Category Archives: Sound Design

Emmy Awards: American Horror Story: Roanoke

A chat with supervising sound editor Gary Megregian

By Jennifer Walden

Moving across the country and buying a new house is an exciting and scary process, but when it starts raining teeth at that new residence the scary factor pretty much makes the exciting feelings void. That’s the situation that Matt and Shelby, a couple from Los Angeles, find themselves in for American Horror Story’s sixth season on FX Networks. After moving into an old mansion in Roanoke, North Carolina, they discover that the dwelling and the local neighbors aren’t so accepting of outsiders.

American Horror Story: Roanoke explores a true-crime-style format that uses re-enactments to play out the drama. The role of Matt is played by Andre Holland in “reality” and by Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the re-enactments. Shelby is played by Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson, respectively. It’s an interesting approach that added a new dynamic to an already creative series.

Emmy-winning Technicolor at Paramount supervising sound editor Gary Megregian is currently working on his seventh season of American Horror Story, coming to FX in early September. He took some time out to talk about Season 6, Episode 1, Chapter 1, for which he and his sound editorial team have been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Limited Series. They won the Emmy in 2013, and this year marks their sixth nomination.

American Horror Story: Roanoke is structured as a true-crime series with re-enactments. What opportunities did this format offer you sound-wise?
This season was a lot of fun in that we had both the realistic world and the creative world to play in. The first half of the series dealt more with re-enactments than the reality-based segments, especially in Chapter 1. Aside from some interview segments, it was all re-enactments. The re-enactments were where we had more creative freedom for design. It gave us a chance to create a voice for the house and the otherworldly elements.

Gary Megregian

Was series creator Ryan Murphy still your point person for sound direction? For Chapter 1, did he have specific ideas for sound?
Ryan Murphy is definitely the single voice in all of his shows but my point person for sound direction is his executive producer Alexis Martin Woodall, as well as each episode’s picture editor.

Having been working with them for close to eight years now, there’s a lot of trust. I usually have a talk with them early each season about what direction Ryan wants to go and then talk to the picture editor and assistant as they’re building the show.

The first night in the house in Roanoke, Matt and Shelby hear this pig-like scream coming from outside. That sound occurs often throughout the episode. How did that sound come to be? What went into it?
The pig sounds are definitely a theme that goes through Season 6, but they started all the way back in Season 1 with the introduction of Piggy Man. Originally, when Shelby and Matt first hear the pig we had tried designing something that fell more into an otherworldly sound, but Ryan definitely wanted it to be real. Other times, when we see Piggy Man we went back to the design we used in Season 1.

The doors in the house sound really cool, especially that back door. What were the sources for the door sounds? Did you do any processing on the recordings to make them spookier?
Thanks. Some of the doors came from our library at Technicolor and some were from a crowd-sourced project from New Zealand-based sound designer Tim Prebble. I had participated in a project where he asked everyone involved to record a complete set of opens, closes, knocks, squeaks, etc. for 10 doors. When all was said and done, I gained a library of over 100GB of amazing door recordings. That’s my go-to for interesting doors.

As far as processing goes, nothing out of the ordinary was used. It’s all about finding the right sound.

When Shelby and Lee (Adina Porter) are in the basement, they watch this home movie featuring Piggy Man. Can you tell me about the sound work there?
The home movie was a combination of the production dialogue, Foley, the couple instances of hearing pig squeals and Piggy Man design along with VHS and CRT noise. For dialogue, we didn’t clean up the production tracks too much and Foley was used to help ground it. Once we got to the mix stage, re-recording mixers Joe Earle and Doug Andham helped bring it all together in their treatment.

What was your favorite scene to design? Why? What went into the sound?
One of my favorite scenes is the hail/teeth storm when Shelby’s alone in the house. I love the way it starts slow and builds from the inside, hearing the teeth on the skylight and windows. Once we step outside it opens up to surround us. I think our effects editor/designer Tim Cleveland did a great job on this scene. We used a number of hail/rain recordings along with Foley to help with some of the detail work, especially once we step outside.

Were there any audio tools that were helpful when working on Chapter 1? Can you share specific examples of how you used them?
I’m going to sound like many others in this profession, but I’d say iZotope RX. Ryan is not a big fan of ADR, so we have to make the production work. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve had any actors in for ADR last season. That’s a testament to our production mixer Brendan Beebe and dialogue editor Steve Stuhr. While the production is well covered and recorded well, Steve still has his work cut out for him to present a track that’s clean. The iZotope RX suite helps with that.

Why did you choose Chapter 1 for Emmy consideration for its sound editorial?
One of the things I love about working on American Horror Story is that every season is like starting a new show. It’s fun to establish the sound and the tone of a show, and Chapter 1 is no exception. It’s a great representation of our crew’s talent and I’m really happy for them that they’re being recognized for it. It’s truly an honor.

Behind the Title: 3008 Editorial’s Matt Cimino and Greg Carlson

NAMES: Matt Cimino and Greg Carlson

COMPANY: 3008 Editorial in Dallas

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Cimino: We are sound designers/mixers.

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Cimino: Audio is a storytelling tool. Our job is to enhance the story directly or indirectly and create the illusion of depth, space and a sense of motion with creative sound design and then mix that live in the environment of the visuals.

Carlson: And whenever someone asks, I always tend to prioritize sound design before mixing. Although I love every aspect of what we do, when a spot hits my room as a blank slate, it’s really the sound design that can take it down a hundred different paths. And for me, it doesn’t get better than that.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
Carlson: I’m not sure a brief job title can encompass what anyone really does. I am a composer as well as a sound designer/mixer, so I bring that aspect into my work. I love musical elements that help stitch a unified sound into a project.

Cimino: That there really isn’t “a button” for that!

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Carlson: The freedom. Having the opportunity to take a project where I think it should go and along the way, pushing it to the edge and back. Experimenting and adapting makes every spot a completely new trip.

Matt Cimino

Cimino: I agree. It’s the challenge of creating an expressive and aesthetically pleasing experience by taking the soundtrack to a whole new level.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Cimino: Not Much. However, being an imperfect perfectionist, I get pretty bummed when I do not have enough time to perfect the job.

Carlson: People always say, “It’s so peaceful and quiet in the studio, as if the world is tuned out.” The downside of that is producer-induced near heart attacks. See, when you’re rocking out at max volume and facing away from the door, well, people tend to come in and accidentally scare you to death.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
Cimino: I’m a morning person!

Carlson: Time is an abstract notion in a dark room with no windows, so no time in particular. However, the funniest time of day is when you notice you’re listening about 15 dB louder than the start of the day. Loud is better.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Cimino: Carny. Or Evel Knievel.

Carlson: Construction/carpentry. Before audio, I had lots of gritty “hands-on” jobs. My dad taught me about work ethic, to get my hands dirty and to take pride in everything. I take that same approach with every spot I touch. Now I just sit in a nice chair while doing it.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION? HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
Cimino: I’ve had a love for music since high school. I used to read all the liner notes on my vinyl. One day I remember going through my father’s records and thinking at that moment, I want to be that “sound engineer” listed in the notes. This led me to study audio at Columbia College in Chicago. I quickly gravitated towards post production audio classes and training. When I wasn’t recording and mixing music, I was doing creative sound design.

Carlson: I was always good with numbers and went to Michigan State to be an accountant. But two years in, I was unhappy. All I wanted was to work on music and compose, so I switched to audio engineering and never looked back. I knew the second I walked into my first studio, I had found my calling. People always say there isn’t a dream job; I disagree.

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Cimino: A fun, stress-free environment full of artistry and technology.

Carlson: It is a place I look forward to every day. It’s like a family, solely focused on great creative.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT SPOTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
Cimino: Snapple, RAM, Jeep, Universal Orlando, Cricket Wireless, Maserati.

Carlson: AT&T, Lay’s, McDonald’s, Bridgestone Golf.

Greg Carlson

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
Carlson: It’s nearly impossible to pick one, but there is a project I see as pivotal in my time here in Dallas. It was shortly after I arrived six years ago. I think it was a boost to my confidence and in turn, enhanced my style. The client was The Home Depot and the campaign was Lets Do This. A creative I admire greatly here in town gave me the chance to spearhead the sonic approach for the work. There are many moments, milestones and memories, but this was a special project to me.

Cimino: There are so many. One of the most fun campaigns I worked on was for Snapple, where each spot opened with the “pop!” of the Snapple cap. I recorded several pops (close-miced) and selected one that I manipulated to sound larger than life but also retain the sound of the brands signature cap pop being opened. After the cap pops, the spot transforms into an exploding fruit infusion. The sound was created by smashing Snapple bottles for the glass break, crushing, smashing and squishing fruit with my hands, and using a hydrophone to record splashing and underwater sounds to create the slow-motion effect of the fruit morphing. So much fun.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
Cimino: During a mix, my go-tos are iZotope, Sound Toys and Slate Digital. Outside the studio I can’t live without my Apple!

Carlson: ProTools, all things iZotope, Native Instruments.

THIS IS A HIGH-STRESS JOB WITH DEADLINES AND CLIENT EXPECTATIONS. WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Cimino: Family and friends. I love watching my kiddos play select soccer. Relaxing pool or beachside with a craft cider. Or on a single path/trail with my mountain bike.

Carlson: I work on my home, build things, like to be outside. When I need to detach for a bit, I prefer dangerous power tools or being on a body of water.

Dell 6.15

Richard King talks sound design for Dunkirk

Using historical sounds as a reference

By Mel Lambert

Currently garnering critical acclaim for its stunning and immersive soundtrack — particularly the IMAX showcase screenings — writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest film follows the fate of nearly 400,000 allied soldiers who were marooned on the beaches of Dunkirk, and the extraordinary plans to rescue them using small ships from nearby English seaports. Although, sadly, more than 68,000 soldiers were captured or killed during the Battle of Dunkirk and the subsequent retreat, more than 300,000 were rescued over a nine-day period in May 1940.

Uniquely, Dunkirk’s primary story arcs — the Mole, or harbor from which the larger ships can take off troops; the Sea, focusing on the English flotilla of small boats; and the Air, spotlighting the activities of Spitfire pilots who protect the beaches and ships from German air-force attacks — follow different timelines, with the Mole sequences being spread over a week, the Sea over a day and the Air over an hour. A Warner Bros. release, Dunkirk stars Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh. (An uncredited Michael Caine is the voice heard during various radio communications.)

Richard King

Marking his sixth collaboration with Nolan, supervising sound editor Richard King worked previously on Interstellar (2014), The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige. He brings his unique sound perspective to these complex narratives, often with innovative sound design. Born in Tampa, King attended the University of South Florida, graduating with a BFA in painting and film, and entered the film industry in 1985. He is the recipient of three Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Sound Editing for Inception, The Dark Knight and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), plus two BAFTA Awards and four MPSE Golden Reel Awards for Best Sound Editing.

The Sound of History
“When we first met to discuss the film,” King recalls, “Chris [Nolan] told me that he wanted Dunkirk to be historically accurate but not slavishly so — he didn’t plan to make a documentary. For example, several [Junkers Ju 87] Stuka dive bombers appear in the film, but there are no high-quality recordings of these aircraft, which had sirens built into the wheel struts for intimidation purposes. There are no Stukas still flying, nor could I find any design drawings so we could build our own. Instead, we decided to re-imagine the sound with a variety of unrelated sound effects and ambiences, using the period recordings as inspiration. We went out into a nearby desert with some real air raid sirens, which we over-cranked to make them more and more piercing — and to add some analog distortion. To this more ‘pure’ version of the sound we added an interesting assortment of other disparate sounds. I find the result scary as hell and probably very close to what the real thing sounded like.”

For other period Axis and Allied aircraft, King was able to locate several British Supermarine Spitfire fighters and a Bristol Blenheim bomber, together with a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. “There are about 200 Spitfires in the world that still fly; three were used during filming of Dunkirk,” King continues. “We received those recordings, and in post recorded three additional Spitfires.”

King was able to place up to 24 microphones in various locations around the airframe near the engine — a supercharged V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled model of 27-liter capacity, and later 37-liter Gremlin motors — as well as close to the exhaust and within the cockpit, as the pilots performed a number of aerial movements. “We used both mono and stereo mics to provide a wide selection for sound design,” he says.

King was looking for the sound of an “air ballet” with the aircraft moving quickly across the sky. “There are moments when the plane sounds are minimized to place the audience more in the pilot’s head, and there are sequences where the plane engines are more prominent,” he says. “We also wanted to recreate the vibrations of this vintage aircraft, which became an important sound design element and was inspired by the shuddering images. I remember that Chris went up in a trainer aircraft to experience the sensation for himself. He reported that it was extremely loud with lots of vibration.

To match up with the edited visuals secured from 65/70mm IMAX and Super Panavision 65mm film cameras, King needed to produce a variety of aircraft sounds. “We had an ex-RAF pilot that had flown in modern dogfights to recreate some of those wartime flying gymnastics. The planes don’t actually produce dramatic changes in the sound when throttling and maneuvering, so I came up with a simple and effective way to accentuate this somewhat. I wanted the planes to respond to the pilots stick and throttle movements immediately.”

For armaments, King’s sound effects recordists John Fasal and Eric Potter oversaw the recording of a vintage Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft cannon seen aboard the allied destroyers and support ships. “We found one in Napa Valley,” north of San Francisco, says King. “The owner had to make up live rounds, which we fired into a nearby hill. We also recorded a number of WWII British Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles and German machine guns on a nearby range. We had to recreate the sound of the Spitfire’s guns, because the actual guns fitted to the Spitfires overheat when fired at sea level and cannot maintain the 1,000 rounds/minute rate we were looking for, except at altitude.”

King readily acknowledges the work at Warner Bros Sound Services of sound-effects editor Michael Mitchell, who worked on several scenes, including the ship sinkings, and sound effects editor Randy Torres, who worked with King on the plane sequences.

Group ADR was done primarily in the UK, “where we recorded at De lane Lea and onboard a decommissioned WWII warship owned by the Imperial War Museum,” King recalls. “The HMS Belfast, which is moored on the River Thames in central London, was perfect for the reverberant interiors we needed for the various ships that sink in the film. We also secured some realistic Foley of people walking up and down ladders and on the superstructure.” Hugo Weng served as dialog editor and David Bach as supervising ADR editor.

Sounds for Moonstone, the key small boat whose fortunes the film follows across the English Channel, were recorded out of Marina del Rey in Southern California, “including its motor and water slaps against the hull. “We also secured some nice Foley on deck, as well as opening and closing of doors,” King says.

Conventional Foley was recorded at Skywalker Sound in Northern California by Shelley Roden, Scott Curtis and John Roesch. “Good Foley was very important for Dunkirk,” explains King. “It all needed to sound absolutely realistic and not like a Hollywood war movie, with a collection of WWII clichés. We wanted it to sound as it would for the film’s characters. John and his team had access to some great surfaces and textures, and a wonderful selection of props.” Michael Dressel served as supervising Foley editor.

In terms of sound design, King offers that he used historical sounds as a reference, to conjure up the terror of the Battle for Dunkirk. “I wanted it to feel like a well-recorded version of the original event. The book ‘Voices of Dunkirk,’ written by Joshua Levine and based on a compilation of first-hand accounts of the evacuation, inspired me and helped me shape the explosions on the beach, with the muffled ‘boom’ as the shells and bombs bury themselves in the sand and then explode. The under-water explosions needed to sound more like a body slam than an audible noise. I added other sounds that amped it a couple more degrees.”

The soundtrack was re-recorded in 5.1-channel format at Warner Bros. Sound Services Stage 9 in Burbank during a six-week mix by mixers Gary Rizzo handling dialog, with sound effects and music overseen by Gregg Landaker — this was his last film before his retiring. “There was almost no looping on the film aside from maybe a couple of lines,” King recalls. “Hugo Weng mined the recordings for every gem, and Gary [Rizzo] was brilliant at cleaning up the voices and pushing them through the barrage of sound provided by sound effects and music somehow without making them sound pushed. Production recordist Mark Weingarten faced enormous challenges, contending with strong wind and salt spray, but he managed to record tracks Gary could work with.”

The sound designer reports that he provided some 20 to 30 tracks of dialog and ADR “with options for noisy environments,” plus 40 to 50 tracks of Foley, dependent on the action. This included shoes and hob-nailed army boots, and groups of 20, especially in the ship scenes. “The score by composer Hans Zimmer kept evolving as we moved through the mixing process,” says King. “Music editor Ryan Rubin and supervising music editor Alex Gibson were active participants in this evolution.”

“We did not want to repeat ourselves or repeat others work,” King concludes. “All sounds in this movie mean something. Every scene had to be designed with a hard-hitting sound. You need to constantly question yourself: ‘Is there a better sound we could use?’ Maybe something different that is appropriate to the sequence that recreates the event in a new and fresh light? I am super-proud of this film and the track.”

Nolan — who was born in London to an American mother and an English father and whose family subsequently split their time between London and Illinois — has this quote on his IMDB page: “This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate. And the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the US would not have returned to war. Militarily it is a defeat; on the human plane it is a colossal victory.”

Certainly, the loss of life and supplies was profound — wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill described Operation Dynamo as “the greatest military disaster in our long history.”


Mel Lambert has been involved with production industries on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember. He is principal of Content Creators, a LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. He is also a long-time member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.


The sounds of Spider-Man: Homecoming

By Jennifer Walden

Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts, casts Tom Holland as Spider-Man, a role he first played in 2016 for Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo).

Homecoming reprises a few key character roles, like Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Aunt May Parker (Marisa Tomei), and it picks up a thread of Civil War’s storyline. In Civil War, Peter Parker/Spider-Man helped Tony Stark’s Avengers in their fight against Captain America’s Avengers. Homecoming picks up after that battle, as Parker settles back into his high school life while still fighting crime on the side to hone his superhero skills. He seeks to prove himself to Stark but ends up becoming entangled with the supervillain Vulture (Michael Keaton).

Steven Ticknor

Spider-Man: Homecoming supervising sound editors/sound designers Steven Ticknor and Eric A. Norris — working at Culver City’s Sony Pictures Post Production Services — both brought Spidey experience to the film. Ticknor was a sound designer on director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Norris was supervising sound editor/sound designer on director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). With experiences from two different versions of Spider-Man, together Ticknor and Norris provided a well-rounded knowledge of the superhero’s sound history for Homecoming. They knew what’s worked in the past, and what to do to make this Spider-Man sound fresh. “This film took a ground-up approach but we also took into consideration the magnitude of the movie,” says Ticknor. “We had to keep in mind that Spider-Man is one of Marvel’s key characters and he has a huge fan base.”

Web Slinging
Being a sequel, Ticknor and Norris honored the sound of Spider-Man’s web slinging ability that was established in Captain America: Civil War, but they also enhanced it to create a subtle difference between Spider-Man’s two suits in Homecoming. There’s the teched-out Tony Stark-built suit that uses the Civil War web-slinging sound, and then there’s Spider-Man’s homemade suit. “I recorded a couple of 5,000-foot magnetic tape cores unraveling very fast, and to that I added whooshes and other elements that gave a sense of speed. Underneath, I had some of the web sounds from the Tony Stark suit. That way the sound for the homemade suit had the same feel as the Stark suit but with an old-school flair,” explains Ticknor.

One new feature of Spider-Man’s Stark suit is that it has expressive eye movements. His eyes can narrow or grow wide with surprise, and those movements are articulated with sound. Norris says, “We initially went with a thin servo-type sound, but the filmmakers were looking for something less electrical. We had the idea to use the lens of a DSLR camera to manually zoom it in and out, so there’s no motor sound. We recorded it up close-up in the quiet environment of an unused ADR stage. That’s the primary sound for his eye movement.”

Droney
Another new feature is the addition of Droney, a small reconnaissance drone that pops off of Spider-Man’s suit and flies around. The sound of Droney was one of director Watt’s initial focus-points. He wanted it sound fun and have a bit of personality. He wanted Droney “to be able to vocalize in a way, sort of like Wall-E,” explains Norris.

Ticknor had the idea of creating Droney’s sound using a turbo toy — a small toy that has a mouthpiece and a spinning fan. Blowing into the mouthpiece makes the fan spin, which generates a whirring sound. The faster the fan spins, the higher the pitch of the generated sound. By modulating the pitch, they created a voice-like quality for Droney. Norris and sound effects editor Andy Sisul performed and recorded an array of turbo toy sounds to use during editorial. Ticknor also added in the sound of a reel-to-reel machine rewinding, which he sped up and manipulated “so that it sounded like Droney was fluttering as it was flying,” Ticknor says.

The Vulture
Supervillain the Vulture offers a unique opportunity for sound design. His alien-tech enhanced suit incorporates two large fans that give him the ability to fly. Norris, who was involved in the initial sound design of Vulture’s suit, created whooshes using Whoosh by Melted Sounds — a whoosh generator that runs in Native Instruments Reaktor. “You put individual samples in there and it creates a whoosh by doing a Doppler shift and granular synthesis as a way of elongating short sounds. I fed different metal ratcheting sounds into it because Vulture’s suit almost has these metallic feathers. We wanted to articulate the sound of all of these different metallic pieces moving together. I also fed sword shings into it and came up with these whooshes that helped define the movement as the Vulture was flying around,” he says. Sound designer/re-recording mixer Tony Lamberti was also instrumental in creating Vulture’s sound.

Alien technology is prevalent in the film. For instance, it’s a key ingredient to Vulture’s suit. The film’s sound needed to reflect the alien influence but also had to feel realistic to a degree. “We started with synthesized sounds, but we then had to find something that grounded it in reality,” reports Ticknor. “That’s always the balance of creating sound design. You can make it sound really cool, but it doesn’t always connect to the screen. Adding organic elements — like wind gusts and debris — make it suddenly feel real. We used a lot of synthesized sounds to create Vulture, but we also used a lot of real sounds.”

The Washington Monument
One of the big scenes that Ticknor handled was the Washington Monument elevator sequence. Spider-Man stands on the top of the Washington Monument and prepares to jump over a helicopter that looms ever closer. He clears the helicopter’s blades and shoots a web onto the helicopter’s skid, using that to sling himself through a window just in time to shoot another web that grabs onto the compromised elevator car that contains his friends. “When Spider-Man jumps over the helicopter, I couldn’t wait to make that work perfectly,” says Ticknor. “When he is flying over the helicopter blades it sounds different. It sounds more threatening. Sound creates an emotion but people don’t realize how sound is creating the emotion because it is happening so quickly sometimes.”

To achieve a more threatening blade sound, Ticknor added in scissor slicing sounds, which he treated using a variety of tools like zPlane Elastique Pitch 2 and plug-ins from FabFilter plug-ins and Soundtoys, all within the Avid Pro Tools 12 environment. “This made the slicing sound like it was about to cut his head off. I took the helicopter blades and slowed them down and added low-end sweeteners to give a sense of heaviness. I put all of that through the plug-ins and basically experimented. The hardest part of sound design is experimenting and finding things that work. There’s also music playing in that scene as well. You have to make the music play with the sound design.”

When designing sounds, Ticknor likes to generate a ton of potential material. “I make a library of sound effects — it’s like a mad science experiment. You do something and then wonder, ‘How did I just do that? What did I just do?’ When you are in a rhythm, you do it all because you know there is no going back. If you just do what you need, it’s never enough. You always need more than you think. The picture is going to change and the VFX are going to change and timings are going to change. Everything is going to change, and you need to be prepared for that.”

Syncing to Picture
To help keep the complex soundtrack in sync with the evolving picture, Norris used Conformalizer by Cargo Cult. Using the EDL of picture changes, Conformalizer makes the necessary adjustments in Pro Tools to resync the sound to the new picture.

Norris explains some key benefits of Conformalizer. “First, when you’re working in Pro Tools you can only see one picture at a time, so you have to go back and forth between the two different pictures to compare. With Conformalizer, you can see the two different pictures simultaneously. It also does a mathematical computation on the two pictures in a separate window, a difference window, which shows the differences in white. It highlights all the subtle visual effects changes that you may not have noticed.

Eric Norris

For example, in the beginning of the film, Peter leaves school and heads out to do some crime fighting. In an alleyway, he changes from his school clothes into his Spider-Man suit. As he’s changing, he knocks into a trash can and a couple of rats fall out and scurry away. Those rats were CG and they didn’t appear until the end of the process. So the rats in the difference window were bright white while everything else was a dark color.”

Another benefit is that the Conformalizer change list can be used on multiple Pro Tools sessions. Most feature films have the sound effects, including Foley and backgrounds, in one session. For Spider-Man: Homecoming, it was split into multiple sessions, with Foley and backgrounds in one session and the sound effects in another.

“Once you get that change list you can run it on all the Pro Tools sessions,” explains Norris. “It saves time and it helps with accuracy. There are so many sounds and details that match the visuals and we need to make sure that we are conforming accurately. When things get hectic, especially near the end of the schedule, and we’re finalizing the track and still getting new visual effects, it becomes a very detail-oriented process and any tools that can help with that are greatly appreciated.”

Creating the soundtrack for Spider-Man: Homecoming required collaboration on a massive scale. “When you’re doing a film like this, it just has to run well. Unless you’re really organized, you’ll never be able to keep up. That’s the beautiful thing, when you’re organized you can be creative. Everything was so well organized that we got an opportunity to be super creative and for that, we were really lucky. As a crew, we were so lucky to work on this film,” concludes Ticknor.


Jennifer Walden in a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.com


Behind the Title: Nylon Studios creative director Simon Lister

NAME: Simon Lister

COMPANY: Nylon Studios

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Nylon Studios is a New York- and Sydney-based music and sound house offering original composition and sound design for films and commercials. I am based in the Australia location.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Creative Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
I help manage and steer the company, while also serving as a sound designer, client liaison, soundtrack creative and thinker.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
People are constantly surprised with the amount of work that goes into making a soundtrack.

WHAT TOOLS DO YOU USE?
I use Avid Pro Tools, and some really cool plugins

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
My favorite part of the job is being able to bring a film to life through sound.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
At times, clients can be so stressed and make things difficult. However, sometimes we just need to sit back and look at how lucky we are to be in such a fun industry. So in that case, we try our best to make the client’s experience with us as relaxing and seamless as possible.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
Lunchtime.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Anything that involves me having a camera in my hand and taking pictures.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I was pretty young. I got a great break when I was 19 years old in one of the best music studios in New Zealand and haven’t stopped since. Now, I’ve been doing this for 31 years (cough).

Honda Civic spot

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
In the last couple of months I think I’ve counted several different car brand spots we’ve worked on, including Honda, Hyundai, Subaru, Audi and Toyota. All great spots to sink our teeth and ears into.

Also we have been working on the great wildlife series Tales by Light, which is being played on National Geographic and Netflix.

For Every Child

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
It would be having the opportunity to film and direct my own commercial, For Every Child, for Unicef global rebranding TVC. We had the amazing voiceover of Liam Neeson and the incredible singing voice of Lisa Gerard (Gladiator, Heat, Black Hawk Down).

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
My camera, my computer and my motorbike.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I ride motorbikes throughout Morocco, Baja, Himalayas, Mongolia, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand and in the traffic of India.


Audio post vet Rex Recker joins Digital Arts in NYC

Rex Recker has joined the team at New York City’s Digital Arts as a full-time audio post mixer and sound designer. Recker, who co-founded NYC’s AudioEngine after working as VP and audio post mixer at Photomag recording studios, is an award-winning mixer with a long list of credits. Over the span of his career he has worked on countless commercials with clients including McCann Erickson JWT, Ogilvy & Mather, BBDO, DDB, HBO and Warner Books.

Over the years, Recker has developed a following of clients who seek him out for his audio post mixer talents — they seek his expertise in surround sound audio mixing for commercials airing via broadcast, Web and cinemas. In addition to spots, Recker also mixes long-form projects, including broadcast specials and documentaries.

Since joining the Digital Arts team, Recker has already worked on several commercial campaigns, promos and trailers for such clients as Samsung, SlingTV, Ford, Culturelle, Orvitz, NYC Department of Health, and HBO Documentary Films.

Digital Arts, owned by Axel Ericson, is an end-to-end production, finishing and audio facility.


Sound — Wonder Woman’s superpower

By Jennifer Walden

When director Patty Jenkins first met with supervising sound editor James Mather to discuss Warner Bros. Wonder Woman, they had a conversation about the physical effects of low-frequency sound energy on the human body, and how it could be used to manipulate an audience.

“The military spent a long time investigating sound cannons that could fire frequencies at groups of people and debilitate them,” explains Mather. “They found that the lower frequencies were far more effective than the very high frequencies. With the high frequencies, you can simply plug your ears and block the sound. The low-end frequencies, however, impact the fluid content of the human body. Frequencies around 5Hz-9Hz can’t be heard, but can have physiological, almost emotional effects on the human body. Patty was fascinated by all of that. So, we had a very good sound-nerd talk at our first meeting — before we even talked about the story of the film.”

Jenkins was fascinated by the idea of sound playing a physical role as well as a narrative one, and that direction informed all of Mather’s sound editorial choices for Wonder Woman. “I was amazed by Patty’s intent, from the very beginning, to veer away from very high-end sounds. She did not want to have those featured heavily in the film. She didn’t want too much top-end sonically,” says Mather, who handled sound editorial at his Soundbyte Studios in West London.

James Mather (far right) and crew take to the streets.

Soundbyte Studios offers creative supervision, sound design, Foley and dialog editing. The facility is equipped with Pro Tools 12 systems and Avid S6 and S3 consoles. Their client list includes top studios like Warner Bros., Disney, Fox, Paramount, DreamWorks, Aardman and Pathe. Mather’s team includes dialog supervisor Simon Chase, and sound effects editors Jed Loughran and Samir Fočo. When Mather begins a project, he likes to introduce his team to the director as soon as possible “so that they are recognized as contributors to the soundtrack,” he says. “It gives the team a better understanding of who they are working with and the kind of collaboration that is expected. I always find that if you can get everyone to work as a collaborative team and everyone has an emotional investment or personal investment in the project, then you get better work.”

Following Jenkins’s direction, Mather and his team designed a tranquil sound for the Amazonian paradise of Themyscira. They started with ambience tracks that the film’s sound recordist Chris Munro captured while they were on-location in Italy. Then Mather added Mediterranean ambiences that he and his team had personally collected over the years. Mather embellished the ambience with songbirds from Asia, Australasia and the Amazon. Since there are white peacocks roaming the island, he added in modified peacock sounds. Howler monkeys and domestic livestock, like sheep and goats, round out the track. Regarding the sheep and goats, Mather says, “We pitched them and manipulated them slightly so that they didn’t sound quite so ordinary, like a natural history film. It was very much a case of keeping the soundtrack relatively sparse. We did not use crickets or cicadas — although there were lots there while they were filming, because we wanted to stay away the high-frequency sounds.”

Waterfalls are another prominent feature of Themyscira, according to Mather, but thankfully they weren’t really on the island so the sound recordings were relatively clean. The post sound team had complete control over the volume, distance and frequency range of the waterfall sounds. “We very much wanted the low-end roar and rumble of the waterfalls rather than high-end hiss and white noise.”

The sound of paradise is serene in contrast to London and the front lines of World War I. Mather wanted to exaggerate that difference by overplaying the sound of boats, cars and crowds as Steve [Chris Pine] and Diana [Gal Gadot] arrived in London. “This was London at its busiest and most industria

l time. There were structures being built on a major scale so the environment was incredibly active. There were buses still being drawn by horses, but there were also cars. So, you have this whole mishmash of old and new. We wanted to see Diana’s reaction to being somewhere that she has never experienced before, with sounds that she has never heard and things she has never seen. The world is a complete barrage of sensory information.”

They recorded every vehicle they could in the film, from planes and boats to the motorcycle that Steve uses to chase after Diana later on in the film. “This motorcycle was like nothing we had ever seen before,” explains Mather. “We knew that we would have to go and record it because we didn’t have anything in our sound libraries for it.”

The studio spent days preparing the century-old motorcycle for the recording session. “We got about four minutes of recording with it before it fell apart,” admits Mather. “The chain fell off, the sprockets broke and then it went up in smoke. It was an antique and probably shouldn’t have been used! The funny thing is that it sounded like a lawnmower. We could have just recorded a lawnmower and it would’ve sounded the same!”

(Mather notes that the motorcycle Steve rides on-screen was a modern version of the century-old one they got to record.)

Goosing Sounds
Mather and his sound team have had numerous opportunities to record authentic weapons, cars, tanks, planes and other specific war-era machines and gear for projects they’ve worked on. While they always start with those recordings as their sound design base, Mather says the audience’s expectation of a sound is typically different from the real thing. “The real sound is very often disappointing. We start with the real gun or real car that we recorded, but then we start to work on them, changing the texture to give them a little bit more punch or bite. We might find that we need to add some gun mechanisms to make a gun sound a bit snappier or a bit brighter and not so dull. It’s the same with the cars. You want the car to have character, but you also want it to be slightly faster or more detailed than it actually sounds. By the nature of filmmaking, you will always end up slightly embellishing the real sound.”

Take the gun battles in Wonder Woman, for instance. They have an obvious sequentiality. The gun fires, the bullet travels toward its target and then there is a noticeable impact. “This film has a lot of slow-motion bullets firing, so we had to amp up the sense of what was propelling that very slow-motion bullet. Recording the sound of a moving bullet is very hard. All of that had to be designed for the film,” says Mather.

In addition to the real era-appropriate vehicles, Wonder Woman has imaginary, souped-up creations too, like a massive bomber. For the bomber’s sound, Mather sought out artist Joe Rush who builds custom Mad Max-style vehicles. They recorded all of Rush’s vehicles, which had a variety of different V8, V12 and V6 engines. “They all sound very different because the engines are on solid metal with no suspension,” explains Mather. “The sound was really big and beefy, loud and clunky and it gave you a sense of a giant war monster. They had this growl and weight and threat that worked well for the German machines, which were supposed to feel threatening. In London, you had these quaint buses being drawn by horses, and the counterpoint to that were these military machines that the Germans had, which had to be daunting and a bit terrifying.

“One of the limitations of the WWI-era soundscapes is the lack of some very useful atmospheric sounds. We used tannoy (loudspeaker) effects on the German bomb factory to hint at the background activity, but had to be very sparing as these were only just invented in that era. (Same thing with the machine guns — a far more mechanical version than the ‘retatatat’ of the familiar WWII versions).”

One of Mather’s favorite scenes to design starts on the frontlines as Diana makes her big reveal as Wonder Woman. She crosses No Man’s Land and deflects the enemies’ fire with her bulletproof bracelets and shield. “We played with that in so many different ways because the music was such an important part of Patty’s vision for the film. She very much wanted the music to carry the narrative. Sound effects were there to be literal in many ways. We were not trying to overemphasize the machismo of it. The story is about the people and not necessarily the action they were in. So that became a very musical-based moment, which was not the way I would have normally done it. I learned a lot from Patty about the different ways of telling the story.”

The Powers
Following that scene, Wonder Woman recaptured the Belgian village they were fighting for by running ahead and storming into the German barracks. Mather describes it as a Guy Ritchie-style fight, with Wonder Woman taking on 25 German soldiers. “This is the first time that we really get to see her use all of her powers: the lasso, her bracelets, her shield, and even her shin guards. As she dances her way around the room, it goes from realtime into slow motion and back into realtime. She is repelling bullets, smashing guns with her back, using her shield as a sliding mat and doing slow-motion kicks. It is a wonderfully choreographed scene and it is her first real action scene.”

The scene required a fluid combination of realistic sounds and subdued, slow-motion sounds. “It was like pushing and pulling the soundtrack as things slowed down and then sped back up. That was a lot of fun.”

The Lasso
Where would Wonder Woman be without her signature lasso of truth? In the film, she often uses the lasso as a physical weapon, but there was an important scene where the lasso was called upon for its truth-finding power. Early in the film, Steve’s plane crashes and he’s washed onto Themyscira’s shore. The Amazonians bind Steve with the lasso and interrogate him. Eventually the lasso of truth overpowers him and he divulges his secrets. “There is quite a lot of acting on Chris Pine’s part to signify that he’s uncomfortable and is struggling,” says Mather. “We initially went by his performance, which gave the impression that he was being burned. He says, ‘This is really hot,’ so we started with sizzling and hissing sounds as if the rope was burning him. Again, Patty felt strongly about not going into the high-frequency realm because it distracts from the dialogue, so we wanted to keep the sound in a lower, more menacing register.”

Mather and his team experimented with adding a multitude of different elements, including low whispering voices, to see if they added a sense of personality to the lasso. “We kept the sizzling, but we pitched it down to make it more watery and less high-end. Then we tried a dozen or so variations of themes. Eventually we stayed with this blood-flow sound, which is like an arterial blood flow. It has a slight rhythm to it and if you roll off the top end and keep it fairly muted then it’s quite an intriguing sound. It feels very visceral.”

The last elements Mather added to the lasso were recordings he captured of two stone slabs grinding against each other in a circular motion, like a mill. “It created this rotating, undulating sound that almost has a voice. So that created this identity, this personality. It was very challenging. We also struggled with this when we did the Harry Potter films, to make an inert object have a character without making it sound a bit goofy and a bit sci-fi. All of those last elements we put together, we kept that very low. We literally raised the volume as you see Steve’s discomfort and then let it peel away every time he revealed the truth. As he was fighting it, the sound would rise and build up. It became a very subtle, but very meaningful, vehicle to show that the rope was actually doing something. It wasn’t burning him but it was doing something that was making him uncomfortable.”

The Mix
Wonder Woman was mixed at De Lane Lea (Warner Bros. London) by re-recording mixers Chris Burdon and Gilbert Lake. Mather reveals that the mixing process was exhausting, but not because of the people involved. “Patty is a joy to work with,” he explains. “What I mean is that working with frequencies that are so low and so loud is exhausting. It wasn’t even the volume; it was being exposed to those low frequencies all day, every day for nine weeks or so. It was exhausting, and it really took its toll on everybody.”

In the mix, Jenkins chose to have Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score lead nearly all of the action sequences. “Patty’s sensitivity and vision for the soundtrack was very much about the music and the emotion of the characters,” says Mather. “She was very aware of the emotional narrative that the music would bring. She did not want to lean too heavily on the sound effects. She knew there would be scenes where there would be action and there would be opportunities to have sound design, but I found that we were not pushing those moments as hard as you would expect. The sound design highs weren’t so high that you felt bereft of momentum and pace when those sound design heavy scenes were finished. We ended up maintaining a far more interesting soundtrack that way.”

With DC films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Spider-Man, the audience expects a sound design-heavy track, but Jenkins’s music-led approach to Wonder Woman provides a refreshing spin on superhero film soundtracks. “The soundtrack is less supernatural and more down to earth,” says Mather. “I don’t think it could’ve been any other way. It’s not a predictable soundtrack and I really enjoyed that.”

Mather really enjoys collaborating with people who have different ideas and different approaches. “What was exciting about doing this film was that I was able to work with someone who had an incredibly strong idea about the soundtrack and yet was very happy to let us try different routes and options. Patty was very open to listening to different ideas, and willing to take the best from those ideas while still retaining a very strong vision of how the soundtrack was going to play for the audience. This is Patty’s DC story, her opportunity to open up the DC universe and give the audience a new look at a character. She was an extraordinary person to work with and for me that was the best part of the process. In the time of remakes, it’s nice to have a film that is fresh and takes a different approach.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @AudioJeney

FMPX8.14

FX’s Fargo features sounds as distinctive as its characters

By Jennifer Walden

In Fargo, North Dakota, in the dead of winter, there’s been a murder. You might think you’ve heard this story before, but Noah Hawley keeps coming up with a fresh, new version of it for each season of his Fargo series on FX. Sure, his inspiration was the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning Fargo film, but with Season 3 now underway it’s obvious that Hawley’s series isn’t simply a spin-off.

Martin Lee and Kirk Lynds.

Every season of the Emmy-winning Fargo series follows a different story, with its own distinct cast of characters, set in its own specified point in time. Even the location isn’t always the same — Season 3 takes place in Minnesota. What does link the seasons together is Hawley’s distinct black humor, which oozes from these disparate small-town homicides. He’s a writer and director on the series, in addition to being the showrunner and an executive producer. “Noah is very hands-on,” confirms re-recording mixer Martin Lee at Tattersall Sound & Picture in Toronto, part of the SIM Group family of companies, who has been mixing the show with re-recording mixer Kirk Lynds since Season 2.

Fargo has a very distinct look, feel and sound that you have to maintain,” explains Lee. “The editors, producers and Noah put a lot of work into the sound design and sound ideas while they are cutting the picture. The music is very heavily worked while they are editing the show. By the time the soundtrack gets to us there is a pretty clear path as to what they are looking for. It’s up to us to take that and flesh it out, to make it fill the 5.1 environment. That’s one of the most unique parts of the process for us.”

Season 3 follows rival brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor). Their feud over a rare postage stamp leads to a botched robbery attempt that ultimately ends in murder (don’t worry, neither Ewan character meets his demise…yet??).

One of the most challenging episodes to mix this season, so far, was Episode 3, “The Law of Non-Contradiction.” The story plays out across four different settings, each with unique soundscapes: Minnesota, Los Angeles in 2010, Los Angeles in 1975 and an animated sci-fi realm. As police officer Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) unravels the homicide in Eden Valley, Minnesota, her journey leads her to Los Angeles. There the story dives into the past, to 1975, to reveal the life story of science fiction writer Thaddeus Mobley (Thomas Mann). The episode side-trips into animation land when Gloria reads Mobley’s book titled The Planet Wyh.

One sonic distinction between Los Angeles in 2010 and Los Angeles of 1975 was the density of traffic. Lee, who mixed the dialogue and music, says, “All of the scenes that were taking place in 2010 were very thick with traffic and cars. That was a technical challenge, because the recordings were very heavy with traffic.”

Another distinction is the pervasiveness of technology in social situations, like the bar scene where Gloria meets up with a local Los Angeles cop to talk about her stolen luggage. The patrons are all glued to their cell phones. As the camera pans down the bar, you hear different sounds of texting playing over a contemporary, techno dance track. “They wanted to have those sounds playing, but not become intrusive. They wanted to establish with sound that people are always tapping away on their phones. It was important to get those sounds to play through subtly,” explains Lynds.

In the animated sequences, Gloria’s voice narrates the story of a small android named MNSKY whose spaceman companion dies just before they reach Earth. The robot carries on the mission and records an eon’s worth of data on Earth. The robot is eventually reunited with members of The Federation of United Planets, who cull the android’s data and then order it to shut down. “Because it was this animated sci-fi story, we wanted to really fill the room with the environment much more so than we can when we are dealing with production sound,” says Lee. “As this little robotic character is moving through time on Earth, you see something like the history of man. There’s voiceover, sound effects and music through all of it. It required a lot of finesse to maintain all of those elements with the right kind of energy.”

The animation begins with a spaceship crashing into the moon. MNSKY wakes and approaches the injured spaceman who tells the android he’s going to die. Lee needed to create a vocal process for the spaceman, to make it sound as though his voice is coming through his helmet. With Audio Ease’s Altiverb, Lee tweaked the settings on a “long plastic tube” convolution reverb. Then he layered that processed vocal with the clean vocal. “It was just enough to create that sense of a helmet,” he says.

At the end, when MNSKY rejoins the members of the Federation on their spaceship it’s a very different environment from Earth. The large, ethereal space is awash in long, warm reverbs which Lynds applied using plug-ins like PhoenixVerb 5.1 and Altiverb. Lee also applied a long reverb treatment to the dialogue. “The reverbs have quite a significant pre-delay, so you almost have that sense of a repeat of the voice afterwards. This gives it a very distinctive, environmental feel.”

Lynds and Lee spend two days premixing their material on separate dub stages. For the premix, Lynds typically has all the necessary tracks from supervising sound editor Nick Forshager while Lee’s dialogue and music tracks come in more piecemeal. “I get about half the production dialogue on day one and then I get the other half on day two,” says Lee. “ADR dribbles in the whole time, including well into the mixing process. ADR comes in even after we have had several playbacks already.”

Fortunately, the show doesn’t rely heavily on ADR. Lee notes that they put a lot of effort into preserving the production. “We use a combination of techniques. The editors find the cleanest lines and takes (while still keeping the performance), then I spent a lot of time cleaning that up,” he says.

This season Lee relies more on Cedar’s DNS One plug-in for noise reduction and less on the iZotope RX5 (Connect version). “I’m finding with Fargo that the showrunners are uniquely sensitive to the effects of the iZotope processing. This year it took more work to find the right sound. It ends up being a combination of both the Cedar and the RX5,” reports Lee.

After premixing, Lee and Lynds bring their tracks together on Tattersall’s Stage 1. They have three days for the 5.1 final mix. They spend one (very) long day building the episode in 5.1 and then send their mix to Los Angeles for Forshager and co-producer Gregg Tilson to review. Then Lee and Lynds address the first round of notes the next morning and send the mix back to Los Angeles for another playback. Each consecutive playback is played for more people. The last playback is for Hawley on the third day.

“One of the big challenges with the workflow is mixing an episode in one day. It’s a long mix day. At least the different time zones help. We send them a mix to listen to typically around 6-7pm PST, so it’s not super late for them. We start at 8am EST the next morning, which is three hours ahead of their time. By the time they’re in the studio and ready to listen, it is 10am their time and we’ve already spent three or four hours handling the revisions. That really works to our advantage,” says Lee.

Sound in the Fargo series is not an afterthought. It’s used to build tension, like a desk bell that rings for an uncomfortably long time, or to set the mood of a space, like an overly noisy fish tank in a cheap apartment. By the time the tracks have made it to the mixers, there’s been “a lot of time and effort spent thinking about what the show was going to sound like,” says Lynds. “From that sense, the entire mix for us is a creative opportunity. It’s our chance to re-create that in a 5.1 environment, and to make that bigger and better.”

You can catch new episodes of Fargo on FX Networks, Wednesdays at 10pm EST.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.


Hobo’s Howard Bowler and Jon Mackey on embracing full-service VR

By Randi Altman

New York-based audio post house Hobo, which offers sound design, original music composition and audio mixing, recently embraced virtual reality by launching a 360 VR division. Wanting to offer clients a full-service solution, they partnered with New York production/post production studios East Coast Digital and Hidden Content, allowing them to provide concepting through production, post, music and final audio mix in an immersive 360 format.

The studio is already working on some VR projects, using their “object-oriented audio mix” skills to enhance the 360 viewing experience.

We touched base with Hobo’s founder/president, Howard Bowler, and post production producer Jon Mackey to get more info on their foray into VR.

Why was now the right time to embrace 360 VR?
Bowler: We saw the opportunity stemming from the advancement of the technology not only in the headsets but also in the tools necessary to mix and sound design in a 360-degree environment. The great thing about VR is that we have many innovative companies trying to establish what the workflow norm will be in the years to come. We want to be on the cusp of those discoveries to test and deploy these tools as the ecosystem of VR expands.

As an audio shop you could have just offered audio-for-VR services only, but instead aligned with two other companies to provide a full-service experience. Why was that important?
Bowler: This partnership provides our clients with added security when venturing out into VR production. Since the medium is relatively new in the advertising and film world, partnering with experienced production companies gives us the opportunity to better understand the nuances of filming in VR.

How does that relationship work? Will you be collaborating remotely? Same location?
Bowler: Thankfully, we are all based in West Midtown, so the collaboration will be seamless.

Can you talk a bit about object-based audio mixing and its challenges?
Mackey: The challenge of object-based mixing is not only mixing based in a 360-degree environment or converting traditional audio into something that moves with the viewer but determining which objects will lead the viewer, with its sound cue, into another part of the environment.

Bowler: It’s the creative challenge that inspires us in our sound design. With traditional 2D film, the editor controls what you see with their cuts. With VR, the partnership between sight and sound becomes much more important.

Howard Bowler pictured embracing VR.

How different is your workflow — traditional broadcast or spot work versus VR/360?
Mackey: The VR/360 workflow isn’t much different than traditional spot work. It’s the testing and review that is a game changer. Things generally can’t be reviewed live unless you have a custom rig that runs its own headset. It’s a lot of trial and error in checking the mixes, sound design, and spacial mixes. You also have to take into account the extra time and instruction for your clients to review a project.

What has surprised you the most about working in this new realm?
Bowler: The great thing about the VR/360 space is the amount of opportunity there is. What surprised us the most is the passion of all the companies that are venturing into this area. It’s different than talking about conventional film or advertising; there’s a new spark and its fueling the rise of the industry and allowing larger companies to connect with smaller ones to create an atmosphere where passion is the only thing that counts.

What tools are you using for this type of work?
Mackey: The audio tools we use are the ones that best fit into our Avid ProTools workflow. This includes plug-ins from G-Audio and others that we are experimenting with.

Can you talk about some recent projects?
Bowler: We’ve completed projects for Samsung with East Coast Digital, and there are more on the way.

Main Image: Howard Bowler and Jon Mackey

Creating a sonic world for The Zookeeper’s Wife

By Jennifer Walden

Warsaw, Poland, 1939. The end of summer brings the beginning of war as 140 German planes, Junkers Ju-87 Stukas, dive-bomb the city. At the Warsaw Zoo, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) watch as their peaceful sanctuary crumbles: their zoo, their home and their lives are invaded by the Nazis. Powerless to fight back openly, the zookeeper and his wife join the Polish resistance. They transform the zoo from an animal sanctuary into a place of sanctuary for the people they rescue from the Warsaw Ghetto.

L-R: Anna Behlmer, Terry_Porter and Becky Sullivan.

Director Niki Caro’s film The Zookeeper’s Wife — based on Antonina Żabińska’s true account written by Diane Ackerman — presents a tale of horror and humanity. It’s a study of contrasts, and the soundtrack matches that, never losing the thread of emotion among the jarring sounds of bombs and planes.

Supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan, at the Technicolor at Paramount sound facility in Los Angeles, worked closely with re-recording mixers Anna Behlmer and Terry Porter to create immersive soundscapes of war and love. “You have this contrast between a love story of the zookeeper and his wife and their love for their own people and this horrific war that is happening outside,” explains Porter. “It was a real challenge in the mix to keep the war alive and frightening and then settle down into this love story of a couple who want to save the people in the ghettos. You have to play the contrast between the fear of war and the love of the people.”

According to Behlmer, the film’s aerial assault on Warsaw was entirely fabricated in post sound. “We never see those planes, but we hear those planes. We created the environment of this war sonically. There are no battle sequence visual effects in the movie.”

“You are listening to the German army overtake the city even though you don’t really see it happening,” adds Sullivan. “The feeling of fear for the zookeeper and his wife, and those they’re trying to protect, is heightened just by the sound that we are adding.”

Sullivan, who earned an Oscar nom for sound editing director Angelina Jolie’s WWII film Unbroken, had captured recordings of actual German Stukas and B24 bomber planes, as well as 70mm and 50mm guns. She found library recordings of the Stuka’s signature Jericho siren. “It’s a siren that Germans put on these planes so that when they dive-bombed, the siren would go off and add to the terror of those below,” explains Sullivan. Pulling from her own collection of WWII plane recordings, and using library effects, she was able to design a convincing off-screen war.

One example of how Caro used sound and clever camera work to effectively create an unseen war was during the bombing of the train station. Behlmer explains that the train station is packed with people crying and sobbing. There’s an abundance of activity as they hustle to get on the arriving trains. The silhouette of a plane darkens the station. Everyone there is looking up. Then there’s a massive explosion. “These actors are amazing because there is fear on their faces and they lurch or fall over as if some huge concussive bomb has gone off just outside the building. The people’s reactions are how we spotted explosions and how we knew where the sound should be coming from because this is all happening offstage. Those were our cues, what we were mixing to.”

“Kudos to Niki for the way she shot it, and the way she coordinated these crowd reactions,” adds Porter. “Once we got the soundscape in there, you really believe what is happening on-screen.”

The film was mixed in 5.1 surround on Stage 2 at Technicolor Paramount lot. Behlmer (who mixed effects/Foley/backgrounds) used the Lexicon 960 reverb during the train station scene to put the plane sounds into that space. Using the LFE channel, she gave the explosions an appropriate impact — punchy, but not overly rumbly. “We have a lot of music as well, so I tried really hard to keep the sound tight, to be as accurate as possible with that,” she says.

ADR
Another feature of the train station’s soundscape is the amassed crowd. Since the scene wasn’t filmed in Poland, the crowd’s verbalizations weren’t in Polish. Caro wanted the sound to feel authentic to the time and place, so Sullivan recorded group ADR in both Polish and German to use throughout the film. For the train station scene, Sullivan built a base of ambient crowd sounds and layered in the Polish loop group recordings for specificity. She was also able to use non-verbal elements from the production tracks, such as gasps and groans.

Additionally, the group ADR played a big part in the scenes at the zookeeper’s house. The Nazis have taken over the zoo and are using it for their own purposes. Each day their trucks arrive early in the morning. German soldiers shout to one another. Sullivan had the German ADR group perform with a lot of authority in their voices, to add to the feeling of fear. During the mix, Porter (who handled the dialogue and music) fit the clean ADR into the scenes. “When we’re outside, the German group ADR plays upfront, as though it’s really their recorded voices,” he explains. “Then it cuts to the house, and there is a secondary perspective where we use a bit of processing to create a sense of distance and delay. Then when it cuts to downstairs in the basement, it’s a totally different perspective on the voices, which sounds more muffled and delayed and slightly reverberant.”

One challenge of the mix and design was to make sure the audience knew the location of a sound by the texture of it. For example, the off-stage German group ADR used to create a commotion outside each morning had a distinct sonic treatment. Porter used EQ on the Euphonix System 5 console, and reverb and delay processing via Avid’s ReVibe and Digidesign’s TL Space plug-ins to give the sounds an appropriate quality. He used panning to articulate a sound’s position off-screen. “If we are in the basement, and the music and dialogue is happening above, I gave the sounds a certain texture. I could sweep sounds around in the theater so that the audience was positive of the sound’s location. They knew where the sound is coming from. Everything we did helped the picture show location.”

Porter’s treatment also applied to diegetic music. In the film, the zookeeper’s wife Antonina would play the piano as a cue to those below that it was safe to come upstairs, or as a warning to make no sound at all. “When we’re below, the piano sounds like it’s coming through the floor, but when we cut to the piano it had to be live.”

Sound Design
On the design side, Sullivan helped to establish the basement location by adding specific floor creaks, footsteps on woods, door slams and other sounds to tell the story of what’s happening overhead. She layered her effects with Foley provided by artist Geordy Sincavage at Sinc Productions in Los Angeles. “We gave the lead German commander Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) a specific heavy boot on wood floor sound. His authority is present in his heavy footsteps. During one scene he bursts in, and he’s angry. You can feel it in every footstep he takes. He’s throwing doors open and we have a little sound of a glass falling off of the shelf. These little tiny touches put you in the scene,” says Sullivan.

While the film often feels realistic, there were stylized, emotional moments. Picture editor David Coulson and director Caro juxtapose images of horror and humanity in a sequence that shows the Warsaw Ghetto burning while those lodged at the zookeeper’s house hold a Seder. Edits between the two locations are laced together with sounds of the Seder chanting and singing. “The editing sounds silky smooth. When we transition out of the chanting on-camera, then that goes across the cut with reverb and dissolves into the effects of the ghetto burning. It sounds continuous and flowing,” says Porter. The result is hypnotic, agrees Behlmer and Sullivan.

The film isn’t always full of tension and destruction. There is beauty too. In the film’s opening, the audience meets the animals in the Warsaw Zoo, and has time to form an attachment. Caro filmed real animals, and there’s a bond between them and actress Chastain. Sullivan reveals that while they did capture a few animal sounds in production, she pulled many of the animal sounds from her own vast collection of recordings. She chose sounds that had personality, but weren’t cartoony. She also recorded a baby camel, sea lions and several elephants at an elephant sanctuary in northern California.

In the film, a female elephant is having trouble giving birth. The male elephant is close by, trumpeting with emotion. Sullivan says, “The birth of the baby elephant was very tricky to get correct sonically. It was challenging for sound effects. I recorded a baby sea lion in San Francisco that had a cough and it wasn’t feeling well the day we recorded. That sick sea lion sound worked out well for the baby elephant, who is struggling to breathe after it’s born.”

From the effects and Foley to the music and dialogue, Porter feels that nothing in the film sounds heavy-handed. The sounds aren’t competing for space. There are moments of near silence. “You don’t feel the hand of the filmmaker. Everything is extremely specific. Anna and I worked very closely together to define a scene as a music moment — featuring the beautiful storytelling of Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, or a sound effects moment, or a blend between the two. There is no clutter in the soundtrack and I’m very proud of that.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.