American Cinematographer

June, 1973


Until the opening of Walt Disney World, our location in Florida was a distinct disadvantage. Only our relatives, creditors and the Internal Revenue Service knew there was an Orlando. As the major ad agencies and theatrical agents are located in larger cities, getting some of the "meaty" contracts has been difficult. We would have been out of the film business a long time ago were it not that our major client, Tupperware Home Parties, is located in Orlando and the many films we have produced for them since our beginning in 1959 were let out directly by them and not through their New York agency.

Frankly, our sound department grew out of necessity, since our location in the early years made shipping of tape for transfer, etc., a time-consuming and frustrating experience. Further, there is a "resistance" met in some areas when you are an "outsider." This latter fact, coupled with our own lack of experience, made it difficult to get the "sound" we wanted in our finished projects. This is not an openly talked about problem in our industry, but let's face it . . . there is a lot of "we'll show 'em" attitude, or "let 'em find out like we did" prevailing, making it very difficult for newcomers to achieve professional results in their finished product. Human nature scores again.

The only unit we do not possess for 16mm motion picture transfer and post-production work is an optical recorder. Its use and ownership for us would be impractical; however, if I had not developed an excellent working relationship with a lab that owns this equipment . . . despite the problems . . . I would have obtained one in order to have control over the end result for projects we are involved in. I might add that our experience has shown that various sound services are not uniform (primarily because there is no "standard," per se, for mixed tracks, or even transfers) from day-to-day, even with the same material. Again, this is not a wholesale condemnation, since, before we instituted our own control methods, the sound of today's transfer, when edited into film, didn't always match the sound of the same scene when it had to be re-transferred because of damage in the editing room, sync problems, etc. This can create many headaches throughout the editing of a picture, but you aren't aware of them until you sit down for the mix . . . a costly time to find out.

I was involved in a feature motion picture a few years back in which I was the sound mixer. After a few weeks, when the editor started joining the film together, the complaint was leveled at the "bad sound" and that such and such will have to be looped, etc. It turned out that it wasn't "bad sound;" it was "bad transfer." The tools of the sound room are very powerful, but they cannot be indiscriminately used, particularly day-to-day on the same production.

One of our clients, with whom we were involved in several industrial location/post production projects, Barton Film Company in Jacksonville, Florida, contacted me about doing the same, i.e., location sound, editing, and mixing for a low-budget horror film, "ZAAT," to be made entirely on location throughout northern Florida. He wanted the completed project to be of as high quality as practical within the confines of the budget and insisted that 35mm photography be used.

Ron Kivett gives the "Monster" a drink.

Several years back, I had done the post-production work on another low budget horror film, "Face of the Phantom." The photography was 35mm B&W, but we did all of the sound in 16mm. It was quite a problem using a 16/35 Moviola, the 16/35 synchronizer, etc., all because of the difference in mathematics of the two media. You'd wind up with, say 18 feet of sound and 45 feet of picture. We did it, but I wasn't about to encourage someone else to do it, particularly since I would ultimately be faced with the problem.

So, I suggested that he shoot in 35mm, as he wanted, for image quality, but have a 16mm workprint made and that we work all of the post-production aspects in 16mm. His Director of Photography was agreeable to this, with the only proviso that some of the first day's work be printed in 35mm so that he could view it on the theater screen. Once he was satisfied that the camera equipment was in good order, no further 35mm prints were made.

In the interim, since the acquisition of my own theater in West Yellowstone, Montana, I decided to make a short subject to run in the summer which would promote the fact that we are a two-season town now. I wanted maximum screen quality but couldn't afford full 35mm and didn't want 16 blowups. Techniscope was the answer. I went about this the hard way. I had a 35mm workprint made. This I edited in rough form, then had a 16mm reduction workprint made from this. I then edited the sound rolls with the 16mm picture . . . all in 16mm, which our studio is set up for. The film will be mixed to 1/4" (sync) from which a 35mm optical negative will be made. I will match the 35mm print to the 16mm and, as far as the lab is concerned, it was done in 35mm.

Frankly, all of this was done to save MONEY. To begin with, we are in a 16mm operation. For a studio set up for 35mm, other than raw stock costs, it offers no real advantage; however, the raw stock savings are quite dramatic. In quantity, a 1000-foot roll of 35mm magnetic film costs about $30. This will give you about 11 minutes of recording time. For the same $30, you can buy 2000 feet of 16mm magnetic film, which is good for about 55 minutes of recording --- five times as much. Actually, it works out better than that on routine transfers. A 35mm recorder takes longer to come up to "speed" than does a 16mm machine when making a transfer, so you waste quite a lot more tape in this operation when compared to 16mm. Since an average feature can contain as many as 700 (or more) sync scenes, this works out to approximately 3500 feet of waste (assuming approximately three seconds for speed) in 35mm compared to about 1300 feet in 16mm . . . this is just for sync scenes. The more transfer, the more saving,

When I made my short, it never occurred to me to have a direct 16mm reduction workprint made, rather than go the route I went. The savings here are dramatic --- if you can find a lab that will make you a 16mm workprint at a fair price. Keep in mind that you are cutting into their profit considerably. Also keep in mind that some reduction printers cannot print the latent edge numbers that the manufacturer prints on the film. If this is the case, as with "ZAAT," inked edge numbers will have to be applied to both the negative and the print. While there are several methods, we chose the one that prints in 35mm feet, so that the corresponding 16mm print has the numbers every 16 frames. At any rate, this is something extra that has to be done and costs more money . . . and, more importantly, time.

Costwise, let's see what we are talking about in terms of a 100-minute film with a 5:1 shooting ratio. At 90' per minute, x 100 minutes x 5 = 45,000 feet of negative. Assume you only need to workprint half of that:

22,500 x .1103 = 2,481.75

The same amount of 16mm workprint:

9,000 x .07 = 630.00

This is $1,851.75. In a low budget film, that's a few bucks. A further savings could be made by using Techniscope, as only one half the amount of the camera negative would have been used, saving about $3,375, plus half in processing costs. The lab isn't hurt in the long run, because if it makes the prints, the only money it loses is in your original photography processing and workprinting. In some cases, these small savings might make the difference between a film being made or not being made.

Ron Kivett and Wade Popwell, aka the "Monster"

Keep in mind that the reason for all of this is MONEY, and the availability of our 16mm post-production equipment. There are problems and some risk. To begin with, there is the risk of scratching the original negative in the reduction process, although any competent laboratory should have adequate safeguards against this hazard; however, the risk is there and the reshooting of an expensive scene could more than offset the savings.

Soundwise, the quality of 16mm magnetic film IS NOT the same as 35mm. To begin with, the linear speed of 16mm film is 7.2 inches per second, whereas 35mm film is 18 inches per second. This affects the frequency response, dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio. For a simple one-to-one transfer, i.e. Nagra tape to sprocketed film (either 16mm or 35mm) to optical recording (35), you could not tell which tape (16 or 35) was used. It could be measured, but the average person couldn't hear it, unless he were an expert.

The real problem, though, is that a film is not made of just one simple transfer. Many re-recordings are used to arrive at the various dialogue, sound effect and music rolls required to mix a film. For example, you might want to create a night mood effect by having a roll of "presence" (say the actual location sound of the "night," wind, insects, etc.). For emphasis, you might add more crickets, then the ripple of a lake . . . a total of 3 rolls of sound just for effects.

Add the dialogue tracks, which will more than likely be equalized and compressed, then a couple of music rolls, and you could have as many as seven rolls just to mix one reel of an uncomplicated scene. This is normally no big deal, but physical laws get in the way and the background noise of the tape (hiss) begins to build up quite rapidly the more rolls you add. This can be kept under control if you have sufficient people mixing the sound to keep as many of the tracks as possible down when they are not needed. For a one-man operation, though, it has to be considered. Unfortunately, the problem is more obvious in 16mm than in 35mm.

Fortunately, the various tape manufacturers have made dramatic improvements in magnetic tapes throughout the years. Present-day 16mm magnetic film is superior to early 35mm --- which means that 35mm is that much better. Anyway, it was money.


A final, and even more serious, limitation was the fact that we have only three dubbers, which meant that we could accommodate only one dialogue track, one effects track and one music track. As I was also the film's editor and post-production supervisor, it was very easy to keep in mind all of the above problems. I worked very closely with the Director, Don Barton (who, fortunately, was also the film's producer) in an effort to minimize the necessity for looping, sound effects, etc.

Our studio has two 1/4" recorders which are wired to synchronizers. It was a simple matter to pre-mix the effects rolls to 1/4" tape (at 15 ips) and to then premix the music rolls to the other 1/4" recorder (also at 15 ips). [To minimize background noise, the machines were adjusted for optimum performance, using the new low-noise-high-output tape, Scotch 206. It has some print-through, but since there is rarely any period of silence in the film, this was never a problem. Print-through also builds up with storage and we mixed the whole film within hours of the premix, which also helped us.]

The pre-mixes were started in sync with the picture, which, in effect, gave us a total of nine tracks. During the complicated "transformation sequence," still another two-track 1/4" recorder was pressed into service. It had two pre-mixed tracks on it, so here we had the equivalent of 15 tracks . . . none of which were more than two generations away from the original recordings.

I doubt if we had done anything different from what has been done by other qualified sound men, but invaluable in this type of production are an understanding director, cinematographer and an agile and alert boom man. Our photographer, Jack McGowan, was most understanding of the budget and the sound problems. Many times, some artistic compromise was made in lighting or staging to get our microphones in position to avoid delays in post-production.

My boom man, Carl Herrmann, Jr., moved into places that defied description. His awareness of the action and alertness to inevitable deviations from the script made it possible to use every single scene. There is not one looped line of dialogue in this film.

Many sequences were shot with multiple cameras, one blimped and the other unblimped. Some scenes were shot solely with an unblimped camera, as it was easier and quicker to set up. In these cases, the scenes were shot sync and we made a cue track. Then, without the camera running, the action was immediately re-done for sound. A presence track was then made at the same time at the same level setting and using the same microphone. The cue track was used as a guide and the second track was cut to fit it. Several times we did this with dialogue and I was amazed at the lack of editing required. When there were sync problems, a section of "presence" was spliced in so that there were no dropouts in the track where the changes were made.

Some of the action was shot at Marineland Studio in Florida, in areas just out of public view. We had problems with voices, PA systems and the porpoise shows, as we could not close the facility. We recorded all of the sounds of the building, pumps, water bubbles, etc., at night, and, with the aid of a noise-suppression amplifier, we were able to use the original track, with the additional effects used to "mask" the gating or chopping effect of the amplifier. In several scenes, when using the unblimped Arriflex, we just recorded the sound of the camera and made a loop out of it so that it was in every scene. With all of the other noises, it just sounds (to a non film-maker) like another "noise."

Some of the noises we used were unusual. Most noticeable are the "fish" sounds. Our thanks go to the Underwater Sound Laboratory (located in Orlando) of the U.S. Navy, which gave us a most unusual tape of various underwater sounds. It is a small sample of the actual underwater noises used to train sonar operators to be able to distinguish between a fish and a weapon.

About the only sounds that weren't natural were the walking effects in the woods (using a box full of dried leaves) in a sequence shot while I was editing a part of the picture. Radio transmission effects were obtained by using small citizen-band radios and recording the actual sound of the received signals. This added to the realism, as the effect of a squelch signal was obtained. Holding on to the radio's antenna while recording altered the signal strength of the small units and created a "fading" effect, difficult to achieve without some form of a variable phase shifter.

Other underwater sounds were created by using a metal tank full of water with a contact microphone stuck on the side (like a guitar pickup). We were able to get unusual bubble and underwater noise effects using this tank.

From a post-production standpoint, the real problem was the transformation scene. Nothing was written in the script for it. Since "ZAAT" is supposed to be a new compound, Za At, the problem was to create the effect in the viewer's mind that it was actually a transformation liquid which was supposed to cause fish to mutate and allow the man to turn himself into a fish. The only thing that seemed to add an idea of "instant" recognition was the use of a geiger counter. So every time the Za At fluid is opened or sprayed or used, I added the sound of a Geiger counter. It increases in intensity when the results are more ominous.

The electronic hardware that augmented the fluid was the real problem. As it was all surplus radar equipment rigged with flashing lights, it made no sound. As a matter of fact, I've always wanted to see a horror movie in which all of the equipment was transistorized and things just happened, with no noise. At any rate, practically everything has been done in this area of effects and we had neither the time nor budget to invent anything new. The idea was just to have something happen, and not to make a career out of it. Stealing sound from someone else's picture occurred to us briefly, but we resorted, instead, to a combination of noises made by the older relay-type telephone exchanges, plus a combination of tones such as are heard on a long distance telephone circuit. For this, I recorded several different frequencies from our test oscillator. In the editing room, I spliced in - arbitrarily - two frames of this, one of that, three of this, etc. --- until I wound up with a loop of film about three feet long that was all splices. The first one ran about six inches before it came apart, got caught in the sprockets and proceeded to self-destruct.

I put a new one together, this time not cutting the splicing tape, but using a continuous piece of tape with the various lengths of film stuck to it rather than a physical completed tape splice at each cut. Again it was about three feet long so that it wouldn't repeat itself too often. This one ran through all right, but sounded like nothing. I had failed to think musically when I "arbitrarily" spliced in the tones. So, I re-did it, this time remembering some of my music instruction from years past. In effect, you simply have to make the tones very different from each other for them to be noticed. The loop I used in the film is about the fifth one I made. I transferred this loop to one of the tracks on our two-track recorder at 7-1/2 ips. Then I rewound the tape and, on the other track, recorded the loop backwards at 15 ips. I used it running at 7-1/2 ips during the preliminary operations in the lab, mixing both tracks. At the instant when he is supposed to be "transformed," I changed the recorder back to 15 ips, which made everything appear to speed up. When the transformation took place, I removed the sound altogether. He then gets out of the tank to the sounds of a telephone exchange, some bubbles, plus the sound of a square-wave generator.

The entire operation was facilitated by the fact that I was functioning both as editor and mixer. Whenever known effects were required, such as a telephone, radio, inside/outside filtering, etc., I made these in the transfer. This had the added advantage that, when making rough screenings, I didn't have to explain . . . "Well, there will be the sound of a radio here" . . . "You will hear the voice like you hear it over a telephone," etc. It is very difficult to explain this to people who have no knowledge of the business. Also, the switching in of the various equipment necessary to simulate the effects requires more hands than I have, particularly when there is more than one track running.

Our primary interest was in obtaining sound as good as possible within our limitations. Careful notes were made on our location recording logs to note such things as volume setting, equalization used, whether we had a filter or not --- all so we could duplicate the same sound conditions if we had to go back, shoot another scene, or whatever, at the various locations. This also aided in the transfer operation. Different mikes have different "sounds." Sometimes you have to use two different mikes in the same scene. With the notes, it was possible to re-equalize one track over the other so that they would cut together without having to make the change in the mix.

As in any film, there were many little things that were done that could fill volumes and would make interesting information to anyone in the same field. But the results of this effort proved that it could be done. It saved a great deal of cash outlay in terms of supplies and made possible the use of an existing facility. I would not hesitate to utilize this method in the production of any theatrical film and, while it isn't comparable to the results obtained with 35mm magnetic equipment and more sophisticated facilities, it should offer opportunities to others who might have been hesitant. If I were to do it again, the only other recommendation would be that you make certain that your equipment is adjusted and checked out to be in its optimum electrical and mechanical condition. While you can slide by with good 35mm equipment, everything is more critical in the 16mm format, especially in regard to noise, frequency response and motion stability.

Finally, this method is not meant to substitute for skilled personnel or properly maintained equipment. We have worked in this way out of economic necessity and to make use of an existing facility, the main limitation of which is that it was designed for 16mm. The amount of extra time spent in pre-mixing, in dreaming up ways to make it possible to use one less track, the preliminary recording and transfer work that required hours of "thinking" in order to build in effects, such as telephones, changes in perspective from outside to inside, etc. --- all this could be handled very competently, and with greater ease, by organizations possessing more sophisticated equipment.

For me as an artist, though, it was worth every minute. As an editor, I had TOTAL control over everything. I didn't have to accept a good mix when I could try for a better one. While it was my own time, I knew that I could keep at it until I could milk every decibel out of every sound I knew was in the track. If, after hearing all the sounds together, I wanted another cricket chirp, I put it in. On the other hand, when it was bad, there was no one else to blame. I just had to try to dream up a way to salvage it.

"ZAAT" was what it was all about.

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