The plain, boxy appearance of Fantasy Building on 10th Street conceals the glamorous work that goes on inside. Most recently, the building’s studios have contributed to this month’s release of three films on DVD.
The Saul Zaentz Film Center, in the Fantasy Building, did post-production work on DVD versions of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “Amadeus” and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” The films, all originally produced by Saul Zaentz, will hit stores this week with newly restored picture and soundtracks.
Sound is the Saul Zaentz Film Center’s ace in the hole. Hollywood recognizes the center’s facilities and skilled staff as a coveted place to mix movie sound, which the new DVDs highlight.
Film center staffer and sound mixer Mark Berger won an Academy Award in 1985 for his work on “Amadeus” (along with cohorts Thomas Scott, Todd Boekelheide, and Christopher Newman), one of the six Oscars the film collected.
The film of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart begged for a good sound mix. And to give a realistic sense of a live Mozart performance in 18th century Vienna, Berger and his team recorded audiences of all sizes – including silent-movie viewers at the Pacific Film Archive – to get sounds of people shuffling in their seats.
Berger dusted off the original sound to prepare the rerelease with more sophisticated sound technology than he had in 1984. To his surprise, he didn’t need to touch the music mix at all. “In spite of the technology, we got it right the first time.”
“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” needed a bit more work. The negative was brought out for cleaning and restoration, but Berger said even the original production was raw at the time.
The film based on Ken Kesey’s novel about a convict who cons his way into cushy time at the psyche ward and tries in vain to beat the system won five Oscars in 1975, but was plagued with unavoidable sound distortion on the dialogue track – faint traces of tape hiss with camera noise and mono mixed in.
With 27 years of technological improvements and skills, Berger went back to the tapes to clean them up and create a stereo mix. No sound was added to the rerelease version, said Berger. “The philosophy was, the film was particular and it should stay that way. It should reflect the time it was made in,” he explained.
All sound manipulation took place in the mixing, not the editing. Nothing was added or subtracted, keeping true to the film’s original intentions.
Director Milos Foreman’s original idea was to make a strong distinction between the environment inside the hospital and the outside world, said Berger. When Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) coaxes his disoriented inmates out of the insular, claustrophobic hospital halls to play some basketball in the sun, Berger placed the outside sounds in an expansive stereo field.
Although the subtleties of the sound mix might be impressive heard through a movie theater’s speaker system, they could get lost on many people’s televisions at home. Even with the surround sound of new home entertainment setups, dynamics are the first to go. The loud isn’t too loud, and the quiet bits get lost. Berger’s digital re-mixes reflect the sound quality of high-end DVD players, while narrowing the dynamic range to fit their limitations.
Sound is usually the least popular aspect of movies, the one most easily forgotten outside the theater. These DVD releases are a testament that the renowned mixing stages and their captains in the Fantasy Building are the invisible hands guiding a filmmaker’s fictional tapestry.