‘The 33’: surrounding the audience in sound via Atmos

Warner Bros. and Formosa combine to bring people underground, sonically

By Jennifer Walden

Few films seem so perfectly suited for a playback system that incorporates overhead speakers as Warner Bros.’ The 33. Director Patricia Riggen’s subterranean story, based on the true account of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days, is a natural fit for the Dolby Atmos system.

While some mixers have said that putting sound in the ceiling can actually make the mix feel boxed in because the height of the environment is being defined, that actually worked perfectly for The 33. The miners are trapped under a couple thousand feet of solid rock, and with Atmos’ overhead speakers the audience can experience that feeling of isolation too.

Formosa Group‘s supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger and re-recording mixer Martyn Zub, along with WB Sound re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith, were ablin minee to define the miner’s space underground by applying convolution reverbs, via Audio Ease’s Altiverb, to the dialogue, effects and Foley.

The convolution reverbs were created using impulse responses that Stoeckinger, sound designer Alan Rankin and librarian/field recordist Charlie Campagna captured during their trip to California Caverns, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California’s historic Gold Country. The impulse responses — recordings that represent how a space reacts to sound — were recorded inside the cavern and mimicked the space of the mine on-screen. “The interesting thing about a mine is that it sounds like there is a lot of reverb on the words, or whatever the sound is that excites the reverb, but it doesn’t have much of a tail at all,” notes Stoeckinger. When applied to the dialog and sound effects, Zub says, “Those impulse responses gave us a truer sense of the space.”

Smith adds, “We were able make anyone or anything sound like they were in those spaces.”

In addition to impulse responses, Stoeckinger and his team “world-ized” numerous effects inside the cavern, like explosions, footsteps, drills, jackhammers and rock falls, by playing them back via a large PA speaker and then recording how it sounded in the space using Sound Devices 788T and 702 digital recorders, as well as a Zoom H4.

tMartyn Zub DSC_5560_headshot_theaterMark Stoeckinger headshot_theater
L-R: Mike Prestwood Smith, Martyn Zub and Mark Stoeckinger

“We had a MacBook Pro with a Pro Tools session loaded with the sounds we wanted to world-ize. We set up all the equipment, hit play and then we’d leave so we didn’t contaminate the recording,” explains Stoeckinger. “After one or two turns in the cave, you couldn’t hear a thing. Even though we were blasting sounds 100 feet away, it was really quiet. It was the weirdest thing. We would think it stopped playing, so we would sneak around the corner and all of a sudden be blasted with sound.”

Before the mine collapses, sounds of the working mine come drifting through the tunnels. Mixing in Atmos on Audio Head’s Stage B, Zub, who handled the sound effects/ backgrounds/Foley in the mix, was able to place machines and drills throughout the space, above and beside the audience. “You can hear it through the rock. That was a huge advantage to mixing in Dolby Atmos. There is activity all around you. Then, when the mine collapses, it just goes dead silent. In the Atmos version, the difference is obvious. It really plays beautifully, from being active and then really feeling the quiet, confined space that these guys are trapped in,” says Zub.

One of Smith’s favorite scenes to mix comes after the mine collapse, where the characters, with only their headlamps in the pitch black, discover the scale of the situation. “It’s nearly all ADR and we were able to position it in the space so convincingly that it actually feels as though you are there with them. In many ways the Atmos system is most effective when you have a quiet space to mix within,” says Smith.

He used convolution reverbs made with Stoeckinger’s custom recorded impulse responses, as well processing via FabFilter and Waves plug-ins. “The impulse responses, in combination with the full frequency surround speakers of the Atmos system, allowed us to really play with perspective and distance in a way that we had never been able to do before.”

Most of the sound after the collapse comes from the reverb return on the dialogue and effects, in addition to rumbly cracking sounds indicative of the mine’s continuing instability. “There were different cracks that preempt the collapse of the mine, and after the collapse, those sounds continue,” says Zub. “They give the sense that this mine isn’t stable. Everybody can hear it moving and so they’re on edge the whole time.”

looking up

The Drill
As the miners are stuck below, several attempts are made to locate and free them. One such effort comes particularly close. For the Atmos mix of this “near miss” scene, the sound of the drill begins overhead and travels down the left wall before disappearing below the floor. “It feels like their salvation. You really feel like you’re in the mine as that is happening,” says Stoeckinger.

Zub adds, “The drill sound is right there in your face. It goes from a sound that’s so loud to very quiet. Director Patricia Riggen gave us space and room to pull out all the music and just let the effects be prominent through those areas, which I think was truly effective.”

When all hope seems lost, and even the group’s leader Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) has given up hope, drops of water start to fall on his upturned face. Using the Atmos overheads, Zub slowly brought in the sound of the drill. “It’s slowly approaching. It starts off so quiet and then it gets really loud. You can really feel the sound of the drill all around you. It was a nice thing to be able to do with the sound mix, to have those dynamics,” he says. “I’ve been in a mine and it really is pitch black when the lights go out. It’s a scary environment and to imagine what those guys went through down in the mine, being down there for such a long period of time, is just astronomical really. In the soundtrack, we really tried to capture that feeling of loneliness.”


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