Tag Archives: Skywalker Sound

Ren Klyce: Mixing the score for Star Wars: The Last Jedi

By Jennifer Walden

There are space battles and epic music, foreign planets with unique and lively biomes, blasters, lightsabers, a universe at war and a force that connects it all. Over the course of eight “Episodes” and through numerous spin-off series and games, fans of Star Wars have become well acquainted with its characteristic sound.

Creating the world, sonically, is certainly a feat, but bringing those sounds together is a challenge of equal measure. Shaping the soundtrack involves sacrifice and egoless judgment calls that include making tough decisions in service of the story.

Ren Klyce

Skywalker Sound’s Ren Klyce was co-supervising sound editor, sound designer and a re-recording mixer on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. He not only helped to create the film’s sounds but he also had a hand in shaping the final soundtrack. As re-recording mixer of the music, Klyce got a new perspective on the film’s story.

He’s earned two Oscar nominations for his work on the Rian Johnson-directed The Last Jedi — one for sound editing and another for sound mixing. We reached out to Klyce to ask about his role as a re-recording mixer, what it was like to work with John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score, and what it took for the team to craft The Last Jedi’s soundtrack.

You had all the Skywalker-created effects, the score and all the dialog coming together for the final mix. How did you bring clarity to what could have been be a chaotic soundtrack?
Mostly, it’s by forcing ourselves to potentially get rid of a lot of our hard work for the sake of the story. Getting rid of one’s work can be difficult for anyone, but it’s the necessary step in many instances. When you initially premix sound for a film, there are so many elements and often times we have everything prepared just in case they’re asked for. In the case of Star Wars, we didn’t know what director Rian Johnson might want and not want. So we had everything at the ready in either case.

On Star Wars, we ended up doing a blaze pass where we played everything from the beginning to the end of a reel all at once. We could clearly see that it was a colossal mess in one scene, but not so bad in another. It was like getting a 20-minute Cliff Notes of where we were going to need to spend some time.

Then it comes down to having really skilled mixers like David Parker (dialog) and Michael Semanick (sound effects), whose skill-sets include understanding storytelling. They understand what their role is about — which is making decisions as to what should stay, what should go, what should be loud or quiet, or what should be turned off completely. With sound effects, Michael is very good at this. He can quickly see the forest for the trees. He’ll say, “Let’s get rid of this. These elements can go, or the background sounds aren’t needed here.” And that’s how we started shaping the mix.

After doing the blaze pass, we will then go through and listen to just the music by itself. John Williams tells his story through music and by underscoring particular scenes. A lot of the process is learning what all the bits and pieces are and then weighing them up against each other. We might decide that the music in a particular scene tells the story best.

That is how we would start and then we worked together as a team to continue shaping the mix into a rough piece. Rian would then come in and give his thoughts to add more sound here or less music there, thus shaping the soundtrack.

After creating all of those effects, did you wish you were the one to mix them? Or, are you happy mixing music?
For me personally, it’s a really great experience to listen to and be responsible for the music because I’ve learned so much about the power of the music and what’s important. If it were the other way around, I might be a little more overly focused on the sound effects. I feel like we have a good dynamic. Michael Semanick has such great instincts. In fact, Rian described Michael as being an incredible storyteller, and he really is.

Mixing the music for me is a wonderful way to get a better scope of the entire soundtrack. By not touching the sound effects on the stage, those faders aren’t so precious. Instead, the movie itself and the soundtrack takes precedence instead of the bits and pieces that make it up.

What was the trickiest scene to mix in terms of music?
I think that would have to be the ski speeder sequence on the salt planet of Crait. That was very difficult because there was a lot of dodging and burning in the mix. In other words, Rian wanted to have loud music and then the music would have to dive down to expose a dialogue line, and then jump right back up again for more excitement and then dive down to make way for another dialogue line. Then boom, some sound effects would come in and the Millennium Falcon would zoom by. Then the Star Wars theme would take over and then it had to come down for the dialogue. So we worked that sequence quite a bit.

Our picture editor Bob Ducsay really guided us through the shape of that sequence. What was so great about having the picture editor present was that he was so intimate with the rhythm of the dialogue and his picture cutting. He knew where all of the story points were supposed to be, what motivated a look to the left and so on. Bob would say something like, “When we see Rose here, we really need to make sure we hear her musical theme, but then when we cut away, we need to hear the action.”

Were you working with John Williams’ music stems? Did you feel bad about pulling things out of his score? How do you dissect the score?
Working with John is obviously an incredible experience, and on this film I was lucky enough to work with Shawn Murphy as well, who is really one of my heroes and I’ve known him for years. He is the one who records the orchestra for John Williams and balances everything. Not only does he record the orchestra, but Shawn is a true collaborator with John as well. It’s incredible the way they communicate.

John is really mixing his own soundtrack when he’s up there on the podium conducting, and he’s making initial choices as to which instruments are louder than others — how loud the woodwinds play, how loud the brass plays, how loud the percussion is and how loud the strings are. He’s really shaping it. Between Williams and Murphy, they work on intonation, tuning and performance. They go through and record and then do pickups for this measure and that measure to make sure that everything is as good as it can be.

I actually got to witness John Williams do this incredible thing — which was during the recording of the score for the Crait scene. There was this one section where the brass was playing and John (who knows every single person’s name in that orchestra) called out to three people by name and said something like, “Mark, on bar 63, from beat two to beat six, can you not play please. I just want a little more clarity with two instruments instead of three. Thank you.” So they backed up and did a pick-up on that bar and that gentleman dropped out for those few beats. It was amazing.

In the end, it really is John who is creating that mix. Then, editorially, there would be moments where we had to change things. Ramiro Belgardt, another trusted confidant of John Williams, was our music editor. Once the music is recorded and premixed, it was up to Ramiro to keep it as close to what John intended throughout all of the picture changes.

A scene would be tightened or opened up, and the music isn’t going to be re-performed. That would be impossible to do, so it has to be edited or stretched or looped or truncated. Ramiro had the difficult job of making the music seem exactly how it was on the day it was performed. But in truth, if you look at his Pro Tools session, you’ll see all of these splices and edits that he did to make everything function properly.

Does a particular scene stick out?
There was one scene where Rey ignites the lightsaber for the very first time on Jedi Island, and there we did change the balance within the music. She’s on the cliff by the ocean and Luke is watching her as she’s swinging the lightsaber. Right when she ignites the lightsaber, her theme comes in, which is this beautiful piano melody. The problem was when they mixed the piano they didn’t have a really loud lightsaber sound going with it. We were really struggling because we couldn’t get that piano melody to speak right there. I asked Ramiro if there was any way to get that piano separately because I would love it if we could hear that theme come in just as strong as that lightsaber. Those are the types of little tiny things that we would do, but those are few and far between. For the most part, the score is how John and Shawn intended the mix to be.

It was also wonderful having Ramiro there as John’s spokesperson. He knew all of the subtle little sacred moments that Williams had written in the score. He pointed them out and I was able to push those and feature those.

Was Rian observing the sessions?
Rian attended every single scoring session and knew the music intricately. He was really excited for the music and wanted it to breathe. Rian’s knowledge of the music helped guide us.

Where did they perform and record the score?
This was recorded at the Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, California.

Are there any Easter eggs in terms of the score?
During the casino sequence there’s a beautiful piece of music that plays throughout, which is something like an homage that John Williams wrote, going back to the Cantina song that he wrote for the original Star Wars.

So, the Easter egg comes as the Fathiers are wreaking havoc in the casino and we cut to the inside of a confectionery shop. There’s an abrupt edit where all the music stops and you hear this sort of lounge piano that’s playing, like a piece of source music. That lounge piano is actually John Williams playing “The Long Goodbye,” which is the score that he wrote for the film The Long Goodbye. Rian is a huge fan of that score and he somehow managed to get John Williams to put that into the Star Wars film. It’s a wonderful little Easter egg.

John Williams is, in so many ways, the closest thing we have to Beethoven or Brahms in our time. When you’re in his presence — he’s 85 years old now — it’s humbling. He still writes all of his manuscripts by hand.

On that day that John sat down and played “The Long Goodbye” piano piece, Rian was so excited that he pulled out his iPhone and filmed the whole thing. John said, “Only for you, Rian, do I do this.” It was a very special moment.

The other part of the Easter egg is that John’s brother Donald Williams is a timpanist in the orchestra. So what’s cool is you hear John playing the piano and the very next sound is the timpani, played by his brother. So you have these two brothers and they do a miniature solo next to each other. So those are some of the fun little details.

John Williams earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Music Score for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
It’s an incredible score. One of the fortunate things that occurred on this film was that Rian and producer Ram Bergman wanted to give John Williams as much time as possible so they started him really early. I think he had a year to compose, which was great. He could take his time and really work diligently through each sequence. When you listen to just the score, you can hear all of the little subtle nuances that John composed.

For example, Rose stuns Finn and she’s dragging him on this little cart and they’re having this conversation. If you listen to just the music through there, the way that John has scored every single little emotional beat in that sequence is amazing. With all the effects and dialogue, you’re not really noticing the musical details. You hear two people arguing and then agreeing. They hate each other and now they like each other. But when you deconstruct it, you hear the music supporting each one of those moments. Williams does things like that throughout the entire film. Every single moment has all these subtle musical details. All the scenes with Snoke in his lair have these ominous, dark musical choir phrases for example. It’s phenomenal.

The moments where the choice was made to remove the score completely, was that a hard sell for the director? Or, was he game to let go of the score in those effects-driven moments?
No, it wasn’t too difficult. There was one scene that we did revert on though. It was on Crait, and Rian wanted to get rid of the whole big music sequence when Leia sees that the First Order is approaching and they have to shut the giant door. There was originally a piece of music, and that was when the crystal foxes were introduced. So we got rid of the music there. Then we watched the film and Rian asked us to put that music back.

A lot of the music edits were crafted in the offline edit, and those were done by music editor Joseph Bonn. Joe would craft those moments ahead of time and test them. So a lot of that was decided before it got to my hands.

But on the stage, we were still experimenting. Ramiro would suggest trying to lose a cue and we’d mute it from the sequence. That was a fun part of collaborating with everyone. It’s a live experiment. I would say that on this film most of the music editorial choices were decided before we got to the final mix. Joe Bonn spent months and months crafting the music guide, which helped immensely.

What is one audio tool that you could not have lived without on the mix? Why?
Without a doubt, it’s our Avid Pro Tools editing software. All the departments —dialog, Foley, effects and music were using Pro Tools. That is absolutely hands-down the one tool that we are addicted to. At this point, not having Pro Tools is like not having a hammer.

But you used a console for the final mix, yes?
Yes. Star Wars: The Last Jedi was not an in-the-box mix. We mixed it on a Neve DFC Gemini console in the traditional manner. It was not a live Pro Tools mix. We mixed it through the DFC console, which had its own EQ, dynamics processing, panning, reverb sends/returns, AUX sends/returns and LFE sends/returns.

The pre-pre-mixing was done in Pro Tools. Then, looking at the sound effects for example, that was shaped roughly in the offline edit room, and then that would go to the mix stage. Michael Semanick would pre-mix the effects through the Neve DFC in a traditional premixing format that we would record to 9.1 pre-dubs and objects. A similar process was done with the dialogue. So that was done with the console.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney

Michael Semanick: Mixing SFX, Foley for Star Wars: The Last Jedi

By Jennifer Walden

Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Michael Semanick from Skywalker Sound mixed the sound effects, Foley and backgrounds on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which has earned an Oscar nomination for Sound Mixing.

Technically, this is not Semanick’s first experience with the Star Wars franchise — he’s credited as an additional mixer on Rogue One — but on The Last Jedi he was a key figure in fine-tuning the film’s soundtrack. He worked alongside re-recording mixers Ren Klyce and David Parker, and with director Rian Johnson, to craft a soundtrack that was bold and dynamic. (Look for next week’s Star Wars story, in which re-recording mixer Ren Klyce talks about his approach to mixing John Williams’ score.)

Michael Semanick

Recently, Semanick shared his story of what went into mixing the sound effects on The Last Jedi. He mixed at Skywalker in Nicasio, California, on the Kurosawa Stage.

You had all of these amazing elements — Skywalker’s effects, John Williams’ score and the dialogue. How did you bring clarity to what could potentially be a chaotic soundtrack?
Yes, there are a lot of elements that come in, and you have to balance these things. It’s easy on a film like this to get bombastic and assault the audience, but that’s one of the things that Rian didn’t want to do. He wanted to create dynamics in the track and get really quiet so that when it does get loud it’s not overly loud.

So when creating that I have to look at all of the elements coming in and see what we’re trying to do in each specific scene. I ask myself, “What’s this scene about? What’s this storyline? What’s the music doing here? Is that the thread that takes us to the next scene or to the next place? What are the sound effects? Do we need to hear these background sounds, or do we need just the hard effects?”

Essentially, it’s me trying to figure out how many frequencies are available and how much dialogue has to come through so the audience doesn’t lose the thread of the story. It’s about deciding when it’s right to feature the sound effects or take the score down to feature a big explosion and then bring the score back up.

It’s always a balancing act, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and throw it all in there. I might need a line of dialogue to come through, so the backgrounds go. I don’t want to distract the audience. There is so much happening visually in the film that you can’t put sound on everything. Otherwise, the audience wouldn’t know what to focus on. At least that’s my approach to it.

How did you work with the director?
As we mixed the film with Rian, we found what types of sounds defined the film and what types of moments defined the film in terms of sound. For example, by the time you reach the scene when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) jumps to hyperspace into the First Order’s fleet, everything goes really quiet. The sound there doesn’t go completely out — it feels like it goes out, but there’s sound. As soon as the music peaks, I bring in a low space tone. Well, if there was a tone in space, I imagine that is what it would sound like. So there is sound constantly through that scene, but the quietness goes on for a long time.

One of the great things about that scene was that it was always designed that way. While I noted how great that scene was, I didn’t really get it until I saw it with an audience. They became the soundtrack, reacting with gasps. I was at a screening in Seattle, and when we hit that scene and you could hear that the people were just stunned, and one guy in the audience went, “Yeah!”

There are other areas in the film where we go extremely quiet or take the sound out completely. For example, when Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) first force-connect, the sound goes out completely… you only hear a little bit of their breathing. There’s one time when the force connection catches them off guard — when Kylo had just gotten done working out and Rey was walking somewhere — we took the sound completely out while she was still moving.

Rian loved it because when we were working on that scene we were trying to get something different. We used to have sound there, all the way through the scene. Then Rian said, “What happens if you just start taking some of the sounds out?” So, I started pulling sounds out and sure enough, when I got the sound all the way out — no music, no sounds, no backgrounds, no nothing — Rian was like, “That’s it! That just draws you in.” And it does. It pulls you into their moment. They’re pulled together even though they don’t want to be. Then we slowly brought it back in with their breathing, a little echo and a little footstep here or there. Having those types of dynamics worked into the film helped the scene at the end.

Rian shot and cut the picture so we could have these moments of quiet. It was already set up, visually and story-wise, to allow that to happen. When Rey goes into the mirror cave, it’s so quiet. You hear all the footsteps and the reverbs and reflections in there. The film lent itself to that.

What was the trickiest scene to mix in terms of the effects?
The moment Kylo Ren and Rey touch hands via the force connection. That was a real challenge. They’re together in the force connection, but they weren’t together physically. We were cutting back and forth from her place to Kylo Ren’s place. We were hearing her campfire and her rain. It was a very delicate balance between that and the music. We could have had the rain really loud and the music blasting, but Rian wanted the rain and fire to peel away as their hands were getting closer. It was so quiet and when they did touch there was just a bit of a low-end thump. Having a big sound there just didn’t have the intimacy that the scene demanded. It can be so hard to get the balance right to where the audience is feeling the same thing as the characters. The audience is going, “No, oh no.” You know what’s going to come, but we wanted to add that extra tension to it sonically. For me, that was one of the hardest scenes to get.

What about the action scenes?
They are tough because they take time to mix. You have to decide what you want to play. For example, when the ships are exploding as they’re trying to get away before Holdo rams her ship into the First Order’s, you have all of that stuff falling from the ceiling. We had to pick our moments. There’s all of this fire in the background and TIE fighters flying around, and you can’t hear them all or it will be a jumbled mess. I can mix those scenes pretty well because I just follow the story point. We need to hear this to go with that. We have to have a sound of falling down, so let’s put that in.

Is there a scene you had fun with?
The fight in Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) room, between Rey and Kylo Ren. That was really fun because it was like wham-bam, and you have the lightsaber flying around. In those moments, like when Rey throws the lightsaber, we drop the sound out for a split second so when Kylo turns it on it’s even more powerful.

That scene was the most fun, but the trickiest one was that force-touch scene. We went over it a hundred different ways, to just get it to feel like we were with them. For me, if the sound calls too much attention to itself, it’s pulling you out of the story, and that’s bad mixing. I wanted the audience to lean in and feel those hands about to connect. When you take the sound out and the music out, then it’s just two hands coming together slowly. It was about finding that balance to make the audience feel like they’re in that moment, in that little hut, and they’re about to touch and see into each other’s souls, so to speak. That was a challenge, but it was fun because when you get it, and you see the audience react, everyone feels good about that scene. I feel like I did something right.

What was one audio tool that you couldn’t live without on this mix?
For me, it was the AMS Neve DFC Gemini console. All the sounds came into that. The console was like an instrument that I played. I could bring any sound in from any direction, and I could EQ it and manipulate it. I could put reverb on it. I could give the director what he wanted. My editors were cutting the sound, but I had to have that console to EQ and balance the sounds. Sometimes it was about EQing frequencies out to make a sound fit better with other sounds. You have to find room for the sounds.

I could move around on it very quickly. I had Rian sitting behind me saying, “What if you roll back and adjust this or try that.” I could ease those faders up and down and hit it just right. I know how to use it so well that I could hear stuff ahead of what I was doing.

The Neve DFC was invaluable. I could take all the different sound formats and sample rates and it all came through the console, and in one place. It could blend all those sources together; it’s a mixing bowl. It brought all the sounds together so they could all talk to each other. Then I manipulated them and sent them out and that was the soundtrack — all driven by the director, of course.

Can you talk about working with the sound editor?
The editors are my right-hand people. They can shift things and move things and give me another sound. Maybe I need one with more mid-range because the one in there isn’t quite reading. We had a lot of that. Trying to get those explosions to work and to come through John Williams’ score, sometimes we needed something with more low-end and more thump or more crack. There was a handoff in some scenes.

On The Last Jedi, I had sound effects editor Jon Borland with me on the stage. Bonnie Wild had started the project and had prepped a lot of the sounds for several reels — her and Jon and Ren Klyce, who oversaw the whole thing. But Jon was my go-to person on the stage. He did a great job. It was a bit of a daunting task, but Jon is young and wants to learn and gave it everything he had. I love that.

What format was the main mix?
Everything was done in Atmos natively, then we downmixed to 7.1 and 5.1 and all the other formats. We were very diligent about having the downmixed versions match the Atmos mix the best that they could.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
I’m so glad that Rian chose me to be part of the mix. This film was a lot of fun and a real collaborative effort. Rian is the one who really set that tone. He wanted to hear our ideas and see what we could do. He wasn’t sold on one thing. If something wasn’t working, he would try things out until it did. It was literally sorting out frequencies and getting transitions to work just right. Rian was collaborative, and that creates a room of collaboration. We wanted a great track for the audience to enjoy… a track that went with Rian’s picture.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney

Coco’s sound story — music, guitars and bones

By Jennifer Walden

Pixar’s animated Coco is a celebration of music, family and death. In the film, a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of being a musician just like his great-grandfather, even though his family is dead-set against it. On the evening of Día de los Muertos (the Mexican holiday called Day of the Dead), Miguel breaks into the tomb of legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and tries to steal his guitar. The attempted theft transforms Miguel into a spirit, and as he flees the tomb he meets his deceased ancestors in the cemetery.

Together they travel to the Land of the Dead where Miguel discovers that in order to return to life he must have the blessing of his family. The matriarch, great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) gives her blessing with one stipulation, that Miguel can never be a musician. Feeling as though he cannot live without music, Miguel decides to seek out the blessing of his musician great-grandfather.

Music is intrinsically tied to the film’s story, and therefore to the film’s soundtrack. Ernesto de la Cruz’s guitar is like another character in the film. The Skywalker Sound team handled all the physical guitar effects, from subtle to destructive. Although they didn’t handle any of the music, they covered everything from fret handling and body thumps to string breaks and smashing sounds. “There was a lot of interaction between music and effects, and a fine balance between them, given that the guitar played two roles,” says supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer Christopher Boyes, who was just nominated for a CAS award for his mixing work on Coco. His Skywalker team on the film included co-supervising sound editor J.R. Grubbs, sound effects editors Justin Doyle and Jack Whittaker, and sound design assistant Lucas Miller.

Boyes bought a beautiful guitar from a pawn shop in Petaluma near their Northern California location, and he and his assistant Miller spent a day recording string sounds and handling sounds. “Lucas said that one of the editors wanted us to cut the guitar strings,” says Boyes. “I was reluctant to cut the strings on this beautiful guitar, but we finally decided to do it to get the twang sound effects. Then Lucas said that we needed to go outside and smash the guitar. This was not an inexpensive guitar. I told him there was no way we were going to smash this guitar, and we didn’t! That was not a sound we were going to create by smashing the actual guitar! But we did give it a couple of solid hits just to get a nice rhythmic sound.”

To capture the true essence of Día de los Muertos in Mexico, Boyes and Grubbs sent effects recordists Daniel Boyes, Scott Guitteau, and John Fasal to Oaxaca to get field recordings of the real 2016 Día de los Muertos celebrations. “These recordings were essential to us and director Lee Unkrich, as well as to Pixar, for documenting and honoring the holiday. As such, the recordings formed the backbone of the ambience depicted in the track. I think this was a crucial element of our journey,” says Boyes.

Just as the celebration sound of Día de los Muertos was important, so too was the sound of Miguel’s town. The team needed to provide a realistic sense of a small Mexican town to contrast with the phantasmagorical Land of the Dead, and the recordings that were captured in Mexico were a key building block for that environment. Co-supervising sound editor Grubbs says, “Those recordings were invaluable when we began to lay the background tracks for locations like the plaza, the family compound, the workshop, and the cemetery. They allowed us to create a truly rich and authentic ambiance for Miguel’s home town.”

Bone Collecting
Another prominent set of sounds in Coco are the bones. Boyes notes that director Unkrich had specific guidelines for how the bones should sound. Characters like Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who are stuck in the Land of the Dead and are being forgotten by those still alive, needed to have more rattle-y sounding bones, as if the skeleton could come apart easily. “Héctor’s life is about to dissipate away, just as we saw with his friend Chicharrón [Edward James Olmos] on the docks, so their skeletal structure is looser. Héctor’s bones demonstrated that right from the get-go,” he explains.

In contrast, if someone is well remembered, such as de la Cruz, then the skeletal structure should sound tight. “In Miguel’s family, Papá Julio [Alfonso Arau] comically bursts apart many times, but he goes back together as a pretty solid structure,” explains Boyes. “Lee [Unkrich] wanted to dig into that dynamic first of all, to have that be part of the fabric that tells the story. Certain characters are going to be loose because nobody remembers them and they’re being forgotten.”

Creating the bone sounds was the biggest challenge for Boyes as a sound designer. Unkrich wanted to hear the complexity of the bones, from the clatter and movement down to the detail of cartilage. “I was really nervous about the bones challenge because it’s a sound that’s not easily embedded into a track without calling attention to itself, especially if it’s not done well,” admits Boyes.

Boyes started his bone sound collection by recording a mobile he built using different elements, like real bones, wooden dowels, little stone chips and other things that would clatter and rattle. Then one day Boyes stumbled onto an interesting bone sound while making a coconut smoothie. “I cracked an egg into the smoothie and threw the eggshell into the empty coconut hull and it made a cool sound. So I played with that. Then I was hitting the coconut on concrete, and from all of those sources I created a library of bone sounds.” Foley also contributed to the bone sounds, particularly for the literal, physical movements, like walking.

According to Grubbs, the bone sounds were designed and edited by the Skywalker team and then presented to the directors over several playbacks. The final sound of the skeletons is a product of many design passes, which were carefully edited in conjunction with the Foley bone recordings and sometimes used in combination with the Foley.

L-R: J.R. Grubbs and Chris Boyes

Because the film is so musical, the bone tracks needed to have a sense of rhythm and timing. To hit moments in a musical way, Boyes loaded bone sounds and other elements into Native Instruments’ Kontakt and played them via a MIDI keyboard. “One place for the bones that was really fun was when Héctor went into the security office at the train station,” says Boyes.

Héctor comes apart and his fingers do a little tap dance. That kind of stuff really lent to the playfulness of his character and it demonstrated the looseness of his skeletal structure.”

From a sound perspective, Boyes feels that Coco is a great example of how movies should be made. During editorial, he and Grubbs took numerous trips to Pixar to sit down with the directors and the picture department. For several months before the final mix, they played sequences for Unkrich that they wanted to get direction on. “We would play long sections of just sound effects, and Lee — being such a student of filmmaking and being an animator — is quite comfortable with diving down into the nitty-gritty of just simple elements. It was really a collaborative and healthy experience. We wanted to create the track that Lee wanted and wanted to make sure that he knew what we were up to. He was giving us direction the whole way.”

The Mix
Boyes mixed alongside re-recording mixer Michael Semanick (music/dialogue) on Skywalker’s Kurosawa Stage. They mixed in native Dolby Atmos on a DFC console. While Boyes mixed, effects editor Doyle handled last-minute sound effects needs on the stage, and Grubbs ran the logistics of the show. Grubbs notes that although he and Boyes have worked together for a long time this was the first time they’ve shared a supervising credit.

“J.R. [Grubbs] and I have been working together for probably 30 years now.” Says Boyes. “He always helped to run the show in a very supervisory way, so I just felt it was time he started getting credit for that. He’s really kept us on track, and I’m super grateful to him.”

One helpful audio tool for Boyes during the mix was the Valhalla Room reverb, which he used on Miguel’s footsteps inside de la Cruz’s tomb. “Normally, I don’t use plug-ins at all when I’m mixing. I’m a traditional mixer who likes to use a console and TC Electronic’s TC 6000 and the Leixcon 480 reverb as outboard gear. But in this one case, the Valhalla Room plug-in had a preset that really gave me a feeling of the stone tomb.”

Unkrich allowed Semanick and Boyes to have a first pass at the soundtrack to get it to a place they felt was playable, and then he took part in the final mix process with them. “I just love Lee’s respect for us; he gives us time to get the soundtrack into shape. Then, he sat there with us for 9 to 10 hours a day, going back and forth, frame by frame at times and section by section. Lee could hear everything, and he was able to give us definitive direction throughout. The mix was achieved by and directed by Lee, every frame. I love that collaboration because we’re here to bring his vision and Pixar’s vision to the screen. And the best way to do that is to do it in the collaborative way that we did,” concludes Boyes.


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

Creating sounds of science for Bill Nye: Science Guy

By Jennifer Walden

Bill Nye, the science hero of a generation of school children, has expanded his role in the science community over the years. His transformation from TV scientist to CEO of The Planetary Society (the world’s largest non-profit space advocacy group) is the subject of Bill Nye: Science Guy — a documentary directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg.

The doc premiered in the US at the SXSW Film Festival and had its international premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.

Peter Albrechtsen – Credit: Povl Thomsen

Supervising sound editor/sound designer Peter Albrechtsen, MPSE, started working with directors Alvarado and Sussberg in 2013 on their first feature-length documentary The Immortalists. When they began shooting the Bill Nye documentary in 2015, Albrechtsen was able to see the rough cuts and started collecting sounds and ambiences for the film. “I love being part of projects very early on. I got to discuss some sonic and musical ideas with David and Jason. On documentaries, the actual sound design schedule isn’t typically very long. It’s great knowing the vibe of the film as early as I can so I can then be more focused during the sound editing process. I know what the movie needs and how I should prioritize my work. That was invaluable on a complicated, complex and multilayered movie like this one.”

Before diving in, Albrechtsen, dialogue editor Jacques Pedersen, sound effects editor Morten Groth Brandt and sound effects recordist/assistant sound designer Mikkel Nielsen met up for a jam session — as Albrechtsen calls it — to share the directors’ notes for sound and discuss their own ideas. “It’s a great way of getting us all on the same page and to really use everyone’s talents,” he says.

Albrechtsen and his Danish sound crew had less than seven weeks for sound editorial at Offscreen in Copenhagen. They divided their time evenly between dialogue editing and sound effects editing. During that time, Foley artist Heikki Kossi spent three days on Foley at H5 Film Sound in Kokkola, Finland.

Foley artist Heikki Kossi. Credit: Clas-Olav Slotte

Bill Nye: Science Guy mixes many different media sources — clips from Bill Nye’s TV shows from the ‘90s, YouTube videos, home videos on 8mm film, TV broadcasts from different eras, as well as the filmmakers’ own footage. It’s a potentially headache-inducing combination. “Some of the archival material was in quite bad shape, but my dialogue editor Jacques Pedersen is a magician with iZotope RX and he did a lot of healthy cleaning up of all the rough pieces and low-res stuff,” says Albrechtsen. “The 8mm videos actually didn’t have any sound, so Heikki Kossi did some Foley that helped it to come alive when we needed it to.”

Sound Design
Albrechtsen’s sound edit was also helped by the directors’ dedication to sound. They were able to acquire the original sound effects library from Bill Nye’s ‘90s TV show, making it easy for the post sound team to build out the show’s soundscape from stereo to surround, and also to make it funnier. “A lot of humor in the old TV show came from the imaginative soundtrack that was often quite cartoonish, exaggerated and hilariously funny,” he explains. “I’ve done sound for quite a few documentaries now and I’ve never tried adding so many cartoonish sound effects to a track. It made me laugh.”

The directors’ dedication goes even deeper, with director Sussberg handling the production sound himself when they’re out shooting. He records dialogue with both a boom mic and radio mics, and also records wild tracks of room tones and ambience. He even captures special sound signatures for specific locations when applicable.

For example, Nye visits the creationist theme park called Noah’s Ark, built by Christian fundamentalist Ken Ham. The indoor park features life-size dioramas and animatronics to explain creationism. There are lots of sound effects and demonstrations playing from multiple speaker setups. Sussberg recorded all of them, providing Albrechtsen with the means of creating an authentic sound collage.

“People might think we added lots of sounds for these sequences, but actually we just orchestrated what was already there,” says Albrechtsen. “At moments, it’s like a cacophony of noises, with corny dinosaur screams, savage human screams and violent war noises. When I heard the sounds from the theme park that David and Jason had recorded, I didn’t believe my own ears. It’s so extreme.”

Albrechtsen approaches his sound design with texture in mind. Not every sound needs to be clean. Adding texture, like crackling or hiss, can change the emotional impact of a sound. For example, while creating the sound design for the archival footage of several rocket launches, Albrechtsen pulled clean effects of rocket launches and explosions from Tonsturm’s “Massive Explosions” sound effects library and transferred those recordings to old NAGRA tape. “The special, warm, analogue distortion that this created fit perfectly with the old, dusty images.”

In one of Albrechtsen’s favorite sequences in the film, there’s a failure during launch and the rocket explodes. The camera falls over and the video glitches. He used different explosions panned around the room, and he panned several low-pitched booms directly to the subwoofer, using Waves LoAir plug-in for added punch. “When the camera falls over, I panned explosions into the surrounds and as the glitches appear I used different distorted textures to enhance the images,” he says. “Pete Horner did an amazing job on mixing that sequence.”

For the emotional sequences, particularly those exploring Nye’s family history, and the genetic disorder passed down from Nye’s father to his two siblings, Albrechtsen chose to reduce the background sounds and let the Foley pull the audience in closer to Nye. “It’s amazing what just a small cloth rustle can do to get a feeling of being close to a person. Foley artist Heikki Kossi is a master at making these small sounds significant and precise, which is actually much more difficult than one would think.”

For example, during a scene in which Nye and his siblings visit a clinic Albrechtsen deliberately chose harsh, atonal backgrounds that create an uncomfortable atmosphere. Then, as Nye shares his worries about the disease, Albrechtsen slowly takes the backgrounds out so that only the delicate Foley for Nye plays. “I love creating multilayered background ambiences and they really enhanced many moments in the film. When we removed these backgrounds for some of the more personal, subjective moments the effect was almost spellbinding. Sound is amazing, but silence is even better.”

Bill Nye: Science Guy has layers of material taking place in both the past and present, in outer space and in Nye’s private space, Albrechtsen notes. “I was thinking about how to make them merge more. I tried making many elements of the soundtrack fit more with each other.”

For instance, Nye’s brother has a huge model train railway set up. It’s a legacy from their childhood. So when Nye visits his childhood home, Albrechtsen plays the sound of a distant train. In the 8mm home movies, the Nye family is at the beach. Albrechtsen’s sound design includes echoes of seagulls and waves. Later in the film, when Nye visits his sister’s home, he puts in distant seagulls and waves. “The movie is constantly jumping through different locations and time periods. This was a way of making the emotional storyline clearer and strengthening the overall flow. The sound makes the images more connected.”

One significant story point is Nye’s growing involvement with The Planetary Society. Before Carl Sagan’s death, Sagan conceptualized a solar sail — a sail for use in space that could harness the sun’s energy and use it as a means of propulsion. The Planetary Society worked hard to actualize Sagan’s solar sail idea. Albrechtsen needed to give the solar sail a sound in the film. “How does something like that sound? Well, in the production sound you couldn’t really hear the solar sail and when it actually appeared it just sounded like boring, noisy cloth rustle. The light sail really needed an extraordinary, unique sound to make you understand the magnitude of it.”

So they recorded different kinds of materials, in particular a Mylar blanket, which has a glittery and reflective surface. Then Albrechtsen tried different pitches and panning of those recordings to create a sense of its extraordinary size.

While they handled post sound editorial in Denmark, the directors were busy cutting the film stateside with picture editor Annu Lilja. When working over long distances, Albrechtsen likes to send lots of QuickTimes with stereo downmixes so the directors can hear what’s happening. “For this film, I sent a handful of sound sketches to David and Jason while they were busy finishing the picture editing,” he explains. “Since we’ve done several projects together we know each other very well. David and Jason totally trust me and I know that they like their soundtracks to be very detailed, dynamic and playful. They want the sound to be an integral part of the storytelling and are open to any input. For this movie, they even did a few picture recuts because of some sound ideas I had.”

The Mix
For the two-week final mix, Albrechtsen joined re-recording mixer Pete Horner at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, California. Horner started mixing on the John Waters stage — a small mix room featuring a 5.1 setup of Meyer Sound’s Acheron speakers and an Avid ICON D-Command control surface, while Albrechtsen finished the sound design and premixed the effects against William Ryan Fritch’s score in a separate editing suite. Then Albrechtsen sat with Horner for another week, as Horner crafted the final 5.1 mix.

One of Horner’s mix challenges was to keep the dialogue paramount while still pushing the layered soundscapes that help tell the story. Horner says, “Peter [Albrechtsen] provided a wealth of sounds to work with, which in the spirit of the original Bill Nye show were very playful. But this, of course, presented a challenge because there were so many sounds competing for attention. I would say this is a problem that most documentaries would be envious of, and I certainly appreciated it.”

Once they had the effects playing along with the dialogue and music, Horner and Albrechtsen worked together to decide which sounds were contributing the most and which were distracting from the story. “The result is a wonderfully rich, sometimes manic track,” says Horner.

Albrechtsen adds, “On a busy movie like this, it’s really in the mix where everything comes together. Pete [Horner] is a truly brilliant mixer and has the same musical approach to sound as me. He is an amazing listener. The whole soundtrack — both sound and score — should really be like one piece of music, with ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys.”

Horner explains their musical approach to mixing as “the understanding that the entire palette of sound coming through the faders can be shaped in a way that elicits an emotional response in the audience. Music is obviously musical, but sound effects are also very musical since they are made up of pitches and rhythmic sounds as well. I’ve come to feel that dialogue is also musical — the person speaking is embedding their own emotions into the way they speak using both pitch (inflection or emphasis) and rhythm (pace and pauses).”

“I’ll go even further to say that the way the images are cut by the picture editor is inherently musical. The pace of the cuts suggests rhythm and tempo, and a ‘hard cut’ can feel like a strong downbeat, as emotionally rich as any orchestral stab. So I think a musical approach to mixing is simply internalizing the ‘music’ that is already being communicated by the composer, the sound designer, the picture editor and the characters on the screen, and with the guidance of the director shaping the palette of available sounds to communicate the appropriate complexity of emotion,” says Horner.

In the mix, Horner embraces the documentary’s intention of expressing the duality of Nye’s life: his celebrity versus his private life. He gives the example of the film’s opening, which starts with sounds of a crowd gathering to see Nye. Then it cuts to Nye backstage as he’s preparing for his performance by quietly tying his bowtie in a mirror. “Here the exceptional Foley work of Heikki Kossi creates the sense of a private, intimate moment, contrasting with the voice of the announcer, which I treated as if it’s happening through the wall in a distant auditorium.”

Next it cuts to that announcer, and his voice is clearly amplified and echoing all around the auditorium of excited fans. There’s an interview with a fan and his friends who are waiting to take their seats. The fan describes his experience of watching Nye’s TV show in the classroom as a kid and how they’d all chant “Bill, Bill, Bill” as the TV cart rolled in. Underneath, plays the sound of the auditorium crowd chanting “Bill, Bill, Bill” as the picture cuts to Nye waiting in wings.

Horner says, “Again, the Foley here keeps us close to Bill while the crowd chants are in deep echo. Then the TV show theme kicks on, blasting through the PA. I embraced the distorted nature of the production recording and augmented it with hall echo and a liberal use of the subwoofer. The energy in this moment is at a peak as Bill takes the stage exclaiming, “I love you guys!” and the title card comes on. This is a great example of how the scene was already cut to communicate the dichotomy within Bill, between his private life and his public persona. By recognizing that intention, the sound team was able to express that paradox more viscerally.”


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

Skywalker’s Randy Thom helps keep it authentic for ‘Peanuts’

By Jennifer Walden

Snoopy, Woodstock, Charlie Brown, Lucy… all the classic Peanuts characters hit the big screen earlier this month thanks to the Blue Sky Studios production The Peanuts Movie (20th Century Fox).

For those of you who might have worried that the Peanuts gang would “go Hollywood,” there is no need for concern. These beloved characters look and sound like they did in the Charles M. Schulz TV specials — which started airing in the 1960s — but they have been updated to fit the theatrical expectations of 2015.

While the latest technology has given depth and texture to these 2D characters, director Steve Martino and the Schulz family made sure the film didn’t stray far from Charles Schulz’s original creations.

Randy Thom

Randy Thom

According to Skywalker Sound supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer Randy Thom, “Steve Martino (from Blue Sky) spent most of the year hanging out in Santa Rosa, California, which is where the Schulz family still lives. He worked with them very closely to make sure that this film had the same feel and look as not only the cartoon strip, but also the TV specials. They did a wonderful job of staying true to all those visual and sonic tropes that we so much associate with Peanuts.”

Thom and the Skywalker sound team, based at the Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California, studied the style of sound effects used in the original Peanuts TV specials and aimed to evoke those sounds as closely as they could for The Peanuts Movie, while also adding a modern vibe. “Often, on animated films, the first thing the director tells us is that it shouldn’t sound like a cartoon — they don’t want it to be cartoony with sound effects,” explains Thom, who holds an Oscar for his sound design on the animated feature The Incredibles, and has two Oscar nominations for his sound editing on The Polar Express and Ratatouille. “In The Peanuts Movie, we were liberated to play around with boings and other classic cartoon type sounds. We even tried to invent some of our own.”

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The Red Baron and Subtle Sounds
The sound design is a mix of Foley effects, performed at Skywalker by Foley artists Sean England and Ronni Pittman, and cartoon classics like zips, boinks and zings. One challenge was creating a kid-friendly machine gun sound for Snoopy’s Red Baron air battles. “It couldn’t be scary, but it had to suggest the kinds of guns that were used on those planes in that era,” says Thom. The solution? Thom vocalized “ett-ett-ett-ett-ett” sounds, which they processed and combined with a “rat-tat-tat-tat-tat” rhythm that they banged out on pots and pans. The result is a faux machine gun that’s easy on little ears.

Another key element in the Red Baron sequences was the sound of the planes. Charles Schulz’s son, Craig, who was very involved with the film, owns a vintage WWI plane that, amazingly, still flies. “Craig [Schulz] flew the plane and a couple of people on our sound team rode in it. They were very brave and kept the recorder running the whole time,” says Thom, who completed the sound edit and premix in Avid Pro Tools 12

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They captured recordings on the plane, as well as from the ground as the plane performed a few acrobatic aerial maneuvers. During the final 7.1 mix in Mix G at Skywalker Sound, via the Neve DFC console, Thom says the challenge was to make the film sound exciting without being too dynamic. The final plane sounds were very mellow without any harsh upper frequencies or growly tones. “We had to be careful of the nature of the sounds,” he says. “If you make the airplanes too scary or intimidating, or sound to animalistic, little kids are going to be scared and cover their ears. We wanted to make sure it was fun without being scary.”

Many of the scenes in The Peanuts Movie have subtle sound design, with Foley being a big part of the track. There are a few places where sound gets to deliver the joke. One of Thom’s favorite scenes was when Charlie Brown visits the library to find the book “Leo’s Toy Store.”

“The library is supposed to be quiet and we had to be very playful with the sound of Charlie’s feet squeaking on the floor and making too much noise,” says Thom. “After he leaves the library, he slides down the hillside in the snow and ice and ends up running right through a house. That was a fun sequence also.”

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One surprising piece of the soundtrack was the music. The name Vince Guaraldi is practically synonymous with Peanuts. His jazzy compositions are part of the Peanuts cultural lexicon. If someone says Peanuts, it instantly recalls to mind the melody of Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” tune. And while “Linus and Lucy” is part of the film’s soundtrack, the majority of the score is orchestral compositions by Christophe Beck. “The music is mostly orchestral but even that has a Peanuts feel somehow,” concludes Thom.

‘Inside Out’: Skywalker helps hug the audience with sound

Pixar’s latest gets a Dolby Atmos mix

By Jennifer Walden

Ever ask yourself what goes through a child’s mind? Well, Pixar did, and the result was their latest Inside Out, which has left audiences laughing and crying. The film focuses on 11-year-old Riley, whose emotions are sent reeling as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.

The story, by directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen, portrays five main emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear — which hang out in the control room of people’s minds. The audience gets to experience Riley’s tumultuous transition through the actions of those five core emotions as they interact inside her mind. They get to see a bit of how her mom and dad’s minds work too. It’s a refreshingly creative animated feature like no other.

Inside Out has two main environments: inside the mind where everything is hyper-real, and out in the world, where everything seems dull by comparison. “We wanted to have the sound mimic that and to follow the actions they took with the picture,” says re-recording mixer Michael Semanick, who handled the sound effects, backgrounds and music for Inside Out.

Michael Semanick

Since the film’s sound — created at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, California — was designed and mixed natively in Dolby Atmos, Semanick and fellow re-recording mixer Tom Johnson, on dialogue/Foley, were able to heighten that difference further by only using the upfront speakers during scenes in the outside world, and the full array of speakers in the Atmos set-up during scenes inside the mind. “We made a conscious decision to have the outside world sound flat, with nothing in the surrounds or the top speakers,” says Semanick.

For inside the mind, sound designer Ren Klyce designed rich backgrounds and elements that could be used in the surrounds and the overhead speakers to fill out the space without being gimmicky or distracting. “For example, Ren had designed these really great water sounds that are, I believe, babies in the womb. They are these cool, inside-the-body-type sounds. I got to move those back and forth and over the top when we’re in the head. It’s very subtle. It’s not meant to be distracting but it’s supposed to give you this feeling like you are inside the mind, and that it’s alive and moving.”

All-Around Sound
With the full-range speakers in the Atmos set-up, Semanick could fluidly move sounds around the theater without having to account for the level dips and EQ differences typical of the surrounds used in 5.1/7.1 set-ups. So when Joy and Sadness get sucked up a memory tube, Semanick was able to fly Klyce’s sound design elements past the viewer without losing low-end detail. “With the Atmos, I can move the sound anywhere and I don’t have to push the level to get the sound to read in the back,” says Semanick.

Additionally, the full-range overhead speakers in the Atmos set-up allowed Semanick to bring sounds in from above, and seemingly move them down the screen. For example, there are memory balls (small, clear balls containing Riley’s memories) that come down from over the top and project light, almost as if they are playing a movie. Since the sound was designed from the ground up in Atmos, Semanick was able to take individual sound elements for that scene and assign them to object panners on the AMS Neve DFC mixing console used in the Kurosawa Studio.

Another advantage to the Atmos set-up was it allowed re-recording mixer Johnson and director Docter to experiment with how they could treat the voices coming from inside Riley’s head. “We didn’t want it to be a standard voiceover. We wanted it to feel like we are inside of this girl’s mind,” says Semanick. “So in the Atmos mix, the first time Joy speaks, it really fills the room up all around you. Then eventually, as she keeps speaking, her voice starts to pull forward and it gets set in a place that is very comfortable, so you realize that this is Joy speaking.”

There are different areas inside the mind, such as the control room where the five emotions interact and decide Riley’s course of action, long-term memory: abstract thought, the subconscious, the memory dump of forgotten memories and the dream studio, which resembles a film stage. Semanick used a combination of stereo reverbs, such as the Lexicon 960 and the TC 6000, to help define those spaces. The control room, with its large windows, has a slight room reverb while the halls of long-term memory are vaster. The reverbs in the subconscious are dark to match the mood of the environment. “We match the reflections to the space,” says Semanick. “When we’re in the canyon of the memory dump area; it’s like an infinite abyss, so the sound has an echo. It’s like looking into the Grand Canyon but you can’t see the bottom. Sometimes I would hit the echo and then fade the reflections quickly, as if they just disappeared into that abyss and then there is no sound. You don’t know if an object is still falling or not.”

Semanick prefers to use several stereo reverbs together to build out the spaces for the Atmos set-up, as opposed to using pre-built multichannel reverbs. “With the stereo reverb or mono reverb, I know how I can place them. I can side-chain them. I can have the reflections build,” he explains. “I can use multiple stereo reverbs and have something different on the top, in the front and in the back. I can manipulate each one separately. I can push the rears louder than I push the fronts, so the reflection comes off a little quicker.”

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Semanick really enjoyed mixing the emotional scenes in Inside Out, particularly in the memory dump where Joy and Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, are sitting among disintegrating memory balls. “There isn’t music or any other supporting sound, just the voices from the fading memory balls. Each sound that’s placed in there is so important — from the rewind sound of the memory to Joy turning the ball over and changing hands to the balls in the background that are just disintegrating. They are so lightly touched with a little bit of musical enhancement,” he says.

“There were really great sounds for that which I got to blend in, as each ball breaks and falls into this ash. I agonized over every little flake of those balls. That scene is just so delicate and we spent a lot of time on it. The sound can just help draw the audience in even more, and wrap up their hearts, then rip them out. Those are some of the hardest things to mix, those quiet emotional scenes where every little sound is like a pin drop. When you nail it, you can see the audience’s reaction,” concludes Semanick.