The Girl in the Spider’s Web: immersive audio and picture editing

By Mel Lambert

Key members of the post crew responsible for the fast-paced look and feel of director Fede Alvarez’s new film, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, came to the project via a series of right time/right place situations. First, co-supervising sound editor Julian Slater (who played a big role in Baby Driver’s audio post) met picture editor Tatiana Riegel at last year’s ACE Awards.

During early 2018, Slater was approached to work on the lastest adaptation of the crime novels by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson. Alvarez was impressed with Slater’s contribution to both Baby Driver and the Oscar-winning Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). “Fede told me that he uses the soundtrack to Mad Max to show off his home Atmos playback system,” says Slater, who served as sound designer on that film. “I was happy to learn that Tatiana had also been tagged to work on The Girl in the Spider’s Web.”

Back row (L-R): Micah Loken, Sang Kim, Mandell Winter, Dan Boccoli, Tatiana Riegel, Kevin O’Connell, Fede Alvarez, Julian Slater, Hamilton Sterling, Kyle Arzt, Del Spiva and Maarten Hofmeijer. Front row (L-R): Pablo Prietto, Lola Gutierrez, Mathew McGivney and Ben Sherman.

Slater, who would also be working on the crime drama Bad Times at the El Royale for director Drew Goddard, wanted Mandell Winter as his co-supervising sound editor. “I very much liked his work on The Equalizer 2, Death Wish and The Magnificent Seven, and I knew that we could co-supervise well together. I came on full time after completing El Royale.”

Editor Riegel (Gringo, I Tonya, Million Dollar Arm, Bad Words) was a fan of the original Stieg Larsson Millennium Series films —The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and The Girl Who Played with Fire — as well as David Fincher’s 2011 remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She was already a fan of Alvarez, admiring his previous suspense film, Don’t Breathe, and told him she enjoyed working on different types of films to avoid being typecast. “We hit it off immediately,” says Riegel, who then got together with Julian Slater and Mandell Winter to discuss specifics.

The latest outing in the Stieg Larsson franchise, The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, stars English actress Claire Foy (The Crown) in the eponymous role of a young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander who, along with journalist Mikael Blomkvist, gets caught up in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials. The screenplay was co-written by Jay Basu and Alvarez from the novel by David Lagercrantz. The cast also includes Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant and Lakeith Stanfield.

Having worked previously with Niels Arden Oplev, the Swedish director of 2009’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Winter knew the franchise and was interested in working on the newest offering. He was also excited about working with director Fede Alvarez. “I loved the use of color and lighting choices that Fede selected for Don’t Breathe, so when Julian Slater called I jumped at the opportunity. None of us had worked together before, and it was Fede’s first large-budget film, having previously specialized in independent offerings. I was eager to help shepherd the film’s immersive soundtrack through the intricate process from location to the dub stage.”

From the very outset, Slater argued for a native Dolby Atmos soundtrack, with a 7.1-channel Avid Pro Tools bed that evolved through editorial, with appropriate objects being assigned during re-recording to surround and overhead locations. “We knew that the film would be very atmospheric,” Slater recalls, “so we decided to use spaces and ambiences to develop a moody, noir thriller.”

The film was dubbed on the William Holden Stage at Sony Pictures Studios, with Kevin O’ Connell handling dialog and music, and Slater overseeing sound effects elements.

Cutting Picture on Location
Editor Riegel and two assistants joined the project at its Berlin location last January. “It was a 10-month journey until final print mastering in mid-October,” she says. “We knew CGI elements would be added later. Fede didn’t do any previz, instead focusing on VFX during post production. We set up Avid Media Composers and assemble-edited the dailies as we went” against early storyboards. “Fede wanted to play up the film’s rogue theme; he had a very, very clear focus of the film as spectacle. He wanted us to stay true to the Lisbeth Salander character from the original films, yet retain that dark, Scandinavian feel from the previous outings. The film is a fun ride!”

The team returned to Los Angeles in April and turned the VFX over to Pixomondo, which was brought on to handle the greenscreen CGI sequences. “We adjourned to Pivotal Post in Burbank for the Director’s Cut and then to the Sony lot in Culver City for the first temp mix,” explains Riegel. “My editing decisions were based on the innate DNA of the shot material, and honoring the script. I asked Fede a lot of questions to ensure that the story and the pacing were crystal clear. Our first assembly was around two hours and 15 minutes, which we trimmed to just under two hours during a series of refinements. We then removed 15 minutes to reach our final 1:45 running time, which worked for all of us. The cut was better without the dropped section.”

Daniel Boccoli served as first assistant picture editor, Patrick Clancey was post finishing editor, Matthew McGivney was VFX editor and Andrew McGivney was VFX assistant editor.

Because Riegel likes to cut against an evolving soundtrack, she developed a temporary dialog track in her Avid workstation, adding sound effects taken from commercial libraries. “But there is a complex fight and chase sequence in the middle of the film that I turned over to Mandell and Julian early on so I could secure realistic effects elements to help inform the cut,” she explains. “Those early tracks were wonderful and gave me a better idea of what the final film would sound like. That way I can get to know the film better — I can also open up the cut to make space for a sound if it works within the film’s creative arcs.”

“Our overall direction from Fede Alvarez was to make the soundtrack feel cold when we were outside and to grab the audience with the action… while focusing on the story,” Winter explains. “We were also working against a very tight schedule and had little time for distractions. After the first temp, Julian and I got notes from Fede and Tatiana and set off using that feedback, which continued through three more temp mixes.”

Having complete supervising The Equalizer 2, Mandell came aboard full time in mid-June, with temp mixes running through the beginning of September. “We were finaling by the last week of September, ahead of the film’s World Premiere on October 19 at the International Rome Film Festival.”

Since there was no spotting session, from day one we were in a tight post schedule, according to Slater. “There were a number of high-action scenes that needed intricate sound design, including the eight-minute sequence that begins with explosions in Lisbeth Salander’s apartment and the subsequent high-speed motorbike chase.”

Sound designer Hamilton Sterling crafted major sections of the film’s key fight and chase sequences.

Intricate Sound Design
“We liked Hamilton’s outstanding work on Independence Day: Resurgence and Logan and relied upon him to develop truly unique sounds for the industrial heating towers, motorbikes and fights,” says Winter. “Sound effects editor Ryan Collins cut the gas mask fight sequence, as well as a couple of reels, while Karen Vassar Triest handled another couple of reels, and David Esparza worked on several of the early sequences.”

Other sound effects editors included Ando Johnson and Robert Stambler, together with dialog editor Micah Loken and supervising Foley editor Sang Jun Kim.

Sterling is particularly proud of several sequences he designed for the film. “During a scene in which the lead character Lisbeth Salander is drugged, I used the Whoosh plug-in [from the German company, Tonsturm] inside Native Instruments’ Reaktor [modular music software] to create a variable, live-performable heartbeat. I used muffled explosion samples that were Doppler-shifted at different speeds against the picture to mimic the pulse-changing effects of various drugs. I also used Whoosh to create different turbo sounds for the Ducati motorcycle driven by Lisbeth, together with air-release sounds. They were subtle effects, because we didn’t want the result to sound like a ‘sci-fi bike’ — just a souped-up twin-cylinder Ducati.”

For the car chases, Sterling used whale-spout blasts to mimic the sound of a car driving through deep puddles with water striking the inside of the wheel wells. For frightening laughs in another sequence, the sound designer turned to Tonsturm’s Doppler program, which he used in an unorthodox way. “The program can be set to break up a sound sample using, for example, a 5.1-channel star pattern with small Doppler shifts to produce very disturbing laughter,” he says. “For the heating towers I used several sound components, including slowed-down toaster noises to add depth and resonance — a hum from the heating elements, plus ticks and clangs as they warmed up. Julian suggested that we use ‘chittery’ effects for the computer user interfaces, so I used The Cargo Cult’s Envy plug-in to create unusual sounds, and to avoid the conventional ‘bips” and ‘boops’ noises. Envy is a spectral-shift, pitch- and amplitude-change application that is very pitch manipulatable. I also turned to the Sound Particles app to generate complex wind sounds that I delivered as immersive 7.1.2 Pro Tools tracks.”

“We also had a lot of Foley, which was recorded on Stage B at Sony Studios by Nerses Gezalyan with Foley artists Sara Monat and Robin Harlen,” Winter adds. “Unfortunately, the production dialog had a number of compromised tracks from the Berlin locations. As a result, we had a lot of ADR to shoot. Scheduling the ADR was complicated by the time difference, as most of our actors were in London, Berlin, Oslo or Stockholm. We used Foley to support the cleaned-up dialog tracks and backfilled tracks. Our dialog editor was very knowledgeable with iZotope RX7 Advance software. Micah Loken really understood how to use it, and how not to use it. He can dig deep into a track without affecting the quality of the voice, and without overdoing the processing.”

The music from composer Roque Baños — who also worked with Alvarez on Don’t Breathe and Evil Dead — arrived very late in the project, “and remained something of a mystery,” Riegel recalls. “Being a musician himself, Fede knew what he wanted and how to achieve that result. He would disappear into an edit suite close to the stage with the music editors Maarten Hofmeijer and Del Spiva, where they cut together the score against the locked picture — or as locked as it ever was! After that we could balance the music against the dialog and sound effects.”

Regarding sound effects elements, Winter acknowledges that his small editorial team needed to work against a tight schedule. “We had a 7.1.2 template that allowed Tony [Lamberti] and later Julian to use the automated panning data. For the final mix in Atmos, we used objects minimally for the music and dialog. However, we used overhead objects strategically for effects and design. In an early sequence we put the sound of the rope — used to suspend an abusive husband — above the audience.” Re-recording mixer Tony Lamberti handled some of the early temp mixes in Slater’s absence.

Collaborative Re-Recording Process
When the project reached the William Holden Stage, “we could see the overall shape of the film with the VFX elements and decide what sounds would now be needed to match the visuals, since we had a lot of new technology to cover, including computer screens,” Riegel says.

Mandell agrees: “Yes, we could now see where Fede Alvarez wanted to take the film and make suggestions about new material. We started asking: ‘What do you think about this and that option?’ Or, ‘What’s missing?’ It was an ongoing series of conversation through the temp mixes, re-mixes and then the final.”

Having handled the first temp mix at Sony Studios, Slater returned full-time for the final Atmos mixes. “After so many temp mixes using the same templates, I knew that we would not be re-inventing the wheel on the William Holden Stage. We simply focused on changing the spatiality of what we had. Having worked with Kevin O’ Connell on both Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and The Public, I knew that I had to do my homework and deliver what he needed from my side of the console. Kevin is very involved. He’ll make suggestions, but always based on what is best for the film. I learned a lot by seeing how he works; he is very experienced. It’s easy to find what works with Kevin, since he has experience with a wide range of technologies and keeps up with new advances.”

Describing the re-recording process as being highly collaborative, Mandell remained objective about creative options. “You can get too close to the soundtrack. With a number of German and English actors, we constantly had to ask ourselves: ‘Do we have clarity?’ If not, can we fix it in the track or turn to ADR? We maintained a continuing conversation with Tatiana and Fede, with ideas that we would circulate backwards and forwards. Since we had a lot of new people working on the crew, trust became a major factor. Everybody was incredibly professional.”

“It was a very rewarding experience working with so many talented new people,” Slater concludes. “I quickly tuned into Fede Alvarez’s specific needs and sensibilities. It was a successful liaison.”

Riegel says that her biggest challenge was “trying to figure out what the film is supposed to be — from the script and pre-production through the shoot and first assembly. It’s a gradual process and one that involves regular conversations with my assistant editors and the director as we develop characters and clarify the information being shown. But I didn’t want to hit the audience over the head with too much information. We needed to decide: ‘What is important?’ and retain as much realism as possible. It’s a complex, creative process … and one that I totally love being a part of!”


Mel Lambert has been involved with production industries on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember. He is principal of Content Creators, a Los Angeles-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. He is also a long-time member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.


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