Tag Archives: The Martian

The 88th Academy Award noms; ‘The Revenant’ leads way

The 88th Academy Award nominations are out and, as expected, The Revenant is well represented, garnering 12 nods. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road follows with 10, and The Martian received seven. While Star Wars didn’t appear in any of the above-the-line categories, it did get recognized for its technical achievement with noms for Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects.

The 88th Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 28 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. See below for a complete list of nominees, check out our links to coverage of the nominated films and talent, and good luck in those office Oscar pools!

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Sound effects and dialog design for ‘The Martian’

By Mel Lambert

In The Martian, during a manned mission to Mars astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and is left behind by his crew. With only meager supplies, he is forced to draw upon his scientific ingenuity to signal NASA that he is alive and awaits rescue. Based on the book by Andy Weir and a screenplay by Drew Goddard, the film adaptation of Twentieth Century Fox’s The Martian was directed by Ridley Scott.

“I had read both the book and the script months before we started post sound on The Martian,” recalls supervising sound editor and sound designer Oliver Tarney, who was nominated for an Oscar for his sound editing work on Captain Phillips. “This meant that I could start thinking about the design of the sound long before I received the first turnover. I’d also spoken to picture editor Pietro Scalia, ACE, about how he and director Ridley Scott wanted to approach the soundtrack. The number one priority was keeping the audience connected to what the character Mark Watney (Matt Damon) was experiencing throughout his journey, so I knew we had to have a palette of sounds that described the isolation and jeopardy of his situation, right from the time we started on the director’s cut.”

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A month before he started on the film, Tarney took a road trip around the southwestern part of the US and brought along his recording equipment (shown right). “I wanted to build up a library of desert winds and footsteps in remote areas such as the salt flats in Death Valley and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. I’d ended up in Los Angeles for a few days before returning home to London and the opportunity came up to visit the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena to record the Mars rover.”

He says the JPL engineers at the Mars Yard were incredibly helpful, not just in giving him access to recording the Rover but also giving him an insight into the NASA approach.

The soundtrack was edited and re-recorded at Twickenham Studios/TW1 in West London, with Paul Massey handling dialog/music and mixer/editor Mark Taylor overseeing sound effects. Michael Fentum was co-sound designer, Rachael Tate was dialog/ADR supervisor, James Harrison was sound effects editor, Hugo Adams was the Foley supervisor and Tony Lewis was music editor.

“While recording the Rover,” Tarney recalls, “what became immediately apparent was that although the engineering is absolutely state of the art, there is also this raw, buzzing, whirring and — surprisingly — unsophisticated element to it. The cost of sending anything into space is so extreme that these machines have to be purely functional, stripped down to the bare minimum… aesthetics and ergonomics are secondary to function.”

L-R: Dafydd Archard,; Rachael Tate,Oliver Tarney, Mark Taylor and Michael Fentum. Not pictured: Paul Massey.

L-R: Sound mix technician Dafydd Archard,  Rachael Tate, Oliver Tarney, Mark Taylor and Michael Fentum. Not pictured: Paul Massey.

That realization became the basis for Tarney’s sound design. “We needed to convey the austere rawness of the technology used in keeping Mark Watney alive,” he says. “Mike Fentum and I recorded a huge library of sounds with Schertler contact mics, building up a palette of electrical buzzes, clicks and whirs that would be the basis for the equipment Watney uses in the film. It helped to describe that, although there may be billions of dollars of technology up there, there’s also a certain fragility and therefore constant threat to life. The raw sounds of the technology also played along with the fact that Watney himself is an engineer and could access, repair and re-imagine uses for it, which he does throughout the film.”

This was the fourth film on which Tarney had worked with director Scott — including Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Counselor. “You start to get to know some of the regulars he uses in other departments,” he says. “The costume department was very generous in giving us both a Mars surface suit and an EVA space suit right from day one of sound. Janty Yates’ detailed work on the suits is absolutely beautiful, but the best bit for us was that they sounded great!

“The very first scenes sent to Ridley and Pietro [Scalia] to review were of Watney outside on the Mars surface. The footstep recordings I’d made in the desert, combined with the suit Foley and temp helmet breaths, worked really effectively. They made sure that even during the director’s cut, viewers were always connected to Watney’s plight – experiencing the isolation, the discomfort of the heavy suit and the claustrophobic in-helmet breaths. Although the visuals are truly beautiful, we wanted to remind the audience that survival on the inhospitable surface of Mars is near-impossible for any lone human.”

Tarney says Scott wanted Watney’s Habitat on Mars to sound like he was living inside a life-support system. “We still wanted to have the same sense of the raw technology at play here, but with an almost womb-like protection from the dangers of Mars,” states Tarney. “We recorded very low frequencies oscillating extremely loudly though a subwoofer loudspeaker in a range of rooms, and also inside spaces such as filing cabinets. Those tracks made up the foundations of that environment. The rhythmic nature of the sounds adds an almost comforting feeling. But because Ridley wanted us to sell the idea that the Habitat wasn’t designed for use over such a long period of time, as the film progressed we also introduced various BPM-matched squeaks and creaks to the pulses. Again, the technology is there, but it is not pretty, just purely functional. With the Habitat designed to last for only 31 days, it degrades slowly, as the narrative unfolds.

(from left) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars.

Tarney considers that the Habitat sounds are particularly effective in Dolby Atmos immersive format. “Mark Taylor was part of the sound editorial team before he switched to mixing the FX,” he says. “He had a 9.1 set-up in his cutting room, which allowed Mike Fentum and me to review our ambiences and discuss with Mark which elements we should be looking to bleed into the overheads. The extended low frequencies in Atmos were incredibly useful in giving us that ‘enveloped’ sound we were looking for when mixing those Habitat scenes.”

“I pre-mixed all the sound effects and Foley virtually in Pro Tools,” Taylor confirms. “This [approach] gives me ultimate flexibility if something needs to be removed or altered on an elemental level. I then routed the separate buss outputs from Pro Tools into the Neve DFC console as pre-dub inputs. I love what the DFC does EQ- and dynamics-wise; it makes material blend nicely, with some gentle compression and a final EQ shaping on each pre-dub. I also love the console’s overheads pan feature, which I used extensively for the Atmos mix, with all the Hab interiors being sent in varying measure to these overhead loudspeaker channels.”

Designing Dialog and ADR
At first glance, it might appear that for the dialog department The Martian soundtrack was pretty straight forward, since most of the screen time is composed of one character who is alone on Mars. But dialog/ADR supervisor Rachael Tate quickly realized the film was actually going to be very multi-layered and technically demanding. “Our biggest challenge was the opening scene of the film,” she explains, “with a dust storm so fierce that it forces the crew to abort their mission. Ridley is always thinking about the story, so dialog clarity is paramount.

“Most of the dialog in the storm is played as if we are overhearing radio comms between the characters,” she continues. “We had to find a way of getting the lines to cut through the immersive FX of the storm without it becoming painfully sharp or distorted. We did this by using a blend of three different helmet-‘worldized’ treatments [secured by replaying dialog lines in the actual costumes], and altered slightly depending on the tone, projection and pitch of each line. Often a great sounding Futz for a low male voice will be too harsh and crisp for a female shouting at the top of her voice. Despite this, we retained a consistency, with dialog re-recording mixer Paul Massey skillfully blending within the boundaries of the overall effect we wanted to create.”

Early on, the editorial team experimented with a multitude of DAW plug-ins but found that the most effective results always came from worldizing. “We fed all in-helmet dialogue through an Avantone speaker that was placed inside a helmet we’d been given by production using a Sanken Cos-11 lavalier mic clipped inside to record the results,” explains Tate. Right from the beginning of sound post, I had this setup as an Aux Send from my Pro Tools session. This arrangement really helped instill that sense of claustrophobia Ridley was seeking to emphasize.”

Helmut mic.

Helmet mic.

Another example came when the team needed to create a sense of distance while NASA Mission Control is monitoring the communications between Watney and the Hermes space vehicle holding the Ares III crew as it returned to Earth, some 140 million miles away. “We set up a tube shortwave transmitter in one room and broadcast the lines to an old radio in another, using a [Placid Audio] Copperphone mic,” she explains. “The naturally lo-fi result gave a far more believable sense that these lines had travelled through the ether, rather than having been processed.”

NASA was particularly cooperative, Tate reports, by providing help in re-creating the world of Houston’s Mission Control. “We were put in touch with a great group of NASA employees who work regularly in Mission Control. They were amazing, immediately giving those scenes the textures we needed, with those unique timbres in the way they communicate. The way they deliver lines is incredibly flat; it’s just about delivering information to each other in the most efficient way, rather than performing a line. They provided not only general comms for background color, but we also got them to react to specific story points and launches throughout the film so that we could create 360-degree NASA activity, specific to on-screen events.”

In the studio’s EPK, Scott said, “This is the ultimate survival story. Mark Watney is placed under unimaginable duress and isolation; the movie is about how he responds. Mark’s fate was determined by whether he succumbed to panic and despair and accepted death as inevitable — or chose to rely on his training, resourcefulness and sense of humor to stay calm and solve problems.”

The Martian, which has been garnering Oscar buzz, is in theaters now.

Mel Lambert is principal of Content Creators, an LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. Follow him on Twitter @MelLambertLA.

Quick Chat: CO3’s Stephen Nakamura on grading ‘The Martian’

Ridley Scott’s The Martian tells the story of an astronaut left behind on Mars. The director, who created that world, called on Company 3’s Stephen Nakamura for the color grade, which he completed in London to be closer to Scott and the production.

We checked in with Nakamura to find out more about his process on The Martian.

You and Ridley have collaborated in the past. We assume you have developed a short hand of sorts?
There are definitely things I know he likes and doesn’t like, but each project is also a little bit different. Obviously, he is very interested in the visuals of every shot. The Martian was relatively straightforward. Something like Exodus: Gods and Kings was much more complex because of the kinds of things we were looking at, like the sea parting. On Prometheus, it was about helping to bring shape and definition to scenes that were really dark. Of course, he’s worked with [Dariusz Wolski, ASC], so a lot of the shaping has already happened between the two of them.

How early does he bring you on a film?

We speak very early on. I know before I see any images what kind of look he’s interested in.

Can you talk about the look of Mars? He referenced the terra cotta/orange look in our recent interview with him.
It was something that we all had a sense of conceptually but it took a lot of work with Ridley, the visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers and me in the DI theater to get it to all look the way it does in the final film. Quite a few shots involved a lot of sky replacements and the addition of mountains in the background. Richard’s team created these additional elements with a combination of CGI practical plates shot in Jordan and combined them with the first unit photography of Matt Damon.

So then when I added the heavy color correction Ridley wanted for that kind of orange look he talks about, it would have an effect on every element in the shot. It’s impossible to know in advance exactly how that correction for the planet’s surface is going to look in context and in a theater until you actually see it. I could get some elements of some shots where we needed them using Power Windows [in the DaVinci Resolve] but sometimes that heavy correction was too much and the effects elements would have to be altered. Maybe the sky needed to be darkened or we needed more separation in the mountains. We might make a change to the foreground, and the background would “break,” or vice versa.

So we had quite a few sessions where Richard would sit with Ridley and me and we would figure that out shot by shot.

You work with Resolve. What is it about that system helps your creative process?
I’ve worked in it as long as it’s been around. I like the way it’s laid out. I like the way I can work… the node-based corrections. I can get to the tools that most colorists use on a normal basis very quickly, and with very few keystrokes or buttons to push. That kind of time saving adds up to a really big deal when you’re coloring complicated movies.

I know there are other great color correctors out there too, but so far Resolve is just the most comfortable for me.

(from left) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars.

Was there one particular scene that was more challenging than others, or a scene that you are most proud of?
There are a number of shots set outside the ship Jessica Chastain’s character commands where we see the ship and some characters in the foreground and the surface of Mars further away and then blackness and stars in the far background.

Here again, we all have a strong conceptual sense of the look, but ultimately it’s something you can’t get to without seeing it in a theater and in context. How saturated should the color of Mars be? How sharp should the focus be on the planet’s surface, on the distant stars? It’s not simply a question of having it look “real.” Ridley’s the kind of filmmaker who wants it feel right for the story. And so I might use Resolve’s aperture correction function to make the stars appear more vibrant, the way Ridley wants it, and that could “break” another part of the shot. And then it’s a question of whether I can use power windows to address that issue or if the VFX team needs to re-render and composite the element.

That kind of massaging of every shot takes a lot of time, but when it’s done you really see the results on the screen.

Can you talk about grading for the brighter Dolby Vision 3D?
It definitely gets rid of one of the major issues in 3D when you can effectively put a stereoscopic image onscreen at the traditional 2D spec of 14-foot lamberts. Previously, doing a stereoscopic pass always involved putting a darker image on screen, and when you have that much less light to work with it affects the whole image. That’s particularly true with highlights that might have plenty of detail at 14 but will blow out when you’re working at 3.5.

Of course, we still did a pass for traditional 3D, since there are very few theaters currently able to show Dolby Vision 3D.

Does that involve a whole different pass or a trim pass, or is it just a LUT that translates everything from the 14-foot lambert world to 3.5?
Company 3’s technology team is always building and updating LUTs that get us a lot of the way there. But when there’s never 100 percent “translation” from the one set of display parameters to the other, image characteristics change. The relative brightness of that practical in the background to the character in the shadows may not feel the same at 14 as it does at 3.5.

So which pass would you do first?
The way I work when we’re doing multiple theatrical deliverables like this is to start with the most “constricted” version [the 3.5 fl 3D] and get that where we want it. Then we go and “open it up” for the wider space. It’s important to be consistent. Very often, it’s a question of building Power Windows around bright parts of the frame and bringing them down for the regular 3D version and then either taking them off or lessening the corrections for the brighter projection spec.


For more on The Martian, read our interview with director Ridley Scott.

The A-List: An interview with ‘The Martian’ director Ridley Scott

By Iain Blair

A mysterious alien world in deep space, hundreds of years in the future. The gore and glory of imperial Rome, and the spectacle of its doomed gladiators. The nightmarish vision of a dystopian Los Angeles and its rogue replicants. The colossal grandeur of ancient Egypt and its massive monuments. The bloody battlefields of the Crusades. The pastoral glow of vineyards in southern France.

Those are just a few of the “other worlds” that Ridley Scott, one of the supreme stylists of contemporary cinema, has brought to life over the past five decades since making his feature debut with The Duellists in 1977. Scott’s directorial resume also includes Blade Runner, Alien and Thelma and Louise. Of all his contemporaries working today, Scott alone seems to be equally at ease creating vast landscapes set in both the distant past and distant future, in the process channeling David Lean, Cecil B. DeMille and Jim Cameron along with his own prodigious gifts as an epic storyteller and visual artist.

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Ridley Scott on location in Jordan for ‘The Martian.’

Now, the three-time Oscar-nominated director — whose credits include such varied fare as Hannibal, Robin Hood, Black Hawk Down, Exodus: Gods and Kings, A Good Year and G.I. Jane — has turned his attention to the red badlands of Mars in his new sci-fi thriller The Martian. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Jeff Daniels, it tells the story of a botanist astronaut (Damon) left behind on the dead, hostile planet after an aborted mission and the efforts of NASA and a team of international scientists to rescue him.

I recently spoke to Scott, whose other credits include Prometheus, Matchstick Men, American Gangster and Legend, about making the 3D film, which was shot in Jordan and Hungary. We discussed his love of previs and post and — hold onto your seats!! — why post schedules are way too long for his liking.

You’ve made a lot of sci-fi films. What’s the appeal?
It’s a new canvas, it takes you into the arena of “anything goes,” but you also need to create a rulebook so the world you create is coherent, otherwise you just get rubbish. You also need a story that’s valid in that universe… and to create parameters. Anything doesn’t go!

The appeal here was it’s a sort of Robinson Crusoe survival story, set in space, five years in the future. There are no aliens and we went for a very realistic look and approach — I knew exactly what to do with it. Even as I was reading it, I was seeing Wadi Rum in Jordan, where we shot the landscapes, and I knew grading would be simple, as I could adjust terra cotta to orange landscapes.

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How early on did you decide to go 3D?
Immediately. I loved 3D when I first tried it out on Prometheus, and then we used it on Exodus, so this is the third one. Again DP Dariusz Wolski used the 3ality TS-5 Technica rigs with Red Epic Dragons and Scarlet Dragons. I love it! It’s only a problem if you allow it to become brain surgery, so you just need to know what you’re doing. It’s a bit like shooting four cameras, which I do anyway.

All the visual effects were obviously crucial. How soon did you integrate post and VFX with the production?
I start it almost immediately, and I also do a lot of boarding. I started well before we began The Martian, with a particular view or rock. I board it all myself, which makes it more accurate, and it allows you to pace a scene. They’re very instructive and they become the bible for everyone, and you can tell the VFX guys, “Here’s the lead-in, this is the cross-over, now we’re in the full VFX shot.”

What about digi-data animation?
I absolutely love it. I think it’s essential before you go into anything complex, because, first, you see what the problems are and, second, in editing you invariably haven’t got the greenscreen, so digital data enables you to cut it into the film instead of having blank space, and it stays there until you get a complete shot.

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who draws upon his ingenuity to subsist on a hostile planet.

Did you do a lot of previs?
Yes, at MPC and Argon. I love that too as it let’s me see what’s what. It can be very sophisticated now in terms of working out the pacing and how you’ll cut. You can get very close to what the final thing will be.

Where did you post?
Partly in London and Budapest, and we did a lot of post as we shot. I cut as we go, every night, so by the end of the shoot I’m pretty close to the director’s cut. I hate waiting until the end of the shoot to start editing, so editor Pietro Scalia just got on with it. That let’s me see where I am.

We did the sound mix at Twickenham in the big new Dolby Atmos room. The mix is amazing as it gives you all this clarity and separation between dialogue and all the effects and other layers.

A lot of filmmakers complain about today’s accelerated post schedules. I assume you’re not one of them?
Are you kidding me? It’s like watching ivy grow when you’re waiting for all the VFX shots and so on. We worked 25 weeks on post for this, and I still think it’s a bit long. Today’s digital technology means you no longer travel with a million feet [of film], just digital output and data, and post is getting faster and faster, thank God. Shooting and posting in 35mm drove me crazy! To be honest, I’d be happy with an even shorter post. I love post, but if you know what you’re doing you don’t need to spend all that time. And digital has changed everything.

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who must draw upon his ingenuity to survive on a hostile planet.How many visual effects shots are there?
Probably 1,300, and we had a lot of companies — Framestore, ILM, Milk, Prime Focus, The Senate, [The Territory for screen graphics] and my usual VFX supervisor Richard Stammers, who’s been with me since Kingdom of Heaven. Funnily enough, the hardest shot to do was the [scene] with the tape, where it floats around and curls in a rather balletic fashion. That was very tricky to get right.

Where was the DI?
At Company 3 in London. I love the DI. For me it’s the final touch, like grading still photographs, and I used my favorite colorist, Stephen Nakamura, who’s a top guy at their LA office and he would travel to London. He’s very fast, and we did the whole film in just two weeks. I’m very happy with the way it looks. (Nakamura used Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve on the film.)

What’s next?
I plan to start Alien: Paradise Lost in February, maybe in Toronto. It’s a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to Alien. I’m also doing a lot of TV projects, including The Hot Zone, a drama with Fox about the Ebola virus.

You seem to be working at a flat-out pace these days, directing a huge movie every year. You turn 78 in November. Do you ever see yourself slowing down?
(Laughs) Hopefully not! I actually think I’m speeding up, and as long as I find great projects to make that really interest me, I’ll keep working.

Photos by Giles Keyte and Aidan Monaghan.


Check back in soon for our audio post coverage of The Martian.