Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Question My Dad Wouldn’t Answer

To an eight-year-old boy, Dad is perfect. He has no faults. Dad is on the highest pedestal in the land. He never makes mistakes. He never sins. He’s never wrong. He is, after all, Dad.

Dads get a lot dumber, of course, as the boy enters his teen years. But to an eight-year-old, Dad is perfection personified.

I know, because my dad was perfect. Even when he didn’t know the answer, Dad always had the right response. And that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

We were watching a movie on television that was not originally filmed in English. It was French or German or Japanese or something. Whatever. It wasn’t English. But it had been “dubbed” into English.

Even as a small boy, I understood the concept of dubbing. I knew that they originally filmed the movie in some language and then later some actors went into a sound studio and recorded their voices in another language to match the expression and tempo and dialog of the original actors as good as possible. It wasn’t an exact science, but it was certainly serviceable.

As Dad and I watched the movie together, it occurred to me that they had to get rid of the original dialog somehow. But there were all these other sounds in the movie. There was music. There were ambient sounds in the outdoor scenes; birds chirping, cars whizzing by, feet shuffling on the sidewalk.

How, I asked Dad, did they remove the dialog without affecting all the other sounds in the movie? I’ll never forget his reply.

“It ain’t easy.”

In other words, he didn’t know.

I accepted that as an eight-year-old. I accepted the fact that he didn’t know, but he wasn’t quite ready to admit that he didn’t know. But that was okay. Because Dad was perfect.

Over the years, I’ve had some experience in the recording and video production industries and now I know how they did it.

You wanna know?

When a movie is made, the sound is recorded in layers. The music is always recorded on a completely separate track. Usually the dialog is on a track by itself. As much as possible, the sound is recorded completely “dry”, without any ambient noises at all. No footsteps, no doors squeaking, no fingers rattling on computer keyboards. Those sounds are added later by “foley artists” — very similar to the “sound effects” actors in the old days of radio drama.

All these individual tracks are blended together to create the final product that we enjoy as a movie. But they are also kept separate so individual tracks — such as the original dialog — can be removed and new dialog inserted.

In rare occasions where it is impossible to separate the sound effects from the dialog, it is possible to recreate the sound effects on the foley stage along with the new dialog. It can be done so seamlessly that it’s barely noticeable.

So, there you have it, Dad. That’s how they do it. I thought you’d like to know.

And by the way, if you didn’t know it before, your secret’s safe with me.

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