Park Road Post
How do you become the envy of your mates? Become a famous director, make a string of blockbusters, earn enough money to build the facility to end all facilities, and then employ half your hometown constructing it. Andy Stewart investigates one of the most significant post facilities ever built in Australasia.
Of all the recording studios, post-production facilities, mastering houses and mix rooms built in our corner of the globe in recent years, very few of them, for various reasons, could be easily described as ‘truly inspired’. Most new facilities suffer primarily from severe financial constraints, and as we all know, our imagination is often far more capable of dreaming up a design or fit-out than our wallet is capable of funding it. And no-one who builds these types of hi-tech environments ever boasts an economics degree, or even an accountant half the time. Like a lit wick, everyone usually just stands back with a tense expression on their face, waiting to see if the thing will explode into life, or just plain explode.
However, once in a while, an exception emerges that is truly remarkable. One of these is Park Road Post in Wellington, New Zealand; a massive film-making enterprise that is the love child of Academy Award-winning super director Peter Jackson.
WALK IN THE PARK
I hardly know where to begin to describe this place. Everything in Park Road Post seems to have been designed and constructed in the imagination like the many films this team has produced. From the superb fibre-optic lighting in the mix rooms to the detailed timberwork, the idiosyncratic architectural design (that’s like an eclectic mix of Art Deco and Tudor) to the sumptuous furniture, Park Road Post is a marvel to behold. What’s extraordinary is that despite its impressive scale, and for all its grandeur, there was no architect and no builder, only an inspired collection of film-making personnel whose collective talents were brought to bear on the project, in some sense, like it was another movie. And, of course, it was directed (and paid for) by the human juggernaut himself, Peter Jackson, who made executive decisions about everything from the foot-lighting to the projection lenses.
Although some parts of the complex are still under construction, the finished areas look like a five star hotel, albeit far more homely and inviting. But my reason for visiting this unofficial hub of New Zealand movie-making wasn’t to marvel at the architecture or sip tea from a designer cup, I was there to talk with the mild-mannered manager of the sound facility, John Neill, who I must say, was more than generous with his time and spent an entire day showing me around the place. When we finally sat down to chat we talked about everything from the wind in Wellington to hi-tech post-production. This is some of what he had to say.
MIRAMAR AKA ‘JACKSONVILLE’
Andy Stewart: Well, John, I must say this place is incredible. In terms of these finished areas of the complex, how long have they been up and running?
John Neill: The sound area was opened in August 2003. We completed the first two rooms at the end of the first week in August, and we were mixing in them on the 11th of August. The race was on to have these rooms ready in time to mix the third film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We brought a lot of extra builders and tradespeople in who worked long hours to get it all finished in time. It was Pete’s [Peter Jackson’s] wish that the last film be mixed in these two cinema rooms.
AS: The complex is unusual in that it feels like it’s been built from the inside out. Here we are in one of the best cinema mix rooms in the world and in other parts of the facility it’s still a worksite. When did you get started on the wiring and installation for these rooms?
JN: At the beginning of June last year. It wasn’t until then that we had enough completed structures that I could start the installation. We did some pre-cutting and pre-terminating of cables off site. At that stage, to get to the machine room I had to put on my gumboots and hard hat, cross the building site, climb a scaffold onto a concrete deck, and enter the machine room through a temporary weatherproof door. There was this little cocoon in the middle of the building site, which was the finished room.
Building it this way meant we had to prioritise everything. As things were required by the film’s progress, different parts of the sound department came on-line. Say we needed three edit rooms next week; we would get three edit rooms available.
AS: How much of the equipment installed into the facility was transferred over from your other post production studio in Lower Hutt?
JN: The [Euphonix] System 5 in this room we’re in right now, Theatre One, was at Lower Hutt, and we left it there until we had two rooms up and running here, so there was no down-time for the production of the Lord of the Rings films. The ambition was to have these rooms finished in time to mix The Return of the King: if they were delayed, our plan was to start pre-mixing at Lower Hutt. But that was inspiration enough because nobody wanted to work there by then. Everyone was so excited and desperate to get into the new place. Thankfully the System 5s are designed to be installed in one day, providing the cabling is all there ready to go. In fact, the hardest part is actually assembling the frame that the console sits on.
AS: What monitoring systems do you have in the cinema mix rooms?
JN: In each room the Euphonix feeds directly into a studio version of the Dolby CP650, which provides our Dolby surround decoding, as well as digital EQ and crossovers. So out of the CP650 we get the feeds for the three-way speakers, front speakers, the subs and all of our surrounds. Everything is JBL – standard JBL theatre speakers.
AS: And what’s driving them?
JN: Crown 1200 and 2400 power amps. We wanted the two main theatres here to be THX-approved, therefore every piece of equipment, particularly in the monitor chain, had to conform to those THX specifications. We were very lucky with THX though because we wanted to use the crossover networks within the Dolby CP650, which hadn’t been approved at that stage. If we’d conformed to the typical setup for a THX theatre we would’ve had to come out of the CP650 into the analogue domain, into their crossovers, which convert back to digital and then back to analogue again for the amplifiers. And I just didn’t want to do that; it’s too much conversion. Getting their approval for our system was very timely.
AS: What about the technical centrepiece of the room, the console – what influenced that purchasing decision at the time?
JN: We wanted a console that would work in a film facility, and there are very few purpose-built film consoles around. Obviously there’s the DFC from AMS Neve, which is very popular in The States. There’s the Euphonix System 5, which is configurable as either a music or film console. Then there’s SSL’s Avant. The first one we rejected was the SSL, which at the time had a very good control surface but fairly significant shortcomings in terms of its brain capacity – its computer. There were other consoles that we looked at, like the Harrison Series 12, but none of them were fully digital at that stage.
AS: This was back in 2000?
JN: That’s right. But like so many of these large-scale purchases, it’s not always simply about deciding upon the best console… there was a lot of pressure brought to bear on us from some manufacturers. I actually got quite upset with a few of them because instead of focusing on their good points they spent all their time talking about their rival companies’ bad points. Another problem we have here in New Zealand is that we can’t survive just mixing film; we have to be able to do television and other work as well. So whatever console we purchased had to be reconfigurable. The System 5 at that stage was brand new technology and seemed to have good future-proofing options. And more importantly the company listened to our requests and were able to bring on-line some extra features we wanted in the console. For example, the original EQ was ±15dB and it’s now ±24. As users we’ve been able to say, “hey, we’d really like it if you could get the console to do this,” and they listen and give us what we want.
System 5s weren’t bullet proof to start with though; they had problems. But the support we got out of Euphonix was incredible. Although right in the middle of the early teething problems I probably thought I’d made a wrong decision, now they’re rock solid, I’m really happy with them.
But the over-arching prerequisite was that the boards had to feel and behave like consoles, not just look like one. I’m not going to sit there and operate something that’s simply the glorified remote control of a computer somewhere else. This thing had to be a genuine console, not a control surface. It had to have EQ on every channel and knobs on every channel. When you’re running two, sometimes three operators on a console, you can’t have everything controlled from a central master section. Film mixing just doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to have the ability to grab something in front of you and do more than one thing at once.
AS: What’s the difference between a ‘real console’, as you put it, and a control surface in your opinion?
JN: Basically I want to take material from a source, work it through a console and record it on another system. I don’t want to sit back at the end of a day and feel like all I’ve done for 12 hours is digitally manipulate the audio that’s sitting within a computer program. I want to be able to walk away with a product either on tape or a drive and say, “This is the finished product here; I can now take that anywhere and replay it.” All you’re doing with a control surface is precisely that: controlling it. And the finished product is a huge file where all you’ve done is shift the levels up and down and EQ it etc. When I’ve finished a mix in this facility the final pass is recorded to Tascam MMR8s – I’ve still got a drive with a ProTools file on it (MMR8s record ProTools files), but it’s a much smaller file. It’s usually an eight-track, 1GB file, which has six tracks written full length that I can play on either a Tascam MMP16 or MMR8, or load it into ProTools and replay it off that. I’m not sitting there worrying whether my ProTools automation is still working, because there’s no automation on that file. And I can also back it up very quickly.
AS: Excuse my naivety about film mixing, but the print pass of these large-scale mix-downs is recorded to one of those MMR8s – that’s the master?
JN: No, well, to all intents and purposes it’s just going down to one MMR but we actually recorded Lord of the Rings on five: a seven -track dialogue stem, a six-track music stem, a seven-track effects stem, a five-track Foley stem and a seven-track stem of dialogue type material that may be needed for the foreign versions.
AS: But then what happens to all those stems?
JN: We do what’s called a print master at the next stage, where we actually reduce it down to a single six-track.
AS: What are the main reasons behind this being a two-step process?
JN: It’s a final safety net, but it’s also a re-formatting issue. With a film mix you’re always producing for an international market, so you have to produce what’s called an M&E, which is music and effects without dialogue. It may be that your dialogue track contains effects, so when you’re producing your M&E you’re taking your current effects Foley and music track and adding more material to replace production effects, such as footsteps, that are currently in the dialogue but have dialogue over the top of it. When you’re producing an international track, it’s much easier to keep all those stems separated. It’s also much easier when somebody comes back the next day and says, “We love the mix but we’d like to drop that piece of music out at that cue point.” With a stem, you only have to go into the music channels, you don’t have to worry about everything else.
AS: Presumably you come back into the mix room for that though?
JN: Oh yeah, definitely. The mixes are really complicated and, for example, when we were finalling on Return of the King we were running 280 channels!
AS: So as much as anything it’s about manageability. It can’t be 280 channels forever I guess.
JN: That’s right. The other thing is that when you actually print master you can be doing so from multiple formats. We might be print mastering simultaneously for a Dolby Stereo, a Dolby Digital, DTS, and/or SDDS and there might be slight differences between them all. We might be able to do that simultaneously, but with, say, the Dolby Stereo, you usually do a special pass for that, and to do that you may have to adjust the dialogue, the music and the effects separately to actually make it work. The Dolby Stereo matrix sometimes has a mind of its own and puts things in the surrounds that were, say, meant for the front.
AS: So it’s effectively a pre-format master that allows you to finesse the different formats from a simple stem?
JN: That’s right, and the print master stage is where you can actually sit there and watch levels, because during the final mix, people will drive things fairly hard sometimes.
AS: There are plenty of large format consoles around, but they don’t come much larger than these ones. Is it only because these mix rooms are so big that you can sit over at fader one and still work effectively?
JN: In some ways, yes. But, for instance, at our facility in Lower Hutt, it was only when you were sitting in front of the middle two meters on the console that you got an accurate sonic perspective. Outside of that you started to hear differences. The advantage we have in this room is that the acoustics are so good that the Dolby guys who came out from London to do the testing couldn’t believe how far beyond the end of the console they could move without actually seeing the response of the room change. Conversely, the other good thing about this console is that when an engineer’s working on a couple of stereo speakers for a television mix, for example, he or she can call every part of the console into the middle of the desk at any time, just by using layouts. So although this console has 202 channels, and in a normal situation it’s got 88 faders on it, we quite often have only one person mixing, and most of the time they’re only working on 24 faders.
STYLE AND LAYOUT
AS: How much input did Peter Jackson have into the equipment and aesthetic of these mixing suites?
JN: As far as the space went, he had heaps of input. Peter designed this building like he makes a film; he looked at every detail and everything was made in model form before it was built. He had lots of input into every aspect of the place. The lighting above the console, for example, is projected out of fibre-optic cables above the console – I tell everybody the reason for that is so I don’t have to climb up a ladder and change the light bulbs. The fibre-optic cables run back to a light source in the projection room. In the roof above the console there are only lenses, rather than globes. They’re brilliant because the lenses can be focused with deadly accuracy, thus preventing reflections off the TFT monitors on the console being visible from the operator’s position.
AS: What about the basement air-conditioning idea? Whose idea was that, or is that an established concept?
JN: The idea of having a huge plenum to cut the noise from the air conditioning is an established concept. How to do it was probably a matter of discussion, with a lot of people involved, including the air-conditioning consultants. The idea was put forward that if we use the entire basement area as a plenum, pressurise it with air from the air-conditioning system, it could trickle-feed conditioned air into the theatre without making a sound. And it works. It’s very, very quiet in here. The cinema rooms have a rating of NC18 (according to THX measurements), and that’s with all the amplifiers and other equipment running.
AS: When you’re mixing in these theatres, are you using plug-in effects or are you relying entirely on TC System 6000s and Lexicon 960Ls?
JN: We prefer not to run any plug-ins within the system. ProTools is really only a playback device here, and we don’t provide any plug-ins on our replay systems, apart from what exists by default in ProTools. If people want to use plug-ins, or use sound designers who use plug-ins, they bounce the tracks before they come in here.
AS: What’s the reasoning behind that?
JN: It’s because our mixers generally aren’t ProTools operators. They’re mix engineers. And the mixer wants to have control; they’re mixing on a sound desk, not with a mouse. We automate all our reverb devices: the TC6000 and particularly the 960L. The 960L’s automation is beautiful. You can track fader moves, open up and close down the reverb time – it’s just a superb device.
AS: What other ‘must-have’ devices do you provide here?
JN: One of the things film mixers love is the Lefont Film EQ filters. They’re an analogue device, so although the System 5’s on-board digital EQ is fantastic, some mixers prefer the analogue Lefont. So we have those. We have Cedar noise reduction systems, Dolby 431 and CAT43 filtering systems. We often set up what’s called a dialogue bus across the desk, a dialogue chain, which provides a group that goes out to a string of analogue devices and then comes back into the console. The one thing you wouldn’t want to do is have all of these devices inserting individually, otherwise you’d be converting from digital to analogue over and over. So we normally go out into the analogue domain and daisy chain a whole lot of devices together via a standard bantam patchbay and then bring them back into the console.
AS: Wouldn’t that be an argument perhaps for the use of plug-ins, where the sound is contained within the digital realm?
JN: Perhaps, but again it comes back to the way films are mixed. We can’t mix with everyone crowded around a monitor. Moreover, I’m not totally happy with Digidesign at the moment. We have 17 Mix Plus ProTools systems here that we purchased before Lord of the Rings started, some of which run on slower Macintosh G4s. Our intention, until recently, was to upgrade our computers to G5s, after Digidesign published a document that said it had three priorities, one of which was to allow the Mix Plus system to run on G5s. Then suddenly, about three months ago, Digidesign published another document that said it had decided it would not – or could not – provide Mix Plus owners with the ability to run on G5s. The inference was that it couldn’t happen for reasons beyond their control… so here I am with a whole lot of Mix systems that are stuck on G4s. It’s basically left me up the creek without a paddle – I feel quite betrayed. My problem with this is that I’m now forced to spend money on hardware that I don’t necessarily want or need.
AS: I would have assumed, though, that a facility like this would regard the price of ProTools systems as almost incidental relative to the overall cost of such a massive facility.
JN: Actually we’re even more exposed to fickle changes and artificial redundancies of digital systems than a small facility because we run so many systems, and we’re obliged to keep them cutting edge. Park Road Post has the capacity to gobble up money hand over fist for all sorts of things. The capital exposure is huge, and not only are you dealing with million-dollar consoles, you’re dealing with 20-odd ProTools systems as well. And then you have to keep replacing them. And then somebody decides that they want a better video card, and they’re all around $2,000 each. Suddenly that’s another $40,000 worth of video cards I have to go and buy! And that’s $40,000 that we could be putting into other things that people would love to have.
AS: And given the nature of the premises, which are simply incredible, you don’t want to come up short in that critical regard, do you?
JN: And Park Road Post isn’t just a sound facility. It’s also a film laboratory that needs money for things; it’s a high quality Telecine video department, which has got Spirits and IQ units worth millions of dollars. The point is, there’s only a finite amount of money, and every department’s got its hand out for ‘critical’ new equipment. And despite the popular myth, we’re not a bottomless pit. There are a lot of things that can be done with the money without wasting it. I’m frugal with my own money, so I’m certainly not going to waste somebody else’s.
AS: In terms of the overall premises, who was in charge of the design and construction?
JN: As far as the building goes there was, and still is, no construction company, and no architect. The building was designed by Lord of the Rings Art Director Dan Hennah. We have a number of architectural draftsmen on staff here – they did the drawings – and construction is also being managed by people on staff. Alongside them we had to have – for legal requirements as much as anything else – qualified professionals like engineering consultants, electrical consultants and even air-conditioning consultants. Our acoustics consultants were a company called Marshall Day, and obviously for these mix rooms, THX.
AS: How did the acoustic consultants get along with the art department? I know from personal experience that aesthetics and acoustics can sometimes be polar opposites… even though the two words sound similar.
JN: There was a healthy respect shown for everyone’s skills and sensibilities, and there was always a solution found. For example, the acoustic design for the ceiling was an absorption panel comprised of hundreds of squares, like a checkerboard. The designers thought that would look terrible, so the solution was to find a piece of acoustically transparent material to put over the top of it, which is what we did. No acoustician’s blood was spilled and no animals were harmed during the construction of this facility…