Airshow recently had the pleasure of working on a new documentary called Community Cornerstones: African American Communities in Montgomery County, Maryland. The nearly 60-minute film focuses on the rich and vibrant histories of five African American church communities in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. From the outset, the goal was to present not only the individual stories of each church, but also to tell the broader story of African American communities all around Montgomery County. Since music plays an integral role in the houses of worship being profiled in the film, the audio production needed to match the high quality of the video production.
Charlie Pilzer and Airshow were brought on board early in the film’s development to record, mix and master the audio featured in the film, including the live music of the gospel choirs, the oral history interviews, and the narration. The producer of Community Cornerstones was G2 Media, who collaborated with Charlie and Airshow on Life in A War Zone: Montgomery County During the Civil War series in 2010-2011. Documenting the music in Community Cornerstones was a priority. “Music is not only found within the physical churches themselves, but infused into the everyday lives and experiences of their members, and we needed to be able to tell that part of the history,” says Barbara Grunbaum, co-owner of G2 Media and the producer, writer, and project manager for the film. In planning the film, she deliberately set out to record enough music and interviews for the documentary itself plus bonus DVD features and online content.
Documenting the Music
Charlie, with assistance from engineers Flawn Williams and Michael Schweppe, went to the various Montgomery County locations featured in the film, recording approximately 30 songs by five different church choirs totaling nearly seven hours of music. “The gospel singing traditions found within these old church communities were majestic sounding, but the churches themselves – with their unique acoustical properties – sometimes presented challenges, especially when there were keyboardists, bassists, and drummers in the ensembles that had to be recorded,” recalls Charlie. “We had to figure out ways for the choirs to be balanced with the instrumentation, so that no one single element dominated the recording.”
Visual considerations inherent in the making of a documentary also drove some engineering decisions. For example, during the Royal Harmonizers’ performance in the film Airshow supplied handheld wireless microphones to members of the group so that the viewer could clearly see the mikes, but not feel like they – or unnecessary cables – were cluttering the scene.
Capturing History for Future Generations
Of course, the music is only able to tell one side of the story. In order to illustrate the collective history of the churches and their membership over the years, Barbara interviewed individuals from all five featured churches. Charlie and engineer Seth Donaldson were on hand to record most of the nearly seven hours of oral history. Barbara decided to record the interviews on location in the actual communities themselves, which, while visually striking, presented similar acoustical challenges. “Of course there were environmental sounds that we didn’t really want featured, such as traffic or noise from the hallway. It’s not an isolated studio situation, but you do the best you can,” Charlie says. “I knew that I would have to go back to Airshow and play around with noise reduction, spectral analyzers, and other tools to clean up the dialogue, but not make it sound unnatural.”
With this type of project, capturing the spoken words of the people who are the main subject is a priority; thus, clarity of the dialogue is key. “One of the main questions I wanted to encourage discussion about with this film is, how do communities preserve their histories in an ever-changing world?” says Barbara. The need to keep these memories intact for future generations had implications on how Charlie recorded the interviews.
“With the on-camera interviews, it was important to mike everyone for clarity, but keep the focus on the people and the interaction between them onscreen,” Charlie says. “Just like recording the choir groups, any audio of the interviews had to be considered visually.”
Narration Ties the Music and Visual Elements Into One Cohesive Story
Barbara diligently spent two intense weeks finalizing the full script, allowing the powerful singing of the choirs and the fascinating accounts of life growing up in these small but close-knit churches to guide the story.
Once the script was completed, it was time for the final narration to be recorded. DC/Baltimore-based actor KenYatta Rogers, who teaches in the theater department at Montgomery College, was Barbara’s first call. The two had worked together during the production of the Life in A War Zone series, and Barbara knew he would be a perfect fit as the narrative voice of Community Cornerstones. KenYatta came to the Airshow studio in Takoma Park where he worked with Charlie to record the narration.
Charlie worked closely with Barbara and video editor Francine Wyron to piece together the music and interviews into a cohesive film narrative. This involved using a wide variety of audio tools to mix, edit and assemble the components of music and dialogue. “Mixing from the point of view of what you’re looking at is different from typical audio-only engineering,” says Charlie. “Determining when within the film music needs to be louder and the primary focus, when it needs to be present but more of a background element, and when there should be no music at all – these decisions really affect the overall feel of the finished feature.” Using Airshow’s facilities, Charlie mixed tracks of spoken word, narration, and music to work regardless of playback system, so the final film would sound amazing with the system accompanying a big screen, laptop speakers, or one’s mobile device. “It can be tricky sometimes to have the music present but not obscure a conversation happening,” Charlie says. “You have to think about and design how the music actually works and how it’s positioned within the narrative.”
The end result is a compelling documentary, beautifully framed by captivating interviews and lively musical traditions, which traces the rich history of black communities dedicated to making a better life for their children in a segregated America. “Following desegregation, these communities are losing their relevance, and the historic churches are threatened as are the memories contained within,” says Barbara. “It’s my hope that this documentary offers viewers today both an understanding of this important history and an appreciation for the churches that remain.”
See – and hear – for yourself by visiting the Heritage Montgomery site for more information about the project and to purchase the DVD. A full and unedited set of the oral history interviews can be found here.