Closing of city soundstage will have dire repercussions

City Diary

CITY DIARY: Lisa Simeone

June 18, 2003|By LISA SIMEONE

`SOUNDSTAGE TO wrap up 44 years of production." It was a pretty ordinary headline in The Sun of June 10. Another business forced to fall before the mythic beast known as "the bottom line." Not likely to attract much attention, unless you happen to be in the film or radio biz. Or unless you're an unemployment statistician or some other kind of numbers cruncher.

More's the pity. Because the closing of Flite 3 Studios on Cold Spring Lane is much more than an economic loss to Baltimore and, indeed, to the entire state - though it is that.

There's no telling what kind of long-term impact its closing will have on the region.

Film and TV production is a $70-million-a-year industry in Maryland. Flite 3 houses some of the biggest production stages and best audio, video and film production talent on the East Coast. It helped in the production of such movies as Avalon by Barry Levinson, Washington Square by Agnieszka Holland, Runaway Bride by Garry Marshall and Hairspray by John Waters and the critically acclaimed TV series Homicide: Life on the Street.

Jeremy Irons, Yaphet Kotto, Bruce Willis, Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith and hundreds of other actors have done work at Flite 3 over the years.

The studio was the place for Automated Dialog Replacement (ADR), better known as "looping" - when dialogue from a film scene has to be salvaged for any reason (lines are inaudible, an actor mumbles, etc.). The actor goes into a studio and retakes his lines while watching the film, trying to recapture the tone of the original in perfect sync with the image.

It's a painstaking process, especially for the audio engineer, who tries to make the sound of the looped dialogue match that of the film. At Flite 3, that audio engineer was Louis Mills.

I've known Louis for 20 years. He took me under his wing when I was green and uncertain in my early days in radio and voice-overs. I could always ask Louis: What do you think? How does this sound? Which music should I use? Why do I sound like a dork in that take? How can I do better? And I trusted everything he told me.

Even now, still doing demo tapes after all these years, I can go to him to ask for advice and know that he will give it to me - thoughtful, reasoned, unvarnished.

And Louis is only one of many professionals at Flite 3 who got pink slips.

That's what I mean by more than an economic loss.

Flite 3 is going the way of many big production houses in the country; another respected house, Rodel Audio Services in Washington, D.C., closed its doors last year.

Desktop digital editing and overseas production houses are taking away much of the work that places such as Flite 3 have always done.

"The digital technology has come down in price and to the masses so that everyone thinks they can get in our business," Flite 3 President Rita A. O'Brennan was quoted as saying in this newspaper. "One guy, one computer, out of his home, is competing with what I do."

But that's the point: One guy who happens to be a whiz at desktop editing cannot do what Flite 3 does. He doesn't have the years of expertise, discernment, good judgment and taste - all the things that go under the vague rubric "experience" - that someone like Louis Mills has.

What will young people trying to break into the audio biz do now? Go to the 20-year-old down the street operating out of his bedroom and ask him his opinion? Not likely.

I remember one time in particular going to Flite 3 and being greeted, as usual, by Louis' graciousness and cheer. He always had a nice spread of fresh fruit and other food in his unassuming reception area.

As we caught each other up on our lives, he mentioned that Jeremy Irons had just been in recently to loop. I practically swooned. The Jeremy Irons? Right here in this little brick building on Cold Spring Lane?

"He was very charming," Louis said. "Nice working with him."

That's Louis. Professional, warm, undaunted. Louis Mills is an artist. And Flite 3 was his canvas. Film, radio, TV - industries that can be so full of tackiness and hucksters - they can also be full of magic. But it takes people like Louis Mills to bring that magic out.

That's what Baltimore, and Maryland, will be losing.

Lisa Simeone is the host of NPR World of Opera and the weekly TV show on foreign affairs, Superpower. Her 20-year career in radio and TV includes reporting for cultural, news and public affairs programs, and being a host for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. She lives in Baltimore.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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