Sreejesh Nair is an Avid Audio Solution Specialist by day, and a film mixer by night. Here he talks about his work on Bombay Velvet, a major new movie from director Anurag Kashyap.
Anurag Kashyap has been thinking about this movie for decades, and his sound designer, Kunal Sharma, has been on board for seven years. It was always going to be an epic story with sound playing a central role.
The movie tells the love story of a street fighter and a beautiful jazz singer, in the backdrop of the rise of Bombay, starting with the 1940s and moving through to 1969. Anurag and Kunal wanted the sound to create a rich and diverse atmosphere, at the same time we wanted to pay homage to the sounds of the era.
I was asked to be one of the mixers on the project, along with a good friend of mine, Justin Jose. We were completely in tune with what Kunal wanted to achieve, and were enthusiastic to take such a creative role. There always were three T’s to the process we had for this film: Technology, Thought, and Techniques. We had decided that it would be a Dolby Atmos mix as soon as we heard about the format back in 2012. (Justin and I had been having creative talks with Kunal about the sound of Bombay Velvet for the past two and a half years!)
The decision from the beginning was to record and mix everything in 96kHz sample rate. That might sound counter intuitive since the majority of cinemas can only handle a playback of 48kHz, but our thought behind this was simple. Since we had a high sample rate source, we were able to do a lot of pitching and processing. This may sometimes create artifacts in the high frequency spectrum but, using sample rate conversion, any unwanted harmonics and frequency artifacts that were created above our hearing range would be filtered out in the down conversion to 48kHz. In other words, we ended up with an extremely clean and sweet sounding 48kHz mix. This had never been attempted in Dolby Atmos before and so we had to figure out a proper workflow. This is where the beautiful sample rate conversion of the Pro Tools | HD MADI interface was apparent.
“Relying on Pro Tools meant we had no technical issues, even with more than 200 tracks on each machine.”
Music was always going to be a key player. Obviously when one of the central characters is a singer, there will be a lot of music in the action! But Anurag Kashyap also wanted to use music stylistically and as part of the story. There were many instances where the reverbs used for the score were part of the reverbs for the room; for example, there is a big machine gun shootout in one scene where, rather than hearing tommy guns, it blends into becoming the sound of the drums. This was one of the ways we took what was on screen and made it a performance. Mapping the tempo of the drums and then shifting the guns to fall within that tempo space helped us to achieve this.
Naturally we chose Pro Tools for the mix. Even in 96kHz, a Pro Tools | HDX 2 system running software 11.3.1 supports up to 256 channels. I was running a Pro Tools HD 12.0 system with an HDX 2 from my 2012 MacBook Pro retina laptop and a Magma Thunderbolt chassis with around 200 tracks of effects. Justin was on Pro Tools 11.3.1 with an HDX 2 system running the dialog and score.
The deliverable mix uses Dolby Atmos for object-based surround sound and extended dynamic range. This was a unanimous decision, as we wanted the audience to engage with the characters and grow with them. A very big strength of the Atmos format is that it provides a very clean resolution when it comes to positioning sound. The very first sound you hear is the clicking of a film projector, coming out of the rear centre speaker. This was our homage to the old fashioned projectionist, and how we began our journey to salute the vintage era.
The mix changed style according to the period. The first part of the story, in the 1940s, has a mono soundtrack, and as time passes it opens out into LCR, then 5.1, then finally Atmos. Making a rich mix sound good in mono was probably the biggest challenge we faced! In fact, for some of the early music scenes, we used an emulation of an echo plate to get the reverb to match the time period we had in our minds.
We were also careful with the sound levels. Some movies start loud and stay that way. The result may be that the cinema then turns down the volume and you do not get any sense of dynamic development. We chose to carefully scale the overall level, starting quietly at the sort of levels you would have heard in the 1940s. It meant that, overall, the loudest the film went to was a Leq of 84, which may seem slightly low, but when we need the sound to be loud, it really is. We created a real sense of scale.
“You get a real clarity, a transparency to the sound when you record and mix at 96kHz.”
The final mix was an epic job. We spent 515 hours on the movie, spread over 26 days. That works out at around 20 hours a day! Obviously we could not have sustained that if we were constantly banging our heads against the keyboard. Relying on Pro Tools meant that we had no technical issues, freezes or glitches, even with more than 200 tracks on each machine with complex routings, and we could just concentrate on getting the sound right.
We used a lot of plug-ins to get the sounds we wanted. Spanner, Exponential Audio reverbs, Audionamix and the Avid Pro Series were the core plug-ins. Pro Tools has a clever dynamic plug-in processing system, so a native plug-in only uses CPU cycles for the times when it is in use. That allowed us to have more plug-ins on the session without loading the system.
We also used the system to give us HD playback of the video. Looking at color corrected video was a great help in guiding us towards the sound quality we needed: when you see the pictures look vintage, then you know the audio must match it.
We spent over 500 hours of mixing Bombay Velvet and we didn’t have to compromise at any stage. For the first time in my career, I feel completely content with the finished result.
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