Interview with David Lee (Production Sound Recordist) from The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (2003)

By Paul Martin July 4th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions

Archival interview with David Lee from the official Matrix website.

BACKGROUND

MATRIX: How long have you been involved on this project?

DAVID: I started on the first film back in 1998 and went through and did that, and when the sequels came along, was part of the family into the second and third. We started shooting the sequels in March 2001 in Alameda, and continued through to the finish in August 2002 in Sydney.

MATRIX: Do you remember how you got involved in the first film back in ’98?

DAVID: They did what we call a cattle call, I went up for interviews and met the Brothers, had a successful interview and got the job.

MATRIX: Initially, how did you get involved in sound for film?

DAVID: It goes back to when I was still at school when I hung out with my friends that played in a band. I ended up learning the piano and trumpet but I didn’t play in the band, so I started twiddling the knobs and recording them and mixing them and hung out in recording studios. After that I managed to get a job at a TV station, I worked there for a year and a half and then went to another TV station where I learnt how to boom operate. After the TV station thing I decided to go freelance, and one step after another from freelance boom operating I ended up getting offered jobs as a recordist, so I started recording. My first boom operating job freelance was 1982, and I think 1986 was when I started recording.

MATRIX: What projects have you worked on?

DAVID: I started with TV, but my first recording job was a US film in Bangkok called Saigon Commandos. I didn’t sleep for about three nights before I started that, and I think the first roll of quarter inch I rolled actually ran out in the middle of a take. I was green, but ultimately we did a good job and had a good time. Just recently I’ve worked on Queen of the Damned, and more notable ones would be Romper Stomper, Muriel’s Wedding, Sirens with Elle Macpherson, and The Island of Dr. Moreau with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer and John Frankenheimer.

MATRIX: What were your thoughts on first reading THE MATRIX script?

DAVID: That it was complex. In the first reading you go what? Then you go back again and the threads start to join up and you get some sort of concept. We knew it was a science-fiction sort of film, but really didn’t get it completely until it came out in the theater.

MATRIX: When you read a script, do you read it with an ear to particular challenges?

DAVID: There’s that – a technical assessment of the script – like, how much special effects there will be and how can you get all the dialogue within those special effects being visual and perhaps loud. The other thing is knowing who is involved in the project and how you get on with the people. You assess it to how much dialogue there is and what environments it looks like being in. When it’s in a studio environment, you’ve got a lot more control about certain things.

MATRIX: What could you say are the big differences between your experience on the first film and RELOADED and REVOLUTIONS?

DAVID: There’s no difference at all; they’re much the same. Maybe because the sequels are so big and the visual effects are a little bit bigger there wasn’t the opportunity, as we did on the first one, to get all the dialogue without replacing it. On the first one there were only about six lines we replaced; I think it will be a few more on these two. That’s based on the environment, and lighting and special effects constraints.

SOUND RECORDING

MATRIX: What kind of challenges does a scene with massive explosions present to you?

DAVID: Not much. The way the Brothers [Andy and Larry Wachowski] work, they always shoot the dialogue in a contained situation and then the action is separate. They make it easy to get the best dialogue because they don’t want to replace the dialogue, so they work very hard to get the dialogue on the day of the performance.

MATRIX: Could your outline what you do on a day to day basis.

DAVID: I have my equipment here that records sound, and specifically on this job we record dialogue and get the best quality dialogue we possibly can. As far as sound effects are concerned, they’re created later in post; we specialize in dialogue.

MATRIX: How do you deal with extra noise, such as fans running in the Sound Stage?

DAVID: There’s a lot of equipment there for the specific special effects or the stunts, and when we come to do the dialogue, those things are minimized to the best we possibly can. If they still have to be there in the dialogue sequence, then we either grab a little wild line, or we do a take with those specific machines off, if it can work that way. In editing they figure out whether they can use it or not like that.

MATRIX: What is a wild line?

DAVID: Wild lines are lines done without the camera; you just use the microphone and get the actor to repeat their lines, be it one word or a phrase. When you try and do whole speeches it’s very difficult; that’s when you have to go into ADR [Additional Dialogue Recording]. Wild line is an old term from when we used to use quarter inch recorders – the recording machine rolled wild and not locked up to a camera. It’s the same as saying “speed.” There’s a standard when you start recording where you say speed, and there is a little signature on the recording machine that flashes up speed.

MATRIX: Could you run through equipment that you use.

DAVID: For ease of use I use a short shotgun that’s about 20cm long [approximately 8 inches], it’s a high quality Neumann microphone, and we go through a high quality mixer and record onto stereo DAT tape [Digital Audio Tape]. At one stage we recorded onto a four-track machine but we didn’t see that as being necessary on this particular production.

We tried hard disk recording in the beginning for the first three months, and we established there was no discernable difference between a DAT tape and the hard disk recording that we used. We felt there wasn’t a great need to go down that track, so we kept it simple. With DAT tape there’s less equipment, and we had trouble getting into the transfer stage with the hard disk recording. It’s new technology, and when you’ve got new technology there are going to be inherent bugs. To keep it simple you go with something that’s working and established, rather than start fighting uphill with debugging things.

MATRIX: What tricks do you pull out of your bag for actors who have clear voices and someone who is soft-spoken?

DAVID: Seraph [Collin Chou] has a very soft voice, so you just do take after take. The Brothers have a technique, particularly Larry, of directing and getting momentum up and then getting a performance, and once they’ve got a performance then go and correct little bits of words phrases. He’ll get the actor to repeat that phrase again, once the level of performance is around where he wants it. That’s a directorial trick. Me, I just work on reducing the background noise and getting the dialogue as clean as possible, and getting the mike in the sweetest spot possible, so you have that presence that you can project out of the screen.

MATRIX: How do you prefer to place the microphone?

DAVID: I have a very strong preference for the boom microphone; it has a lot more quality. When you start using a body mike you have to put it underneath clothes, you have to hide it, and there you start to get compromised sound. They have good sound quality outside the body, but once you start hiding them you start to compromise that full spectrum of sound. Shotgun mikes are directional – the long shotgun is more directional than the short. So then you can get into inherent problems with the sound being too directional.

MATRIX: Two people talking two feet away from each other; how is that handled?

DAVID: A good boom operator can handle it if they’re good boom swingers, so a good boom operator is worth his weight in gold. In this situation, because I’ve got an assistant, we just put two booms up then you get the best quality sound you can on both people and we split the tracks.

MATRIX: Who do you have working on your sound team?

DAVID: I use Gerry Nucifora who I consider the best Boom Operator in Australia. We have a lot of fun doing what we do, we don’t take it too seriously, but we certainly concentrate on doing a very good job. And we’ve got an assistant Emma Barham [Cable Person] and she’s fabulous at helping us out.

THE RECORDING PROCESS

MATRIX: Sound is something people often take for granted when it comes to going to a film; what are some of the challenges?

DAVID: What I consider to be sixty to seventy percent of the job is how you get on with people. It’s not only how you get on with the actors, it’s how you get on with the directors, and then it goes further down to the DP [Director of Photography], and the gaffer is vitally important as are the grips, standby props, and the Art Department. As a Sound Recordist you need everybody to help you because so many things make a noise, so I feel that a big proportion of my job is getting on with people, and if you lose that then people don’t help you out as much.

People sometimes make noise, but it’s also their equipment. If somebody brings in a lighting piece of equipment with a fan in it, you know you have to work together to find out when in the scene the fan needs to be on, or it needs to be off – all the little details.

MATRIX: Is there a connection between the clapperboard and the sound recording?

DAVID: Written on the clapperboard is the scene, the take number, the date, and possibly a camera roll number. You put that in front of the camera so the camera can see it, and the camera can see the sticks (as they’re called) join up and make a noise. That means you have a piece of film with the picture of the sticks shutting, and you have a piece of sound with the sound of the sticks shutting; you bring those two together and the films gets synched up.

MATRIX: At what point do you start rolling the sound?

DAVID: The First Assistant Director says ‘turnover sound’, so I turn the machine on, it takes about five seconds to get it rolling, I say ‘speed’, the camera rolls, then the clapper loader IDs the tape. He does a verbal ID and then he smacks the sticks.

MATRIX: Has there been any pre-production work for you on the sequels?

DAVID: Yes, I go and do all the location surveys and assess their value. In this instance we have a lot of warehouses we’re using, so I have to assess their ability to work in to get dialogue. Some of them didn’t come up to scratch, so I had to do a bit of work around them, and some of them got rejected. I don’t do any post-production work.

MATRIX: What would be the basis of your rejection; an echo?

DAVID: Echoes are easy to deal with, it’s more about the environment they’re in. Things like being close to a main road, underneath a flight path, or with a tin roof where the rain will disturb things, and then you pretty much take a gamble whether you’re going to stick with the tin roof, and if it rains that’s just bad luck.

MATRIX: There have been a couple of shots with helicopters involved; do you record that in any way?

DAVID: Sometimes the helicopters are used to take the shot as opposed to being in the scene. In the first MATRIX there was dialogue in the helicopter, so we mock up a helicopter and bring it into the studio. In the case of just shooting scenery from a helicopter there’s no sound involved; it’s more of an establishing geographical shot.

MATRIX: Have there been any particular challenges with the location shoots?

DAVID: We started out in Alameda working on the Freeway, and the only particular challenges there were trying to record dialogue. For instance, Trinity on top of a (I think) sixteen motorbike trailer had its difficulties. Working with these Directors you can do very good close-ups, so you can get the microphone nice and tight, and you work around the truck to try and reduce as much noise and rattles etc.

MATRIX: One of the mechanics mentioned adding a chip to a motorcycle to get a particular noise.

DAVID: Yes, because there wasn’t a lot of dialogue on the Freeway, there was a lot of mute MOS, which is where there’s no sound on the shots. We had a bit of spare time on our hands, so we started playing around trying to get a sound from Trinity’s motorbike; it was a Ducati sound. We tried different things, and the bike mechanics were very helpful. They got what they call a high-grade engine management chip to let the bike rev out higher – it chewed it in a different way so it changed the sound of it – and we also put a sports muffler kit on the bike. The Second Unit Sound team spent a lot of time trying to recreate a very dramatic sound for the edit.

MATRIX: Was that an instance where the bike sat still, or did the bike actually move during recording?

DAVID: The big trick there is actually developing microphones that can record a good sound while the bike is moving. You’ve got big issues with wind and it’s quite technically difficult to do, so you pull out all the tricks in the bag to try and do it. But that wasn’t me, that was the Second Unit team who worked really hard to try and make that work. It doesn’t necessarily mean it will be in the film though because the post-production guys go out and do a lot of work as well . The most interesting thing you’ll probably find is a not only the motorbike sound, but the sound of each gun. Dane Davis who is the Supervising Sound Editor [and Sound Designer] will say that you don’t record a gunshot, you record the environment that the gunshot is in. They go out and look for different environments to record the different gunshots, because a gunshot alone is not that interesting.

MATRIX: Thinking about environment, did the parking garages have an echo?

DAVID: They had a little echo, but that’s the way it should sound. We didn’t do a lot of treatment down there, although we stopped traffic because it was an operating car park, but we go in for the dialogue and the microphone is nice and tight, so the reverb is somewhat limited.

MATRIX: Do you try and capture anything like light switches turning on?

DAVID: No, and often the sets are made out of wood and sound very hollow, so even the footsteps are replaced by foley artists.

MATRIX: In THE MATRIX the dialogue is very crisp, particularly the scene in the beginning with Trinity; there’s nothing going on in the background, just the dialogue coming through.

DAVID: I have a lot of friends who tell me that THE MATRIX is one of the few films they have seen where they understand every word. I think it’s a very important thing for these particular films because so much of the story is in the dialogue. The Directors are very careful about looking after it so it can be heard and understood.

MATRIX: When the actors are on set and the Boom Operator is over them, are you continuously adjusting the levels?

DAVID: No, part of the trick is to find a median level and hang in there. Sometimes the performance will be so contrasting that you have to deal with incredible volumes and then into a whisper. That’s when it gets a little bit tricky, so you have to ride your levels then. An example of that was Neo in the Architect’s Office – you can’t capture the whole deal, you will get caught, so you just do the best you can and hang on for the ride. You can split tracks again, you can have a separate level on a separate track to do it, and then you can go to another extreme of having two microphones set up, but that’s quite an extreme.

The Architect’s Office scene was interesting for me; it’s always fascinating to see a dramatic performance like that, where everybody gets drawn into it and stops and looks. One thing that has only happened to me on the first MATRIX is when Agent Smith was torturing Morpheus – it was such a intense performance I still get goose bumps listening to it – it was a very interesting way that Agent Smith pronounced the words, two syllable words ended up with four syllables.

MATRIX: How far do you go to be aware of what is coming; do you look at the storyboards and talk to the crew?

DAVID: These films are organized and designed within an inch of their life, so generally everybody knows exactly what’s going on and you can start at a higher level to get that quality you want. So yes, you have to look at the storyboards, you have to go ‘round to the Art Department and look at the sets and get as much information as you can about what’s going to happen in that scene.

Still, as much as you do your work and you ask the questions, you don’t see so much of this film when you’re making it. This production stage is quite a small part compared to the visual effects that are going to be done. But for the physicality of it all you have to knock on the doors, ask the questions, speak to the Camera guys, and speak to the Grips about how they’re going to do their shot, and then make sure there’s carpet down where it needs to be. You have to ask the Construction Department to do some extra work on part of the set so it doesn’t make a noise or it doesn’t rattle.

Most of my job is to sit here with my headphones on and point my finger and look at the screen and listen to the articulation, and they’ve got the Boom Operator out there being more involved in the actual recording. But still, much of my work is in preparation of the environment and making sure the set and the studio we’re working in is satisfactory with no loose wires buzzing, and no loose pieces of equipment rattling. Preparation is everything.

MATRIX: If you walk on a set and find out there’s no carpet, what do you do?

DAVID: I go and look at a set while it’s being constructed, and I might complain to the Art Department saying that this set has a bad wooden floor that’s really squeaky, and they’ll send their men back in to screw it down and make it quieter. We come with our own carpet as well, so that when there are people walking around you put it down. We try to reduce the level of footsteps over the dialogue. If the footsteps sound realistic they might be kept, but if it’s supposed to be a stone set and they’re walking on wood, it doesn’t make sense. If the wooden floor does sound kosher, you can let that go because it’s got a drama of its own.

MATRIX: How do you maintain continuity of sound?

DAVID: We use the same microphones of course, and have them in similar positions etc. The only issues we get involved with in continuity of sound between scenes is the background environment sound, the atmosphere. While you’re recording dialogue you tend to record an atmosphere without any dialogue on it, so you have what they call ‘room tone’, or atmosphere, and if the environments change between different shots they lay up that atmosphere behind the dialogue track to hide the edits.

MATRIX: Thanks David.

Interview by REDPILL

August 2002

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