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The sound of two worlds for The Lost City of Z

By Jennifer Walden

If you are an explorer, your goal is to go where no one has gone before, or maybe it’s to unearth and re-discover a long-lost world. Director James Gray (The Immigrant), takes on David Grann’s non-fiction novel The Lost City of Z, which follows the adventures of British explorer Colonel Percival Fawcett, who in 1925 disappeared with his son in the Amazon jungle while on a quest to locate an ancient lost city.

Gray’s biographical film, which premiered October 15 at the 54th New York Film Festival, takes an interpretive approach to the story by exploring Fawcett’s inner landscape, which is at odds with his physical location — whether he’s in England or the Amazon, his thoughts drift between the two incongruent worlds.

Once Gray returned from filming The Lost City of Z in the jungles of Colombia, he met up with supervising sound editor/sound designer Robert Hein at New York’s Harbor Picture Company. Having worked together on The Immigrant years ago, Hein says he and Gray have an understanding of each other’s aesthetics. “He has very high goals for himself, and I try to have that also. I enjoy our collaboration; we keep pushing the envelope. We have a mutual appreciation for making a film the greatest it can be. It’s an evolution, and we keep pushing the film to new places.”

The Sound of Two Worlds
Gray felt Hein and Harbor Picture Company would be the perfect partner to handle the challenging sound job for The Lost City of Z. “It involved the creation of two very different worlds: Victorian England, and the jungle. Both feature the backdrop of World War I. Therefore, we wanted someone who naturally thinks outside the box, someone who doesn’t only look at the images on the screen, but takes chances and does things outside the realm of what you originally had in mind, and Bob [Hein] and his crew are those people.”

Bob Hein

Gray tasked Hein with designing a soundscape that could merge Fawcett’s physical location with his inner world. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is presented with physical attacks and struggles, but it’s his inner struggle that Gray wanted to focus on. Hein explains, “Fawcett is a conflicted character. A big part of the film is his longing for two worlds: the Amazon and England. When he’s in one place, his mind is in the other, so that was very challenging to pull off.”

To help convey Fawcett’s emotional and mental conflicts, Hein introduced the sounds of England into the Amazon, and vice-versa, subtly blending the two worlds. Through sound, the audience escapes the physical setting and goes into Fawcett’s mind. For example, the film opens with the sounds of the jungle, to which Hein added an indigenous Amazonian battle drum that transforms into the drumming of an English soldier, since Fawcett is physically with a group of soldiers preparing for a hunt. Hein explains that Fawcett’s belief that the Amazonians were just as civilized as Europeans (maybe even more so) was a controversial idea at the time. Merging their drumming wasn’t just a means of carrying the audience from the Amazon to England; it was also a comment on the two civilizations.

“In a way, it’s kind of emblematic of the whole sound design,” explains Hein. “It starts out as one thing but then it transforms into another. We did that throughout the film. I think it’s very beautiful and engaging. Through the sound you enter into his world, so we did a lot of those transitions.”

In another scene, Fawcett is traveling down a river in the jungle and he’s thinking about his family in England. Here, Hein adds an indigenous bird calling, and as the scene develops he blends the sound of that bird with an English church bell. “It’s very subtle,” he says. “The sounds just merge. It’s the merging of two worlds. It’s a feeling more than an obvious trick.”

During a WWI battle scene, Fawcett leads a charge of troops out of their trench. Here Hein adds sounds related to the Amazon in juxtaposition of Fawcett’s immediate situation. “Right before he goes into war, he’s back in the jungle even though he is physically in the trenches. What you hear in his head are memories of the jungle. You hear the indigenous Amazonians, but unless you’re told what it is you might not know.”

A War Cry
According to Hein, one of the big events in the film occurs when Fawcett is being attacked by Amazonians. They are shooting at him but he refuses to accept defeat. Fawcett holds up his bible and an arrow goes tearing into the book. At that moment, the film takes the audience inside Fawcett’s mind as his whole life flashes by. “The sound is a very big part of that because you hear memories of England and memories of his life and his family, but then you start to hear an indigenous war cry that I changed dramatically,” explains Hein. “It doesn’t sound like something that would come out of a human voice. It’s more of an ethereal, haunted reference to the war cry.”

As Fawcett comes back to reality that sound gets erased by the jungle ambience. “He’s left alone in the jungle, staring at a tribe of Indians that just tried to kill him. That was a very effective sound design moment in this film.”

To turn that war cry into an ethereal sound, Hein used a granular synthesizer plug-in called Paulstretch (or Paul’s Extreme Sound Stretch) created by Software Engineer by Paul Nasca. “Paulstretch turns sounds almost into music,” he says. “It’s an old technology, but it does some very special things. You can set it for a variety of effects. I would play around with it until I found what I liked. There were a lot of versions of a lot of different ideas as we went along.”

It’s all part of the creative process, which Gray is happy to explore. “What’s great is that James [Gray] is excited about sound,” says Hein. “He would hang out and we would play things together and we would talk about the film, about the main character, and we would arrive at sounds together.”

Drones
Additionally, Hein sound designed drones to highlight the anxiety and trepidation that Fawcett feels. “The drones are low, sub-frequency sounds but they present a certain atmosphere that conveys dread. These elements are very subtle. You don’t get hit over the head with them,” he says.

The drones and all the sound design were created from natural sounds from the Amazon or England. For example, to create a low-end drone, they would start with jungle sounds — imagine a bee’s nest or an Amazonian instrument — and then manipulate those. “Everything was done to immerse the audience in the world of The Lost City of Z in its purest sense,” says Hein, who worked closely with Harbor’s sound editors Glenfield Payne, Damian Volpe and Dave Paterson. “They did great work and were crucial in the sound design.”

The Amazon
Gray also asked that Hein design the indigenous Amazon world exactly the way that it should be, as real as it could be. Hein says, “It’s very hard to find the correct sound to go along with the images. A lot of my endeavor was researching and finding people who did recordings in the Amazon.”

He scoured the Smithsonian Institute Archives, and did hours of research online, looking for audio preservationists who captured field recordings of indigenous Amazonians. “There was one amazing coincidence,” says Hein. “There’s a scene in the movie where the Indians are using an herbal potion to stun the fish in the river. That’s how they do it so as not to over-fish their environment. James [Gray] had found this chant that he wanted to have there, but that chant wasn’t actually a fishing chant. Fortunately, I found a recording of the actual fishing chant online. It’s beautifully done. I contacted the recordist and he gave us the rights to use it.”

Filming in the Amazon, under very difficult conditions presented Hein with another post production challenge. “Location sound recording in the jungle is challenging because there were loud insects, rain and thunder. There were even far-afield trucks and airplanes that didn’t exist at the time.”

Gray was very concerned that sections of the location dialogue would be unusable. “The performances in the film are so great because they went deep into the Amazon jungle to shoot this film. Physically being in that environment I’m sure was very stressful, and that added a certain quality to the actors’ performances that would have been very difficult to replace with ADR,” says Hein, who carefully cleaned up the dialogue using several tools, including iZotope’s RX 5 Advanced audio restoration software. “With RX 5 Advanced, we could microscopically choose which sounds we wanted to keep and which sounds we wanted to remove, and that’s done visually. RX gives you a visual map of the audio and you can paint out sounds that are unnecessary. It’s almost like Photoshop for sound.”

Hein shared the cleaned dialogue tracks with Gray, who was thrilled. “He was so excited about them. He said, “I can use my location sound!” That was a big part of the project.”

ADR and The Mix
While much of the dialogue was saved, there were still a few problematic scenes that required ADR, including a scene that was filmed during a tropical rainstorm, and another that was shot on a noisy train as it traveled over the mountains in Colombia. Harbor’s ADR supervisor Bobby Johanson, who has worked with Gray on previous films, recorded everything on Harbor’s ADR stage that is located just down the hall from Hein’s edit suite and the dub stage.

Gray says, “Harbor is not just great for New York; it’s great, period. It is this fantastic place where they’ve got soundstages that are 150 feet away from the editing rooms, which is incredibly convenient. I knew they could handle the job, and it was really a perfect scenario.”

The Lost City of Z was mixed in 5.1 surround on an Avid/Euphonix System 5 console by re-recording mixers Tom Johnson (dialogue/music) and Josh Berger (effects, Foley, backgrounds) in Studio A at Harbor Sound’s King Street location in Soho. It was also reviewed on the Harbor Grand stage, which is the largest theatrical mix stage in New York. The team used the 5.1 environment to create the feeling of being engulfed by the jungle. Fawcett’s trips, some which lasted years, were grueling and filled with disease and death. “The jungle is a scary place to be! We really wanted to make sure that the audience understood the magnitude of Percy’s trips to the Amazon,” says Berger. “There are certain scenes where we used sound to heighten the audience’s perspective of how erratic and punishing the jungle can be, i.e. when the team gets caught in rapids or when they come under siege from various Indian tribes.”

Johnson, who typically mixes at Skywalker Sound, had an interesting approach to the final mix. Hein explains that Johnson would first play a reel with every available sound in it — all the dialogue and ADR, all the sound effects and Foley — and the music. “We played it all in the reel,” says Hein. “It would be overwhelming. It would be unmixed and at times chaotic. But it gave us a very good idea of how to approach the mix.”

As they worked through the film, the sound would evolve in unexpected ways. What they heard toward the end of the first pass influenced their approach on the beginning of the second pass. “The film became a living being. We became very flexible about how the sound design was coming in and out of different scenes. The sound became very integrated into the film as a whole. It was really great to experience that,” shares Hein.

As Johnson and Berger mixed, Hein was busy creating new sound design elements for the visual effects that were still coming in at the last minute. For example, the final version of the arrows that were shot in the film didn’t come in until the last minute. “The arrows had to have a real special quality about them. They were very specific in communicating just how dangerous the situation actually was and what they were up against,” says Hein.

Later in the film, Amazonians throw tomahawks at Fawcett and his son as they run through the jungle. “Those tomahawks were never in the footage,” he says. “We had just an idea of them until days before we finished the mix. There was also a jaguar that comes out of the jungle and threatens them. That also came in at the last minute.”

While Hein created new sound elements in his edit suite next to the dub stage, Gray was able to join him for critique and collaboration before those sounds were sent next door to the dub stage. “Working with James is a high-energy, creative blast and super fun. He’s constantly coming up with new ideas and challenges. He spends every minute in the mix encouraging us, challenging us and, best of all, making us laugh a lot. He’s a great storyteller, and his knowledge of film and film history is remarkable. Working with James Gray is a real highlight in my career,” concludes Hein.


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

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