Darren Callahan runs Phantom Soundtracks, a label that releases soundtracks to imaginary films; some might call them “non-existent” movies, but the idea is to imagine the movie while listening to the soundtrack, so that description falls far short of the intent of the label.
Callahan is also active behind the camera–collaborating with Glass City Films on the amazingly fun trailer “Children of the Invisible Man“ plus he directed the short horror film, Under The Table (also with Glass City Films).
In part two of our interview, Darren Callahan talks about doing sound for film, soundtrack recording, and much more…
Composing a soundtrack and doing overall sound design for a film are two completely different things–describe the learning curve you had managing sound issues for film outside composing.
I know a great deal about the use of sound from radio dramas. I won an award from NPR for my audio drama, “Uncle Ant,” and that led to writing a lot of thirty minute plays for other outlets. Plus, I’m just naturally a headphone guy, so I appreciate really tricked out sound. I’ve produced over half of my own records and also produced albums for other bands, such as SEVEN SPEED VORTEX.
I’ve never mixed my own sound for film, unless you count “Children of the Invisible Man,” where I mixed the voiceover and the music. I was very lucky on “Under The Table,” as Matt Oliva, who is this amazing young sound designer for Glass City Films, just knocked it out of the park.
You can always tell a low-budget film by the quality of sound. I like to do little-to-no looping (ADR) and I also like a lot of room ambience – but those are tough things on a tight schedule. So, like I said, I got lucky with Matt Oliva.
I do “hear” movies, though, and always appreciate really experimental sound design. For example, “THX1138” – you could listen to that movie and not even see the picture; it’s like a symphony. I also love bold choices, like in “Punch Drunk Love” where Adam Sandler trashes that restaurant bathroom and the sound is completely distorted. Or the climax of “The Parallax View,” with just the convention center sound.
I’m also a big fan of the extremes – loud, or layered, or silent – and “The House That Screamed” is a cool example of that, even though it’s all overdubbed from Spanish. Oh, and “Timecrimes” has great sound, speaking of Spanish flicks.
Let’s get technical. What gear did you use to do the sound on Under The Table and how did you bringyour sound design plans to your satisfaction in the editing room with foley, creating sound effects forthe horror sequences, etc.?
Matt used a Edirol R-4 pro 4 channel recorder, two Sennheiser wireless mics with Sanken Cos-11 lavs and a Schopes CMIT shotgun mic. All sound was edited with Soundtrack Pro and Pro Tools.
For the score, I recorded everything at a studio in Chicago to 24” analog Grand Master Gold tape from the mid-1990s then dumped to digital through analog Italian pre-amps. All the synths were analog or analog modeling. The piano is a real 9’ Steinway through an Electro-Harmonix Cathedral stereo reverb pedal, which I manually dialed while playing piano live to tape. I think we used a Wurlitzer on the dinner music and there are some Yamaha CP70 electric piano overdubs in the main titles.
The CP70 is my favorite instrument of all time – this baby grand electric only made in the mid-70s with a great hammer sound. Peter Gabriel used it a ton on his earlier, more exciting records. Now the bands KEANE and COLDPLAY have brought ‘em back in vogue, so you can’t get ‘em anymore.
I dumped a few tracks to Tascam 464 four-track cassette and still others to TEAC 4070G reel-to-reel to make things really dirty. It was the same techniques I used on the soundtrack for “Spikes,” which worked very well for horror. Allthe music was all mixed in AcidPro 7 with Sound Forge as the editor. It was mastered in Pro Tools before being laid into the mix at 48K.
(The film’s soundtrack is available for free download at http://www.darrencallahan.com/under_the_table_soundtrack/index.html)
Good sound is so important to a film, yet so many filmmakers take it for granted–what has been your most important lesson moving into the director’s chair in this area?
Sound, to me, is even more important than picture. I think “Under The Table” has a great visual sense and DP John Klein did a fantastic job (42 set-ups in one night!) But, what makes it seem more like a big budget movie, aside from the choice of 2:35:1 and very wide lenses, would be the crystal clear sound and very exciting mix.
The first part of the film is intentionally static and the combination of elements makes the tension rise beautifully. Then, the latter half, which is all screaming and blood, really pays off with some jumps and unusual choices – like the Goblin-esque music cue as the waiter goes in with the knife.
One hard lesson for many indie filmmakers with regard to sound has to do with playback at festivals and in public vs. playback in the studio. For a studio pro these issues are pretty obvious, but what advice do you have for a filmmaker without much audio recording/engineering/mastering experience who wants to make her indie movie and start entering it into film festivals, but doesn’t want to get burned by a lack of technical knowledge about good audio when it comes to optimizing their work for playback at festivals and screenings?
I recently read a David Lynch interview from the 1990s where he talked about mixing sound for “Twin Peaks.” He was used to mixing for big theaters. Then, he has to start mixing for television. The first few shows had a great mix, or so he thought, but no one could hear anything on tiny TV speakers. He realized two things…
First, decide what is the most likely viewing experience? If you’re going straight to DVD and just doing small festivals, don’t spend much money and just go for as exciting a combination of sounds as you can get which will play back in those environments.
Second, check out your mix on as many televisions, sound systems, headphones and speakers as possible. Each one will be different, but look for bad spots – like not being able to hear the dialog.And, if you’re in trouble with your sound – it just didn’t turn out good at all – do what the Italians did. Just overdub the entire thing from scratch.
If you’re worried you don’t have the skills or money to do it, watch “Carnival of Souls” – a classic low-budget horror film from the 1960s. That has some pretty shady dubbing in it, but man it totally works in its favor. Half the film only has a pipe organ playing and you never notice. Try and turn a weakness into a strength. Check out the overdubbing in the $7,000 movie “Primer” – this fantastic time travel movie from 2005. So good.