By Jennifer Walden
Universal Pictures’ Pacific Rim: Uprising is a big action film, with monsters and mechs that are bigger than skyscrapers. When dealing with subject matter on this grand of a scale, there’s no better way to experience it than on a 50-foot screen with a seat-shaking sound system. If you missed it in theaters, you can rent it via movie streaming services like Vudu on June 5th.
Pacific Rim: Uprising, directed by Steven DeKnight, is the follow-up to Pacific Rim (2013). In the first film, the planet and humanity were saved by a team of Jaeger (mech suit) pilots who battled the Kaiju (huge monsters) and closed the Breach — an interdimensional portal located under the Pacific Ocean that allowed the Kaiju to travel from their home planet to Earth. They did so by exploding a Jaeger on the Kaiju-side of the opening. Pacific Rim: Uprising is set 10 years after the Battle of the Breach and follows a new generation of Jaeger pilots that must confront the Kaiju.
In terms of technological advancements, five years is a long time between films. It gave sound designers Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl of E² Sound the opportunity to explore technology sounds for Pacific Rim: Uprising without being shackled to sounds that were created for the first film. “The nature of this film allowed us to just really go for it and get wild and abstract. We felt like we could go in our own direction and take things to another place,” says Aadahl, who quickly points out two exceptions.
First, they kept the sound of the Drift — the process in which two pilots become mentally connected with each other, as well as with the Jaeger. This was an important concept that was established in the first film.
The second sound the E² team kept was the computer A.I. voice of a Jaeger called Gipsy Avenger. Aadahl notes that in the original film, director Guillermo Del Toro (a fan of the Portal game series) had actress Ellen McLain as the voice of Gipsy Avenger since she did the GLaDOS computer voice from the Portal video games. “We wanted to give another tip of the hat to the Pacific Rim fans by continuing that Easter egg,” says Aadahl.
Van der Ryn and Aadahl began exploring Jaeger technology sounds while working with previs art. Before the final script was even complete, they were coming up with concepts of how Gipsy Avenger’s Gravity Sling might sound, or what Guardian Bravo’s Elec-16 Arc Whip might sound like. “That early chance to work with Steven [DeKnight] really set up our collaboration for the rest of the film,” says Van der Ryn. “It was a good introduction to how the film could work creatively and how the relationship could work creatively.”
They had over a year to develop their early ideas into the film’s final sounds. “We weren’t just attaching sound at the very end of the process, which is all too common. This was something where sound could evolve with the film,” says Aadahl.
Gipsy Avenger’s Gravity Sling (an electromagnetic sling that allows anything metallic to be picked up and used as a blunt force weapon) needed to sound like a massive, powerful source of energy.
Van der Ryn and Aadahl’s design is a purely synthetic sound that features theater rattling low-end. Van der Ryn notes that sound started with an old Ensoniq KT-76 piano that he performed into Avid Pro Tools and then enhanced with a sub-harmonic synthesis plug-in called Waves MaxxBass, to get a deep, fat sound. “For a sound like that to read clearly, we almost have to take every other sound out just so that it’s the one sound that fills the entire theater. For this movie, that’s a technique that we tried to do as much as possible. We were very selective about what sounds we played when. We wanted it to be really singular and not feel like a muddy mess of many different ideas. We wanted to really tell the story moment by moment and beat by beat with these different signature sounds.”
That was an important technique to employ because when you have two Jaegers battling it out, and each one is the size of a skyscraper, the sound could get really muddy really fast. Creating signature differences between the Jaegers and keeping to the concept of “less is more” allowed Aadahl and Van der Ryn to choreograph a Jaeger battle that sounds distinct and dynamic.
“A fight is almost like a dance. You want to have contrast and dynamics between your frequencies, to have space between the hits and the rhythms that you’re creating,” says Van der Ryn. “The lack of sound in places — like before a big fist punch — is just as important as the fist punch itself. You need a valley to appreciate the peak, so to speak.”
Sounds of Jaeger
Designing Jaeger sounds that captured the unique characteristics of each one was the other key to making the massive battles sound distinct. In Pacific Rim: Uprising, a rogue Jaeger named Obsidian Fury fights Gipsy Avenger, an official PPDC (Pan-Pacific Defense Corps) Jaeger. Gipsy Avenger is based on existing human-created tech while Obsidian Fury is more sci-fi. “Steven DeKnight was often asking for us to ‘sci-fi this up a little more’ to contrast the rogue Jaeger and the human tech, even up through the final mix. He wanted to have a clear difference, sonically, between the two,” explains Van der Ryn.
For example, Obsidian Fury wields a plasma sword, which is more technologically advanced than Gipsy Avenger’s chain sword. Also, there’s a difference in mechanics. Gipsy Avenger has standard servos and motors, but Obsidian Fury doesn’t. “It’s a mystery who is piloting Obsidian Fury and so we wanted to plant some of that mystery in its sound,” says Aadahl.
Instead of using real-life mechanical motors and servos for Obsidian Fury, they used vocal sounds that they processed using Soundtoys’ PhaseMistress plug-in.
“Running the vocals through certain processing chains in PhaseMistress gave us a sound that was synthetic and sounded like a giant servo but still had the personality of the vocal performance,” Aadahl says.
One way the film helps to communicate the scale of the combatants is by cutting from shots outside the Jaegers to shots of the pilots inside the Jaegers. The sound team was able to contrast the big metallic impacts and large-scale destruction with smaller, human sounds.
“These gigantic battles between the Jaegers and the Kaiju are rooted in the human pilots of the Jaegers. I love that juxtaposition of the ludicrousness of the pilots flipping around in space and then being able to see that manifest in these giant robot suits as they’re battling the Kaiju,” explains Van der Ryn.
Dialogue/ADR lead David Bach was an integral part of building the Jaeger pilots’ dialogue. “He wrangled all the last-minute Jaeger pilot radio communications and late flying ADR coming into the track. He was, for the most part, a one-man team who just blew it out of the water,” says Aadahl.
There are three main Kaiju introduced in Pacific Rim: Uprising — Raijin, Hakuja, and Shrikethorn. Each one has a unique voice reflective of its personality. Raijin, the alpha, is distinguished by a roar. Hakuja is a scaly, burrowing-type creature whose vocals have a tremolo quality. Shrikethorn, which can launch its spikes, has a screechy sound.
Aadahl notes that finding each Kaiju’s voice required independent exploration and then collaboration. “We actually had a ‘bake-off’ between our sound effects editors and sound designers. Our key guys were Brandon Jones, Tim Walston, Jason Jennings and Justin Davey. Everyone started coming up with different vocals and Ethan [Van der Ryn] and I would come in and revise them. It started to become clear what palette of sounds were working for each of the different Kaiju.”
The three Kaiju come together to form Mega-Kaiju. This happens via the Rippers, which are organic machine hybrids that fuse the bodies of Raijin, Hakuja and Shriekthorn together. The Rippers’ sounds were made from primate screams and macaw bird shrieks. And the voice of Mega-Kaiju is a combination of the three Kaiju roars.
VFX and The Mix
Bringing all these sounds together in the mix was a bit of a challenge because of the continuously evolving VFX. Even as re-recording mixers Frank A. Montaño and Jon Taylor were finalizing the mix in the Hitchcock Theater at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, the VFX updates were rolling in. “There were several hundred VFX shots for which we didn’t see the final image until the movie was released. We were working with temporary VFX on the final dub,” says Taylor.
“Our moniker on this film was given to us by picture editorial, and it normally started with, ‘Imagine if you will,’” jokes Montaño. Fortunately though, the VFX updates weren’t extreme. “The VFX were about 90% complete. We’re used to this happening on large-scale films. It’s kind of par for the course. We know it’s going to be an 11th-hour turnover visually and sonically. We get 90% done and then we have that last 10% to push through before we run out of time.”
During the mix, they called on the E² Sound team for last-second designs to cover the crystallizing VFX. For example, the hologram sequences required additional sounds. Montaño says, “There’s a lot of hologram material in this film because the Jaeger pilots are dealing with a virtual space. Those holograms would have more detail that we’d need to cover with sound if the visuals were very specific.”
Aadahl says the updates were relatively easy to do because they have remote access to all of their effects via the Soundminer Server. While on the dub stage, they can log into their libraries over the high-speed network and pop a new sound into the mixers’ Pro Tools session. Within Soundminer they build a library for every project, so they aren’t searching through their whole library when looking for Pacific Rim: Uprising sounds. It has its own library of specially designed, signature sounds that are all tagged with metadata and carefully organized. If a sequence required more complex design work, they could edit the sequence back at their studio and then share that with the dub stage.
“I want to give props to our lead sound designers Brandon Jones and Tim Walston, who really did a lot of the heavy lifting, especially near the end when all of the VFX were flooding in very late. There was a lot of late-breaking work to deal with,” says Aadahl.
For Montaño and Taylor, the most challenging section of the film to mix was reel six, when all three Kaiju and the Jaegers are battling in downtown Tokyo. Massive footsteps and fight impacts, roaring and destruction are all layered on top of electronic-fused orchestral music. “It’s pretty much non-stop full dynamic range, level and frequency-wise,” says Montaño. It’s a 20-minute sequence that could have easily become a thick wall of indistinct sound, but thanks to the skillful guidance of Montaño and Taylor that was not the case. Montaño, who handled the effects, says “E² did a great job of getting delineation on the creature voices and getting the nuances of each Jaeger to come across sound-wise.”
Another thing that helped was being able to use the Dolby Atmos surround field to separate the sounds. Taylor says the key to big action films is to not make them so loud that the audience wants to leave. If you can give the sounds their own space, then they don’t need to compete level-wise. For example, putting the Jaeger’s A.I. voice into the overheads kept it out of the way of the pilots’ dialogue in the center channel. “You hear it nice and clear and it doesn’t have to be loud. It’s just a perfect placement. Using the Atmos speaker arrays is brilliant. It just makes everything sound so much better and open,” Taylor says.
He handled the music and dialogue in the mix. During the reel-six battle, Taylor’s goal with music was to duck and dive it around the effects using the Atmos field. “I could use the back part of the room for music and stay out of the front so that the effects could have that space.”
When it came to placing specific sounds in the Atmos surround field, Montaño says they didn’t want to overuse the effect “so that when it did happen, it really meant something.”
He notes that there were several scenes where the Atmos setup was very effective. For instance, as the Kaiju come together to form the Mega-Kaiju. “As the action escalates, it goes off-camera, it was more of a shadow and we swung the sound into the overheads, which makes it feel really big and high-up. The sound was singular, a multiple-sound piece that we were able to showcase in the overheads. We could make it feel bigger than everything else both sonically and spatially.”
Another effective Atmos moment was during the autopsy of the rogue Jaeger. Montaño placed water drips and gooey sounds in the overhead speakers. “We were really able to encapsulate the audience as the actors were crawling through the inner workings of this big, beast-machine Jaeger,” he says. “Hearing the overheads is a lot of fun when it’s called for so we had a very specific and very clean idea of what we were doing immersively.”
Montaño and Taylor use a hybrid console design that combines a Harrison MPC with two 32-channel Avid S6 consoles. The advantage of this hybrid design is that the mixers can use both plug-in processing such as FabFilter’s tools for EQ and reverbs via the S6 and Pro Tools, as well as the Harrison’s built-in dynamics processing. Another advantage is that they’re able to carry all the automation from the first temp dub through to the final mix. “We never go backwards, and that is the goal. That’s one advantage to working in the box — you can keep everything from the very beginning. We find it very useful,” says Taylor.
Montaño adds that all the audio goes through the Harrison console before it gets to the recorder. “We find the Harrison has a warmer, more delicate sound, especially in the dynamic areas of the film. It just has a rounder, calmer sound to it.”
Montaño and Taylor feel their stage at Universal Studios is second-to-none but the people there are even better than that. “We have been very fortunate to work with great people, from Steven DeKnight our director to Dylan Highsmith our picture editor to Mary Parent, our executive producer. They are really supportive and enthusiastic. It’s all about the people and we have been really fortunate to work with some great people,” concludes Montaño.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.