By Jennifer Walden
It’s September 1846. Two British ships — the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — are on an exploration to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition’s leader, British Royal Navy Captain Sir John Franklin, leaves the Erebus to dine with Captain Francis Crozier aboard the Terror. A small crew rows Franklin across the frigid, ice-choked Arctic Ocean that lies north of Canada’s mainland to the other vessel.
The opening overhead shot of the two ships in AMC’s new series The Terror (Mondays 9/8c) gives the audience an idea of just how large those ice chunks are in comparison with the ships. It’s a stunning view of the harsh environment, a view that was completely achieved with CGI and visual effects because this series was actually shot on a soundstage at Stern Film Studio, north of Budapest, Hungary.
Emmy- and BAFTA-award-winning supervising sound editor Lee Walpole of Boom Post in London, says the first cut he got of that scene lacked the VFX, and therefore required a bit of imagination. “You have this shot above the ships looking down, and you see this massive green floor of the studio and someone dressed in a green suit pushing this boat across the floor. Then we got the incredible CGI, and you’d never know how it looked in that first cut. Ultimately, mostly everything in The Terror had to be imagined, recorded, treated and designed specifically for the show,” he says.
Sound plays a huge role in the show. Literally everything you hear (except dialogue) was created in post — the constant Arctic winds, the footsteps out on the packed ice and walking around on the ship, the persistent all-male murmur of 70 crew members living in a 300-foot space, the boat creaks, the ice groans and, of course, the creature sounds. The pervasive environmental sounds sell the harsh reality of the expedition.
Thanks to the sound and the CGI, you’d never know this show was shot on a soundstage. “It’s not often that we get a chance to ‘world-create’ to that extent and in that fashion,” explains Walpole. “The sound isn’t just there in the background supporting the story. Sound becomes a principal character of the show.”
Bringing the past to life through sound is one of Walpole’s specialties. He’s created sound for The Crown, Peaky Blinders, Klondike, War & Peace, The Imitation Game, The King’s Speech and more. He takes a hands-on approach to historical sounds, like recording location footsteps in Lancaster House for the Buckingham Palace scenes in The Crown, and recording the sounds on-board the Cutty Sark for the ships in To the Ends of the Earth (2005). For The Terror, his team spent time on-board the Golden Hind, which is a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship of the same name.
During a 5am recording session, the team — equipped with a Sound Devices 744T recorder and a Schoeps CMIT 5U mic — captured footsteps in all of the rooms on-board, pick-ups and put-downs of glasses and cups, drops of various objects on different surfaces, gun sounds and a selection of rigging, pulleys and rope moves. They even recorded hammering. “We took along a wooden plank and several hammers,” describes Walpole. “We laid the plank across various surfaces on the boat so we could record the sound of hammering resonating around the hull without causing any damage to the boat itself.”
They also recorded footsteps in the ice and snow and reached out to other sound recordists for snow and ice footsteps. “We wanted to get an authentic snow creak and crunch, to have the character of the snow marry up with the depth and freshness of the snow we see at specific points in the story. Any movement from our characters out on the pack ice was track-laid, step-by-step, with live recordings in snow. No studio Foley feet were recorded at all,” says Walpole.
In The Terror, the ocean freezes around the two ships, immobilizing them in pack ice that extends for miles. As the water continues to freeze, the ice grows and it slowly crushes the ships. In the distance, there’s the sound of the ice growing and shifting (almost like tectonic plates), which Walpole created from sourced hydrophone recordings from a frozen lake in Canada. The recordings had ice pings and cracking that, when slowed and pitched down, sounded like massive sheets of ice rubbing against each other.
The sounds of the ice rubbing against the ships were captured by one of the show’s sound effects editor, Saoirse Christopherson, who along with an assistant, boarded a kayak and paddled out onto the frozen Thames River. Using a Røde NT2 and a Roland R26 recorder with several contact mics strapped to the kayak’s hull, they spent the day grinding through, over and against the ice. “The NT2 was used to directionally record both the internal impact sounds of the ice on the hull and also any external ice creaking sounds they could generate with the kayak,” says Walpole.
He slowed those recordings down significantly and used EQ and filters to bring out the low-mid to low-end frequencies. “I also fed them through custom settings on my TC Electronic reverbs to bring them to life and to expand their scale,” he says.
The pressure of the ice is slowly crushing the ships, and as the season progresses the situation escalates to the point where the crew can’t imagine staying there another winter. To tell that story through sound, Walpole began with recordings of windmill creaks and groans. “As the situation gets more dire, the sound becomes shorter and sharper, with close, squealing creaks that sound as though the cabins themselves are warping and being pulled apart.”
In the first episode, the Erebus runs aground on the ice and the crew tries to hack and saw the ice away from the ship. Those sounds were recorded by Walpole attacking the frozen pond in his backyard with axes and a saw. “That’s my saw cutting through my pond, and the axe material is used throughout the show as they are chipping away around the boat to keep the pack ice from engulfing it.”
Whether the crew is on the boat or on the ice, the sound of the Arctic is ever-present. Around the ships, the wind rips over the hulls and howls through the rigging on deck. It gusts and moans outside the cabin windows. Out on the ice, the wind constantly groans or shrieks. “Outside, I wanted it to feel almost like an alien planet. I constructed a palette of designed wind beds for that purpose,” says Walpole.
He treated recordings of wind howling through various cracks to create a sense of blizzard winds outside the hull. He also sourced recordings of wind at a disused Navy bunker. “It’s essentially these heavy stone cells along the coast. I slowed these recordings down a little and softened all of them with EQ. They became the ‘holding airs’ within the boat. They felt heavy and dense.”
In addition to the heavy-air atmospheres, another important sound below deck was that of the crew. The ships were entirely occupied by men, so Walpole needed a wide and varied palette of male-only walla to sustain a sense of life on-board. “There’s not much available in sound libraries, or in my own library — and certainly not enough to sustain a 10-hour show,” he says.
So they organized a live crowd recording session with a group of men from CADS — an amateur dramatics society from Churt, just outside of London. “We gave them scenarios and described scenes from the show and they would act it out live in the open air for us. This gave us a really varied palette of worldized effects beds of male-only crowds that we could sit the loop group on top of. It was absolutely invaluable material in bringing this world to life.”
Visually, the rooms and cabins are sometimes quite similar, so Walpole uses sound to help the audience understand where they are on the ship. In his cutting room, he had the floor plans of both ships taped to the walls so he could see their layouts. Life on the ship is mainly concentrated on the lower deck — the level directly below the upper deck. Here is where the men sleep. It also has the canteen area, various cabins and the officers’ mess.
Below that is the Orlop deck, where there are workrooms and storerooms. Then below that is the hold, which is permanently below the waterline. “I wanted to be very meticulous about what you would hear at the various levels on the boat and indeed the relative sound level of what you are hearing in these locations,” explains Walpole. “When we are on the lower two decks, you hear very little of the sound of the men above. The soundscapes there are instead focused on the creaks and the warping of the hull and the grinding of the ice as it crushes against the boat.”
One of Walpole’s favorite scenes is the beginning of Episode 4. Capt. Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) is sitting in his cabin listening to the sound of the pack ice outside, and the room sharply tilts as the ice shifts the ship. The scene offers an opportunity to tell a cause-and-effect story through sound. “You hear the cracks and pings of the ice pack in the distance and then that becomes localized with the kayak recordings of the ice grinding against the boat, and then we hear the boat and Crozier’s cabin creak and pop as it shifts. This ultimately causes his bottle to go flying across the table. I really enjoyed having this tale of varying scales. You have this massive movement out on the ice and the ultimate conclusion of it is this bottle sliding across the table. It’s very much a sound moment because Crozier is not really saying anything. He’s just sitting there listening, so that offered us a lot of space to play with the sound.”
The crew in The Terror isn’t just battling the elements, scurvy, starvation and mutiny. They’re also being killed off by a polar bear-like creature called the Tuunbaq. It’s part animal, part mythical creature that is tied to the land and spirits around it. The creature is largely unseen for the first part of the season so Walpole created sonic hints as to the creature’s make-up.
Walpole worked with showrunner David Kajganich to find the creature’s voice. Kajganich wanted the creature to convey a human intelligence, and he shared recordings of human exorcisms as reference material. They hired voice artist Atli Gunnarsson to perform parts to picture, which Walpole then fed into the Dehumaniser plug-in by Krotos. “Some of the recordings we used raw as well, says Walpole. “This guy could make these crazy sounds. His voice could go so deep.”
Those performances were layered into the track alongside recordings of real bears, which gave the sound the correct diaphragm, weight, and scale. “After that, I turned to dry ice screeches and worked those into the voice to bring a supernatural flavor and to tie the creature into the icy landscape that it comes from.”
In Episode 3, an Inuit character named Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) is sitting in her igloo and the Tuunbaq arrives snuffling and snorting on the other side of the door flap. Then the Tuunbaq begins to “sing” at her. To create that singing, Walpole reveals that he pulled Lady Silence’s performance of The Summoning Song (the song her people use to summon the Tuunbaq to them) from a later episode and fed that into Dehumaniser. “This gave me the creature’s version. So it sounds like the creature is singing the song back to her. That’s one for the diehards who will pick up on it and recognize the tune,” he says.
Since the series is shot on a soundstage, there’s no usable bed of production sound to act as a jumping off point for the post sound team. But instead of that being a challenge, Walpole finds it liberating. “In terms of sound design, it really meant we had to create everything from scratch. Sound plays such a huge role in creating the atmosphere and the feel of the show. When the crew is stuck below decks, it’s the sound that tells you about the Arctic world outside. And the sound ultimately conveys the perils of the ship slowly being crushed by the pack ice. It’s not often in your career that you get such a blank canvas of creation.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.