"Transcending Moments in Brazil"
David Byrne's new
Documentary takes roots
music from Brazil to TV
via Nagra and AudioFile, by Lawrence Loewinger
Whenever we travel abroad to make films or tapes we return with not only the film or video materials but also the experience of interacting with another culture. In the making of David Byrne's Il Aiye, a film about the Afro-Brazilian trance religion, Candomble, we as filmmakers and technicians from the United States and Brazil were witnesses to moments of magic and transcendence in the favelas (urban slums) and countryside of Brazil's great Northeast.
In the last year as a location sound mixer I have had the unusual opportunity of working on Il Aiye (House of Life), from beginning to end with some of the finest audio technicians on the East Coast in facilities that more and more speak a language common to both film and video. Il Aiye was filmed on location largely on 16mm film in Salvador, Brazil, and transferred to video tape and finished on tape in New York. It has already been broadcast in Great Britain and on PBS in the Untied States and, transferred from 1-inch video tape to 35mm film, it will have a limited film festival run, debuting over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado.
Why do a piece about Brazil, about Condomble? "Kiki Miyaki, the film's co-producer, approached me about doing a film about Brazil," David Byrne said in a recent interview. "I suggested to Kiki doing something about the spirituality, the imagery and the music of Candomble." Animistic trance religions, such as Candomble, have appeared up and down the Caribbean and the Atlantic Coast of South America, wherever slaves were brought to the New World from the regions of Africa now known as Nigeria and Angola. These religions take such names as Santa Ria and Voo Doo in the Caribbean and Macumba and Candomble in Brazil.
Ile Aiye is a musical look at Candomble and the popular culture of one of Brazil's most colorful states, Bahia. We spent three weeks filming in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, on the streets, in the parks, in people's homes, in the suburbs and in the terreiros, the African-like village settings where Candomble is practiced. We were a small crew of five technicians, a director, a translator and two-to-three production people. We faced two different production situations. Filming on the streets we performed in normal documentary style. Lauro Escorel, our director of photography, shot mostly hand held on the streets. "Generally, my approach was 'Let's get the image,'" Escorel says now. "I didn't have much time to be formal." For sound recording on the streets I used a regular mono Nagra and slating was done with a standard digital light slate.
The Candomble musical ceremonies and the popular music events we filmed were done in a controlled, set-up style with two Nagra IVS TC (time code) tape recorders and the Denecke Time Code Reader/Slate. Since in post production all material would be immediately committed to video tape I explored the possibility of using the time code Nagra Denecke slate for the documentary material as well. After some discussion we decided the time code slating procedure with its mandatory pre-roll was too cumbersome to do in the free-form situations in which we were apt to find ourselves. The downside was that in post production we had to add an extra generation of audio tape before the audio got transferred to video cassettes. The gain was in spontaneity and maneuverability in the field. A small point perhaps, but there are times in this film-to-tape world when the demands of the telecine syncing process can impinge on the creative aspects of filmmaking. And this was one.
To say people go into trance in Candomble is not to suggest an uninhibited spectacle. Condomble is a striking, ritualized ceremony. "It is very powerful musically," according to Byrne. "Coming from a background in rock music it was very important to me to get some of that across. The experience was similar to a transcendent moment in a rock-concert." Unlike a rock concert each moment in the ceremony has been elaborated over centuries. The ceremonies themselves transpire in a barracao , a simple concrete structure somewhere in the terreiro complex.
"At first I toyed with the idea of going in with an eight-track machine," Byrne says. "Then I realized there would be no reliable kinds of power. I knew there were Nagra machines with time code. Having done a lot of time code work with music and film before I knew theoretically it would be possible to link any number of Nagra machines together and get however many tracks you want. The equipment had been around for a while and no one had done it."
When I met with Byrne, shortly before leaving for Brazil, the decision had already been taken to record four-track audio. The concept seemed technically viable if our miking was done carefully. However, I wondered if there would be phasing between the two linked Nagras. We really wouldn't know until we returned and locked the tracks together.
On location we had the unusual luxury of scouting for almost a week before shooting. The Candomble ceremonies, which last from two to four hours with a particular order of events, are comprised of loud, rhythmic drumming and only slightly softer singing and chanting. In order to minimize our presence at the ceremonies there were to be no visible or moving microphones.
The first task was to mic the dominant sound in these ceremonies--the drumming. There are normally three drummers in a specific area of the barracao. On either side of the drummer's space I placed a Schoeps Boundary Layer microphone which is one of the best of the pressure-zone microphone designs. These microphones gave us our basic left/right stereo image. We hung three or four dynamic mics in the ceiling for ambiance.
Byrne wanted to return with a vocal track. Because the singers, who were a m¬lange of witnesses and celebrants in the ceremony, moved freely through the space, and because the drumming was the dominant sound, this was to be no simple task. In the midst of an intense Candomble ceremony the singing and the lyrics, whose meaning were clearly important, came across as more texture than discernible musical line. After some debate about the technical problems and psychological import of using rf microphones we decided to put them on some of the singers. The limiters in the rf microphones had difficulty with the drumming which was often louder, though more distant, than the singing. Moreover, all of the barracoas suffered from fluctuating voltage and two of the three we filmed in were lit with pulsating fluorescents which created havoc with the rf mics.
Speaking of voltage irregularities, during one ceremony I was perched on a hill outside the barracoa overlooking a country village. We filmed into the sultry tropical night. The people of the village went to bed, turning off their lights. As the night went on I noticed that the voltage to my bare-bulb work light got stronger, making it brighter and attracting even more swarming insects and mosquitoes.
We all wondered what would happen if one of the rf mics got put on someone who went into trance. Each time it occurred we would have the rf mic brought to the micing table by someone from the terreiro. Unfortunately, never from one who went into an individual in trance. In the Candomble religion, we learned, the celebrants carefully protected the member who went into trance, To summarize, the mics worked well enough to give us a valuable musical element for the audio post production.
While the camera crew worked inside I placed the sound table outside the barracao, and to the edge of the other musical events we filmed. There, at the margins of the fascinating world, was a card table filled with the latest high-tech miniaturized equipment. Time code was feed from one tape recorder to another and to a Comtek wireless transmitter. Taped to the Denecke slate inside the barracao was the Comtek receiver. From time to time, as I peered in, I would see the Denecke slate with its silently rolling time code waved before a woman drifting into trance, High-tech culture gently, if persistently, collided with Afro-Brazilian traditions.
The SQN 4-S mixers we used were like dams across raging rovers, controlling and blending the torrents of sound pressure. On the inputs of the mixers were constantly affixed 15-25 dB pads. Those pads worked the hardest in Brazil of any of our equipment. SQN is probably a brand name better known to film sound mixers than audio engineers. They are small, rugged and elegantly designed devices that worked very reliably for us. In a 4x2 configuration, all that the SQNs lacked were sophisticated monitoring capability for which they clearly were not designed.
We returned to New York with more than 60 rolls of film and some 40 rolls of audio tape to face a broadcast date scheduled less than three months off. Most of the audio tape and film were brought directly to the telecine facility for syncing. The documentary audio, with its 60 Hz Neo-Pilot sync pulse was first resolved onto two-track tape with time code on one channel and program with Dolby "A" on the other. It was then transferred to video cassettes.
Our four-track audio was in an eccentric format. For picture editing purposes (only) we had to get two of the four tracks committed to video tape. Luckily, from the Candomble ceremonies there was enough audio information on two tracks of one audio tape reel, (remembering there were two 1/4 ┴inch reels per set), to go directly to video tape. These tapes were brought to the telecine room at TVC Video in New York for syncing, and Wild and Byrne emerged with pre-synced audio as well as video cassettes for the offline edit. Ultimately, the project returned to TVC for online editing.
However, the sound from the popular music performances we filmed in Brazil consisted of four discrete tracks, none of which alone, or even two combined, could serve as editing material. We brought them into Sync Sound for a pre-mix to one quarter inch center track time code tape. These would be used for telesyncing and picture editing, For ease of audio editing and micing, later they were also transferred directly to a 24-track tape. When we left Sync Sound that day we knew we had come back from Brazil with some handsome audio tracks. We also walked out relieved that our initial concern about phasing between the two Nagra was groundless. We established a comfortable and also productive relationship with the personnel of Sync Sound, which proved vital to the completion of the Ile Aiye.
Sync Sounds' design and operating philosophy dovetailed perfectly with the particular needs of this how. Bill Marino, one of the principals of Sync Sound, says, "When we started we realized that a lot of the things available to people doing film sound tracks weren't available to people doing television shows. For instance, the idea of having a complete sound-effects library, editing facilities both on multi-track and in Audio File rooms. Foley talent and a Foley stage, and ADR stage, music-editing facilities, and transfer and mixing facilities all under one roof was our goal from the outset. When we started Ile Aiye's editor, was already hard at work editing the show. He had brought with him an Edit Master video editing system from California. According to Wild, "It was a simple offline system with two video recorders. However, it did have disc management. That meant I could keep track of all my time code numbers from beginning to end. When we onlined we could feed them into the CMX computer." Given the complexity of the online and audio editing it was vital to have an edit decision list that accurately referred to all of the layers of the time coded material and could get us back to the source-material time code numbers.
"There was an enormous amount of source material- over 25 hours worth," TVC onliner Billy Roasdo concurs. "however, the offline edit was so well worked out and prepared that the actual conform went quickly. This enabled time for experimentation. To supplant and almost non-existent narration track, the accent was on the imagery- visuals to tell the story. Hence, (the producers) wanted to create visual dimensionality, mixing close-ups to long shots and speed changes within the same frame." (In the finished program this is accomplished using a frame-within-a-frame technique which shows a scene at varying distances.)
When we returned to Sync Sound a few months later we did a number of processes simultaneously in different rooms, One was conforming David Wild's sound cut, then embellishing that by further splitting the tracks, adding tone extensions, and smoothing out transitions on the AudioFile. Paralleling that ┴ because of the time schedule it truly was parallel with production people (mostly me), running from room to room ┴ we edited sound effects and backgrounds in a second AudioFile room, some of which were pulled from Sync Sound's central sound-effects library. At the same time we put translations and voice overs, locked to a picture in somewhat of an ADR style, onto digital multi track. We also recorded Foley's locked to the picture. In multi-track format we did musical overdubs, musical editing, and a music premix. Because of time pressure we did some last-minute stereo music editing at an AudioFile work station. Eventually, the elements all came together on digital multi-track that ran in synchronization with the picture.
The nicest surprise of the audio post production for Byrne, Wild and I was our discovery of the AudioFile. John Purcell, one of our AudioFile editors at Sync Sound, describes it as "a random-access disk based editing system that in film parlance works like an eighteen-plate Steenbeck. It can store up to four hours of mono sound or two hours of stereo sound, You can output eight channels simultaneously. You can build as many tracks as you want; with any track you can move a cue around or slip-sync on an entire track. You can move things utterly capriciously from one track to another. You can pre-build cross fades, or build ramps, change your levels, etc. For us at Sync Sound the AudioFile is not a product in and of itself. It is part of the whole audio post production process, We want people to be able to mic as though they were throwing their tracks up on dubbers, Not only is the AudioFile cheaper and faster than doing it in a mix room but, since it is so easy to do anything you want, there is a strong incentive to do it right."
In some very important respects the weeks of online and audio post production were the most interesting and most important to the making of Ile Aiye. Sync Sound, with its panoply of the latest audio gear interfaced with computers and time code (and its very skilled personnel) provided a gracious work environment under great deadline pressure. It was here, too, that I witnessed the talents and knowledge of a consummate pop musician, David Byrne, for whom the machines and workers in the studio were his orchestra. Horn players, back-up singers, voice-over readers, Sync Sound's Foley artist Rick Wessler, all waltzed through the studios adding their individual contribution to the sound track. Byrne himself brought in synthesizers which added musical layers, some almost subconsciously audible, to the sound mix. Michael Barry, formerly of Sync Sound, was the show's mixer. His skillful manipulation of the faders, dials and signal processors contributed in no small amount to the final result. Finally, Ile Aiye emerged from its cocoon with a rich, truly album-like soundtrack. It is not without reason that one of the film's backers, the Pioneer Company, has released a special soundtrack CD in Japan.
From a documentary perspective, it was an interesting unconventional attitude that informed the entire creation of Ile Aiye, especially during those last weeks while there was a complete respect for the people and events we filmed, David Byrne was prepared to enhance the materials we returned with by overdubbing in audio post and by creating a lively visual texture of video boxes and special graphics in the online sessions. The material was ultimately used to make a visual and musical mosaic rather than an informational documentary, although there was plenty of information included in the piece. As Byrne puts it, "The truth isn't what is on tape or film. It is what you experienced. You have to recapture that, the respect should be for something deeper than any specific image, something deeper than just the light or sound waves."