Tag Archives: Sound Editing

Eric Mendelsohn and the Extra Mile

Eric Mendelsohn’s new film, 3 Backyards, opens this Friday, March 11, at the IFC Center in Manhattan. stars Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, and Elias Koteas.

In 1998, I was the Supervising Sound Editor for Judy Berlin, the first feature by Eric Mendelsohn. It was an experience that pushed me to my limit physically and emotionally. However, Eric was charming enough and naïve enough to convince me that anything is possible. Here’s a perfect example…

In the thick of the sound editing, he and producer Rocco Caruso asked me to make a “temp mix” for the videotape they were submitting for Sundance consideration. In layman’s terms, this meant that I stop the meticulous sound editing of the finished film so I could crank out something sounding half-way decent on a VHS tape–not the best use of my time. At one point, when I was definitely running out of patience, Eric turned to me, looked me dead in the eye, and said sincerely, “I want you to imagine that this one sound effect you’re putting in is going to be the one thing that makes the difference between Sundance saying Yes or saying No.” And it worked: I went the extra mile for Eric. In fact, I did so over and over again, so many times during the next few weeks, that the film should have been called The Extra Mile.

Actually, it “worked” on Sundance, too: that year Eric won their Best Director award. His latest film, 3 Backyards played at Sundance in 2010 and he won the same award again. (He’s two for two.)

3 Backyards (God, I love that title) is about a day in the life of a handful of people who live in middle class Long Island. Since I haven’t seen the film, this post is not a review, although you can certainly get the gist from Marshall Fine’s review at Huffington Post. Instead, Eric, who’s as shrewd a PT Barnum as he is a filmmaker, gave me an interview, which pulls back the curtain on the making of the film.

This film, like Eric’s other films–the short “Through an Open Window” (1993) and the aforementioned Judy Berlin (1999)—was produced by his old friend and business partner Rocco Caruso, on an incredibly tight budget. A mere $300,000, meaning the film wasn’t “made” as much as it was “willed into existence.”

Getting a cast and crew together on such a shoestring—or “on a micro-micro-micro-budget” as Eric calls it—actually isn’t as Herculean as keeping them there, getting them  to work beyond their normal breaking point, all in support of Eric’s vision. Personally, I always wondered if his plea to me 12 years ago was in fact a “line” or some shtick, duping me into doing his bidding. He insists it was not the case at all and never his style. “I so firmly believe in the Importance of the Moment that I’m not using a new tack, or coming up with a strategy to win someone over. I teach [directing at Columbia] and I tell this to my students all the time: ‘You have a choice when you make any kind of artwork. It’s a tradeoff. The tradeoff is between being exhausted on the one hand and creating something great, potentially, on the other hand.’ That’s such a fair tradeoff. Why wouldn’t you just be exhausted?

“So at times when I feel we are never going to have this Moment again and I need to rally people, I try to make everyone remember, OK, we will be a little exhausted this week or this month, but in the end we will have something concrete that we’re proud of, that we did, that we worked for.”

And although Eric’s capable of inspiring a cast and crew to such extremes, he had no deulsions that the production couldn’t collapse at any time. “We thought we were going to run out of money after Day 5 and have to close down, and I said, ‘Well, then these will be the five great days where we played with actors and cameras and zooms and lenses, and those were really five great days that we will remember.’ It sounds incredible to me that I said this, but I really believed it. I was totally invested in the process and it was the most exciting creative experience of my life.”

Obviously, the challenge of pulling this off provides its own rush and incentive for Eric. He explains, “Do you know in E.T., when the little alien is making the kids understand what planet he is from and he lifts all the balls into the air and they swim into a solar system? [see above] Well, making 3 Backyards, I had this vision in my head of an entire film lifted up into the air, floating there by sheer willpower, and floating there were actors and houses and props and costumes and transportation, and crew housing, and everything. I had this thought: Could one person–and it wasn’t just me, but a lot of it fell from me to sort of excite people to do–lift everything in the air and keep it lifted until production was over?

“For example, in the opening of Edie’s part of the movie, she is painting in her backyard. The backyard of the house is donated by a local resident of the town. The easel that she is painting at is donated. The artwork was painted by a local artist. The paints that she is using are donated from Grumbacher Art Supplies. The plants in her backyard were on loan–if we kept them alive–from the local florist in Northport. There is nothing about the scene that is paid for or substantial. It’s all just floating in air. So, if you can extrapolate every scene in the movie that is held together like that–every car, every location, every house, every crewmember was put up in a homeowner’s house for the entire shoot; some stranger agreed to have people sleeping on couches—that’s how the film was made.

“I still get nervous sometimes at night thinking the whole thing is going to fall apart, and I have to remember the film is over.”

As much as Eric speaks of art and sacrifice for the sake of art, he is open to compromise.  “Look, the film was originally called 4 Backyards, and ten days before shooting, we realized we could not financially accomplish four backyards and, like that character in 127 Hours, I cut off my own arm. I just said. ‘No. Nothing is going to stop me from making this movie. I see a way that it can perfectly exist and I will rewrite it a week-and-a-half before we go.’ We had to tell the actors who were involved in that ‘fourth backyard’ that we were canceling it; all the locations, everything, and it was a really liberating way of working. Not being crushed by every problem, but instead looking at it as an opportunity.”

The flattering reviews from New York Magazine and Variety make no bones about it: 3 Backyards is an out-and-out Art Film, aka not everyone’s cup of tea. Clearly, this isn’t a revelation to Eric. “There is something really perverse about putting all of this time and energy and effort into artwork. It’s like half of the cave is going out and trying to kill, hunt and gather, and the other half, or maybe two cavemen, are painting cave paintings, but taking it just as seriously as everybody out killing mastodons. When you see movies like The Conversation or any Jacques Demy film, you’re looking at the work of somebody who took the time and the energy and the effort to care about your experience. So you only have a certain amount of those opportunities in your life to do that for someone else.

“Not to compare myself, but my heroes are people like the Impressionists. And if they had listened to everyone at the time, they would have been making the boring Salon paintings, which nobody even gives a shit about today. They had a new idea and they said, ‘Let’s go and do this. Maybe we will poor. Who cares?’ And I love that spirit. If films didn’t cost so much, the experimentation would be immense. But because they cost so much, everyone is so Goddamned timid. But Rocco Caruso’s said three times in my life now, ‘Here. I have saved up the money. Let’s do something exciting that is new and is a stab at what we think a film should be rather than cautiously hewing to what convention tells us we should be doing’. I don’t want to die and say, ‘Here’s my body of work. It is cautious and fits the template of many other things made by my generation.’”

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I’ll wrap things up with an anecdote, perhaps my most memorable experience with Eric, one that sums up his acute sensitivity to others and his keen ability to seize the moment. In December, 1998, when we were in the home stretch of mixing Judy Berlin, I was about to have something pretty much unheard of in the NY dating scene: a second date stemming from a blind date. She was a costume designer, and I was really nervous because I had no sense of fashion. I expressed my fears to Eric. He stopped what he was doing and sized me up and down.

“Don’t worry, “ he said confidently. “I have the perfect sweater for you.” It was cashmere and fit like a glove and, yes, it helped make my second date a success. Craziest of all: it had been worn by Woody Allen. Y’see, prior to being a filmmaker, Eric was an assistant costume designer on four Woody Allen films, and the sweater was from Husbands and Wives. Considering I totally bought into the whole “I love Woody and I’m dating in New York and it’s Annie Hall all over again” philosophy, it didn’t hurt to literally wear the man’s clothing. I mean how freakin’ cool is that?! It was all very voodoo of Eric, but then again, he’s proven to me repeatedly that he can make magic happen.

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Once again, Eric’s 3 Backyards opens this weekend at the IFC Center in Manhattan. At the moment, it’s only scheduled for one week, so if you’re at all interested, I urge you to go. It’ll be opening March 18th on Long Island, in Huntington, at the Cinema Arts Centre.

Here’s the film’s website and you can get IFC tickets here. Eric will be at several of the 8:10 screenings for a Q&A afterwards. And if you go to the IFC Center tonight, and see a guy that looks an like the picture on this post, passing out 3 Backyards postcards, well, you can guess who it is. Yep, Eric’s idea of “micro-micro-micro-budget” doesn’t end when the film is finished. He does whatever he can to personally deliver his film to a hungry audience.

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The Making of Wilhelm Hails a Cab

At the end of my last post–Wilhelm Hails a Cab (which I recommend you read before you continue)–I said its creation was more interesting than the end result. Really, I should have written that it was more “interesting” than the end result, because it’s all relative. Shoot, you already know how this post is going to turn out. Anyway, here’s my recreation of the chills, thrills and spills of bloggin’!

First, let me quickly bring you up to last month:

1984. At age 15 I discover Prince. His music becomes some of my favorite “Leave me alone, World!” music on the school bus. Naturally, I repeatedly listen to the 1999 LP under headphones, including the song “Lady Cab Driver.” (Didn’t everyone in the 80s?)

1988. I’m watching The Sting and hear in the background, “Hey, that’s my taxi!” With Google-like speed, my brain pulls up the identical man on Prince’s LP. I plotz. I hear it 4 more times in the film. I plotz 4 more times.

1992. While in film school, I watch All About Eve. Behind Bette Davis and George Sanders, I hear that damn guy yelling for his taxi. I plotz, college 90s-style.

1997. By this time, I’ve become a sound editor in NYC, and sorting through some sound FX CDs one day, I hear a track of city noise called “traffic, period 1931 New York City: cars, street car bell, horns, city rumble, ambience.” You can guess what I heard and what I did. (I’ve included the ambience track below.)

And that brings us to last month. Nowadays, I’m always groping for a blog topic.  (Fellow bloggers will vouch: the blog is always hungry. You gotta feed that beast.) I remember that poor bastard missing his cab—for decades!—and think I’ve struck gold: the Perfect Post Topic.

First, I convert The Sting’s entire soundtrack to an mp3 and put it on my iPod, listening past the dialog and music, noting every “Hey! That’s my taxi!” Initially, I did this while running errands in the city but stopped when I almost got hit by a car. (My Tip of the Day: Do NOT obsessively listen to traffic sounds under headphones when walking in an urban environment. It’s like tripping in an Escher painting.)

Next, I move to All About Eve and discover that my ears aren’t what they used to be. I’ll prove it. For all of the clips in my last post, I pumped up the sound of the horns and yelling, to compensate for crappy computer speakers. So here’s that portion with Bette Davis, first as I posted it and then as I heard it 15 years ago:

What the fuck? Was I the Bionic Woman? How the did I hear those horns, under the dialog, and say, “Hey, that’s from ‘Lady Cab Driver’”? Believe me, this is a 41-year-old man envying his once-perfectly-working, youthful body.

After I stop moping about the sands of time, I realize my blog predicament: I’m one film light. I can’t have a post that’s Film Clip-Film Clip-Prince Punchline. No, it has to be Film Clip-Film Clip-Film Clip-Prince Punchline! 3 films. Everyone knows that. Anything less would be lame. Weak sauce.

I need one more film with that guy hailing a taxi, preferably from something older than All About Eve. So what do I do? I say, “WWBBD?” which is short for “What Would Ben Burtt do?” Of course, Ben’s the sound editing legend behind Star Wars and dozens of other classics. He’s also a sound FX archivist (i.e. he found the “Wilhelm”), so I pull some strings and get his e-mail address.

Ben Burtt doesn’t know me from Adam, but, class act that he is, he responds. (What a guy! What a thrill!) He expresses empathy for my situation, but admits he’s unfamiliar with that traffic ambience. “My specialty is more in the fantasy-gunshot-war part of the spectrum,” he writes. However, he suggests I might have luck listening to Samuel Fuller’s 1953 Pickup on South Street and leaves me with, “Keep Up The Research!”

My hopes refueled, I rent the film and spot-check it, listening closely to every street scene. No luck. Undaunted, I dive in again, listening to the whole damn film under headphones. I discover that one shot I missed my first go ’round–15 seconds of a woman crossing the street—has some familiar horns in it. Yes, the horns. But no “Hey! That’s my taxi!” Aw, man! But, hey, at least it was a solid lead.

Finally I get a rational idea: Pickup’s sound editor is Harry K. Leonard. I check him out on IMDB. Turns out he sound edited a whopping 285 films, 179 before Pickup on South Street. I actually have some of these films, and, with Woodward-and-Bernstein-like zeal, I put on the ol’ headphones and start listening with fresh ears, one after another.

Some films, like Think Fast, Mr. Moto, have the horns but not the cab hailing. (Can you imagine how pissed I was every time I heard the horns but no dude saying, “Hey! That’s my taxi!”?) This goes on late at night, for a few nights, sitting at my desk, under headphones, my ears squinting to hear beyond such lines as “You haven’t called Chop Suey in on the case, have ya’, Chief?” and finally—finally!—he misses a taxi in the Charlie Chan film Murder Over New York! Whew.

And that’s how I write a post.

Was it worth it? Hell yeah! For starters, this trek covers 26 years of passion for film and music; a career as a sound editor; and my quest for an understanding of the unknown. Not bad.

Also, after alerting Ben Burtt about my discovery, he wrote, “Good job”! Shit, that’s an e-mail suitable for framing.

And most importantly, listening to these old films—scrutinizing them–was fascinating. It’s humbling to hear the care these pioneers of sound crammed into their films, especially when you realize that the average Depression-era movie theater probably sounded like junk. Nice to learn that the sound editing profession has always been a haven for the obsessives.

They say God is in the details, but I say God is in the ambiences.

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Here’s the traffic ambience. The cab-hailing is towards the end. The whole thing is really cool, an awesome documentary of street life from 80 years ago.

The 1931 traffic ambience (1:47, right-click to download)

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Wilhelm and Me

The Wilhelm scream is a film sound effect that’s been used so much it’s commonly referred to as a sound cliché. Although it originated in the 50s, recorded for the film Distant Drums and known then as “Man being eaten by alligator,” sound designer Ben Burtt used it in Star Wars (1977). After that, the scream became a sound editors’ in-joke and was frequently used in films created by George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, typically sound edited by the same handful of guys.

And this is where I came in. In 1992, I was in college and watching George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954) on VHS. There was a particularly good musical number called “Someone at Last,” which I was showing to my buddy Tom Cross. There’s a moment when the song comes to a halt, punctuated by an extreme scream. Immediately, Tom laughed knowingly. “They used that scream!” He said this as if I knew exactly what he meant, as if the scream was the reason I was showing him the clip (it wasn’t).

“’That’ scream? What do you mean?”

He got his tape of Star Wars and cued up the scene when Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia fend off stormtroopers. A stormtrooper is shot and as he falls, he screams.

Of course, it was the same scream. I looked at Tom quizzically, and I know exactly the look I gave him since I’ve been on the receiving end of it plenty of times myself: a mixture of astonishment that a mind could work that way, with a hint of sadness for all the lost years of social interaction.

“Dude, what the fuck? How did you know that?”

He cited a few other examples in films, such as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and I stayed dumbfounded. It was just something he noticed from repeated viewings. Look, I have good ears—really good ones, as you’ll find out in the next few posts—but this one was mindboggling. 1

Years passed. 1997. I was now an up-and-coming sound editor in NYC. I was working at a small facility called Spin Cycle Post, in Manhattan. One morning, I came in super early and digitized the relevant scenes from A Star is Born and Star Wars, and edited together a crude presentation. As my co-workers came in, one-by-one, I called them into my edit room and played it for them. (Here’s my one and only Wilhelm compilation, which I dubbed “A Star Wars is Born.”)

Before long, I had a growing audience of confounded sound editors, all giving me that look I once gave Tom. (I made it a point to always give the credit to my friend, who was by this time plying his trade in picture editing.) I got a clean recording of the scream from the soundtrack to A Star is Born, and we all agreed to carry on the tradition of using it whenever possible. Since we knew nothing of Wilhlem’s history (is this where I remind you that there was no internet yet?), I named the scream “Yakima.” I imagined that if the famous, Old Hollywood stuntman Yakima Cannutt ever got killed in a film, this is the sound he would make.

Beginning in 1997, Yakima began appearing in New York independent films. The sound editors and I had an unspoken rule of sneaking the scream into the film without the director’s knowledge. Even though this was ridiculous (the scream barely works logically in a Hollywood action film; where would it make sense in a quiet indy picture?!), you shouldn’t underestimate a sound editor’s desire to be a part of a Secret Society.

In 2000, fellow sound editor, Dave Paterson, had a friend named David Serchuk, who produced radio docs for NPR. Serchuk, always on the look-out for a good story, heard about the scream and pursued it diligently (unearthing a ton of info I had never bothered to figure out). He interviewed me and others, on both coasts, and the wonderful end result aired on On the Media in early 2001. 2   As far as I know, this is one of the first instances of Wilhelm being explained and dissected to “outsiders.” Thanks in part to that doc, Wilhelm crossed over to the mass market. Before long, web pages devoted to the scream’s history began popping up.

Wilhelm belongs to everyone now, on both sides of the movie screen, with several video comps on YouTube (I’ve put some of the better ones below) and with regular appearances in films, TV shows, cartoons and video games, frequently at the request of filmmaker.

I hope I don’t sound jaded when I say I miss when Wilhelm was still an underground thing. True, I was not part of the 70’s inner-circle that first brilliantly put it to use—in fact, I was part of the generation of sound editors that let the Wilhelm cat out of the bag (shoot, I was even the direct link to David Serchuk’s NPR piece). But for a few years, I was a member of a sound editing community that used it covertly, with an insider’s knowledge. Wilhelm was our secret handshake, so to speak. And, safe to say, when my wife is pointing it out to me in films, it’s not underground anymore.

Anyway, being a one-time member of that Secret Society, I have some insight into Wilhelm that is still not commonly known (you don’t think I told Dave Serchuk everything about Wilhelm in that 2000 interview, do you?). And so in my next post, I will tell the real story of Wilhelm and his scream.

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Interesting links about/compilations of the Wilhelm scream:

-Sound designer Steve Lee (who’s also in Serchuk’s radio doc) has an excellent essay about the history of the scream on his really cool website hollywoodlostandfound.net. Also, he’s in this short documentary:



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BACK TO POST 1 Also, Tom Cross is the man who clued me into Dirty Harry’s gun sound, which I wrote about here.

BACK TO POST 2 Happily, Dave Serchuk’s radio doc is remembered fondly, and last Fall, NPR aired it frequently as part of their Best of the Decade series, which brought me many e-mails and phone calls of “Hey, Stephen, I just heard you on the radio!”

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The terrifying motion picture from the terrifying No. 1 best seller.

Jaws premiered 35 years ago today, and the internet’s abuzz about it. Plenty of articles, blog posts and e-partying, which I think is really great. Turns out there are many of us out there who call it My Favorite Film. It’s a nice community to be in. (I’ve included a few links below.)

This film is a part of me on a molecular level1, and I’ve already done two posts on it (Before and After and The Many Faces of…). I have many more Jaws-related posts in me, however, I fear they’ll all quickly devolve into bitching about the bad sound mix done in 2000 (see my Before and After post if you don’t believe me). But I don’t want that kind of anger to taint this wonderful anniversary.

Tell you what: my post today will be predominantly about a great moment within Jaws—and towards the end of the post, maybe I’ll grumble a little about what it sounds like in the theaters today.

OK, here’s the scene, which I’ll call the Whale Song scene: Brody, Hooper and Quint are on the Orca, and Quint’s just finished his Indianapolis story. The mood is as quiet as the film will ever get—on the Orca at least—and the silence is interrupted by the sound of a whale in the distance. Naturally, this freaks out Brody, land-lubber that he is. Pay attention to the whale’s interaction with the others…

This is as beautiful as it gets. Gentle, haunting. Let’s break it down, since I think it gets even better under scrutiny:

       -Quint’s story ends. The guys are humbled by his tale. All of us (Brody, Hooper and the audience) have a better understanding of what drives this shark hunter.
       -The whale cries; Brody reacts; Hooper explains, “It’s a whale.”
       -Quint sings with a small smile, “Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish lady…”
       -The whale cries again.
       -Quint joins the whale, continuing, “Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain…”
       -The whale cries the last time.
       -Hooper picks up as soon as the whale is done: “Show me the way to go home…”

In a nutshell, Quint duets with the whale, making his spiritual kinship with the sea even more pronounced than his Indianapolis story did. In fact, you could say that, yes, he’s got issues with sharks but not with the ocean. It’s obvious this is a man who plans to die at sea.

And the fact that Hooper follows his lead—singing a song that asks for “the way home”—could be seen as foreshadowing Quint’s ultimate demise2   a couple of reels later. (Tellingly, in the first version of the script to include the singing, it’s Quint who begins “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”)

I don’t normally read this much into films, but Jaws is so chock full of subtleties, nuances, and idiosyncrasies I’m inclined to think everything is there for a reason. By all accounts—Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log; Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent “The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws”; comparing the few drafts of the screenplay floating around the internet against the end result—this was by-the-seat-of-their-pants filmmaking, with re-writing and improvisation happening at every turn—and yet the young director had a vision and a clear focus on the characters’ purpose within the scheme of the story. Therefore, it’s very likely (to me) that Spielberg directed Robert Shaw to imagine he was singing with the whale.

It bears another viewing…

Of course, a sound effect this distinct prompts questions from an old sound editor like myself: Who picked the actual sound? Who placed it in the film, timing it the way it is? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Spielberg, perhaps even choosing it prior to shooting. At the very least, a sound effect this important would have been settled upon in the editing room, with input from editor Verna Fields. I can’t imagine the film going through the entire picture edit without any whale sound there, waiting for a sound editor to dig up something appropriate. It’s just too important a sound effect.

But I do have an idea what the scene would sound like without that whale sound. As I wrote in my first post, Jaws was originally mixed in mono (for which it won an Oscar), and when it came out on DVD in 2000, it was remixed for surround sound. Yet for some still-unknown reason, many of the film’s juiciest sound effects were either missing or replaced by something noticeably different or inferior. Sadly, the Whale Song scene, one of my favorite sounding scenes in the film, has been decimated…

I know I said I wasn’t going to bitch too much in this post, but here goes:

       1. The interplay between the whale and Quint and Hooper is gone. Instead, the whale now cries the same time as Quint, which leaves those pockets of silence wide open. The average ear, hearing a film for the first time, is trained to listen to the characters, and any sound placed beneath them will be a distraction. When I used to sound edit, we had a basic rule: it was OK to have sound FX/design wedged in between lines of dialog. (Joe Sixpack, when hearing a sound effect snuck in between some dialog, isn’t going to say, “Hey, they stuck that sound in there because nothing else was going on!” Trust me on that.)
       2. This new whale sound is creepy and happy at the same time—but definitely not mournful in the way the original is. It also sounds like the whale was miked closely when it was recorded and it still sounds that way. Gone is the feeling of distant crying.
       3. Where are all those great boat creaks and groans?! Now the scene sounds like it was filmed on a soundstage (it wasn’t). Check this out. This short clip begins with the new mix and then crosses over into the original, personality-filled mix. (You may have to crank this up for full effect.)

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why any of this was done. But I do know this: if Jaws ever gets its long-overdue theatrical re-release, it will have this anemic mix—and that’s a shame.

But, hey! Enough of my old man grumblin’! Back to the celebratin’!

I’m going to leave you with a couple of gifts. First, here’s those links to some very interesting Jaws-related blogs and articles:
       –Radiation-Scarred Reviews has been doing a week-long Sharkathalon, which includes posts about shark films before and after Jaws as well as links to other blogs posting about the film.
       –Too Much Horror Fiction has some great samples of Jaws in print; and its sister blog Panic on the 4th of July has equally exciting examples of Jaws posters.
       –Hunting Bruce, or, on the Trail of the Jaws Shark, an NPR piece about a journalist fulfilling a life-long dream of literally touching the mechanical shark

And lastly, a song. The song. And this might be the version the guys were referencing:

The Andrews Sisters – Show Me the Way to Go Home (2:49, right-click to download)

I suggest you crank it up, grab a friend or two, and sing along.

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BACK TO POST 1 Obviously, Jaws is the Big Mac Daddy of Quotable Films. Oh, sure, there’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and “Back home we got a taxidermy man–He’s gonna have a heart attack when he sees what I brung him!” Y’know, the quotes we hear peppering our everyday lives. But I’m talking about a deeper layer, like “(inhale).” That’s when Brody gets out of bed, inhaling and standing up straight, which is how I’ve gotten out of bed most days of my life. Or this old chestnut: “(sniff).” Of course, I’m referring to Brody walking down the street of Amity, sniffing sharply then looking up at the birds. I do that one every Fall day.

BACK TO POST 2 Or is it “demeeze”?

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Dirty Harry’s Gun

(I had hoped to do something a little more special for you all on my birthday, but a ten hour computer scare rendered my whole day unproductive. And so I’m posting my “In Case of Emergency” entry. It’s a year old, but hopefully it will be new to most of you.)

A few years ago my buddy Tom brought this to my attention. It’s a wonderful aspect of Magnum Force (1973), one of the Dirty Harry films. I took that ball and ran with it, creating this three-and-a-half minute demonstration about sound design. (Please excuse the occasional patches of black. This is a sampler of how I teach a class.)

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It’s a Family Thing

Harry Mose at a "mixing board," Brooklyn Children's Museum, Jan, 2009



Today’s post is more of an introduction than an actual post. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but my son, Harry Mose, is picking up some of my habits and fixations (i.e. film, sound FX, putting metal objects to my ears). Here’s some evidence. Yes, the clip is 13 months old, but, hey, my posts can’t all be diatribes against a wing of the entertainment industry.




And just so you don’t think his passion or attention to detail are 100% my doing, I’d like to point out that my wife is pretty intense, too.

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Alex Chilton: “Hit me, band.”

Alex Chilton hearing a Hell Sound, circa 1973

Last August we lost the great Memphis musician, producer and role model Jim Dickinson and this week we lost Alex Chilton. These losses remind us that they once collaborated: Jim co-produced for Alex the legendary Big Star Third LP.

By all accounts, working with Alex Chilton during that period was trying indeed, and Jim Dickinson’s musically spiritual demeanor definitely got put to the test. Dickinson, always game to talk at length about his methods of producing music, shared this wonderful story in an interview with Rick Clark, published in Goldmine magazine, September 16, 1994. At this time it bears repeating.

“That is the part of Big Star Third that no one will ever hear: Alex’s version of ‘The Dark End of the Street.’ Andy Hummel [bass] doesn’t know the chords, and Alex is play a simplified version. Spooner [Oldham, piano] is playing like Spooner. He’s playing extra chords and Martian intervals, and it’s jut piano, acoustic guitar and bass. He gets into the solo and Alex says, ‘Hit me, band, ‘ and nothing happens, because nobody is there. (laughs)

“I could tell Alex was hearing something in his head, and it was ‘that’ that I went for in Big Star Third. It was that idea of this guy in a trio or a quartet, or whatever, hearing this other ‘Hell Sound’ of horns, strings and voices and fucked-up stuff. ‘Hit me, band!’ I thought, ‘What is it that Alex was hearing?’ That is really what I tried to go for. It was ‘Here’s your band.’

“If I can get the sound that I think is in the artist’s head, especially at the moment of creation, when they wrote the song, that is what I want.”

That’s why Jim Dickinson was a great producer.

I was a Dickinson junkie and tried to this “Hit me, band” sensibility to my work as a sound editor, as a means for helping filmmakers get their ideas up on the screen. In fact, I had this story posted in my sound editing studio (not far from my Buster Keaton poster).

And one of these days I’ll do a post about the time my car died in Memphis, and because of it I got to meet Jim Dickinson and take this photograph:

Jim Dickinson, June, 1998, photograph by S. Altobello

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