By David Weiss
It’s not easy to construct a creative sanctuary in Brooklyn. In fact, it can be downright torturous.
But Oliver Lief, founder of Blue Table Post in the borough’s bucolic Boerum Hill neighborhood, is living proof of any number of inspirational clichés: Where there’s a will there’s a way? If you can dream it you can do it? Hang in there? Take your pick — they all apply to the determination that was required to make this artisan video/audio post production complex a reality.
Within a five-story building that Lief, a three-time Emmy Award-winning editor, purchased in 1996, Blue Table Post is hard to spot at first. The facility is nestled among a row of 19th and early 20th century homes on a quiet block, a decidedly non-standard setting that’s just the first sign of something different awaiting inside. Get buzzed into the walled courtyard, and a terraced garden lays in wait. Suddenly, the creative sanctuary Lief envisioned seems possible.
Editing, color grading, graphics and VFX — for film, TV, advertising, documentary, VR and more — are all at hand at Blue Table Post. But Lief, whose credits include Showtime’s Seven Deadly Sins and CNN’s “Inside Man,” knew not to stop there.
Audio stands at equal footing with all things visual via a 3-D Dolby Atmos Mix Room, designed by WSDG (Walters-Storyk Design Group) and helmed by Emmy Award-nominated recording mixer/sound designer Rich Cutler. The 250-square foot space is outfitted with an Avid S6 M-40 console and 20 speakers, including two Focal Twin Be-6 Nearfield Monitors and six ceiling-mounted JBL 8350’s, a 5’ x 9’ screen, and comprehensive analog outboard for VO recording in the 50 sq. ft. iso booth. All Avid systems are linked through Ardis Technologies’ DDP SAN.
Asked for the impetus behind starting Blue Table Post, Lief — who lives with his family higher up in the building and frequently roughed it with showers at the local YMCA during construction — laughingly cites “insanity” before getting serious. “As an editor, sometimes I found myself getting more and more disconnected from a project,” he says. “Having the ability in one place to do everything meant a lot to me, and I thought it would appeal to other people. Cut, mix, color grade in the same place and for everyone to be able to communicate face-to-face, which gets lost sometimes these days.”
There’s a constant debate in the production and post world over which is better — the focused one-service shop or the all-under-one-roof facility. “Ultimately what matters is the end result,” points out Lief. “If you try to do it all and you don’t do it well, it’s a failure. Between the two choices of a place that does it all and not well, and between places that just do one thing really well, of course I’d rather have (the latter). So maybe it’s ambitious, but it helps being an editor because I know what I like. I have an opinion about what works, and that’s where I’m coming from.”
“The difference is not so much whether you’re a one-stop shop or a place that only focuses on one thing, but I think the real difference is being a boutique versus being a factory,” Cutler adds. “Whenever you go to any kind of a boutique for something, you’re probably going to get better quality than when you go to a factory because boutique is more interested. Anybody can go and buy the equipment, but at the end of the day, it’s the carpenter swinging the hammer that makes a difference.”
Serenity is really within reach at Blue Table Post, where the welcoming feng shui springs from the landscape just outside.
“I always had a fantasy of building around a garden,” says Lief. “Years ago I did some work at Spot Welders where I did a PSA, and my edit room was right off a garden there and I loved it. I worked long hours and it felt like nothing, and I also grew up gardening, so I always had this image like, ‘Oh I could have a building around a courtyard.’ I’m really happy to see people’s reaction when they come into the space and then into the yard and how comfortable they seem to feel right away.”
Picking which petunias to plant was the easy part for Blue Table – converting Lief’s classic building into a multi-dimensional post facility was something else entirely. Working in a collaboration with architects Craig Shillito, Bob Kellner and Chris Ithurburn, WSDG served as the architectural/acoustic consultant on the project.
Led by WSDG Founding Partner John Storyk and Partner/Project manager Romina Larregina, the acoustic design proved to be a challenge that called for heavy construction. To insure a fully soundproof environment for the 3-D Dolby Atmos Mix Room, the building’s original shallow cellar was excavated six feet to establish the comfortable 250 sq. ft. screening space. The result of the excavation was an extremely effective isolation environment, bolstered by room-within-room construction throughout the complex that allows Cutler to mix at high volumes without disturbing any of the edit rooms. Crossley Acoustics’ Systems installation specialists provided connectivity, complemented by wide visual sightlines between the VO Booth and the Mixing/Screening Room.
It was trial by fire for Blue Table Post: Their very first project upon opening in 2016 was Michelle Obama’s “We Will Rise” documentary for CNN, directed by Tony Gerber. The facility handled all of the editing, sound-mixing, color grading, graphics and VFX, with no less than narrator Meryl Streep in-house for nine days of intensive writing and VO.
“I work a lot with sound as an editor, it’s really important, but I’m not a mixer,” Lief notes. “Right from the beginning, I knew that audio was going to be a big part of it. WSDG did a great job, and they educated me along the way.”
Linked by Audio
Cutler is a veteran sound mixer/designer with 30+ years of feature film, TV series and commercial credits including “Mad Men,” “Iconoclasts,” and Like Sunday Like Rain. His path to Blue Table came not from a common project or a cocktail mixer, but via social media.
“Oliver and I met on LinkedIn,” he recalls. “I just sent him an invitation a few years ago and he accepted it, and then I responded to that. I sent him something like, ‘Hey, this is who I am, this is what I do, I’d love to get together and talk to you about your audio post needs,’ and he responded with, ‘Yeah, let’s get some coffee,’ and we went and sat in Bryant Park.
“Oliver pulls out his MacBook Air and he’s like, ‘Well, this may be more than you were thinking about, but I’m doing this thing and I thought you might be interested.’ He pulls out blueprints of his five-story brownstone being renovated in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. I’m looking at this and thinking, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’”
Lief saw Cutler’s mixing versatility and took a leap of faith, asking him to lead Blue Table’s audio department. “What I saw was his varied background,” says Lief. “He mixed a pilot for ‘Mad Men,’ he’d done features, he’d done dramatic stuff, he’d done a lot of documentaries.
“The variety was important because I wanted to have a place where we could do docs and features and commercials and have the dialogue between different people. It’s been a huge relief, because Rich has been an incredible pleasure to work with: He’s a great mixer, very flexible, very easy to collaborate with on my end and easy to work with the clients.”
The Effort of Excavation
Experiencing the room’s sonics together with the sights on the 45 square-foot screen make this Brooklyn audio post facility a truly pleasurable experience. But Cutler needed more than sweet sounds and a pretty picture to pull his advanced moves on deadline.
“The workflow is unbelievable, phenomenal,” he says. “Our shared storage is Dynamic Drive Pool (DDP), so everybody can access all the drives for the workspace. If Oliver does some quick edits and exports the picture, it’s immediately available to me on the drive. It’s not cumbersome getting things back and forth between us, which is really nice so it doesn’t stop the creative flow.
“The other side of it, too, was that the room sounds so good. It’s so true and so accurate between WSDG’s design, the equipment selection and the speaker selection, and then Dolby tuning the room. We can mix these docs on the large speakers behind the projection screen film style, and then I go into my bedroom and watch it on my flat panel Samsung TV, and the mix translated perfectly. At the end of the day, that’s the goal.”
“What Oliver was attempting to do – a place where he’s living and working – was very exciting to us,” says WSDG’s Larregina. “Isolation was a big topic, in terms of keeping these rooms fully decoupled, so they could mix uninhibited while editing and color grading is taking place elsewhere. That was very challenging, and we explored many different solutions, finally deciding that the basement had to be excavated to achieve the greatest possible height for the studio.”
All the better to meet the accelerating demands of Cutler’s clientele. “Schedules are certainly getting faster,” he observes. “Audio’s always the last stop. People are always pushing their lock deadlines and air dates don’t move.
“Some of the shows are starting to demand more sound design. People are getting more detail-oriented again, which is kind of interesting. I think a lot of that has to do with the advent of the $300-500 flat panel TV that actually has decent TV speakers in it: You watch stuff at home and you can hear the different ambience in it. You can hear the footsteps, these things that seem to get lost back in the day when you would check things on the Aurotones and all the detail was gone. I think that’s a thing of the past.”
The room is also ready for virtual reality (VR) mixing, with a few immersive projects already under the belt of this Brooklyn post production facility. “It’s sort of like the Wild West,” Lief says. “The technology, different platform, it’s interesting. Rich can mix for VR, and the mixes translate from Dolby Atmos so he can pan. Then we’ll render to Oculus, for example. That’s pretty exciting.”
Sound Design Smarts
Besides flying around faders in a mix, Cutler is equally adept at sound design. One of his weapons at Blue Table is a huge database of electronic Foley effects at the ready. Offered a choice between samples and a real Foley pit, Cutler gives the options some thought.
“Well, they both have their advantages,” he states. “There’s definitely the creative aspect of working with a Foley artist and doing all that stuff and the fun of setting things up, the tinkering — the little kid in all of us comes out. But when you’re under a tight deadline, it’s nice to just be able to go into your database of sound effects, cut things, be done with it and move on.”
Cutler isn’t on autopilot with the samples, however, when the objective is realistic sound design. “A lot of times I’ve found that you’ve got to just play with things,” he advises. “For instance, there was a scene I was working on where somebody took a pair of plastic eye glasses — the big black frames — and dropped them on the table.
“I started looking for plastic dropping noises and I couldn’t find anything, so then I looked up ‘drop hockey stick’, and I got the sound of a hockey stick dropping on a street, not in a rink so there’s no echo on it. I took that and put it really low and it was like I live Foleyed it.
“So to use a cliché: You’ve got to think outside the box a lot of the time. The things that you think will never work, you’d be shocked what actually fits.”
Building Up Brooklyn Post
The brand that is Brooklyn has come to encompass fashion, food, art and attitude. But despite the fact that global eyes are now focused on the borough, there have been only a few serious post production resources – audio, visual or both – established there.
Blue Table Post significantly expands on the post possibilities now available in Brooklyn – not overdue, but with perfect timing as Lief sees it. “When I first started thinking about this years ago, I would ask potential clients about Brooklyn and people weren’t ready,” he says. “No one wanted to come here.
“That it took so long actually helped in a couple regards. One is that the technology got better throughout the process, so the equipment list kept changing and improving. The timing’s also great because there’s so many production companies now between Gowanus and DUMBO. They had no place to go [for post services] in Brooklyn; going to Manhattan is inconvenient for them.”
The growing list of directors living in Brooklyn is also on the rise. “When post supervisors found out I was building a place in Brooklyn they got really excited,” Lief says. “One said to me, ‘Every single day, I have a commercial or a feature director asking me to work in Brooklyn. They just wanted to work near their home, and I have nowhere to send them.’ So that’s been huge.
“It’s convenience, and then having restaurants — people just love having good places to eat. Between production companies being here and us being convenient to them, having a nice neighborhood and a nice environment, they’re sold on that.”
Now the real fun begins as Blue Table Post defines itself not just as a Brooklyn facility, but as the creative boutique they’ve envisioned. A full slate of projects have wrapped recently or are in the calendar, including the narrative feature Lizzie, starring Cloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, docs Straight/Curve and Tough Guys, and CNN’s “This is Life with Lisa Ling.”
For Cutler, Blue Table’s handling of “We Will Rise” nicely embodies their ambitions. “Oliver did the edit, we did the color and the audio mix — we did everything,” he says. “That already was nominated for an ACE Eddie Award, been nominated for a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Edit, and for a Cinema Audio Society Award for Best Sound Mix. So that’s the kind of brand we’re trying to build: higher level boutique quality at an all-in-one place.”
The function is guided by Blue Table Post’s design, dreamed up to enable creative breakthroughs. “It was about pulling all these elements together in a place that feels special, and then the talent being together —that’s the core of the concept,” Lief says. “It’s a place where people can come, feel very comfortable and calm, and have a dialogue with each other.”