Soundtracks – where do they begin?

Many elements go into the creation of a good documentary soundtrack, but one key ingredient is great location sound2013-05-03 06.53.22.

I confess I feel a bit sorry for location sound people because they only get feedback when the soundtrack is BAD. As a Director I’m guilty of rarely saying “sounds great” – because we take great sound for granted, ironically, as if it is a natural occurring phenomena. Yet there is an enormous amount of skill and talent required to obtain great location sound.

In a film about songbirds, you can imagine how important location sound is to the final soundtrack. On The Messenger documentary we primarily worked with Jason Milligan. I truly believe that Jason has “dog ears”. By this I mean an aural range beyond the average human.

A super important element of location recording is not just the “sync tracks” i.e. recording the sound that happens in tandem with the image, but recording location ambient sound.

Because the birds would be different everywhere we went, we had to ensure that we recorded the unique sounds of every place we filmed.

Here’s a sample of an ambient track of Purple Martins songs and calls that Jason recorded for us while we were filming with Bridget Stutchbury and The Purple Martin Conservation Association in Erie PA.

Bridget Stutchbury passes a Purple martin to location sound recordist Jason Milligan

Bridget Stutchbury passes a Purple Martin to location sound recordist Jason Milligan

One of the very special audio events we recorded was in Ithaca New York during fall migration.

We were filming with Bill Evans, who designs and constructs his own microphones dedicated to capturing the night calls of migrating birds. A wonderful scene with Bill Evans is featured in our upcoming documentary SongbirdSOS to be aired on David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things. Below is a sample of the these night calls our sound recordist James MacDonald captured that evening.

Listen carefully, each species of songbird has a different call. They are only a fraction of a second long, and happen randomly ever ten seconds or so in this recording.

 

James MacIntosh records Bill Evans and friends.

James MacDonald records Bill Evans and friends.

Back in post production, all of the elements of location sync sound and ambiences have to be edited. The first step is to  sync all the sound – matching back to the picture, then the sound is imported into the edit suite. When our picture edit is locked – the edited sound is exported back out to another sound editor, who polishes it, takes out the umm and ahhs and clicks and pops, and prepares it for the mix. A super important element of location recording is not just the “sync tracks” i.e recording the sound that happens in tandem with the image, but recording location ambiences. Phil often mixes and merges these “categories” For example, a sound from the wilderness might be sampled and transformed into music, or a musical tone he created in studio may sound so organic, it feels as if it was part of the natural landscape. This is all done on the computer – and here’s what the soundtrack layouts looks like.

Phil Strong

One of the most important ingredients of a great sound track is music.

During our editing process the picture editors often work with temp music. This means pulling music that has the right rhythm, pace, emotional tone / feeling and / or instrumentation from one’s own music collection and cutting it into the soundtrack temporarily.

In creating The Messenger soundtrack composer Phil Strong worked in tandem with the picture editing process, often creating music for the scenes as they evolved.

PhilStrong_EamonnO'Connor

Composer and sound designer Phil Strong and Picture editor Eamonn O’Connor at a spotting session in Phil’s studio.

 

 

More on Jason Milligan http://www.documentarysound.ca/

Jason Milligan is a two time Gemini Nominated Sound Recordist (for “The Take” and “Memory for Max, Claire, Ida, and Company”) based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, who specializes in recording sound on location for Documentaries, Lifestyle, and Reality Programs.   Jason has travelled extensively around the world and worked in Argentina, China, France, India, Japan, Jordan, the Netherlands, Peru, Saudi Arabia, St. Vincent, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Creating The Messenger Soundtrack & Music Sneak Peak

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The music and sound design for The Messenger as well as our upcoming CBC TV Nature of Things program is being created by Phil Strong. Phil and I have worked together for a number of years on a variety of projects. He’s an incredibly creative and resourceful person, and often collaborates with his partner Laurel MacDonald.  Stay tuned — you will hear Laurel’s incredible vocals in The Messenger soundtrack.

A great sound track has many elements including the sound recorded on location, additional ambiences and effects, sound design and music. Often these are delegated into distinct departments, except when working with Phil. He often mixes and merges these “categories.” For example, a sound from the wilderness might be sampled and transformed into music, or a musical tone he created in studio may sound so organic, it feels as if it was part of the natural landscape.

On this project, our budget and timelines are punishing, so we have been burning the midnight oil. Recently on one of these cold winter nights, Phil played a new track for me, which I absolutely loved. It’s quite fantastic, and the sound is really unique. I asked Phil how he created it….

“I wanted to create a kinetic, rhythmic, texture… the sound I was after is much like fiddlers as they hold down several strings and bow across them, varying the angle of the bow to create a harmonic rhythm. So I called my musician friend Sarah Shugarman, and we recorded several variations riffing on this idea. I later arranged these into a song order.”

Violin_bridge_fholes

Would it be a stretch to say that this idea was inspired by the subject of the film — songbirds themselves?

“Because the strings on a viola/violin form an arch, they cannot all be bowed at once. The bow has to change angle to get each string. Rapid bowing and angle shifts (are not unlike the flapping movement of a birds wing ) – and create a flowing series of notes – a harmonic rhythm – without needing rapid movement in the left hand.”

 

Violin Quadruple-Stops

 

So, if you want to try this at home, Phil Strong shares how this is done.

“Here is the music for a set of “quadruple stops” which represents all the possible combinations a player can make holding down all four strings. “Stopping” a string just means shortening its effective length by pressing it against the finger board with your finger (the effective length of a string [and tension] determines the “pitch” or note). A quadruple stop means that all four strings are pressed down with each of the four fingers in the left hand.”

 

 

We call this piece of music “Boreal theme”. Here is a taste of what is sounds like.

 

Below are me and Phil working in his studio.

SuRynard_PhilStrong

Here’s Phil, Lauren and my Mark Bell having a late dinner after a long day in the studio. Mark is a contemporary artist (painter) and he’s donated  three really beautiful paintings to our crowdfunding campaign.

LaurelMacDonaldPhilStorngMarkBell

Phil and Laurel also created memorable soundtrack for my dramatic feature film Kardia. You can hear some of the music on the Kardia web site.

More on Phil:

Phil Strong has produced acclaimed albums and soundtracks with his partner Laurel MacDonald, and notably Cape Breton singer, Mary Jane Lamond. Lamond’s CD, Landuil, which was arranged and produced by Strong, won the 2006 East Coast Music Award’s “album of the year”. Phil assisted John Oswald with his various Plunderphonics artworks and from his mentor also gleaned the art and dynamics of dance composition. He received several dance commissions and found his stride in this asynchronous form. In 1999, Phil scored the soundtrack for Nest, the first of 9 major works he created with Toronto Dance Theatre. His work on TDT’s Timecode Break earned a Dora Mavor Moore award.

The Messenger’s Cagan Şekercioğlu’s Environmental Request while Accepting a Prestigious Award

Çağan Şekercioğlu, who we filmed with in Turkey, became the first biologist, ecologist and the youngest person to win the TÜBİTAK Special Science Award recently. The University of Utah professor, photographer, and ornithologist received the award (which is Turkey’s highest science award and equivalent to a USA National Science Medal)  from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a ceremony held in the new Presidential Palace. While receiving the award, Şekercioğlu had a single Eco-Message request: “The biggest award you can give me will be to save from destruction the eastern Turkey’s richest wetland for birds, the Aras River Bird Sanctuary I discovered and where I do my science”. At the same time Sekercioglu gave President Erdogan over 55,000 signatures and 4000 comments he collected with his petition to www.savearas.org.

Cagan. photo with Turkey pres2

At the awards ceremony apparently President Erdogan replied to Şekercioğlu, “Putting 55,000 signatures aside, your word is enough, professor. I will talk to Forestry and Water Affairs Minister Veysel Eroglu about this.”   He also asked Sekercioğlu to return to Turkey to teach.

The Aras River Bird Research and Education Center, founded by Șekercioğlu in 2006, is one of the few long-term ecological research sites in Turkey. With over 65,000 birds ringed (banded), it is the one of two most productive ringing stations in the country.  It is also at the meeting point of Aras River and Iğdır Plains Key Biodiversity Areas and Important Bird Areas, none of which have official government protection.

IMG_0299_Lake K banding hut*

Şekercioğlu is campaigning to stop the proposed Tuzluca dam project and save the Aras River Bird Paradise. The Aras Valley provides critical ecosystem services such as clean water, fertile soil and abundant resources to the area.   Şekercioğlu says  “This is one of the world’s most important wetlands for birds. If the proposed Tuzluca dam is constructed in the Aras Valley, the feeding, breeding and wintering areas for at least 258 bird species and nearly 100 mammal, reptile and amphibian species will be destroyed.”

The valley has 37 animal species threatened or near threatened with extinction. With more research, it is thought that HALF of all land animal species in Turkey will be recorded in the valley.  Birds ringed (banded) and satellite-tracked at this wetland by the conservation group, KuzeyDoğa (founded by Şekercioğlu)  were recorded to migrate to and from three continents and dozens of countries, including Cyprus, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hungary, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and Zambia.

Şekercioğlu, who has already received international  awards for his work, including becoming a recognized National Geographic explorer is determined to have Minister Eroğlu keep his word to ensure the immediate cancellation of the Tuzluca Dam project.  View some aerial footage and find out more about the campaign here.

Special thanks to www.change.org for their contribution to this post.

Songbird Monitoring in Costa Rica with Alejandra Martinez-Salinas

Alejandra Martínez-Salinas had her first experience monitoring songbirds in mist nets in 1999. Her life changed from that moment on.  In The Messenger, she says “ I fell in love with the migrant songbirds because they are so small, but also strong. They are really determined to get somewhere”.  We filmed with Alejandra in Costa Rica last February.

Alejandra is an ecologist/ornithologist and a PhD candidate in the Joint Doctoral Program between the University of Idaho and CATIE, the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Turrialba.  When she was still in college in her native country of Nicarauga,  Alejandra had the opportunity to assist a group of ornithologists from the Smithsonian Institute doing field work. Back then, she only learned how to set up and take down mist nets just prior to going into the field, and she didn’t have much experience releasing birds from the nets. Today, fifteen years later, Alejandra leads the Bird Monitoring Program at CATIE.

Indigobunting

Martinez-Salinas arrived at CATIE in 2006 to pursue her master’s degree in forest management and biodiversity conservation. Soon after graduation, with Fabrice DeClerck, one of her Master’s thesis advisors and Rachelle DeClerck, an environmental educator, she began discussing the possibility of setting up a bird monitoring program that could cover different types of agricultural land uses. It was clear from the moment they set it up that a monitoring program was not going to be a small task but they decided to give it a try. Seven years later, the bird monitoring program is a huge success.

Since 2008, they have been trapping and banding birds in six different agricultural land uses within the CATIE campus. They band and release wild birds in forest, pastures divided by live fences, cacao, multistrata and simple agroforest coffee and sugar cane plantations. To date, they have banded  9,000 birds, including 56 species of neo-tropical migrants.

mourningwarbler

Our crew filmed a wonderful scene with Alejandra handling a Mourning Warbler, which had come back to CATIE after being banded in the same site the year before. Most common migratory songbird species visiting their mist nets are the Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Mourning and Tennessee Warblers, Alder Flycatcher and Swainson’s Thrush. Some of the rare or one-time visitors include Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers,  Bay-breasted and Blackpoll Warblers.

yellow_warbler_coffeeplant

Alejandra is very concerned about how monoculture farming is affecting diversity and habitat on coffee farms. She is currently conducting experiments to prove that birds can have a significant effect on reducing harmful insects, like the crop damaging coffee berry borer.  She says if they can convince the local farmers that the birds can do just as good a job as chemical pesticides, it will be really good for the birds, because more farmers will want to have more diverse crops to attract more birds to their farms, and the farmers will in turn save money on pesticides.   Reducing pesticides benefits the whole ecosystem in many ways.

In the last seven years, hundreds of visitors from many different countries and backgrounds have come to visit CATIE.  Each of the visitors leaves the bird banding stations knowing a little bit more about songbird conservation in agricultural lands and the importance of saving all species for a balanced ecosystem.

Watch for Alejandra on screen in The Messenger, to be released later this year.

CATIE

 

 

THE MESSENGER Picture Lock: 120 hours of footage – One year later

It’s been almost two years since camera’s starting rolling, and we have now reached a milestone with The Messenger. Picture lock!

The process began with editor Carole Larsen in January of 2014, together we confronted more than 120 hours of  footage that we had shot all over the world. We had two different camera teams, and four specialized songbird photographers, and after a year of travel we had a wealth of footage. The process of crafting a compelling story was a daunting task indeed. Carole’s first assembly was six hours long! Meanwhile in France, at Films A Cinq, Sally Blake focused in on our 2 x 1 hour International TV version.

Producer Martin de la Fouchardière, Producer and Co-writer Sally Blake, and me (middle) Director Su Rynard.

Producer Martin de la Fouchardière, Producer and Co-writer Sally Blake, and me (middle) Director Su Rynard.

In the fall we began work with Eamonn O’Connor and consulting editor Ricardo Acosta C.C.E. Together we fine-tuned the documentary feature narrative, and ultimately developed an instinctive, nuanced unfolding story. We are very pleased with the results and believe we have a film that we all can be very proud of.

(centre) Eamonn O'Conner Editor (right) Ricardo Acosta C.C.E & (left) Su Rynard Director

(centre) Eamonn O’Conner Editor (right) Ricardo Acosta C.C.E & (left) Su Rynard Director

Now we move forward into a new phase of sound editing and music, visual fx, titles, graphics, media conforms and colour corrects — all the things that need to be done to finish the film. Our goal is to have the film ready for the big screen by mid April.

The  title “The MESSENGER” is inspired by the voice over in the opening sequence: “In ancient times humans looked to the flights and songs of birds to foretell the future. Today once more, the birds have something to tell us.”

Check out our fabulous new logo by Toronto graphic designer Jenny Armour

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The MESSENGER is an international treaty co-production between Canada and France.

Produced by SongbirdSOS Productions Inc. and Films a Cinq.  International Distribution by ZED.

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