Capturing, creating sounds for ‘Last Days in the Desert’

These audio post pros got involved early on in the process and it paid off.

By Jennifer Walden

Man, woman, Son of God… the desert doesn’t care who you are. It has a way of leveling the playing field to find out what you’re really made of. Spend 40 days wandering around out there alone and you’re bound to have a hallucination or two. And that’s where writer/director Rodrigo García picks up the story, fabricating a chapter of Jesus’ expedition into the desert. But Last Days in the Desert isn’t a biblical flick — it’s a character study of man vs. nature and man vs. man. And even though the audience already knows how the story will end, this leaves them free to enjoy the journey. Last Days in the Desert recently had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Director García met Snapsound’s re-recording mixers/sound designers Zach Seivers and J.M.
Davey through Last Days in the Desert producers Julie Lynn and Bonnie Curtis. They had worked with the duo on two previous films: 5 to 7 (2014) and The Face of Love (2013). “We built a really nice relationship with Julie and Bonnie, both creatively and as friends. For years they’ve wanted to introduce us to Rodrigo,” says Seivers.

Snapsound, which has a Primetime Emmy to its credit, is a bi-coastal post sound company with locations in New York and Los Angeles. Seivers and Davey are the core of the company.

Davey, Seivers - Last Days in The Desert

L-R:  Zach Seivers and J.M. Davey on-location in the desert.

L-R: Davey and Seivers on-location in the desertPrior to pre-production on Last Days in the Desert, Seivers and Davey had an opportunity to sit down with Garcia and discuss ideas for the soundtrack. “Rodrigo came to that meeting with a clear vision of what he wanted, but he was really open minded to any ideas that we had. He was excited to see what we could come up with,” explains Seivers.

During that meeting, Seivers and Davey proposed having the post sound team be involved as early as possible. They suggested capturing custom recordings for the desert ambience, which would play a prominent role in the soundtrack. “At that time, Rodrigo was thinking there would be very little music in the film, less than what is in the final mix now. We talked with him about our vision for how to make the desert interesting, evocative, and emotional for the audience for over 90 minutes,” explains Davey, who co-sound designed the film and handled the sound design, effects, and backgrounds in the mix.

When working on 5 to 7, Seivers and Davey captured recordings of the shooting locations in New York City, and those backgrounds matched the character of the production tracks perfectly. They decided to take the same approach for Last Days in the Desert. The team — armed with two Sound Devices 744T portable four-track recorders, two Schoeps M/S stereo mic rigs, two Sanken CSS-5 stereo shotgun mics, a contact mic and various other inexpensive mics (used for more “dangerous” recording situations) — set out for the desert state park in Borrego Springs, California, where Last Days in the Desert was being shot. They recorded for five days, with two of those days overlapping the filming schedule. “The timing was actually perfect,” says Seivers. “They were slowing down a little bit toward the end of their shoot, so everybody had a little time for us post sound guys. It’s not very common to have post sound guys intersecting with the production unit.”

On Location
By overlapping with the production team, Seivers and Davey had access to props and costumes, allowing them to capture sounds of scarves blowing in the wind, pots, campfires, rocks and sand. In addition, they were given free reign over most of the park with permission to record almost any location they wanted. Seivers notes that their presence didn’t bother the park rangers at all. “There were people in dune buggies just whipping around the park, so a couple guys with microphones seemed pretty unobtrusive,” laughs Davey. “It was nice to not be viewed as the most disruptive people there.”

Seivers and Davey recorded a wide range of wind sounds, from wind blowing through different dry bushes and across rock surfaces, to wind funneling through several homemade contraptions the team brought with them. They recorded wind blowing over instruments like a mountain dulcimer and a didgeridoo. “We put the contact mic on the dulcimer. The wind would blow over it as I held sustained chords and notes, creating tonal wind. Other times we would mute the strings and let the wind blow through the holes on the dulcimer,” explains Davey.

Getting the Right Sounds
Davey was tasked with editing and cataloging all the desert recordings to create a custom library. “If I had some nice quiet wind from one space and nice quiet wind from another I would combine them to become their own file. I would say just about the entire film is comprised of original recordings.”

While designing the backgrounds, the team discovered that one track would sound great for one scene and three minutes later in the track they’d find a completely different sounding section that would work in another part of the film. “We had a plethora of neat sounds that were unique to this project that the filmmakers were able to dig into and have access to,” explains Seivers, who handled the dialogue, ADR and music in the mix.

He was impressed with the job that production sound mixer Peter Devlin did. “When we heard the production track for the first time it was jaw dropping, stunningly perfectly recorded. Peter captured really rich voices with no distortion or over modulation,” reports Seivers. “He would wirelessly mic actors, he would boom them, and whatever way he would approach, it he would get a really nice natural voice. The meat and potatoes of the track were pretty much always astoundingly great.”

One minor challenge for the dialogue was plane noise, since Borrago Springs is a popular destination for recreational flying. To keep the track sounding as natural as possible, Seivers used minimal processing, choosing Avid’s EQ III and the Waves Q10 for EQ, along with creative editing in order to minimize the plane noise. Seivers tries to do very little processing early on in the mix. “I usually wait until it’s married with Justin’s design work, the music and all the other components because sometimes you can naturally mask undesirable qualities with basic volume mapping.”

Roughly the first 10 minutes of the film show Ewan McGregor, who plays Jesus, wandering around the desert tired and dehydrated; those scenes were shot with a Steadicam. Unfortunately there was crew noise on the production track, so Seivers recorded ADR with McGregor performing effort sounds and breathing. “There is really no dialogue in those scenes. Ewan’s character is just walking around the desert and breathing.”

Editing and Mixing
Seivers and Davey edited and pre-mixed in 7.1 using Pro Tools 11 at Snapsound in Los Angeles. They took their drives to the Rick Chace Theater by Deluxe in Burbank, for the final 5.1 mix on dual Avid ICONs.

Since the film was premiering at Sundance, it was in consideration for the Dolby Family Sound Fellowship, which provides winners with an opportunity to mix their film in Dolby Atmos. The fellowship provides a Dolby Atmos dub stage and mentorship from industry experts with experience in Atmos mixing.

“One of the biggest champions of the film being selected was Skip Lievsay, who won an Oscar for mixing Gravity last year,” explains Seivers. “Skip became our mentor for the Atmos mix of Last Days in the Desert.”

They began work on the Atmos mix at the Dolby facility in Burbank on a Euphonix System 5 console, and then completed the mix on an ICON (summing through a Neve DFC) in the Howard Hawks stage at Fox Studios in Los Angeles. Though apprehensive at first about mixing in the new format, Davey says, “as a testament to the system and to our Dolby Atmos consultant Bryan Pennington, within 15 minutes I felt just as comfortable with the Atmos panner that I do with Spanner [by The Cargo Cult, previously known as Maggot Software] or the Pro Tools panner.” It also helped that mentor Lievsay was always on hand to give advice and guidance. “Right away Skip set this amazing tone where he let us do our thing and then he’d chime in with his feedback,” explains Seivers. “Having someone like Skip sitting behind you gives you the confidence to try things you might not otherwise be willing to try.”

Since the sound design was done in 7.1, and because they kept their work virtual throughout the post process, Seivers and Davey had a smooth transition into the Atmos format. As with other films upmixed from 7.1 to Atmos, they were able to select what tracks and sounds to spread around the theater and into the ceiling. “I really fell in love with taking an element, or a few elements, from my backgrounds and winds and giving them 10% or 15% height,” explains Davey. “It elevates them, pulls them up just a little bit and creates this nice bubble around the audience.”

While mixing in Atmos, Seivers and Davey were always conscious of maintaining the intent of the original 5.1 mix, which director García was very happy with. The Atmos mix immerses the audience more into the scene with the characters. “The audience can really feel the emotion of the story a lot more intensely in the Atmos mix,” reports Seivers.

During their work on the film, Seivers and Davey had the pleasure of collaborating with other experts in the industry. In addition to mentor Lievsay, re-recording mixer Andy Nelson was another mixing advisor who stopped by for two test screenings at Fox. “Andy was generous with his time and knowledge,” says Davey. Sound designer/editor/effects recordist Charles Maynes recommended the Sanken CSS-5 for recording wind in the desert. Also, Maynes and sound designer/re-recording mixer/director Gary Rydstrom offered suggestions on different ways to design wind. “Gary suggested I do some creative instrument recording, play with singing sands and do some specific sand recordings on the Foley stage with John Sanacore, who did all the Foley for the film,” states Davey. “Those gentlemen were very influential to our process.”

This year, the Sundance Film Festival had a permanent Atmos installation in the Eccles Theatre so audiences were immersed in Last Days in the Desert.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *