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‘Albert Nobbs’ & Re-Creating the Sound of 19th Century Dublin
03 May 2012 : By Steve Cummins
Albert Nobbs
Having won an IFTA for their work on ‘Albert Nobbs’, Ardmore Sound and Screen Scene’s Niall Brady and Steve Fanagan discuss the challenges they faced on helping bring the sound of 19th Century Dublin to Glenn Close’s latest movie.

It’s perhaps the last thing audiences will discuss after watching ‘Albert Nobbs’ - the sound. And that’s how it should be. Silent praise is often high praise enough for the team of foley artists, sound designers, dialogue editors, sound effects editors and mixers who work in post-production in facilities such as Screen Scene in Dublin and Wicklow’s Ardmore Sound. When an audience fails to make comment on the sound, it usually means the sound team have done a good job. Only out of synch dialogue or disastrous mixes – where the dialogue can’t be heard over the cacophony of audio effects – are likely to be mulled over by audiences over a post-cinema pint.

The industry, of course, is louder in its praise and has been quick to acknowledge the standout work by the sound department at the recently merged Screen Scene and Ardmore Sound facilities. Last year, that team was acknowledged with an Emmy award nomination for their work on the first season of ‘Game of Thrones’. However, it’s their most recently screened work - on Glenn Close’s Dublin hotel-set ‘Albert Nobbs’ - that has had the film and TV industry singing their praises. Led by supervising sound editor Niall Brady, the team picked up the award for best sound at the IFTAs in February for their work on ‘Albert Nobbs’ and has been greatly acknowledged for helping director Rodrigo García turn scenes shot on location in 21st century Dublin, so vividly into 19th century Dublin.

“You’re creating the illusion of a real world,” Brady says as he sits back in the offices of Screen Scene joined by sound effects editor Steve Fanagan. “‘Albert Nobbs’ was great to work on because it is a period piece and you really are building from scratch. It’s almost like animation in that sense in that you’re going from scratch.”

As supervising editor, Brady comes on to a project after it has gone through its first picture cut. His job, essentially, is to liaise with the director and producer and help achieve their vision whilst leading the sound department as they add and enhance the sound on and bring the picture cut through to the sound mix stage. It’s a process carried out over roughly a 10-12 week period, depending on the budget and the schedule of the film. Alongside that role, he often double jobs as a dialogue and sound effects editor, a role he shared with Fanagan.

Both have worked alongside each other on numerous projects, including ‘Game of Thrones’, with Brady drawing from 15 years experience in post-production and Fanagan now five years working in film and TV sound post-production having spent numerous years working on music in various studios. While Brady supervised sound overall on ‘Albert Nobbs,’ both men had a hand in the film’s myriad of sound effects.

“For Albert Nobbs we spent a lot of time working on what was happening off the screen,” Fanagan notes. “So if someone is in the kitchen in the hotel, and there’s a busy courtyard outside where people are maybe tending to horses or there’re some chickens or different wildlife. All of that detail is built up in the sounds effects track layer.”

“For instance,” Brady adds, “there are scenes that take place that are very obviously in the hotel but it is daytime. One scene springs to mind where Albert (Glenn Close) and Mia Wasikowska’s character Helen are working in one of the bedrooms and clearing it out. So it’s obviously mid-morning time, but we have to recreate all the off-screen activity because there’s a window there.

“So we’ve to create a streetscape outside that is of the period, by adding carriages going by, horses going by, distant shouts, etc. So we essentially create that world, which is the kind of creative part and the really rewarding part because when you play back the single track that Brendan Deasy recorded on the day the scene was shot, it’s just two people in a room talking. But when you see it in the cinema, there’re distant bells, room tones, carriages going by, footsteps added.”

Albert Nobbs

This is the rewarding part to working in sound, Brady and Fanagan say, the building of sound in a scene to help add to the feeling that the director is trying to achieve. “While there are a lot of technical things that we do, either in sound editing or sound mixing,” Fanagan says, “really the job is a creative one. It’s all about helping tell the story and figuring out what the drama is. You’re figuring out what potential sound - either on-screen or off-screen - is going to help aid and abet that drama and help develop it, and not distract the audience.

“We can put sounds in until the cows come home, but it is important that what we put in is relevant to the story and relevant to the drama of the scene and the drama of the movie on the whole. I think that’s the really enjoyable part, in figuring out what works and what helps to basically re-enforce the story rather than distract from it.”

Brady notes one scene that he particularly felt demonstrated the power of sound in heightening the tension to a scene where previously it might have been underplayed: “On ‘Albert Nobbs,’ what I loved was a scene in the early part of the film where the painter Hubert (Janet McTeer) has come to stay in Albert’s room and Albert nervously walks around the room trying not to wake him. On-set, the floorboards in that room didn’t make any creeks, but it was a combination of Foley and effects editing that we made every footfall have a creek in that scene, which for me adds to the suspense because he/she is creeping around the room trying not to wake Hubert. That’s a real place for a sound editor and a sound mixer and sound design to excel. We all came together to add tension to that moment, bringing creaking floorboards where previously there wasn’t any.”

Of course, the sound department’s job isn’t all about adding effects and new sounds. Often the work is largely more technical-based involving cleaning up dialogue tracks and removing distracting sounds. Additional dialogue recording (ADR) is also a key part of the process, where the sound editors will lift words from newly recorded tracks or discarded takes and weave them seamlessly into one ensuring that the audience notices no difference.

“It’s about smoothing between takes,” says Fanagan. “A scene could have several takes in it and a dialogue edit is to make sure that the movements from angle to angle are smooth and don’t feel like cuts, so that the viewer isn’t aware at any point of the mechanism of the film edit.”

Brady adds: “You’re taking out bangs and set noises that aren’t necessary for the dialogue track. If there’re noises or bangs over the dialogue, you might dip in to another take to get that word to replace the one with a bang over it. So you’re cleaning up the tracks as much as possible and creating fades, and setting the tracks up in a way that when the mixer gets it, they can concentrate on mixing and making it sound great as opposed as to trying to figure their way around it.”

While such challenges are unique to all projects when it comes to sound-editing, particular attention on ‘Albert Nobbs’ had to be paid to modern-day sounds making their way on to tracks recorded on-location around Dublin. Nothing would break the reality of the period-drama more than the sound of a helicopter hovering over head or a police siren whizzing by.

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“With a period piece there’s always obvious stuff to take out,” says Brady. “I mean there’s a key scene in the movie involving Glenn Close and Mia Wasikowska, which was shot in the Iveagh Gardens. It’s a pivotal scene, but because it was shot in a city-centre location like the Iveagh Gardens there’s a level of traffic to deal with; there’s hissing breaks, there were trucks going by and there were sirens.

“It was a long scene as well, probably about four or five minutes. So through a process of both editing and going to alternative edits and takes we cleaned it up. You know, something like a siren wouldn’t be on every take of every word. So you dip in and take the word from another take and cut it in. We also did a lot of ADR on that scene, so we recorded both Glen and Mia in a controlled environment and build a sound that way. In other instances, for reasons of logistics, it can sometimes be hard to get microphones in on actors and some of the dialogue may be a little bit off-mic. When it gets to us, we might decide that technically the sound is just not up to scratch for a theatrical release and we’d make the decision then to either re-record it in a controlled environment or look to alternative takes to make it better.”

The final stage of the process for Brady and Fanagan comes with the final mix. It is, they agree, one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of their work in the sound department “It’s the first time that all of the element come together,” notes Brady. “You’re with the director and it can be the first time that everything that the director has had in their head comes together – especially in this case with the score from Brian Byrne. Everything is being lifted that little bit more from what you saw right at the beginning, which was a mono track that came out of the offline cutting room. You’re constantly adding detail and giving depth and more dynamic and lifting the whole thing – giving it life. At least that’s what we think!”

See IFTN next week for more from Ardmore Sound and Screen Scene’s Steve and Niall as they discuss working on ‘Game of Thrones;’ whether sound really is 50 per cent of the movie-going experience and the films they most admire in terms of sound.





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