I walk past the Stuck On On building about three times before I finally find it.
It's located just off East Sixth Street, nestled amongst local bars and small restaurants, quietly hiding in the shadow of several industrial warehouses and a lumber yard. The front door isn't visible from the street—you have to walk down a dark, ivy-covered tunnel to see it and, even then, you can't help but wonder if you've found the right place.
Is this really Stuck On On, Austin's own film and video post-production house? I don't know what I'm expecting, but an entrance that feels like a mysterious Disneyland queue is not it. In fact, I know next to nothing about Stuck On On; I only know that they're a homegrown company catering to local productions, offering professional services that often require independent filmmakers to make the expensive quest to Hollywood to have properly done.
"Being able to build a look and a sound for a film is exciting. People come in with one film and leave with another."
Inside, I'm in for another little shock: Stuck On On, a place that is utilizing the latest and greatest in film post-production technology, can best be described as cozy, even cave-like (and by cave, I mean the kind of cave that makes you want to lie back and hibernate to your heart's content).
I'm immediately greeted by Allison Turrell. Her business card reads "Producer," which is film talk for "The Woman Who Gets Things Done Around Here." She gives me the quick tour—the lobby, the kitchen, her office and the sound studio—and I meet Stuck On On's resident sound expert, Lyman Hardy. Our group then heads to the final room, the editing suite, where editor Parke Gregg is hard at work behind several monitors.
Once again, I find myself surprised: all of the people who work at Stuck On On are in this room. Austin's own film post-production studio is operated entirely by three people. I'm impressed.
Now that we're all together, I ask Allison, Lyman and Parke about the origins of Stuck On On. Their collective answer is quite simple, really: Parke and Lyman were freelancers, Allison had just finished graduate school and they wanted to collaborate on something. Why not pool their talents into a post-production house? Unlike New York or Los Angeles, there was no competition in Austin despite the city's firmly established filmmaking scene. They'd be avoiding the big players, provide a service to local filmmakers and not have to sever their Austin roots. That's a win-win-win.
As a post-production house, Stuck On On works on the aspects of a film that, when done right, the audience should never notice. Parke puts it best: "It's a hidden art. You don't don't want those elements to stand out. The film comes together in the end so everything blends in. It's a full package. It makes sense that the average moviegoer doesn't know what we do."
If you're new to the behind-the-scenes world of moviemaking, here's the basic primer: Stuck On On steps in when the cameras have finished filming. They edit the film, finding the story in hours and hours of footage. They color correct the film, adjusting the overall look of the film and how it will appear to audiences. Finally, they edit and mix the sound, which involves creating every little sound that you hear in the movie and adjusting it so it sounds really nice (and that's not taking into the account the huge amount of dialogue that often has to be re-recorded).
Although these are technicians who spend their days using computer software, they are also true artists, with everything they do working to build the story of the film they're working on. "The sounds you leave in or take out tell a story," Lyman explains to me, telling me about how he once used the sound of a sewing machine to transition to the sound of an industrial drill. It doesn't just have to sound good—it has to have a point. It has to serve the narrative, either consciously or subconsciously.
Allison puts it to me best: "Being able to build a look and a sound for a film is exciting. People come in with one film and leave with another."
Of course, it's not all about being storytellers at Stuck On On. Sometimes, they're tasked with taking footage that doesn't quite work and find a way to save it. I ask if they can give me an example and they laugh, declining to go into specifics. I ask them to remove the pronouns and they acquiesce. Slightly. They tell me of directors bringing in films shot on five different cameras, each with a different frame rate. They tell me of sound recordings that are a mixture of professional work and muffled, unusable junk. It's their job, their duty, to take the unusable and transform it into something, well, watchable.
And listenable! "People tend to be more forgiving of a film that looks kind of bad but sounds great," Lyman tells me. "Sometimes, our entire job is to make something intelligible. You can understand what they're saying? Yay!"
Other times, Stuck On On must function as buffer between the filmmaker and his film, helping artists with limited technical know-how achieve the look and sound they're going for (and sometimes giving them another option when that look and sound is unattainable or just a plain bad idea). They describe their ultimate job thusly: support the director's vision so they can get the movie they want. For some directors, this can take six weeks. For others, years.
It is at this point that I recognize the movie on Parke's monitor, the film he was working on before I burst in and started asking my dumb questions. It's No Way Out, a short horror film from local director Aaron Morgan and screenwriter Eric Vespe, that had played at Fantastic Fest only a few weeks previously. Parke sees this as the perfect opportunity to showcase the power of color correction, one of the true unsung arts of film production.
He does it by giving me a before and after (which you can see in the images above). He shows me the film as it was shot in-camera: a little too bright, well lit, but nearly as moody as it could be. Then, he applies the proper filters and I see the finished product, which is simply dripping in dread and moodiness, with the shades and the darks pushed to their limit. All the more impressive? Morgan and his crew knew they'd want to play with the film's look in post, so they intentionally overlit the film so they could preserve the details as they adjusted the shadows and darkness. This way, Parke could truly push the look of the film in any possible direction without fear of ruining the image.
No Way Out was not the only Fantastic Fest film that Stuck On On had its hand in. The other was a feature from Austin director Jeff Nichols. Take Shelter, a drama about an average family man battling visions of the apocalypse, which has been earning critical raves and collecting awards at film festivals all over the world. Despite being filmed in Ohio, Nichols lives in Austin and knew Parke and Lyman from previous collaborations. Take Shelter is not only an incredible film, it is easily the most widely-seen film Stuck On On has worked on. I think it's safe to say that it's their new calling card.
I decide its time to let Parke get back to work, so I follow Lyman back to his workstation. He takes his seat behind a sound mixing board and computer monitor; in front of him is large screen and around the room are plenty of speakers. In the corner is a recording booth for when he needs to record new dialogue or create new sounds from scratch. He tells me about how they brought a working gas lamp into the booth to record the needed sounds for a scene in Take Shelter; the smell and the smoke may have almost killed them, but man, it sounds phenomenal in the final mix.
Lyman lets me watch him work for awhile, playing with his work for my benefit. If you haven't watched a film without its score or without a proper sound mix, you may want to give it a shot. You have no idea how much the tone of a room or the gentle sloshing of liquid in a bottle adds to a scene. For a medium that is often called purely visual, the importance of sound is paramount. A picture is a representation. Sound is life.
As I get ready to leave, I talk to Allison about the state of the Austin film scene an the future of Stuck On On. She tells me that hundreds of films are being made in the city every year, but so few every actually manage to go anywhere. They're doing their part, taking on about ten films a year. Although they'll continue to work on local commercials and short films, they plan to focus their energy on features from now on.
I walk back to my car, taking in the neighborhood. A few hours previously, this felt like an odd place to find a post-production studio. Now, it feels right at home. Like that lumber yard, this is a place where hard working men and women work all day (and often all night) to build fine products. Like those bars and restaurants, it's truly, uniquely Austin.
Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter opens in Austin at the Violet Crown on October 28th.