Tag Archives: Warner Bros.

The A-List: Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay

By Iain Blair

Three years ago, The Lego Movie became an “everything is awesome” monster hit that cleverly avoided the pitfalls of feeling like a corporate branding exercise thanks to the deft touch and tonal dexterity of the director/writer/animator/producer team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.

Now busy working on a Han Solo spinoff movie, they handed over the directing reins on the follow-up, The Lego Batman Movie, to Chris McKay, who served as animation director and editor on the first one. And he hit the ground running on this one, which seriously — and hilariously — tweak’s Batman’s image.

Chris McKay

This time out, Batman stars in his own big-screen adventure, but there are big changes brewing in Gotham City. If he wants to save the city from The Joker’s hostile takeover, Batman may have to drop the lone vigilante thing, try to work with others and maybe, just maybe, learn to lighten up (somber introspection only goes so far when you’re a handsome billionaire with great cars and gadgets, who gets to punch people in the face with no repercussions).

Will Arnett voices Batman, Zach Galifianakis is The Joker, Michael Cera is orphan Dick Grayson, Rosario Dawson is Barbara Gordon, and Ralph Fiennes voices Alfred.

Behind the scenes, production designer Grant Freckelton and editor David Burrows also return from The Lego Movie, joined by editors Matt Villa and John Venzon. Lorne Balfe was composer, and feature animation was, again, by Animal Logic. The Warner Bros. film was released in 3D, 2D and IMAX.

I recently talked to McKay about making the film and how the whole process was basically all about the post.

The Lego Movie made nearly half a billion dollars and was a huge critical success as well. Any pressure there?
(Laughs) A lot, because of all that success, and asking, “How do we top it?” Then it’s Batman, with all his fans, and DC is very particular as he’s one of their crown jewels. But at the same time, the studio and DC were great partners and understood all the challenges.

So how did you pitch the whole idea?
As Jerry Maguire, directed by Michael Mann, with a ton of jokes in it. They got on board with that and saw what I was doing with the animatic, as well as the love I have for Batman and this world.

Once you were green-lit, you began on post, right?
Exactly right, because post is everything in animation. The whole thing is post. You start in post and end in post. When we pitched this, we didn’t even have a script, just a three- to four-page treatment. They liked the idea and said, “OK, let’s do it.” So we needed to write a script, and get the storyboard and editorial teams to work immediately, because there was no way we could get it finished in time if we didn’t.

It was originally scheduled to come out in May — almost three years from the time we pitched it, but then they moved the release date up to February, so it got even crazier. So we began getting all the key people involved, like [editor/writer] Dave Burrows at Animal Logic, who cut the first one with me, and developing the opening set piece.

You got an amazing cast, including Will Arnett as Batman again, and such unlikely participants as Mariah Carey, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes and Apple’s Siri. How tough was that?
We were very lucky because everyone was a fan, and when they saw that the first one wasn’t just a 90-minute toy commercial, they really wanted to be in it. Mariah was so charming and funny, and apart from her great singing voice, she has a really great speaking voice — and she was great at improv and very playful. Ralph has done some comedy, but I wasn’t sure he’d want to do something like this, but he got it immediately, and his voice was perfect. Michael Cera doesn’t do this kind of thing at all. Like Ralph, he’s an artist who usually does smaller movies and more personal stuff, and people told us, “You’re not going to get Ralph or Cera,” but Will reached out to Cera (they worked together on Arrested Development) and he came on.

As for Siri, it was a joke we tried to make work in the first movie but couldn’t, so we went back to it, and it turned into a great partnership with Apple. So that was a lot of fun for me, playing around with pop culture in that way, as the whole computer thing is part of Batman’s world anyway.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller have been very busy directing the upcoming, untitled Han Solo Star Wars movie, but as co-producers on this weren’t they still quite involved?
Very. I’d ask them for advice all the time and they would give notes since I was running a lot of stuff past them. They ended up writing several of my favorite lines in this; they gave me so much of their time, pitched jokes and let me do stuff with the animation I wanted to do. They’re very generous.

Sydney-based Animal Logic, the digital design, animation and effects company whose credits include Moulin Rouge!, Happy Feet and Walking With Dinosaurs did all the animation again. What was involved?
As I wanted to use Burrows, that would require us having an editorial team down there, and the studio wasn’t crazy about that. But he’s a fantastic editor and storyteller, and I also wanted to work with Grant Freckelton, who was the production designer on the first one, as well as lighting supervisor Craig Welch — all these team members at Animal Logic who were so good. In the end, we had over 400 people working on this for two and a half years — six months faster than the first one.

So Animal Logic began on it on day one, and I didn’t wait for a script. It was just me, Dave and the storyboard teams in LA and Sydney, and Grant’s design team. I showed them the treatment and said, “Here’s the scenes I want to do,” and we began with paintings and storyboards. The first act in animatic form and the script both landed at the same time in November 2014, and then we pitched where the rest of the movie would go and what changes we would make. So it kept going in tandem like that. There was no traditional screenwriting process. We’d just bring writers in and adjust as we went. So we literally built the screenplay in post — and we could do that because animation is like filmmaking in slow motion, and we had great storytellers in post, like Burrows.

You also used two other editors — Matt Villa and John Venzon. How did that work?
Matt’s very accomplished. He’s cut three of Baz Luhrmann’s films — The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge! and Australia — and he cut Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner as well as
the animated features Happy Feet Two and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, so he came in to help. We also brought in other writers, and we would all be doing the voices. I was Batman and Matt would do the side characters. We literally built it as we went, with some storyboard artists from the first film, plus others we gathered along the way. The edit was crucial because of the crazy deadline.

Last summer we added John, who has also cut animated features, including Storks, Flushed Away, Shark Tale and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, because we needed to move some editorial to LA last July for five months, and he helped out with all the finishing. It was a 24/7 effort by that time, a labor of love.

Let’s talk about the VFX. Fair to say the whole film’s one big VFX sequence?
You’re right. Every single frame is a VFX shot. It’s mind blowing! You’re constantly working on it at the same time you’re writing and editing and so on, and it takes a big team of very focused animators and producers to do it.

What about the sound and music? Composer Lorne Balfe did the scores for Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the animated features Penguins of Madagascar and Home, as well as Terminator Genisys. How important was the score?
It was crucial. He actually worked on the Dark Knight movies, so I knew he could do all the operatic, serious stuff as well as boy’s adventure stuff for Robin, and he was a big part of making it sound like a real Batman movie. We recorded the score in Sydney and Vienna, and did the mix on the lot at Warners with a great team that included effects mixer Gregg Landaker and sound designer Wayne Pashley from Big Bang Sound in Sydney.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
I wish we had those extra two months, but it’s the movie I wanted to make — it’s good for kids and adults, and it’s a big, fun Batman movie that looks at him in a way that the other Batman movies can’t.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

‘Suicide Squad’: Imageworks VFX supervisor Mark Breakspear 

By Randi Altman

In Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad, a band of captured super-villains are released from prison by the government and tasked with working together to fight a common enemy, the evil Joker. This film, which held top box office honors for weeks, has a bit of everything: comic book antiheroes, super powers, epic battles and redemption. It also features a ton of visual effects work that was supervised by Sony Imageworks’ Mark Breakspear, who worked closely with production supervisor Jerome Chen and director David Ayer (see our interview with Ayer).

Mark Breakspear

Mark Breakspear

Breakspear is an industry veteran with more than 20 years of experience as a visual effects supervisor and artist, working on feature films, television and commercials. His credits include American Sniper, The Giver, Ender’s Game, Thor: The Dark World, The Great Gatsby… and that’s just to name a few.

Suicide Squad features approximately 1,200 shots, with Imageworks doing about 300, including the key fight at the end of the film between Enchantress, the Squad, Incubus and Mega Diablo. Imageworks also provided shots for several other sequences throughout the movie.

MPC worked on the majority of the other visual effects, with Third Floor creating postviz after the shoot to help with the cutting of the film.

I recently threw some questions at Breakspear about his process and work on Suicide Squad.

How early did you get involved in the project?
Jerome Chen, the production supervisor, involved us from the very beginning in the spring of 2015. We read the script and started designing one of the most challenging characters — Incubus. We spent a couple of months working with designer Tim Borgmann to finesse the details of his overall look, shape and, specifically, his skin and sub-surface qualities.


How did Imageworks prepare for taking on the film?

We spent time gathering as much information as we could about the work we were looking to do. That involved lengthy calls with Jerome to pick over every aspect of the designs that David Ayer wanted. As it was still pretty early, there was a lot more “something like” rather than “exactly like” when it came to the ideas. But this is what the prepro was for, and we were able to really focus on narrowing down the many ideas in to key selections and give the crew something to work with during the shoot in Toronto.

Can you talk about being on set?
The main shoot was at Pinewood in Toronto. We had several soundstages that were used for the creation of the various sets. Shoot days are usually long and arduous, and this was no exception. For VFX crews, the days are typically hectic, quiet, hectic, very hectic, quiet and then suddenly very hectic again. After wrap, you still have to download all the data, organize it and prep everything for the next day.

I had fantastic help on set from Chris Hebert who was our on-set photographer. His job was to make sure we had accurate records (photographic and data sets) of anything that could be used in our work later on. That meant actors, props, witness cameras, texture photography and any specific one-off moments that occur 300 times a day. Every movie set needs a Chris Hebert or it’s going to be a huge struggle later on in post!

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Ok, let’s dig into the workflow. Can you walk us through it?

Workflow is a huge subject, so I’ll keep the answer somewhat concise! The general day would begin with a team meet between all the various VFX departments here at Imageworks. The work was split across teams in both Culver and Vancouver, so we did regular video Hangouts to discuss the daily plan, the weekly targets and generally where we were at, plus specific needs that anyone had. We would usually follow this by department meetings prior to AM dailies where I would review the latest work from the department leads, give notes, select things to show Jerome and David, and give feedback that I may have received from production.

We tried our best to keep our afternoons meeting-free so actual work could get done! Toward the end of the day we would have more dailies, and the final days selection of notes and pulls to the client would take place. Most days ended fairly late, as we had to round off the hundreds of emails with meaningful replies, prep for the next day and catch any late submission arrivals from the artists that might benefit from notes before the morning.

What tool, or tools, did you use for remote collaboration?
We used Google Hangouts for video conferencing, and Itview for shot discussion and notes with Jerome and David. Itview is our own software that replaces the need to use [off-the-shelf tools], and allows a much faster, more secure and accurate way to discuss and share shots. Jerome had a system in post and we would place data on it remotely for him to view and comment on in realtime with us during client calls. The notes and drawings he made would go straight in to our note tracker and then on to artists as required.

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What was the most challenging shot or shots, and why?

Our most challenging work was in understanding and implementing fractals into the design of the characters and their weapons. We had to get up to speed on three-dimensional mandlebulbs and how we can render them into our body of work. We also had to create vortical flow simulations that came off the fractal weapons, which created their own set of challenges due to the nature of how particles uniquely behave when near high velocity emissions.

So there wasn’t a specific shot that was more challenging than another, but the work that went in to most of them required a very challenging pre-design and concept solve involving fractal physics to make them work.

Can you talk about tools — off-the-shelf or proprietary — you used for the VFX? Any rendering in the cloud?
We used Side Effects Houdini and Autodesk Maya for the majority of shots and The Foundry’s Nuke to comp everything. When it came to rendering we used Arnold, and in regards to cloud rendering, we did render remotely to our own cloud, which is about 1,000 miles away — does that count (smiles)?

The A-List: Suicide Squad director David Ayer

By Iain Blair

With his distinctive, anarchic, immersive style, director/producer/screenwriter David Ayer has always excelled at probing the murky depths of human behavior and blurring the lines between the bad guys and the good guys in such hardcore films as Training Day, Fury, Sabotage, Harsh Times and End of Watch. Now Ayer, whose credits include Street Kings, and the screenplays for U-571, The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue and S.W.A.T., has made Suicide Squad, a blockbuster without the usual bluster, and a superhero movie without the usual heroes.

David Ayer

With an all-star cast that includes Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis, and based on the DC Comics anti-heroes, it tells the story of a rogues gallery of outcasts who are assembled into a team, equipped with the most powerful arsenal at the government’s disposal, and sent off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic entity.

Ayer’s behind-the-scenes stellar creative team included director of photography Roman Vasyanov, production designer Oliver Scholl, editor John Gilroy and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. The music is by composer Steven Price. The Warner Bros. film was released in 3D, 2D and in select IMAX 3D theaters.

I spoke with Ayer on the eve of its release about making Suicide Squad and why editing is like a wrestling match.

This is definitely not your usual superhero movie. What was the appeal of doing it, as there’re so many superhero films out there now? 
Great question. When I did Fury, it was all about historical accuracy and recreating WWII. With this, I wanted to try and create a fantasy world and give it this real and gritty feel that I like as a director, and bring that sensibility to a comic book movie and create multi-dimensional characters through casting amazing actors — and ground the fantastical as much as possible in reality.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
In a lot of ways filmmaking is very mechanical, and all the processes are sort of an industrial process. So it was dealing with all the sets and set pieces, the sheer scale of it, and that becomes about logistics — building them, tearing them down, building new sets on the same stages, and how to move all these pieces around and keep your crews running smoothly. It was a massive undertaking.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Sony Imageworks’ Jerome Chen — who did the VFX on Fury, and the Spider-Man films as well as Beowulf and The Polar Express for Bob Zemeckis — came in right at the start. We did extremely complex CG characters in this, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to go about doing it and what were the best techniques. It took a lot of time and work, and we also had to figure out all the computer time and the renderfarms we needed to generate the shots, so all the VFX were embedded in the shoot from day one. We set up witness cameras to record everything the crew did, we had constant telemetry and a ton of data gathering.

Did you do a lot of previs?
Quite a lot. Third Floor did them. It’s a very interesting technique, as for certain scenes you absolutely have to have it. You have to go in knowing efficiently where you’re going to have to drop that camera on the set, and there are a few scenes that almost exactly match the previs we did. But other times it’s not really an essential tool

You reunited with director of photography Roman Vasyanov, who shot Fury and End of Watch. How tough was the shoot?
We did most of the principal photography at Pinewood Toronto Studios, and it was a long and grueling shoot. I was very happy to get to post!

Do you like the post process?
I love post. You know you’re going to work every day, that’s for sure. We did it all on the lot at Warners. It’s always challenging because film isn’t logical, it’s emotional, and it comes together in strange ways. It’s never a linear journey, and you go down blind alleys and try to solve problems, and not every problem wants to yield its secrets.

Can you talk about working with editor John Gilroy, (Nightcrawler, Pacific Rim, The Bourne LegacyMichael Clayton). Was he on the set?
He set up editorial in Toronto so it was up and running from the beginning. He tried to keep up with the shoot as much as possible as we shot on film, so there’s the lag between photography and the dailies reaching editorial.

And you like to shoot, don’t you?
(Laughs) I do shoot a lot! Over 1.5 million feet of film on this — so it’s a lot of work just to watch it and keep the assembly up to date. Then we did the main editing back on the lot. I love editing even though it’s baffling and frustrating and wonderful, all at the same time. The challenge is always that you can make an infinite number of films out of the same footage, and whatever your ideas and dreams are going in, they’re going to be shattered along the way — because the movie wants to be what it wants to be, and you can only fight that so much. You’re wrestling every day to find the right film.

All the VFX play a big role. Talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jerome Chen who did Fury for you.
We have this shorthand, and he knows my taste and how I think and what I’m going to want and how I’m going to want it. It’s a pretty seamless relationship, and he also has great ideas; he often surprises me. This was a huge job with thousands of VFX shots, and a lot of vendors, but the main ones were MPC and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
Anything with full CG characters is hard. It’s hard to shoot that and block it and hard to edit things you can’t see. You end up with this hodgepodge of previs and half-finished shots and slowly the finished VFX stuff gets dropped in.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Shed in Santa Monica, a fairly new company [which runs Baselight’s latest Generation VI system with more grading power]. We did the DI with colorist Yvan Lucas, who co-founded the company. He did Fury, but this was my first time at The Shed, and he did an amazing job. The film looks very beautiful. The DI is so important, and it’s almost my favorite part of post. I get in there and look at every shot. Yvan and Roman would do a pass and then I’d do one, and we’d keep passing the baton like that until we were all happy.

For me, it’s where the film really comes to life. After seeing it in dailies for so long, it’s such a pleasure to see it like this. We did everything from the overall look to saturation and contrast matching, and some re-composition now and again. We shot the film in a very precise way and composed shots very specifically, but the DI lets you do some re-comps if needed when you simply don’t have the time on the day of the shoot, especially with exterior stuff.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It was mostly what I had envisioned, but the mechanics of how you get there and how to tell the best story were a bit different, and you can’t foresee that. It was a great experience, and I can safely say I learned more about filmmaking on this than on any other film I’ve done. It was a maturing as a filmmaker.

What’s next?
I’m doing Bright with Will Smith. We start shooting in the fall.

Will you do another superhero movie?
(Laughs) I’ll wait to see how the fans respond to this before I put my neck on the block again.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Call of the Wild —Tarzan’s iconic yell

By Jennifer Walden

For many sound enthusiasts, Tarzan’s iconic yell is the true legend of that story. Was it actually actor Johnny Weissmuller performing the yell? Or was it a product of post sound magic involving an opera singer, a dog, a violin and a hyena played backwards as MGM Studios claims? Whatever the origin, it doesn’t impact how recognizable that yell is, and this fact wasn’t lost on the filmmakers behind the new Warner Bros. movie The Legend of Tarzan.

The updated version is not a far cry from the original, but it is more guttural and throaty, and less like a yodel. It has an unmistakable animalistic quality. While we may never know the true story behind the original Tarzan yell, postPerspective went behind the scenes to learn how the new one was created.

Supervising sound editor/sound designer Glenn Freemantle and sound designer/re-recording mixer Niv Adiri at Sound24, a multi-award winning audio post company located on the lot of Pinewood Film Studios in Buckinghamshire, UK, reveal that they went through numerous iterations of the new Tarzan yell. “We had quite a few tries on that but in the end it’s quite a simple sound. It’s actor Alexander Skarsgård’s voice and there are some human and animal elements, like gorillas, all blended together in it,” explains Freemantle.

Since the new yell always plays in the distance, it needed to feel powerful and raw, as though Tarzan is waking up the jungle. To emphasize this, Freemantle says, “We have animal sounds rushing around the jungle after the Tarzan yell, as if he is taking control of it.”

The jungle itself is a marvel of sight and sound. Freemantle notes that everything in the film, apart from the actors on screen, was generated afterward — the Congo, the animals, even the villages and people, a harbor with ships and an action sequence involving a train. Everything.

LEGEND OF TARZANThe film was shot on a back lot of Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, UK, so making the CGI-created Congo feel like the real deal was essential. They wanted the Congo to feel alive, and have the sound change as the characters moved through the space. Another challenge was grounding all the CG animals — the apes, wildebeests, ostriches, elephants, lions, tigers, and other animals — in that world.

When Sound24 first started on the film, a year and a half before its theatrical release, Freemantle says there was very little to work with visually. “Basically it was right from the nuts and bolts up. There was nothing there, nothing to see in the beginning apart from still pictures and previz. Then all the apes, animals and jungles were put in and gradually the visuals were built up. We were building temp mixes for the editors to use in their cut, so it was like a progression of sound over time,” he says.

Sound24’s sound design got increasingly detailed as the visuals presented more details. They went from building ambient background for different parts of Africa — from the deep jungle to the open plains — at different times of the day and night to covering footsteps for the CG gorillas. The sound design team included Ben Barker, Tom Sayers, and Eilam Hoffman, with sound effects editing by Dan Freemantle and Robert Malone. Editing dialogue and ADR was Gillian Dodders. Foley was recorded at Shepperton Studios by Foley mixer Glen Gathard.

Capturing Sounds
Since capturing their own field recordings in the Congo would have proved too challenging, Sound 24 opted to source sound recordings authentic to that area. They also researched and collected the best animal sounds they could find, which were particularly useful for the gorilla design.

Sound24’s sound design team designed the gorillas to have a range of reactions, from massive roars and growls to smaller grunts and snorts. They cut and layered different animal sounds, including processed human vocalizations, to create a wide range of gorilla sounds.

There were three main gorillas, and each sounds a bit different, but the most domineering of all was Akut. During a fight between Akut and Tarzan, Adiri notes that in the mix, they wanted to communicate Akut’s presence and power through sound. “We tried to create dynamics within Akut’s voice so that you feel that he is putting in a lot of effort into the fight. You see him breathing hard and moving, so his voice had to have his movement in it. We had to make it dynamic and make sure that there was space for the hits, and the falls, and whatever is happening visually. We had to make sure that all of the sounds are really tied to the animal and you feel that he’s not some super ape, but he’s real,” Adiri says. They also designed sounds for the gang of gorillas that came to egg on Akut in his fight.

The Mix
All the effects, Foley and backgrounds were edited and premixed in Avid Pro Tools 11. Since Sound24 had been working on The Legend of Tarzan for over a year, keeping everything in the box allowed them to update their session over time and still have access to previous elements and temp mixes. “The mix was evolving throughout the sound editorial process. Once we had that first temp mix we just kept working with that, remixing sounds and reworking scenes but it was all done in the box up until the final mix. We never started the mix from scratch on the dub stage,” says Adiri.

For the final Dolby Atmos mix at Warner Bros. De Lane Lea Studios in London, Adiri and Freemantle brought in their Avid S6 console to studio. “That surface was brilliant for us,” says Adiri, who mixed the effects/Foley/backgrounds. He shared the board with re-recording mixer Ian Tapp, on dialogue/music.

Adiri feels the Atmos surround field worked best for quiet moments, like during a wide aerial shot of the jungle where the camera moves down through the canopy to the jungle floor. There he was able to move through layers of sounds, from the top speakers down, and have the ambience change as the camera’s position changed. Throughout the jungle scenes, he used the Atmos surrounds to place birds and distant animal cries, slowly panning them around the theater to make the audience feel as though they are surrounded by a living jungle.

He also likes to use the overhead speakers for rain ambience. “It’s nice to use them in quieter scenes when you can really feel the space, moving sounds around in a more subliminal way, rather than using them to be in-your-face. Rain is always good because it’s a bright sound. You know that it is coming from above you. It’s good for that very directional sort of sound.”

Ambience wasn’t the only sound that Adiri worked with in Atmos. He also used it to pan the sounds of monkeys swinging through the trees and soaring overhead, and for Tarzan’s swinging. “We used it for these dynamic moments in the storytelling rather than filling up those speakers all the time. For the moments when we do use the Atmos field, it’s striking and that becomes a moment to remember, rather than just sound all the time,” concludes Freemantle.

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

Playing in a sonic sandbox for ‘Batman v Superman’

Formosa Group’s Scott Hecker on creating iconic sounds

By Jennifer Walden

If you’re looking to see a deep, intellectual movie, you might want to skip Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But if it’s action you are after, buy your ticket and enjoy the ride. Directed by Zack Snyder — who has helmed 300, Dawn of the Dead, Watchmen, Sucker Punch and Man of Steel — this film tries to answer the age-old question asked on playgrounds and in bars worldwide: “Who would win in a fight? Batman or Superman?”

For Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman, Snyder called on his go-to supervising sound editor/designer Scott Hecker from Santa Monica’s Formosa Group — Hecker has worked on all of the Snyder films mentioned above, and more. “His vision is amazing,” Hecker says of Snyder. “It’s always fun to see what he puts on screen. It’s just a treat for a sound designer to dig his teeth into an amazing film like this.”

Scott Hecker

Scott Hecker

The Sound of Superheroes
Hecker’s sound design work on Man of Steel paved the way for Batman v Superman. The sounds from both films are the start of a growing library that will define the ensuing DC Comic films coming via Warner Bros. On Man of Steel, Hecker says they created Superman’s unique flying sounds by processing numerous wind and whoosh effects, but there was one throwback ingredient they included to make the flying sounds authentically Superman. “There’s a bit of the George Reeves flying sound from the original Superman TV series. The sound isn’t dominant, but we just had to include it. If you hear it you know exactly what it is and where it is from,” says Hecker.

Other superheroes and villains take the screen in Batman v Superman, including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who is the focus of the next feature film in the series. Knowing that, Hecker paid special attention to Wonder Woman’s characteristic sounds. “They are presently shooting Wonder Woman in the UK. So while we were working on Wonder Woman’s sounds for this film, we wanted to come up with something that could hopefully carry forward, because the next film is entirely based on Wonder Woman. Her sounds weren’t just a one-off in this film.”

Power Blast!
Wonder Woman has two main sound elements to her superpower. There is the clank of her wristbands followed by a power blast. For the wristband clank, Hecker says he and his sound designer Chuck Michael searched far and wide to find a sound that was feminine, magical and tonally pleasing. “The final sound is a really powerful, solid metallic clank. It has a cool ring to it and it has a tone to it, instead of it just sounding like a normal metal hit. It sounds feminine and powerful with a cool tone.”

For the power blast, “we were thinking that it needed to feel magical, like a superpower, and not something earthly,” says Hecker. To achieve an interesting tonal feel without being overly musical, they processed different gongs and bells by manipulating the pitch and speed, and added modulation using Waves MondoMod and other plug-ins.

“It has a stuttering effect to make it feel like it is emulating a force. It’s unique, and it sounds powerful and magical at the same time,” says Hecker, who feels that designing superhero sounds is part skill and part serendipity. “It’s like playing in a sonic sandbox. You just keep experimenting with things until all the sudden it’s like sonic alchemy — a beautiful accident happens and you go, ‘Wow that was cool! What did we just do?” That happens for a lot of what we do and that’s the fun of it. It really is a lot of experimentation and just playing until something tickles your funny bone and you feel good about it.”

The Batmobile
Batman (Ben Affleck) may not have superpowers, but he’s super rich and super smart, and that’s good enough for gaining entry into the crime-fighting game. Sound-wise, Hecker wanted to reflect Bruce Wayne’s refined sense of style in Batman’s arsenal of high-tech gear, including his sweet ride — the Batmobile.

“We recorded the Batmobile on-location in Detroit, which was really exciting,” explains Hecker. “In putting that production vehicle together, they had to invert and reverse the transmission. On a technical level, I don’t know why they did it but it created this interesting sound. When I heard a sample of this reversed transmission, with this reversed whine and pitched-up characteristic to it — I thought there is a lot of promise there.”

He sent sound effects recordist John Fasal to Detroit to capture every sound he could from the Batmobile. There was just one stipulation: since they didn’t want to risk breaking the vehicle before they had a chance to shoot the scenes, they only allowed Fasal to capture the recordings during the vehicle tests. “They were constantly testing the vehicle to make sure it could withstand the various stunts and maneuvers that were required in the chase scenes. So they allowed John to put as many mics as he wanted on the car, in the car, on the engine and the tailpipe, but he couldn’t dictate what he wanted the car to do. He could just be there and capture as many sounds as he was able to capture.”

With the Batmobile miked up, Fasal was free to capture all the exterior sounds too, like pass-bys, drive-ups, pull-aways, engine starts and stops.

Back at Formosa, Hecker and his sound team layered the recordings of the Batmobile’s inverted transmission whine with the engine sounds of a Shelby Series 1. “It’s a powerful car, but it has this sleek power to it that works well with the high-pitched whine that was created from the inverted transmission of the Batmobile,” says Hecker. “I’m really happy that they had to do that to the car to make it work for them because otherwise we would’ve been missing a critical element to the sound. I think for other permutations of the Batmobile, in previous films, those sound crews were using jet turbine whines. One thing I always want to avoid is doing something that other people have done before. So this helped us to be original and authentic. It was a win-win.”

Fights
For the hand-to-hand combat sequences, Hecker turned to his brother Gary Hecker, a supervising Foley artist at Sony Pictures who has a flair for action films. “I love the process of Foley, and especially being able to work with my brother Gary. He was the perfect guy to get into that action film mode,” says Hecker.

Besides the footsteps and normal hand props, they created new punches, hits, crashes and also cape sounds. “We have Batman’s cape and Superman’s cape — that made everything have a very visceral feel. You actually feel the movement and the characters’ presence in these fights too.” The final combat tracks are a combination of Foley and sound effects tailored to fit the unique qualities of each fight scene. “There are about four fight scenes in the film and they are all different. It’s not just your standard punches and hits. They all have a slightly different feel stylistically. Zack is very smart about that. He has such a colorful vision and he keeps things fresh and fun.”

During the film’s epic battle sequences, there is the potential to go full-bore all the time. Add to that the soaring score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, which at times reaches operatic heights, and you get what Jimmy Fallon called, “One of the loudest movies I’ve ever seen… in a great way.”

The Mix
Hecker admits it was super challenging to build a dynamic track. “One way that we modulated it was by really changing things up for the various confrontations, fights and action scenes,” he says. On some scenes the effects would drive the mix, and in other scenes the music would lead. They could create shifts in the intensity by having the music and the effects hand-off from one to the other. “As soon as you start hearing operatic motifs in the music, you just know you don’t want to hear a bunch of loud sound effects. So in those situations we turned to using more impressionistic action sounds versus literal punches and hits and crashes.”

Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice

On Warner Bros. dub Stage 9, re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins (dialogue/music) and Michael Keller (sound effects/Foley) were tasked with finding harmony among all the elements competing for the same sonic space. “In areas where there are less interesting sound design or effects, we just let the music lead. When in doubt, the music will usually predominate, as it should. It’s a really beautiful score,” says Hecker.

There are definitely areas of the film that get loud but they don’t stay loud. The mixers tried to achieve an intense feeling without hitting levels that would abuse the audience. The loud sections pop in and pop out, giving the audience sonic breaks. Hecker explains the approach on the climactic third act confrontation, where Wonder Woman comes in. “Her theme comes in and the score turns operatic. We got very impressionistic there because by then, throughout the whole film, we had a lot of opportunities for vibrant, colorful, powerful action sounds. By the third act we really wanted to hand-off to music a bit more for the climax.”

Once Jenkins and Keller crafted the final soundtrack on Stage 9, they transferred everything over to Warner Bros. Stage 10 for the Dolby Atmos mix.

“I’m thrilled that audiences are finally able to enjoy our team’s hard work on the film. And as far as what’s sonically in store for the other DC Comics characters, we’re just rolling up our sleeves,” concludes Hecker.

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

The A-List: ‘Midnight Special’ director Jeff Nichols

By Iain Blair

The acclaimed indie auteur Jeff Nichols made his debut in 2007 with Shotgun Stories, a revenge tale full of menace and foreboding. He followed that up with 2011’s Take Shelter, another dark tale that danced around themes of love, madness and the apocalypse. Then came 2012’s Mud, a coming-of-age story starring Matthew McConaughey as a fugitive.

Now, after those three ultra-low-budget films, the writer/director has upped the ante with an ambitious new film, the smart sci-fi thriller Midnight Special. A provocative film, as supernatural as it is intimately human, it follows a father, Roy (Michael Shannon), who goes on the run to protect his young son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers (cue the VFX!) that even Roy himself cannot comprehend. And what starts as a race from religious extremists and local law enforcement quickly escalates to a nationwide manhunt involving the hMIDNIGHT SPECIALighest levels of the federal government.

I recently spoke with Nichols about making the film.

What kind of film did you have in mind when you started out?
A sci-fi chase movie, but I knew going in that that would only get me so far, and that at some point this ridiculous concept — and we’ve all seen that construct before — would have to attach itself to my life in a very personal way in order to make it through the whole process. That’s when my sci-fi chase movie became a metaphor for my relationship with my son.

So, it’s fair to say that the themes of family and light and darkness are central to the film?
Absolutely.

How hard is it for you to decide how much to give away and how much to leave ambiguous and unspoken in a film like this?
It’s easy and quite natural for me. This is my fourth film and I started to make aesthetic rules for myself — for better or worse — as a writer and that took care of a lot of stuff about ambiguity. A lot of it’s pragmatism in writing. Dialogue reveals character, and these people don’t talk about certain things because that would just sound stupid. So a lot is left unsaid. These people behave this way and speak this way because of who they are. So part of it is that and part of it is the mechanics.

That can be painful in that I would have written these tremendous back stories for these characters, and sometimes you desperately want audiences to know about all that stuff, because it will help them understand the characters better. But I still had that nagging rule — I can’t let them talk and explain things they already know, and make the actors say lines that they know aren’t organic to their behavior at that moment.

The film was shot by your usual cinematographer Adam Stone, who shot Mud and Take Shelter. What did he bring to the mix?
We shot on film and talked a lot about using natural light. Since we shot a lot at night, the use of light was crucial. In Mud I was trying to get over my fear of moving the camera; I overcame it, but I hadn’t come to grips with my fears about light and the fact that film just falls apart in very low light. So we knew we would have to use lights and make them mimic real light. We had to really think hard about light sources in each scene, and Adam did an amazing job. He has this incredible natural eye, and I rely completely on him and his skill. If you gave me a camera and a film magazine, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Do you like the post process?
I do, a lot, but this was a very grueling post. But it’s fun as the whole thing starts to come together, and the plan you came up with by yourself in a room at the script stage starts to pay off —especially if you’re given the time and budget on set to execute that plan.

Where did you post?
I always do all my offline editing at home in Austin, in my home office, and then we moved here to LA to finish post on the Warner lot. That’s where it began to get quite arduous. There was a lot of testing while we were still in offline mode, and I was ready to be in online edit mode and start locking the film. But it wasn’t quite ready, and now all these comments and questions began coming in from test screenings, and we had to address any negative reactions.

You edited the film with Julie Monroe, who cut Mud and who has cut a lot of films for Oliver Stone, including Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
She wasn’t on the set. She got the dailies and I just left her alone. That’s not my cut; it’s hers, and it’s the only time it really is just hers. So she plays around with the footage and she may call and say, ‘I’m a little worried about this scene and how you’re going to put it together. I think you need another shot here. I’ll either agree or tell her it’s covered the way I’m going to do it.

I’m very specific in my script and then in the way I direct each scene and shot. Cutting this was a little tricky, because it’s hard to cut scenes that are incomplete and you’re still waiting for all the effects shots – and it wasn’t just the missing VFX but all the sound effects and music, especially in this film. It’s hard to imagine what they’ll all sound like and how big it will sound by the end of post. So all of that made the online difficult; how do you pick the timing of a shot when only 20 percent of it exists? Luckily, we didn’t have too many scenes like that.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film? The classic car sounds are amazing.
Sound is so important, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with Will Files, the supervising sound editor, who began at Skywalker. We went to college together, and he’s a phenomenon. He really understands my aesthetic. He knows what sounds real and what doesn’t, even in a sci-fi movie. And he knows that I never want sound to be dishonest. For me, it’s easy to make something “too hot” in the mix, but he never does that… and stuff like the car sounds are just right.

Where did you mix the sound?MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
On the lot at Warner Bros. in Burbank.

This is not a VFX-driven piece, but the VFX play a big role — Alton’s eyes, the spectacular meteor shower and the entire sequence at the end is crucial. Can you talk about that?
Hydraulx did all of them, and the big thing for me was, “How do we make all the VFX tactile?” I really pushed them on that, and we worked hard to blend them seamlessly with the in-camera stuff. For the scenes where Alton’s eyes activate, we probably did 80 percent of it in-camera by using these light goggles we built with very bright LEDs that interacted with the camera lens and gave us these natural flares. We were then able to edit the lens flares and the VFX in realtime. I wanted all the VFX to be very realistic, and Hydraulx was very good at working through the physics involved. They weren’t just a vendor, they were a creative partner.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
It was very important, and we did it at Efilm with colorist Mitch Paulson (working on Lustre), who really understood the look I wanted. It’s a sci-fi film, but I wanted it to look as natural and real as possible, and he got that look perfectly.

What’s next?
Loving, a drama about an interracial couple set in the ‘50s. It comes out at the end of the year; Julie Monroe also cut that one. I would love to have a bigger paintbrush and do a big studio movie, but I’m also quite an idealist, and I like making my films the way I want to. It would be really hard to step away from that way of working.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

‘The 33’: surrounding the audience in sound via Atmos

Warner Bros. and Formosa combine to bring people underground, sonically

By Jennifer Walden

Few films seem so perfectly suited for a playback system that incorporates overhead speakers as Warner Bros.’ The 33. Director Patricia Riggen’s subterranean story, based on the true account of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days, is a natural fit for the Dolby Atmos system.

While some mixers have said that putting sound in the ceiling can actually make the mix feel boxed in because the height of the environment is being defined, that actually worked perfectly for The 33. The miners are trapped under a couple thousand feet of solid rock, and with Atmos’ overhead speakers the audience can experience that feeling of isolation too.

Formosa Group‘s supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger and re-recording mixer Martyn Zub, along with WB Sound re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith, were ablin minee to define the miner’s space underground by applying convolution reverbs, via Audio Ease’s Altiverb, to the dialogue, effects and Foley.

The convolution reverbs were created using impulse responses that Stoeckinger, sound designer Alan Rankin and librarian/field recordist Charlie Campagna captured during their trip to California Caverns, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California’s historic Gold Country. The impulse responses — recordings that represent how a space reacts to sound — were recorded inside the cavern and mimicked the space of the mine on-screen. “The interesting thing about a mine is that it sounds like there is a lot of reverb on the words, or whatever the sound is that excites the reverb, but it doesn’t have much of a tail at all,” notes Stoeckinger. When applied to the dialog and sound effects, Zub says, “Those impulse responses gave us a truer sense of the space.”

Smith adds, “We were able make anyone or anything sound like they were in those spaces.”

In addition to impulse responses, Stoeckinger and his team “world-ized” numerous effects inside the cavern, like explosions, footsteps, drills, jackhammers and rock falls, by playing them back via a large PA speaker and then recording how it sounded in the space using Sound Devices 788T and 702 digital recorders, as well as a Zoom H4.

tMartyn Zub DSC_5560_headshot_theaterMark Stoeckinger headshot_theater
L-R: Mike Prestwood Smith, Martyn Zub and Mark Stoeckinger

“We had a MacBook Pro with a Pro Tools session loaded with the sounds we wanted to world-ize. We set up all the equipment, hit play and then we’d leave so we didn’t contaminate the recording,” explains Stoeckinger. “After one or two turns in the cave, you couldn’t hear a thing. Even though we were blasting sounds 100 feet away, it was really quiet. It was the weirdest thing. We would think it stopped playing, so we would sneak around the corner and all of a sudden be blasted with sound.”

Before the mine collapses, sounds of the working mine come drifting through the tunnels. Mixing in Atmos on Audio Head’s Stage B, Zub, who handled the sound effects/ backgrounds/Foley in the mix, was able to place machines and drills throughout the space, above and beside the audience. “You can hear it through the rock. That was a huge advantage to mixing in Dolby Atmos. There is activity all around you. Then, when the mine collapses, it just goes dead silent. In the Atmos version, the difference is obvious. It really plays beautifully, from being active and then really feeling the quiet, confined space that these guys are trapped in,” says Zub.

One of Smith’s favorite scenes to mix comes after the mine collapse, where the characters, with only their headlamps in the pitch black, discover the scale of the situation. “It’s nearly all ADR and we were able to position it in the space so convincingly that it actually feels as though you are there with them. In many ways the Atmos system is most effective when you have a quiet space to mix within,” says Smith.

He used convolution reverbs made with Stoeckinger’s custom recorded impulse responses, as well processing via FabFilter and Waves plug-ins. “The impulse responses, in combination with the full frequency surround speakers of the Atmos system, allowed us to really play with perspective and distance in a way that we had never been able to do before.”

Most of the sound after the collapse comes from the reverb return on the dialogue and effects, in addition to rumbly cracking sounds indicative of the mine’s continuing instability. “There were different cracks that preempt the collapse of the mine, and after the collapse, those sounds continue,” says Zub. “They give the sense that this mine isn’t stable. Everybody can hear it moving and so they’re on edge the whole time.”

looking up

The Drill
As the miners are stuck below, several attempts are made to locate and free them. One such effort comes particularly close. For the Atmos mix of this “near miss” scene, the sound of the drill begins overhead and travels down the left wall before disappearing below the floor. “It feels like their salvation. You really feel like you’re in the mine as that is happening,” says Stoeckinger.

Zub adds, “The drill sound is right there in your face. It goes from a sound that’s so loud to very quiet. Director Patricia Riggen gave us space and room to pull out all the music and just let the effects be prominent through those areas, which I think was truly effective.”

When all hope seems lost, and even the group’s leader Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) has given up hope, drops of water start to fall on his upturned face. Using the Atmos overheads, Zub slowly brought in the sound of the drill. “It’s slowly approaching. It starts off so quiet and then it gets really loud. You can really feel the sound of the drill all around you. It was a nice thing to be able to do with the sound mix, to have those dynamics,” he says. “I’ve been in a mine and it really is pitch black when the lights go out. It’s a scary environment and to imagine what those guys went through down in the mine, being down there for such a long period of time, is just astronomical really. In the soundtrack, we really tried to capture that feeling of loneliness.”

Sync Sound owners sell Digital Cinema to Warner Bros.

This allows the NYC-based audio post house to strengthen its core focus: television.

By Randi Altman

Warner Bros. Studios now has a permanent audio post-production presence in New York City, following their purchase of Digital Cinema LLC from owners Ken Hahn and Bill Marino of Sync Sound.

Sync Sound had been an audio post-production institution in New York since opening in 1984, working heavily on television over the years on such classics as 30 Rock, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Homicide, The Barbara Walters Specials, Oz, Pearl Jam Unplugged and long list of others. And “television” remains the studio’s key focus going forward.

In 1997, Hahn and Marino (pictured above L-R) opened Digital Cinema LLC featuring New York’s largest mix stage and focusing on the feature film market. Over the years, the company’s talent would move from one entity to another depending on needs and projects. About three years ago, Hahn and Marino decided to build out the two remaining floors at the Digital Cinema location, adding a second mix stage, ADR stage and editing rooms.

That got Warner Bros.’ attention. The film studio, which was looking to do more work in New York City, took use of the editing suites, adding their own wish list of consoles and an HD projector to the big mixing stage along the way, bringing in talent as needed and providing audio post for feature films.

So why was now the time for Hahn and Marino to sell off Digital Cinema? As technology progressed and years passed, the tools used to post features and television became the same, and having two separate facilities with similar resources made less and less sense, according to Hahn. “They overlap, now more than ever. It’s simple… one of the reasons we sold Digital Cinema was because we had more facilities than we needed.”

A01 C01
Studios at Sync Sound.

All in all, Hahn and Marino believe this sale is good for everyone, including the city of New York. “We can focus on one facility and the television and video world, so it’s good for our clients, and it’s good for the city — this is the first time in many years that a major film studio has had a facility in the city.

You might be asking the question, well are these two facilities now competitors? Not really, says Hahn, explaining that the relationship between WB and Marino and himself has shifted. “It used to be they rented the studios and facilities from us; now with the sale, that relationship has been reversed. If we need to use the big mix stage or anything else, we’ll have access to it. We’ve had a good working relationship with the folks at Warner Bros. and plan to continue it.”

Hahn wants to re-emphasize that nothing has changed with Sync Sound proper. They have kept their staff of talented mixers, editors and recordist, and will continue to work on shows like Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and FX’s The Americans, both of which have been picked up for another season, as well as their ongoing work for the Metropolitan Opera, a job they have been working on since 2007, posting them for DVD, iTunes and rebroadcast.

“We want to make sure that people know that Bill and I are still very much in the audio post-production business, and are excited by our plans for the future. If this was a book on Bill and Ken’s work, this is a new chapter written with Sync Sound as its focus,” concludes Hahn.

Quick Chat: Screen Novelties’ stop-motion Buddy the Elf for NBC

’Tis the season for fun holiday television fare, and Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas doesn’t disappoint. Warner Bros. called on stop-motion specialists Screen Novelties, to produce and direct this one-hour offering, which aired on NBC.

The special, a sort of mash-up of the “newish” Christmas classic Elf, starring Will Ferrell, and the Broadway show Elf: The Musical, is a retelling of Buddy’s adorable story and enthusiasm but in a way that reminds audiences of the classic stop-motion animated Christmas specials (I’m looking at you Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer) of the past. In this new version, Buddy is still an innocent human elf looking for his dad, “unbearding” fake Santas and roaming the streets of New York while singing about the joys of Christmas, of course.

Screen Novelties co-founders Mark Caballero, Seamus Walsh and Chris Finnegan designed the Continue reading