A Movie Odyssey: Three decades of conversation with Stanley Kubrick
Ioan Allen joined Dolby Laboratories in 1969, and was in large part responsible for the origination and development of the Dolby Stereo film program. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, and has an honorary doctorate from the University of Nottingham in the U.K. In 2009 he received the Silver Medal Award from the Audio Engineering Society for services to cinema sound. Mr. Allen has received five Scientific and Engineering Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including an Oscar. This article describes his 28-year association with the renowned film director Stanley Kubrick.
March 7, 1999: Call my 96-year-old mother in England—Sunday, 10 a.m. as usual. Discuss the weather, her health, my travel plans, the usual stuff. Any other news? Oh yes, she says, “That famous film director friend of yours died…” Who do you mean, Mother? “Oh, you know, the man who made A Chocolate Orange.” Go to the Internet, look up news services—yes, Stanley Kubrick has died.
The previous evening I had shown some houseguests here in San Francisco my Christmas present from Stanley, but the elegant book of Lartigue photographs had been eclipsed for me by the accompanying card:
“Dear Ioan, I guess this year I will be the last person in the world to switch to stereo. You see, your efforts have paid off. Best wishes, Stanley Kubrick.”
But he never did “switch to stereo”—Stanley died before the mix of Eyes Wide Shut. After our 28-year intermittent association, Stanley had evaded the challenge, and got away without doing a single stereo soundtrack (at least, he himself had never created a stereo soundtrack for any of his films). And to add to the plethora of “I knew Stanley Kubrick” stories that came out in the months following his death, here’s a different perspective. Not just 28 years of meetings and phone calls with the oft-quoted beginning, “Is this a good time?” What I remember most is the person whose thirst for information led more often than not to the question, “Why is that, Ioan?”
1970: Second year working for Dolby Laboratories, and Ray Dolby is giving me a pretty free hand as to what direction the marketing and applications for his noise-reduction technology should take. Multi-track tape recording technology is catching on (especially eight- and 16-track machines for pop music). As the number of tracks increases, so does the noise level, the hiss endemic with analog recording. Dolby A-type noise reduction was being widely adopted to combat this problem, and led us to think about other areas where generation noise (coming from many tracks, or generation copies) could create noise problems. The most obvious candidate for help was the film soundtrack, where noise was one of the contributing elements leading to the typically appalling fidelity of the mono photographic audio of 40 years ago. We started some investigations into the quality limitations of cinema sound, which I little realized would take us years of effort, shoe leather and grief to fix. Come to think of it, maybe we’re still working at it.
One of our earliest supporters/users was Wendy Carlos, whose pioneering electronic music was highlighted by Switched on Bach, still, I believe, the best-selling classical album of all time. Wendy’s use of Dolby A301 noise-reduction units helped fight the inherent build-up of generation noise. And Wendy (and her producer, Rachel Elkind) were close friends of the Dolby community—Ray, David Robinson, Marc Aubort and me.
A phone call—Wendy (or possibly Rachel, it’s close to 40 years, and the memory gets fogged): “We’re working on the music for the next Stanley Kubrick movie—Stanley’s interested in using Dolby technology on the film. Can you come up and have a meeting to discuss it?”
Oh yes, I’ll come to discuss it. Stanley Kubrick lives in a house called Abbott’s Mead in Borehamwood, near Elstree Studios, an hour north of London. Of course, I knew of Stanley Kubrick—I’d seen Dr. Strangelove and 2001, but had never thought about where this American director lived. In England? So, following Rachel’s directions, I drive up to Elstree, and on to Abbott’s Mead. And, awe-inspired, I go through the huge wooden gates to meet with a name. While names were not totally new to me (I had a music industry background), somehow Kubrick was a name at a different level—and I’m pretty sure that I was shaking with apprehension. And then the meeting… Twenty, thirty minutes, I can’t remember. And as I talked to Wendy and Rachel in the driveway before driving out, I hardly realized that this was the beginning of a 28-year intermittent dialogue with Stanley, one that, paradoxically, with Stanley never doing a Dolby Stereo film, could still be the seed at the heart of the Dolby film program.
A Clockwork Orange—1971
Stanley asked questions. Lots of questions. And it wasn’t comfortable, because many of the questions forced you to re-evaluate your own conclusions.
1970: Here were these terrible-sounding movies in the cinema, but that was what everybody was used to. Records at home were in stereo in many homes, and the fidelity was clearly better than the movies. There were a few four-track magnetic stereo prints in highlight cinemas, but few film producers and distributors would pay the premium print costs—so all most moviegoers would hear were mono optical soundtracks, with all the frequency response and distortion problems that have been described in technical papers. I was beginning to understand the sequence of events leading to this poor fidelity when first I met Stanley. It was tough explaining my thoughts, as they were embryonic. I dreamt of changing the room-tuning curve in the theatres, all the theatres in the world, but had no idea of how it could be done. We did it, but in fact it would take more than 15 years.
Stanley listened to the ideas—after all, I had been told he was open to the idea of using better technology on the sound of Clockwork (Thank you, Wendy), but it was tough for both of us. Stanley’s mind was on Clockwork, and I was unable to express my ideas clearly enough to make it easy for him to accept. First lesson learnt: Get your stuff together—Stanley wants to know and understand everything going on with his movie. John Jordan is the sound recordist on the film, but much as John is trusted to do the sound technical stuff, I begin to realize that Stanley is calling every shot. And there is no way that Stanley will refer new technology decisions to John—and Stanley is too busy finishing his movie to spend the time to share the evaluation of radically new technology.
So, after a couple of meetings at Abbot’s Mead, a kind of deal is done. Stanley will use Dolby noise reduction on all the magnetic elements to hold down generation noise on pre-mixes and masters, but we won’t play any games with room curves or anything that revolutionary. Additionally, amazingly, Stanley agrees to take part in some subjective experiments on room-tuning issues (now called B-chain characteristics), not for Clockwork, but which could help us in the future.
One of the meetings before the mix began happened in February 1971. I’m talking with Stanley in his cutting room, when he says, “Let’s go watch TV.” Apollo 14 is about to take off from the Moon’s surface. Stanley: “Let’s see if they get it right…”
I have to introduce new characters: first, Tony Lumkin, chief engineer at Elstree Studios, and second, Bill Rowe, the senior mixer selected by Stanley to work on Clockwork. Their support and patience over the next few years helped us develop the technical elements of the Dolby film program—but I think they little realized what they were getting into. Technical change in film sound was unbelievably slow at the time—not the speed of new technology development, but the speed of implementation. Stanley and Dolby were putting them on a roller-coaster.
A raft of Dolby noise-reduction equipment is installed in Dubbing Theatre #1 at Elstree. All the people involved are very helpful, but I begin to realize that they are slightly more helpful because Stanley Kubrick said, “We are using Dolby noise reduction” on this film.
So, the scene changes from Abbot’s Mead to Elstree Studios, and the mix begins. I put a fair amount of time into attending the mix, probably an insurance policy—even though using A-type noise reduction on magnetic elements doesn’t seem that likely to cause problems, I had heard enough of film political practice to learn lesson #2: If you’re not there, the problem is of your making.
The role of the Dolby consultant on a mix has changed over the years, but because this was the first film using Dolby technology (albeit Academy mono, with just Dolby noise reduction on elements), there were no rules. Later we learnt that things can get competitive: Do you support the mixer against a grumpy director? Do you support the director against a sloppy section of the mix? Or do you sit quietly in the back of the dubbing theatre, in case of some unexpected technical problem? In this case, the embryonic Dolby movie, I tap-dance my way looking after Bill Rowe (mixer), John Jordan (sound recordist), and Stanley Kubrick (director).
I turn up at the dubbing theatre most mornings, checking the alignment of the Dolby units with John Jordan, Bill Rowe and his crew. Invariably the levels were correct, and the frequency response of the dubbers would be as flat “as a row of doughnuts,” as Bill used to say, meaning the errors at each frequency were zero—0dB, 0dB, 0dB etc. The forms filled out in the machine room said 0, 0, 0, etc. Got it?
As the new technology seemed transparent (no noise, no problems), Stanley became more comfortable. And I started noticing what Stanley was calling for in the mix. While I had worked on many a music mix, of my own and supporting other producers, this was the first time I had witnessed someone calling the shots on a film soundtrack.
Stanley had a quirky sense of humor. He had a writing desk set up directly to the left of the console, with an IBM golf-ball typewriter and a stack of 6” by 4” index cards. After each take, he’d type a few words onto a card, and then rapidly cover the typewriter with the black dust-cover, thus ensuring that Bill Rowe couldn’t look over and see what was written. It became a report-card game—I seem to remember a smirky little grin. Stanley, not Bill.
Stanley always wanted the soundtrack louder, more penetrating. Again and again Bill Rowe would point at his master PPM (audio meter) and note that anything above a certain mark would overload on the optical soundtrack and distort. This wouldn’t be heard during the mix, but only after the magnetic master had been transferred and printed and then listened to. After a few days of this, Stanley takes a copy of the Daily Telegraph, folds it up, props it up in front of the meter. “Now, make it louder…”
As mentioned earlier, we were allowed to do some experiments on room-tuning after each day’s mixing was over. On several occasions Stanley stayed to see/hear what we were up to. One night, Eric Edvardsen (a Dolby engineer) and I were using a Leevers-Rich whole-octave graphic equalizer to adjust the loudspeaker monitor characteristic, to get the best match between a distant cinema loudspeaker behind the screen and a close wide-range speaker. Whole-octave because third-octave equalizers were in their infancy—so nine side-by-side slide faders, known for some reason as “fairy fingers.”
Next day we’re working on the final reel of Clockwork. Stanley asks for our graphic equalizer to be inserted in the music feed for the climax of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Make it louder and brighter. Stanley does—sitting with a graphic equalizer on his lap, with the bottom five bands pulled all the way down (no bass), and the top four bands pushed all the way up (all treble), smiling happily…
Well, the final mix is not quite that hot—but hot enough…
Lots of wait time in movie mixing in those days, while many reels of film were rewound or threaded up. Stanley would bum a Senior Service cigarette from me—Christiane (Stanley’s wife) was trying to get him to stop smoking, so he’d been banned from buying smokes, but was allowed to cadge them from others. “See how long your friendships last!”
We work on the text for a title card, intended to be the first thing you see at the head of Clockwork:
“The producers of this motion-picture have taken every step possible to ensure the quality of the picture and sound. If for any reason, things do not come up to your satisfaction, please tell the manager of the cinema, who will be pleased to help you in every way possible.” Needless to say, Warner Bros. didn’t think much of this idea.
But Stanley (or more likely, WB) did pay for each U.K. first-run projection room to get a pair of binoculars, to help keep the presentation in focus. Clockwork opened just before Christmas, and I’d take a bet that more than one pair of binoculars were taken home by chief projectionists, and given away as presents.
A technical pause: Once again I fail to persuade Stanley to go stereo with Barry Lyndon, or for him to allow a wide-range Dolby-encoded release print. But in an effort to reduce audible distortion, I get agreement that the mix will be done wide-range on all the pre-mixes, and only pre-emphasized on the final master. As the sequential copying of material through the mixing process was responsible for much of the audible distortion with conventional mixes, this should result in a much cleaner-sounding track, albeit still pre-emphasized at the last minute.
Stanley being stubborn:
We’re at (as best I can remember) Anvil Studios, recording drummers for the ceremonial showoff parade in Ireland. John Quinn’s platoon is brought to a halt. I know enough about marching drumbeats to know the sequence should end Bam-Bam, Bam-Bam, Bam—Bam—Bam. The first two Bam-Bams are doubled up, the last set single Bams. But no, regardless of authenticity, for some reason Stanley insists on Bam-Bam, Bam-Bam, Bam-Bam, Bam-Bam. The lack of a clear-cut end to the drums results in a kind of indefinite coming to a halt of the marching platoon. Still makes me twitch to this day. Lesson learnt: Never take them straight on! (A lesson learnt again with Ray Dolby.) Perhaps if I’d led into the issue more gently with Stanley, he would have gone along with the change. (Incidentally, I realize that in print the drum parts above do look pretty strange…)
Another technical pause: I got to know conductor and music adaptor Leonard Rosenman during music recording and mixing for Barry Lyndon. (He became a good friend, who later introduced me to John Frankenheimer, when Leonard was composer for Prophecy, leading to that being his first Dolby Stereo release.)
The dominant theme throughout Barry Lyndon is Handel’s Sarabande, which Leonard had rearranged several times with different versions, once as a full orchestral piece and one arrangement just with timpani. We recorded the latter at a church, with a temporary control room set up in the vestry. As usual, the timpani were tuned up by the musicians at the instruments. But they clearly sounded out-of-tune when listened to on the monitor loudspeakers in the vestry. An oddity—the timpani were exciting resonances in the church, just adjacent to the actual drum frequency. Solution: Tuning was done by someone saying “up-a-bit” or “down-a-bit” on talkback from the vestry!
Stanley (and Margaret) could find you:
My partner Carol and I wanted to get away secretly for the weekend at some point during the Barry Lyndon run-up. We tell no one where we’re going, apart from possibly just naming the county of Cornwall, which doesn’t narrow things down very much. Margaret Adams was Stanley’s brilliant, if take-no-prisoners, secretary. Port Isaac is a fishing village on the North Cornish coast. I recall that at that time the phone numbers only needed two digits—the hotel was Port Isaac 13. This place was seriously remote. During supper on the Friday night, the manager comes over—phone call for you. Margaret Adams: “Got a minute for Stanley?” Stanley: “Is this a good time?” How did she ever find us? Clairvoyance? Did Stanley hire her because she had this skill?
Stanley as scientist:
For years I’d had a background interest in archaeo-astronomy, the study of Neolithic astronomy, stone circles and rows. A leading scientist in the field was Alexander Thom, who beyond carrying out extremely accurate surveys of hundreds of stone circles and ellipses in the U.K. and France, had deduced that 3,000 years ago there could have been a unit of length, and that it was passed so accurately from location to location that there had to be a central location where “megalithic yardsticks” were made. Indeed, data suggested that the measurements were good to two decimal places—2.72 feet. The only alternative hypothesis was that there was some reference length in nature, accessible at every location. But, of course, there was no such reference length in nature available to Neolithic man.
Stanley would have none of the “megalithic yardstick.” We go out in the Abbott’s Mead car-park. Stanley in his kaftan. He finds a three-foot, straightish piece of twig fallen from a tree, kneels down and using the sun’s shadow tries to find a mechanism whereby the shadow is a fixed length. E for effort, but no cigar.
Stanley would like to know a little bit about you for his files:
At the time Stanley had never met or even, as far as I know, ever heard of my partner Carol. I’m working late in the office one evening, and the home phone rings. Stanley: “Hi, this is Stanley Kubrick, is Ioan there?” Carol: “No, I’m sorry he’s out.” Stanley: “Well [moment’s pause], Carol, could you ask him to call me?
Carol thinks the pause was just about the time it would take to go through a stack of index cards…
Stanley and sound effects:
Stanley always believed in a “tight” mix, with a pretty limited dynamic range. As Barry Lyndon goes through the woods towards Captain Feeny, the highwayman, there is the sound of a crow. Make the sound of the crow louder. Make it louder. Ray Merrin, the #2 mixer, is a more than adequate cartoonist and draws the crow sitting in a tree. The crow is wider than the tree is tall. Perhaps 40 feet wide, and that’s the way it sounds.
Stanley wants to know what you think:
He would have different versions of the same scene on three or four flat-bed editing machines. And show you each version. Which do you like? Easy enough, let’s say “version A.” Stanley: “OK, but why?” Now that’s where it gets tricky.
Steve Katz was the prototypical Dolby consultant in Hollywood. Not exactly a pleasant job—alone in a vaguely hostile world where new technology was greeted with a degree of skepticism. His only contact was with me in London by phone, and once or twice a week he’d call me late evening in London. He never used to say who he was—just inevitably he’d preface the conversation with “Ooohh…ooohh,” and I’d respond with “Now what, Steve?”
But this time, the phone rings and the voice says, “Ooohh…ooohh.” “What is it Steve?” “It’s not Steve, it’s Stanley”
Stanley was at Elstree listening to a test reel of the finished mix, which sounded spitty. Potential doom and despondency. I drove out to Elstree late at night, and we determined that there was just a slight density problem, and after a correction negative was shot, Barry Lyndon is now thought to be one of the best Academy mono soundtracks ever made.
Ioan Allen continues his reminiscences of Stanley Kubrick in our January issue. Our readers in Southern California may also want to check out the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s major exhibition of Kubrick’s work, running now through June 30, 2013: www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/stanley-kubrick.