By Jennifer Walden
Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts, casts Tom Holland as Spider-Man, a role he first played in 2016 for Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo).
Homecoming reprises a few key character roles, like Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Aunt May Parker (Marisa Tomei), and it picks up a thread of Civil War’s storyline. In Civil War, Peter Parker/Spider-Man helped Tony Stark’s Avengers in their fight against Captain America’s Avengers. Homecoming picks up after that battle, as Parker settles back into his high school life while still fighting crime on the side to hone his superhero skills. He seeks to prove himself to Stark but ends up becoming entangled with the supervillain Vulture (Michael Keaton).
Spider-Man: Homecoming supervising sound editors/sound designers Steven Ticknor and Eric A. Norris — working at Culver City’s Sony Pictures Post Production Services — both brought Spidey experience to the film. Ticknor was a sound designer on director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Norris was supervising sound editor/sound designer on director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). With experiences from two different versions of Spider-Man, together Ticknor and Norris provided a well-rounded knowledge of the superhero’s sound history for Homecoming. They knew what’s worked in the past, and what to do to make this Spider-Man sound fresh. “This film took a ground-up approach but we also took into consideration the magnitude of the movie,” says Ticknor. “We had to keep in mind that Spider-Man is one of Marvel’s key characters and he has a huge fan base.”
Being a sequel, Ticknor and Norris honored the sound of Spider-Man’s web slinging ability that was established in Captain America: Civil War, but they also enhanced it to create a subtle difference between Spider-Man’s two suits in Homecoming. There’s the teched-out Tony Stark-built suit that uses the Civil War web-slinging sound, and then there’s Spider-Man’s homemade suit. “I recorded a couple of 5,000-foot magnetic tape cores unraveling very fast, and to that I added whooshes and other elements that gave a sense of speed. Underneath, I had some of the web sounds from the Tony Stark suit. That way the sound for the homemade suit had the same feel as the Stark suit but with an old-school flair,” explains Ticknor.
One new feature of Spider-Man’s Stark suit is that it has expressive eye movements. His eyes can narrow or grow wide with surprise, and those movements are articulated with sound. Norris says, “We initially went with a thin servo-type sound, but the filmmakers were looking for something less electrical. We had the idea to use the lens of a DSLR camera to manually zoom it in and out, so there’s no motor sound. We recorded it up close-up in the quiet environment of an unused ADR stage. That’s the primary sound for his eye movement.”
Another new feature is the addition of Droney, a small reconnaissance drone that pops off of Spider-Man’s suit and flies around. The sound of Droney was one of director Watt’s initial focus-points. He wanted it sound fun and have a bit of personality. He wanted Droney “to be able to vocalize in a way, sort of like Wall-E,” explains Norris.
Ticknor had the idea of creating Droney’s sound using a turbo toy — a small toy that has a mouthpiece and a spinning fan. Blowing into the mouthpiece makes the fan spin, which generates a whirring sound. The faster the fan spins, the higher the pitch of the generated sound. By modulating the pitch, they created a voice-like quality for Droney. Norris and sound effects editor Andy Sisul performed and recorded an array of turbo toy sounds to use during editorial. Ticknor also added in the sound of a reel-to-reel machine rewinding, which he sped up and manipulated “so that it sounded like Droney was fluttering as it was flying,” Ticknor says.
Supervillain the Vulture offers a unique opportunity for sound design. His alien-tech enhanced suit incorporates two large fans that give him the ability to fly. Norris, who was involved in the initial sound design of Vulture’s suit, created whooshes using Whoosh by Melted Sounds — a whoosh generator that runs in Native Instruments Reaktor. “You put individual samples in there and it creates a whoosh by doing a Doppler shift and granular synthesis as a way of elongating short sounds. I fed different metal ratcheting sounds into it because Vulture’s suit almost has these metallic feathers. We wanted to articulate the sound of all of these different metallic pieces moving together. I also fed sword shings into it and came up with these whooshes that helped define the movement as the Vulture was flying around,” he says. Sound designer/re-recording mixer Tony Lamberti was also instrumental in creating Vulture’s sound.
Alien technology is prevalent in the film. For instance, it’s a key ingredient to Vulture’s suit. The film’s sound needed to reflect the alien influence but also had to feel realistic to a degree. “We started with synthesized sounds, but we then had to find something that grounded it in reality,” reports Ticknor. “That’s always the balance of creating sound design. You can make it sound really cool, but it doesn’t always connect to the screen. Adding organic elements — like wind gusts and debris — make it suddenly feel real. We used a lot of synthesized sounds to create Vulture, but we also used a lot of real sounds.”
The Washington Monument
One of the big scenes that Ticknor handled was the Washington Monument elevator sequence. Spider-Man stands on the top of the Washington Monument and prepares to jump over a helicopter that looms ever closer. He clears the helicopter’s blades and shoots a web onto the helicopter’s skid, using that to sling himself through a window just in time to shoot another web that grabs onto the compromised elevator car that contains his friends. “When Spider-Man jumps over the helicopter, I couldn’t wait to make that work perfectly,” says Ticknor. “When he is flying over the helicopter blades it sounds different. It sounds more threatening. Sound creates an emotion but people don’t realize how sound is creating the emotion because it is happening so quickly sometimes.”
To achieve a more threatening blade sound, Ticknor added in scissor slicing sounds, which he treated using a variety of tools like zPlane Elastique Pitch 2 and plug-ins from FabFilter plug-ins and Soundtoys, all within the Avid Pro Tools 12 environment. “This made the slicing sound like it was about to cut his head off. I took the helicopter blades and slowed them down and added low-end sweeteners to give a sense of heaviness. I put all of that through the plug-ins and basically experimented. The hardest part of sound design is experimenting and finding things that work. There’s also music playing in that scene as well. You have to make the music play with the sound design.”
When designing sounds, Ticknor likes to generate a ton of potential material. “I make a library of sound effects — it’s like a mad science experiment. You do something and then wonder, ‘How did I just do that? What did I just do?’ When you are in a rhythm, you do it all because you know there is no going back. If you just do what you need, it’s never enough. You always need more than you think. The picture is going to change and the VFX are going to change and timings are going to change. Everything is going to change, and you need to be prepared for that.”
Syncing to Picture
To help keep the complex soundtrack in sync with the evolving picture, Norris used Conformalizer by Cargo Cult. Using the EDL of picture changes, Conformalizer makes the necessary adjustments in Pro Tools to resync the sound to the new picture.
Norris explains some key benefits of Conformalizer. “First, when you’re working in Pro Tools you can only see one picture at a time, so you have to go back and forth between the two different pictures to compare. With Conformalizer, you can see the two different pictures simultaneously. It also does a mathematical computation on the two pictures in a separate window, a difference window, which shows the differences in white. It highlights all the subtle visual effects changes that you may not have noticed.
For example, in the beginning of the film, Peter leaves school and heads out to do some crime fighting. In an alleyway, he changes from his school clothes into his Spider-Man suit. As he’s changing, he knocks into a trash can and a couple of rats fall out and scurry away. Those rats were CG and they didn’t appear until the end of the process. So the rats in the difference window were bright white while everything else was a dark color.”
Another benefit is that the Conformalizer change list can be used on multiple Pro Tools sessions. Most feature films have the sound effects, including Foley and backgrounds, in one session. For Spider-Man: Homecoming, it was split into multiple sessions, with Foley and backgrounds in one session and the sound effects in another.
“Once you get that change list you can run it on all the Pro Tools sessions,” explains Norris. “It saves time and it helps with accuracy. There are so many sounds and details that match the visuals and we need to make sure that we are conforming accurately. When things get hectic, especially near the end of the schedule, and we’re finalizing the track and still getting new visual effects, it becomes a very detail-oriented process and any tools that can help with that are greatly appreciated.”
Creating the soundtrack for Spider-Man: Homecoming required collaboration on a massive scale. “When you’re doing a film like this, it just has to run well. Unless you’re really organized, you’ll never be able to keep up. That’s the beautiful thing, when you’re organized you can be creative. Everything was so well organized that we got an opportunity to be super creative and for that, we were really lucky. As a crew, we were so lucky to work on this film,” concludes Ticknor.
Jennifer Walden in a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.com