As a veteran dialogue editor with dozens of feature films under his belt, Ray Beentjes is used to taking on challenging projects. But editing dialogue for the epic Lord of the Rings and Hobbittrilogies redefined the definition of "challenging."
The combined scope of the six films is enormous—the dual series is considered to be one of the biggest, most ambitious film projects of all time. Beentjes' involvement goes back to the very beginning, and along the way he's utilized groundbreaking editing techniques that contributed immensely to the quality of the films.
Since the Lord of the Rings trilogy began filming over 15 years ago, emerging technology has greatly enhanced the dialogue and sound re-recording process, and drastically changed the production workflow for the films. Not only do these new tools save time, they allow Beentjes and his team to capture more of the actors' onset dialogue—resulting in more emotional performances and more impactful storytelling.
Focusing on the Performance
When Beentjes began working on The Lord of the Rings, many of the actors’ best performances were simply unusable because of various audio issues. Most of the filming took place in New Zealand, and the audio was often contaminated with noise from production equipment and the surrounding environment. Many excellent performances were wasted because the production team didn’t have a solution for salvaging the troubled audio. In the end, only 5–10% of the original location audio was usable for the final cut, so most of the dialogue needed to be recaptured in the studio using ADR (automated dialogue recording). And although this process produced high-quality audio, it didn’t always recapture the emotion from the original performance.
“An actor could have delivered a stellar performance on location, but the audio would often be unusable,” Beentjes explains. “They would then have to spend hours in a dubbing room rerecording their lines, and due to the complexity of the production, they might be covering what was six months worth of filming in a two day ADR session. That often makes it very difficult to create the same mood again.”
The audio team began searching for a solution that would enable them to rescue troubled audio from the best onlocation performances. The team eventually discovered iZotope RX audio repair software, which Beentjes describes as a “game changer.” Today, the team is able to save more than 80% of the original production dialogue, and blend in ADR seamlessly when required.
“RX has been fantastic, and we’ve developed a completely different workflow,” Beentjes says. “Now we can focus on finding the best performances from the original material delivered by the actors. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh love utilizing production audio over ADR where possible if it sells the performance better, and then it's up to us to clean up that audio and get it working. That's their gold, and that's where the magic is for us.”
"With Dialogue De-noise, we were able to use lines for The Hobbitthat would have been thrown away during The Lord of the Rings."
Tackling a New Set of Challenges
After the resounding success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Beentjes and the team took on an equally epic project with the Hobbit trilogy. The films utilized cutting-edge camera technology, which presented Beentjes and the Dialogue team with a new set of technical challenges.
Instead of the normal 24 fps frame-rate, the films were shot in 3D at 48 fps. Higher frame-rate shooting has required many of the lights to be reengineered for flicker-free operation to avoid visual strobing at the higher frame rates. Lighting control systems were very complex on The Hobbit and introduced other noise factors to the set. Beentjes says that while the previous generation lights often introduce background noise at around 10 to 15 kHz (which doesn’t badly interfere with the intelligibility areas in dialogue), the new lights and control methods often introduced extra high frequency noise from 3 to 8 kHz—significantly interfering with dialogue clarity. However, using the Dialogue De-noise module in RX, Beentjes was able to remove many of the artifacts created by the new lighting, while preserving the crisp definition of the original dialogue.
“With Dialogue De-noise, we were able use lines for The Hobbit that would have been thrown away during The Lord of the Rings,” says Beentjes. “We were able to take lines with lots of background noise and create quite astounding results. It was very satisfying.”
Another key feature Beentjes utilized in RX was Spectral Repair, which enabled him to isolate and remove unwanted sounds, even during long passages of audio. For The Desolation of Smaug—the second film in the Hobbit series—a large part of the film takes place on a desolate mountain, devoid of animal and human life. Unfortunately, there were birds and other distracting noises all over the audio track.
“The magic of Spectral Repair is actually being able to take away the sounds that would take the audience out of the scene,” says Beentjes. “It could be a very important line, and there’s a Cessna prop plane taking off from a nearby airport that’s buzzing through the track. With Spectral Repair, we can go in and remove sounds that are completely out of context for the scene.”
Advancing the Entire Workflow
The powerful tools in RX have not only advanced Beentjes’ workflow, they have helped the entire audio post team. Beentjes is now able to deliver dialogue to the re-recording mixers that is clean and sonically neutral—a process that used to require massive amounts of time and expensive studio equipment. Mixers are now able to spend more of their time and energy focusing solely on the mix.
"RX has really come into its own with RX 4 and the ability to run the standalone program connected to Pro Tools (via the RX Connect feature). What used to take us a couple of hours is now taking 20 minutes, which ends up saving the editors thousands of hours over the course of a project,” remarks Beentjes. “We are able to create material that is effectively the same as what would come out of a dubbing suite.”
“Like a person who is retouching photographs or restoring a historical film, I love the ability to rebuild or restore things,” Beentjes concludes. “RX is the most complete set of tools we have, and I'm looking forward to whatever's next. Each version drastically improves what we can do.”
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