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  • Writer's pictureDave Ellis

Editing 359 (Part 3: Sound and Music)

No...I said, "Sound AND music."

When I was working in video games, I became friends with quite a few sound designers, and I'm still in touch with them today. So, when I dropped the teaser trailer for 359, it was no surprise that Mark (a former MicroProse sound designer and composer who lives in Nevada now) asked if Mark (a former MicroProse and Vicious Cycle sound designer and one of my closest friends, who lives about an hour away) helped me with my sound mix for the final film. Knowing that I was opening myself up to potential professional-level criticism from people who know what they're doing in sound and music design I told him that I had decided to take on that task myself.

I think I did a pretty good job. (It's worth noting that neither Mark has yet weighed in on the subject..)

Dialog Recording

I've already mentioned in the Shooting 359 entry that, even though I invested in some decent lights, I was less than happy with my lighting capabilities. I think that my on-set sound turned out better.

I picked up a pretty nice wireless microphone so that I wasn't depending on the built-in microphone on my iPhone 11 (which I knew would sound terrible at a distance and would pick up a lot of extraneous sound). Although it is designed so that it can be used as lavalier (clip-on) microphone, it's notoriously hard to hide a mic on a Star Trek uniform (nothing to clip it to). So, I bought a mount and used a second tripod to create a boom that I placed in front of the actors. It picked up the sound well, and only a minimal amount of background noise.

Which isn't to say there weren't problems. Aside from the fact that I have two large dogs who were occasionally running around on the floor above or barking at the garage door (there's a single thud in one take that I used, but you hardly notice), the HVAC system was also right near the "set." I actually made the mistake of letting that go, thinking it would make some nice background ambience. What it did was create "ambience" that was present in some shots/takes and not in others. Somehow, I lucked out on that front. Only one of the takes I ended up using had the air conditioner running in the background. I managed to (mostly) compensate for it with the ambient sound I added in post production, although (if you know where to listen) you can hear it on and off as I lower and raise the audio track in one scene.

The other problem was a lack of a proper VU meter to monitor sound levels. The Filmic Pro app I was using to shoot the film has VU meters, but they're not great. Also? I'm not great at monitoring them throughout the take. To be fair, the director is typically worrying about the shot and the performance (which is what I was concentrating on) and not the sound levels. I checked them before I started rolling, but that's about it.

That resulted in two shots where my actors totally blew out the sound: the scene where Webber tells Boyd, "...just GO! AS FAST AS YOU CAN!" and Boyd's scream at the end. The sound was a garbled mess when it peaked in both cases. And, of course, I didn't bother checking until long after filming had wrapped and I started editing.

There wasn't much I could do about the Webber line (I blanked out the line with static and cut off the end of it). That only kinda works. Given a choice, I would have re-recorded that one.

Boyd's scream, on the other hand, turned out to be a happy accident. By cutting the scream right before the sound blows out, I inadvertently ended up with a really cool "cut to static" moment for my ending. I actually like it better the way it turned out than I would have if the entire scream had been recorded. (You can hear the blown-out version of the entire scream in the outtakes.)

Sound Effects

Back in the before-times, when I was making my films in college, getting sound effects was a matter of finding actual, physical recordings of sounds on record albums or tapes or recording them yourself. This is why the very 80s electronic phones in my horror "classic" Nature Trail to Hell had rings that sounded like 1940s telephones originally. They came from a 1940s radio sound effects record.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. The Internet is just chock-full of resources. I found a site that had every Star Trek sound effect you could possibly imagine, lovingly curated and available for download. For a commercial production, I'd never consider using them without a license or permission...but for an amateur film, I figured it wouldn't hurt.

I made a couple of passes through the film to drop in the sounds. The first--and, by far, the most time-consuming--was dropping in button presses. I had read in some production log somewhere about how a director was lamenting not telling his actors to keep their button presses to a minimum because, in Star Trek, every time somebody presses something, there needs to be a sound. To be fair, the nature of 359 meant that my actors didn't have a lot of other things to do. But, man, did they press buttons a lot! (I'm looking at you, Adam!)

Timing came first--one flurry of button sound FX for every flurry of button pressing. Multiply that by however many people are on screen pressing buttons at the same time, and the sounds start piling up. THEN, I had to go through and make sure that the button press sounds were at the appropriate volume. The buttons pressed by the person in the main frame had to be louder than those of the characters in the smaller windows. I also added in the appropriate Star Trek: The Next Generation sound FX for opening and closing communications windows, hailing frequencies open/close, incoming hails, engines powering up/down, and so on.

Next, I laid in the background ambience. To differentiate from pod to pod, I selected a different background sound for each character. Zahn's, for example, is the bridge background noise from Voyager and Frazier's is a TNG room hum.

After that, I added some of the Final Cut Pro audio filter to the garbled transmissions to make them sound...well...garbled. ("Shortwave Radio" and "Walkie-Talkie" came in very handy.)

Finally, I did a pass through and added glitch and static sounds to match the visual distortions I used in the transmissions to cover edits. A typical section of the audio track looked like this when I was done.

The Borg

Creating the collective voice of the Borg (which I had to do early-on for the trailer), was mostly a matter of cutting apart sound clips and visually aligning them so it sounded like everyone was speaking with a single voice and, then, layering on some effects.

The end result I was going for was something like the Borg message we hear near the beginning of Star Trek: First Contact.

I sourced my Borg voices from a couple places. First, everyone in the film recorded Borg lines in addition to their main part. The one exception was Sarah Johnson (Boyd) who is the only character who actually doesn't get assimilated before the end of the film. To give myself a bigger collective, I reached out to a number of other friends and fellow Trek geeks (see the Casting 359 entry).

The audio I got back was, obviously, not perfectly matched in terms of timing, so I cut apart the sections of the line and aligned them visually so that, when played back, they more or less matched up timing wise, and collapsed them into a single sound file before adding the Final Cut Pro sound effects to make them sound Borg-like.

Even with the sound FX in place, there was something missing. I added an ambient sound to put a low-level bass hum behind the voices, and I finished it off with the "Borg In and Out" sound that I, ahem...borrowed...from the aforementioned First Contact Borg message.

I think I managed to get pretty close to what I was striving for...except for one thing. Which brings me to...

The Surround Mix

I was pretty close to wrapping up the edit before I found yet another layer of magic in Final Cut Pro: the ability to do absolutely amazing things with surround sound.

I started exploring this when I was finalizing the Borg voices. The thing that really blew me away about the Borg message in First Contact when I first watched it on DVD was that, when the Borg voice cuts off the battle chatter, the collective's voice comes from EVERY DIRECTION AT ONCE. All of the surround speakers. That was what was missing from my version.

When I started digging into the sound tools in Final Cut Pro, I found that there are presets that distribute the sound in a "normal" surround mix without the need to do any tweaking or adjustments. One of these settings is "Music," which evenly distributes a selected sound to all of the speakers at once. That's what I wanted for my Borg voices.

Another setting was "Ambience." I applied that to my escape pod ambient sounds. It was at that point that I discovered that it's also super-easy to tell the software precisely what speaker(s) you want your sound to come from. It's as simple as just dragging around that little dot (which represents the listener) inside the sound field. I pulled the pod ambience mostly into the rear speakers so it would be omnipresent, but that the dialog (which was coming from the front and center channels) was always more prominent.

More investigation and research revealed that you can, in fact, actually set key frames in the sound and animate the movement of sound from one speaker to another, changing the volume along the way if you want. Once I watched a YouTube video or two on that feature, I went in and adjusted my exterior sound FX so that they moved and changed volume to match the position of the objects on the screen.

Because I don't have surround speakers on my computer, I had to repeatedly burn DVD copies and play them in my living room to test the mix. The effort was worth it, though. The surround mix really added a lot to the production value.

But, where I really put my surround mixing skills to the test was in...

The Opening Sequence

The entire film revolves around communicating between ships and cooperating without being able to meet in person. With that in mind, I never wanted to show the Battle of Wolf 359, but I did want to hear it. Again, I got my idea from the battle chatter in the scene at the beginning of First Contact. I wrote short scripts for each of my voice actors and had them play out their part in the battle, with the plan being to mix it together into about a minute of off-screen action that takes place in the final moments of the battle.

This was the last thing I edited, and it took weeks to get it right. I started by laying out the "stories"--each of the mini-scripts told the story of one ship or situation that plays out over the course of the opening credits. I took great pains to position all of the voices in different areas of the surround sound field so that (a) the viewer would feel like they were in the middle of the battle, and (b) so that everyone who did VO work for me could hear their part.

After I got all the voices more or less positioned, I layered in sound effects--phasers, photon and quantum torpedoes, Borg weapons and tractor beams, and explosions. I had fun with the surround mix here as well. I have phaser strikes that start in one speaker and progress across the room. I matched explosions and other FX to the VO that was reacting to them. It was tons of fun.

This screen shot is just the first 16 seconds...

I was tweaking the mix on this down to about five days before the premiere. In the end, I loved the way it came out.

The Music

I wasn't sure whether I wanted music in 359 at all. Given the nature of the story, it seemed more natural to just stay "in the world" with the characters and not call attention to the fact that we're watching a movie and not just intercepting their transmissions.

I think what finally made me decide to include a score was the addition of the exterior shots. Those transitional moments at the very least needed a bit of musical backdrop. But, even so, I wanted to keep the scoring to a minimum and only bring in music when it highlighted movement from one section of the story to another or when it would provide some impact.

Many Trek fan films use music from the shows and films, so I opted to do the same. There's lots of "Borg music" out there from episodes and films that feature them, but I wanted to keep the music subtle. For that reason, I opted to stay away from the score from "The Best of Both Worlds" (which is a little too in-your-face dramatic and is super recognizable) and First Contact (which is a gorgeous score, but is a bit melodic and grand for my little story).

I had been watching some Voyager around the time I was editing, and I had just seen the two part episode "Dark Frontier." Composer David Bell created a whole new musical soundscape for the Borg in those episodes, and I thought his music was perfect for 359. I picked up a Voyager music compilation from La-La Land Records (the best source for film and television music EVER), and pulled the music from the CDs.

There is a ton of music for those two episodes, so I scoured through it for tracks that would work best. Obviously, the music was scored to the action in the Voyager episodes, so it didn't fit my action perfectly. What I ended up doing was matching up beats/sections of the music to my action, and editing and blending various sections of a single track or multiple tracks in Final Cut Pro to customize the music to my scenes. The music times out great--and it's completely by design.

I only used music in five places throughout the film:

  1. The opening titles into Zahn's mayday

  2. The transition from the group getting together into the riddle game (the break from Act 1 into Act 2)

  3. Frazier's demise into the pod group splitting up (essentially the break into Act 3)

  4. Webber's discovery of the Borg sphere through Boyd's attempted escape

  5. The end titles.

After all of the music was laid in and edited the way I wanted it, I added the "Music" surround effect to it and adjusted the levels so that the music didn't interfere with the dialog.

In the end, I think the minimal approach to the music served the movie well.

Like I said...I still haven't heard from my sound designer friends, so I don't know what the pros think. But, I gotta say that, for an amateur, I think I did okay for my first sound design and editing project of my modern filmmaking "career."

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