By Jennifer Walden
Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Meg has everything you’d want in a fun summer blockbuster. There are explosions, submarines, gargantuan prehistoric sharks and beaches full of unsuspecting swimmers. Along with the mayhem, there is comedy and suspense and jump-scares. Best of all, it sounds amazing in Dolby Atmos.
The team at E² Sound, led by supervising sound editors Erik Aadahl, Ethan Van der Ryn and Jason Jennings, created a soundscape that wraps around the audience like a giant squid around a submersible. (By the way, that squid vs. submersible scene is so fun for sound!)
We spoke to the E² Sound team about the details of their recording sessions for the film. They talk about how they approached the sound for the megalodons, how they used the Atmos surround field to put the audience underwater and much more.
Real sharks can’t make sounds, but Hollywood sharks do. How did director Jon Turteltaub want to approach the sound of the megalodon in his film?
Erik Aadahl: Before the film was even shot, we were chatting with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, and he said the most important thing in terms of sound for the megalodon was to sell the speed and power. Sharks don’t have any organs for making sound, but they are very large and powerful and are able to displace water. We used some artistic sonic license to create the quick sound of them moving around and displacing water. Of course, when they breach the surface, they have this giant mouth cavity that you can have a lot of fun with in terms of surging water and creating terrifying, guttural sounds out of that.
Jason Jennings: At one point, director Turteltaub did ask the question, “Would it be appropriate for The Meg to make a growl or roar?”
That opened up the door for us to explore that avenue. The megalodon shouldn’t make a growling or roaring sound, but there’s a lot that you can do with the sound of water being forced through the mouth or gills, whether you are above or below the water. We explored sounds that the megalodon could be making with its body. We were able to play with sounds that aren’t animal sounds but could sound animalistic with the right amount of twisting. For example, if you have the sound of a rock being moved slowly through the mud, and you process that a certain way, you can get a sound that’s almost vocal but isn’t an animal. It’s another type of organic sound that can evoke that idea.
Aadahl: One of my favorite things about the original Jaws was that when you didn’t see or hear Jaws it was more terrifying. It’s the unknown that’s so scary. One of my favorite scenes in The Meg was when you do not see or hear it, but because of this tracking device that they shot into its fin, they are able to track it using sonar pings. In that scene, one of the main characters is in this unbreakable shark enclosure just waiting out in the water for The Meg to show up. All you hear are these little pings that slowly start to speed up. To me, that’s one of the scariest scenes because it’s really playing with the unknown. Sharks are these very swift, silent, deadly killers, and the megalodon is this silent killer on steroids. So it’s this wonderful, cinematic moment that plays on the tension of the unknown — where is this megalodon? It’s really gratifying.
Since sharks are like the ninjas of the ocean (physically, they’re built for stealth), how do you use sound to help express the threat of the megalodon? How were you able to build the tension of an impending attack, or to enhance an attack?
Ethan Van der Ryn: It’s important to feel the power of this creature, so there was a lot of work put into feeling the effect that The Meg had on whatever it’s coming into contact with. It’s not so much about the sounds that are emitting directly from it (like vocalizations) but more about what it’s doing to the environment around it. So, if it’s passing by, you feel the weight and power of it passing by. When it attacks — like when it bites down on the window — you feel the incredible strength of its jaws. Or when it attacks the shark cage, it feels incredibly shocking because that sound is so terrifying and powerful. It becomes more about feeling the strength and power and aggressiveness of this creature through its movements and attacks.
Jennings: In terms of building tension leading up to an attack, it’s all about paring back all the elements beforehand. Before the attack, you’ll find that things get quiet and calmer and a little sparse. Then, all of a sudden, there’s this huge explosion of power. It’s all about clearing a space for the attack so that it means something.
The attack on the window in the underwater research station, how did you build that sequence? What were some of the ways you were able to express the awesomeness of this shark?
Aadahl: That’s a fun scene because you have the young daughter of a scientist on board this marine research facility located in the South China Sea and she’s wandered onto this observation deck. It’s sort of under construction and no one else is there. The girl is playing with this little toy — an iPad-controlled gyroscopic ball that’s rolling across the floor. That’s the featured sound of the scene.
You just hear this little ball skittering and rolling across the floor. It kind of reminds me of Danny’s tricycle from The Shining. It’s just so simple and quiet. The rhythm creates this atmosphere and lulls you into a solitary mood. When the shark shows up, you’re coming out of this trance. It’s definitely one of the big shock-scares of the movie.
Jennings: We pared back the sounds there so that when the attack happened it was powerful. Before the attack, the rolling of the ball and the tickety-tick of it going over the seams in the floor really does lull you into a sense of calm. Then, when you do see the shark, there’s this cool moment where the shark and the girl are having a staring contest. You don’t know who’s going to make the first move.
There’s also a perfect handshake there between sound design and music. The music is very sparse, just a little bit of violins to give you that shiver up your spine. Then, WHAM!, the sound of the attack just shakes the whole facility.
What about the sub-bass sounds in that scene?
Aadahl: You have the mass of this multi-ton creature slamming into the window, and you want to feel that in your gut. It has to be this visceral body experience. By the way, effects re-recording mixer Doug Hemphill is a master at using the subwoofer. So during the attack, in addition to the glass cracking and these giant teeth chomping into this thick plexiglass, there’s this low-end “whoomph” that just shakes the theater. It’s one of those moments where you want everyone in the theater to just jump out of their seats and fling their popcorn around.
To create that sound, we used a number of elements, including some recordings that we had done awhile ago of glass breaking. My parents were replacing this 8’ x 12’ glass window in their house and before they demolished the old one, I told them to not throw it out because I wanted to record it first.
So I mic’d it up with my “hammer mic,” which I’m very willing to beat up. It’s an Audio-Technica AT825, which has a fixed stereo polar pattern of 110-degrees, and it has a large diaphragm so it captures a really nice low-end response. I did several bangs on the glass before finally smashing it with a sledgehammer. When you have a surface that big, you can get a super low-end response because the surface acts like a membrane. So that was one of the many elements that comprised that attack.
Jennings: Another custom-recorded element for that sound came from a recording session where we tried to simulate the sound of The Meg’s teeth on a plastic cylinder for the shark cage sequence later in the film. We found a good-sized plastic container that we filled with water and we put a hydrophone inside the container and put a contact mic on the outside. From that point, we proceeded to abuse that thing with handsaws and a hand rake — all sorts of objects that had sharp points, even sharp rocks. We got some great material from that session, sounds where you can feel the cracking nature of something sharp on plastic.
For another cool recording session, in the editorial building where we work, we set up all the sound systems to play the same material through all of the subwoofers at once. Then we placed microphones throughout the facility to record the response of the building to all of this low-end energy. So for that moment where the shark bites the window, we have this really great punching sound we recorded from the sound of all the subwoofers hitting the building at once. Then after the bite, the scene cuts to the rest of the crew who are up in a conference room. They start to hear these distant rumbling sounds of the facility as it’s shaking and rattling. We were able to generate a lot of material from that recording session to feel like it’s the actual sound of the building being shaken by extreme low-end.
The film spends a fair amount of time underwater. How did you handle the sound of the underwater world?
Aadahl: Jay [Jennings] just put a new pool in his yard and that became the underwater Foley stage for the movie, so we had the hydrophones out there. In the film, there are these submersible vehicles that Jay did a lot of experimentation for, particularly for their underwater propeller swishes.
The thing about hydrophones is that you can’t just put them in water and expect there to be sound. Even if you are agitating the water, you often need air displacement underwater pushing over the mics to create that surge sound that we associate with being underwater. Over the years, we’ve done a lot of underwater sessions and we found that you need waves, or agitation, or you need to take a high-powered hose into the water and have it near the surface with the hydrophones to really get that classic, powerful water rush or water surge sound.
Jennings: We had six different hydrophones for this particular recording session. We had a pair of Aquarian Audio H2a hydrophones, a pair of JrF hydrophones and a pair of Ambient Recording ASF-1 hydrophones. These are all different quality mics — some are less expensive and some are extremely expensive, and you get a different frequency response from each pair.
Once we had the mics set up, we had several different props available to record. One of the most interesting was a high-powered drill that you would use to mix paint or sheetrock compound. Connected to the drill, we had a variety of paddle attachments because we were trying to create new source for all the underwater propellers for the submersibles, ships and jet skis — all of which we view from underneath the water. We recorded the sounds of these different attachments in the water churning back and forth. We recorded them above the water, below the water, close to the mic and further from the mic. We came up with an amazing palette of sounds that didn’t need any additional processing. We used them just as they were recorded.
We got a lot of use out of these recordings, particularly for the glider vehicles, which are these high-tech, electrically-propelled vehicles with two turbine cyclone propellers on the back. We had a lot of fun designing the sound of those vehicles using our custom recordings from the pool.
Aadahl: There was another hydrophone recording mission that the crew, including Jay, went on. They set out to capture the migration of humpback whales. One of our hydrophones got tangled up in the boat’s propeller because we had a captain who was overly enthusiastic to move to the next location. So there was one casualty in our artistic process.
Jennings: Actually, it was two hydrophones. But the best part is that we got the recording of that happening, so it wasn’t a total loss.
Aadahl: “Underwater” is a character in this movie. One of the early things that the director and the picture editor Steven Kemper mentioned was that they wanted to make a character out of the underwater environment. They really wanted to feel the difference between being underwater and above the water. There is a great scene with Jonas (Jason Statham) where he’s out in the water with a harpoon and he’s trying to shoot a tracking device into The Meg.
He’s floating on the water and it’s purely environmental sounds, with the gentle lap of water against his body. Then he ducks his head underwater to see what’s down there. We switch perspectives there and it’s really extreme. We have this deep underwater rumble, like a conch shell feeling. You really feel the contrast between above and below the water.
Van der Ryn: Whenever we go underwater in the movie, Turteltaub wanted the audience to feel extremely uncomfortable, like that was an alien place and you didn’t want to be down there. So anytime we are underwater the sound had to do that sonic shift to make the audience feel like something bad could happen at any time.
How did you make being underwater feel uncomfortable?
Aadahl: That’s an interesting question, because it’s very subjective. To me, the power of sound is that it can play with emotions in very subconscious and subliminal ways. In terms of underwater, we had many different flavors for what that underwater sound was.
In that scene with Jonas going above and below the water, it’s really about that frequency shift. You go into a deep rumble under the water, but it’s not loud. It’s quiet. But sometimes the scariest sounds are the quiet ones. We learned this from A Quiet Place recently and the same applies to The Meg for sure.
Van der Ryn: Whenever you go quiet, people get uneasy. It’s a cool shift because when you are above the water you see the ripples of the ocean all over the place. When working in 7.1 or the Dolby Atmos mix, you can take these little rolling waves and pan them from center to left or from the right front wall to the back speakers. You have all of this motion and it’s calming and peaceful. But as soon as you go under, all of that goes away and you don’t hear anything. It gets really quiet and that makes people uneasy. There’s this constant low-end tone and it sells pressure and it sells fear. It is very different from above the water.
Aadahl: Turteltaub described this feeling of pressure, so it’s something that’s almost below the threshold of hearing. It’s something you feel; this pressure pushing against you, and that’s something we can do with the subwoofer. In Atmos, all of the speakers around the theater are extended-frequency range so we can put those super-low frequencies into every speaker (including the overheads) and it translates in a way that it doesn’t in 7.1. In Atmos, you feel that pressure that Turteltaub talked a lot about.
The Meg is an action film, so there’s shootings, explosions, ships getting smashed up, and other mayhem. What was the most fun action scene for sound? Why?
Jennings: I like the scene in the submersible shark cage where Suyin (Bingbing Li) is waiting for the shark to arrive. This turns into a whole adventure of her getting thrashed around inside the cage. The boat that is holding the cable starts to get pulled along. That was fun to work on.
Also, I enjoyed the end of the film where Jonas and Suyin are in their underwater gliders and they are trying to lure The Meg to a place where they can trap and kill it. The gliders were very musical in nature. They had some great tonal qualities that made them fun to play with using Doppler shifts. The propeller sounds we recorded in the pool… we used those for when the gliders go by the camera. We hit them with these churning sounds, and there’s the sound of the bubbles shooting by the camera.
Aadahl: There’s a climactic scene in the film with hundreds of people on a beach and a megalodon in the water. What could go wrong? There’s one character inside a “zorb” ball — an inflatable hamster ball for humans that’s used for scrambling around on top of the water. At a certain point, this “zorb” ball pops and that was a sound that Turteltaub was obsessed with getting right.
We went through so many iterations of that sound. We wound up doing this extensive balloon popping session on Stage 10 at Warner Bros. where we had enough room to inflate a 16-foot weather balloon. We popped a bunch of different balloons there, and we accidentally popped the weather balloon, but fortunately we were rolling and we got it. So a combination of those sounds created the”‘zorb” ball pop.
That scene was one of my favorites in the film because that’s where the shit hits the fan.
Van der Ryn: That’s a great moment. I revisited that to do something else in the scene, and when the zorb popped it made me jump back because I forgot how powerful a moment that is. It was a really fun, and funny moment.
Aadahl: That’s what’s great about this movie. It has some serious action and really scary moments, but it’s also fun. There are some tongue-in-cheek moments that made it a pleasure to work on. We all had so much fun working on this film. Jon Turteltaub is also one of the funniest people that I’ve ever worked with. He’s totally obsessed with sound, and that made for an amazing sound design and sound mix experience. We’re so grateful to have worked on a movie that let us have so much fun.
What was the most challenging scene for sound? Was there one scene that evolved a lot?
Aadahl: There’s a rescue scene that takes place in the deepest part of the ocean, and the rescue is happening from this nuclear submarine. They’re trying to extract the survivors, and at one point there’s this sound from inside the submarine, and you don’t know what it is but it could be the teeth of a giant megalodon scraping against the hull. That sound, which takes place over this one long tracking shot, was one that the director focused on the most. We kept going back and forth and trying new things. Massaging this and swapping that out… it was a tricky sound.
Ultimately, it ended up being a combination of sounds. Jay and sound effects editor Matt Cavanaugh went out and recorded this huge, metal cargo crate container. They set up mics inside and took all sorts of different metal tools and did some scraping, stuttering, chittering and other friction sounds. We got all sorts of material from that session and that’s one of the main featured sounds there.
Jennings: Turteltaub at one point said he wanted it to sound like a shovel being dragged across the top of the submarine, and so we took him quite literally. We went to record that container on one of the hottest days of the year. We had to put Matt (Cavanaugh) inside and shut the door! So we did short takes.
I was on the roof dragging shovels, rakes, a garden hoe and other tools across the top. We generated a ton of great material from that.
As with every film we do, we don’t want to rely on stock sounds. Everything we put together for these movies is custom made for them.
What about the giant squid? How did you create its’ sounds?
Aadahl: I love the sound that Jay came up with for the suction cups on the squid’s tentacles as they’re popping on and off of the submersible.
Jennings: Yet another glorious recording session that we did for this movie. We parked a car in a quiet location here at WB, and we put microphones inside of the car — some stereo mics and some contact mics attached to the windshield. Then, we went outside the car with two or three different types of plungers and started plunging the windshield. Sometimes we used a dry plunger and sometimes we used a wet plunger. We had a wet plunger with dish soap on it to make it slippery and slurpie. We came up with some really cool material for the cups of this giant squid. So we would do a hard plunge onto the glass, and then pull it off. You can stutter the plunger across the glass to get a different flavor. Thankfully, we didn’t break any windows, although I wasn’t sure that we wouldn’t.
Aadahl: I didn’t donate my car for that recording session because I have broken my windshield recording water in the past!
Van der Ryn: In regards to perspective in that scene, when you’re outside the submersible, it’s a wide shot and you can see the arms of the squid flailing around. There we’re using the sound of water motion but when we go inside the submersible it’s like this sphere of plastic. In there, we used Atmos to make the audience really feel like those squid tentacles are wrapping around the theater. The little suction cup sounds are sticking and stuttering. When the squid pulls away, we could pinpoint each of those suction cups to a specific speaker in the theater and be very discrete about it.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share on the sound of The Meg?
Van der Ryn: I want to call out Ron Bartlett, the dialogue/music re-recording mixer and Doug Hemphill, the re-recording mixer on the effects. They did an amazing job of taking all the work done by all of the departments and forming it into this great-sounding track.
Aadahl: Our music composer, Harry Gregson-Williams, was pretty amazing too.