As we continue to plug away on Ashes and Wake of the Chimera, new filmmaking and media tools are landing in the marketplace on what almost feels like a daily basis, particularly with the rise of AI. As a content creator, I naturally distrust AI, not because I fear the Skynet takeover, but because I find the notion of media and creators being even more devalued than they are already to be a depressing prospect. Still, having messed with AI for a bit now, I can say I find it extremely limited in its abilities: as incredible as its ability to comb the internet for various elements to draw from is, its inability to understand nuance is both frustrating and hilarious (I have a lot of conflicting feelings about the image accompanying this post). AI just isn't that smart. However, I see cause for optimism in narrower applications: basic illustration for online posts, automating menial tasks, providing visual inspiration that final work can build off of, or, most interestingly, enhancement and restoration of existing elements.
Voyage of the Chimera's low-budget dialogue recording, mostly a victim of my own lack of on-set sound experience, was always a long way below where I wanted it to be. Due to subject distance and the type of microphones used, many scenes in the film were prone to background noise and far too much room reverb. I say was because thanks to AI, I've been able to correct this--streaming now on most of our major platforms (including Amazon and Tubi), the film has been given a completely new dialogue mix that is much clearer and easier to hear. New purchases of the DVD and Blu-ray will also include this version of the film.
The key was a new tool for "dialogue enhancement." Software to remove noise and reverb has existed for years, but even the mind-bogglingly expensive ones have always been limited. As I understand it, the tool I used is different: instead of filtering out the unwanted sound, it analyzes the voice and attempts to recreate it without the hiss, drones, roars, reflections, etc. It even rerenders it as though it was recorded with perfect micing in a studio. Putting even some of my worst recordings through it was astonishing--difficult scenes such as Barrows and Saverin upbraiding Royce for his gossiping in the hallway suddenly sound as though they were perfectly recorded!
A little too perfect.
One thing I discovered quickly is that using the enhanced recordings sounded unnatural; this "perfect" sound booth quality was inappropriate for the steel corridors of a military spacecraft. And this was not the only problem--the recording quality now sounded great, but the voices often tended to pitch upward just a bit; some of the enhanced tracks no longer sounded like the original actor! Playing around with the enhancement alleviated some of these issues, but just a bit of artificiality came through from time to time.
The answer to both the "perfection" and the artifice was to combine the new tracks with the originals; I wasn't sure it would work at first--would the new tracks line up with the old, or would there be tiny offsets, creating echoes? To my astonishment, combining the two sets of tracks not only lined up perfectly but the new and old seemed to cancel out the flaws of each other while enhancing their good qualities. The result is, in my opinion, a night and day difference between the way the film used to sound, and the way it does now. With limited time outside my day job, I was not interested at all in redoing the sound for the whole movie, but my tests convinced me it was worthwhile to present the film in its best form to new viewers. The difference, in my mind, was that big.
After enhancing the dialogue tracks, I took the opportunity to improve the film's sound mix with more background sounds to help sell the environment: computers beeping, distant work in other compartments, and even a few drone effects to add subtle ambient "music" tracks to a couple of previously bare scenes and transitions. Additionally, a couple of new shots of the chart screen have been inserted (without changing the runtime) into the opening chase sequence to help explain the spatial relationship between Chimera and the freighter she captures. Very little of the sound mix has been left untouched. Fortunately, I was able to finish the new work in just a couple of months last year, bouncing between that and working on the script for Ashes.
Restorations are not supposed to happen this soon, but I suppose this is what happens when you learn as you go. Over time, I've found that the lessons I've learned have compounded and built on one another. I'm excited for the future of our series; Shooting the other two films is still a little ways off, but in the meantime, take a moment to revisit the original film in its... enhanced version.