March 19, 2001
Audio Production, Audio Post & Post-production
Pinewood celebrates U-571 Oscar noms
by Mark Dillon
page 21

Come Sunday, March 25, staffers at Vancouver audio post-production house Pinewood Sound will be glued to their TV sets, like a billion others, for the 73rd Academy Awards. But while many viewers will be preoccupied with what gowns starlets are wearing, Pinewood's people will have their fingers crossed that U-571, the feature it worked on, will take home Oscars for achievement in sound and achievement in sound editing.

Although a limited number of names can be included on a nomination - and none from Pinewood have been - Greg Nielsen, Pinewood director of business development, is content in knowing the shop played a crucial role in the audio for the WWII submarine flick. Producer Universal Pictures booked 16 days at Pinewood's Studio A to record ADR and Walla for the film, with cast members Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi on hand.

On the project Pinewood used its Dolby Fax worldwide digital patch system to provide realtime two-way audio transmission over ISDN lines. This allowed Universal's L.A. post-production facilities to lock up its recording and video equipment and enabled director Jonathan Mostow to provide supervision remotely. Nielsen admits it's a procedure not every production can afford.

"It's four phone lines tied up, so the minute costs and hook-up charges are costly, but for a show like U-571, which had a [reported US$62] million budget, it wasn't that big a deal," he says.

Walla is the recording of background dialogue, which can be quite involved for a project of this magnitude. Four German-speaking actors were brought in for the sessions and supplied with diagrams of subs from that era as well as terminology they could use in their crew chatter. Much of this talk would be indiscernible to viewers, but the belief is that it adds to the film's overall authenticity.

Pinewood's previous work on Universal projects such as The Mummy (also Oscar-nominated for sound) was a major factor in attracting the studio to fly its actors north, but economic concerns were also key. Pinewood doesn't shy away from promoting the bottom-line advantages of working in Canada. In fact, it posts a link on its website to an updated exchange rate versus the U.S. dollar. Further along Pinewood sings the praises of a 22% tax savings on foreign productions doing audio post in Our Home and Native Land.

Nielsen believes the growing reputation of B.C. post houses has contributed to the province's production boom, where 65% of dollars spent is attributed to U.S. projects. Most producers who used to shoot in Vancouver and then fly home are now sticking around for post. Case in point is last year's US$6 million CBS MOW The Christmas Secret, in which a scientist (Richard Thomas) sets out to prove whether or not reindeer can fly.

"This was the first time the producers had posted a job in Vancouver," Nielsen says. "It was filmed here, and instead of going back down south to work with the facility they normally work with, we were able to get them to stay."

Pinewood is accustomed to hosting Hollywood stars, and has designed a lounge area to accommodate them. Jackie Chan, in the shop for Shanghai Noon, particularly impressed Nielsen.

"He was hanging out in our kitchen, and after he had a sandwich, he got a dishcloth and was cleaning down the tables," Nielsen recalls, laughing.

Nielsen adds that Studio A is another reason Pinewood lands big ADR gigs.

"It's a large room compared to other ADR rooms, so we can record in a way that allows [the production] to just drop [our work] right into the show, with very little to fix," he explains. "Other facilities might be using a small isolation booth to record ADR, and it will come off too hot because the microphone is right there. We can move [the mike] 20 feet or whatever the scenario requires to match the sound recorded on set."

Storm clouds forming

Lately things have been rosy for Pinewood, which experienced unprecedented growth in 1999, but Nielsen admits the threat of strike action by the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, and the American Federation of Radio & Television Artists has instilled worry in its 25 full-time employees.

"It's on everyone's mind," he says. "It's really difficult to say how the strike's going to hit us, because a lot of the work we do, as far as full audio post, is for Canadian independent productions. Whether they're impacted depends on whether they have a U.S. star featured in the show. At the same time, we're trying to take on other business in case something does happen."

That other business includes video games, a US$20-billion-a-year industry that has surpassed the movie trade in revenue. Last year, Pinewood worked on Kessen, a strategic war game on the PlayStation 2 platform, for Vancouver-headquartered Electronic Arts. Kessen was originally produced in Japan, and Pinewood had to re-dub it in English for the North American market, requiring the participation of 40 voice artists.

"Basically we're doing the same type of work [as we would for a film] - dialogue recording and that," Nielsen says. "It's diversifying it and moving it in new directions."

Pinewood opened its doors 25 years ago as a music-recording studio for artists including Bryan Adams and The Irish Rovers. It was work on the locally shooting series 21 Jump Street that triggered the company's big push into audio post. It currently has two Vancouver locations - in Yaletown, considered the heart of the film community, and on the grounds of Lions Gate Studios, which has been convenient for the big Hollywood productions shooting there. Last summer, Pinewood opened a Digital 5.1 mixing theatre at the site.

With the future uncertain, Nielsen doesn't discount the possibility of Pinewood returning to its record-industry roots.

"It's something to consider," he comments. "If [U.S. writers and actors] are going to be out for quite some time, we'd look at anything we could do to stay active." *

Mark Dillon