Tim Summerhayes of Red TX tells us about his role on the recent Woody Harrelson film project that involved broadcasting live from the streets of London in one take, with no room for error.
As many of you will know all too well, when working on a feature film it can take months to bring all of the various audio elements together. In today’s world, though, post teams are being set ever tighter deadlines to prepare a meticulously crafted final mix, but what if someone was mad enough to suggest shooting a movie, featuring Hollywood actors, in the middle of one of the world’s busiest cities, and do the whole thing as a live broadcast?
It seems Woody Harrelson – director, writer and star of the recent Lost in London project – is mad enough. With a running time of 100 minutes and filmed entirely on one single digital film camera fitted with a wireless system designed and supplied by Broadcast RF, it was all done in one take, across two square miles of central London with a cast of 25, 300 crew and another 300 extras at 2am on 20 January, so it’s easy to see why no one had ever attempted anything like this before.
Lost in London is a semi-autobiographic account of a 2002 London nightclub incident and its aftermath involving Harrelson. Once he’d made his technical plans clear, Harrelson found himself in need of an equally crazy crew to join him, and after what no doubt would’ve been some heavily detailed discussions, an audio team led by head of sound Tim Fraser, audio number two Simon Bishop and Tim Summerhayes (main picture, left) of live broadcast specialist Red TX was formed.
It’s fair to say that Summerhayes was a little skeptical initially, saying “it really seemed too farfetched to be taken seriously” when he first heard about it before Christmas, but after being told by Vicki Betihavas, Lost in London’s live producer at Nineteen Fifteen that it was definitely going ahead, and beamed out to more than 500 cinemas across the US as well as London’s Picturehouse Central, his reluctance made way for genuine intrigue.
Red TX’s role was to receive the submixed dialogue from Tim Fraser’s unit (you can read more about their responsibilities in the March 2017 issue of PSNEurope), which understandably “took a whole lot of pressure off,” according to Summerhayes, and from within its Red 2 truck combine this with live sound effects, environments and atmospheres, as well as music when needed, to create the final mix using its trusty Studer Vista 8 console, multitracking everything to Pyramix – Red TX’s standard format. The front half of the vehicle – parked up outside the Central Saint Martins (CSM) art school in Holborn – was where Summerhayes, his colleague Ollie Nesham (main picture, right) and recording engineer/systems tech Steve Massey were based, and in the rear was the music department playing in prerecorded stems.
Coming up with a method of capturing the environments for a film that was being shot in one long take presented the team with its first problem. After more than a little headscratching, the H4 SuperMINI surround sound microphone system, designed to deliver ‘expansive 5.1 audio field capture in a super compact package,’ was put forward as a possible solution first of all.
“We thought we could mount it on the camera as it’s small enough, we could take the two Dolby Pro-Logic II-encoded channels down the radio link to us, decode it and we’ve got wonderful surround,” Summerhayes explains. “The mic finally arrived, and they said ‘it’s a lovely microphone, but you’re not going to put it on our camera!’”
With that plan scuppered, the team went in search of an alternative approach that would not involve camera mounting, but still let them use the Holophone.
Woody Harrelson was director, writer and star of the film
“Plan B was that [boom op] Rohan Igoe would put it on his pole and basically be looking wherever the camera is looking, so all the perspectives would work for the surround, behind the camera operator,” Summerhayes continues. “That was kicked into touch because there wouldn’t have been enough space in all of the enclosed spaces. In the meantime, the two radio channels that were allocated to us were swallowed up by other things that Tim Fraser wanted so we had no direct link with the set, apart from Tim’s dialogue submix that was coming back to us.”
It was then that Nesham decided that it was time to “take the bull by the horns,” as Summerhayes puts it, and take on the role of grams op. He then went about sourcing suitable spot sound effects that could be used: doors closing, bathroom sounds, police sirens and a list was then compiled that he played in from QLab. A Studer Vista 1 submixer was hired for this purpose, controlled by Nesham.
“We also tailored a few of the surround presets on the TC Electronic 6000 and found some that matched really well with where the action was taking place, like corridors and police cells, most of which were made of wood so we had some nice concrete sounds to make them sound realistic,” Summerhayes says. “Ollie played those in on cue and we’d put some of the dialogue through the TC, on which he’d set up presets on certain scenes that fed back through his mixer into the main desk.”
As you can imagine, there were a lot more problems that had to be dealt with, including one particularly “horrendous” one, as Summerhayes explains: “From the time it took the dialogue and the pictures to get from the set to the mix truck, we knew it would be somewhere in the region of three quarters of a second because of all the processing involved, and we were getting all sorts of figures coming from the camera people and the radio people but it wasn’t until we had everything on site and that we were running alongside the camera that we managed to work out that the actual delay was 837ms!”
There were three scenes where prerecorded music had to be played into the set: the first was a nightclub, the second was a scene where the camera pans past three dancing Jesuses (look, we’re talking about a Woody Harrelson film here) and the third involved starting the playback track to country legend Willie Nelson for his surprise cameo appearance, who then picked it up and started to play along live. Therefore, the Red TX team had to cross over from the prerecord into Nelson, but that had to be played in sync with the action, and then you have to factor in that this needed to be heard and mixed in 837ms after the event.
“To make that happen I was basically using snapshot recalls on the console to change from scene to scene, which opened up certain effects feeds to various areas of the set and took the feeds to Ollie, who was sending back all the reverbs and bits and pieces,” says Summerhayes.
Red TX's Red 2 truck in position outside Central Saint Martins (CSM)
As boom op, Igoe was a little bit out of the picture at this point because he could no longer go about his original task of recording the environments live. And because it had emerged that not all of the sound effects were of a good enough quality – far from it, in fact – he was then sent off to various locations during the rehearsals to capture some of the missing audio as it happened then, before bringing it back to Red 2, where it was then decoded from PL2 and put into QLab, tailored, edited and blended in with the rest of the effects library. This also meant the Holophone mic could be used after all.
Sound of Da Police
It would take us a dozen more pages to outline all the challenges that the crew faced on this project, but one other example that Summerhayes was keen to mention was how they overcame the issue with one particular sound.
The movie features several police chases, but there is one whereby a police car overtakes the vehicle where all the action is taking place, but getting the right siren sound using what they had to hand was proving to be frustratingly difficult. Fortunately there was enough time for another Eureka moment.
“Because it involved real police guarding the streets, we thought ‘well they’ve got sirens, let’s ask them!’” recalls Summerhayes. “So we approached them in the canteen: ‘Excuse me chaps, when you’ve finished your tea…’ I told them what we were doing and they were over the moon to help. They gave us three or four different types of siren, different starts and stops and we used those in the show as well.”
According to the Evening Standard, Harrelson was asked after filming finished whether he would ever do something like this again, and his response was: “If someone was thinking of doing it then all they would need to do is talk to me and I would talk them out of it. Unless I didn’t like them.” Speaking to Summerhayes, you wonder whether he would also need some convincing to take on a similar project in future, but another part of you feels that he would jump at the chance again.