Tag Archives: sound design

Behind the Title: PlushNYC partner/mixer Mike Levesque, Jr.

NAME: Michael Levesque, Jr.


We provide audio post production

Partner/Mixer/Sound Designer

The foundation of it all for me is that I’m a mixer and a sound designer. I became a studio owner/partner organically because I didn’t want to work for someone else. The core of my role is giving my clients what they want from an audio post perspective. The other parts of my job entail managing the staff, working through technical issues, empowering senior employees to excel in their careers and coach junior staff when given the opportunity.

Everyday I find myself being the janitor in many ways! I’m a huge advocate of leading by example and I feel that no task is too mundane for any team member to take on. So I don’t cast shade on picking up a mop or broom, and also handle everything else above that. I’m a part of a team, and everyone on the team participates.

During our latest facility remodel, I took a very hands-on approach. As a bit of a weekend carpenter, I naturally gravitate toward building things, and that was no different in the studio!

Avid Pro Tools. I’ve been operating on Pro Tools since 1997 and was one of the early adopters. Initially, I started out on analog ¼-inch tape and later moved to the digital editing system SSL ScreenSound. I’ve been using Pro Tools since its humble beginnings, and that is my tool of choice.

For me, my favorite part about the job is definitely working with the clients. That’s where I feel I am able to put my best self forward. In those shoes, I have the most experience. I enjoy the conversation that happens in the room, the challenges that I get from the variety of projects and working with the creatives to bring their sonic vision to life. Because of the amount of time i spend in the studio with my clients one of the great results besides the work is wonderful, long-term friendships. You get to meet a lot of different people and experience a lot of different walks of life, and that’s incredibly rewarding for me.

We’ve been really lucky to have regular growth over the years, but the logistics of that can be challenging at times. Expansion in NYC is a constant uphill battle!

The train ride in. With no distractions, I’m able to get the most work done. It’s quiet and allows me to be able to plan my day out strategically while my clarity is at its peak. That way I can maximize my day and analyze and prioritize what I want to get done before the hustle and bustle of the day begins.

If I weren’t a mixer/sound designer, I would likely be a general contractor or in a role where I was dealing with building and remodeling houses.

I started when I was 19 and I knew pretty quickly that this was the path for me. When I first got into it, I wanted to be a music producer. Being a novice musician, it was very natural for me.


I recently worked on a large-scale project for Frito-Lay, a project for ProFlowers and Shari’s Berries for Valentine’s Day, a spot for Massage Envy and a campaign for the Broadway show Rocktopia. I’ve also worked on a number of projects for Vevo, including pieces for The World According To… series for artists — that includes a recent one with Jaden Smith. I also recently worked on a spot with SapientRazorfish New York for Borgata Casino that goes on a colorful, dreamlike tour of the casino’s app.

Back in early 2000s, I mixed a DVD box set called Journey Into the Blues, a PBS film series from Martin Scorsese that won a Grammy for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes.

– My cell phone to keep me connected to every aspect of life.
– My Garmin GPS Watch to help me analytically look at where I’m performing in fitness.
– Pro Tools to keep the audio work running!

I’m an avid triathlete, so personal wellness is a very big part of my life. Training daily is a really good stress reliever, and it allows me to focus both at work and at home with the kids. It’s my meditation time.

Super Bowl: Heard City’s audio post for Tide, Bud and more

By Jennifer Walden

New York audio post house Heard City put their collaborative workflow design to work on the Super Bowl ad campaign for Tide. Philip Loeb, partner/president of Heard City, reports that their facility is set up so that several sound artists can work on the same project simultaneously.

Loeb also helped to mix and sound design many of the other Super Bowl ads that came to Heard City, including ads for Budweiser, Pizza Hut, Blacture, Tourism Australia and the NFL.

Here, Loeb and mixer/sound designer Michael Vitacco discuss the approach and the tools that their team used on these standout Super Bowl spots.

Philip Loeb

Tide’s It’s a Tide Ad campaign via Saatchi & Saatchi New York
Is every Super Bowl ad really a Tide ad in disguise? A string of commercials touting products from beer to diamonds, and even a local ad for insurance, are interrupted by David Harbour (of Stranger Things fame). He declares that those ads are actually just Tide commercials, as everyone is wearing such clean clothes.

Sonically, what’s unique about this spot?
Loeb: These spots, four in total, involved sound design and mixing, as well as ADR. One of our mixers, Evan Mangiamele, conducted an ADR session with David Harbour, who was in Hawaii, and we integrated that into the commercial. In addition, we recorded a handful of different characters for the lead-ins for each of the different vignettes because we were treating each of those as different commercials. We had to be mindful of a male voiceover starting one and then a female voiceover starting another so that they were staggered.

There was one vignette for Old Spice, and since the ads were for P&G, we did get the Old Spice pneumonic and we did try something different at the end — with one version featuring the character singing the pneumonic and one of him whistling it. There were many different variations and we just wanted, in the end, to get part of the pneumonic into the joke at the end.

The challenge with the Tide campaign, in particular, was to make each of these vignettes feel like it was a different commercial and to treat each one as such. There’s an overall mix level that goes into that but we wanted certain ones to have a little bit more dynamic range than the others. For example, there is a cola vignette that’s set on a beach with people taking a selfie. David interrupts them by saying, “No, it’s a Tide ad.”

For that spot, we had to record a voiceover that was very loud and energetic to go along with a loud and energetic music track. That vignette cuts into the “personal digital assistant” (think Amazon’s Alexa) spot. We had to be very mindful of these ads flowing into each other while making it clear to the viewer that these were different commercials with different products, not one linear ad. Each commercial required its own voiceover, its own sound design, its own music track, and its own tone.

One vignette was about car insurance featuring a mechanic in a white shirt under a car. That spot isn’t letterbox like the others; it’s 4:3 because it’s supposed to be a local ad. We made that vignette sound more like a local ad; it’s a little over-compressed, a little over-equalized and a little videotape sounding. The music is mixed a little low. We wanted it to sound like the dialogue is really up front so as to get the message across, like a local advertisement.

What’s your workflow like?
Loeb: At Heard City, our workflow is unique in that we can have multiple mixers working on the same project simultaneously. This collaborative process makes our work much more efficient, and that was our original intent when we opened the company six years ago. The model came to us by watching the way that the bigger VFX companies work. Each artist takes a different piece of the project and then all of the work is combined at the end.

We did that on the Tide campaign, and there was no other way we could have done it due to the schedule. Also, we believe this workflow provides a much better product. One sound artist can be working specifically on the sound design while another can be mixing. So as I was working on mixing, Evan was flying in his sound design to me. It was a lot of fun working on it like that.

What tools helped you to create the sound?
One plug-in we’re finding to be very helpful is the iZotope Neutron. We put that on the master bus and we have found many settings that work very well on broadcast projects. It’s a very flexible tool.

Vitacco: The Neutron has been incredibly helpful overall in balancing out the mix. There are some very helpful custom settings that have helped to create a dynamic mix for air.

Tourism Australia Dundee via Droga5 New York
Danny McBride and Chris Hemsworth star in this movie-trailer-turned-tourism-ad for Australia. It starts out as a movie trailer for a new addition to the Crocodile Dundee film franchise — well, rather, a spoof of it. There’s epic music featuring a didgeridoo and title cards introducing the actors and setting up the premise for the “film.” Then there’s talk of miles of beaches and fine wine and dining. It all seems a bit fishy, but finally Danny McBride confirms that this is, in fact, actually a tourism ad.

Sonically, what’s unique about this spot?
Vitacco: In this case, we were creating a fake movie trailer that’s a misdirect for the audience, so we aimed to create sound design that was both in the vein of being big and epic and also authentic to the location of the “film.”

One of the things that movie trailers often draw upon is a consistent mnemonic to drive home a message. So I helped to sound design a consistent mnemonic for each of the title cards that come up.

For this I used some Native Instruments toolkits, like “Rise & Hit” and “Gravity,” and Tonsturm’s Whoosh software to supplement some existing sound design to create that consistent and branded mnemonic.

In addition, we wanted to create an authentic sonic palette for the Australian outback where a lot of the footage was shot. I had to be very aware of the species of animals and insects that were around. I drew upon sound effects that were specifically from Australia. All sound effects were authentic to that entire continent.

Another factor that came into play was that anytime you are dealing with a spot that has a lot of soundbites, especially ones recorded outside, there tends to be a lot of noise reduction taking place. I didn’t have to hit it too hard because everything was recorded very well. For cleanup, I used the iZotope RX 6 — both the RX Connect and the RX Denoiser. I relied on that heavily, as well as the Waves WNS plug-in, just to make sure that things were crisp and clear. That allowed me the flexibility to add my own ambient sound and have more control over the mix.

Michael Vitacco

In RX, I really like to use the Denoiser instead of the Dialogue Denoiser tool when possible. I’ll pull out the handles of the production sound and grab a long sample of noise. Then I’ll use the Denoiser because I find that works better than the Dialogue Denoiser.

Budweiser Stand By You via David Miami
The phone rings in the middle of the night. A man gets out of bed, prepares to leave and kisses his wife good-bye. His car radio announces that a natural disaster is affecting thousands of families who are in desperate need of aid. The man arrives at a Budweiser factory and helps to organize the production of canned water instead of beer.

Sonically, what’s unique about this spot?
Loeb: For this spot, I did a preliminary mix where I handled the effects, the dialogue and the music. We set the preliminary tone for that as to how we were going to play the effects throughout it.

The spot starts with a husband and wife asleep in bed and they’re awakened by a phone call. Our sound focused on the dialogue and effects upfront, and also the song. I worked on this with another fantastic mixer here at Heard City, Elizabeth McClanahan, who comes from a music background. She put her ears to the track and did an amazing job of remixing the stems.

On the master track in the Pro Tools session, she used iZotope’s Neutron, as well as the FabFilter Pro-L limiter, which helps to contain the mix. One of the tricks on a dynamic mix like that — which starts off with that quiet moment in the morning and then builds with the music in the end — is to keep it within the restrictions of the CALM Act and other specifications that stipulate dynamic range and not just average loudness. We had to be mindful of how we were treating those quiet portions and the lower portions so that we still had some dynamic range but we weren’t out of spec.

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.

Behind the Titles: Something’s Awry Productions

NAME: Amy Theorin

NAME: Kris Theorin

NAME: Kurtis Theorin

COMPANY: Something’s Awry Productions

We are a family owned production company that writes, creates and produces funny sharable web content and commercials mostly for the toy industry. We are known for our slightly offbeat but intelligent humor and stop-motion animation. We also create short films of our own both animated and live action.

Amy: Producer, Marketing Manager, Business Development
Kris: Director, Animator, Editor, VFX, Sound Design
Kurtis: Creative Director, Writer

Amy: A lot! I am the point of contact for all the companies and agencies we work with. I oversee production schedules, all social media and marketing for the company. Because we operate out of a small town in Pennsylvania we rely on Internet service companies such as Tongal, Backstage.com, Voices.com, Design Crowd and Skype to keep us connected with the national brands and talent we work with who are mostly based in LA and New York. I don’t think we could be doing what we are doing 10 years ago without living in a hub like LA or NYC.

Kris: I handle most of production, post production and some pre-production. Specifically, storyboarding, shooting, animating, editing, sound design, VFX and so on.

Kurtis: A lot of writing. I basically write everything that our company does, including commercials, pitches and shorts. I help out on our live-action shoots and occasionally direct. I make props and sets for our animation. I am also Something Awry’s resident voice actor.

Amy: Probably that playing with toys is something we get paid to do! Building Lego sets and setting up Hot Wheels jumps is all part of the job, and we still get excited when we get a new toy delivery — who wouldn’t? We also get to explore our inner child on a daily basis.

Hot Wheels

Kurtis: A lot of the arts and crafts knowledge I gathered from my childhood has become very useful in my job. We have to make a lot of weird things and knowing how to use clay and construction paper really helps.

Amy: See above. Seriously, we get to play with toys for a living! Being on set and working with actors and crew in cool locations is also great. I also like it when our videos exceed our client’s expectations.

Kris: The best part of my job is being able to work with all kinds of different toys and just getting the chance to make these weird and entertaining movies out of them.

Kurtis: Having written something and seeing others react positively to it.

Amy/Kris: Working through the approval process with rounds of changes and approvals from multiple departments throughout a large company. Sometimes it goes smoothly and sometimes it doesn’t.

Kurtis: Sitting down to write.

Amy: Since most of the companies we work with are on the West Coast my day kicks into high gear around 4:00pm East Coast time.

Kris: I work best in the morning.

Kurtis: My day often consists of hours of struggling to sit down and write followed by about three to four hours where I am very focused and get everything done. Most often those hours occur from 4pm to 7pm, but it varies a lot.

Amy: Probably helping to organize events somewhere. I am not happy unless I am planning or organizing a project or event of some sort.

Kris: Without this job, I’d likely go into some kind of design career or something involving illustration. For me, drawing is one of my secondary interests after filming.

Kurtis: I’d be telling stories in another medium. Would I be making a living doing it is another question.

Amy: I have always loved advertising and creative projects. When I was younger I was the advertising manager for PNC Bank, but left the corporate world when I had kids and started my own photography business, which I operated for 10 years. Once my kids became interested in film I wanted to foster that interest and here we are!

Kris: Filmmaking is something I’ve always had an interest in. I started when I was just eight years old and from there it’s always something I loved to do. The moment when I first realized this would be something I’d follow for an actual career was really around 10th grade, when I started doing it more on a professional level by creating little videos here and there for company YouTube channels. That’s when it all started to sink in that this could actually be a career for me.

Kurtis: I knew I wanted to tell stories very early on. Around 10 years old or so I started doing some home movies. I could get people to laugh and react to the films I made. It turned out to be the medium I could most easily tell stories in so I have stuck with it ever since.

Amy: We are currently in the midst of two major projects — one is a six-video series for Hot Wheels that involves creating six original song music videos parodying different music genres. The other is a 12-episode series for Warner Bros. Scooby Doo that features live-action and stop-motion animation. Each episode is a mini-mystery that Scooby and the gang solve. The series focuses on the imaginations of different children and the stories they tell.

We also have two short animations currently on the festival circuit. One is a hybrid of Lovecraft and a Scooby-Doo chase scene called Mary and Marsha in the Manor of Madness. The other is dark fairytale called The Gift of the Woods.

Amy: Although I am proud of a lot of our projects I am most proud of the fact that even though we are such a small company, and live in the middle of nowhere, we have been able to work with companies around the world like Lego, Warner Bros. and Mattel. Things we create are seen all over the world, which is pretty cool for us.


Kris: The Lego Yellow Submarine Beatles film we created is what I’m most proud of. It just turned out to be this nice blend of wacky visuals, crazy action, and short concise storytelling that I try to do with most of my films.

Kurtis: I really like the way Mary and Marsha in the Manor of Madness turned out. So far it is the closest we have come to creating something with a unique feel and a sense of energetic momentum; two long term goals I have for our work. We also recently wrapped filming for a twelve episode branded content web series. It is our biggest project yet and I am proud that we were able to handle the production of it really well.

Amy: Skype, my iPad and the rise of online technology companies such as Tongal, Voices.com, Backstage.com and DesignCrowd that help us get our job done.

Kris: Laptop computers, Wacom drawing tablets and iPhones.

Kurtis: My laptop (and it’s software Adobe Premiere and Final Draft), my iPhone and my Kindle.

Amy: Being in this position I like to know what is going on in the industry so I follow Ad Age, Ad Week, Ad Freak, Mashable, Toy Industry News, iO9, Geek Tyrant, and of course all the social media channels of our clients like Lego, Warner Bros., Hot Wheels and StikBots. We also are on Twitter (@AmyTheorin) Instagram (@Somethingsawryproductions) and Facebook (Somethingsawry).

Kris: Mostly YouTube and Facebook.

Kurtis: I follow the essays of Film Crit Hulk. His work on screenwriting and story-telling is incredibly well done and eye opening. Other than that I try to keep up with news and I follow a handful of serialized web-comics. I try to read, watch and play a lot of different things to get new ideas. You never know when the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone might give you the idea for your next toy commercial.

Amy: I don’t usually but I do like to listen to podcasts. Some of my favorites are: How I Built This, Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad and Fresh Air.

Kris: I listen to whatever pop songs are most popular at the time. Currently, that would be Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.”

Kurtis: I listen to an eclectic mix of soundtracks, classic rock songs I‘ve heard in movies, alternative songs I heard in movies, anime theme songs… basically songs I heard with a movie or game and can’t get out of my head. As for particular artists I am partial to They Might Be Giants, Gorillaz, Queen, and the scores of Ennio Morricone, Darren Korb, Jeff Williams, Shoji Meguro and Yoko Kanno.

Amy: Both! I actually love working with my sons, and our skill sets are very complimentary. I love to organize and my kids don’t. Being family we can be very upfront with each other in terms of telling our opinions without having to worry about hurting each other’s feelings.

We know at the end of the day we will always be there for each other no matter what. It sounds cliché but it’s true I think. We have a network of people we also work with on a regular basis who we have great relationships with as well. Sometimes it is hard to turn work off and just be a family though, and I find myself talking with them about projects more often than what is going on with them personally. That’s something I need to work on I guess!

Kris: It’s great because you can more easily communicate and share ideas with each other. It’s generally a lot more open. After a while, it really is just like working within an agency. Everything is fine-tuned and you have worked out a pipeline for creating and producing your videos.

Kurtis: I find it much easier. We all know how we do our best work and what our strengths are. It certainly helps that my family is very good at what they do. Not to mention working from home means I get to set my own hours and don’t have a commute. Sometimes it’s difficult to stay motivated when you’re not in a professional office setting but overall the pros far outweigh the cons.

Amy: I try to take time out to walk our dog, but mostly I love it so much I don’t mind working on projects all the time. If I don’t have something to work on I am not a happy camper. Sometimes I have to remember that not everyone is working on the weekends, so I can’t bother them with work questions!

Kris: It really helps that I don’t often get stressed. At least, not after doing this job for as long as I have. You really learn how to cope with it all. Oftentimes, it’s more just getting exhausted from working long hours. I’ll often just watch some YouTube videos at the end of a day or maybe a movie if there’s something I really want to see.

Kurtis: I like to read and watch interesting stories. I play a lot games: board games, video games, table-top roleplaying. I also find bike riding improves my mood a lot.

Richard King talks sound design for Dunkirk

Using historical sounds as a reference

By Mel Lambert

Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest film follows the fate of nearly 400,000 allied soldiers who were marooned on the beaches of Dunkirk, and the extraordinary plans to rescue them using small ships from nearby English seaports. Although, sadly, more than 68,000 soldiers were captured or killed during the Battle of Dunkirk and the subsequent retreat, more than 300,000 were rescued over a nine-day period in May 1940.

Uniquely, Dunkirk’s primary story arcs — the Mole, or harbor from which the larger ships can take off troops; the Sea, focusing on the English flotilla of small boats; and the Air, spotlighting the activities of Spitfire pilots who protect the beaches and ships from German air-force attacks — follow different timelines, with the Mole sequences being spread over a week, the Sea over a day and the Air over an hour. A Warner Bros. release, Dunkirk stars Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh. (An uncredited Michael Caine is the voice heard during various radio communications.)

Richard King

Marking his sixth collaboration with Nolan, supervising sound editor Richard King worked previously on Interstellar (2014), The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige. He brings his unique sound perspective to these complex narratives, often with innovative sound design. Born in Tampa, King attended the University of South Florida, graduating with a BFA in painting and film, and entered the film industry in 1985. He is the recipient of three Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Sound Editing for Inception, The Dark Knight and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), plus two BAFTA Awards and four MPSE Golden Reel Awards for Best Sound Editing.

King, along with Alex Gibson, recently won the Academy Award for Achievement in Sound Editing for Dunkirk.

The Sound of History
“When we first met to discuss the film,” King recalls, “Chris [Nolan] told me that he wanted Dunkirk to be historically accurate but not slavishly so — he didn’t plan to make a documentary. For example, several [Junkers Ju 87] Stuka dive bombers appear in the film, but there are no high-quality recordings of these aircraft, which had sirens built into the wheel struts for intimidation purposes. There are no Stukas still flying, nor could I find any design drawings so we could build our own. Instead, we decided to re-imagine the sound with a variety of unrelated sound effects and ambiences, using the period recordings as inspiration. We went out into a nearby desert with some real air raid sirens, which we over-cranked to make them more and more piercing — and to add some analog distortion. To this more ‘pure’ version of the sound we added an interesting assortment of other disparate sounds. I find the result scary as hell and probably very close to what the real thing sounded like.”

For other period Axis and Allied aircraft, King was able to locate several British Supermarine Spitfire fighters and a Bristol Blenheim bomber, together with a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. “There are about 200 Spitfires in the world that still fly; three were used during filming of Dunkirk,” King continues. “We received those recordings, and in post recorded three additional Spitfires.”

King was able to place up to 24 microphones in various locations around the airframe near the engine — a supercharged V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled model of 27-liter capacity, and later 37-liter Gremlin motors — as well as close to the exhaust and within the cockpit, as the pilots performed a number of aerial movements. “We used both mono and stereo mics to provide a wide selection for sound design,” he says.

King was looking for the sound of an “air ballet” with the aircraft moving quickly across the sky. “There are moments when the plane sounds are minimized to place the audience more in the pilot’s head, and there are sequences where the plane engines are more prominent,” he says. “We also wanted to recreate the vibrations of this vintage aircraft, which became an important sound design element and was inspired by the shuddering images. I remember that Chris went up in a trainer aircraft to experience the sensation for himself. He reported that it was extremely loud with lots of vibration.

To match up with the edited visuals secured from 65/70mm IMAX and Super Panavision 65mm film cameras, King needed to produce a variety of aircraft sounds. “We had an ex-RAF pilot that had flown in modern dogfights to recreate some of those wartime flying gymnastics. The planes don’t actually produce dramatic changes in the sound when throttling and maneuvering, so I came up with a simple and effective way to accentuate this somewhat. I wanted the planes to respond to the pilots stick and throttle movements immediately.”

For armaments, King’s sound effects recordists John Fasal and Eric Potter oversaw the recording of a vintage Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft cannon seen aboard the allied destroyers and support ships. “We found one in Napa Valley,” north of San Francisco, says King. “The owner had to make up live rounds, which we fired into a nearby hill. We also recorded a number of WWII British Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles and German machine guns on a nearby range. We had to recreate the sound of the Spitfire’s guns, because the actual guns fitted to the Spitfires overheat when fired at sea level and cannot maintain the 1,000 rounds/minute rate we were looking for, except at altitude.”

King readily acknowledges the work at Warner Bros Sound Services of sound-effects editor Michael Mitchell, who worked on several scenes, including the ship sinkings, and sound effects editor Randy Torres, who worked with King on the plane sequences.

Group ADR was done primarily in the UK, “where we recorded at De lane Lea and onboard a decommissioned WWII warship owned by the Imperial War Museum,” King recalls. “The HMS Belfast, which is moored on the River Thames in central London, was perfect for the reverberant interiors we needed for the various ships that sink in the film. We also secured some realistic Foley of people walking up and down ladders and on the superstructure.” Hugo Weng served as dialog editor and David Bach as supervising ADR editor.

Sounds for Moonstone, the key small boat whose fortunes the film follows across the English Channel, were recorded out of Marina del Rey in Southern California, “including its motor and water slaps against the hull. “We also secured some nice Foley on deck, as well as opening and closing of doors,” King says.

Conventional Foley was recorded at Skywalker Sound in Northern California by Shelley Roden, Scott Curtis and John Roesch. “Good Foley was very important for Dunkirk,” explains King. “It all needed to sound absolutely realistic and not like a Hollywood war movie, with a collection of WWII clichés. We wanted it to sound as it would for the film’s characters. John and his team had access to some great surfaces and textures, and a wonderful selection of props.” Michael Dressel served as supervising Foley editor.

In terms of sound design, King offers that he used historical sounds as a reference, to conjure up the terror of the Battle for Dunkirk. “I wanted it to feel like a well-recorded version of the original event. The book ‘Voices of Dunkirk,’ written by Joshua Levine and based on a compilation of first-hand accounts of the evacuation, inspired me and helped me shape the explosions on the beach, with the muffled ‘boom’ as the shells and bombs bury themselves in the sand and then explode. The under-water explosions needed to sound more like a body slam than an audible noise. I added other sounds that amped it a couple more degrees.”

The soundtrack was re-recorded in 5.1-channel format at Warner Bros. Sound Services Stage 9 in Burbank during a six-week mix by mixers Gary Rizzo handling dialog, with sound effects and music overseen by Gregg Landaker — this was his last film before his retiring. “There was almost no looping on the film aside from maybe a couple of lines,” King recalls. “Hugo Weng mined the recordings for every gem, and Gary [Rizzo] was brilliant at cleaning up the voices and pushing them through the barrage of sound provided by sound effects and music somehow without making them sound pushed. Production recordist Mark Weingarten faced enormous challenges, contending with strong wind and salt spray, but he managed to record tracks Gary could work with.”

The sound designer reports that he provided some 20 to 30 tracks of dialog and ADR “with options for noisy environments,” plus 40 to 50 tracks of Foley, dependent on the action. This included shoes and hob-nailed army boots, and groups of 20, especially in the ship scenes. “The score by composer Hans Zimmer kept evolving as we moved through the mixing process,” says King. “Music editor Ryan Rubin and supervising music editor Alex Gibson were active participants in this evolution.”

“We did not want to repeat ourselves or repeat others work,” King concludes. “All sounds in this movie mean something. Every scene had to be designed with a hard-hitting sound. You need to constantly question yourself: ‘Is there a better sound we could use?’ Maybe something different that is appropriate to the sequence that recreates the event in a new and fresh light? I am super-proud of this film and the track.”

Nolan — who was born in London to an American mother and an English father and whose family subsequently split their time between London and Illinois — has this quote on his IMDB page: “This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate. And the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the US would not have returned to war. Militarily it is a defeat; on the human plane it is a colossal victory.”

Certainly, the loss of life and supplies was profound — wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill described Operation Dynamo as “the greatest military disaster in our long history.”

Mel Lambert has been involved with production industries on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember. He is principal of Content Creators, a LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. He is also a long-time member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.

The sounds of Spider-Man: Homecoming

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).

Steven Ticknor

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.”

Web Slinging
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.

The Vulture
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.

Eric Norris

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

Behind the Title: Nylon Studios creative director Simon Lister

NAME: Simon Lister

COMPANY: Nylon Studios

Nylon Studios is a New York- and Sydney-based music and sound house offering original composition and sound design for films and commercials. I am based in the Australia location.

Creative Director

I help manage and steer the company, while also serving as a sound designer, client liaison, soundtrack creative and thinker.

People are constantly surprised with the amount of work that goes into making a soundtrack.

I use Avid Pro Tools, and some really cool plugins

My favorite part of the job is being able to bring a film to life through sound.

At times, clients can be so stressed and make things difficult. However, sometimes we just need to sit back and look at how lucky we are to be in such a fun industry. So in that case, we try our best to make the client’s experience with us as relaxing and seamless as possible.


Anything that involves me having a camera in my hand and taking pictures.

I was pretty young. I got a great break when I was 19 years old in one of the best music studios in New Zealand and haven’t stopped since. Now, I’ve been doing this for 31 years (cough).

Honda Civic spot

In the last couple of months I think I’ve counted several different car brand spots we’ve worked on, including Honda, Hyundai, Subaru, Audi and Toyota. All great spots to sink our teeth and ears into.

Also we have been working on the great wildlife series Tales by Light, which is being played on National Geographic and Netflix.

For Every Child

It would be having the opportunity to film and direct my own commercial, For Every Child, for Unicef global rebranding TVC. We had the amazing voiceover of Liam Neeson and the incredible singing voice of Lisa Gerard (Gladiator, Heat, Black Hawk Down).

My camera, my computer and my motorbike.

I ride motorbikes throughout Morocco, Baja, Himalayas, Mongolia, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand and in the traffic of India.

Audio post vet Rex Recker joins Digital Arts in NYC

Rex Recker has joined the team at New York City’s Digital Arts as a full-time audio post mixer and sound designer. Recker, who co-founded NYC’s AudioEngine after working as VP and audio post mixer at Photomag recording studios, is an award-winning mixer with a long list of credits. Over the span of his career he has worked on countless commercials with clients including McCann Erickson JWT, Ogilvy & Mather, BBDO, DDB, HBO and Warner Books.

Over the years, Recker has developed a following of clients who seek him out for his audio post mixer talents — they seek his expertise in surround sound audio mixing for commercials airing via broadcast, Web and cinemas. In addition to spots, Recker also mixes long-form projects, including broadcast specials and documentaries.

Since joining the Digital Arts team, Recker has already worked on several commercial campaigns, promos and trailers for such clients as Samsung, SlingTV, Ford, Culturelle, Orvitz, NYC Department of Health, and HBO Documentary Films.

Digital Arts, owned by Axel Ericson, is an end-to-end production, finishing and audio facility.

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. 

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.

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.