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Buford Jones: “They bake the cake and I serve it”

Buford Jones is an award winning audio engineer from Texas. For the past 37 years he has been sound mixing live shows for some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry- David Bowie, Pink Floyd, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Prince to name a few. He has also worked at the famous Abbey Road recording studios in London. He was at The Banff Centre recently as guest faculty for the Meyer Sound Workshop. I asked him about the tricks of the trade.

Sound mixer Buford Jones spent three days here for the Meyer Sound Workshop

What is the difference between being a studio sound mixer and a live sound mixer?

In the studio you’re in a controlled environment but on a live stage the acoustical environment is constantly changing. One day it can be very difficult to make things sound good and on another day it’s quite easy. That alone is a major challenge but it’s something you learn to cope with.

When some studio mixers go on the road they find it very disruptive not to have the sounds the way they are used to. The other thing with touring is that you only get one shot to get the sound right, but in the studio you rewind, go back and clean things up and keep cycling through it until we get it right. On the road it’s much more challenging. You get to do sound checks but on the road you’re lucky if you even get one sound check to prepare yourself for what’s going to happen in a live show.

David Bowie, Prince, Pink Floyd, Don Henley – you’ve worked with some big names. Who has been the most enjoyable artist to work with?

Linda Ronstadt. There are so many things I learned from that experience back in the 70’s. We first started working together in 1975 and through to 1980 when she toured. It was a step up for me and I was really learning a lot. I was still young and when I look back I think that’s where my whole career shaped itself.

How much time have you spent on the road?

After 37 solid years of touring I can think of only a three-month period not being on the road. For the first 10 years I think I was averaging nine months on the road, as things settled down it went down to maybe eight months and now I’d day I go on the road about three months of the year. It’s still enough travel enough to fill up five passports.

What keeps you going?

There’s something so special about doing a live show for 800 – 800,000 people; when all the elements come together it’s just priceless. You can’t describe it to family and friends you just have to be there. What keeps us driving is the inconsistency of it all because you’re always trying to get that amazing moment back. That’s the drive that keeps you going. I tried other areas of work but just keep coming back to the touring thing.

Can a live performance be greatly enhanced by the work of a sound engineer?

There’s some things that we can add to, to sweeten the cake, but I think when we overdo that we are taking away from the originality of it all. I remember in the mid 70’s I arrived in New York city and a cab driver asked me what I was doing in town and I told him I was in the live concert touring business, that I mix sound. And that I was mixing sound at that time for Linda Ronstadt. And he said, ‘ah,she bakes the cake and you serve it’. I’ve used that analogy ever since. In fact if I ever write a book that will be the name of it: ‘They Bake the Cake and I Serve It’.

Were there ever any major disasters during a live concert?

I don’t remember any show that didn’t come off on schedule but I do remember one show with David Bowie in France where the transformer ignited during the show and started a fireworks display. People in the audience just thought it was part of the show and started to cheer it on which was funny because it was actually a catastrophe.

What are the most important personal characteristics associated with being a live mixer?

A love for music is the number one. All the technical aspects are extremely important to understand and how to manipulate the equipment but it goes so way beyond that. I think that if you have a musical background it helps. I look at the musical console as an instrument. It’s your own way of playing a musical instrument. When you have that desire to play music and you collaborate with the artist you almost become like a band member. You have to understand musically what they are thinking and what they require. When you find that musical slot and you fit into it that’s when the true magic comes out.

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Ragga and Markus and Hreinn

Ragnheiður (Ragga) Gestsdóttir and Markús Þór Andrésson.

Ragnheiður (Ragga) Gestsdóttir and Markús Þór Andrésson.

To filmmakers Ragnheiður (Ragga) Gestsdóttir and Markús Þór Andrésson, this year’s frigid Polar Vortex weather felt just like home. The two Icelandic artists were in residence in December, putting the finishing touches on their film Time and Time and Again. The 50-minute film premieres at the DocPoint Helsinki Documentary Film Festival in Finland on January 26th.

During a few productive weeks, the pair shared their unfinished video project with our Film & Media crew, who worked closely with them to perfect the film’s sound, special effects, and post production. Thanks to some fantastic collaboration with our work studies, Ragga and Markús were able to fly home with a fully finished film.

The Film

The project follows the lives of two artists and a scientist who find themselves connected by a cosmic web. Based on the life and work of conceptual artist Hreinn Friðfinnsson, another Banff Centre alum, Time and Time and Again explores the elusive nature of time and memory, past and present.

Though perceived to be a documentary, Time and Time and Again is a curious piece of quasi-fictional work that plunges straight into Fridfinnsson’s surrealistic art and vision. Instead of pondering what makes this absurd and dramatic film a documentary or not, Ragga and Markús hope that audiences will also question what effect naming the film as documentary has on the viewing experience.

The film will be made available online after the festival season, but you can watch the trailer here.

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Lawrence Hill: “I’ve lost a lot of blood”

Commonwealth Prize-winning author Lawrence Hill was recently at The Banff Centre as part of our Leading Ideas Speaker Series, reflecting on the idea of blood as a historical and contemporary marker of identity and belonging. It was a theme he explored as part of the CBC Massey Lectures series this year.

Hill spoke to our radio producer, Sarah Feldbloom. It might be said that a writer and a mountaineer face similar challenges when attempting to ascend to great summits. Inspired by the local landscape, we like to ask our guests a series of questions as equally relevant to artists and innovators here at The Banff Centre as they are to those who climb — or contemplate — the mountains that surround us.

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Deepa Mehta: “the whole film in my head”

Filmmaker Deepa Mehta, writer and director of films including Earth, Fire, Water, and Midnight’s Children, was at The Banff Centre recently for an independent residency, spending a week in the Leighton Artists’ Colony to work on the screenplay for her next film. While she was here, she found that she didn’t do a lot of writing, but nevertheless found the experience invaluable.

We also asked her about being on set, being in charge, and having the freedom to change her mind.

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Animator Cam Christiansen in 3D

Director and animator Cam Christiansen was here recently using our new 3D motion capture camera for his upcoming animation, Wall. “We’re a really small team working on a really ambitious project and in that respect we’re having to fight above our weight,” he told me. “The idea was to have a small team with a large impact.”

3d1

Cam Christiansen directs actors while their 3D image is recorded. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

Two years in the making, the film is an adaptation of a play by British playwright David Hare, and explores the history and philosophy of the wall that separates Israel and Palestine. The project is a partnership between The Banff Centre and The National Film Board, and in Banff Christiansen has been working with senior animator Price Morgan, and work study animators Court Brinsmead and Devon Burton who have been developing their creative and technical skills in image compositing of graphics, motion graphics, and animation.

Christiansen and his team filmed the first portion of the film in England, and then returned to Banff this fall to use the new technology, one of the first ‘markerless’ 3D systems (actors don’t have to wear markers denoting the position of their joints) with 18 cameras that place an actor’s position in virtual space to animate digital character models in 3D computer animation. “We’ve adopted a bunch of slightly unconventional techniques that allow us to make a feature length film that’s also an animated film,” he added. “It’s a kind of gargantuan task. Tools like this camera make it possible.”

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“Never take your eye off the bull”

During rutting and calving seasons in the Fall and Spring, the number of elk sightings increases around The Banff Centre. Open spaces like the green space in front of the music building allow them to see potential predators coming from a distance while keeping their backs to a wall to minimize surprise attacks. It’s a good place to be.

This is no joke. Illustration by Kristy Davison.

This is no joke. Illustration by Kristy Davison.

Twenty years ago, the elk invasion had become so serious that a TBC Elk Action Plan was hatched. Options discussed with wardens included removing large trees to prevent pedestrians from being surprised by hidden elk, installing temporary electric fences, and placing canisters of artificial wolf scent in the woods surrounding the Leighton Studios.  Security at the time offered to ferry nervous staff or visitors through elk herds to other buildings on campus.

Things have calmed down since then, but I had caught a hot tip that our campus cowboys were wrangling the herds using only a hockey stick with a garbage bag tied to it and I felt compelled to investigate what sounded too good to be true. Crossing my fingers, I called up Alasdair “Grif” Griffith and Chris Furlan from Security who were prepared to divulge some of their tried-and-true tactics for cajoling the creatures off campus.


THE WHATCHAMACALLIT

The Security team was quick to correct my misconception about the hockey stick.

“It’s a rake we use, not a hockey stick,” Grif said as he pulled said tool out of the back of the security van. The rake, a remnant pilfered from grounds crew’s throw-away pile, has half of its tines missing and handle sawed or broken off, and is wrapped in a green garbage bag. The handle is covered in duct tape for added grip and greater protection from splinters.

“I mean, the [park] wardens use a hockey stick and it’s the same principle. It’s just that the rake, it’s got more area. And so you can sometimes make a bigger or a louder noise with it,” Chris explained.

“So you think the rake is better than the hockey stick?” I asked.

“In my opinion, anyways.”

“I think it is, yeah,” Grif chimed in.

Wardens, take note.


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