The 11th Hour
Writer/director Tim McCanlies eyes the finish line
Inside a screening room at the Austin Film Society, Tim McCanlies is busy finishing the sound mix on his latest feature, The 2 Bobs, which is set to premiere at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival. One row behind McCanlies is Danny Reisch, a local recording engineer and the film's sound supervisor. Reisch is working on a laptop on which the multicolored visual representation of the film's various audio components – dialogue, sound effects, musical score, etc. – scroll by.
Onscreen, a scene from the second reel of The 2 Bobs is playing. A man is standing at a podium before a small audience conducting either a self-help seminar or a sales demonstration of sex toys (no screener was made available to the Chronicle before I wrote this piece, so the details of the film's story are a bit murky). The camera cuts to a shot of the film's heroes – the two Bobs of the title, legendary video-game programmers who find themselves playing detectives after the software for their newest ultraviolent game is stolen and their livelihoods are put at risk – and their friends whispering to one another while the man on the podium continues to pontificate.
For two days, McCanlies and Reisch have been going through the film with a fine-tooth comb and a digital equalizer, raising and lowering volumes so that vital bits of plot information come through and less vital bits recede into the background, and cutting frequencies in the tone of certain actors' voices so they don't sound like they're speaking from inside a well. They watch and rewatch shots over and over again until the untrained ear becomes completely numb to the experience. But slowly and surely, with tweaks here and adjustments there, the sound of the film takes shape, conjuring through the use of reverb effects the sense of being in a large room or through the delicate dance of equalization knobs the cinematic simulacrum of real conversation. It's like Michelangelo freeing his sculptures from their marble prisons.
McCanlies (who also wrote and directed Secondhand Lions and Dancer, Texas Pop. 81) and Reisch get through a few minutes of screen time for every hour they spend mixing. Normally sound mixing on a feature takes about six weeks. The producers of The 2 Bobs have set aside five days.
The scene changes, and now a large man named Horizontal Bob is making his way through an enormous warehouse, opening boxes filled with various sexual aids. He reaches into one box and pulls out what can only be described as an elaborate penis pump connected to a vacuum hose. When he turns it on, the device lets loose a thunderous sucking, wheezing sound before it latches onto Bob's pants, causing him to howl in pain, rip the machine from his crotch, and toss it away before it causes any real damage. After McCanlies has made sure that thunderous sound won't be quite as thunderous when the film screens for audiences, I ask Reisch, who was responsible for the movie's audio effects, just how he got that the giant sucking sound.
"Well," he says, "there are a lot of layers. First, for the clicking sound the pump makes when it turns on, we used a remote control on/off switch. Then there's the initial sound of it turning on, which is a hair dryer – we wanted to get the effect of a small motor that's really struggling, a high-pitch whine. Then we decided we wanted this nice, authoritative, painful thunk! right as the hose makes its connection to the outside of his trousers – which is a suction sound we created by combining the sound of a small Shop-Vac as it gets caught in a carpet and goes into high gear with sounds from a computer effects library. And then we threw a telephone on the floor to get the right crashing sound. All told, there were at least six or seven different sounds we needed to create or find in order to get the sequence right."
That's no fewer than six different new recordings to get one sound sequence for about 15 seconds of screen time. To get through one particular three-minute stretch of The 2 Bobs, more than 250 sound effects had to be generated. And now they all need to be mixed.
And the movie premieres in two weeks.
At this year's SXSW Film Festival, more than 100 features and 100 shorts will be screening, and it's better than even money that most of them are under the same kind of last-minute, 11th-hour, mad-dash touching-up that The 2 Bobs is. Often, when a movie is sent to a festival for consideration, it's merely the rough draft of the movie it's going to be by the time it finally gets shown to audiences: Entire scenes are missing, a temporary score from some other movie is playing in the background, the sound is screwy, special effects are nonexistent, plots are implied, animated sequences are figments of the writer's imagination, the coloring is bad, the title cards and closing credits are pipe dreams, dramas may still be comedies, and French films may yet become Korean films. So when word comes down that your movie's been accepted to a festival such as SXSW, that's when things suddenly become very, very real and very, very immediate.
"Having a hard deadline like we have with South by Southwest definitely focuses you," says McCanlies, "because suddenly you realize you can't tinker forever. We shot The 2 Bobs very fast – the shoot was only 35 days – but it wasn't until we got into South by Southwest that all the producers and the editor and everyone else working postproduction were like, 'Oh my god, we actually have to do this; we have to get this done.' And then they looked at their watches. It focused their minds, and it focused mine."
As I'm writing this, a small cottage industry, based almost entirely here in Austin, is grinding away to make sure The 2 Bobs is ready in time for its premiere: Sound is being mixed; a technician in Dallas is working on the film's color correction; composer Kaz Boyle is putting the final touches on the score; a trailer complete with voiceovers is being produced; posters are being printed at Super! Alright! media studios on the city's Eastside; a small team of marketers and promoters is busy drumming up media and studio interest and setting up the film's premiere and all kinds of pre- and post-parties. And then, to top things off, there's the elaborate, climactic, imperative five-minute computer-animated action sequence that closes out the film, which artists at Austin's Critical Mass Interactive production company are working 'round the clock to finish, if for no other reason than to make sure the other 81 minutes of The 2 Bobs weren't shot for nothing.
So with the deadline of an impending festival premiere comes a mad scramble, along with tension, concern, and anxiety. But I also wonder if there isn't some artistic value to a situation where time is the ultimate factor, if creativity isn't bumped up a notch or two under the strain of an impending hard deadline. Like reporters in old black-and-white screwball comedies, do humans work best when the clock is ticking?
"I think there's something to that idea," McCanlies says. "Adrenaline definitely kicks in when you're suddenly faced with a deadline, and that adrenaline can definitely be the source of ideas and creativity. I also think with a movie like The 2 Bobs, which is a little anarchic – it's wacky and crazy and fast-paced – maybe the kind of manic postproduction we're doing is in keeping with the spirit of the movie. Sometimes when I'm writing a movie that's a fast-paced comedy, I write it faster. You need that momentum and pace and enthusiasm to maintain the right tone."
The director also believes that this down-to-the-wire approach to filmmaking is served by his choice to employ mainly young Austin talent to be his collaborators, from Reisch to the programmers at CMI to the artists at Super! Alright!, most of whom are looking to prove themselves with a big-name filmmaker.
"Somehow," McCanlies tells me, "it seems appropriate to be keeping this manic schedule with all these young people around, working for very little money. They're a very hungry group of people. We can't write big checks, so people are doing this more for art and for the love of film and to show what they can do because they have something to prove. For them and for me, it's always been a passion project. And the energy that fuels passion projects is multiplied by the adrenaline that comes when you're fighting against the clock." The 2 Bobs
The 2 Bobs
Spotlight Premieres, World Premiere
Friday, March 13, 6:45pm, Austin Convention Center
Monday, March 16, 6:30pm, Paramount