September 24, 2009
A Tale of Two Pelhams
I first saw the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three in 1981 when it was shown on WNEW (now WNYW) on Thanksgiving Day. It was about the same time I started taking the subway alone, and needless to say at eleven years old the movie made a lasting impression on me. It was therefore a great thrill to sit down with Chris Newman, the sound mixer of the original Pelham, and Tom Nelson, the sound mixer of the most recent Pelham to talk about their approach to recording each movie, and how movie-making has changed in the intervening 34 years. - Peter Schneider

The 1974 switching room (above) and its 2009 counterpart (below)

Tom:  When I was shooting "Pelham" one of the places I set my sound cart up, was at one end of the museum [The New York City Transit Museum, a frequent shooting location thanks to its abandoned subway tracks.-Ed.] And the guys that were helping us from the MTA said, "Oh, that's where we shot the first Pelham. They have a little room beside the museum; it's down at the end of the track which is the switching room that you used as location. And as soon as I saw Pelham, the original, I recognized it. Joseph Sargent was a director who made his days, and he was pragmatic in that way. Tony Scott, on the other hand, who is a very accomplished director and has done films with great complexity, to me, was the most visual director I've ever worked with. I had never actually been confronted with as visual of a director as Tony. To the point that we built basically [only] two sets. [The Command Center] and we built one subway car, all in Kaufman Astoria, and the rest of it, we did underground. The building of the command center - now, this is to tell you how the technology has changed - Instead of having the train lights as they were originally in the '70s, where the train would hit switches, and a light would show up to show you where the train was and  the switch lights were illuminated as each switch got changed, [for our version], we did it all with 10 Barco projectors, and a 160-foot rear projection screen. Each command center desk could see that and actually, with monitors on either side, take any section of the entire subway system and put it on their monitor.

Tony and the production designer were incredible in their attention to detail. We did get a tour of the actual command center, and they duplicated it as closely as they could from memory and photographs. I went in there and surreptitiously tried to record the ambiance of just the bed of communication. On each command center desk, there is the six-wire, and each person has a couple of mics. The six-wire goes directly to all the trains. Then you have another command intercom system, which can go directly to a particular train. So you can hit the six-wire to put an announcement out system-wide. You can choose from the other one to specifically talk to a certain train, to talk to a tower that's controlling a section of track, or by walkie-talkie to any train or any person walking on the track.

 
 

John Travolta as Ryder (above) and Robert Shaw as Blue (below) 

 

Now the scripts are almost identical. They start out with, in a variety of different ways, bringing all the gang of criminals who are about to hijack the train together onto the same train, and then the hijacking, which is the same way ours worked out. As the script is structured, in my case, John Travolta, who is the instigator for the whole thing, and then in Chris' case, Robert Shaw, they don't actually see the dispatcher that they talk to until three-quarters of the way through the film. That's the way ours was structured.

So the curve ball that Tony threw at us was John Travolta and Denzel Washington decided that they didn't want to see each other until they actually met in the script. So we built this 160-foot command center, decided on speakers on the desk and whatnot, and John Travolta was not going to be there. But they had to act with each other and interact with each other.

The first thing the editor says is, of course, “Well, fine - Let's do it. Don't overlap.!” I instantly knew that wasn't going to work, so Tony and I decided on EQ for the entire intercom system. It seemed to work, with planted mics on all the desks and that sort of thing. Then I used a digital Cat5 system, because it was Kaufman Astoria, and John Travolta wanted to be  in one of the dressings rooms where they built like a booth for him. They couldn't see each other. It was all done with sound.

So they could communicate with each other and they could each hear each other. The director could communicate to both of them for direction. Tony Scott works with - he has a Lectrosonics IFB transmitter. The first assistant, the dolly grip, the camera operator, the props -  Everyone can hear him. He talks through every take, constantly changing cameras.

So we shot days and days of tests. Tony designed a very clever standing set of a subway. The question became, how do you show, on the express track, a passing train? As if you're shooting through that car window, what would you see as the car passed? He did it with stills.

He did it, first of all, with different stills with different amounts of blur. Then we did it with sequenced lights, so it went  left to right, or right to left, wherever we wanted to do it. But they were projected images on a rear-projection screen. The tests that we ended up with, he could actually make that train appear to be at different speeds.

Peter:  What did it sound like when you were shooting?

Tom:  Well, when we were on the set on the subway, I just heard the clicks of lights. Then the car that we actually built was built completely with gimbals and air suspension. Then he experimented for a long time using the vibration mounts on the cameras. How much shake do you put in the camera to make it appear as if this train is really moving? Then I went out and found sound effects and tried to just feel the effect of passing freight trains. You hear it coming down the echo of the tunnel. But just to have some verisimilitude to the stage shooting, I would play the sound effects in the background when the train passed. So the actors that are on camera had a sense of how loud it actually is, if they were on a still train and a freight train had passed.

Chris:  You mean during the rehearsals?

Tom:  During rehearsals, yes.

Chris:  But how about during the shooting?

Tom:  No, we dropped it during the shooting.

Chris:  How many cameras did you shoot?

Tom:  Oh, this is where it becomes fun. Tony shoots with basically six to eight cameras. It became our hardest thing. Then the one car that gets separated in the movie and sits alone on a riser while the negotiations are going back and forth had 19 or 20 hostages in it. One of the hostages that comes down is iChatting with his girlfriend on a laptop. .

When the train gets taken over, they all stand up. They're put against the wall, and that laptop falls underneath the seat towards the end of the train, like four feet from the end of the train, and fits there. So underneath the seat, you saw the entire train via the very, whatever, 10mm spherical iChat camera.

Chris:  I can see the shot in front of me now.

Tom:  Tony loved the iChat.  It was fascinating because the iChat camera, like a lot of the phone cameras, vary their frame rate in order to get different exposures. If it's bright, the frame rate goes up. If it's dim and dark, the frame rate slows down to three frames a second, four frames a second. And Tony's sort of liking the varying frame rate. It keeps the same exposure with a varying frame rate. So we did an iChat, and then we also put next to it - well, basically, we used a Panasonic DVX 100 or HVX 200 to match it. Just in case he didn't like the varying frame rates, we had a video camera to do the same frame made [to match] the iChat angle.

So he would shoot from the end of the train. And he did a lot of circular tracks. You would have a track go outside the cars, around, outside. And Tom Prate, the Grip, was unbelievable in just making this all work.

So you would have a camera going circular around - like this. At the same time, he would put three or four cameras at the end, one of which would shoot with a 24[mm wide angle], and then one would shoot with a 180 of John Travolta down at the end of the train, in the cab. And it became this look of constantly moving, constantly changing frame rates, constant...

Chris:  You could see it over the opening - over the opening dialogue, you could see exactly how the movie was going to be done.

Tony Scott

Tom:  Yes. Basically, Tony's idea was that the city of New York was being held ransom, including the mayor and all the other characters, and whatnot. So the discussion became, "How can you use sound to build drama?" Because a screech of a subway car on a turn, in an elevated car, is one of the most annoying, jarring, intrusive types of sound that I can think of, other than like chalk on a blackboard. But how can you use those types of subway sounds, the constant din? When you get underground, the first impression I had was "It's alive." I was fascinated by it, because even if you don't see subway cars, if you're underground, on a track, away from the station, the whole ground vibrates. Six tracks away you hear as a train approaches the little insulators that insulate the third rail pop up with the magnetism. You hear, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding sound.

Forever I asked, "What's that sound"? I thought it was the switches, but [the NYC Transit Authority reps] said, "No, no. It's the insulators coming up and popping,”  because once the track gets energized as the train comes forward, it all changes.

How do you keep that tension going to a greater and greater thread of tension until the protagonist set this car in motion and it's a runaway train which goes the entire length of the stop until of the very end of Coney Island? How do you do that with sound?

The answer for us was to use some very specific sound effects. I went in and basically recorded everything in MS, an MS pair and then a straight, usually a shotgun forward facing to the MS pair. We let the trains go through a sound field, panning a mono mic would give you the approach, the pass by and the recede of a train.

We did it all at the highest [sample rate] setting that we could, 192K. We used extended range because the sound effects editors, who are fantastic, wanted to be able to change the speed but still have a full 20 to 20K frequency range. If we didn't have that full extended frequency range, you would be losing your frequency range.

We went back and recorded hours and hours, nine to ten days worth of sound effects. Specific and also just generic, that underground thing that happens. Then set up FTP sites and we'd just send it back and forth. I would go out each weekend. I got around on a subway pass so I could go down in the subways and do it. Then I would FTP it to them. They would try it and lay it in and see if it worked.

Chris:  Oh, that's fantastic. Absolutely wonderful.

Tom:  I mean it became a real dialogue. They were sensational. Being a sound man, I think beneath all of our efforts is the sound has to follow picture. And perspective in the final analysis is really what gives sound its power in a movie. Being able to use sound in the same way they use a camera for perspective.

Chris:   I assume you used a lot of radios [while shooting].

Tom:  John Travolta's end was always radioed, and that worked fine. But then we actually ended up zoning it because I didn't want it to sound like a radio show. I wanted it to sound as open as possible, so we ended up zoning the whole thing and dropping either Sankens or B6's down in zones, from the ceiling, through vents.

Chris:  Why those instead of more sort of conventional open mics like Schoeps' Colettes, or...

Tom:  We did. We did drop just a Schoeps, but then you saw the ceiling. There was no place to put anything.

Chris:  How many tracks did you use?

Tom:  I used a PD606 - six tracks, basically. Plus, you have the off-camera dialogue playing from - say, around the train, from Denzel.

Chris:  Which is on yet another track?

Tom:  Yes, so you end up with a mixed track of the off-camera dialogue track. On John Travolta's track, for example, you're hearing Denzel through the speaker. And they overlap one another. And we just decided on EQ and kept it constant through the whole movie. Actually, it was funny. It got to be a total craziness of communication more than anything because of two actors who wouldn't be together. And then Denzel threw in the little curve ball. The station master, the trapped tower guy all had dialogue that went over this intercom system. Well, Denzel wouldn't let anybody in his dressing room.

So, all of the sudden, at 10 o'clock in the morning, they say, "No, we have an actor here and an actor there." That's 1, 500 feet apart. You can't run from one end of [Kaufman Astoria Studios] to the other because it's two buildings. And then Kaufman wouldn't let me put cables outside the buildings to get back into the stage at the end. So we were scrambling, running CAT-5 cables back and forth.

Chris:  You couldn't go to Tony Scott and say, "Listen, this is just crazy. Why can't we put them in the same place, even though they won't be in DZ's dressing room?"

Tom:  Well, that was an original thought. I said, "I'll build on the stage. I'll build a booth. We'll put the actor there." But the actors got involved and said, "No, Tom, I like the comfort of my dressing room."

Chris:  No, I'm not saying that. But...

Tom:  Couldn't they go into a booth or something like that, off camera?

Chris:  After all, yes, something, let's say, closer to the cable runs.

Tom:  Well, egos got involved. Whoever is off camera wanted to be comfortable within their own surroundings. Yes, that was my first inclination. We built a booth on one stage and then we built a booth on the other stage, and soundproofed it so that, basically, an actor off camera could work there and be recorded. And it was very simple. You could do it...

Chris:  Because I'm listening to what you're saying, and I'm quite in awe of...

Tom:  [laughter] No, it's not awe. It was total scramble all the time.

Chris:  ...Awe of how you're scrambling and doing, and all of these things with six cameras, and the communications, which is wonderful. And then there is another part of me that's thinking...

Tom:  "God, why all of this extra work?"

Chris:  It was possible, even in '73, to have done an off-camera recording simultaneous with the on-camera. Whether there were overlaps or not is immaterial. We certainly could have done it. We had a two-track machine. I mean, it was the second time that I had ever used that machine at all.  I used the Nagra III and then a stereo, never used a 4.2.

Tom:  You skipped that.

Chris:  I thought a 4.2 was a giant step sideways. And I thought the future was two-track. I didn't dream about four-track, six-track, eight-track, or more.  However, all of the conversations between Bob and Walter, were done to play back. They were not done live. And in the read through and the rehearsal - if I remember correctly, I might be wrong about this, I might have gotten the order wrong - but I believe that we pre-recorded Bob.

And [Recordist] David Moshlak, played back off of Nagra III - and I had slugged in a little bit of paper leader, just enough for him to grab the capstan and hold it. That's how we did it, he held it line by line.

Tom:  Yeah, phrase by phrase...

Chris:  And he'd let go, and he'd hold it, and he'd let go. And I'm sure when he came out of there, he went immediately to a bar, because it was absolutely nerve wracking. And he made no mistakes, and the actors were right on it. And we knew that if there was a fuck up, we could always put a burst of static in there, or something. And then we took Walter's track, and I cut it up the same way, and played it back for Bob in the train.

Of course, the train was never moving. Had it been, we still could have done it. And we had a little speaker, that we mounted, I think, under the control panel in that thing.

Tom:  In the booth, yeah. That's exactly what I did.

Lee Wallace as the Mayor of New York in the original Pelham

Chris:  And we used that for the play back speaker. It's a whole different way of making the show - some of which seems very corny to me now when I look at the mayor and those things with Tony [Roberts].

Tom:  Well, that's interesting, because we actually got confronted with the same thing, where one day Denzel wasn't available. And so I had to take his side, the technology changed, I had to make a quick Pro Tools section, and lay it in and put cues on it and do it to play back to John Travolta and the train. But that's a much more straight forward approach.

Chris: Here's what I remember. It's one of my fond memories, a really fond memory. Walter Matthau was an enormous gambler. Bob Shaw was an enormous gambler. Owen Roizman, the camera man, is a great ping pong player, as was Walter, as was Bob. And for the sanity of the crew, on the platform at Hoyt-Schermerhorn, at the end of the platform, there were three tables going all of the time.

And what they used to do is they used to drag the actors away from the tables to go onto the dedicated train, to do the shots. We had a really good time. It was dirty as all hell. I remember blowing my nose for weeks, and black stuff would come out. And we had coveralls that we put on every day, and it was disgusting.

I also had a near tragedy on that job. I did almost all [of it with a boom], with one or two specific exceptions, I think when the MTA guy gets shot in the train, he was wearing a radio, I think, away from the scrib. Everything else we did there, we did with a shotgun and one boom operator, the late Patty Suraci. One boom operator did that whole fucking thing.

And one day, Patty had a habit of putting the cable around his shoulders, and we were doing the Motorman. And the loop on the hanger caught an overhead thing that no one had seen, and pulled the fish pole and the cable tight around Pat's neck.

Tom:  Oh my goodness.

Chris:  Because the fish pole was internally wired, and Pat, may he rest in peace, was very strong - I didn't see this. I was two cars down. I heard some noise, and then it went dead - He grabbed the cable because he was being asphyxiated, and he held on for dear life. To give you an idea of the tension involved, the cable pulled out of the soldered connection at the end of the pole, and the pole went flying, and the mic and pole went under the train. They cut, of course, and he was OK. But for weeks he had this kind of abrasion around his neck.  He was OK, happily.

We did everything with an open mic then. It was the style. It was absolutely the style. Stuff we did with radios, like cops outside, high angles looking down, where we couldn't get a mic in, or stuff in the car when they were chasing to get the money in time, we used lavalieres.

By the way, at the Federal Reserve, on the day that we had the money, when they counted the money at wrap, they were short. The entire crew, on overtime, had to stay for another hour and a half or two hours, and it was double time then, while they recounted the money and found the money.

Tom:  They didn't use prop money?

Chris:  No, they used real money.

Tom:  Oh God, that's a funny story.

Chris:  The [new] movie seems very cold to me, that the characters - not the actors, but the characters that the actors played seemed all so dissociated from one another, that even when there was an attempt at camaraderie and the kind of wise-cracking kind of MTA guys, it fails. It isn't quite there.

Tom:  The technology has gotten in the way of - it certainly made it much more difficult for sound, but it's gotten in the way of the story-telling.

Chris:  Well, that's the issue here, of course.

Tom:  That's the real guts of why a movie works or not is does the audience have empathy for either our villain or the main character? Do you want them to succeed or to fail? What's the relationship between the audience and the movie? When the technology has gotten so complex...

Chris:  Well, it becomes a refuge. I see it with the students.  When one is teaching this, especially when one is teaching a kind of ubiquitous subject like production - whatever the hell that means - there is an endless discussion about who would you rather value? Would you rather value Cassavetes, where you might go to see "Faces" and not talk to your spouse or your loved one for two weeks afterward because it stirred up so many emotions, even though it was sloppy? Or would you rather go watch "Days of Heaven" which is a magnificently photographed movie about nothing, sort of?

Joe Sargent

I could see it was a really difficult job. Listen, Joe Sargent [director of the original Pelham] is a TV director who's made a couple of decent features. He's still alive, by the way, and is a sweetheart. And all of those men and I was going to say men and women but it's in fact almost uniquely men, who came out of the early days of television and that period, they are all totally, utterly, pragmatists.

There is something missing from a lot of today's directors. Whether it's because not enough time has gone by or because the culture is so based in selfish behavior or ego gratification of a particular kind. I don't really understand it terribly well.

But there's very little compromise now for the sound people in my observation. And it's great to take a lot of satisfaction in like oh, we outsmarted the bastards. We figured out how to do an end run. But every once in a while, there are situations that arise where something has to give and they won't give.

Tom:  And then you are feeling as if all of your efforts are being compromised.

Chris:  Well, they are. They are in a way. I think it makes for a lot of negativity on the part of the technicians. Very hard not to personalize, even though one shouldn't personalize it. My wife says you cannot be better than the director, and boy is she right. You cannot be better, your work cannot be better than the limitations that the director imposes on your work.

Tom:  Interesting comment. But it's a day by day thing. And then when you go home after one of those days where you feel like you've been beating your head against the wall, you've been nixed at every suggestion you possibly could think of as ways of getting out of a problem. I find myself - I sit in the car for five minutes and just say, "This day is over. Don't carry it into the house." Otherwise, I want to kick the cat when I open the door. And don't carry it to your wife. I remember when our kids were little, I would come home and have had a miserable day, and I'd open the door. And Ilene would be there, and she would be struggling with two rambunctious boys all day long. And she would say, "They're your kids, now. And don't tell me about how hard your day was, you should hear what happened to me."

Chris:  One of [my students] will always say , "Doesn't this mess with your personal life?" And my snappy answer will always be, "Not at all, I met both of my wives that way."

Let me ask you a question. You may not want to answer this....Did you have fun?

Tom:  I find in every movie, what ever the parameters involved, the personalities and the approach that you might take, you'll get two or three days into it, and you kind of know in your head how the film is going to sound.

Chris:  Of course.

Tom:  You know. And what happened in this case is that this is presented to me as the presumptions and the assumptions that were made in order to make this movie. So I just rigged it up the first time, and it worked perfectly with John Travolta being off, Denzel on camera, the two of them being able to talk to each other constantly. You're dealing with actors that were trained and could stick to a script all of the time.

Chris:  They would change things, and we would have to change things, but you didn't answer my question.

Tom:  Well, I'm getting to it, slowly. So what happened is, I backed myself into a corner. To answer your question, it worked. And once it worked, and once I had Tony saying, "Oh, this is great. Let's go. Let's keep doing the whole film that way." I was locked into it. And looking back on it, I see the mistakes that I made. While we were shooting we saw the mistakes.

Chris:  Was he appreciative?

Tom:  I think he was."Was it fun?" It was challenging, and there's a certain satisfaction...

Chris:  More challenging, and most movies are not fun, necessarily. Every once in a while, there's a job - even if the movie sucks - where the experience is fun. Most of the big movies that I worked on that were successful either financially or in terms of review, critically, were not fun. There were mad people directing, or there were mad people on the set.

Tom:  You've worked with fantastic directors, and you always have this great relationship with directors and actors. I find that may not be as true today, at least from my shy self, to have quite that same relationship. But the enjoyment comes to me in whatever the circumstances presented, I feel like I've done a good job.

Chris:  Well, that's satisfaction. I'm not sure that that's... Is that fun?

Tom:  That's satisfaction. It may not be fun, but to me, that's fun.
[PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION]

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CONTENTS
A Tale of Two Pelhams
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Wordclock
AES
D4 Review
COMTEK introduces new Mini-Mite Antenna
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