The Sound of a Flashback


For our production of WIT, I wanted to create something new for several flashback scenes.  In the past, I’ve processed an individual actor’s mic with reverb + delay to create this type of effect.  But for WIT, the actors were not mic’d.  It’s funny how you get stuck in a particular way of thinking – I am definitely susceptible.  I really didn’t want to propose the use of body mics just for this effect. Stuck… stuck… stuck.  Then I remembered a short topic that was discussed in an episode of the Sound Design Live podcasts – the idea of mic’ing the room as opposed to the actors.  Yes – this was definitely worth a try.

I described the idea to the director and the actors as “changing the acoustics of the room”, and specifically assured them that no actors would have to be mic’d.  They were intrigued but skeptical.  Since I hadn’t actually tried the idea yet in the black box space, I decided to respond with my best mysterious/wizardly smile… “you’ll see… just wait”.  All the while thinking “Geez I hope this works.”

The setup I used was actually quite simple.  I hung 2 AT PRO45 mics from the overhead beams at the front edge of the stage (about 8 ft up), about 6 ft apart and angled to give me 120 degrees of stage coverage based on where I thought the actors (1 lead plus a group of 6 others in a group) would be standing.  This gave me a basic on-stage setup to work with.  In the booth, inserting some reverb and feeding to the house system we were ready to go.  I could stand on stage and definitely hear the effect in the room.

As the show moved closer to tech week, the actors were spending more time blocking in the theater itself.  I decided to “borrow” one of the actors for a trial session.  This was my first chance to try the setup so that I could listen to it objectively from the booth and audience seats.  Natalie (the actress) and I spent about 15 minutes experimenting with stage positions, reverb amounts and overall house volume.  As is typical, we started with exaggerated amounts of effect and then dialed it down to something subtle.  Natalie, who I learned is a JRR Tolkien fan, commented that while she was on stage it made her feel like Galadriel in the All shall love me and despair… scene from The Fellowship of the Ring.  Although it took me a minute, I’m enough of a LoTR nerd to get her reference… and I now smile whenever I remember that moment.

The director liked the effect generally, but wanted to hear it in the context of the flashback scenes.  From this point forward, it was really a matter of tweaking and tuning:

– Positioning the mics based on the final blocking

– Low-pass filtering the processed audio to create a more mellow effect

– Dialing in the right volume to match the feel of the scene.

One unexpected effect came from the sudden contrast between the lead actor’s voice as she portrayed a professor in a lecture hall and the sudden slap of a pointer against a projection screen.  The impulse of the processed slap was quite dramatic and I could see an interesting change in the audience’s body language.  A little surprise is good for the soul.

During the performances, I rode the effect volume to compensate for show-to-show variations in blocking and speech levels.  But the biggest issue for me was fighting the tendency to push up the level of the effect.  Subtlety was the watchword.

Bottom line – the effect was a success.  I’m definitely keeping this one in my bag of tricks.

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