Tag Archives: audio post

Review: Blackmagic’s Resolve 15

By David Cox

DaVinci Resolve 15 from Blackmagic Design has now been released. The big news is that Blackmagic’s compositing software Fusion has been incorporated into Resolve, joining the editing and audio mixing capabilities added to color grading in recent years. However, to focus just on this would hide a wide array of updates to Resolve, large and small, across the entire platform. I’ve picked out some of my favorite updates in each area.

For Colorists
Each time Blackmagic adds a new discipline to Resolve, colorists fear that the color features take a back seat. After all, Resolve was a color grading system long before anything else. But I’m happy to say there’s nothing to fear in Version 15, as there are several very nice color tweaks and new features to keep everyone happy.

I particularly like the new “stills store” functionality, which allows the colorist to find and apply a grade from any shot in any timeline in any project. Rather than just having access to manually saved grades in the gallery area, thumbnails of any graded shot can be viewed and copied, no matter which timeline or project they are in, even those not explicitly saved as stills. This is great for multi-version work, which is every project these days.

Grades saved as stills (and LUTS) can also be previewed on the current shot using the “Live Preview” feature. Hovering the mouse cursor over a still and scrubbing left and right will show the current shot with the selected grade temporarily applied. It makes quick work of finding the most appropriate look from an existing library.

Another new feature I like is called “Shared Nodes.” A color grading node can be set as “shared,” which creates a common grading node that can be inserted into multiple shots. Changing one instance, changes all instances of that shared node. This approach is more flexible and visible than using Groups, as the node can be seen in each node layout and can sit at any point in the process flow.

As well as the addition of multiple play-heads, a popular feature in other grading systems, there is a plethora of minor improvements. For example, you can now drag the qualifier graphics to adjust settings, as opposed to just the numeric values below them. There are new features to finesse the mattes generated from the keying functions, as well as improvements to the denoise and face refinement features. Nodes can be selected with a single click instead of a double click. In fact, there are 34 color improvements or new features listed in the release notes.

For Editors
As with color, there are a wide range of minor tweaks all aimed at improving feel and ergonomics, particularly around dynamic trim modes, numeric timecode entry and the like. I really like one of the major new features, which is the ability to open multiple timelines on the screen at the same time. This is perfect for grabbing shots, sequences and settings from other timelines.

As someone who works a lot with VFX projects, I also like the new “Replace Edit” function, which is aimed at those of us that start our timelines with early drafts of VFX and then update them as improved versions come along. The new function allows updated shots to be dragged over their predecessors, replacing them but inheriting all modifications made, such as the color grade.

An additional feature to the existing markers and notes functions is called “Drawn Annotations.” An editor can point out issues in a shot with lines and arrows, then detail them with notes and highlight them with timeline markers. This is great as a “note to self” to fix later, or in collaborative workflows where notes can be left for other editors, colorists or compositors.

Previous versions of Resolve had very basic text titling. Thanks to the incorporation of Fusion, the edit page of Resolve now has a feature called Text+, a significant upgrade on the incumbent offering. It allows more detailed text control, animation, gradient fills, dotted outlines, circular typing and so on. Within Fusion there is a modifier called “Follower,” which enables letter-by-letter animation, allowing Text+ to compete with After Effects for type animation. On my beta test version of Resolve 15, this wasn’t available in the Edit page, which could be down to the beta status or an intent to keep the Text+ controls in the Edit page more streamlined.

For Audio
I’m not an audio guy, so my usefulness in reviewing these parts is distinctly limited. There are 25 listed improvements or new features, according to the release notes. One is the incorporation of Fairlight’s Automated Dialog Replacement processes, which creates a workflow for the replacement of unsalvageable originally recorded dialog.

There are also 13 new built-in audio effects plugins, such as Chorus, Echo and Flanger, as well as de-esser and de-hummer clean-up tools.
Another useful addition both for audio mixers and editors is the ability to import entire audio effects libraries, which can then be searched and star-rated from within the Edit and Fairlight pages.

Now With Added Fusion
So to the headline act — the incorporation of Fusion into Resolve. Fusion is a highly regarded node-based 2D and 3D compositing software package. I reviewed Version 9 in postPerspective last year [https://postperspective.com/review-blackmagics-fusion-9/]. Bringing it into Resolve links it directly to editing, color grading and audio mixing to create arguably the most agile post production suite available.

Combining Resolve and Fusion will create some interesting challenges for Blackmagic, who say that the integration of the two will be ongoing for some time. Their challenge isn’t just linking two software packages, each with their own long heritage, but in making a coherent system that makes sense to all users.

The issue is this: editors and colorists need to work at a fast pace, and want the minimum number of controls clearly presented. A compositor needs infinite flexibility and wants a button and value for every function, with a graph and ideally the ability to drive it with a mathematical expression or script. Creating an interface that suits both is near impossible. Dumbing down a compositing environment limits its ability, whereas complicating an editing or color environment destroys its flow.

Fusion occupies its own “page” within Resolve, alongside pages for “Color,” “Fairlight” (audio) and “Edit.” This is a good solution in so far that each interface can be tuned for its dedicated purpose. The ability to join Fusion also works very well. A user can seamlessly move from Edit to Fusion to Color and back again, without delays, rendering or importing. If a user is familiar with Resolve and Fusion, it works very well indeed. If the user is not accustomed to high-end node-based compositing, then the Fusion page can be daunting.

I think the challenge going forward will be how to make the creative possibilities of Fusion more accessible to colorists and editors without compromising the flexibility a compositor needs. Certainly, there are areas in Fusion that can be made more obvious. As with many mature software packages, Fusion has the occasional hidden right click or alt-click function that is hard for new users to discover. But beyond that, the answer is probably to let a subset of Fusion’s ability creep into the Edit and Color pages, where more common tasks can be accommodated with simplified control sets and interfaces. This is actually already the case with Text+; a Fusion “effect” that is directly accessible within the Edit section.

Another possible area to help is Fusion Macros. This is an inbuilt feature within Fusion that allows a designer to create an effect and then condense it down to a single node, including just the specific controls needed for that combined effect. Currently, Macros that integrate the Text+ effect can be loaded directly in the Edit page’s “Title Templates” section.

I would encourage Blackmagic to open this up further to allow any sort of Macro to be added for video transitions, graphics generators and the like. This could encourage a vibrant exchange of user-created effects, which would arm editors and colorists with a vast array of immediate and community sourced creative options.

Overall, the incorporation of Fusion is a definite success in my view, whether used to empower multi-skilled post creatives or to provide a common environment for specialized creatives to collaborate. The volume of updates and the speed at which the Resolve software developers address the issues exposed during public beta trials, remains nothing short of impressive.


David Cox is a VFX compositor and colorist with 20-plus years of experience. He started his career with MPC and The Mill before forming his own London-based post facility. Cox recently created interactive projects with full body motion sensors and 4D/AR experiences.

Sony creates sounds for Director X’s Superfly remake

Columbia Pictures’ Superfly is a reimagining of Gordon Parks Jr.’s classic 1972 blaxploitation film of the same name. Helmed by Director X and written by Alex Tse, this new version transports the story of Priest from Harlem to modern-day Atlanta.

Steven Ticknor

Superfly’s sound team from Sony Pictures Post Production Services — led by supervising sound editor Steven Ticknor, supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Kevin O’Connell, re-recording mixer Greg Orloff and sound designer Tony Lamberti — was tasked with bringing the sonic elements of Priest’s world to life. That included everything from building soundscapes for Atlanta’s neighborhoods and nightclubs to supplying the sounds of fireworks, gun battles and car chases.

“Director X and Joel Silver — who produced the movie alongside hip-hop superstar Future, who also curated and produced the film’s soundtrack — wanted the film to have a big sound, as big and theatrical as possible,” says Ticknor. “The film is filled with fights and car chases, and we invested a lot of detail and creativity into each one to bring out their energy and emotion.”

One element that received special attention from the sound team was the Lexus LC500 that Priest (Trevor Jackson) drives in the film. As the sports car was brand new, no pre-recorded sounds were available, so Ticknor and Lamberti dispatched a recording crew and professional driver to the California desert to capture every aspect of its unique engine sounds, tire squeals, body mechanics and electronics. “Our job is to be authentic, so we couldn’t use a different Lexus,” Ticknor explains. “It had to be that car.”

In one of the film’s most thrilling scenes, Priest and the Lexus LC500 are involved in a high-speed chase with a Lamborghini and a Cadillac Escalade. Sound artists added to the excitement by preparing sounds for every screech, whine and gear shift made by the cars, as well as explosions and other events happening alongside them and movements made by the actors behind the wheels.

It’s all much larger than life, says Ticknor, but grounded in reality. “The richness of the sound is a result of all the elements that go into it, the way they are recorded, edited and mixed,” he explains. “We wanted to give each car its own identity, so when you cut from one car revving to another car revving, it sounds like they’re talking to each other. The audience may not be able to articulate it, but they feel the emotion.”

Fights received similarly detailed treatment. Lamberti points to an action sequence in a barber shop as one of several scenes rendered partially in extreme slow motion. “It starts off in realtime before gradually shifting to slo-mo through the finish,” he says. “We had fun slowing down sounds, and processing them in strange and interesting ways. In some instances, we used sounds that had no literal relation to what was happening on the screen but, when slowed down, added texture. Our aim was to support the visuals with the coolest possible sound.”

Re-recording mixing was accomplished in the 125-seat Anthony Quinn Theater on an Avid S6 console with O’Connell handling dialogue and music and Orloff tackling sound effects and Foley. Like its 1972 predecessor, which featured an iconic soundtrack from Curtis Mayfield, the new film employs music brilliantly. Atlanta-based rapper Future, who shares producer credit, assembled a soundtrack that features Young Thug, Lil Wayne, Miguel, H.E.R. and 21 Savage.

“We were fortunate to have in Kevin and Greg, a pair of Academy Award-winning mixers, who did a brilliant job in blending music, dialogue and sound effects,” says Ticknor. “The mix sessions were very collaborative, with a lot of experimentation to build intensity and make the movie feel bigger than life. Everyone was contributing ideas and challenging each other to make it better, and it all came together in the end.”

Cinema Audio Society sets next awards date and timeline

The Cinema Audio Society (CAS) will be holding its 55th Annual CAS Awards on Saturday, February 16, 2019 at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown in the Wilshire Grand Ballroom. The CAS Awards recognize outstanding sound mixing in film and television as well as outstanding products for production and post. Recipients for the CAS Career Achievement Award and CAS Filmmaker Award will be announced later in the year.

The InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown is a new venue for the awards. They were held at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza last year.

The timeline for the awards is as follows:
• Entry submission form will be available online on the CAS website on Thursday, October 11, 2018.
• Entry submissions are due online by 5:00pm PST on Thursday, November 15, 2018.
• Outstanding product entry submissions are due online by 5:00pm PST on Friday December 7, 2018.
• Nomination ballot voting begins online on Thursday, December 13, 2018.
• Nomination ballot voting ends online at 5:00pm PST on Thursday, January 3, 2019.
• Final nominees in each category will be announced on Tuesday, January 8, 2019.
• Final voting begins online on Thursday, January 24, 2019.
• Final voting ends online at 5:00pm PST on Wednesday, February 6, 2019.

 

Hobo’s Chris Stangroom on providing Quest doc’s sonic treatment

Following a successful film fest run that included winning a 2018 Independent Spirit Award, and being named a 2017 official selection at Sundance, the documentary Quest is having its broadcast premiere on PBS this month as part of their POV series.

Chris Stangroom

Filmed with vérité intimacy for nearly a decade, Quest follows the Rainey family who live in North Philadelphia. The story begins at the start of the Obama presidency with Christopher “Quest” Rainey, and his wife Christine (“Ma Quest”) raising a family, while also nurturing a community of hip-hop artists in their home music studio. It’s a safe space where all are welcome, but as the doc shows, this creative sanctuary can’t always shield them from the strife that grips their neighborhood.

New York-based audio post house Hobo, which is no stranger to indie documentary work (Weiner, Amanda Knox, Voyeur), lent its sonic skills to the film, including the entire sound edit (dialogue, effects and music), sound design, 5.1 theatrical and broadcast mixes.

We spoke with Hobo’s Chris Stangroom, supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer on the project about the challenges he and the Hobo team faced in their quest on this film.

Broadly speaking what did you and Hobo do on this project? How did you get involved?
We handled every aspect of the audio post on Quest for its Sundance Premiere, theatrical run and broadcast release of the film on POV.

This was my first time working with director Jonathan Olshefski and I loved every minute of it, The entire team on Quest was focused on making this film better with every decision, and he had to be the final voice on everything. We were connected through my friend producer Sabrina Gordon, who I had previously worked with on the film Undocumented. It was a pretty quick turn of events, as I think I got the first call about the film Thanksgiving weekend of 2016. We started working on the film the day after Christmas that year and were finished mix two weeks later with the entire sound edit and mix for the 2017 Sundance film festival.

How important is the audio mix/sound design in the overall cinematic experience of Quest? What was most important to Olshefski?
The sound of a film is half of the experience. I know it sounds cliché, but after years of working with clients on improving their films, the importance of a good sound mix and edit can’t be understated. I have seen films come to life by simply adding Foley to a few intimate moments in a scene. It seems like such a small detail in the grand scheme of a film’s soundtrack, but feeling that intimacy with a character connects us to them in a visceral way.

Since Quest was a film not only about the Rainey family but also their neighborhood of North Philly, I spent a lot of time researching the sounds of Philadelphia. I gathered a lot of great references and insight from friends who had grown up in Philly, like the sounds of “ghetto birds” (helicopters), the motorbikes that are driven around constantly and the SEPTA buses. As Jon and I spoke about the film’s soundtrack, those kinds of sounds and ideas were exactly what he was looking for when we were out on the streets of North Philly. It created an energy to the film that made it vivid and alive.

The film was shot over a 10-year period. How did that prolonged production affect the audio post? Were there format issues or other technical issues you needed to overcome?
It presented some challenges, but luckily Jon always recorded with a lav or a boom on his camera for the interviews, so matching their sound qualities was easier than if he had just been using a camera mic. There are probably half a dozen “narrated” scenes in Quest that are built from interview sound bites, so bouncing around from interviews 10 years apart was tricky and required a lot of attention to detail.

In addition, Quest‘s phenomenal editor Lindsay Utz was cutting scenes up until the last day of our sound mix. So even once we got an entire scene sounding clean and balanced, it would then change and we’d have to add a new line from some other interview during that decade-long period. She definitely kept me on my toes, but it was all to make the film better.

Music is a big part of the family’s lives. Did the fact that they run a recording studio out of their home affect your work?
Yes. The first thing I did once we started on the film was to go down to Quest’s studio in Philly and record “impulse responses” (IRs) of the space, essentially recording the “sound” of a room or space. I wanted to bring that feeling of the natural reverbs in his studio and home to the film. I captured the live room where the artists would be recording, his control room in the studio and even the hallway leading to the studio with doors opened and closed, because sound changes and becomes more muffled as more doors are shut between the microphone and the sound source. The IRs helped me add incredible depth and the feeling that you were there with them when I was mixing the freestyle rap sessions and any scenes that took place in the home and studio.

Jon and I also grabbed dozens of tracks that Quest had produced over the years, so that we could add them into the film in subtle ways, like when a car drives by or from someone’s headphones. It’s those kinds of little details that I love adding, like Easter eggs that only a handful of us know about. They make me smile whenever I watch a film.

Any particular scene or section or aspect of Quest that you found most challenging or interesting to work on?
The scenes involving Quest’s daughter PJ’s injury through her stay in the hospital and her return back home had a lot of challenges that came along with them. We used sound design and the score from the amazing composer T. Griffin to create the emotional arc that something dangerous and life-changing was about to happen.

Once we were in the hospital, we wanted the sound of everything to be very, very quiet. There is a scene in which Quest is whispering to PJ while she is in pain and trying to recover. The actual audio from that moment had a few nurses and women in the background having a loud conversation and occasionally laughing. It took the viewer immediately away from the emotions that we were trying to connect with, so we ended up scrapping that entire audio track and recreated the scene from scratch. Jon actually ended up getting in the sound booth and did some very low and quiet whispering of the kinds of phrases Quest said to his daughter. It took a couple hours to finesse that scene.

Lastly, the scene when PJ gets out of the hospital and is returning back into a world that didn’t stop while she was recovering. We spent a lot of time shifting back and forth between the reality of what happened, and the emotional journey PJ was going through trying to regain normalcy in her life. There was a lot of attention to detail in the mix on that scene because it had to be delivered correctly in order to not break the momentum that had been created.

What was the key technology you used on the project?
Avid Pro Tools, Izotope RX 5 Advanced, Audio Ease Altiverb, Zoom H4N; and a matched stereo pair of sE Electronics sE1a condenser mics.

Who else at Hobo was involved in Quest?
The entire Hobo team really stepped up on this project — namely our sound effects editors Stephen Davies, Diego Jimenez and Julian Angel; Foley artist Oscar Convers; and dialogue editor Jesse Peterson.

Chimney opens in New York City, hires team of post vets

Chimney, an independent content company specializing in film, television, spots and digital media, has opened a new facility in New York City. For over 20 years, the group has been producing and posting campaigns for brands, such as Ikea, Audi, H&M, Chanel, Nike, HP, UBS and more. Chimney was also the post partner for the feature films Chappaquiddick, Her, Atomic Blonde and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

With this New York opening, Chimney now with 14 offices worldwide. Founded in Stockholm in 1995, they opened their first US studio in Los Angeles last year. In addition to Stockholm, New York and LA, Chimney also has facilities in Singapore, Copenhagen, Berlin and Sydney among other cities. For a full location list click here.

“Launching in New York is a benchmark long in the making, and the ultimate expression of our philosophy of ‘boutique-thinking with global power,’” says Henric Larsson, Chimney founder and COO. “Having a meaningful presence in all of the world’s economic centers with diverse cultural perspectives means we can create and execute at the highest level in partnership with our clients.”

The New York opening supports Chimney’s mission to connect its global talent and resources, effectively operating as a 24-hour, full-service content partner to brand, entertainment and agency clients, no matter where they are in the world.

Chimney has signed on several industry vets to spearhead the New York office. Leading the US presence is CEO North America Marcelo Gandola. His previous roles include COO at Harbor Picture Company; EVP at Hogarth; SVP of creative services at Deluxe Entertainment Services Group; and VP of operations at Company 3.

Colorist and director Lez Rudge serves as Chimney’s head of color North America. He is a former partner and senior colorist at Nice Shoes in New York. He has worked alongside Spike Lee and Darren Aronofsky, and on major brand campaigns for Maybelline, Revlon, NHL, Jeep, Humira, Spectrum and Budweiser.

Managing director Ed Rilli will spearhead the day-to-day logistics of the New York office. As the former head of production of Nice Shoes, his resume includes producing major campaigns for such brands as NFL, Ford, Jagermeister and Chase.

Sam O’Hare, chief creative officer and lead VFX artist, will oversee the VFX team. Bringing experience in live-action directing, VFX supervision, still photography and architecture, O’Hare’s interdisciplinary background makes him well suited for photorealistic CGI production.

In addition, Chimney has brought on cinematographer and colorist Vincent Taylor, who joins from MPC Shanghai, where he worked with brands such as Coca-Cola, Porsche, New Balance, Airbnb, BMW, Nike and L’Oréal.

The 6,000-square-foot office will feature Blackmagic Resolve color rooms, Autodesk Flame suites and a VFX bullpen, as well as multiple edit rooms, a DI theater and a Dolby Atmos mix stage through a joint venture with Gigantic Studios.

Main Image: (L-R) Ed Rilli, Sam O’Hare, Marcelo Gandola and Lez Rudge.

Capturing, creating historical sounds for AMC’s The Terror

By Jennifer Walden

It’s September 1846. Two British ships — the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — are on an exploration to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition’s leader, British Royal Navy Captain Sir John Franklin, leaves the Erebus to dine with Captain Francis Crozier aboard the Terror. A small crew rows Franklin across the frigid, ice-choked Arctic Ocean that lies north of Canada’s mainland to the other vessel.

The opening overhead shot of the two ships in AMC’s new series The Terror (Mondays 9/8c) gives the audience an idea of just how large those ice chunks are in comparison with the ships. It’s a stunning view of the harsh environment, a view that was completely achieved with CGI and visual effects because this series was actually shot on a soundstage at Stern Film Studio, north of Budapest, Hungary.

 Photo Credit: Aidan Monaghan/AMC

Emmy- and BAFTA-award-winning supervising sound editor Lee Walpole of Boom Post in London, says the first cut he got of that scene lacked the VFX, and therefore required a bit of imagination. “You have this shot above the ships looking down, and you see this massive green floor of the studio and someone dressed in a green suit pushing this boat across the floor. Then we got the incredible CGI, and you’d never know how it looked in that first cut. Ultimately, mostly everything in The Terror had to be imagined, recorded, treated and designed specifically for the show,” he says.

Sound plays a huge role in the show. Literally everything you hear (except dialogue) was created in post — the constant Arctic winds, the footsteps out on the packed ice and walking around on the ship, the persistent all-male murmur of 70 crew members living in a 300-foot space, the boat creaks, the ice groans and, of course, the creature sounds. The pervasive environmental sounds sell the harsh reality of the expedition.

Thanks to the sound and the CGI, you’d never know this show was shot on a soundstage. “It’s not often that we get a chance to ‘world-create’ to that extent and in that fashion,” explains Walpole. “The sound isn’t just there in the background supporting the story. Sound becomes a principal character of the show.”

Bringing the past to life through sound is one of Walpole’s specialties. He’s created sound for The Crown, Peaky Blinders, Klondike, War & Peace, The Imitation Game, The King’s Speech and more. He takes a hands-on approach to historical sounds, like recording location footsteps in Lancaster House for the Buckingham Palace scenes in The Crown, and recording the sounds on-board the Cutty Sark for the ships in To the Ends of the Earth (2005). For The Terror, his team spent time on-board the Golden Hind, which is a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship of the same name.

During a 5am recording session, the team — equipped with a Sound Devices 744T recorder and a Schoeps CMIT 5U mic — captured footsteps in all of the rooms on-board, pick-ups and put-downs of glasses and cups, drops of various objects on different surfaces, gun sounds and a selection of rigging, pulleys and rope moves. They even recorded hammering. “We took along a wooden plank and several hammers,” describes Walpole. “We laid the plank across various surfaces on the boat so we could record the sound of hammering resonating around the hull without causing any damage to the boat itself.”

They also recorded footsteps in the ice and snow and reached out to other sound recordists for snow and ice footsteps. “We wanted to get an authentic snow creak and crunch, to have the character of the snow marry up with the depth and freshness of the snow we see at specific points in the story. Any movement from our characters out on the pack ice was track-laid, step-by-step, with live recordings in snow. No studio Foley feet were recorded at all,” says Walpole.

In The Terror, the ocean freezes around the two ships, immobilizing them in pack ice that extends for miles. As the water continues to freeze, the ice grows and it slowly crushes the ships. In the distance, there’s the sound of the ice growing and shifting (almost like tectonic plates), which Walpole created from sourced hydrophone recordings from a frozen lake in Canada. The recordings had ice pings and cracking that, when slowed and pitched down, sounded like massive sheets of ice rubbing against each other.

Effects editor Saoirse Christopherson capturing sounds on board a kayak in the Thames River.

The sounds of the ice rubbing against the ships were captured by one of the show’s sound effects editor, Saoirse Christopherson, who along with an assistant, boarded a kayak and paddled out onto the frozen Thames River. Using a Røde NT2 and a Roland R26 recorder with several contact mics strapped to the kayak’s hull, they spent the day grinding through, over and against the ice. “The NT2 was used to directionally record both the internal impact sounds of the ice on the hull and also any external ice creaking sounds they could generate with the kayak,” says Walpole.

He slowed those recordings down significantly and used EQ and filters to bring out the low-mid to low-end frequencies. “I also fed them through custom settings on my TC Electronic reverbs to bring them to life and to expand their scale,” he says.

The pressure of the ice is slowly crushing the ships, and as the season progresses the situation escalates to the point where the crew can’t imagine staying there another winter. To tell that story through sound, Walpole began with recordings of windmill creaks and groans. “As the situation gets more dire, the sound becomes shorter and sharper, with close, squealing creaks that sound as though the cabins themselves are warping and being pulled apart.”

In the first episode, the Erebus runs aground on the ice and the crew tries to hack and saw the ice away from the ship. Those sounds were recorded by Walpole attacking the frozen pond in his backyard with axes and a saw. “That’s my saw cutting through my pond, and the axe material is used throughout the show as they are chipping away around the boat to keep the pack ice from engulfing it.”

Whether the crew is on the boat or on the ice, the sound of the Arctic is ever-present. Around the ships, the wind rips over the hulls and howls through the rigging on deck. It gusts and moans outside the cabin windows. Out on the ice, the wind constantly groans or shrieks. “Outside, I wanted it to feel almost like an alien planet. I constructed a palette of designed wind beds for that purpose,” says Walpole.

He treated recordings of wind howling through various cracks to create a sense of blizzard winds outside the hull. He also sourced recordings of wind at a disused Navy bunker. “It’s essentially these heavy stone cells along the coast. I slowed these recordings down a little and softened all of them with EQ. They became the ‘holding airs’ within the boat. They felt heavy and dense.”

Below Deck
In addition to the heavy-air atmospheres, another important sound below deck was that of the crew. The ships were entirely occupied by men, so Walpole needed a wide and varied palette of male-only walla to sustain a sense of life on-board. “There’s not much available in sound libraries, or in my own library — and certainly not enough to sustain a 10-hour show,” he says.

So they organized a live crowd recording session with a group of men from CADS — an amateur dramatics society from Churt, just outside of London. “We gave them scenarios and described scenes from the show and they would act it out live in the open air for us. This gave us a really varied palette of worldized effects beds of male-only crowds that we could sit the loop group on top of. It was absolutely invaluable material in bringing this world to life.”

Visually, the rooms and cabins are sometimes quite similar, so Walpole uses sound to help the audience understand where they are on the ship. In his cutting room, he had the floor plans of both ships taped to the walls so he could see their layouts. Life on the ship is mainly concentrated on the lower deck — the level directly below the upper deck. Here is where the men sleep. It also has the canteen area, various cabins and the officers’ mess.

Below that is the Orlop deck, where there are workrooms and storerooms. Then below that is the hold, which is permanently below the waterline. “I wanted to be very meticulous about what you would hear at the various levels on the boat and indeed the relative sound level of what you are hearing in these locations,” explains Walpole. “When we are on the lower two decks, you hear very little of the sound of the men above. The soundscapes there are instead focused on the creaks and the warping of the hull and the grinding of the ice as it crushes against the boat.”

One of Walpole’s favorite scenes is the beginning of Episode 4. Capt. Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) is sitting in his cabin listening to the sound of the pack ice outside, and the room sharply tilts as the ice shifts the ship. The scene offers an opportunity to tell a cause-and-effect story through sound. “You hear the cracks and pings of the ice pack in the distance and then that becomes localized with the kayak recordings of the ice grinding against the boat, and then we hear the boat and Crozier’s cabin creak and pop as it shifts. This ultimately causes his bottle to go flying across the table. I really enjoyed having this tale of varying scales. You have this massive movement out on the ice and the ultimate conclusion of it is this bottle sliding across the table. It’s very much a sound moment because Crozier is not really saying anything. He’s just sitting there listening, so that offered us a lot of space to play with the sound.”

The Tuunbaq
The crew in The Terror isn’t just battling the elements, scurvy, starvation and mutiny. They’re also being killed off by a polar bear-like creature called the Tuunbaq. It’s part animal, part mythical creature that is tied to the land and spirits around it. The creature is largely unseen for the first part of the season so Walpole created sonic hints as to the creature’s make-up.

Walpole worked with showrunner David Kajganich to find the creature’s voice. Kajganich wanted the creature to convey a human intelligence, and he shared recordings of human exorcisms as reference material. They hired voice artist Atli Gunnarsson to perform parts to picture, which Walpole then fed into the Dehumaniser plug-in by Krotos. “Some of the recordings we used raw as well, says Walpole. “This guy could make these crazy sounds. His voice could go so deep.”

Those performances were layered into the track alongside recordings of real bears, which gave the sound the correct diaphragm, weight, and scale. “After that, I turned to dry ice screeches and worked those into the voice to bring a supernatural flavor and to tie the creature into the icy landscape that it comes from.”

Lee Walpole

In Episode 3, an Inuit character named Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) is sitting in her igloo and the Tuunbaq arrives snuffling and snorting on the other side of the door flap. Then the Tuunbaq begins to “sing” at her. To create that singing, Walpole reveals that he pulled Lady Silence’s performance of The Summoning Song (the song her people use to summon the Tuunbaq to them) from a later episode and fed that into Dehumaniser. “This gave me the creature’s version. So it sounds like the creature is singing the song back to her. That’s one for the diehards who will pick up on it and recognize the tune,” he says.

Since the series is shot on a soundstage, there’s no usable bed of production sound to act as a jumping off point for the post sound team. But instead of that being a challenge, Walpole finds it liberating. “In terms of sound design, it really meant we had to create everything from scratch. Sound plays such a huge role in creating the atmosphere and the feel of the show. When the crew is stuck below decks, it’s the sound that tells you about the Arctic world outside. And the sound ultimately conveys the perils of the ship slowly being crushed by the pack ice. It’s not often in your career that you get such a blank canvas of creation.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.

Michael Semanick: Mixing SFX, Foley for Star Wars: The Last Jedi

By Jennifer Walden

Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Michael Semanick from Skywalker Sound mixed the sound effects, Foley and backgrounds on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which has earned an Oscar nomination for Sound Mixing.

Technically, this is not Semanick’s first experience with the Star Wars franchise — he’s credited as an additional mixer on Rogue One — but on The Last Jedi he was a key figure in fine-tuning the film’s soundtrack. He worked alongside re-recording mixers Ren Klyce and David Parker, and with director Rian Johnson, to craft a soundtrack that was bold and dynamic. (Look for next week’s Star Wars story, in which re-recording mixer Ren Klyce talks about his approach to mixing John Williams’ score.)

Michael Semanick

Recently, Semanick shared his story of what went into mixing the sound effects on The Last Jedi. He mixed at Skywalker in Nicasio, California, on the Kurosawa Stage.

You had all of these amazing elements — Skywalker’s effects, John Williams’ score and the dialogue. How did you bring clarity to what could potentially be a chaotic soundtrack?
Yes, there are a lot of elements that come in, and you have to balance these things. It’s easy on a film like this to get bombastic and assault the audience, but that’s one of the things that Rian didn’t want to do. He wanted to create dynamics in the track and get really quiet so that when it does get loud it’s not overly loud.

So when creating that I have to look at all of the elements coming in and see what we’re trying to do in each specific scene. I ask myself, “What’s this scene about? What’s this storyline? What’s the music doing here? Is that the thread that takes us to the next scene or to the next place? What are the sound effects? Do we need to hear these background sounds, or do we need just the hard effects?”

Essentially, it’s me trying to figure out how many frequencies are available and how much dialogue has to come through so the audience doesn’t lose the thread of the story. It’s about deciding when it’s right to feature the sound effects or take the score down to feature a big explosion and then bring the score back up.

It’s always a balancing act, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and throw it all in there. I might need a line of dialogue to come through, so the backgrounds go. I don’t want to distract the audience. There is so much happening visually in the film that you can’t put sound on everything. Otherwise, the audience wouldn’t know what to focus on. At least that’s my approach to it.

How did you work with the director?
As we mixed the film with Rian, we found what types of sounds defined the film and what types of moments defined the film in terms of sound. For example, by the time you reach the scene when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) jumps to hyperspace into the First Order’s fleet, everything goes really quiet. The sound there doesn’t go completely out — it feels like it goes out, but there’s sound. As soon as the music peaks, I bring in a low space tone. Well, if there was a tone in space, I imagine that is what it would sound like. So there is sound constantly through that scene, but the quietness goes on for a long time.

One of the great things about that scene was that it was always designed that way. While I noted how great that scene was, I didn’t really get it until I saw it with an audience. They became the soundtrack, reacting with gasps. I was at a screening in Seattle, and when we hit that scene and you could hear that the people were just stunned, and one guy in the audience went, “Yeah!”

There are other areas in the film where we go extremely quiet or take the sound out completely. For example, when Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) first force-connect, the sound goes out completely… you only hear a little bit of their breathing. There’s one time when the force connection catches them off guard — when Kylo had just gotten done working out and Rey was walking somewhere — we took the sound completely out while she was still moving.

Rian loved it because when we were working on that scene we were trying to get something different. We used to have sound there, all the way through the scene. Then Rian said, “What happens if you just start taking some of the sounds out?” So, I started pulling sounds out and sure enough, when I got the sound all the way out — no music, no sounds, no backgrounds, no nothing — Rian was like, “That’s it! That just draws you in.” And it does. It pulls you into their moment. They’re pulled together even though they don’t want to be. Then we slowly brought it back in with their breathing, a little echo and a little footstep here or there. Having those types of dynamics worked into the film helped the scene at the end.

Rian shot and cut the picture so we could have these moments of quiet. It was already set up, visually and story-wise, to allow that to happen. When Rey goes into the mirror cave, it’s so quiet. You hear all the footsteps and the reverbs and reflections in there. The film lent itself to that.

What was the trickiest scene to mix in terms of the effects?
The moment Kylo Ren and Rey touch hands via the force connection. That was a real challenge. They’re together in the force connection, but they weren’t together physically. We were cutting back and forth from her place to Kylo Ren’s place. We were hearing her campfire and her rain. It was a very delicate balance between that and the music. We could have had the rain really loud and the music blasting, but Rian wanted the rain and fire to peel away as their hands were getting closer. It was so quiet and when they did touch there was just a bit of a low-end thump. Having a big sound there just didn’t have the intimacy that the scene demanded. It can be so hard to get the balance right to where the audience is feeling the same thing as the characters. The audience is going, “No, oh no.” You know what’s going to come, but we wanted to add that extra tension to it sonically. For me, that was one of the hardest scenes to get.

What about the action scenes?
They are tough because they take time to mix. You have to decide what you want to play. For example, when the ships are exploding as they’re trying to get away before Holdo rams her ship into the First Order’s, you have all of that stuff falling from the ceiling. We had to pick our moments. There’s all of this fire in the background and TIE fighters flying around, and you can’t hear them all or it will be a jumbled mess. I can mix those scenes pretty well because I just follow the story point. We need to hear this to go with that. We have to have a sound of falling down, so let’s put that in.

Is there a scene you had fun with?
The fight in Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) room, between Rey and Kylo Ren. That was really fun because it was like wham-bam, and you have the lightsaber flying around. In those moments, like when Rey throws the lightsaber, we drop the sound out for a split second so when Kylo turns it on it’s even more powerful.

That scene was the most fun, but the trickiest one was that force-touch scene. We went over it a hundred different ways, to just get it to feel like we were with them. For me, if the sound calls too much attention to itself, it’s pulling you out of the story, and that’s bad mixing. I wanted the audience to lean in and feel those hands about to connect. When you take the sound out and the music out, then it’s just two hands coming together slowly. It was about finding that balance to make the audience feel like they’re in that moment, in that little hut, and they’re about to touch and see into each other’s souls, so to speak. That was a challenge, but it was fun because when you get it, and you see the audience react, everyone feels good about that scene. I feel like I did something right.

What was one audio tool that you couldn’t live without on this mix?
For me, it was the AMS Neve DFC Gemini console. All the sounds came into that. The console was like an instrument that I played. I could bring any sound in from any direction, and I could EQ it and manipulate it. I could put reverb on it. I could give the director what he wanted. My editors were cutting the sound, but I had to have that console to EQ and balance the sounds. Sometimes it was about EQing frequencies out to make a sound fit better with other sounds. You have to find room for the sounds.

I could move around on it very quickly. I had Rian sitting behind me saying, “What if you roll back and adjust this or try that.” I could ease those faders up and down and hit it just right. I know how to use it so well that I could hear stuff ahead of what I was doing.

The Neve DFC was invaluable. I could take all the different sound formats and sample rates and it all came through the console, and in one place. It could blend all those sources together; it’s a mixing bowl. It brought all the sounds together so they could all talk to each other. Then I manipulated them and sent them out and that was the soundtrack — all driven by the director, of course.

Can you talk about working with the sound editor?
The editors are my right-hand people. They can shift things and move things and give me another sound. Maybe I need one with more mid-range because the one in there isn’t quite reading. We had a lot of that. Trying to get those explosions to work and to come through John Williams’ score, sometimes we needed something with more low-end and more thump or more crack. There was a handoff in some scenes.

On The Last Jedi, I had sound effects editor Jon Borland with me on the stage. Bonnie Wild had started the project and had prepped a lot of the sounds for several reels — her and Jon and Ren Klyce, who oversaw the whole thing. But Jon was my go-to person on the stage. He did a great job. It was a bit of a daunting task, but Jon is young and wants to learn and gave it everything he had. I love that.

What format was the main mix?
Everything was done in Atmos natively, then we downmixed to 7.1 and 5.1 and all the other formats. We were very diligent about having the downmixed versions match the Atmos mix the best that they could.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
I’m so glad that Rian chose me to be part of the mix. This film was a lot of fun and a real collaborative effort. Rian is the one who really set that tone. He wanted to hear our ideas and see what we could do. He wasn’t sold on one thing. If something wasn’t working, he would try things out until it did. It was literally sorting out frequencies and getting transitions to work just right. Rian was collaborative, and that creates a room of collaboration. We wanted a great track for the audience to enjoy… a track that went with Rian’s picture.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney

Review: Blackmagic Resolve 14

By David Cox

Blackmagic has released Version 14 of its popular DaVinci Resolve “color grading” suite, following a period of open public beta development. I put color grading in quotes, because one of the most interesting aspects about the V14 release is how far-reaching Resolve’s ambitions have become, beyond simply color grading.

Fairlight audio within Resolve.

Prior to being purchased by Blackmagic, DaVinci Resolve was one of a small group of high-end color grading systems being offered in the industry. Blackmagic then extended the product to include editing, and Version 14 offers several updates in this area, particularly around speed and fluidity of use. A surprise addition is the incorporation of Fairlight Audio — a full-featured audio mixing platform capable of producing feature film quality 3D soundscapes. It is not just an external plugin, but an integrated part of the software.

This review concentrates on the color finishing aspects of Resolve 14, and on first view the core color tools remain largely unchanged save for a handful of ergonomic improvements. This is not surprising given that Resolve is already a mature grading product. However, Blackmagic has added some very interesting tools and features clearly aimed at enabling colorists to broaden their creative control. I have been a long-time advocate of the idea that a colorist doesn’t change the color of a sequence, but changes the mood of it. Manipulating the color is just one path to that result, so I am happy to see more creatively expansive facilities being added.

Face Refinement
One new feature that epitomizes Blackmagic’s development direction is the Face Refinement tool. It provides features to “beautify” a face and underlines two interesting development points. Firstly, it shows an intention by the developers to create a platform that allows users to extend their creative control across the traditional borders of “color” and “VFX.”

Secondly, such a feature incorporates more advanced programming techniques that seek to recognize objects in the scene. Traditional color and keying tools simply replace one color for another, without “understanding” what objects those colors are attached to. This next step toward a more intelligent diagnosis of scene content will lead to some exciting tools and Blackmagic has started off with face-feature tracking.

Face Refinement

The Face Refinement function works extremely well where it recognizes a face. There is no manual intervention — the tool simply finds a face in the shot and tracks all the constituent parts (eyes, lips, etc). Where there is more than one face detected, the system offers a simple box selector for the user to specify which face to track. Once the analysis is complete, the user has a variety of simple sliders to control the smoothness, color and detail of the face overall, but also specific controls for the forehead, cheeks, chin, lips, eyes and the areas around and below the eyes.

I found the face de-shine function particularly successful. A light touch with the controls yields pleasing results very quickly. A heavy touch is what you need if you want to make someone look like an android. I liked the fact that you can go negative with some controls and make a face look more haggard!

In my tests, the facial tracking was very effective for properly framed faces, even those with exaggerated expressions, headshakes and so on. But it would fail where the face became partially obscured, such as when the camera panned off the face. This led to all the added improvements popping off mid shot. While the fully automatic operation makes it quick and simple to use, it affords no opportunity for the user to intervene and assist the facial tracking if it fails. All things considered though, this will be a big help and time saver for the majority of beauty work shots.

Resolve FX
New for Resolve 14 are a myriad of built-in effects called Resolve FX, all GPU-accelerated and available to be added in the edit “page” directly to clips, or in the color page attached to nodes. They are categorized into Blurs, Light, Color, Refine, Repair, Stylize, Texture and Warp. A few particularly caught my eye, for example in “color,” the color compressor brings together nearby colors to a central hue. This is handy for unifying colors of an unevenly lit client logo into their precise brand reference, or dealing with blotchy skin. There is also a color space transform tool that enables LUT-less conversion between all the major color “spaces.”

Color

The dehaze function derives a depth map by some mysterious magic to help improve contrast over distance. The “light” collection includes a decent lens flare that allows plenty of customizing. “Styles” creates watercolor and outline looks while Texture includes a film grain effect with several film-gauge presets. I liked the implementation of the new Warp function. Rather than using grids or splines, the user simply places “pins” in the image to drag certain areas around. Shift-adding a pin defines a locked position immune from dragging. All simple, intuitive and realtime, or close to it.

Multi-Skilled and Collaborative Workflows
A dilemma for the Resolve developers is likely to be where to draw the line between editing, color and VFX. Blackmagic also develops Fusion, so they have the advanced side of VFX covered. But in the middle, there are editors who want to make funky transitions and title sequences, and colorists who use more effects, mattes and tracking. Resolve runs out of ability in these areas quite quickly and this forces the more adventurous editor or colorist into the alien environment of Fusion. The new features of Resolve help in this area, but a few additions to Resolve, such as better keyframing of effects and easier ability to reference other timeline layers in the node panel could help to extend Resolve’s ability to handle many common VFX-ish demands.

Some have criticized Blackmagic for turning Resolve into a multi-discipline platform, suggesting that this will create an industry of “jack of all trades and masters of none.” I disagree with this view for several reasons. Firstly, if an artist wants to major in a specific discipline, having a platform that can do more does not impede them. Secondly, I think the majority of content (if you include YouTube, etc.) is created by a single person or small teams, so the growth of multi-skilled post production people is simply an inevitable and logical progression which Blackmagic is sensibly addressing.

Edit

But for professional users within larger organisations, the cross-discipline features of Resolve take on a different meaning when viewed in the context of “collaboration.” Resolve 14 permits editors to edit, colorists to color and sound mixers to mix, all using different installations of the same platform, sharing the same media and contributing to the same project, even the same timeline. On the face of it, this promises to remove “conforms” and eradicate wasteful import/export processes and frustrating compatibility issues, while enabling parallel workflows across editing, color grading and audio.

For fast-turnaround projects, or projects where client approval cannot be sought until the project progresses beyond a “rough” stage, the potential advantages are compelling. Of course, the minor hurdle to get over will be to persuade editors and audio mixers to adopt Resolve as their chosen weapon. If they do, Blackmagic might well be on the way to providing collaborative utopia.

Summing Up
Resolve 14 is a massive upgrade from Resolve 12 (there wasn’t a Resolve 13 — who would have thought that a company called Blackagic might be superstitious?). It provides a substantial broadening of ability that will suit both the multi-skilled smaller outfits or fit as a grading/finishing platform and collaborative backbone in larger installations.


David Cox is a VFX compositor and colorist with 20-plus years of experience. He started his career with MPC and The Mill before forming his own London-based post facility. Cox recently created interactive projects with full body motion sensors and 4D/AR experiences.

Richard King talks sound design for Dunkirk

Using historical sounds as a reference

By Mel Lambert

Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest film follows the fate of nearly 400,000 allied soldiers who were marooned on the beaches of Dunkirk, and the extraordinary plans to rescue them using small ships from nearby English seaports. Although, sadly, more than 68,000 soldiers were captured or killed during the Battle of Dunkirk and the subsequent retreat, more than 300,000 were rescued over a nine-day period in May 1940.

Uniquely, Dunkirk’s primary story arcs — the Mole, or harbor from which the larger ships can take off troops; the Sea, focusing on the English flotilla of small boats; and the Air, spotlighting the activities of Spitfire pilots who protect the beaches and ships from German air-force attacks — follow different timelines, with the Mole sequences being spread over a week, the Sea over a day and the Air over an hour. A Warner Bros. release, Dunkirk stars Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh. (An uncredited Michael Caine is the voice heard during various radio communications.)

Richard King

Marking his sixth collaboration with Nolan, supervising sound editor Richard King worked previously on Interstellar (2014), The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige. He brings his unique sound perspective to these complex narratives, often with innovative sound design. Born in Tampa, King attended the University of South Florida, graduating with a BFA in painting and film, and entered the film industry in 1985. He is the recipient of three Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Sound Editing for Inception, The Dark Knight and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), plus two BAFTA Awards and four MPSE Golden Reel Awards for Best Sound Editing.

King, along with Alex Gibson, recently won the Academy Award for Achievement in Sound Editing for Dunkirk.

The Sound of History
“When we first met to discuss the film,” King recalls, “Chris [Nolan] told me that he wanted Dunkirk to be historically accurate but not slavishly so — he didn’t plan to make a documentary. For example, several [Junkers Ju 87] Stuka dive bombers appear in the film, but there are no high-quality recordings of these aircraft, which had sirens built into the wheel struts for intimidation purposes. There are no Stukas still flying, nor could I find any design drawings so we could build our own. Instead, we decided to re-imagine the sound with a variety of unrelated sound effects and ambiences, using the period recordings as inspiration. We went out into a nearby desert with some real air raid sirens, which we over-cranked to make them more and more piercing — and to add some analog distortion. To this more ‘pure’ version of the sound we added an interesting assortment of other disparate sounds. I find the result scary as hell and probably very close to what the real thing sounded like.”

For other period Axis and Allied aircraft, King was able to locate several British Supermarine Spitfire fighters and a Bristol Blenheim bomber, together with a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. “There are about 200 Spitfires in the world that still fly; three were used during filming of Dunkirk,” King continues. “We received those recordings, and in post recorded three additional Spitfires.”

King was able to place up to 24 microphones in various locations around the airframe near the engine — a supercharged V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled model of 27-liter capacity, and later 37-liter Gremlin motors — as well as close to the exhaust and within the cockpit, as the pilots performed a number of aerial movements. “We used both mono and stereo mics to provide a wide selection for sound design,” he says.

King was looking for the sound of an “air ballet” with the aircraft moving quickly across the sky. “There are moments when the plane sounds are minimized to place the audience more in the pilot’s head, and there are sequences where the plane engines are more prominent,” he says. “We also wanted to recreate the vibrations of this vintage aircraft, which became an important sound design element and was inspired by the shuddering images. I remember that Chris went up in a trainer aircraft to experience the sensation for himself. He reported that it was extremely loud with lots of vibration.

To match up with the edited visuals secured from 65/70mm IMAX and Super Panavision 65mm film cameras, King needed to produce a variety of aircraft sounds. “We had an ex-RAF pilot that had flown in modern dogfights to recreate some of those wartime flying gymnastics. The planes don’t actually produce dramatic changes in the sound when throttling and maneuvering, so I came up with a simple and effective way to accentuate this somewhat. I wanted the planes to respond to the pilots stick and throttle movements immediately.”

For armaments, King’s sound effects recordists John Fasal and Eric Potter oversaw the recording of a vintage Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft cannon seen aboard the allied destroyers and support ships. “We found one in Napa Valley,” north of San Francisco, says King. “The owner had to make up live rounds, which we fired into a nearby hill. We also recorded a number of WWII British Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles and German machine guns on a nearby range. We had to recreate the sound of the Spitfire’s guns, because the actual guns fitted to the Spitfires overheat when fired at sea level and cannot maintain the 1,000 rounds/minute rate we were looking for, except at altitude.”

King readily acknowledges the work at Warner Bros Sound Services of sound-effects editor Michael Mitchell, who worked on several scenes, including the ship sinkings, and sound effects editor Randy Torres, who worked with King on the plane sequences.

Group ADR was done primarily in the UK, “where we recorded at De lane Lea and onboard a decommissioned WWII warship owned by the Imperial War Museum,” King recalls. “The HMS Belfast, which is moored on the River Thames in central London, was perfect for the reverberant interiors we needed for the various ships that sink in the film. We also secured some realistic Foley of people walking up and down ladders and on the superstructure.” Hugo Weng served as dialog editor and David Bach as supervising ADR editor.

Sounds for Moonstone, the key small boat whose fortunes the film follows across the English Channel, were recorded out of Marina del Rey in Southern California, “including its motor and water slaps against the hull. “We also secured some nice Foley on deck, as well as opening and closing of doors,” King says.

Conventional Foley was recorded at Skywalker Sound in Northern California by Shelley Roden, Scott Curtis and John Roesch. “Good Foley was very important for Dunkirk,” explains King. “It all needed to sound absolutely realistic and not like a Hollywood war movie, with a collection of WWII clichés. We wanted it to sound as it would for the film’s characters. John and his team had access to some great surfaces and textures, and a wonderful selection of props.” Michael Dressel served as supervising Foley editor.

In terms of sound design, King offers that he used historical sounds as a reference, to conjure up the terror of the Battle for Dunkirk. “I wanted it to feel like a well-recorded version of the original event. The book ‘Voices of Dunkirk,’ written by Joshua Levine and based on a compilation of first-hand accounts of the evacuation, inspired me and helped me shape the explosions on the beach, with the muffled ‘boom’ as the shells and bombs bury themselves in the sand and then explode. The under-water explosions needed to sound more like a body slam than an audible noise. I added other sounds that amped it a couple more degrees.”

The soundtrack was re-recorded in 5.1-channel format at Warner Bros. Sound Services Stage 9 in Burbank during a six-week mix by mixers Gary Rizzo handling dialog, with sound effects and music overseen by Gregg Landaker — this was his last film before his retiring. “There was almost no looping on the film aside from maybe a couple of lines,” King recalls. “Hugo Weng mined the recordings for every gem, and Gary [Rizzo] was brilliant at cleaning up the voices and pushing them through the barrage of sound provided by sound effects and music somehow without making them sound pushed. Production recordist Mark Weingarten faced enormous challenges, contending with strong wind and salt spray, but he managed to record tracks Gary could work with.”

The sound designer reports that he provided some 20 to 30 tracks of dialog and ADR “with options for noisy environments,” plus 40 to 50 tracks of Foley, dependent on the action. This included shoes and hob-nailed army boots, and groups of 20, especially in the ship scenes. “The score by composer Hans Zimmer kept evolving as we moved through the mixing process,” says King. “Music editor Ryan Rubin and supervising music editor Alex Gibson were active participants in this evolution.”

“We did not want to repeat ourselves or repeat others work,” King concludes. “All sounds in this movie mean something. Every scene had to be designed with a hard-hitting sound. You need to constantly question yourself: ‘Is there a better sound we could use?’ Maybe something different that is appropriate to the sequence that recreates the event in a new and fresh light? I am super-proud of this film and the track.”

Nolan — who was born in London to an American mother and an English father and whose family subsequently split their time between London and Illinois — has this quote on his IMDB page: “This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate. And the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the US would not have returned to war. Militarily it is a defeat; on the human plane it is a colossal victory.”

Certainly, the loss of life and supplies was profound — wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill described Operation Dynamo as “the greatest military disaster in our long history.”


Mel Lambert has been involved with production industries on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember. He is principal of Content Creators, a LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. He is also a long-time member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.

Creating a sonic world for The Zookeeper’s Wife

By Jennifer Walden

Warsaw, Poland, 1939. The end of summer brings the beginning of war as 140 German planes, Junkers Ju-87 Stukas, dive-bomb the city. At the Warsaw Zoo, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) watch as their peaceful sanctuary crumbles: their zoo, their home and their lives are invaded by the Nazis. Powerless to fight back openly, the zookeeper and his wife join the Polish resistance. They transform the zoo from an animal sanctuary into a place of sanctuary for the people they rescue from the Warsaw Ghetto.

L-R: Anna Behlmer, Terry_Porter and Becky Sullivan.

Director Niki Caro’s film The Zookeeper’s Wife — based on Antonina Żabińska’s true account written by Diane Ackerman — presents a tale of horror and humanity. It’s a study of contrasts, and the soundtrack matches that, never losing the thread of emotion among the jarring sounds of bombs and planes.

Supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan, at the Technicolor at Paramount sound facility in Los Angeles, worked closely with re-recording mixers Anna Behlmer and Terry Porter to create immersive soundscapes of war and love. “You have this contrast between a love story of the zookeeper and his wife and their love for their own people and this horrific war that is happening outside,” explains Porter. “It was a real challenge in the mix to keep the war alive and frightening and then settle down into this love story of a couple who want to save the people in the ghettos. You have to play the contrast between the fear of war and the love of the people.”

According to Behlmer, the film’s aerial assault on Warsaw was entirely fabricated in post sound. “We never see those planes, but we hear those planes. We created the environment of this war sonically. There are no battle sequence visual effects in the movie.”

“You are listening to the German army overtake the city even though you don’t really see it happening,” adds Sullivan. “The feeling of fear for the zookeeper and his wife, and those they’re trying to protect, is heightened just by the sound that we are adding.”

Sullivan, who earned an Oscar nom for sound editing director Angelina Jolie’s WWII film Unbroken, had captured recordings of actual German Stukas and B24 bomber planes, as well as 70mm and 50mm guns. She found library recordings of the Stuka’s signature Jericho siren. “It’s a siren that Germans put on these planes so that when they dive-bombed, the siren would go off and add to the terror of those below,” explains Sullivan. Pulling from her own collection of WWII plane recordings, and using library effects, she was able to design a convincing off-screen war.

One example of how Caro used sound and clever camera work to effectively create an unseen war was during the bombing of the train station. Behlmer explains that the train station is packed with people crying and sobbing. There’s an abundance of activity as they hustle to get on the arriving trains. The silhouette of a plane darkens the station. Everyone there is looking up. Then there’s a massive explosion. “These actors are amazing because there is fear on their faces and they lurch or fall over as if some huge concussive bomb has gone off just outside the building. The people’s reactions are how we spotted explosions and how we knew where the sound should be coming from because this is all happening offstage. Those were our cues, what we were mixing to.”

“Kudos to Niki for the way she shot it, and the way she coordinated these crowd reactions,” adds Porter. “Once we got the soundscape in there, you really believe what is happening on-screen.”

The film was mixed in 5.1 surround on Stage 2 at Technicolor Paramount lot. Behlmer (who mixed effects/Foley/backgrounds) used the Lexicon 960 reverb during the train station scene to put the plane sounds into that space. Using the LFE channel, she gave the explosions an appropriate impact — punchy, but not overly rumbly. “We have a lot of music as well, so I tried really hard to keep the sound tight, to be as accurate as possible with that,” she says.

ADR
Another feature of the train station’s soundscape is the amassed crowd. Since the scene wasn’t filmed in Poland, the crowd’s verbalizations weren’t in Polish. Caro wanted the sound to feel authentic to the time and place, so Sullivan recorded group ADR in both Polish and German to use throughout the film. For the train station scene, Sullivan built a base of ambient crowd sounds and layered in the Polish loop group recordings for specificity. She was also able to use non-verbal elements from the production tracks, such as gasps and groans.

Additionally, the group ADR played a big part in the scenes at the zookeeper’s house. The Nazis have taken over the zoo and are using it for their own purposes. Each day their trucks arrive early in the morning. German soldiers shout to one another. Sullivan had the German ADR group perform with a lot of authority in their voices, to add to the feeling of fear. During the mix, Porter (who handled the dialogue and music) fit the clean ADR into the scenes. “When we’re outside, the German group ADR plays upfront, as though it’s really their recorded voices,” he explains. “Then it cuts to the house, and there is a secondary perspective where we use a bit of processing to create a sense of distance and delay. Then when it cuts to downstairs in the basement, it’s a totally different perspective on the voices, which sounds more muffled and delayed and slightly reverberant.”

One challenge of the mix and design was to make sure the audience knew the location of a sound by the texture of it. For example, the off-stage German group ADR used to create a commotion outside each morning had a distinct sonic treatment. Porter used EQ on the Euphonix System 5 console, and reverb and delay processing via Avid’s ReVibe and Digidesign’s TL Space plug-ins to give the sounds an appropriate quality. He used panning to articulate a sound’s position off-screen. “If we are in the basement, and the music and dialogue is happening above, I gave the sounds a certain texture. I could sweep sounds around in the theater so that the audience was positive of the sound’s location. They knew where the sound is coming from. Everything we did helped the picture show location.”

Porter’s treatment also applied to diegetic music. In the film, the zookeeper’s wife Antonina would play the piano as a cue to those below that it was safe to come upstairs, or as a warning to make no sound at all. “When we’re below, the piano sounds like it’s coming through the floor, but when we cut to the piano it had to be live.”

Sound Design
On the design side, Sullivan helped to establish the basement location by adding specific floor creaks, footsteps on woods, door slams and other sounds to tell the story of what’s happening overhead. She layered her effects with Foley provided by artist Geordy Sincavage at Sinc Productions in Los Angeles. “We gave the lead German commander Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) a specific heavy boot on wood floor sound. His authority is present in his heavy footsteps. During one scene he bursts in, and he’s angry. You can feel it in every footstep he takes. He’s throwing doors open and we have a little sound of a glass falling off of the shelf. These little tiny touches put you in the scene,” says Sullivan.

While the film often feels realistic, there were stylized, emotional moments. Picture editor David Coulson and director Caro juxtapose images of horror and humanity in a sequence that shows the Warsaw Ghetto burning while those lodged at the zookeeper’s house hold a Seder. Edits between the two locations are laced together with sounds of the Seder chanting and singing. “The editing sounds silky smooth. When we transition out of the chanting on-camera, then that goes across the cut with reverb and dissolves into the effects of the ghetto burning. It sounds continuous and flowing,” says Porter. The result is hypnotic, agrees Behlmer and Sullivan.

The film isn’t always full of tension and destruction. There is beauty too. In the film’s opening, the audience meets the animals in the Warsaw Zoo, and has time to form an attachment. Caro filmed real animals, and there’s a bond between them and actress Chastain. Sullivan reveals that while they did capture a few animal sounds in production, she pulled many of the animal sounds from her own vast collection of recordings. She chose sounds that had personality, but weren’t cartoony. She also recorded a baby camel, sea lions and several elephants at an elephant sanctuary in northern California.

In the film, a female elephant is having trouble giving birth. The male elephant is close by, trumpeting with emotion. Sullivan says, “The birth of the baby elephant was very tricky to get correct sonically. It was challenging for sound effects. I recorded a baby sea lion in San Francisco that had a cough and it wasn’t feeling well the day we recorded. That sick sea lion sound worked out well for the baby elephant, who is struggling to breathe after it’s born.”

From the effects and Foley to the music and dialogue, Porter feels that nothing in the film sounds heavy-handed. The sounds aren’t competing for space. There are moments of near silence. “You don’t feel the hand of the filmmaker. Everything is extremely specific. Anna and I worked very closely together to define a scene as a music moment — featuring the beautiful storytelling of Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, or a sound effects moment, or a blend between the two. There is no clutter in the soundtrack and I’m very proud of that.”


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