reason. The reasons were obvious in the analog era. Now they are often an abstraction and their relevance and necessity is a harder sell for a digital generation of film makers new to the craft..

MM: Is there a technological achievement that has radically changed your artistic approach?

RB: No, there isn't any. I could speculate on how my work has been affected by new technologies, but I don’t think it’s that interesting. I feel my approach has always been fundamentally the same. It’s been the same as my approach to painting. My interactions with the track and the process by which ideas occur and develop is very similar to my interaction with the canvas as a painter. Light, dark, mass, line, contrast, color, texture, objects advance or recede, these visual properties all have sonic equivalents. These qualities, when used successfully, contribute to an emotional or expressive state that advances the story. 

MM: Recently, did you preferably work in your editing room and then transfer your material to a bigger facility?

RB: My first cutting room was a recording studio control room. I could not make a useful distinction between cutting and mixing. The technology was there so I did both from the beginning. Initially, mixing in the “small room” was constrained by the inability to efficiently provide flexible and accessible elements to the mixing stage. I was 2” tape, they were 35mm mag. Eq and reverb were major issues. Over time, advances in DAW technology have made it possible to increase the amount of mixing operations that can be performed successfully before going into the “big room,” without limiting mix stage decisions. This is becoming an industry trend that is not without complication.

As a sound designer/mixer, I’m unwilling in general to delegate mixing decisions to the sound editorial department. Mixing decisions are often creative, interpretive decisions that I prefer to make by myself or in concert with fellow mixers and the director. These decisions are made with all the elements of the track on line simultaneously and reasonably accessible. The creative and efficient preparation of tracks and presenting them in the best possible light with the least restriction of flexibility during the final mix, is a good thing. My worry is that our tools allow us to slip into a formulaic, albeit “efficient” methodology. The technology that originally offered a tremendous expansion of creative potential, can, in the wrong hands, become the provider of the pre-assembled, “it mixes itself” mix. Where the line is drawn between mixing and editing is an open question. For some the distinction is very clear, for some it’s a blur, for others the line no longer exists.

I like to think that I’m hired to make a unique contribution with a singular point of view to a film that has a singular point of view. I was once referred to as “the last of the art school sound designers.” While not intended as a compliment, I liked the “art school” part. The notion of being the last, if true, would bode ill for the kind of films I like to see and work on.

MM: Do you have a lot of work proposals? How do you choose the next work? Do you have a trusted team you rely on?

RB: My project calendar is usually determined by directors with whom I have sustained relationships, and those projects seem to arrive in cycles, the “when it rains, it pours” syndrome. I recently had a period of about five years that was breakneck, project to project. The last two years have been relatively quiet. Part of that time was a voluntary hiatus on my part; the rest was waiting for the phone to ring while doing smaller scale and independent or personal projects. Time has allowed me to become more selective as well. That’s a luxury I still have to learn how to enjoy and use well. Now things appear to be picking up again. We’ll see. There are no guaranties.

[The Making of Ghostbusters - 1984]

MM: The first motion picture 'sound' work I remember from my childhood, is the funny Ghostmobile "siren" you created for Ghostbusters (1984). Would you like to describe how you did it?

RB: I made the “Ectomobile” siren sound from a leopard snarl that was edited, pitched and otherwise processed, all in the analog domain. An Ampex AG-440 recorder, ¼ inch tape, VSO (Variable Speed Operation), a razor blade and an Editall splicing block were the tools.

[the distinctive Ectomobile's siren wail - via hprops.com]

Several ago, a “technically sophisticated” young man visited my old Zoetrope studio. I was there, digging around in archive sound effects and he heard something I was playing that I had created for Ghostbusters and asked what “program” I used to create the effect. He was incredulous when I told him “none.” He said he hadn’t thought it possible. 

MM: How did you manage to design the fantastic sound-world of Children of Men? The screenplay helped you to imagine the sound prior to gather and edit the sound itself?

RB: The sound idea of Children of Men is the result of a time collaboration with Alfonso Cuarón, the director. In part, its sound was almost foreordained. I read the script and felt in tune with its sensibility. The script provides the particular set of motivators that determine the style of the track. I will scribble ideas in the margin as I read. That’s the beginning, then I dive in. The most interesting and successful ideas evolve organically, often after long and sometimes tedious manipulation of the practical, prosaic, aspects of the track. Sometimes ideas will present themselves because of peculiar juxtapositions of disparate elements or a particularly unique recording of a sound. There is a balance between calculated preconception and the more spontaneous act of recognizing a possibility that, through serendipity, presents itself. For me, this is an intuitive and somewhat vague area not lending itself to logic or explanation.

One of the germinal ideas for the track of Children of Men was Alfonso’s desire to have the lead character experience the internal ringing sensation of tinnitus after an explosion. This occurs early, during the title sequence, I expanded on the idea and it became a recurring motif throughout the film. This idea wasn’t planned, it grew out of the context of the project.

A major part of the equation is a crew that is responsive to, and excited by, the possibilities of the track. When the materials generated by editors who are in tune come together, either in the cutting room or on the dubbing stage, the possibility of interesting and effective sound solutions is a given This was absolutely the case with Children of Men.

[YouTube - Children of Men, Opening Scene]

MM: Did you have the chance to travel around the world with your equipment to record your custom sound library, in an era when commercial libraries were not available?

RB: I’ve had the privilege of being able to do a fair amount of my own effects recording, often in unique or bizarre locations. I pride myself in using as many production location specific effects as possible. While no picture of mine is 100% original recordings, some come very close. Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere are good examples. I spent a lot of time in Tokyo, Versailles and the Chateau Marmont hotel in L.A. and its environs compiling libraries for those pics. The bottom of Vancouver Harbor in British Columbia in a three person submarine was interesting as was two weeks in Jodhpur India. The advantage in doing my own recording is that I know what I want and it’s very specific but just as often it’s a mood or sensation, an abstraction. These are ideas that are difficult to communicate. Being on the location stimulates ideas and realizations that wouldn’t occur to me by simply watching the cut. The subtleties are difficult to express to another recordist. I often don’t recognize what I need until I hear it. I can’t put it on a list for someone else to gather. A large portion of my library consists of sounds un-contemplated. A location reveals itself in unexpected ways and provides many pleasant surprises.

An example would be a scene in Marie Antoinette. It’s an evening garden party that would appear to require a straightforward, conventional background. While hanging around on the set during a night shoot I wandered of into the field behind Le Petit Trianon. What do I hear? A very loud chorus of frogs. Frogs like in a swamp. If I hadn’t heard it, it would never have occurred to me. My preconception had settled around the formality and refinement of Louie XVl’s court, and there was no call for a raspy, exotic frog chorus. Apparently, they’ve been there since before Versailles was built. Of course they play a part in the scene. They impart a nervous, contemporary energy to the proceedings because they don’t conform to our expectations.

When I haven’t been able to do my own recordings I’ve had the talents of others to rely on. Randy Thom’s field recordings for Rumblefish years ago were a marvel. He could see (in this case hear) beyond the obvious. John Fasal in L.A. was key in recording the Ferrari for "Somewhere".

[Sofia Coppola and Richard Beggs on the set with the Ferrari - photo © R.Beggs]

MM: I loved your sound work on Somewhere: I especially appreciated the reflections of the car engine under the bridges in the highway. Do you have any favourite sound or scene would you like to brief describe how you built it?

RB: The opening and closing scenes of Somewhere were the first I constructed. Those two sequences dictated the arc of all the sound that came between. The two portentous, low frequency pulses near the end when the car goes under viaducts were created by manipulating the rush of a bullwhip through the air. I created  the extended musical drone that underlays the Ferrari sound in that scene from multitrack elements of "Love Like a Sunset" which were supplied by Phoenix, the band who provided the score. Johnny's lonely helicopter ride is also a composed, manipulated section. Those are the only "special" sound effects in the picure. The opening sequence of the Ferrari on the track is the product of an inordinant amount of editing of recordings I made on the set during the filming of the  shot. Essentially all of the effects in the picture are from recordings made at scene specific shooting locations. I spent two days and nights in Johnny's suite at the Chateau Marmont to aquire the hotel library. Susumu Tokunow's production tracks carried much of the intimate. pointilistic sound in many scenes with some help from foley. It's not an elaborate, showy track but it has it's satisfactions. More than enough to make me happy.  

MM: What's your thinking about the transformation of the independent industry in the latest 30 years, due to the work of Lucas, Pixar, Dreamworks, Zantz?

RB: I don’t have any particular thoughts on the “transformation of the independent film industry”. At least nothing that hasn’t already been said, and whoever said it, said it better than I would anyway. I will say that I don’t think independent film is as healthy as it was during its halcyon days. For the most part, I believe industry values and practices have moved in a negative direction. But I do hold out for the possibility of another “golden age.” There are significant films being made by young (and some not so young) filmmakers that I believe spring from a new, more relevant sensibility than the bulk of the industry’s “product” would indicate. Let’s hope. 

Thanks Richard, it has been a pleasure. — Matteo Milani

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