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Working on the Sound Design for This is It

UCSD Alumni Worked on Jackson Documentary

Above: "This is It"

Everyone knows that “This is It” (opened October 28 in select San Diego theaters) serves up the last footage of the late Michael Jackson. But while Jackson’s talent is clearly visible on the screen, you might not appreciate the work of the tech crew that had to create this film from a diverse array of sources.

Since no one expected Michael Jackson to die before his comeback tour, no one was recording rehearsal with the intent of turning the material into a feature film. But after Jackson’s death, the fan fervor for anything Michael made the event producers realize that if they could pull anything together they could turn a profit. But trying to create a documentary about a concert that never happened and using a diverse array of source material is no easy task. So I decided to interview a friend of mine who worked on “This is It” to discuss the challenges of such a project.

Martin Lopez attended UCSD at the same time I did. He was in pre-med but had a 16mm camera so I talked him into changing his major to Communications/Visual Arts (I don’t think his mother ever forgave me). Although he did a lot of cinematography at school he ended up in sound design. I worked with him on one of “The Attack of the Killer Tomato” sequels and I always enjoyed his DIY attitude and innovative solutions to sound problems. He put those skills to good use in a bad movie, the American “Gozilla.” To create the breathing and roaring for Big G, Lopez built a huge bellows to recreate what a giant creature’s lungs might be like.

Here’s what Lopez had to say about working on the audio for “This is It.”

"This is It"

Columbia Pictures

Above: "This is It"

What were you're expectations about the kind of work you would need to do on this and what were the challenges you faced?

MARTIN LOPEZ: I was called by Tommy McCarthy at Sony Sound Editorial and he said "I can't tell you what the project is. You will work a minimum 14 hours a day, every day, for at least two months. Security is the highest level imaginable. You can tell no one what you are working on. Whatever you need will be provided. Want to do it?" Yes. So I went in completely blind. On my first day he then explained it was the Michael Jackson film. That he had been up for three days setting up a special suite of offices on the lot with 24-hour security and pass card entry. The assets for the film had been moved under armed guard the night before. It just wasn't the usual way we start a film. And it never became the usual way. It was entirely unique. Settling in at "the compound," as I called it, it became clear that the work was part restoration, part creation, and many parts logistics and coordination. Some recordings, like "Can't Stop Loving You" in reel 3, which is a duet with MJ and Judith Hill, only existed as a single stereo mixdown from the house board. And, it was (as fate would have it) marred by hundreds of digital flaws due to a Pro Tools [an audio editing program] problem at that moment. The creation part was sound design for the film, which is my normal role on a show. I know, Sound Design on a concert film? It's like designing an awesome T-shirt for a nudist colony. Sometimes it was subtle work - like backgrounds and atmosphere for the arena. Since the mixdowns were from individual isolated microphones, the atmosphere and movement in the room were virtually absent. It all had to be created and it had to feel absolutely genuine. I cued the foley [the process of creating post-production sound effects for enhancing a soundtrack of a film] with the foley supervisor, Mark Pappas. We recorded all the foley way off-mic. That is, getting way more roominess in the foley than the foley artists and mixer would ever do. All in an effort to help it mesh and feel like the "camera mic" on the two roaming cameras. The other really fun task was embellishing the dance moves with sound effects. This is yet another thing MJ innovated. A brilliant sound designer named Mike McKnight had already recorded and edited dance FX for "Drill" and “Jam” - which were just beautiful. But because the entire show was shut done upon MJ's death, other work was never completed. Only rough passes has been done on "Thriller" and "They Don't Really Care About Us." So there was my work. I sat with the choreographer and associate producer Travis Payne and built sound design for the updated "Thriller" dance sequence. Snaps, whips, bone cracks, stomps, all in rhythm to the music. That was great fun for me. Again, all this on very little sleep. The four picture editors headed by Don Brochu, and four assistant editors, spent day and night with [director] Kenny Ortega to get a picture edit all were happy with. Picture and sound were working simultaneously. Sequences would change while we were editing sound for them. One morning, "Earth Song" was entirely re-cut and moved from reel 5 to reel 3. So we in sound editorial were constantly chasing a changing picture. Now, we normally have to update sound as the picture edit is refined, but this was much more dramatic. But it had to be that way to get the picture turned around in the record ten weeks. The picture editing team was experimenting, trying new ideas, while we were already beginning to mix down the picture. Crazy.

How many different kinds of media were you working from?

LOPEZ: No one knew these would be his last performances. The picture editors had everything from HD to NTSC standard def to cell phone movies. They would try anything. There were some things shot on this proprietary Panasonic pro-sumer format that had to be figured out. It was very difficult on the picture department assistants. Every day they were thrown a new puzzle piece. David Abramson and Jacquelyn Dean, Erica Flaum and Yvonne Valdez, they did an awesome job.

What was the post-production work like on this in terms of how you worked with others on putting the film together?

LOPEZ: I've never felt so bonded to a crew before. An amazing crew. So much humor. In the late, dark hours, we would just get laughing about stuff. It was an amazing gift to have this particular combination of people on this film. The simultaneous editing and mixing was even tougher on the music editors. The original music recordists were Mike Prince and Bill Sheppel. They are the first reason the music sounded so good. The tough part was that when Don and the picture editors would change out shots of MJ during a song, then music editors Scott Stambler and Ryan Rubin would have to hunt down what day(s) the new shots were from. Then, in some cases the song predubs would have to be revised. Which was quite involved. Funny thing was, since notes and timecode logs were scarce on the original footage, what MJ was wearing became the guide. It was fashion timecode. Gold pants meant it was shot on the 23rd. Paul Massey and David Giammarco, brilliant mixers and gentle souls. I'm gonna get misty if I have to say anything more on it.

Were you surprised by any of the footage you saw of Jackson?

LOPEZ: Seeing him interact creatively. When I saw that in the very first edit of the film, I thought people should see this. You, I, everyone - only heard accusations, rumors, tabloid convictions of Michael Jackson for years. After a while, when that's all you hear, you kind of begin to believe it. I think we all forgot he was a brilliant musician, first and foremost. I know I did. I was thrilled to see him as a musician. Some people believe all the tabloid crap. I choose to believe he was for many years a victim of both predators and press. We all have to make our own decision about that. But it's from our gut, because all the evidence was contradictory.

Anything else you want to add?

LOPEZ: I feel privileged to be a part of the film. Of the document itself. I feel so sad that he's gone. Gone before his time.

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