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Virtual Katy and Lord of the Rings

Sound editor John McKay explains how his new audio conforming tool evolved By John McKay

John McKay
Editor's Note:  While working as a sound editor on Lord of the Rings, John McKay developed new workflow techniques to keep pace with the constantly changing versions of the picture during production. In the process, he found that if sound is part of the editing process, it can make big contributions to the edit as it evolves. But in order for that to be possible, there has to be constant collaboration between the sound and picture teams during production, a difficult task in such a fast-paced environment.

led McKay to develop a software package called Virtual Katy, which finds and compares the differences between picture versions, then re-conforms audio from a Pro Tools session to reflect the changes. The procedure saves hours compared to doing it manually -- which is what an assistant named Katy used to do when working with McKay on Lord of the Rings. Here, McKay explains the process that led to the development of Virtual Katy.

When Lord of the Rings (LOTR) began filming, large Hollywood-style production was introduced to the small filmmaking community of Wellington, New Zealand. Until this big budget film, sound teams had been small and understaffed. Extensive changing and updating of soundtracks had not been a widespread or common activity due to cost and time constraints upon the filmmakers. Projects were generally locked off and completed by the time sound postproduction began. That all changed when, in the first year of production, Fellowship of the Ring went through 50 versions before completion. Scrambling to keep up with the rapidly changing edit became the main focus. Creative sound track making became secondary to just keeping the movie in sync.

Changes to the film required processing of the change list. A sound assistant would decipher the change list and create a cut guide track template from which each editors individual session would be updated. Utilizing this cut guide track and the macro program Quickeys® to activate key commands in Pro Tools®, an automated procedure for updating sessions was created.

The procedure was as follows. The guide track was placed one hour before its actual syncposition. Using the time-stamped information in the cut guide, the key sequence would send the region to its original position, copy all tracks and with the usage of markers, return to earlier position and paste the material. This was essentially a process of recompiling, and completely non-destructive. This enabled the team to have several versions of the session available online, at incremental hour codes.

Although this technique improved the speed of updating, the laborious task of Change List deciphering needed to be completed before a cut guide could be actioned. Visual FX updates were always listed as deletions and insertions, but this meant the sound department was in danger of losing audio needed for the ?updated VFX shots. An old VFX shot would have to be deleted before a new one could be inserted, whereas the sound department required the shots to be recognised as constant. That which was necessary for the updating of work print was potentially ruinous for the LOTR sound department.

To overcome this problem, we reverted to an old piece of technology the Edit Decision List (EDL). By comparing the differences between EDLs, we could in effect produce our own change list. This reduced our reliance on the LOTR picture editorial team and gave the LOTR sound department tools to keep pace with the ever-changing picture edit. On completion of a cut, the LOTR picture editor would export an EDL from the Avid, and email this file to LOTR sound department. Sound would compare with the previous version and update sessions to reflect changes well before digitized picture arrived from the cutting room. What was once ?dead time was efficiently used to keep picture and sound in step.

From this, Virtual Katy evolved. Virtual Katy compared the differences between previous and current versions of LOTR picture edits. We were able to import up to 36 EDLs to analyse (across multiple reels). Virtual Katy would produce a VK Change List that would automatically re-sync the Pro Tools session to reflect the changes in LOTR picture.

Virtual Katy became VK Premium and VK Lite. For more information or to test drive Virtual Katy products, please visit the web site and download the demo at www.VirtualKaty.com .

Heading up VKDL's development department, John McKay draws on his 28 years experience as a Sound Editor to ensure that Virtual Katy meets the exacting needs of the Sound editing community.  A list of Johns credits can be found at: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0571001/

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Related Keywords:sound teams, Lord of the Rings, filmmaking, Hollywood-style production, postproduction

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