Hulu’s limited series, The Looming Tower, explores the rivalries and missed opportunities that beset US law enforcement and intelligence communities in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Lawrence Wright, who also shares credit as executive producer with Dan Futterman and Alex Gibney, the show’s 10 episodes paint an absorbing, if troubling, portrait of the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, and offer fresh insight into the complex people who were at the center of the fight against terrorism.
For The Looming Tower’s sound and picture post team, the show’s sensitive subject matter and blend of dramatizations and archival media posed significant technical and creative challenges. Colorist Jack Lewars and online editor Jeff Cornell of Technicolor PostWorks New York, were tasked with integrating grainy, run-and-gun news footage dating back to 1998 with crisply shot, high-resolution original cinematography. Supervising sound designer/effects mixer Ruy García and re-recording mixer Martin Czembor from PostWorks, along with a Foley team from Alchemy Post Sound, were charged with helping to bring disparate environments and action to life, but without sensationalizing or straying from historical accuracy.
Lewars and Cornell mastered the series in Dolby Vision HDR, working from the production’s camera original 2K and 3.4K ArriRaw files. Most of the color grading and conforming work was done with a light touch, according to Lewars, as the objective was to adhere to a look that appeared real and unadulterated. The goal was for viewers to feel they are behind the scenes, watching events as they happened.
Where more specific grades were applied, it was done to support the narrative. “We developed different look sets for the FBI and CIA headquarters, so people weren’t confused about where we were,” Lewars explains. “The CIA was working out of the basement floors of a building, so it’s dark and cool — the light is generated by fluorescent fixtures in the room. The FBI is in an older office building — its drop ceiling also has fluorescent lighting, but there is a lot of exterior light, so its greener, warmer.”
The show adds to the sense of realism by mixing actual news footage and other archival media with dramatic recreations of those same events. Lewars and Cornell help to cement the effect by manipulating imagery to cut together seamlessly. “In one episode, we matched an interview with Osama bin Laden from the late ‘90s with new material shot with an Arri Alexa,” recalls Lewars. “We used color correction and editorial effects to blend the two worlds.”
Cornell degraded some scenes to make them match older, real-world media. “I took the Alexa material and ‘muddied’ it up by exporting it to compressed SD files and then cutting it back into the master timeline,” he notes. “We also added little digital hits to make it feel like the archival footage.”
While the color grade was subtle and adhered closely to reality, it still packed an emotional punch. That is most apparent in a later episode that includes the attack on the Twin Towers. “The episode starts off in New York early in the morning,” says Lewars. “We have a series of beauty shots of the city and it’s a glorious day. It’s a big contrast to what follows — archival footage after the towers have fallen where everything is a white haze of dust and debris.”
The sound team also strove to remain faithful to real events. García recalls his first conversations about the show’s sound needs during pre-production spotting sessions with executive producer Futterman and editor Daniel A. Valverde. “It was clear that we didn’t want to glamorize anything,” he says. “Still, we wanted to create an impact. We wanted people to feel like they were right in the middle of it, experiencing things as they happened.”
García says that his sound team approached the project as if it were a documentary, protecting the performances and relying on sound effects that were authentic in terms of time and place. “With the news footage, we stuck with archival sounds matching the original production footage and accentuating whatever sounds were in there that would connect emotionally to the characters,” he explains. “When we moved to the narrative side with the actors, we’d take more creative liberties and add detail and texture to draw you into the space and focus on the story.”
He notes that the drive for authenticity extended to crowd scenes, where native speakers were used as voice actors. Crowd sounds set in the Middle East, for example, were from original recordings from those regions to ensure local accents were correct.
Much like Lewars approach to color, García and his crew used sound to underscore environmental and psychological differences between CIA and FBI headquarters. “We did subtle things,” he notes. “The CIA has more advanced technology, so everything there sounds sharper and newer versus the FBI where you hear older phones and computers.”
The Foley provided by artists and mixers from Alchemy Post Sound further enhanced differences between the two environments. “It’s all about the story, and sound played a very important role in adding tension between characters,” says Leslie Bloome, Alchemy’s lead Foley artist. “A good example is the scene where CIA station chief Diane Marsh is berating an FBI agent while casually applying her makeup. Her vicious attitude toward the FBI agent combined with the subtle sounds of her makeup created a very interesting juxtaposition that added to the story.”
In addition to footsteps, the Foley team created incidental sounds used to enhance or add dimension to explosions, action and environments. For a scene where FBI agents are inspecting a warehouse filled with debris from the embassy bombings in Africa, artists recorded brick and metal sounds on a Foley stage designed to capture natural ambience. “Normally, a post mixer will apply reverb to place Foley in an environment,” says Foley artist Joanna Fang. “But we recorded the effects in our live room to get the perspective just right as people are walking around the warehouse. You can hear the mayhem as the FBI agents are documenting evidence.”
“Much of the story is about what went wrong, about the miscommunication between the CIA and FBI,” adds Foley mixer Ryan Collison, “and we wanted to help get that point across.”
The soundtrack to the series assumed its final form on a mix stage at PostWorks. Czembor spent weeks mixing dialogue, sound and music elements into what he described as a cinematic soundtrack.
Czembor notes that the sound team provided a wealth of material, but for certain emotionally charged scenes, such as the attack on the USS Cole, the producers felt that less was more. “Danny Futterman’s conceptual approach was to go with almost no sound and let the music and the story speak for themselves,” he says. “That was super challenging, because while you want to build tension, you are stripping it down so there’s less and less and less.”
Czembor adds that music, from composer Will Bates, is used with great effect throughout the series, even though it might go by unnoticed by viewers. “There is actually a lot more music in the series than you might realize,” he says. “That’s because it’s not so ‘musical;’ there aren’t a lot of melodies or harmonies. It’s more textural…soundscapes in a way. It blends in.”
Czembor says that as a longtime New Yorker, working on the show held special resonance for him, and he was impressed with the powerful, yet measured way it brings history back to life. “The performances by the cast are so strong,” he says. “That made it a pleasure to work on. It inspires you to add to the texture and do your job really well.”