By Jennifer Walden
It may be called The Hunger Games, but in Mockingjay, Part 1, the games are over. Life for the people of Panem, outside The Capitol, is about rebellion, war and survival. Supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer Jeremy Peirson, at Warner Bros. Sound in Burbank, has worked with director Francis Lawrence on both Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Part 1.
Without the arena and its sinister array of “horrors” (for those who don’t remember Catching Fire, those horrors, such as blood rain, acid fog, carnivorous monkeys and lightening storms were released every hour in the arena), Mockingjay, Part 1 is not nearly as diverse, according to Peirson. “Catching Fire was such a huge story between The Capitol and all the various Districts. We had different areas of the jungle in the arena, and all the different traps and mayhem that was happening. I have to say Mockingjay is a little more straightforward. It’s more like the big set up for the final chapter.”
That’s not to say the soundtrack for Mockingjay, Part 1 is flat. The juxtaposition of District 13’s controlled, underground environment and the chaos of war happening above ground in the other Districts make for a varied and dynamic track. Underground, in District 13’s bunker, a miscellany of rumbles and fan sounds combine to create different tonal environments, sonically separating the residential areas, work areas and various control rooms. Peirson recorded hard drive fans, machine room fans, transformers and anything else he felt could be pitched down and layered in to make each area feel different. “There is a bit of variety within that space, but it sounds so different from when you’re outside in the other Districts,” says Peirson.
Above ground, in Districts as yet untouched by war, there are bird and insect sounds. For a scene where Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) are hunting, Peirson describes the sound effects layout in Dolby Atmos. “We have wind and tree movements up in the ceiling. We put different wood creaks and bird chirps in very specific locations to really get that enveloping ‘you’re in the forest’ kind of feel.”
District 12, though, is another story. It’s completely bombed out. There are no birds or bugs. There is no life. “We have the sound of decay and fire with the occasional wind that rattles some debris or structure,” describes Peirson. “It’s a very sparse sound, and that kind of contrast allows us to help sonically steer where we are at any given time.”
Another contrast in the sound design comes from The Capitol’s advanced, sci-fi technology versus the comparatively rustic technology of the Districts. “Part of the whole design of District 13 is that you have to imagine a bunker from the ‘60s or ‘70s. It’s that level of technology,” he says. After the first war with Panem, District 13 was on its own for 75 years, so their technological progress stalled. The Capitol, on the other hand, had the resources to develop more high-tech tools and machinery. “The biggest example would be the hovercrafts,” says Peirson. “The Capitol hovercraft is powered by this fusion-drive, sci-fi technology while the District 13 hovercrafts are more propeller or jet based in comparison.”
Blowing Stuff Up, Dropping Stuff and Singing
When there’s a war happening in a film, it gives the post sound department an opportunity to go out into the real world and blow things up. Peirson had a “bullet-by and ricochet session” with his small recording team of Bryan O. Watkins from Warner Bros. Sound and renowned sound effects recordist John Fasal. “Fasal is one of the go-to guys for sound effects recording. You name it and he’s recorded it,” declares Peirson.
The team fired intentionally silenced weapons over microphones to capture just the sound of the bullets zipping by. They shot at large metal plates and used a series of different mics to record the ring-outs and bullet ricochets.
For destruction sounds, Peirson, Watkins and Fasal had a “concrete drop session” where they recorded the sound of 20-foot concrete highway dividers being dropped from a height of 40 feet. “Two of us were using boom poles to try and get the mics in closer,” notes Peirson. Back in the studio, those recordings provided a wealth of material since each mic captured a completely different sound. “We could layer and build, and that really helped us create all the impacts and destruction we needed for the film.”
While Peirson was busy with the native Atmos mix on Catching Fire, director Lawrence was already in pre-production on Mockingjay, Part 1. “Eight weeks after we finished Catching Fire, they started shooting Mockingjay. A lot of things were all happening at the same time,” he explains. Even though the schedule didn’t allow him to be more involved in the pre-production on Mockingjay, Part 1, Peirson did get the script early enough to start planning how they would handle important scenes, like the singing of the Hanging Tree song.
“The people in the Districts are rising up and singing this anthem to inspire them to rebel against The Capitol. We didn’t want to go with the classic choir of professionally trained singers. We wanted this to be rustic and real,” reports Peirson. He and Fasal flew to Atlanta to record roughly 100 actors on-set singing the Hanging Tree. While director Lawrence was filming the principal characters, Peirson led the extras to an abandoned warehouse where several mics were set up. They were able to record multiple passes of the song. “It was so hot and sunny and we were trying to keep everybody cool. The acoustics inside the warehouse were nice, as long as people weren’t walking around on the broken glass.” Peirson was also able to record the extras walking around on-set. “We had a mix of elements to play with it. It worked out really well.”
Director Lawrence and Peirson developed a workflow where Peirson is embedded in the picture department, working side by side with them. As the film is being edited, he’s cutting the sound. This allows the director to hear rough sound ideas and make comments. “We don’t spot as much because Francis [Lawrence] lets me do a first pass, and as he’s coming into my room listening to ideas, we make adjustments. He tells me where big visual effects are going to happen, so I’m aware of what’s coming.” Peirson and his team edited and pre-mixed in Avid Pro Tools 10. Because of the unique workflow with director Lawrence, where Peirson is in the cutting room building rough 7.1 mixes for the editor, Peirson says his pre-dubs really start the moment editing starts. “It’s more of an evolutionary process. Each step along the way, the track keeps building. We had several screenings — studio screenings, friends and family screenings — and those mixes came out of my room. The final mix evolved from this virtual mix that we’ve been building since day one.”
Mixing Natively in Atmos
The final native Atmos mix was done at Warner Bros. Sound on Dub Stage 6. “It’s an all virtual ICON stage,” explains Peirson. “I was able to seamlessly transition the work I did on a D-Command in my cutting room to the D-Control on Dub Stage 6. In terms of how we’re set up for Atmos, working virtually in Pro Tools just makes it so seamless. You don’t have to think about being in Atmos. You can just mix, and that’s awesome.”
Some highlights of the Atmos mix include the bombing of District 13 by The Capitol forces. Since the bunker is underground, Peirson was able to put the initial bomb impacts and explosions in the ceiling speakers and have aftershock elements travel down the walls and move around the theater. In another shorter scene, a dam explodes and a tidal wave of water covers the entire camera. “There was an opportunity to just fill up the room with a big rush of water and any elements to help sell that idea. From that short scene it goes to a very wide shot. So you go from this real enveloping sound to a much quieter scene, and then the dam really blows up.”
Even though the film was also mixed in 5.1 and 7.1, it’s the Atmos mix that audiences should seek out. “We mixed natively in Atmos, so this is really the movie the filmmakers intended it to be,” says Peirson. “It gives us a specificity in detail that you can’t get in any other system right now. It allows us a lot of creative flexibility.”
He feels the difference between 7.1 and Atmos is similar to the difference between standard definition and HD picture: more detail means a more interesting picture. “On the other hand, I don’t necessarily want people going to the movie listening for the movie. I want them to just enjoy the experience. If they’re listening to what we do, or if they’re distracted by something we did, then we failed as sound professionals. We are there to support the story and Atmos allowed us the best possible way to do that.”
Jennifer Walden, an audio post pro and writer, is based in New Jersey.