Glenn Freemantle sounds off on making this film’s audio authentic
By Jennifer Walden
Immovable, but not insurmountable, Mount Everest has always loomed large in the minds of ambitious adventurers who seek to test their mettle against nature’s most imposing obstacle course, with unpredictable weather.
Reaching the summit takes more than just determination, it requires training, teamwork and a bit of stubborn resolve not to die. Even then, there’s no guarantee that what, or who, goes up will come down. Director Baltasar Kormákur’s film Everest, from Universal Studios, is based on the tragic true story of two separate expeditions who sought to reach the summit on the same day, May 10th 1996, only to be bested by a frigid tempest.
Supervising sound editor/sound designer Glenn Freemantle at Sound24, based at Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, UK, was in charge of building Everest’s blustery sound personality. All the wind, snow and ice sounds that lash the film’s characters were carefully crafted in post and designed to take the viewer on a journey up the mountain.
“Starting at the bottom and going right to the top, you feel like you are moving through the different camps,” explains Freemantle. “We tried to make each location as interesting as possible. The film is all about nature; it’s all about how the viewer would feel on that mountain. We always wanted the viewer to feel that journey that they were on.”
In addition to Freemantle, Sound24’s crew includes sound design editors Eilam Hoffman, Niv Adiri, Ben Barker, Tom Sayers and sound effects editors Danny Freemantle and Dillon Bennett.
Glenn Freemantle and his sound team collected thousands of wind sounds, like strong winter winds from along the shores of western England, Ireland and Scotland. They recorded wide canyon winds and sand storms in the deserts of Israel, and on Santorini, they recorded strong tonal mountain winds. At the base camp on Mount Everest, they set out recorders day and night to capture what it sounded like there at different times. “At the base camp on Everest, even if we didn’t use all the recordings from there, we got the sense of the real environment, exactly what it was like. From a cinematic point of view, we used that as a basis, but obviously we were also trying to tell a story with the sound,” he says.
To capture ambience from various altitudes on Everest, Freemantle sent two small recording set-ups with the camera crew who filmed at the top of Everest. “The equipment had to be small, portable and resistant to the extreme conditions,” he explains. For these set-ups, owner of Telinga Microphones, Klas Strandberg, created a small, custom-made omnidirectional mic for an A/B set-up, as well as a pair of cardioid mics in XY configuration that were connected to two Sony D100 recorders.
The best way to record wind is to have it sing through something, so on their wind capturing outings, Freemantle and crew brought along an assortment of items — sieves, coat hangers, bits of metal, pans, all sorts of oddities that would produce different tones as the wind moved through and around them. They also set up tents, like those used in the film, to capture the tent movements in the wind. “We used a multi-mic set-up to record the sound so you felt like you were in the middle of all of these situations. We put the mics in the corners and in the center of the tent, and then we shook it. We also left them up for the night,” he says.
They used Sennheiser MKH8020s, MKH8050s and MKH8040s paired with multiple Sound Devices 744T and 722 recorders set at 192k/24-bit. For high-frequency winds, they chose the Sanken COS-100k, which can capture sounds up to 100kHz. “This allowed us to pitch down the inaudible wind to audible frequencies (between 20Hz – 20kHz) and create the bass for powerful tonal winds.”
With wind being a main player in the sound, Freemantle’s design focused on its dynamics. Changing the speed of the wind, the harshness of the wind and also the weight of the wind kept it interesting. “We were moving the sound all the time, and that was really effective. There was a 20-minute section of storm in there, which wasn’t easy to build,” explains Freemantle. “We would mix a scene for a day and then walk away. You can exhaust your ears mixing a film like this.”
Having the opportunity to revisit the stormy sequences allowed the sound team to compare the different storms and wind-swept scenes, and make adjustments. One of their biggest challenges was making sure each storm didn’t feel too big, or lack dynamics. “We wanted to have something different happening for each storm or camp so the audience could feel the journey of these people. It had to build up to the big storm at the end. We’d have to look at the whole film to make sure we weren’t going wrong. The sound needed to progress.”
In addition to wind, Freemantle and his team recorded sounds of snow and ice. They purchased a few square meters of snow and froze big chunks of ice for their recording sessions. “We got all the gear the actors were wearing and we put the jackets and things into the freezer overnight, so they would have that feeling, that frozen texture, that they would have out there in the weather,” he says. “We tried to do everything we could to make it sound as real as possible. It’s exhausting how that weather makes you feel, and it was all from a human point of view that we tried to create the weather that was around them.”
The weather sounds weren’t the only thing to be recreated for Everest. The soundtrack also hosts a sizable amount of ADR thanks to massive wind machines that were constantly blowing on set, and the actors having to wear masks didn’t help the dialogue intelligibility either. “That’s why the film is 90 percent re-recorded dialogue,” shares Freemantle. “Sound mixer Adrian Bell did a hell of a job in those conditions, but they are wearing all of these masks so you can hardly hear them. Everything had to be redone.”
The dialogue was so muffled at times that it was difficult for the picture-editing department to cut Everest. Director Kormákur asked for a quick ADR track of the whole film, using sound-alike actors when the real ones weren’t available. In addition, he also asked for a rough sound design and Foley pass, giving Freemantle about a week to mock it up. “You couldn’t follow the film. They couldn’t run it for the producers to get a sense of the story because you couldn’t hear what the actors were saying,” he says. “So we recreated the whole dialogue sequence for the film, and we quickly cut — from our sound libraries — all the footsteps and we did a quick cloth pass so they had a complete soundtrack in a very short period of time.”
During the ADR session for the final tracks, Freemantle notes the actors wore weight vests and straps around their chests to make it difficult for them to breathe and talk, all in an effort to recreate the experience of what is happening to them on screen. As CG was being added to the picture, with more sprays of snow and ice, the actors could react to the environment even more.
“Having to re-create their performances was a curse in one way, but it was a blessing because then we had control over every single sound in the soundtrack. We had control of every part of their breathing, every noise from their gear and outfits. We have everything so we could pull the perspective in the sound at any given moment and not bring along a lot of muck with it.”
Everest was mixed in three immersive formats: Dolby Atmos, Barco Auro-3D and IMAX 12.0. “Each one of the formats works really well and you really feel like you are in the film,” reports Freemantle. “The weight of the sound hits you in the theater. There is a lot of bass in there. With sound, you are moving the air around, so you are feeling it when the storm hits. The presence of the bass hits you in the chest.”
But it’s not a continuous aural onslaught —there are highs and lows, with rumbly wind fighting against the side of the mountain on Hillary Step and hissing wind higher up towards the summit. “You have to have detail and the sounds should be helping to tell the story,” he says. “It’s not about how much you put in — in the end, it’s about what you take out when you finish. That’s very important. You don’t want the film to be just a massive noise.”
Everest was mixed natively in the Dolby Atmos theatre at Pinewood Studios by Freemantle and re-recording mixers Niv Adiri, CAS, and Ian Tapp, CAS. Sound24’s tried and tested Avid set-up helped bring the sounds of Everest to life, working on the powerful Avid System 5 large-format console, using Pro Tools 11 with EUCON control. Their goal was to put the audience on the mountain with the climbers without overwhelming them with a constant barrage of sound. “The journey the characters are going through is both mental and physical, and mixing in Atmos helped us bring these emotions to the audience,” says Adiri. Since director Kormákur’s focus was on the human tragedy, the dialogue scenes were intimately shot. This enabled the mixers to shift the bala
nce towards dialogue in these sequences and maintain the emotional contact with the characters. In the Atmos format they could position sounds around the audience to immerse them in the scene without having the sounds sit on top of the dialogue. “The sheer weight and power of the sound that the Atmos system produces was perfect for this film, particularly in the storm sequence, where we were able to make the sound an almost physical experience for the audience, yet still maintain the clarity of the dialogue and not make the whole thing unbearable to watch,” says Tapp.
Once the final Atmos mix was approved by director Kormákur, the tracks were taken to Galaxy Studios in Mol, Belgium, for the Barco 3D-Auro mix, and then it was on to Toronto’s Technicolor for the 12.0 IMAX mix. Despite the change in format, the integrity of the film was kept the same. The mix they defined in Atmos was the blueprint for the other formats.
For Freemantle, the best part of making Everest was being able to capture the journey. To make the audience feel like they are moving up the mountain, and make them feel cold and distressed. “You want to feel that contact, that physical contact like you are in it, like the snow is hitting your face and the jacket around you. When people watch it you want them to experience it because it’s a true story and you want them to feel it. If they are feeling it, then they are feeling the emotion of it.”
For more on Everest, read out interview with editor Mick Audsley.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.