Category Archives: Sound Design

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.

Dell 6.15

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


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.


Music house Wolf at the Door opens in Venice

Wolf at the Door has opened in Venice, California, providing original music, music supervision and sound design for the ad industry and, occasionally, films. Founders Alex Kemp and Jimmy Haun have been making music for some time: Kemp was composer at Chicago-based Catfish Music and Spank, and was the former creative director of Hum in Santa Monica. Haun spent over 10 years as the senior composer at Elias, in addition to being a session musician.

Between the two of them they’ve been signed to four major labels, written music for 11 Super Bowl spots, and have composed music for top agencies, including W+K, Goodby, Chiat Day, Team One and Arnold, working with directors like David Fincher, Lance Acord, Stacy Wall and Gore Verbinski.

In addition to making music, Kemp linked up with his longtime friend Scott Brown, a former creative director at agencies including Chiat Day, 72and Sunny and Deutsch, to start a surf shop and brand featuring hand-crafted surf boards — Lone Wolfs Objets d’Surf.

With the Wolf at the Door recording studio and production office existing directly behind the Lone Wolfs retail store, Kemp and his partners bounce between different creative projects daily: writing music for spots, designing handmade Lone Wolfs surfboards, recording bands in the studio, laying out their own magazine, or producing their own original branded content.

Episodes of their original surf talk show/Web series Everything’s Not Working have featured guest pro surfers, including Dion Agius, Nabil Samadani and Eden Saul.

Wolf at the Door recently worked on an Experian commercial directed by the Malloy Brothers for the Martin Agency, as well as a Century Link spot directed by Malcom Venville for Arnold Worldwide. Kemp worked closely with Venville on the casting and arrangement for the spot, and traveled to Denver to record the duet of singer Kelvin Jones’ “Call You Home” with Karissa Lee, a young singer Kemp found specifically for the project.

“Our approach to music is always driven by who the brand is and what ideas the music needs to support,” says Kemp. “The music provides the emotional context.” Paying attention to messaging is something that goes hand in hand with carving out their own brand and making their own content. “The whole model seemed ready for a reset. And personally speaking, I like to live and work at a place where being inspired dictates the actions we take, rather than the other way around.”

Main Image L-R:  Jimmy Haun and Alex Kemp.


Lime opens sound design division led by Michael Anastasi, Rohan Young

Santa Monica’s Lime Studios has launched a sound design division. LSD (Lime Sound Design), featuring newly signed sound designer Michael Anastasi and Lime sound designer/mixer Rohan Young has already created sound design for national commercial campaigns.

“Having worked with Michael since his early days at Stimmung and then at Barking Owl, he was always putting out some of the best sound design work, a lot of which we were fortunate to be final mixing here at Lime,” says executive producer Susie Boyajan, who collaborates closely with Lime and LSD owner Bruce Horwitz and the other company partners — mixers Mark Meyuhas and Loren Silber. “Having Michael here provides us with an opportunity to be involved earlier in the creative process, and provides our clients with a more streamlined experience for their audio needs. Rohan and Michael were often competing for some of the same work, and share a huge client base between them, so it made sense for Lime to expand and create a new division centered around them.”

Boyajan points out that “all of the mixers at Lime have enjoyed the sound design aspect of their jobs, and are really talented at it, but having a new division with LSD that operates differently than our current, hourly sound design structure makes sense for the way the industry is continuing to change. We see it as a real advantage that we can offer clients both models.”

“I have always considered myself a sound designer that mixes,” notes Young. “It’s a different experience to be involved early on and try various things that bring the spot to life. I’ve worked closely with Michael for a long time. It became more and more apparent to both of us that we should be working together. Starting LSD became a no-brainer. Our now-shared resources, with the addition of a Foley stage and location audio recordists only make things better for both of us and even more so for our clients.”

Young explains that setting up LSD as its own sound design division, as opposed to bringing in Michael to sound design at Lime, allows clients to separate the mix from the sound design on their production if they choose.

Anastasi joins LSD from Barking Owl, where he spent the last seven years creating sound design for high-profile projects and building long-term creative collaborations with clients. Michael recalls his fortunate experiences recording sounds with John Fasal, and Foley sessions with John Roesch and Alyson Dee Moore as having taught him a great deal of his craft. “Foley is actually what got me to become a sound designer,” he explains.

Projects that Anastasi has worked on include the PSA on human trafficking called Hide and Seek, which won an AICP Award for Sound Design. He also provided sound design to the feature film Casa De Mi Padre, starring Will Ferrell, and was sound supervisor as well. For Nike’s Together project, featuring Lebron James, a two-minute black-and-white piece, Anastasi traveled back to Lebron’s hometown of Cleveland to record 500+ extras.

Lime is currently building new studios for LSD, featuring a team of sound recordists and a stand-alone Foley room. The LSD team is currently in the midst of a series of projects launching this spring, including commercial campaigns for Nike, Samsung, StubHub and Adobe.

Main Image: Michael Anastasi and Rohan Young.


The sound of John Wick: Chapter 2 — bigger and bolder

The director and audio team share their process.

By Jennifer Walden

To achieve the machine-like precision of assassin John Wick for director Chad Stahelski’s signature gun-fu-style action films, Keanu Reeves (Wick) goes through months of extensive martial arts and weapons training. The result is worth the effort. Wick is fast, efficient and thorough. You cannot fake his moves.

In John Wick: Chapter 2, Wick is still trying to retire from his career as a hitman, but he’s asked for one last kill. Bound by a blood oath, it’s a job Wick can’t refuse. Reluctantly, he goes to work, but by doing so, he’s dragged further into the assassin lifestyle he’s desperate to leave behind.

Chad Stahelski

Stahelski builds a visually and sonically engaging world on-screen, and then fills it full of meticulously placed bullet holes. His inspiration for John Wick comes from his experience as a stunt man and martial arts stunt coordinator for Lily and Lana Wachowski on The Matrix films. “The Wachowskis are some of the best world creators in the film industry. Much of what I know about sound and lighting has to do with their perspective that every little bit helps define the world. You just can’t do it visually. It’s the sound and the look and the vibe — the combination is what grabs people.”

Before the script on John Wick: Chapter 2 was even locked, Stahelski brainstormed with supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger and composer Tyler Bates — alumni of the first Wick film — and cinematographer Dan Laustsen on how they could go deeper into Wick’s world this time around. “It was so collaborative and inspirational. Mark and his team talked about how to make it sound bigger and more unique; how to make this movie sound as big as we wanted it to look. This sound team was one of my favorite departments to work with. I’ve learned more from those guys about sound in these last two films then I thought I had learned in the last 15 years,” says Stahelski.

Supervising sound editor Stoeckinger, at the Formosa Group in West Hollywood, knows action films. Mission Impossible II and III, both Jack Reacher films, Iron Man 3, and the upcoming (April) The Fate of the Furious, are just a part of his film sound experience. Gun fights, car chases, punches and impacts — Stoeckinger knows that all those big sound effects in an action film can compete with the music and dialogue for space in a scene. “The more sound elements you have, the more delicate the balancing act is,” he explains. “The director wants his sounds to be big and bold. To achieve that, you want to have a low-frequency punch to the effects. Sometimes, the frequencies in the music can steal all that space.”

The Sound of Music
Composer Bates’s score was big and bold, with lots of percussion, bass and strong guitar chords that existed in the same frequency range as the gunshots, car engines and explosions. “Our composer is very good at creating a score that is individual to John Wick,” says Stahelski. “I listened to just the music, and it was great. I listened to just the sound design, and that was great. When we put them together we couldn’t understand what was going on. They overlapped that much.”

During the final mix at Formosa’s Stage B on The Lot, re-recording mixers Andy Koyama and Martyn Zub — who both mixed the first John Wick — along with Gabe Serrano, approached the fight sequences with effects leading the mix, since those needed to match the visuals. Then Koyama made adjustments to the music stems to give the sound effects more room.

“Andy made some great suggestions, like if we lowered the bass here then we can hear the effects punch more,” says Stahelski. “That gave us the idea to go back to our composers, to the music department and the music editor. We took it to the next level conceptually. We had Tyler [Bates] strip out a lot of the percussion and bass sounds. Mark realized we have so many gunshots, so why not use those as the percussion? The music was influenced by the amount of gunfire, sound design and the reverb that we put into the gunshots.”

Mark Stoeckinger

The music and sound departments collaborated through the last few weeks of the final mix. “It was a really neat, synergistic effect of the sound and music complementing each other. I was super happy with the final product,” says Stahelski.

Putting the Gun in Gun-Fu
As its name suggests, gun-fu involves a range of guns —handguns, shotguns and assault rifles. It was up to sound designer Alan Rankin to create a variety of distinct gun effects that not only sounded different from weapon to weapon but also differentiated between John Wick’s guns and the bad guys’ guns. To help Wick’s guns sound more powerful and complex than his foes, Rankin added different layers of air, boom and mechanical effects. To distinguish one weapon from another, Rankin layered the sounds of several different guns together to make a unique sound.

The result is the type of gun sound that Stoeckinger likes to use on the John Wick films. “Even before this film officially started, Alan would present gun ideas. He’d say, ‘What do you think about this sound for the shotgun? Or, ‘How about this gun sound?’ We went back and forth many times, and once we started the film, he took it well beyond that.”

Rankin developed the sounds further by processing his effects with EQ and limiting to help the gunshots punch through the mix. “We knew we would inevitably have to turn the gunshots down in the mix due to conflicts with music or dialogue, or just because of the sheer quantity of shots needed for some of the scenes,” Rankin says.

Each gun battle was designed entirely in post, since the guns on-screen weren’t shooting live rounds. Rankin spent months designing and evolving the weapons and bullet effects in the fight sequences. He says, “Occasionally there would be a production sound we could use to help sell the space, but for the most part it’s all a construct.”

There were unique hurdles for each fight scene, but Rankin feels the catacombs were the most challenging from a design standpoint, and Zub agrees in terms of mix. “In the catacombs there’s a rapid-fire sequence with lots of shots and ricochets, with body hits and head explosions. It’s all going on at the same time. You have to be delicate with each gunshot so that they don’t all sound the same. It can’t sound repetitive and boring. So that was pretty tricky.”

To keep the gunfire exciting, Zub played with the perspective, the dynamics and the sound layers to make each shot unique. “For example, a shotgun sound might be made up of eight different elements. So in any given 40-second sequence, you might have 40 gunshots. To keep them all from sounding the same, you go through each element of the shotgun sound and either turn some layers off, tune some of them differently or put different reverb on them. This gives each gunshot its own unique character. Doing that keeps the soundtrack more interesting and that helps to tell the story better,” says Zub. For reverb, he used the PhoenixVerb Surround Reverb plug-in to create reverbs in 7.1.

Another challenge was the fight sequence at the museum. To score the first part of Wick’s fight, director Stahelski chose a classical selection from Vivaldi… but with a twist. Instead of relying solely on traditional percussion, “Mark’s team intermixed gunshots with the music,” notes Stahelski. “That is one of my favorite overall sound sequences.”

At the museum, there’s a multi-level mirrored room exhibit with moving walls. In there, Wick faces several opponents. “The mirror room battle was challenging because we had to represent the highly reflective space in which the gunshots were occurring,” explains Rankin. “Martyn [Zub] was really diligent about keeping the sounds tight and contained so the audience doesn’t get worn out from the massive volume of gunshots involved.”

Their goal was to make as much distinction as possible between the gunshot and the bullet impact sounds since visually there were only a few frames between the two. “There was lots of tweaking the sync of those sounds in order to make sure we got the necessary visceral result that the director was looking for,” says Rankin.

Stahelski adds, “The mirror room has great design work. The moment a gun fires, it just echoes through the whole space. As you change the guns, you change the reverb and change the echo in there. I really dug that.”

On the dialogue side, the mirror room offered Koyama an opportunity to play with the placement of the voices. “You might be looking at somebody, but because it’s just a reflection, Andy has their voice coming from a different place in the theater,” Stoeckinger explains. “It’s disorienting, which is what it is supposed to be. The visuals inspired what the sound does. The location design — how they shot it and cut it — that let us play with sound.”

The Manhattan Bridge
Koyama’s biggest challenge on dialogue was during a scene where Laurence Fishburne’s character The Bowery King is talking to Wick while they’re standing on a rooftop near the busy Manhattan Bridge. Koyama used iZotope RX 5 to help clean up the traffic noise. “The dialogue was very difficult to understand and Laurence was not available for ADR, so we had to save it. With some magic we managed to save it, and it actually sounds really great in the film.”

Once Koyama cleaned the production dialogue, Stoeckinger was able to create an unsettling atmosphere there by weaving tonal sound elements with a “traffic on a bridge” roar. “For me personally, building weird spaces is fun because it’s less literal,” says Stoeckinger.

Stahelski strives for a detailed and deep world in his John Wick films. He chooses Stoeckinger to lead his sound team because Stoeckinger’s “work is incredibly immersive, incredibly detailed,” says the director. “The depths that he goes, even if it is just a single sound or tone or atmosphere, Mark has a way to penetrate the visuals. I think his work stands out so far above most other sound design teams. I love my sound department and I couldn’t be happier with them.”


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