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Netflix’s Lost in Space: New sounds for a classic series

By Jennifer Walden

Netflix’s Lost in Space series, a remake of the 1965 television show, is a playground for sound. In the first two episodes alone, the series introduces at least five unique environments, including an alien planet, a whole world of new tech — from wristband communication systems to medical analysis devices — new modes of transportation, an organic-based robot lifeform and its correlating technologies, a massive explosion in space and so much more.

It was a mission not easily undertaken, but if anyone could manage it, it was four-time Emmy Award-winning supervising sound editor Benjamin Cook of 424 Post in Culver City. He’s led the sound teams on series like Starz’s Black Sails, Counterpart and Magic City, as well as HBO’s The Pacific, Rome and Deadwood, to name a few.

Benjamin Cook

Lost in Space was a reunion of sorts for members of the Black Sails post sound team. Making the jump from pirate ships to spaceships were sound effects editors Jeffrey Pitts, Shaughnessy Hare, Charles Maynes, Hector Gika and Trevor Metz; Foley artists Jeffrey Wilhoit and Dylan Tuomy-Wilhoit; Foley mixer Brett Voss; and re-recording mixers Onnalee Blank and Mathew Waters.

“I really enjoyed the crew on Lost in Space. I had great editors and mixers — really super-creative, top-notch people,” says Cook, who also had help from co-supervising sound editor Branden Spencer. “Sound effects-wise there was an enormous amount of elements to create and record. Everyone involved contributed. You’re establishing a lot of sounds in those first two episodes that are carried on throughout the rest of the season.”

Soundscapes
So where does one begin on such a sound-intensive show? The initial focus was on the soundscapes, such as the sound of the alien planet’s different biomes, and the sound of different areas on the ships. “Before I saw any visuals, the showrunners wanted me to send them some ‘alien planet sounds,’ but there is a huge difference between Mars and Dagobah,” explains Cook. “After talking with them for a bit, we narrowed down some areas to focus on, like the glacier, the badlands and the forest area.”

For the forest area, Cook began by finding interesting snippets of animal, bird and insect recordings, like a single chirp or little song phrase that he could treat with pitching or other processing to create something new. Then he took those new sounds and positioned them in the sound field to build up beds of creatures to populate the alien forest. In that initial creation phase, Cook designed several tracks, which he could use for the rest of the season. “The show itself was shot in Canada, so that was one of the things they were fighting against — the showrunners were pretty conscious of not making the crash planet sound too Earthly. They really wanted it to sound alien.”

Another huge aspect of the series’ sound is the communication systems. The characters talk to each other through the headsets in their spacesuit helmets, and through wristband communications. Each family has their own personal ship, called a Jupiter, which can contact other Jupiter ships through shortwave radios. They use the same radios to communicate with their all-terrain vehicles called rovers. Cook notes these ham radios had an intentional retro feel. The Jupiters can send/receive long-distance transmissions from the planet’s surface to the main ship, called Resolute, in space. The families can also communicate with their Jupiters ship’s systems.

Each mode of communication sounds different and was handled differently in post. Some processing was handled by the re-recording mixers, and some was created by the sound editorial team. For example, in Episode 1 Judy Robinson (Taylor Russell) is frozen underwater in a glacial lake. Whenever the shot cuts to Judy’s face inside her helmet, the sound is very close and claustrophobic.

Judy’s voice bounces off the helmet’s face-shield. She hears her sister through the headset and it’s a small, slightly futzed speaker sound. The processing on both Judy’s voice and her sister’s voice sounds very distinct, yet natural. “That was all Onnalee Blank and Mathew Waters,” says Cook. “They mixed this show, and they both bring so much to the table creatively. They’ll do additional futzing and treatments, like on the helmets. That was something that Onna wanted to do, to make it really sound like an ‘inside a helmet’ sound. It has that special quality to it.”

On the flipside, the ship’s voice was a process that Cook created. Co-supervisor Spencer recorded the voice actor’s lines in ADR and then Cook added vocoding, EQ futz and reverb to sell the idea that the voice was coming through the ship’s speakers. “Sometimes we worldized the lines by playing them through a speaker and recording them. I really tried to avoid too much reverb or heavy futzing knowing that on the stage the mixers may do additional processing,” he says.

In Episode 1, Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) finds himself alone in the forest. He tries to call his father, John Robinson (Toby Stephens — a Black Sails alumni as well) via his wristband comm system but the transmission is interrupted by a strange, undulating, vocal-like sound. It’s interference from an alien ship that had crashed nearby. Cook notes that the interference sound required thorough experimentation. “That was a difficult one. The showrunners wanted something organic and very eerie, but it also needed to be jarring. We did quite a few versions of that.”

For the main element in that sound, Cook chose whale sounds for their innate pitchy quality. He manipulated and processed the whale recordings using Symbolic Sound’s Kyma sound design workstation.

The Robot
Another challenging set of sounds were those created for Will Robinson’s Robot (Brian Steele). The Robot makes dying sounds, movement sounds and face-light sounds when it’s processing information. It can transform its body to look more human. It can use its hands to fire energy blasts or as a tool to create heat. It says, “Danger, Will Robinson,” and “Danger, Dr. Smith.” The Robot is sometimes a good guy and sometimes a bad guy, and the sound needed to cover all of that. “The Robot was a job in itself,” says Cook. “One thing we had to do was to sell emotion, especially for his dying sounds and his interactions with Will and the family.”

One of Cook’s trickiest feats was to create the proper sense of weight and movement for the Robot, and to portray the idea that the Robot was alive and organic but still metallic. “It couldn’t be earthly technology. Traditionally for robot movement you will hear people use servo sounds, but I didn’t want to use any kind of servos. So, we had to create a sound with a similar aesthetic to a servo,” says Cook. He turned to the Robot’s Foley sounds, and devised a processing chain to heavily treat those movement tracks. “That generated the basic body movement for the Robot and then we sweetened its feet with heavier sound effects, like heavy metal clanking and deeper impact booms. We had a lot of textures for the different surfaces like rock and foliage that we used for its feet.”

The Robot’s face lights change color to let everyone know if it’s in good-mode or bad-mode. But there isn’t any overt sound to emphasize the lights as they move and change. If the camera is extremely close-up on the lights, then there’s a faint chiming or tinkling sound that accentuates their movement. Overall though, there is a “presence” sound for the Robot, an undulating tone that’s reminiscent of purring when it’s in good-mode. “The showrunners wanted a kind of purring sound, so I used my cat purring as one of the building block elements for that,” says Cook. When the Robot is in bad-mode, the sound is anxious, like a pulsing heartbeat, to set the audience on edge.

It wouldn’t be Lost in Space without the Robot’s iconic line, “Danger, Will Robinson.” Initially, the showrunners wanted that line to sound as close to the original 1960’s delivery as possible. “But then they wanted it to sound unique too,” says Cook. “One comment was that they wanted it to sound like the Robot had metallic vocal cords. So we had to figure out ways to incorporate that into the treatment.” The vocal processing chain used several tools, from EQ, pitching and filtering to modulation plug-ins like Waves Morphoder and Dehumaniser by Krotos. “It was an extensive chain. It wasn’t just one particular tool; there were several of them,” he notes.

There are other sound elements that tie into the original 1960’s series. For example, when Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) and husband John are exploring the wreckage of the alien ship they discover a virtual map room that lets them see into the solar system where they’ve crashed and into the galaxy beyond. The sound design during that sequence features sound material from the original show. “We treated and processed those original elements until they’re virtually unrecognizable, but they’re in there. We tried to pay tribute to the original when we could, when it was possible,” says Cook.

Other sound highlights include the Resolute exploding in space, which caused massive sections of the ship to break apart and collide. For that, Cook says contact microphones were used to capture the sound of tin cans being ripped apart. “There were so many fun things in the show for sound. From the first episode with the ship crash and it sinking into the glacier to the black hole sequence and the Robot fight in the season finale. The show had a lot of different challenges and a lot of opportunities for sound.”

Lost in Space was mixed in the Anthony Quinn Theater at Sony Pictures in 7.1 surround. Interestingly, the show was delivered in Dolby’s Home Atmos format. Cook explains, “When they booked the stage, the producer’s weren’t sure if we were going to do the show in Atmos or not. That was something they decided to do later so we had to figure out a way to do it.”

They mixed the show in Atmos while referencing the 7.1 mix and then played those mixes back in a Dolby Home Atmos room to check them, making any necessary adjustments and creating the Atmos deliverables. “Between updates for visual effects and music as well as the Atmos mixes, we spent roughly 80 days on the dub stage for the 10 episodes,” concludes Cook.

The sound of sensory overload for Cinemax’s ‘Outcast’

By Jennifer Walden

As a cockroach crawls along the wall, each move is watched intensely by a boy whose white knuckles grip the headboard of his bed. His shallow breaths stop just before he head-butts the cockroach and sucks its bloody remains off the wall.

That is the fantastic opening scene of Robert Kirkman’s latest series, Outcast, airing now on Cinemax. Kirkman, writer/executive producer on The Walking Dead, sets his new horror series in the small town of Rome, West Virginia, where a plague of demonic-like possessions is infecting the residents.

Ben Cook

Outcast supervising sound editor Benjamin Cook, of 424 Post in Culver City, says the opening of the pilot episode featured some of his favorite moments in terms of sound design. Each scrape of the cockroach’s feet, every twitch of its antenna, and the juicy crunch of its demise were carefully crafted. Then, following the cockroach consumption, the boy heads to the pantry and snags a bag of chips. He mindlessly crunches away as his mother and sister argue in the kitchen. When the mother yells at the boy for eating chips after supper, he doesn’t seem to notice. He just keeps crunching away. The mother gets closer as the boy turns toward her and she sees that it’s not chips he’s crunching on but his own finger. This is not your typical child.

“The idea is that you want it to seem like he’s eating potato chips, but somewhere in there you need a crossover between the chips and the flesh and bone of his finger,” says Cook. Ultimately, the finger crunching was a combination of Foley — provided by Jeff Wilhoit, Brett Voss, and Dylan Tuomy-Wilhoit at Happy Feet Foley — and 424 Post’s sound design, created by Cook and his sound designers Javier Bennassar and Charles Maynes. “We love doing all of those little details that hopefully make our soundtracks stand out. I try to work a lot of detail into my shows as a general rule.”

Sensory Overload
While hitting the details is Cook’s m.o. anyway — as evidenced by his Emmy-nominated sound editing on Black Sails — it serves a double purpose in Outcast. When people are possessed in the world of Outcast, we imagine that they are more in tune with the micro details of the human experience. Every touch and every movement makes a sound.

“Whenever we are with a possessed person we try to play up the sense that they are overwhelmed by what they are experiencing because their body has been taken over,” says Cook. “Wherever this entity comes from it doesn’t have a physical body and so what the entity is experiencing inside the human body is kind of a sensory overload. All of the Foley and sound effects are really heightened when in that experience.”

Cook says he’s very fortunate to find shows where he and his team have a lot of creative freedom, as they do on Outcast. “As a sound person that is the best; when you really are a collaborator in the storytelling.”

His initial direction for sound came from Adam Wingard, the director on the pilot episode. Wingard asked for drones and distortion, for hard-edged sounds derived from organic sources. “There are definitely more processed kinds of sounds than I would typically use. We worked with the composer Atticus Ross, so there was a handoff between the music and the sound design in the show.”

Working with a stereo music track from composer Ross, Cook and his team could figure out their palette for the sound design well before they hit the dub stage. They tailored the sound design to the music so that both worked together without stepping on each other’s toes.

He explains that Outcast was similar to Black Sails in that they were building the episodes well before they mixed them. The 424 Post team had time to experiment with the design of key sounds, like the hissing, steaming sound that happens when series protagonist Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) touches a possessed person, and the sound of the entity as it is ejected from a body in a jet of black, tar-like fluid, which then evaporates into thin air. For that sound, Cook reveals that they used everything from ocean waves to elephant sounds to bubbling goo. “The entity was tough because we had to find that balance between its physical presence and its spiritual presence because it dissipates back into its original plane, where ever it came from.”

Sound Design and More
When defining the sound design for possessed people, one important consideration was what to do with their voice. Or, in this case, what not to do with their voice. Series creator Kirkman, who gave Cook carte blanche on the majority of the show’s sound work, did have one specific directive: “He didn’t want any changes to happen with their voice. He didn’t want any radical pitch shifting or any weird processing. He wanted it to sound very natural,” explains Cook, who shared the ADR workload with supervising dialogue editor Erin Oakley-Sanchez.

There was no processing to the voices at all. What you hear is what the actors were able to perform, the only exception being Joshua (Gabriel Bateman), an eight-year-old boy who is possessed. For him, the show runners wanted to hear a slight bit of difference to drive home the fact that his body had indeed been taken over. “We have Kyle beating up this kid and so we wanted to make sure that the viewers really got a sense that this wasn’t a kid he was beating up, but that he was beating up a monster,” explains Cook.

To pull off Joshua’s possessed voice, Oakley-Sanchez and Wingard had actor Bateman change his voice in different ways during their ADR session. Then, Cook doubled certain lines in the mix. “The approach was very minimalistic. We never layered in other animal sounds or anything like that. All of the change came from the actor’s performance,” Cook says.

Cook is a big proponent of using fresh sounds in his work. He used field recordings captured in Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida to build the backgrounds. He recorded hard effects like doors, body hits and furniture crashing and breaking. There were other elements used as part of the sound design, like wind and water recordings. In Sound Particles —a CGI-like software for sound design created by Nuno Fonseca — he was able to manipulate and warp sound elements to create unique sounds.

“Sound Particles has really great UI to it, like virtual mics you can place and move to record things in a virtual 3D environment. It lets you create multiple instances of sound very easily. You can randomize things like pitch and timing. You can also automate the movements and create little vignettes that can be rendered out as a piece of audio that you can bring into Pro Tools or Nuendo or other audio workstations. It’s a very fascinating concept and I’ve been using it a lot.”

Cook enjoys building rich backgrounds in shows, which he uses to help further the storyline. For example, in Episode 2 the police chief and his deputy take a trek through the woods and find an abandoned trailer. Cook used busier tracks with numerous layers of sounds at first, but as the chief and deputy get farther into the woods and closer to the abandoned trailer, the backgrounds become sparser and eerily quiet. Another good example happens in Episode 9, where there is a growing storm that builds throughout the whole episode. “It’s not a big player, just more of a subtext to the story. We do really simple things that hopefully translate and come across to people as little subtleties they can’t put their finger on,” says Cook.

Outcast is mixed in 5.1 by re-recording mixers Steve Pederson (dialogue/music) and Dan Leahy (effects/Foley/ backgrounds) via Sony Pictures Post at Deluxe in Hollywood. Cook says, “They are super talented mixers who mostly do a lot of feature films and so they bring a theatrical vibe to the series.”

New episodes of Outcast air Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax, with the season finale on August 12th. Outcast has been renewed for Season 2, and while Cook doesn’t have any inside info on where the show will go next season, he says, “at the end of Season 1, we’re not sure if the entity is alien or demonic, and they don’t really give it away one way or another. I’m really excited to see what they do in Season 2. There is lots of room to go either way. I really like the characters, like the Reverend and Kyle — both have really great back stories. They’re both so troubled and flawed and there is a lot to build on there.”

Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.

Todd-Soundelux and 424 Post join forces

Hollywood — Post production sound company Todd-Soundelux has entered into a multi-year strategic relationship with Culver City-based 424 Post.

As part of this agreement, Sean McCormack and Kami Asgar of 424 Post will join Todd-Soundelux as supervising sound editors, including the addition of their creative team comprised of Tim Tuchrello; Erin Oakley; Benjamin L. Cook; Will Riley; and Sebastian Sheehan Visconti.

Additionally, Todd-Soundelux (www.toddsoundelux.com) will add 424 Post’s (http://424post.com) facility to its portfolio of locations.

“The team at Todd-Soundelux has long enjoyed a great collaborative working relationship with 424 Post, and we have deep respect for Sean and Kami, as well as their entire team,” said David F. Alfonso, the company’s owner. “This partnership makes perfect sense for both companies, and represents an excellent fit with the desire of Todd-Soundelux to further expand its editorial capabilities, providing best-in-class creative sound solutions for content creators working across all media platforms.”

“Todd-Soundelux is a strong creative and technical leader in our creative community, and is home to a wonderful group of talented individuals and committed professionals,” said Sean McCormack. “As we contemplated the path forward for our team at 424 Post, we explored a number of options, but partnering with the team at Todd-Soundelux quickly emerged as an exciting solution, and offered a solid path forward.”

“Having worked with Sean and Kami on numerous projects as a Re-recording Mixer, I have a unique perspective on, and a particular appreciation for, the creativity, talent and dedication they bring to the table for their clients,” said Kevin O’Connell, who, in addition to working as a re-recording mixer at Todd-Soundelux , also serves as the company’s chief creative officer.

“We admire and respect the talented artists and staff at Todd-Soundelux a great deal, and look forward to the opportunity to work even closer with them. This partnership just seemed like a very organic and natural evolution for our group at 424 Post,” said Kami Asgar.  “Additionally, it is critically important for us to work in an environment where creative talent is respected, our team is allowed to thrive, and where management is sound, stabile and highly ethical. We enthusiastically look forward to partnering with everyone at Todd-Soundelux as part of this new venture.”

Having shared an Academy Award-nomination for their work on “Apocalypto” (2007), McCormack and Asgar’s extensive list of credits also include notable highlights such as “Secretariat,” “The Muppets,” “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” and “Pitch Perfect.”

The 424 Post complex, located at 10375 Jefferson Boulevard in Culver City, features editorial suites and state-of-the art 5.1 and 7.1 mixing and re-mastering studios suitable for working across all media platforms.