By Jennifer Walden
The Peter Berg-directed film Deepwater Horizon, in theaters now, opens on a black screen with recorded testimony from real-life Deepwater Horizon crew member Mike Williams recounting his experience of the disastrous oil spill that began April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.
“This documentary-style realism moves into a wide, underwater immersive soundscape. The transition sets the music and sound design tone for the entire film,” explains Eric Hoehn, re-recording mixer at Twenty Four Seven Sound in Topanga Canyon, California. “We intentionally developed the immersive mixes to drop the viewer into this world physically, mentally and sonically. That became our mission statement for the Dolby Atmos design on Deepwater Horizon. Dolby empowered us with the tools and technology to take the audience on this tightrope journey between anxiety and real danger. The key is not to push the audience into complete sensory overload.”
The 7.1 mix on Deepwater Horizon was crafted first with sound designer Wylie Stateman and re-recording mixers Mike Prestwood Smith (dialogue/music) and Dror Mohar (sound effects) at Warner Bros in New York City. Then Hoehn mixed the immersive versions, but it wasn’t just a technical upmix. “We spent four weeks mixing the Dolby Atmos version, teasing out sonic story-point details such as the advancing gas pressure, fire and explosions,” Hoehn explains. “We wanted to create a ‘wearable’ experience, where your senses actually become physically involved with the tension and drama of the picture. At times, this movie is very much all over you.”
The setting for Deepwater Horizon is interesting in that the vertical landscape of the 25-story oil rig is more engrossing than the horizontal landscape of the calm sea. This dynamic afforded Hoehn the opportunity to really work with the overhead Atmos environment, making the audience feel as though they’re experiencing the story and not just witnessing it. “The story takes place 40 miles out at sea on a floating oil drilling platform. The challenge was to make this remote setting experiential for the audience,” Hoehn explains. “For visual artists, the frame is the boundary. For us, working in Atmos, the format extends the boundaries into the auditorium. We wanted the audience to feel as if they too were trapped with our characters aboard the Deepwater Horizon. The movement of sound into the theater adds to the sense of disorientation and confusion that they’re viewing on screen, making the story more immediate and disturbing.”
In their artistic approach to the Atmos mix, Stateman and sound effects designers Harry Cohen and Sylvain Lasseur created an additional sound design layer — specific Atmos objects that help to reinforce the visuals by adding depth and weight via sound. For example, during a sequence after a big explosion and blow out, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) wakes up with a pile of rubble and a broken door on top of him. Twisted metal, confusing announcements and alarms were designed from scratch to become objects that added detail to the space above the audience. “I think it’s one of the most effective Atmos moments in the film. You are waking up with Williams in the aftermath of this intense, destructive sequence. The entire rig is overwhelmed by off-stage explosions, twisting metal, emergency announcements and hissing steam. Things are falling apart above you and around you,” details Hoehn.
Hoehn shares another example: during a scene on the drill deck they created sound design objects to describe the height and scale of the 25-story oil derrick. “We put those sounds into the environment by adding delays and echoes that make it feel like those sounds are pinging around high above you. We wanted the audience to sense the vertical layers of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig,” says Hoehn, who created the delays and echoes using a multichannel delay plug-in called Slapper by The Cargo Cult. “I had separate mix control over the objects and the acoustic echoes applied. I could put the discrete echoes in distinct places in the Atmos environment. It was an agitative design element. It was designed to make the audience feel oriented and at the same time disoriented.”
The additional sounds they created were not an attempt to reimagine the soundtrack, but rather a means of enhancing what was there. “We were deliberate about what we added,” Hoehn explains. “As a team we strived to maximize the advantages of an Atmos theater, which allows us to keep a film mentally, physically and sonically intense. That was the filmmaker’s primary goal.”
The landscape in Deepwater Horizon doesn’t just tower over the audience; it extends under them as well. The underwater scenes were an opportunity to feature the music since these “sequences don’t contain metal banging and explosions. These moments allow the music to give an emotional release,” says Hoehn.
Hoehn explains that the way music exists in Atmos is sort of like a big womb of sound; it surrounds the audience. The underwater visuals depict the catastrophic failure of the blowout preventer — a valve that can close off the well and prevent an uncontrolled flow of oil, and the music punctuates this emotional and pivotal point in the film. It gives a sense of calm that contrasts what’s happening on screen. Sonically, it’s also a contrast to the stressful soundscape happening on-board the rig. Hoehn says, “It’s good for such an intense film and story to have moments where you can find comfort, and I think that is where the music provides such emotional depth. It provides that element of comfort between the moments where your senses are being flooded. We played with dynamic range, going to silence and using the quiet to heighten the anticipation of a big release.”
Hoehn mixed the Atmos version in Twenty Four Seven Sound’s Dolby Atmos lab, which uses an Avid S6 console running Pro Tools 12 and features Meyer Acheron mains and 26 JBL AC28 monitors for the surrounds and overheads. It is an environment designed to provide sonic precision so that when the mixer turns a knob or pushes a fader, the change can instantly be heard. “You can feel your cause-and-effect happen immediately. Sometimes when you’re in a bigger room, you are battling the acoustics of the space. It’s helpful to work under a magnifying glass, particularly on a soundtrack that is as detailed as Deepwater Horizon’s,” says Hoehn.
Hoehn spent a month on the Atmos mix, which served as the basis for the other immersive formats, such as the IMAX 5 and IMAX 12 mixes. “The IMAX versions maintain the integrity of our Atmos design,” says Hoehn, “A lot of care had to be taken in each of the immersive versions to make sure the sound worked in service of the storytelling process.”
Bring On VR
In addition to the theatrical release, Hoehn discussed the prospect of a Deepwater Horizon VR experience. “Working with our friends at Dolby, we’re looking at virtual reality and experimenting with sequences from Deepwater Horizon. We are working to convert the Atmos mix to a headset, virtual sound environment,” says Hoehn. He explains that binaural sound or surround sound in headphones present its own design challenges; it’s not just a direct lift of the 7.1 or Atmos mix.
“Atmos mixing for a theatrical sound pressure environment is different than the sound pressure environment in headphones,” explains Hoehn. “It’s a different sound pressure that you have to design for, and the movement of sounds needs to be that much more precise. Your brain needs to track movement and so maybe you have less objects moving around. Or, you have one sound object hand off to another object and it’s more of a parade of sound. When you’re in a theater, you can have audio coming from different locations and your brain can track it a lot easier because of the fixed acoustical environment of a movie theater. So that’s a really interesting challenge that we are excited to sink our teeth into.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.