A Portrait of Gordon Hempton
An Indiepix release of a film by Nicholas Sherman.
A 16x9 standard definition disc, from a high definition source (research indicating HD-Cam,) with Dolby Digital encoded stereo sound. The run time is about 82 minutes, and the main menu comes up fairly promptly after two brief Indiepix logo screens, one of which indicating the use of PixelTools MPEG-Escort watermarking. Subtitles are available for English and Spanish. [The English subtitles are identified as SDH, but they omit the ‘key sound cues’ such as train whistles, bird-song, or coyote yips when they are, in fact, key sounds.]
The packaging is a standard DVD case. Retail price for this title is $24.95. There is perhaps some confusion as to the release date, which may have been as early as August 17, or as late as September 7, 2010. The feature is unrated, but is probably suitable for all audiences. I do not recall any offensive language.
The Feature — ½
Gordon Hempton is The Soundtracker. He travels around the world, recording spaces. Recording quiet. Recording environments. With a special sort of dedication toward finding pristine areas where he might be able to record for fifteen or more minutes without any detectable presence of humanity, its machines, power lines, or anything like that. This is, he indicates several times throughout the piece, getting harder to do.
The production crew (of two) traveled with Mr. Hempton for a month-long trip as he traveled through the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada. This included some of the planning phases of the trip, to traveling to the general areas, searching out the specific ‘environment,’ and recording. In first two thirds of the feature, it is almost approached in a holistic sort of sense, with lots of interview and discussion about sound, space, and environment. This also covers a lot of ground not included in the trip, including stills and recordings from other trips. The last third of the film details the search for a specific ‘piece’ he wishes to record: The Songbird and the Iron Horse. This includes a great deal of location scouting, some preliminary test recordings to attempt to figure out how to balance between the two rather disparate ‘leads,’ and then the frustrations of dealing with the actors. In this case, one of the takes is frustrated by the fact that the engineer of the freight ignored the whistle-post.
The Picture — ½
According to some of the on-line notes, this feature was produced in some form of HD, perhaps HD-Cam. Much of the content is compression-unfriendly. Wind in the tall grass. Rocks through the rippling water of a stream. Wind in trees. HD-Cam has a number of technical limitations that, when combined with the challenging subject matter, is... revealing. And disappointing. There are a number of times (particularly described above) when the compression engine “breaks,” and the image is plagued with huge macroblocks. The tonal range was often muddy, and the outdoor skintones of Mr. Hempton were often unnaturally red. Granted, also, that this was in-the-field documentary production, with the camera crew tagging along and camping along with the Soundtracker for a month, in some strange conditions, but some of the picture issues should have been correctable.
Unfortunately, something else happened in the post and production of this disc. Neither my player (upscaling Oppo BD-83,) nor my projector (Panasonic PT-AE3000) were happy with the signal. Allowing the Oppo to attempt to scale it resulted in torn frames and other glitches. The projector, whose scaler is almost as good as the Oppo’s, preserved the motion, but merely by line multiplication, resulting in a fairly visibly low-resolution picture. On PC-based playback, using Media Player Classic HC or VideoLAN VLC player yielded acceptable ‘at size’ pictures, but scaling up to the full screen resolution (also 1920x1080, but by 23 inches,) revealed a lot of interlace. With regards to the other hardware scalers, I am not sure what went wrong; they can normally handle interlace fairly well, but there is something odd going on here. I do not know if some of the issues were related to the use of the MPEG watermarking; I would hope not. However, Indiepix has chosen to embrace this content protection.
The bitrate on the disc seemed fairly reasonable, going as low as about 3.5megabits/second to perhaps as high as 8 megabits/second, but seeming to average in the 5-7 megabits/second range.
The Sound —
Why merely stereo in a film about someone who records environments? Well, because much of the sound provided was recorded by Mr. Hempton, and his recordings are mostly made via a binaural “head” he named Fritz. Thus, stereo, and probably best suited toward playback via a good set of headphones. Although the sound “works” via a Pro-Logic decode, I suspect playing it through as unprocessed stereo might be a better plan. Ideally, this program should be listened to with a “good set of cans.” In my case, I’m quite pleased with the “space” I get in my Grado headphones.
The binaural recordings are excellent. [Admittedly, the man has had some 30 years of experience here!] Again, use headphones!
The production recording is... less excellent. And sometimes what becomes voice-over is made up of stuff recorded in a number of different areas, times, and spaces, and when the producers take a sentence from here, and another from there, and run the whole dialog stem through a fairly aggressive noise-gate... it gets weird. But other times, they go from camera-sound, and gracefully sweep into the binaural recording and back again, it just works.
There are numerous extras.
1. Interview with the Director (Nicholas Sherman) (9:10). On filmmaking, philosophy, sound, Gordon, and making this film.
2. “One Square Inch”, is made up of About, Listen, Watch, and Go. About is a one-page explanation of the quietest place in the United States. Listen is a 2:22 binaural recording, mostly of the yipping coyotes and their echoes. Watch is a 4:22 program on Silent Places, and the goal of attempting to preserve some of these places (without human-made noises.) Go is a link to a website of directions to this quiet place.
3. World of Sound — a 72 minute ‘tour’ of the world through samples of 53 of Gordon Hempton’s binaural recordings. With titled chapters.
4. six deleted scenes: Flight maps across the US (:45), Early Morning at Lake Mills (2:58), the Evolution of Bird Song (1:42), Silence is Not Silent (1:57), The Way It Was 1000 Years Ago (2:38), and Blow Your Whistle (2:23)
5. trailer (2:35)
In The End
This is a difficult disc to rate. Some of the philosophy gets kind of deep or thick. The picture quality is generally disappointing. But it is a disc about sound, and the real sound — that of the spaces — is excellent. The World of Sound feature is almost as much of a feature as the titular feature.