Warner Bros. Sound re-teams with director Francis Lawrence for the final chapter
By Jennifer Walden
It’s the final installment of The Hunger Games, and all the cards are on the table. Katniss Everdeen encourages all the districts to ban together and turn against the Capitol, but President Snow is ready for their attack.
In true Hunger Games-style, he decides to broadcast the invasion and has rigged the city to be a maze full of traps, called pods, which unleash deadly terrors on the rebel attackers. The pods trigger things like flamethrowers, a giant wave of toxic oil, a horde of subhuman creatures called “mutts,” heat-lasers and massive machine guns, all of which are brought to life on-screen thanks to the work of the visual effects team led by VFX supervisor Charles Gibson.
Warner Bros. Sound supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Jeremy Peirson, who began working with director Francis Lawrence on The Hunger Games franchise during Catching Fire, knew what to expect in terms of VFX. He and Lawrence developed a workflow where Peirson was involved very early on, with a studio space set up in the cutting room.
Picture and Sound Working Together
Without much in the way of VFX early in the post process, Lawrence relied on Peirson’s sound design to help sell the idea of what was happening on-screen. It’s like a rough pencil sketch of how the scene might sound. As the visuals start coming in, Peirson redesigned, refineed and recorded more elements to better fit the scene. “As we move through the process, sometimes the ideas change,” he explains. “Unfortunately, sound is usually the last step before we finish the film. The visual effects were coming in pretty late in the game and sometimes we got surprised, and they’re completely different. All the work we did in trying to prepare ourselves for the final version changed. You just have to roll with it basically.”
Despite having to rework a scene four or five times, there were advantages to this workflow. One was having constant input from director Lawrence. He was able to hear the sound take shape from a very rough point, and guide Peirson’s design. “Francis popped in a couple times a day to listen to what I was doing. He’d say, ‘Yes this is the right direction’ or ‘No, I was thinking more purple or more bold.’ It allowed for this unique situation where we could fine-tune how the movie is going to sound starting very early in the process,” he says.
Another advantage to being embedded with the picture department is that sound is able to inform how the picture is cut. “Sometimes they will give me a scene and ask me to quickly create the sound for it so they can re-cut the scene to make it better. That’s always a fun collaboration, when the picture department and sound department can work so closely together,” Peirson states.
The Gun Pod
One of Peirson’s most challenging “pods” to design sound for was the gun pod, where two .50 caliber machine guns were blasting away a concrete archway, causing it to collapse. Peirson needed to build detail and clarity into a scene that had bullets and rubble spraying everywhere. To do this, he spent hours recording specific, individual impacts. “I bought a bunch of brick and tile of various different kinds, and I took a 12-pound shot-put, raised it up about 10 feet and dropped it onto these things to get individual impacts, as well as clatter and debris.”
In the edit, he finessed the rhythm of the impacts, spacing them out so there was a distinguishable variety of sounds and it wasn’t just a wash. “It’s not a single note of sound,” he says. “It was a wide palette of impacts. Each individual impact was hand placed throughout the whole sequence. I tried to differentiate the sound of the wall from the pavement and the grass, the stairs and the metal pole which happened to be in that particular area.”
For Mockingjay —Part 1, Peirson, sound recordist John Fasal, and sound designer Bryan O. Watkins, did a bullet-by and bullet-ricochet recording session. All of that material came into play for Mockingjay — Part 2, in addition to new material, such as the gun sounds captured by Peirson, Fasal, Watkins and sound designer Mitch Osias.
For one of their gun recording sessions, Peirson notes they headed to an industrial park where they were able to capture the gun sounds in a mock-urban environment that would match the acoustics of the city streets on-screen. “We wanted to know how the guns would echo off the buildings and down the alleys — how that would sound from various distances.”
They took it one step further by recording gun sounds inside a warehouse that simulated the underground subway environment in the film. “We were able to record them in different ways, putting the guns in certain spots in the warehouse so we could get a tighter, closer feel that sounded very different from an outside perspective,” he says.
With four recordists, they were able to capture 26 individual sets of recordings for each gunshot — some mono, some stereo and some quad recordings. “We used a large range of mics, everything from Neumann to Schoeps to Sennheiser to AKG. You name it and we probably used it.”
When building a gun sound in the edit, Peirson started by selecting a close-up gunshot, then he added an acoustic flavor to that gun. “We didn’t always pick the same type of gun for the acoustic response,” he explains. “It was a lot of hand-cutting to make sure everything was in sync since certain guns fire at different rates; some fire faster and some are slower, but they had to be in the same range as the initial close-up sound.”
Another challenge was designing the mutts — the subhuman lizard-like creatures that inhabit the underground area. Peirson says, “Anytime you have creatures — and we had a lot of creatures — you can design the perfect sound for each one, but how do you sell the difference between all of these creatures when you’re surrounded by 30 or 40 of them?”
Even though there may have been a large group of mutts, within that the characters were only fighting a few of them at any given time. They needed to sound the same, yet different. Peirson’s design also had to factor in how the sound would work against the music, and it had to evolve with the VFX as well.
As the re-recording mixer on the effects, Peirson was able to mix a sound as he was designing it. If something wasn’t working, he could get rid of it right away. “I didn’t need to carry it around and then pick and choose later. By the time we got to the stage, we had the opportunity to refine the whole sonic palette so we only had what we wanted.”
He found that moving to the larger space of the dub stage, and hearing how the sound design plays with the music, generated new ideas for sound. “We added a bit of a different flavor to help the sound cut through, or we add a little bit of detail that was getting lost in the music.”
Since composer James Newton Howard scored all four films in The Hunger Games series, Peirson had a wealth of demos and themes to reference when designing the sound. They were a good indication of what frequency range he could work within and still have the effects cut through the music. “We had an idea of how it would sound, but when you get that fully recorded score, it’s a totally different ballgame in terms of scope. It kicks that demo up a huge notch.”
Peirson and re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay — who worked on dialogue and music — crafted the final mix first in Dolby Atmos on Warner Bros. Stage 6 in Burbank, using three Avid ICONs. “This was a completely in-the-box virtual mix,” says Peirson. “We had sound effects on one Pro Tools system, dialogue on another and music on a third system. My sound effects session, which had close to 730 tracks, was a completely virtual mix, meaning there were no physically recorded pre-dubs.”
Using the final Atmos mix as their guide, Peirson and Lievsay then mixed the film in Barco Auro-3D, DTS:X, IMAX and IMAX 12.0, plus 7.1, 5.1 and two-track. “That’s every single format that I know of right now for film,” he concludes. “It was an interesting exercise in seeing the difference between all those formats.”
With Oscar season getting into full swing, we wouldn’t be surprised if the sound team on Mockingjay — Part 2 gets a nod.