Creating the sonic world of ‘Macbeth’

By Jennifer Walden

On December 4, we will all have the opportunity to hail Michael Fassbender as he plays Macbeth in director Justin Kurzel’s film adaption of the classic Shakespeare play. And while Macbeth is considered to be the Bard’s darkest tragedy, audiences at the Cannes Film Festival premiere felt there was nothing tragic about Kurzel’s fresh take on it.

As evidenced in his debut film, The Snowton Murders, Kurzel’s passion for dark imagery fits The Weinstein Co’s Macbeth like a custom-fitted suit of armor. “The Snowtown Murders was brutal, beautiful, uncompromising and original, and I felt sure Justin would approach Macbeth with the same vision,” says freelance supervising sound editor Steve Single. “He’s a great motivator and demanded more of the team than almost any director I’ve worked with, but we always felt that we were an important part of the process. We all put more of ourselves into this film, not only for professional pride, but to make sure we were true to Justin’s expectations and vision.”

Single, who was also the re-recording mixer on the dialogue/music, worked with London-based sound designers Markus Stemler and Alastair Sirkett to translate Kurzel’s abstract and esoteric ideas — like imagining the sound of mist — and place them in the reality of Macbeth’s world. Whether it was the sound of sword clashes or chimes for the witches, Kurzel looked beyond traditional sound devices. “He wanted the design team to continually look at what elements they were adding from a very different perspective,” explains Single.

L-R: Gilbert Lake, Steve Single and Alastair Sirkett.

L-R: Gilbert Lake, Steve Single and Alastair Sirkett.

Sirkett notes that Kurzel’s bold cinematic style — immediately apparent by the slow-motion-laced battle sequence in the opening — led him and Stemler to make equally bold choices in sound. Adds Stemler, “I love it when films have a strong aesthetic, and it was the same with the sound design. Justin certainly pushed all of us to go for the rather unconventional route here and there.  In terms of the creative process, I think that’s a truly wonderful situation.”

Gathering, Creating Sounds
Stemler and Sirkett split up the sound design work by different worlds, as Kurzel referred to them, to ensure that each world sounded distinctly different, with its own, unique sonic fingerprint. Stemler focused on the world of the battles, the witches and the village of Inverness. “The theme of the world of the witches was certainly a challenge. Chimes had always been a key element in Justin’s vision,” says Stemler, whose approach to sound design often begins with a Schoeps mic and a Sound Devices recorder.

As he started to collect and record a variety of chimes, rainmakers and tiny bells, Stemler realized that just shaking them wasn’t going to give him the atmospheric layer he was looking for. “It needed to be way softer and smoother. In the process I found some nacre chimes (think mother-of-pearl shells) that had a really nice resonance, but the ‘clonk’ sound just didn’t fit. So I spent ages trying to kind of pet the chimes so I would only get their special resonance. That was quite a patience game.”

By having distinct sonic themes for each “world,” re-recording mixers Single and Gilbert Lake (who handled the effects/Foley/backgrounds) were able to transition back and forth between those sonic themes, diving into the next ‘world’ without fully leaving the previous one.

There’s the “gritty reality of the situation Macbeth appears to be forging, the supernatural world of the witches whose prophecy has set out his path for him, the deterioration of Macbeth’s mental state, and how Macbeth’s actions resonate with the landscape,” says Lake, explaining the contrast between the different worlds. “It was a case of us finding those worlds together and then being conscious about how they relate to one another, sometimes contrasting and sometimes blending.”

Skirett notes that the sonic themes were particularly important when crafting Macbeth’s craziness. “Justin wanted to use sound to help with Macbeth’s deterioration into paranoia and madness, whether it be using the sound of the witches, harking back to the prophecy or the initial battle and the violence that had occurred there. Weaving that into the scenes as we moved forward was alMACBETHways going to be a tricky balancing act, but I think with the sounds that we created, the fantastic music from composer Jed Kurzel, and with Steve [Single] and Gilly [Lake] mixing, we’ve achieved something quite amazing.”

Sirkett details a moment of Macbeth’s madness in which he recalls the memory of war. “I spent a lot of time finding elements from the opening battle — whether it be swords, clashes or screams — that worked well once they were processed to feel as though they were drifting in and out of his mind without the audience being able to quite grasp what they were hearing, but hopefully sensing what they were and the implication of the violence that had occurred.”

Sirkett used Audio Ease’s Altiverb 7 XL in conjunction with a surround panning tool called Spanner by The Cargo Cult “to get some great sounds and move them accurately around the theatre to help give a sense of unease for those moments that Justin wanted to heighten Macbeth’s state of mind.”

The Foley, Score, Mix
The Foley team on Macbeth included Foley mixer Adam Mendez and Foley artist Ricky Butt from London’s Twickenham Studios. Additional Foley for the armies and special sounds for the witches was provided by Foley artist Carsten Richter and Foley mixer Marcus Sujata at Tonstudio Hanse Warns in Berlin, Germany. Sirkett points out that the sonic details related to the costumes that Macbeth and Banquo (Paddy Considine) wore for the opening battle. “Their costumes look huge, heavy and bloodied by the end of the opening battle. When they were moving about or removing items, you felt the weight, blood and sweat that was in them and how it was almost sticking to their bodies,” he says.

Composer Jed Kurzel’s score often interweaves with the sound design, at times melting into the soundscape and at other times taking the lead. Stemler notes the quiet church scene in which Lady Macbeth sits in the chapel of an abandoned village. Dust particles gently descend to the sound of delicate bells twinkling in the background. “They prepare for the moment where the score is sneaking in almost like an element of the wind.  It took us some time in the mix to find that perfect balance between the score and our sound elements. We had great fun with that kind of dance between the elements.”

MACBETHDuring the funeral of Macbeth’s child in the opening of the film, Jed Kurzel’s score (the director’s brother) emotes a gentle mournfulness as it blends with the lashing wind and rain sound effects. Single feels the score is almost like another character. “Bold and unexpected, it was an absolute pleasure to bring each cue into the mix. From the rolling reverse percussion of the opening credits to the sublime theme for Lady Macbeth’s decline into madness, he crafted a score that is really very special.”

Single and Lake mixed Macbeth in 5.1 at Warner Bros.’ De Lane Lea studio in London, using an AMS Neve DFC console. On Lake’s side of the board, he loved mixing the final showdown between Macbeth and Macduff — a beautifully edited sequence where the rhythm of the fighting perfectly plays against Jed Kurzel’s score.

“We wanted the action to feel like Macbeth and Macduff were wrenching their weapons from the earth and bringing the full weight of their ambitions down on one another,” says Lake. “Markus [Stemler] steered clear of traditional sword hits and shings and I tried to be as dynamic as possible and to accentuate the weight and movement of their actions.”

To create original sword sounds, Stemler took the biggest screw wrench he could find and recorded himself banging on every big piece of metal available in their studio’s warehouse. “I hit old heaters, metal staircases, stands and pipes. I definitely left a lot of damage,” he jokes. After a bit of processing, those sounds became major elements in the sword sounds.

Director Kurzel wanted the battle sequences to immerse the audience in the reality of war, and to show how deeply it affects Macbeth to be in the middle of all that violence. “I think the balance between “real” action and the slo-mo gives you a chance to take in the horror unfolding,” says Lake. “Jed’s music is very textural and it was about finding the right sounds to work with it and knowing when to back off with the effects and let it become more about the score. It was one of those rare and fortunate events where everyone is pulling in the same direction without stepping on each other’s toes!”

L-R Alastair Sirkett, Steve Single and Gilbert Lake.

L-R Alastair Sirkett, Steve Single and Gilbert Lake.

To paraphrase the famous quote, “Copy is King” holds true for any project, in a Shakespeare adaptation, the copy is as untouchable as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. “You have in Macbeth some of the most beautiful and insightful language ever written and you have to respect that,” says Single. His challenge was to make every piece of poetic verse intelligible while still keeping the intimacy that director Kurzel and the actors had worked for on-set, which Single notes, was not an easy task. “The film was shot entirely on location, during the worst storms in the UK for the past 100 years. Add to this an abundance of smoke machines and heavy Scottish accents and it soon became apparent that no matter how good production sound mixer Stuart Wilson’s recordings were — he did a great job under very tough conditions — there was going to be a lot of cleaning to do and some difficult decisions about ADR.”

Even though there was a good bit of ADR recorded, in the end Single found he was able to restore and polish much of the original recordings, always making sure that in the process of achieving clarity the actors’ performances were maintained. In the mix, Single says it was about placing the verse in each scene first and then building up the soundtrack around that. “This was made especially easy by having such a good effects mixer in Gilly Lake,” he concludes.

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


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