By Jennifer Walden
Audiences can’t seem to get enough of the good versus evil story involving feuding alien races — Autobots and Decepticons — who hide among us here on earth as cars and trucks. How do I know? Well the fourth Transformers movie, Age of Extinction, pulled in an astonishing $301.3 million worldwide on its opening day. While critics and audiences are strongly divided on their opinion of the movie, Greg Russell, re-recording mixer on the film, sums it up well: “If you’re looking for Shakespeare in Love, this isn’t it.”
Russell, who works out of Technicolor Sound on the Paramount Pictures studio lot in Hollywood, refers to the Michael Bay-directed offering as “a lot of movie.” And it is, in every sense of the word — this latest Transformers iteration is nearly three hours long. It’s a big story that takes the viewer from the rural US to Hong Kong and even into space. There are aerial battles between Transformers, dinosaur robots aptly named “Dinobots,” a plethora of explosions, spaceships with super magnets that attract (and subsequently drop) every piece of metal in the area.
It’s a huge picture, literally — it was filmed on new, lightweight IMAX 3D digital cameras. According to IMAX, the new camera is a fully integrated dual 65mm 4K digital large-format 3D camera that captures full 4K resolution images for both the left eye and right eye. And, of course, it has a massive sound mixed in multiple formats from IMAX, Dolby Atmos and Barco’s Auro-3D on down to 7.1 and the standard 5.1.
Keeping everyone on task — from the visual effects to the 3D team to picture editorial to the audio post team — was the job of Stephanie Ito, VP of post production at Paramount Pictures. “She had to oversee every department and keep the fire lit under everybody,” explains Russell. “Stephanie handled it with steadfast conviction. There was no failing here. We had to make this happen. Scott Millan [fellow re-recording mixer] and I guaranteed her that no matter what happens nothing will fall through the cracks in audio and we will get this done.”
Mixing the film was a monumental undertaking, notes Russell. He and his mix team — Jeff Haboush on music and Millan on dialogue — were working essentially around the clock for the last 60 days of the schedule in order to get the film completed on time. They started on the final mix even before the pre-dubs were complete. Since the movie hit worldwide at the same time, the reels for the M&E were shipped to the foreign markets before the film was completely finished.
The team was so focused on meeting the deadline they asked Paramount to bring in trailers for them to sleep in on the lot, saving that precious commute time for the mix. The reason for this mix marathon? Continuously changing picture edits and updating visual effects, coupled with what was a very creative and technically challenging mix. As the picture edit changed, every sound, every bit of automation, every mix move had to be conformed to the new edit.
“Our editorial team and our mix technician Drew Webster had the impossible task of keeping all that information in sync. We were just hoping and praying that we didn’t let something fall through the cracks,” says Russell. “Managing all the automation conforms as the movie was changing — Drew did a brilliant execution of that. We wouldn’t have got it done without him in the time we had.”
Haboush, Millan and Russell were able to mix the same reel simultaneously on the twin Atmos stages at Technicolor Sound. Russell could update and final mix effects on one Atmos stage, while Haboush and Millan updated and mixed music and dialogue on the same reel on the adjacent Atmos stage. The two stages are matched in every way, allowing for a seamless transition and reintegration of their work. “We were able to split off from our three-man crew to individually fix our particular elements, and then the three amigos could sit down again and take a pass at each reel,” says Haboush. “Having both stages was definitely one of the reasons we were able to finish this movie by its deadline.”
Transformers 4 was mixed natively in Atmos, giving the mix team ultimate flexibility to pan object-based content, such as individual lines of dialogue, music elements or sound effects anywhere in the room with pin-point accuracy. In addition, the Atmos set-up uses full-range speakers for the surrounds and ceiling. Russell notes that director Bay mandated the mix take full advantage of the Atmos format, going as far as to say he didn’t want to hear anything coming out of the front speakers.
“Basically Michael was saying he really wanted to utilize the Atmos surround system with the bass management and subwoofers in the ceiling and make the most of it,” explains Russell. “He says that sound is 50 percent of the experience of his films, which means that you better bring it. This is not some little dialogue movie. Sound is what grounds all of the visuals in some realm of reality to where they are believable.”
Magnetic Sound Design
The sound design, created by Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl, co-owners of E2 in Los Angeles — and the guys behind Godzilla’s most recent movie roar — really benefits from the full-range speakers in the Atmos set-up. For example, in the third reel of Transformers 4, a spaceship equipped with a huge magnet flies overhead and sucks up everything metal… from huge boats and ships in the shipyard to buses and cars. It then releases everything it picked up, creating a huge opportunity for big sound.
With the full-range speakers in the Atmos set-up, Russell notes, audiences get a fuller, richer surround sound experience than ever before because now they can hear the low-end sounds all around them. With a typical 5.1 set-up, the surround speakers aren’t designed to reproduce those low frequencies. Regarding the magnet sound, “We’ve used the ceiling speakers and tried to create this pulsating and throbbing sensation so the audience could really feel the power of this magnet… almost as if they’re within the force field that is being pulled up into the ceiling and then dropped. It has this low-frequency, descending-pitched, release sound.”
There is also the sound of the destruction as everything is dropped back down onto the city. Russell feels this is a very unique sonic experience, particular to this film, which has never been done before. “You’re always trying to ask, ‘What haven’t we done? What can we do here to create special moments throughout the movie that are memorable sound moments?’”
Another interesting sound design moment happens early on in the film when the antagonist Transformer, Lockdown, sets off a series of explosions that takes out one of the main characters. Originally, there was full sound design for the sequence with explosions happening and debris falling out of the sky. Sound designer Van der Ryn suggested that all the sounds be taken out after the final explosion to give the audience a moment to reflect on what just happened. “We added this high note to ring it out and create a feeling, so it didn’t just go to nothing, but we lost a lot of literal sounds and went with this emotional beat,” says Russell. “It has a stylistic and impressionistic sensibility, and it’s really powerful.”
Steve Jablonsky, who worked with the band Imagine Dragons, weaving in themes from their new song Battle Cry, composed the film’s score. For the Atmos mix, Haboush was able to selectively choose sounds, melodies or individual instruments from the hundreds of tracks that make up the score and assign it to different areas of the room.
“Most of the time I chose the middle ceiling, middle wall, back wall, and back ceiling to really pull it off the screen and place the music in the room,” explains Haboush. Spreading out the music also helped to make room for sound effects and dialogue. Though he wanted to create an effect with the music that the audience could notice, Haboush didn’t want the audience to feel that it was overdone. “I was taking into consideration the way it is ultimately going to be folded down to the 7.1, and then the 5.1 mix, which is the primary playback format for most films.”
Haboush plans on hearing Transformers 4 in all the various formats in various theaters near his home. “Whenever I go to the movies, I always talk to one of the managers,” he explains. “I find out what levels they’re playing the movie at and I pop my head into the medium and small rooms. So, essentially, I do research to find out what’s happening with our film when it leaves our stage. In the past, I found some really crazy stuff, but the theaters that claim to have the best picture and the best sound are usually pretty good.” His first stop is to hear the film in 5.1.
With so many formats, for both picture and sound, it can be hard to choose which way to see Transformers 4. IMAX 3D with the IMAX mix? RealD 3D with the Atmos mix? Non 3D with the Atmos mix? The 7.1 mix? Russell’s suggestion is to see it in IMAX 3D. Haboush backs up his statement: “When I was watching the IMAX 3D, I stopped listening and just started watching, and that’s hard for someone who listens for a living.”
Jennifer Walden is an audio engineer and freelance writer based in New Jersey.