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Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse: sound editors talk ‘magical realism’

By Randi Altman

Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse isn’t your ordinary Spider-Man movie, from its story to its look to its sound. The filmmakers took a familiar story and turned it on its head a bit, letting audiences know that Spider-Man isn’t just one guy wearing that mask… or even a guy, or even from this dimension.

The film focuses on Miles Morales, a teenager from Brooklyn, struggling with all things teenager while also dealing with the added stress of being Spider-Man.

Geoff Rubay

Audio played a huge role in this story, and we recently reached out to Sony supervising sound editors Geoff Rubay and Curt Schulkey to dig in a bit deeper. The duo recently won an MPSE Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing — Feature Animation… industry peers recognizing the work that went into creating the sound for this stylized world.

Let’s find out more about the sound process on Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

What do you think is the most important element of this film’s sound?
Curt Schulkey: It is fun, it is bold, it has style and it has attitude. It has energy. We did everything we could to make the sound as stylistic and surprising as the imagery. We did that while supporting the story and the characters, which are the real stars of the movie. We had the opportunity to work with some incredibly creative filmmakers, and we did our best to surprise and delight them. We hope that audiences like it too.

Geoff Rubay: For me, it’s the fusion of the real and the fantastic. Right from the beginning, the filmmakers made it clear that it should feel believable — grounded — while staying true to the fantastic nature of the visuals. We did not hold back on the fantastic side, but we paid close attention to the story and made sure we were supporting that and not just making things sound awesome.

Curt Schulkey

How early did your team get involved in the film?
Rubay: We started on an SFX pre-design phase in late February for about a month. The goal was to create sounds for the picture editors and animators to work with. We ended up doing what amounted to a temp mix of some key sequences. The “Super Collider” was explored. We only worked on the first sequence for the collider, but the idea was that material could be recycled by the picture department and used in the early temp mixes until the final visuals arrived.

Justin Thompson, the production designer, was very generous with his time and resources early on. He spent several hours showing us work-in-progress visuals and concept art so that we would know where visuals would eventually wind up. This was invaluable. We were able to work on sounds long before we saw them as part of the movie. In the temp mix phase, we had to hold back or de-emphasize some of those elements because they were not relevant yet. In some cases, the sounds would not work at all with the storyboards or un-lit animation that was in the cut. Only when the final lit animation showed up would those sounds make sense.

Schulkey: I came onto the film in May, about 9.5 months before completion. We were neck-deep in following changes throughout our work. We were involved in the creation of sounds from the very first studio screening, through previews and temp mixes, right on to the end of the final mix. This sometimes gave us the opportunity to create sounds in advance of the images, or to influence the development of imagery and timing. Because they were so involved in building the movie, the directors did not always have time to discuss their needs with us, so we would speculate on what kinds of sounds they might need or want for events that they were molding visually. As Geoff said, the time that Justin Thompson spent with us was invaluable. The temp-mix process often gave us the opportunity to audition creations for the directors/producers.

What sort of direction did you receive from the directors?
Schulkey: Luckily, because of our previous experiences with producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord and editor Bob Fisher, we had a pretty good idea of their tastes and sensitivities, so our first attempts were usually pointed in the right direction. The three directors — Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman — also provided input, so we were rich with direction.

As with all movies, we had hundreds of side discussions with the directors along the way about details, nuances, timing and so on. I think that the most important overall direction we got from the filmmakers was related to the dynamic arc of the movie. They wanted the soundtrack to be forceful but not so much that it hurt. They wanted it to breathe — quiet in some spots, loud in others, and they wanted it to be fun. So, we had to figure out what “fun” sounds like.

Rubay: This will sound strange, but we never did a spotting session for the movie. We just started our work and got feedback when we showed sequences or did temp mixes. Phil called when we started the pre-design phase and gave us general notes about tone and direction. He made it clear he did not want us to hold back, but he wanted to keep the film grounded. He explained the importance of the various levels of technology of different characters.

Peni Parker is from the 31st century, so her robot sidekick needed to sound futuristic. Scorpion is a pile of rusty metal. Prowler’s tech is appropriated from his surroundings and possibly with some help from Kingpin. We discussed the sound of previous Spider-Man movies and asked how much we needed to stay true to established sounds from those films. The direction was “not at all unless it makes sense.” We endeavored to make Peter Parker’s web-slings sound like the previous films. After that, we just “went for it.”

How was working on a film like this different than working on something live-action? Did it allow you more leeway?
Schulkey: In a live-action film, most or all of the imagery is shot before we begin working. Many aspects of the sound are already stamped in. On this film, we had a lot more creative involvement. At the start, a good percentage of the movie was still in storyboards, so if we expanded or contracted the timing of an event, the animators might adjust their work to fit the sounds. As the visual elements developed, we began creating layers of sound to support them.

For me, one of the best parts of an animated film’s soundtrack is that no sounds are imposed by the real world, as is often the case in live-action productions. In live-action, if a dialogue scene is shot on a city street in Brooklyn, there is a lot of uninteresting traffic noise built into the dialogue recordings.

Very few directors (or actors) want to lose the spontaneity of the original performance by re-recording dialogue in a studio, so we tweak, clean and process the dialogue to lessen unwanted noise, sometimes diminishing the quality of the recording. We sometimes make compromises with sound effects and music to support a not-so-ideal dialogue track. In an animated film, we don’t have that problem. Sound effects and ambiences can shine without getting in the way. This film has very quiet moments, which feel very natural and organic. That’s a pleasure to have in the movie.

Rubay: Everything Curt said! You have quite a bit of freedom because there is no “production track.” On the flip side, every sound that is added is just that — added. You have to be aware of that; more is not always better.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an animated film with a unique visual style. At times, we played the effects straight, as we might in a live-action picture, to ground it. Other times, we stripped away any notion of “reality.” Sometimes we would do both in the same scene as we cut from one angle to the next. Chris and Phil have always welcomed hard right angle turns, snapping sounds off on a cut or mixing and matching styles in close proximity. They like to do whatever supports the story and directs the audience. Often, we use sound to make your eye notice one thing or look away from another. Other times, we expand the frame, adding sounds outside of what you can see to further enhance the image.

There are many characters in the film. Can you talk about helping to create personality for each?
Rubay: There was a lot of effort made to differentiate the various “spider people” from each other. Whether it was through their web-slings or inherent technology, we were directed to give as much individual personality as possible to each character. Since that directive was baked in from the beginning, every department had it in mind. We paid attention to every visual cue. For example, Miles wears a particular pair of shoes — Nike Air Jordan 1s. My son, Alec Rubay, who was the Foley supervisor, is a real sneakerhead. He tracked down those shoes — very rare — and we recorded them, capturing every sound we could. When you hear Miles’s shoes squeak, you are hearing the correct shoes. Those shoes sound very specific. We applied that mentality wherever possible.

Schulkey: We took the opportunity to exploit the fact that some characters are from different universes in making their sound signatures different from one another. Spider-Ham is from a cartoon universe, so many of the sounds he makes are cartoon sounds. Sniffles, punches, swishes and other movements have a cartoon sensibility. Peni Parker, the anime character, is in a different sync than the rest of the cast, and her voice is somewhat more dynamic. We experimented with making Spider-Man Noir sound like he was coming from an old movie soundtrack, but that became obnoxious, so we abandoned the idea. Nicolas Cage was quite capable of conveying that aspect of the character without our help.

Because we wanted to ground characters in the real world, a lot of effort was put into attaching their voices to their images. Sync, of course, is essential, as is breathing. Characters in most animated films don’t do much breathing, but we added a lot of breaths, efforts and little stutters to add realism. That had to be done carefully. We had a very special, stellar cast and we wanted to maintain the integrity of their performances. I think that effort shows up nicely in some of the more intimate, personal scenes.

To create the unique look of this movie, the production sometimes chose to animate sections of the film “on twos.” That means that mouth movements change every other frame rather than every frame, so sync can be harder than usual to pinpoint. I worked closely with director Bob Persichetti to get dialogue to look in its best sync, doing careful reviews and special adjustments, as needed, on all dialogue in the film.

The main character in this Spider-Man thread is Miles Morales, a brilliant African-American/Puerto Rican Brooklyn teenager trying to find his way in his multi-cultural world. We took special care to show his Puerto Rican background with added Spanish-language dialogue from Miles and his friends. That required dialect coaches, special record sessions and thorough review.

The group ADR required a different level of care than most films. We created voices for crowds, onlookers and the normal “general” wash of voices for New York City. Our group voices covered many very specific characters and were cast in detail by our group leader, Caitlin McKenna. We took a very realistic approach to crowd activity. It had to be subtler than most live-action films to capture the dry nonchalance of Miles Morales’s New York.

Would you describe the sounds as realistic? Fantastical? Both?
Schulkey: The sounds are fantastically realistic. For my money, I don’t want the sounds in my movie to seem fantastical. I see our job as creating an illusion for the audience — the illusion that they are hearing what they are seeing, and that what they are seeing is real. This is an animated film, where nothing is actually real, but has its own reality. The sounds need to live in the world we are watching. When something fantastical happens in the movie’s reality, we had to support that illusion, and we sometimes got to do fun stuff. I don’t mean to say that all sounds had to be realistic.

For example, we surmised that an actual supercollider firing up below the streets of Brooklyn would sound like 10,000 computer fans. Instead, we put together sounds that supported the story we were telling. The ambiences were as authentic as possible, including subway tunnels, Brooklyn streets and school hallways. Foley here was a great tool for giving reality to animated images. When Miles walks into the cemetery at night, you hear his footsteps on snow and sidewalk, gentle cloth movements and other subtle touches. This adds to a sense that he’s a real kid in a real city. Other times, we were in the Spider-Verse and our imagination drove the work.

Rubay: The visuals led the way, and we did whatever they required. There are some crazy things in this movie. The supercollider is based on a real thing so we started there. But supercolliders don’t act as they are depicted in the movie. In reality, they sound like a giant industrial site, fans and motors, but nothing so distinct or dramatic, so we followed the visuals.

Spider-sense is a kind of magical realism that supports, informs, warns, communicates, etc. There is no realistic basis for any of that, so we went with directions about feelings. Some early words of direction were “warm,” “organic,” “internal” and “magical.” Because there are no real sounds for those words, we created sounds that conveyed the emotional feelings of those ideas to the audience.

The portals that allow spider-people to move between dimensions are another example. Again, there was no real-world event to link to. We saw the visuals and assumed it should be a pretty big deal, real “force of nature” stuff. However, it couldn’t simply be big. We took big, energetic sounds and glued them onto what we were seeing. Of course, sometimes people are talking at the same time, so we shifted the frequency center of the moment to clear for the dialog. As music is almost always playing, we had to look for opportunities within the spaces it left.

 

Can you talk about working on the action scenes?
Rubay: For me, when the action starts, the sound had to be really specific. There is dialogue for sure. The music is often active. The guiding philosophy for me at that point is not “Keep adding until there is nothing left to add,” rather, it’s, “We’re done when there is nothing left to strip out.” Busy action scene? Broom the backgrounds away. Usually, we don’t even cut BG’s in a busy action scene, but, if we do, we do so with a skeptical eye. How can we make it more specific? Also, I keep a keen eye on “scale.” One wrong, small detail sound, no matter how cool or interesting, will get the broom if it throws off the scale. Sometimes everything might be sounding nice and big; impressive but not loud, just big, and then some small detail creeps in and spoils it. I am constantly looking out for that.

The “Prowler Chase” scene was a fun exploration. There are times where the music takes over and runs; we pull out every sound we can. Other times, the sound effects blow over everything. It is a matter of give and take. There is a truck/car/prowler motorcycle crash that turns into a suspended slo-mo moment. We had to decide which sounds to play where and when. Its stripped-down nature made it among my favorite moments in the picture.

Can you talk about the multiple universes?
Rubay: The multiverse presented many challenges. It usually manifested itself as a portal or something we move between. The portals were energetic and powerful. The multiverse “place” was something that we used as a quiet place. We used it to provide contrast because, usually, there was big action on either side.

A side effect of the multiple universes interacting was a buildup or collision/overlap. When universes collide or overlap, matter from each tries to occupy the same space. Visually, this created some very interesting moments. We referred to the multi-colored prismatic-looking stuff as “Picasso” moments. The supporting sound needed to convey “force of nature” and “hard edges,” but couldn’t be explosive, loud or gritty. Ultimately, it was a very multi-layered sound event: some “real” sounds teamed with extreme synthesis. I think it worked.

Schulkey: Some of the characters in the movie are transported from another dimension into the dimension of the movie, but their bodies rebel, and from time to time their molecules try to jump back to their native dimension, causing “glitching.” We developed, with a combination of plug-ins, blending, editing and panning, a signature sound that served to signal glitching throughout the movie, and was individually applied for each iteration.

What stands out in your mind as the most challenging scenes audio wise?
Rubay: There is a very quiet moment between Miles and his dad when dad is on one side of the door and Miles is on the other. It’s a very quiet, tender one-way conversation. When a movie gets that quiet every sound counts. Every detail has to be perfect.

What about the Dolby Atmos mix? How did that enhance the film? Can you give a scene or two as an example?
Schulkey: This film was a native Atmos mix, meaning that the primary final mix was directly in the Atmos format, as opposed to making a 7.1 mix and then going back to re-mix sections using the Atmos format.

The native Atmos mix allowed us a lot more sonic room in the theater. This is an extremely complex and busy mix, heavily driven by dialogue. By moving the score out into the side and surround speakers — away from the center speaker — we were able to make the dialogue clearer and still have a very rich and exciting score. Sonic movement is much more effective in this format. When we panned sounds around the room, it felt more natural than in other formats.

Rubay: Atmos is fantastic. Being able to move sounds vertically creates so much space, so much interest, that might otherwise not be there. Also, the level and frequency response of the surround channels makes a huge difference.

You guys used Avid Pro Tools for editing, can you mention some other favorite tools you employed on this film?
Schulkey : The Delete key and the Undo key.

Rubay: Pitch ‘n’ Time, Envy, Reverbs by Exponential Audio, Recording rigs and microphones of all sorts.

What haven’t I asked that’s important?
Our crew! Just in case anyone thinks this can be done by two people, it can’t.
– re-recording mixers Michael Semanick and Tony Lamberti
– sound designer John Pospisil
– dialogue editors James Morioka and Matthew Taylor
– sound effects editors David Werntz, Kip Smedley, Andy Sisul, Chris Aud, Donald Flick, Benjamin Cook, Mike Reagan and Ando Johnson
– Foley mixer Randy Singer
– Foley artists Gary Hecker, Michael Broomberg and Rick Owens


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