Monday, August 27, 2007

How equipment was Placed in "The Departed" movie

Anatomy of a Placement

Tuesday, March 22, 2005
An industrial style window, placed high to foil the occupants’ attempts to have a view, let in the spring morning sunshine at a crazy angle. Segmented by horizontal blinds, the light threw stripes of glare and shadow that ran across floor then bent wildly up across the figure behind the desk, striping her blouse and face like masked bad guys in an old Disney cartoon. She looked up at the sound of the knob turning on her closed door; a silhouette was visible through the frosted glass pane with the etched letters, ‘ffoG yllaS’.
A figure in an open, rain-spotted trench coat and Fedora stepped in, a woman with a face that could silence a stereo salesman, hair finer than the strands in a high-end speaker cable and voice like a lunch-box filled w/ toy cars… no, wait….that was the phone….
O.K., so life for Sally Goff, Director of Marketing and P.R. for McIntosh Laboratory may not be as exciting as a Mickey Spillane inspired film noir, but the call was about a detective story…
Jennifer Chalhub, Sr. Account Executive for Warner Bros Pictures had a request. She was currently working on a ‘little’ Film for Warner Brothers, “The Departed”, Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson. Set Decorator Leslie Rollins had requested McIntosh for the set of Matt’s apt, where a scene takes place involving a stereo system. This was not unusual, the timeless, classy look and bright, illuminated meters and faceplates make McIntosh equipment look great on film and a favorite of set designers. Sally assured Jennifer we would be happy to help. Ms Chalhub promised to get back soon with an equipment list.
After a long look at, Departed set decorating personnel went on a field trip to a McIntosh dealer to check out the toys. A month later, they came back with the ‘wish list’, and it was not small. An MX119 Home Theater Preamp, MVP861 DVD Player, MA6500 Integrated Amp, C2200 Tube Preamp, MR85 Tuner, MHT200 Home Theater Receiver, MC207 Multi Channel Amp, MCD1000 CD Transport and five XLS320 Bookshelf speakers.
The Production Resources Agreement arrived from Warner Brothers.
Obviously designed for paid placement, the contract stated that McIntosh agreed to pay the sum of Zero Dollars for placement of the equipment in the movie, there was no guaranty that the equipment would appear and that McIntosh was not obligated to pay the Zero Dollars, should the gear not ‘recognizably appear’ in the final cut of the film. McIntosh does not pay for placements, despite the fact that it shows up in several TV shows and movies each year. With the paperwork completed, the search for the gear began.
2005 was a very busy year for trade shows, dealer events and equipment reviews. Nearly every piece of show stock equipment was spread out around the globe at about 10 different events, including a good size pile of gear down in Florida on the set of “Miami Vice”, so it was time for ‘Plan B’. Usually, McIntosh units used in movies and TV shows simply need to light up and look pretty. McIntosh Service Manager John Messemer had several of the listed models , either untested or yet to be repaired units that lit up just fine, we could simply tape over the inputs on the back, label them “do not use” and be all set.
Just to be sure, Sally flashed off an email to Jennifer Chalhub, would they be expecting the gear to play music or would it be OK if they just ‘lit up’?
“I’m just a little afraid Jack or Matt will want to turn it on and listen to it. I’ll just have to let them know in advance they can not play anything on it.” Ms Chalhub replied. Sally had heard Jack Nicholson liked to play with everything on set and wanted it all to work. They knew Jack was a McIntosh owner and had previously requested McIntosh as set dressing for “As Good as it Gets”. The decision was made; the units would HAVE to work.
Turning a pile of new stock into “B” stock is not a desirable business practice, but it became obvious that at least some of the units would need to come from new stock. Sales and Sales Administration were consulted, they gave the green light to use some new stock and by the first of June, 2005, the shipment was ready to go. A combination new, show and engineering stock provided the 13 units for the departed. More complications arose as time went on, The Departed requested old Mac boxes for set dressing, and in June, 2006, whole scenes needed to be re-shot, so some pieces had to be re-gathered and reshipped, but eventually, it all came home, in excellent shape and perfectly re-packed.
On Fri. Oct 6, 2006 The Departed opened in the U.S., at one point in the film, the big, blue MA6500 VU meter covered more than 60% of the screen, presenting viewers with a 40 foot McIntosh Meter during a tense moment in the film. At the final cut, only 4 of the units and 2 of the speakers were visible in the flick, but they played a visceral part. As the female lead character ran to the Mac stack to turn it on, she makes three obvious turning-on motions, and three loud, poignant ‘clicks’ ring out in the sound track. As the camera pulls back, only two units appear to be on, but a slow motion viewing revealed the editors loved the look of the MA6500 turning on so much, they basically showed it turn on twice, giving the dramatic beat of ‘click’, ‘click’, click’!
By the following Monday morning customers were mentioning in web-site emails and tech calls they had seen the gear, and it was fabulous! In February, 2007, The Departed received four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, the perfect Hollywood ending, or was it?
In preparation for this article, a letter was sent to Jennifer Chalhub, requesting permission to use some stills for it. Jennifer replied she was working on it and, by the way, the set decorator was now working on another Warner Bros. feature, “Get Smart”, starring Steve Carell and “The Rock” and was interested in using a similar system. And so, here we go again!...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

What IS High-End?

What is high-end Audio?
The 60’s Art-Rock group “The Moody Blues” best album was a movie for your mind in the form of an LP entitled “”In search of the Lost Chord”. This may well sum up high-end audio. In same way listening to a song on a clock radio may never reveal the bass guitar line to you, the stereo systems most folks listen to will seem to reproduce all the music, yet subtle details you never miss are never the less there for the hearing, given the proper equipment.

One of the greatest complements one can give a system is “I’ve heard that recording hundreds of times and I noticed things I’d never heard before.”. Even with a system so revealing as to elicit that praise, it is unlikely to trick you into believe there is a marching band in your living room.

What are the elements in live sound that elude the Sound reproduction system? One is frequency range.. sound is created by moving air, when you consider the bass drum in that marching band is a 24 “ membrane hit by a cloth-wrapped hammer, it is obvious that deepest fundamentals in music such as the 16 Hz (largest) pipe in a pipe organ is not going to be accurately reproduced by the 4” speaker in your Bose wave-radio. It requires many, large drivers (woofers) working in unison to move the equivalent amount of air.

The next hurdle in accurate reproduction of live sound is dynamic range; this is the difference between the softest and loudest passages in a piece of music. An orchestral piece can range from the sound of quiet conversation, at around 50dB, to the volume of a police siren next to your ear, around 126Db. An efficient loudspeaker can produce 90dB, about the noise level of a busy NYC street corner, from one watt. One would imagine said speaker could easily reach the 126 db to recreate the peak level of the aforementioned orchestra, an increase of only 36dB. Herein lies the rub, it is commonly assumed that a doubling of watts in an amplifier yields a doubling of output, but not so, twice the electrical power (watts) yields only the smallest easily noticeable increase in volume, 3 dB. We need to gain that 3dB 12 times to hit our 36dB increase, and so have to double our mere 1 watt, 12 times! 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, 4,096 Watts!

This leads us to yet another impediment to realistic reproduction of live music, the dreaded distortion. The smooth rising and falling wave of a pure tone as seen on an oscilloscope is bent out of it’s smooth shape by the effects of normal amplifiers and speakers, the wave is distorted. Only the finest components, with the most expensive materials, designed by brilliant engineers through thousands of hours of labor can reduce those distortions beyond the point where the remarkably sensitive instrument the human ear is can detect.

Not only do we need a battery of huge woofers and gigantic, multi-thousand Watt amps, but they must be built with precision akin to the technology in the Hubble telescope. I half jokingly tell customers that, just as it takes 10 times the power to double volume, it takes ten times the money to double sound quality, but this is no joke, as even the finest sound systems in the world, costing a few hundred thousand dollars, still fall just a bit short of the ultimate goal, truly reproducing the sound of live music. So the struggle continues and the worshipers of high-end audio diligently continue their quest, no matter what it takes, and that, is what high-end really about.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Leo Kottke, Mike Gordon "Clone" Review

Like a scene from “That Seventies Show”, we sat in someone’s basement, smoking Marbs or Luckies and watching the stack of wax fall every 22 minutes while the fight raged on:
“Ritchie Blackmoore is the greatest guitarist alive”, one ranted.
“Way not, man, Steve Howe SMOKES him.” This discourse raged on while the godfather of the eighth grade, known as ‘Wacky’, rocked back on the hind legs of his chair and smiled smugly.
“You guys have no idea what a great guitarist is.” Wacky waxed as he scratched the needle off Peter Frampton and removed the pile off the record changer. He pulled out an album with a funny looking guy in black and white juggling orange balls on the cover, Leo Kottke’s “My Feet are Smiling”, we never looked back.

Leo has just recorded with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, which at first glance is a fractured, almost schizophrenic work that divides itself into four parts, songs penned by Leo, by Mike, by both and covers.
As a bass player with 27 years experience, I would know better than to try and play with Leo Kottke. Mike finds this out, especially on the songs penned by both, where two busy instrumentalists sometimes ram each other with conflicting rhythms and unintentional discordance.

The Covers seem to be chosen by Leo and sound tight and smooth, with Leo getting less busy to concentrate on vocals and Mike getting tasty and simple like a good sideman.

When the Mike Gordon originals come around, one gets the impression the album is named “Clone” because Mike sings harmonies over his already mediocre voice, giving us two of a bad thing. These tunes are self indulgent and silly, though pleasant, and “The Collins Missile” is a cute story.

The Kottke originals are excellent, and Mike starts to ‘get it’ on these, sounding like the alternating thumb-played bass lines Leo uses on his ‘sounds like two guitars’ solo stuff.

I suspect this disc was burned in the order the tunes were recorded, as the first song is a bit of a train wreck, with both Leo and Mike lacking musical understanding of each other. As the disk progresses, both players learn and grow until, by the end they seem to trade places. On the Gordon instrumental “Whip” Mike thinks like Leo and the chugging , staccato, finger-style tune could have easily been penned by Kottke. On tunes toward the end Leo ‘steps away from the box’, lets some notes ring and plays a few jazz chords. He seems to get the Phish thing and it adds a new dimension to his style. I suspect future releases from both these gentlemen will reflect the lessons they learned here and we, the listeners, will reap that harvest.

I think that many listeners will just burn three or four songs off this disc, (different ones for different folks) but I believe I will always play it end to end, enjoying the twists and turns of this little sonic trip, and going where it wants to take me.