Sound effects and dialog design for ‘The Martian’

By Mel Lambert

In The Martian, during a manned mission to Mars astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and is left behind by his crew. With only meager supplies, he is forced to draw upon his scientific ingenuity to signal NASA that he is alive and awaits rescue. Based on the book by Andy Weir and a screenplay by Drew Goddard, the film adaptation of Twentieth Century Fox’s The Martian was directed by Ridley Scott.

“I had read both the book and the script months before we started post sound on The Martian,” recalls supervising sound editor and sound designer Oliver Tarney, who was nominated for an Oscar for his sound editing work on Captain Phillips. “This meant that I could start thinking about the design of the sound long before I received the first turnover. I’d also spoken to picture editor Pietro Scalia, ACE, about how he and director Ridley Scott wanted to approach the soundtrack. The number one priority was keeping the audience connected to what the character Mark Watney (Matt Damon) was experiencing throughout his journey, so I knew we had to have a palette of sounds that described the isolation and jeopardy of his situation, right from the time we started on the director’s cut.”

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A month before he started on the film, Tarney took a road trip around the southwestern part of the US and brought along his recording equipment (shown right). “I wanted to build up a library of desert winds and footsteps in remote areas such as the salt flats in Death Valley and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. I’d ended up in Los Angeles for a few days before returning home to London and the opportunity came up to visit the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena to record the Mars rover.”

He says the JPL engineers at the Mars Yard were incredibly helpful, not just in giving him access to recording the Rover but also giving him an insight into the NASA approach.

The soundtrack was edited and re-recorded at Twickenham Studios/TW1 in West London, with Paul Massey handling dialog/music and mixer/editor Mark Taylor overseeing sound effects. Michael Fentum was co-sound designer, Rachael Tate was dialog/ADR supervisor, James Harrison was sound effects editor, Hugo Adams was the Foley supervisor and Tony Lewis was music editor.

“While recording the Rover,” Tarney recalls, “what became immediately apparent was that although the engineering is absolutely state of the art, there is also this raw, buzzing, whirring and — surprisingly — unsophisticated element to it. The cost of sending anything into space is so extreme that these machines have to be purely functional, stripped down to the bare minimum… aesthetics and ergonomics are secondary to function.”

L-R: Dafydd Archard,; Rachael Tate,Oliver Tarney, Mark Taylor and Michael Fentum. Not pictured: Paul Massey.

L-R: Sound mix technician Dafydd Archard,  Rachael Tate, Oliver Tarney, Mark Taylor and Michael Fentum. Not pictured: Paul Massey.

That realization became the basis for Tarney’s sound design. “We needed to convey the austere rawness of the technology used in keeping Mark Watney alive,” he says. “Mike Fentum and I recorded a huge library of sounds with Schertler contact mics, building up a palette of electrical buzzes, clicks and whirs that would be the basis for the equipment Watney uses in the film. It helped to describe that, although there may be billions of dollars of technology up there, there’s also a certain fragility and therefore constant threat to life. The raw sounds of the technology also played along with the fact that Watney himself is an engineer and could access, repair and re-imagine uses for it, which he does throughout the film.”

This was the fourth film on which Tarney had worked with director Scott — including Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Counselor. “You start to get to know some of the regulars he uses in other departments,” he says. “The costume department was very generous in giving us both a Mars surface suit and an EVA space suit right from day one of sound. Janty Yates’ detailed work on the suits is absolutely beautiful, but the best bit for us was that they sounded great!

“The very first scenes sent to Ridley and Pietro [Scalia] to review were of Watney outside on the Mars surface. The footstep recordings I’d made in the desert, combined with the suit Foley and temp helmet breaths, worked really effectively. They made sure that even during the director’s cut, viewers were always connected to Watney’s plight – experiencing the isolation, the discomfort of the heavy suit and the claustrophobic in-helmet breaths. Although the visuals are truly beautiful, we wanted to remind the audience that survival on the inhospitable surface of Mars is near-impossible for any lone human.”

Tarney says Scott wanted Watney’s Habitat on Mars to sound like he was living inside a life-support system. “We still wanted to have the same sense of the raw technology at play here, but with an almost womb-like protection from the dangers of Mars,” states Tarney. “We recorded very low frequencies oscillating extremely loudly though a subwoofer loudspeaker in a range of rooms, and also inside spaces such as filing cabinets. Those tracks made up the foundations of that environment. The rhythmic nature of the sounds adds an almost comforting feeling. But because Ridley wanted us to sell the idea that the Habitat wasn’t designed for use over such a long period of time, as the film progressed we also introduced various BPM-matched squeaks and creaks to the pulses. Again, the technology is there, but it is not pretty, just purely functional. With the Habitat designed to last for only 31 days, it degrades slowly, as the narrative unfolds.

(from left) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars.

Tarney considers that the Habitat sounds are particularly effective in Dolby Atmos immersive format. “Mark Taylor was part of the sound editorial team before he switched to mixing the FX,” he says. “He had a 9.1 set-up in his cutting room, which allowed Mike Fentum and me to review our ambiences and discuss with Mark which elements we should be looking to bleed into the overheads. The extended low frequencies in Atmos were incredibly useful in giving us that ‘enveloped’ sound we were looking for when mixing those Habitat scenes.”

“I pre-mixed all the sound effects and Foley virtually in Pro Tools,” Taylor confirms. “This [approach] gives me ultimate flexibility if something needs to be removed or altered on an elemental level. I then routed the separate buss outputs from Pro Tools into the Neve DFC console as pre-dub inputs. I love what the DFC does EQ- and dynamics-wise; it makes material blend nicely, with some gentle compression and a final EQ shaping on each pre-dub. I also love the console’s overheads pan feature, which I used extensively for the Atmos mix, with all the Hab interiors being sent in varying measure to these overhead loudspeaker channels.”

Designing Dialog and ADR
At first glance, it might appear that for the dialog department The Martian soundtrack was pretty straight forward, since most of the screen time is composed of one character who is alone on Mars. But dialog/ADR supervisor Rachael Tate quickly realized the film was actually going to be very multi-layered and technically demanding. “Our biggest challenge was the opening scene of the film,” she explains, “with a dust storm so fierce that it forces the crew to abort their mission. Ridley is always thinking about the story, so dialog clarity is paramount.

“Most of the dialog in the storm is played as if we are overhearing radio comms between the characters,” she continues. “We had to find a way of getting the lines to cut through the immersive FX of the storm without it becoming painfully sharp or distorted. We did this by using a blend of three different helmet-‘worldized’ treatments [secured by replaying dialog lines in the actual costumes], and altered slightly depending on the tone, projection and pitch of each line. Often a great sounding Futz for a low male voice will be too harsh and crisp for a female shouting at the top of her voice. Despite this, we retained a consistency, with dialog re-recording mixer Paul Massey skillfully blending within the boundaries of the overall effect we wanted to create.”

Early on, the editorial team experimented with a multitude of DAW plug-ins but found that the most effective results always came from worldizing. “We fed all in-helmet dialogue through an Avantone speaker that was placed inside a helmet we’d been given by production using a Sanken Cos-11 lavalier mic clipped inside to record the results,” explains Tate. Right from the beginning of sound post, I had this setup as an Aux Send from my Pro Tools session. This arrangement really helped instill that sense of claustrophobia Ridley was seeking to emphasize.”

Helmut mic.

Helmet mic.

Another example came when the team needed to create a sense of distance while NASA Mission Control is monitoring the communications between Watney and the Hermes space vehicle holding the Ares III crew as it returned to Earth, some 140 million miles away. “We set up a tube shortwave transmitter in one room and broadcast the lines to an old radio in another, using a [Placid Audio] Copperphone mic,” she explains. “The naturally lo-fi result gave a far more believable sense that these lines had travelled through the ether, rather than having been processed.”

NASA was particularly cooperative, Tate reports, by providing help in re-creating the world of Houston’s Mission Control. “We were put in touch with a great group of NASA employees who work regularly in Mission Control. They were amazing, immediately giving those scenes the textures we needed, with those unique timbres in the way they communicate. The way they deliver lines is incredibly flat; it’s just about delivering information to each other in the most efficient way, rather than performing a line. They provided not only general comms for background color, but we also got them to react to specific story points and launches throughout the film so that we could create 360-degree NASA activity, specific to on-screen events.”

In the studio’s EPK, Scott said, “This is the ultimate survival story. Mark Watney is placed under unimaginable duress and isolation; the movie is about how he responds. Mark’s fate was determined by whether he succumbed to panic and despair and accepted death as inevitable — or chose to rely on his training, resourcefulness and sense of humor to stay calm and solve problems.”

The Martian, which has been garnering Oscar buzz, is in theaters now.

Mel Lambert is principal of Content Creators, an LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. Follow him on Twitter @MelLambertLA.


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