POV: Tell us about the process and tools you used in restoring the sound for the new “Special Edition” of Wattstax.
Left: Mixer Jim Austin and Editor Michael Kelly at work in the studio.
Michael Kelly: Restoring the sound on Wattstax was one of the most rewarding experiences in my career. We rebuilt the entire soundtrack from scratch, going all the way back to the original source material. To do this we had to wade through hundreds of hours of tape to recreate the soundtrack piece by piece, by hand.
Wattstax was made in 1972-73. That was just three to four years before “Surround Sound” came to the movies in the form of Dolby Stereo. In 1972, sound for movies was mono, just one speaker behind the screen. So when we restored the sound for “Wattstax” we wanted to make the movie sound as good as it could for viewing in today’s modern theaters. “Wattstax” is a historic document made 30 years ago, however, so we wanted to craft a soundtrack that still sounded appropriate for a film from 1973. We didn’t want to smother the historic character of the film in a soundtrack which sounded like it was mixed in 2003.
To achieve this we used the sound mix that was done in 1973 as our guide. We edited and mixed the film using modern equipment (Pro-Tools editing gear and a big multi-channel mixing board) but we followed the aesthetic decisions that were made in 1973 at every turn. The soundtrack from 1973 was our bible. Our job was to take the creative choices that were made back then and give them life in a high fidelity soundtrack, without imposing our own ideas or aesthetics over them.
Michael Kelly is an archivist at the Saul Zaentz Film Center and was the Sound Restoration Supervisor for “Wattstax — The Special Edition.” To learn more about the “Wattstax” restoration process, visit Wattstax.com.