Tag Archives: Jennifer Walden

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.

The new Tom and Jerry Show score combines vintage and modern sounds

By Jennifer Walden

Tom and Jerry have been locked in conflict since the 1940s when animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera pitted cat against mouse in a theatrical animated series for MGM’s cartoon studio. Their Academy Award-winning Tom and Jerry short films spurred numerous iterations over the years by different directors and animation studios.

The latest reboot, The Tom and Jerry Show, produced by Warner Bros. Animation and Renegade Animation, and directed by Darrell Van Citters, started airing on Cartoon Network in 2014. It didn’t really come into its own until Season 2, which began airing in 2016.

Vivek Maddala

Vivek Maddala is co-composer on the series. “The storytelling is getting better and better. Ostensibly, it’s a children’s show but what I’m finding is the writers seem to be having a lot of fun with allegorical references. It features layered storytelling that children probably wouldn’t be able to appreciate. For example, Tom’s love interest, a cat named Toodles, is an aspiring dancer by night but her day job is being a spot welder for heavy construction. Obviously, this is a Flashdance reference, so I was able to thread oblique references to Flashdance in the score.”

New episodes of The Tom and Jerry Show are currently airing on Cartoon Network, and Maddala will be composing 39 of the episodes in Season 3.

As with Hanna-Barbera’s animated theatrical shorts, the characters of Tom and Jerry rarely talk, although other recurring characters are voiced. Music plays an essential role in describing the characters’ actions and reactions. Maddala’s compositions are reminiscent of composer Scott Bradley’s approach to the original Tom and Jerry animations. Comfortable cartoon tropes like trumpet blasts and trombone slides, pizzicato plucks and timpani bounces punctuate a string-and woodwind-driven score. “Scott Bradley’s scoring technique is the gold standard. It is beautiful writing,” he says.

In their initial conversations, director Van Citters regularly referenced Bradley’s scoring technique. Maddala studied those scores carefully and frequently revisits them while writing his own scores for the show. Maddala also listens to “music that is completely unrelated, like Led Zeppelin or Marvin Gaye, to help jog my imagination. The music I’m writing for the show very much sounds like me. I’m taking some of the approaches that Scott Bradley used but, ultimately, I am using my own musical vocabulary. I have a certain way of hearing drama and hearing action, and that’s what the score sounds like.”

Maddala’s vintage-meets-modern compositions incorporate contemporary instrumentation and genres like blues guitar for when the cool stray cat comes onto the scene, and an electro-organ of the muziak persuasion for a snack food TV commercial. His musical references to Flashdance can heard in the “Cat Dance Fever” episode, and he gives a nod to Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven in the episode “Uncle Pecos Rides Again.”

Each new musical direction or change of instrument doesn’t feel abrupt. It all melts into the quintessential Tom and Jerry small orchestra sound. “Darrell Van Citters and Warner Bros. are giving me quite a bit of autonomy in coming up with my own musical solutions to the action on-screen and the situations that the characters are experiencing. I’m able to draw from a lot of different things that inspire me,” explains Maddala.

Instruments & Tools
His score combines live recordings with virtual instruments. His multi-room studio in Los Angeles houses a live room, his main composing room and a separate piano room. Maddala keeps a Yamaha C3 grand piano and a drum kit always mic’d up so he can perform those parts whenever he needs. He also records small chamber groups there, like double-string quartets and woodwind quartets. The string ensembles sometimes consist of seven violins (four first and three second), three violas and three cellos, captured using a Blumlein pair recording configuration (a stereo recording technique that produces a realistic stereo image) with ribbon mics to evoke a vintage sound. He chooses AEA N8 ribbon mics matched with AEA’s RPQ 500 mic pre-amps.

Maddala also uses several large diaphragm tube condenser mics he designed for Avid years ago, such as the Sputnik. “The Sputnik is a cross between a classic Neumann U47 capsule with the original M7 design, and an AKG C 12 mic with the original CK12 capsule. The capsule is sort of like a cross between those two mics. The head amp is based on the Telefunken ELA M 251.”

Maddala’s composing room.

Maddala uses three different DAWs. He composes in Cakewalk’s Sonar on a PC and runs video through Steinberg’s Cubase on a Mac. The two systems are locked together via SMPTE timecode. On the Mac, he also runs Avid Pro Tools 12 for delivering stems to the dub stage. “The dub is done in Pro Tools so they usually ask to have a Pro Tools session delivered to them. Once the score is approved, I copy the stems into a Pro Tools session so it’s self-contained, save that and post it to the FTP server.”

Maddala got his start in composing for film by scoring classic silent films from the 1920s, which Warner Bros. and TCM restored in order to release them to today’s audiences. He worked with recording/mix engineer Dan Blessinger on those silent films, and Blessinger — the sound designer on The Tom and Jerry Show, recommended Maddala for the gig. “A lot of the classic silent films from the 1920s never had a score associated with them because the technology didn’t exist to marry sound and picture. About 10 or 15 years ago, when TCM was releasing these films to modern audiences, they needed new scores. So I started doing that, which built up my chops for scoring something like a Tom & Jerry cartoon where there is wall-to-wall music,” concludes Maddala.


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

Bates Motel’s Emmy-nominated composer Chris Bacon

By Jennifer Walden

The creators of A&E’s Bates Motel series have proven that it is possible to successfully rework a classic film for the small screen. The series, returning for Season 5 in 2017, is a contemporary prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It tells the story of how a young Norman Bates becomes the Norman Bates of film legend.

Understandably, when the words “contemporary” and “prequel” are combined, it may induce a cringe or two, as LA-based composer Chris Bacon admits. “When I first heard about the series, I thought, ‘That sounds like a terrible idea.’ Usually when you mess with an iconic film, the project can go south pretty quick, but then I heard who was involved — writers/producers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin. I’m a huge fan of their work on Lost and Friday Night Lights, so the idea sounded much more appealing. I went from feeling like ‘this is a terrible idea’ to ‘how do I get involved in this!’”

Chris Bacon

Bacon, who has been the Bates Motel composer since Season 1, says their goal from the start was to make a series that wasn’t a Psycho knock-off. “It was not our goal to tip our hats in obvious ways to Psycho. We weren’t trying to make it an homage. We weren’t trying to inhabit the universe that was so masterfully created by Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann,” he explains.

Borrowing Some Strings
Having a long-established love of Herrmann’s music, it was hard for Bacon not to follow the composer’s lead, particularly when it came to instrumentation. Bates Motel’s score strongly features — you guessed it — strings. “One reason Herrmann stuck solely to strings was because the film was black and white,” explains Bacon. “He chose a monochromatic palette, as far as sound goes, without having woodwind and percussion. On the series, I take it farther. I use percussion and synth effects, but it is mostly string driven.”

Since the strings are the core of the score, Bacon felt the expressive qualities that live musicians add to the music would be more emotionally impactful than what he could get from virtual instruments. “I did the first three episodes using all virtual instruments. They sounded good and they did their job dramatically, but in talking further to the people involved who handle the purse strings, I was able to convince them to try an episode with a real string section.”

Once Bacon was able to A/B the virtual strings against the real strings, there was no denying the benefit of a live string section. “They could hear what real musicians can bring to the music —the kind of homogenous imperfection that comes when you have that many people who are all outstanding but with each of them treating the music just a little bit differently. It brings new life to it. There’s a lot of depth to it. I feel very fortunate and appreciative that the account team on the show has been supportive of this.”

Tools & Workflow
For the score each week, Bacon composes in Steinberg Cubase and runs Ableton Live via ReWire by Propellerhead. His samples are hosted in Vienna Ensemble Pro on a separate computer while all audio is monitored and processed through Avid Pro Tools on a separate rig. Since his compositions start with virBates Motel -- "Forever" -- Cate Cameron/A&E Networks -- © 2016 A&E Networks, LLC. All Rights Reservedtual instruments, Bacon has an extensive collection of sample libraries. He uses string libraries from Cinesamples, 8Dio and Spitfire Audio. “I have lots of custom stuff,” he says. “I love the Vintage Steinway D Piano from Galaxy.”

Once he’s completed the cues, he hands his MIDI tracks over to orchestrator Robert Litton, who determines the note assignments for each member of the 18-piece string section. The group is recorded at The Bridge Recording studio in Glendale, California, owned by Greg Curtis. There, Bacon joins recording engineer James Hill in the control room. “I enjoy conducting if I can, but on this series it makes more sense for me to be in the control room because we often have only three hours to record roughly 35 minutes of music. Also, the music always sounds different in the control room. Ultimately, when you are doing this kind of work, what matters is what is coming out of the speakers because that’s what you’re actually going to hear in the soundtrack.”

After the live strings are recorded, engineer Hill mixes those against the virtual instrument stems of the woodwinds, percussion and synth elements. He creates a stem of the live strings to replace the virtual strings stem.

“We don’t do an in-depth mix like you would typically do for film,” says Bacon. “At this point, I’m able to leave Jim [Hill] the demo song as a reference and let him do a quick mix. Then, he creates a live string stem and all of those stems are sent over to the dub stage.”

In Season 4, Ep. 9 “Forever,” the moment arrived when young Norman (Freddie Highmore) did what he was destined to do— kill his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga). That’s not much of a spoiler if you’re familiar with the film Psycho, but what wasn’t known was just how Norman would do it. “This death scene was something I had been thinking about for four years. The way they did it — and I think they got it right — was that they made the death a very personal, emotional, thoughtful and, in a very twisted way, probably the most considerate way you can kill your mother,” laughs Bacon. “But really it was the only way that he and his mother, these two damaged broken people, could find peace together… and that was in death.”

The Norma/Norman Theme
In the four-and-a half-minute scene that reveals Norma and Norman’s lifeless bodies, Bacon portrays tension, fear and sadness by weaving a theme that he wrote for Norma with a theme he wrote for Norman and Norma. Norma’s theme in the death scene plays on a large section of violins as her new husband Alex (Nestor Carbonell) tries to resuscitate her.

“The foundation for her song has been laid over the course of two seasons, starting in Season 2, where we look at her family background, like her parents and her brother, and discover how she became her,” explains Bacon. “I didn’t really know which of her themes I was going to use for her death scene, but it seemed to feel, as we’re looking at Norma, that this is a moment about her, so I went back to that theme.”

As Norman wakes up, Bacon’s theme for Norman and Norma plays on sparse piano. In comparison to Norma’s theme on soaring strings, this theme feels small, and lost, highlighting Norman’s shock and sadness that he’s survived but now she’s gone. “The score had to convey a lot of emotions,” describes Bacon. “I tried to keep it relatively simple but as we went bigger it seemed to fit the enormity of the moment. This is a big moment that we all knew was coming and kind of dreaded. The piece feels different than the rest of the show, and rightfully so, while still being a part of the same sonicBates Motel -- "Norman" -- Cate Cameron/A&E Networks -- © 2016 A&E Networks, LLC. All Rights Reserved landscape.”

His original dramatic score on the “Forever” episode has been nominated for a 2016 Emmy award. Bacon says he chose this episode, above all the others in Season 4, because of the emotionally visceral death scene. It’s a big moment for the story and the score.

“During the whole death sequence there are barely any words. Alex is saying, ‘Stay with me,’ to Norma. Then you have Norman wake up and say, ‘Mother?’ at the very end. But that’s it. That section is like a silent movie in a lot of ways. It’s very reliant on the score.”

VR Audio: Crytek goes to new heights for VR game ‘The Climb’

By Jennifer Walden

Dealing with locomotion, such as walking and especially running, is a challenge for VR content developers — but what hasn’t been a challenge in creating VR content? Climbing, on the other hand, has proved to be a simple, yet interesting, locomotion that independent game developer Crytek found to be sustainable for the duration of a full-length game.

Crytek, known for the Crysis game series, recently released their first VR game title, The Climb, a rock climbing adventure exclusively for the Oculus Rift. Players climb, swing and jump their way up increasingly difficult rock faces modeled after popular climbing destinations in places like Indonesia, the Grand Canyon and The Alps.

Crytek’s director of audio, Simon Pressey, says their game engine, CryEngine, is capable of UltraHD resolutions higher than 8K. They could have taken GPS data of anywhere in the world and turned that into a level on The Climb. “But to make the climbing interesting and compelling, we found that real geography wasn’t the way to go. Still, we liked the idea of representing different areas of the world,” he says. While the locations Crytek designed aren’t perfect geographical imitations, geologically they’re pretty accurate. “The details of how the rocks look up close — the color, the graininess and texture — they are as close to photorealistic as we can get in the Oculus Rift. We are running at a resolution that the Rift can handle. So how detailed it looks depends on the Rift’s capabilities.”

Keep in mind that this is first-generation VR technology. “It’s going to get better,” promises Pressey. “By the third-generation of this, I’m sure we’ll have visuals you can’t tell apart from reality.”

Simon Pressey

Simon Pressey

The Sound Experience
Since the visuals aren’t perfect imitations of reality, the audio is vital for maintaining immersion and supporting the game play. Details in the audio actually help the brain process the visuals faster. Even still, flaws and all, first-gen VR headsets give the player a stronger connection to his/her actions in-game than was previously possible with traditional 2D (flat screen) games. “You can look away from the screen in a traditional game, but you can’t in VR. When you turn around in The Climb, you can see a thousand feet below you. You can see that it’s a long way down, and it feels like a long way down.”

One key feature of the Oculus Rift is the integrated audio — it comes equipped with headphones. For Pressey, that meant knowing the exact sound playback system of the end user, a real advantage from a design and mix standpoint. “We were designing for a known playback variable. We knew that it would be a binaural experience. Early on we started working with the Oculus-provided 3D encoder plug-in for Audiokinetic’s Wwise, which Oculus includes with their audio SDK. That plug-in provides HRTF binaural encoding, adding the z-axis that you don’t normally experience even with surround sound,” says Pressey.

He explains that the sounds start as mono source-points, positioned in a 3D space using middleware like Wwise. Then, using the Oculus audio SDK via the middleware, those audio signals are being downmixed to binaural stereo, which gets HRTF (head related transfer function) processing, adding a spatialized effect to the sounds. So even though the player is listening through two speakers, he/she perceives sounds as coming from the left, the right, in front, behind, above and below.

Since most VR is experienced with headphones, Pressey feels there is an opportunity to improve the binaural presentation of the audio [i.e., better headphones or in-ear monitors], and to improve 3D positional audio with personalized HRTFs and Ambisonics. “While the visuals are still very apparently a representation of reality, the audio is perceived as realistic, even if it is a totally manufactured reality. The headphone environment is very intimate and allows greater use of dynamic range, so subtle mixes and more realistic recordings and rendering are sort of mandatory.”

Realistic Sound
Pressey leads the Crytek audio team, and together they collaborated on The Climb’s audio design, which includes many different close-up hand movements and grabs that signify the quality of the player’s grip. There are sweaty, wet sounding hand grabs. There are drier, firmer hand grabs for when a player’s hands are freshly chalked. There are rock crumbles for when holds crumble away.

At times a player needs to wipe dirt away from a hold, or brush aside vegetation. These are very subtle details that in most games wouldn’t be sounded, says Pressey. “But in VR, we are going into very subtle detail. Like, when you rub your hands over plants searching for grips, we are following your movement speed to control how much sound it makes as you ruffle the leaves.” It’s that level of detail that makes the immersion work. Even though in real life a sound so small would probably be masked by other environmental sounds, in the intimacy of VR, those sounds engage the player in the action of climbing.

Crytek_TheClimb_Asia_Screenshot4

Breathing and heartbeat elements also pull a player into the game experience. After moving through several holds, a player’s hands get sweaty, and the breathing sound becomes more labored. If the hold crumbles or if a player is losing his/her grip, the audio design employs a heartbeat sound. “It is not like your usual game situation where you hear a heartbeat if you have low health. In The Climb you actually think, “I’ve got to jump!” Your heart is racing, and after you make the jump and chalk your hands, then your heartbeat and your breathing slow down, and you physically relax,” he says.

Crytek’s aim was to make The Climb believable, to have realistic qualities, dynamic environments and a focused sound to mimic the intensity of focus felt when concentrating on important life or death decisions. They wanted the environment sounds to change, such as the wind changing as a player moves around a corner. But, they didn’t want to intentionally draw the player’s attention away from climbing.

For example, there’s a waterfall near one of the climbs, and the sound for it plays subtly in the background. If the player turns to look at it, then the waterfall sound fades up. They are able to focus the player’s attention by attenuating non-immediate sounds. “You don’t want to hear that waterfall as the focus of your attention and so we steer the sound. But, if that is what you’re focusing on, then we want to be more obvious,” explains Pressey.

The Crytek audio team

The Crytek audio team

The Crytek audio team records, designs and edits sounds in Steinberg’s Nuendo 7, which works directly with Audiokinetic’s Wwise middleware that connects directly to the CryEngine. The audio team, which has been working this way for the past two years, feels the workflow is very iterative, with the audio flowing easily in that pipeline from Nuendo 7 to Wwise to CryEngine and back again. They are often able to verify the audio in-game without needing to request code support. If a sound isn’t working in-game, it can be tweaked in Wwise or completely reworked in Nuendo. All aspects of the pipeline are version controlled and built for sharing work across the audio team.

“It’s a really tight workflow and we can do things quickly. In the game world, speed is everything,” says Pressey. “The faster you get your game to market the sooner you recoup on your very heavy R&D.”

Two factors that propelled this workflow are the collaboration between Crytek, Audiokinetic and Steinberg in designing software tailored to the specific needs of game audio pros, and Crytek’s overhaul of CryEngine where they removed the integrated FMOD-based audio engine in favor of using an external audio engine. Running the audio engine separate from the game engine not only improves the game engine efficiency, it also allows updates to the audio engine as needed without fear of breaking the game engine.

Within hours of Wwise releasing an update, for example, Pressey says their system can be up to date. “Previously, it could’ve been a long and complicated process to incorporate the latest updates. There was always the risk of crashing the whole system by making a change because the code was so mixed up with the rest of the system. By separating them we can always be running the latest versions of things without risking anything.”

Having that adaptability is essential for VR content creation since the industry is changing all the time. For example, Sony’s PS4 VR headset release is slated for this fall, so they’re releasing a new SDK about every week or so, according to Pressey.

CryEngine is freely available for anyone to use. VR games developed with CryEngine will work for any VR platform. CryEngine is also audio middleware agnostic, meaning it can talk to any audio middleware, be it Wwise, FMOD or proprietary middleware. Users can choose a workflow that best suits the needs of their game.

Pressey finds creating for VR to be an intensely experimental process, for every discipline involved in game development. While most members on the Crytek team have solved problems relating to a new IP or a new console, Pressey says, “We were not prepared for this amount of new. We were all used to knowing what we were doing, and now we are experimenting with no net to fall back on. The experience is surprisingly different; the interaction using your eye and head tracking is much more physical. It is more intimate. There is an undeniable and inescapable immersion, in that you can’t look away as the game world is all around you. You can’t switch off your ears.” The first time Pressey put on a VR headset, he knew there was no going back. “Before that, I had no real idea. It is the difference between reading about a country and visiting it.”

Upcoming Release
Crytek will be presenting a new VR release titled Robinson — The Journey at E3 this month, and Pressey gives us a few hints as to what the game experience might be like. He says that VR offers new ways of storytelling, such as nonlinear storytelling. “Crytek and the CryEngine team have developed a radically new Dynamic Response System to allow the game to be intelligent in what dialog gets presented to the player at what time. Aspects of a story can be sewn together and presented based on the player’s approach to the game. This technology takes the idea of RPG-like branching storylines to a new level, and allows narrative progression in what I hope will be new and exciting territory for VR.”

The Climb uses this Dynamic Response System in a limited capacity during the tutorial where the instructor is responsive to the player’s actions. “Previously, to be that responsive, a narrative designer or level designer would have to write pages of logic to do what our new system does very simply,” concludes Pressey.

Jennifer Walden is an audio engineer and writer based in New Jersey.

The sound of Netflix’s ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ prequel

Supervising sound editor J.M. Davey weighs in about First Day of Camp.

By Jennifer Walden

David Wain’s homage to summer camp in the 1980s, Wet Hot American Summer (2001), managed to get away with casting actors in their late 20s and early 30s as teenage camp counselors — talk about suspending your disbelief. Well he took that premise a bit further recently.

Wain’s latest offering, the Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, uses the same actors from the first film — Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Showalter, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Zak Orth and Michael Ian Black, all now in their 40s — to recount what happened in those first days that summer at Camp Firewood. It’s a prequel to the Wet Hot American Summer film, but the kicker is that all the actors are now 14 years older in real life — the fact that the characters are noticeably older only serves to accentuate the joke.

J.M. Davey

J.M. Davey

Supervising sound editor J.M. Davey, who is LA-based, may not have worked on the Wet Hot American Summer film, but he’s worked with director/writer Wain on the Emmy award-winning comedy series Childrens Hospital, where he learned first hand about Wain’s comedic use of film references. For example, Wain did an Ocean’s Eleven-style episode that involved robbing a sperm bank. WHAS: First Day of Camp also references films, but in a more general way. “It’s more like we’re doing send-ups of genre conventions instead of referencing specific films,” says Davey.

Knives & Other Kitchen Stuff
That isn’t to say that specific films didn’t influence the sound for certain scenes in First Day of Camp. (Spoiler Alert!) In the action-packed final episode, camp cook Gene takes on government-hired assassin The Falcon (Jon Hamm). The sound for the Kung-Fu knife fight was inspired by the sound work of Tobias Poppe and John Marquis on G.I. Joe: Retaliation. “I really like the way they handled the blades in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. It had this foundation of being a great-sounding action moment with a layer of playfulness on top of it,” explains Davey. A perfect fit for the comedy series, where lightning-quick knife flicks are effortlessly caught between fingers and teeth.

Gene and The Falcon also employ pots, pans and utensils in their fight. The sounds for those were all added in post since the pots on-set were made of rubber for safety reasons. “They look really good, very convincing, especially that big pot that Gene kicks and The Falcon catches,” says Davey, who used a Doppler effect on the pot kick sound to give it a sense of motion. “It sounds like Gene kicked it with such force that it’s vibrating as it flies through the air. So instead of just whooshing, it has this metallic vibration sound.”

To add weight to the metal sounds, particularly on the sound of Gene rolling across a large metal table, Davey used reFuse’s Lowender to add sub-harmonics, as well as Altiverb by Audio Ease for a metallic ring-out. “I really wanted it to feel like it was a grown man rolling across the metal table. I only had two different sounds for that and I had to get creative with pitching and adding detail with reverb to make them work for all the times he rolled across it.”

For punches, Davey used the Boom Library Close Combat Construction Kit in combination with punch movements and swooshes he recorded for the TV miniseries Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. “I like Boom’s construction kits because the sounds are really well recorded and they aren’t over-baked. I can do my own limiting, distortion, and/or compression to shape them how I want to use them.”

In the Camp Firewood face-off with Camp Tiger Claw — the rich kid camp on the other side of the lake — Davey was balancing the sound effects of what’s happening on screen versus what was happening off screen, as well as mixing in a fair amount of dialogue and composer Craig Wedren’s full score.

“I had to braid the dialogue, the music and the effects throughout that scene,” says Davey. “It was very important to watch those scenes over and over again. That’s advice Andy Nelson (Oscar-winning re-recording mixer and sound engineer) once gave me: ‘Watch your work in the biggest chunk you can as many times as you can. Watch as if you were a viewer and not the sound designer.’”

The Music
Music plays a key role in the storyline of First Day of Camp. In addition to the campers staging the musical “Electro City” — complete with auditions, rehearsals and the final performance — there is also a reclusive rock star, Eric (Chris Pine), residing at Camp Firewood. He’s a camp legend. After being signed to a major label by an A&R man attending a camp concert, Eric lost his muse in the recording studio and retreated back to camp to hide.

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Composer Wedren and the musicians at Pink Ape handled all the music, from the musical theater numbers to the rock hits. They replaced the guide tracks used during production with recordings of the actors in the studio. Davey explains that singing from the production tracks, for both the musical theater performances and Eric’s roof-top concert during the final episode, made their way into the final mix. “We wanted to be very careful about the balance between the music sounding realistic in the space and going into full on musical mode where everything sounds great,” he explains.

Davey asked composer Wedren to deliver two sets of stems: one set completely dry and another with Wedren’s studio polish on it. This allowed Davey the freedom to transition from realistic to enhanced musical numbers as it fit the scene. For example, all the auditions for the musical theater were production tracks with the exception of Katie’s performance where they decided to dub her performance to make her (Marguerite Moreau) stand out.

For Eric’s roof-top performance, Davey started out using the production track vocals with realistic reverb and slap and then moved into more musical reverb and slap. Throughout the song, Eric’s vocal track cuts back and forth between the production track and the vocals recorded in the studio. “There was even the loop group singing along for the ‘higher’ lines,” he says. “We were firing on all cylinders, using all the tools in the tool chest to create that moment.”

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The Shofar!
Music editor Emily Kwong was the key to clear communication between Davey and the music team, wrangling the numerous tracks and stems sent by composer Wedren. Kwong also crafted the long shofar solo for Cooperberg’s performance in the final episode. The shofar, a musical instrument made from a ram’s horn and used for Jewish religious purposes, is very difficult to play.

“The shofar is not an instrument that can be played like a jazz trumpet,” says Davey. “We tried to create that solo from samples of shofars, and even other instruments we pitch- and tone-manipulated to sound like a shofar, but that didn’t work.”

Davey ended up recording himself making random noises for several minutes on the shofar. “Emily took that track and put it together in a way that it sounded like somebody struggling through a performance.”

At one point in the series, the entire camp is walking around, blowing shofars. To create that sound, Davey handed out shofars to the loop group and captured the session in L-C-R. “It was great because the loop group didn’t know how to play the shofar and neither did the kids in the camp,” says Davey. “By recording in L-C-R, I had the option of a nice wide stereo track and I could just place the shofars all around and they would all sound different and terrible.”

Production Sound & ADR
Production sound mixer Lee Ascher had his work cut out for him on-set. Davey notes the series is like a Robert Altman film, with many characters interacting and speaking all the time. The series was shot very quickly and in a challenging environment, with traffic and generator noise on some of the tracks. The combination of replacing noisy lines and recording the actors singing resulted in over 475 tracks of ADR. “I made a super-session of the ADR because there was so much of it,” says Davey. “I didn’t even have all the singing because some we recorded at Craig’s studio.”

One challenge for ADR was replacing the voice of George Dalton — the on-camera actor who played Arty, the radio station kid — with Samm Levine’s voice. “George Dalton did an excellent job and really brought that character to life, but it was decided to use Samm’s voice instead. Fortunately for me, Samm is very talented at ADR and voiceover,” reports Davey.

Using Pro Tool’s Elastic Time and Serato’s Pitch ’N Time Pro, Davey tweaked the voice into place. However, something about Levine’s voice wasn’t quite marrying to the visuals. “I experimented and eventually landed on using Pitch ’N Time Pro to pitch up Samm’s voice just slightly (without changing the speed of his dialog). “The latest version of Pitch ’N Time Pro has a ‘Voice’ algorithm that works amazingly well for human voice manipulation. The plug-in is a major tool in my work, from dialog to sound effects design. It’s not an inexpensive plug-in but it’s worth every penny.”

The camp environment is always busy with kid’s activities. Even in the quiet, semi-private moments, like the conversations between Cooperberg and Donna in the cabin, there is still the distant sound of kids. Davey captured unique ambiences of kids playing at parks and in a nature study on a hiking trail to use for the backgrounds. The only time we don’t hear kids, or birds for that matter, is at the toxic sludge site. “I wanted the audience to get a sense that it’s a dangerous place because wildlife stays away from that area. Sound effects editor Charles Maynes, added in some really great, creepy, weird, unfriendly insects in that location,” he says.

Davey also got to work a few vintage sound effects into the series, including a great horned owl hoot from the 1940s to highlight Eric’s creepy cabin, the classic red hawk screech as the sound of The Falcon and computer sounds from the ‘80s that no one gets to use anymore. “David and I are kindred spirits in that we both are computer nerds. He was definitely using computers in the ‘80s, so he was really excited about the sounds we used for that old computer.”

The series is available now on Netflix.

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

Going back in time sonically for ‘Outlander’ series

By Jennifer Walden

While on the surface, it might seem surprising that writer Ron Moore, with his extensive Star Trek credits, created the popular Starz Originals period drama Outlander, but as you dig a bit deeper it all starts to make sense. Outlander is more than just a period piece; it’s about time travel. Who doesn’t love themselves a little time travel?

Outlander, based on the book series by Diana Gabaldon, follows Claire Randall, a British combat nurse on vacation in Scotland with her husband. After touching one large stone in an ancient stone circle she gets transported back in time, from 1945 to 1743. While time travel is sci-fi, that element of the story is but a minuscule moment, with the majority of the storyline happening in 1743. But her being from a different time and place is always front and center to the story, and that is the world that Moore knows well.

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His sci-fi heavy resume includes starting as a writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) before becoming a producer on the show. That was just the beginning of his path to “where no man has gone before.” Work on Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and, finally, Star Trek: Voyager followed. He also had a hand in the Battlestar Galactica franchise, and most recently worked on the sci-fi series Caprica and Helix.

Speaking of Battlestar Galactica, when it came time to get the team together for Outlander’s audio post, Moore called on a familiar face: supervising sound editor/dialogue editor, Vince Balunas, from audio post facility AnEFX in Burbank. Balunas previously worked with both Moore and Outlander’s picture editor, Michael O’Halloran, on Battlestar Galactica.

The Sound of 1743
Balunas says all that prior sci-fi experience may not be applicable to Outlander, but having that knowledge of what Moore and O’Halloran are looking for helped more than anything else when developing the overall sound for Outlander. “There’s a certain grit to the show. Yes it was shot in HD, and next season will possibly be shot in 4K, but there is still a visual grit to it much like there was on Battlestar,” says Balunas. Sonically, Outlander is like Battlestar Galactica in that both focus on sounds that make the world on screen seem tangible.

Vince Balunas

Vince Balunas

“In Battlestar, the ship would be constantly groaning and you’d hear all of this metal creaking,” he says. “There is this tactile feel of the CIC (Combat Information Center of the ship’s bridge). We grounded Outlander the same way; it’s like actually being there in 1743.”

Balunas notes the scope of Outlander, visually and sonically, is huge. Without any big music moments to hide behind, Balunas needed sound for every movement that happened on screen because without it, he says, the scene felt naked. He worked with lead sound designer/effects editor Jeff Brunello at AnEFX. “We understood that we were going to be building this show a whole lot bigger than other shows,” says Balunas. They filled out the soundtrack with elaborate backgrounds made from wind, rain and rivers — everything you’d find in the Scottish Highlands. “It’s a very wide build compared to other shows we do for network television.”

Small sound details help ground the show in reality, and pull the audience in close to the action. When the characters are on horses walking through the rolling fields of Scotland, Moore and the Starz team wanted to hear every step of that horse. “They wanted to hear a little bit of rattle, leather creaks and other small details to bring the scene to life,” says Balunas. “My Foley track count doubled in size for this show.”

AnEFX handles all of Outlander’s Foley in-house, with a team led by supervising Foley editor Sam Lewis and Foley artist Brian Straub. “Our two main Foley guys both recorded Foley and edited the Foley,” reports Balunas. “More than anything, the Foley on the show is very detailed and very specific.”

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As expected with scenes set in 1743, it’s absolutely unacceptable to hear modern sounds, like airplanes or traffic. Luckily, Balunas didn’t have trouble in that department. The production tracks from sound mixer Brian Milliken were tremendously clean. “There was no evidence of any kind of modern sounds throughout the whole entire production of the first season. Brian [Miliken] did a really good job of giving us good clean audio to work with. There weren’t any challenges with the production dialogue.”

In contrast, for scenes that take place in 1945, Balunas and his team added sounds to intentionally emphasize technology. “When we’re in the police station, we really want to hear the phones ringing and cars go by,” says Balunas. “We want to make sure that people know that scene is in 1945 in Scotland.”

Balunas feels that starting with good production sound was really a key to the show sounding great. Without having to sync up tons of ADR, or heavily process the dialogue to improve clarity, he was able to focus on his sound team. “The biggest thing about Outlander is its size. It’s a very large show with a lot of elements to manage.”

Sound editorial, Foley, most ADR, and premixes were completed at AnEFX. Balunas and his team typically spent 8-10 days per episode on sound editorial. “The schedule was spread apart and we worked on the series in waves. We would do three episodes one month and then take a month and a half off before doing another two episodes.”

Their sound editorial schedule was dependent on how long it took for picture to lock. “We had a very liquid schedule that wasn’t your standard TV schedule of five days to get an episode done, and then next week it’s another five days for the next episode,” he says. “It wasn’t remotely close to that.”

The final mix happened with re-recording mixers Nello Torri and Alan Decker at BluWave Audio at NBC Universal in Studio B. Working with four days per episode, Torri and Decker mixed the show in 7.1 with delivery to Starz for air in 5.1. “For episodes like the witch trial episode, we needed every second of that four-day mix,” says Balunas. “We had everyone and their mother talking on-camera. That was a really big show for us.”

The Season 1 finale of Outlander was May 30, but feel free to binge watch on Starz.

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

‘Modern Marvels’ takes on the Panama Canal expansion project

By Jennifer Walden

Have you noticed just how casually people throw around the word “epic” these days? For example, “That burrito I just ate was epic!” Or, “That concert I went to last night was epic.” For the record, those things are not epic. What truly is epic? The new Panama Canal expansion project that has been documented via a Modern Marvels special on the History Channel.

The episode, which premieres on April 11, focuses on a 50-mile-long construction site, populated with thousands of workers and segmented into roughly 150 micro job sites. They even had to build an on-site concrete plant to meet the concrete demand for 10-story high, Continue reading

Creating sounds, mix, more for ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1’

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. Continue reading

Outpost Studios on affordable Foley for indies

By Jennifer Walden

Foreign distribution companies insist on a fully formed M&E mix, complete with Foley, but for low-budget films there often isn’t room for it. It’s a catch-22. Not footing the bill for Foley work can keep indie filmmakers from making money in the global market.

Dave Nelson, owner/supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer at Outpost Studios in San Francisco, has an economical solution: using Foley Collection and Kontakt 5 to track Foley when filmmakers can’t afford live Foley sessions. “Films that aren’t financially successful here in the United States often do really well in foreign countries because people are fascinated with American lifestyle.”

Outpost Studios offers 7.1/5.1 Dolby mixing, dialogue editing, sound design, music composition, Foley, ADR and voice recording for the film, digital media and audio book Continue reading

‘Transformers 4: Age of Extinction’ offers heavy metal sound

By Jennifer Walden

Audiences can’t seem to get enough of the good versus evil story involving feuding alien races — Autobots and Decepticons — who hide among us here on earth as cars and trucks. How do I know? Well the fourth Transformers movie, Age of Extinction, pulled in an astonishing $301.3 million worldwide on its opening day. While critics and audiences are strongly divided on their opinion of the movie, Greg Russell, re-recording mixer on the film, sums it up well: “If you’re looking for Shakespeare in Love, this isn’t it.”

Russell, who works out of Technicolor Sound on the Paramount Pictures studio lot in Hollywood, refers to the Michael Bay-directed offering as “a lot of movie.”  And it is, in every sense of the word — this latest Transformers iteration is nearly three hours long. It’s a big story Continue reading