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Following the North Star

Since 1986, audio engineer Carl Rudisill—owner of Wilmington, NC’s North Star Post and Sound—has been an on-demand sound mixer in coastal Carolina’s film production industry.

Since 1986, audio engineer Carl Rudisill—owner of Wilmington, NC’s North Star Post and Sound—has been an on-demand sound mixer in coastal Carolina’s film production industry. His discovery of the burgeoning market followed grassroots success in music recording on the opposite end of the state in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he began his career recording some of the most famous names in Appalachian folk music and traditional Bluegrass.

“When I was still playing in bands, I had a PA system and just started recording,” explains Rudisill. “After college, I bought an old house in Todd, NC and built a little recording studio in it. I happened to get Doc and Merle Watson in there to record. Doc was generally known as America’s last living legend flat-top picker, and his son, Merle, and I were producing records together; I did their last two albums as father and son. After Merle was killed in a tractor accident, I switched to the film industry; I had visited Wilmington’s movie sets, thinking, ‘That guy’s making more money with less equipment than I’ll need in a recording studio.’ I walked up on set, got my first job, and it didn’t end for months. I made the move to Wilmington soon after, in 1986.”

While Rudisill would greatly miss some aspects of his music recording business, looming pressures to further invest in it financially ultimately became a deterrent. “Todd is way back in the mountains,” he explains. “People would come to stay and record with us—folks like Sam Bush and Mark O’Connor, these great musicians. But yet, I was just an 1/2-inch eight-track studio. My other choice was to switch to 2-inch/24-track and a bigger board. After Merle’s death, I just couldn’t see making the investment.”

Rudisill’s springboard to location sound recording was quite a departure, and in retrospect, a wise one. “It was new, but something that continued to require the use of my ears,” he laughs. “In the studio, I had gained a great background in how microphones worked, knowing polar patterns and techniques for recording in a controlled environment. I soon saw that a lot of production mixers started in the film business by just using certain tools—different shotgun, hyper-cardioid and wireless mics, mainly—and they really didn’t know what I had learned about studio microphone techniques. That all came in handy, just in a different way; in the studio, it’s relatively controlled, no matter the source. On location, it’s on the back of a truck going 50 MPH in the rain while recording dialog. I have sound cards, a trailer and the transportation department takes that off on a 12- to 14-hour a day venture, day after day, until the project’s over. It’s always an adventure.”

Rudisill’s adventures include work on variety of features, commercials, documentaries and music videos, and he acquired an early reputation as being a “no looping” sound mixer among those in Hollywood’s elite post houses. Most notably, he’s earned an Emmy nomination for The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and two Golden Reel nominations for CBS’s Shake Rattle and Roll: An American Love Story and The Birds II: Land’s End.

Rudisill would ultimately hang his hat on more and more TV production work, “but it took a while before lots of series would come into Wilmington,” he reflects. “When Frank Capra Jr. [president of Screen Gems Studios in 1997] invited me in to build an ADR room on his lot, he showed me space that was big enough, but split into four offices. So we took the ceiling out, expanded it and made a two-story ADR facility serving as a recording studio with Foley pits and everything needed for post-production.”

Armed with a flexible recording facility and motivated business climate, work soon came plentiful and in many forms for Rudisill and company. “Dino De Laurenis built the studio [Screen Gems] in the late ’70s, and it changed hands several times,” tells Rudisill. “And through it all, the town gathered good crew, and a big draw for Wilmington now is the crew base itself. Even though we’re unionized, the rates remain less than in LA or other locations. A lot of our business depends on incentives, too, which the state helps us with. We’re grandfathered in (with state-paid incentives to studios) through the end of 2014; as soon as we went to 25 percent, business really increased.”

Wilmington’s small town feel helps a lot with business, too. “Most of the movies that come here don’t even shoot much on the lot; they build interior sets on the lot, but most of the time, we’re on location— the beach, the small towns, and what have you. And it’s really easy in Wilmington for production to move around town. A group of up to 40 trucks really has to move at one time because we’re taking our own food, power and bathrooms wherever we go.”

Early on, Rudisill knew that careful investment in DAWs and network infrastructure would allow him to better hang with his big city competition. “In the field, I was analog, using Nagras,” explains Rudisill. “For the studio, Pro Tools was just coming along and we chose it for ADR. We also installed ISDN lines to reach out to any production in LA, doing remote ADR via ISDN. We used to be exclusively with EDNet, doing the patches for various codecs; we’d include the producers and an actor in LA, a director in Texas, an actor here, and everyone looked at the same screen while we controlled the sessions. That’s one service we still provide quite often. We’ve gotten so good with ADR that we handle [CBS’s] Under The Dome and [FOX’s] Sleepy Hollow completely unsupervised except through ISDN. There’s no other production person that comes in. Our great ADR engineer, Alex Borkowski, handles it all.”

Coming full circle, music recording has become a growth point for business, as North Star’s Studio manager/ engineer Brandon Hackler keeps those home fires burning while Rudisill is on location. “We’ll get artists in like Sheryl Crow and Randy Travis as we do their music pre-records [for feature films also starring these musicians],” offers Rudisill. “Since Brandon is so well-versed in the music world, he’s bringing in a lot of artists that are not involved in the film industry, and I’m glad to have it.

“We have made it a focus to attract more music talent from our region to work with over the last couple of years,” confirms Hackler. “We spend a lot of effort trying to find ways to utilize our facility and our unique position in the area to cultivate and cater to the amazingly talented people we have in our region. Along with that, we strive to involve ourselves with the local school systems to supplement underfunded arts programs. Just last week, we had a seven-piece steel drum group from Wilmington’s Murrayville Elementary in the studio to record songs for a fundraising release. While the summer is extremely busy servicing TV shows and films in town with ADR, the fall and winter is our most opportune time to record music.”

North Star Post and Sound

Screen Gems Studios North Carolina