Audio via CAT-5, the Legacy of Robert Altman, and a Wireless 'Train Wreck' Waiting to Happen

When F&V caught up with Mark Ulano, he was sitting in the back of a stake-bed truck, waiting for the crew on Terminator 4 (working title: Terminator Salvation) to blow up a car in the middle of the New Mexico desert. “It’ll be a brief moment,” Ulano said into the telephone. “But if we get interrupted, don’t take it personally.”

As a Hollywood production sound mixer, Ulano has a lot of experience at recording loud noises. He’s so good at it that he won an Oscar for his work on Titanic. He’s been doing movie sound since the early 1980s, and his recent resume remains vital, with titles like Iron Man, Disturbia, and the Kill Bill movies to his credit. F&V asked him about the latest in audio gear – like Aviom’s Pro64 line-up, which networks location audio via CAT-5 – and got his thoughts on the potential of the coming digital broadcast transition to wreak havoc on diversity wireless-mic systems.

Describe your responsibilities as production sound mixer.

It’s analogous to the creative recording engineer in the music industry. It is the primary performance recording of the actors, and of what the director directs on set. And we’re called mixers for a very specific reason: we mix that work. And what we mix tends to be the source for the dialogue portion of the show.

Is your mix what the film editor is listening to?

Correct. What we record is what everyone is living with until the very latest stages of production after they’ve locked the picture in terms of editorial. Once they’ve locked the picture, they’ll start breaking that out into stems and do the music, effects and dialogue and the whole post-production sound environment and community does their part of the sound mix, creating the finished soundtrack.

In the final mix, what’s the typical balance between original location-recording dialogue and ADR?

It’s much higher than it used to be. You’re listening to 90 or 95 percent – or even 100 percent, depending on the director whose films you are seeing – of the tracks that are recorded out on the field. There are many reasons for that, not least of which are creative reasons, those original performances being very important to the director, producer and the actors. But there’s an economic issue involved. When you have to redo something, it’s expensive – not just in terms of dollars but in terms of access. We just finished a picture with Russell Crowe [State of Play]. Russell Crowe makes $25 million to do a picture. His next picture is in England. So access becomes a primary issue. People who do what I do are very aggressively committed to getting that as our primary contribution to the storytelling.

The ratio will go down on certain kinds of films. Action-adventure films often have an enormous amount of mechanical activity on set that may impact that. The guys on post and in production move away from a scorecard view – how much of it did we get? – and start asking, what’s the best way to contribute to storytelling? There are a lot of aspects to sound recording that are storytelling elements that are not obvious. They’re like lenses. First person, third person – you can record something intimately or distantly. A lot of different things that impact your experience of it. It’s a collaboration with the director, if the director’s involved with that. But very often we are bestowed with an inadvertent autonomy, because there is such intensity and chaos in the midst of production. It’s often a military exercise. There’s not a lot of time, so it gets left to us to interpret what’s working best. And that’s how relationships and trust develop with directors.

Do you often get to work with the same directors repeatedly?

It happens quite a bit. You never know. But I’ve been grateful that there are certain people who like to have us as part of their jazz band. What I do – psychologically and emotionally – is a lot like being a session player. We come in and sight-read the chart and perform immediately in the context of the band, or the orchestra, that is the film crew.

You said that the ratio of location-recorded sound is on the rise. Is that enabled in part by new technology that allows you to get better sound, or have more options as you’re recording?

I’m kind of mixed in my thoughts on that. We’re certainly blessed with a lot more kinds of tools than we had in the past in terms of physical manipulation – how many things we can get simultaneously, things we can do wireless, so many different tools that have come into our grasp in the last five to 10 years. But when you get down to it, a great Schoeps microphone in the right place with a circa-1965 Nagra and a cable will be wonderful for dialogue sound in a movie. The rest is essentially refinement.

That being said, I think we do have a lot of technology that is facilitating more creative energy, as opposed to more defensive strategies. The Aviom stuff [the Pro64 16 line of digital audio networking products] that we’re using is a perfect example of that. It’s become an enormously useful tool that allows us to physically expand our geography dealing with a film set exponentially. And yet it’s very compact, reliable, and easy to use. In the past we had to do that with much more clumsy tools – hard snakes. That sort of stuff was bulky and delicate. And now I don’t have to worry about it. It gives us wings.

What specifically is their function, and what do they replace?

It’s so malleable in terms of how you can configure the Aviom stuff because it’s so modular. But we use it as a 16×16 digital snake. I can go anywhere, 500 or 1000 feet away from the set, and be receiving 16 channels of whatever I’m doing on set and sending back up to that much to the set – timecode, my public mix to the director and the script supervisor, my private mix to the team, playback. I can do multiple feeds for different parts of a scene in different ways. It just lets us manipulate how many elements we can have going in either direction at any given time without any hassle or fuss. It’s a snake in a traditional sense, but it’s all on one little piece of CAT-5. If a truck runs over it and tears it up, I can go down to Home Depot and for $100 buy a spool of 1000 feet of CAT-5. It’s robust, it’s reliable, and it sounds great.

How much cabling would it have taken before you used this gear?

Well, we might have used one or two snakes, but instead of a single strand of CAT-5, I’d have something three-quarters of an inch or wider in diameter and still have less bandwidth. A hundred feet of that would cost $700 or $800 and one taco cart driving over it is going to trash it. You have to custom-build each length, and if you’re on a remote location that doesn’t have specialized vendors serving the motion-picture and music-recording industry, things break and you’ve got to ship it. This gets rid of all that. I’ve got maybe 50 percent more bandwidth at 30 percent less cost. I started using the Aviom stuff on Rocky Balboa. Because we were in the dead of winter in Philadelphia for night shoots for weeks and weeks on end, I needed to isolate the primary recording gear from the environment. And it became so apparent what a great addition this was to the way we operate that it really changed the way we work.

I’ve been on wireless as a primary methodology for boom and body mics since 1996, at a time when it was really heresy. Now, you walk on a set, and 60, 70, or 80 percent of them will have wireless mics – on the boom operator’s side, not just on the body mics. It’s a very significant technological transition in our work.

Have the problems with wireless interference been worked out?

It’s ironic – and it’s a really great question. Diversity wireless technology has really matured into something phenomenal. At the same time, the whole issue of allocation and bandwidth is a national train wreck about to happen as soon as February rolls around and we go fully digital around the country [meaning the existing TV spectrum will be suddenly repurposed]. Wireless microphones are so pervasive throughout society – in our work, but also in theaters, high schools, churches – and there’s been such a lack of responsibility on the part of government and its focus on allocation in terms of actual usage as opposed to auctioning bandwidth off as purely whoever is the highest bidder. Australia doesn’t do that. They look at how the market’s using bandwidth, and then they allocate based on need. We’re going to have a train wreck here because that has not happened. The motion-picture industry is very high-profile, but it’s infinitesimal as an economic entity compared to the telecom industry. So we’re in this conundrum. It’s like the rainbow. You’re not going to add more colors to the rainbow. It is a problem, and we’re waiting with bated breath to see how it turns out.

I know what happened in England about 10 years ago. They had similar issues. The minister of communications was attending a play at Piccadilly, and they were having wireless interference problems. He went back to complain and got an earful from all of the staff about those issues. Within a year or two, he made it a personal mission, and they allocated particular bandwidth for entertainment purposes. I think something similar is going to have to happen here.

What else is on your technology radar?

The biggest transition in our world has been to nonlinear file-based recording technology and away from linear analog and linear digital recording. Multitrack, computer-based recording is the current dominant form in motion pictures. Its precursor was Jimmy Webb and Bob Gravenor, who were Robert Altman’s mixers and created that whole process of simultaneous multitracks for production sound. Bob [Altman] got shit-canned off his first studio picture [Countdown] because he liked overlapping dialogue. Jimmy Webb, who is still around, had been a live concert mixer. He’s an Academy Award-winning sound mixer for All the President’s Men, a wonderful man, a crusty old pirate and a mentor to me. He pioneered this methodology that doesn’t really do the thing they wanted it to, which is completely isolate all the elements. If two people stand next to each other and talk, they’re on each other’s track. They’re not completely isolated. But it allows subsequent, after-the-fact choices to be made about what needs to be the dominant element at any given moment. And it allows you to capture synchronous effects and ambience and other things that were, historically, being artificially created after the fact.

The fact that we can capture that would be useless without post-production’s technological transition into the same arena, where now they can now handle that volume of material. Before, that wasn’t possible. It was so overwhelming. It would all be on 35mm mag. It was a massive undertaking on Altman’s films during that period because it was so physically demanding. It wasn’t in a computer, you know?

Now, that transition has really changed all of our lives for the better – although we do run into a strong tendency to misunderstand our work by those we serve. You’ll see, at some studios, a move toward making the multitrack approach a generic approach versus being responsive to the actuality of a particular project and scene and director and what they’re doing. Sometimes it muddies the waters intensely. Our best defense on those issues is partnering overtly with our post-production team to make sure we’re all working toward the same end. They live alone in a dark room for six months dealing with what we did out here in the field in advance, and if we don’t have that conversation, they can be in great pain. I’m delighted more and more that I’m getting the same kind of partnering coming from the post end. They understand that they’ll only do better if we do better, and we’ll do better if we have a clear sense of what’s going to help them most.

What about the rest of your gear? What are you actually recording to right now?

I record on two Zaxcom Deva 5.8s tandemly. One is a back-up. They record to hard disk in a proprietary format called MARF [Mobile Audio Recording Format] and simultaneously record to DVD-RAMs as BWF files. Currently, I’m using Lectrosonics Venue Wide Band/digital hybrid products for all the wireless stuff. We’re monitoring on Comtek gear. We’re using AR-15 II voltage-regulation gear from Furman because power is a huge issue for us out in the field. We’re subject to all kinds of variables and we have to take control so we get pure sine wave inverted power with [Xantrex] Prosine gear. My mixing panel is Yamaha 01v96 II. I was on Sonosax for 20 years, which was the high end of field analog mixers, and to me, going into digital mixing was like leaving a typewriter and going into word processing. It frees up incredible capacity, and it’s a natural mating to nonlinear file-based multitrack recorders. We use a wide pallet of microphones, Sanken CS-3e, Schoeps, Neumann, Shure and so on.

There’s a lot of hardware involved, but what we do is really about the filmmaking. We need to know what we’re about in terms of the storytelling of the director, where he’s coming from, what he’s trying to do with the project, what he sees as being important, and creating a seamless fabric of recording that keeps you inside the story along with the images when it’s put together as a film. We have an obligation to entertain. The camera guy is the lead guitar, the director’s the bandleader, and I’m the drummer. The drummer’s invisible until there’s no beat.