By Jennifer Walden
When director Patty Jenkins first met with supervising sound editor James Mather to discuss Warner Bros. Wonder Woman, they had a conversation about the physical effects of low-frequency sound energy on the human body, and how it could be used to manipulate an audience.
“The military spent a long time investigating sound cannons that could fire frequencies at groups of people and debilitate them,” explains Mather. “They found that the lower frequencies were far more effective than the very high frequencies. With the high frequencies, you can simply plug your ears and block the sound. The low-end frequencies, however, impact the fluid content of the human body. Frequencies around 5Hz-9Hz can’t be heard, but can have physiological, almost emotional effects on the human body. Patty was fascinated by all of that. So, we had a very good sound-nerd talk at our first meeting — before we even talked about the story of the film.”
Jenkins was fascinated by the idea of sound playing a physical role as well as a narrative one, and that direction informed all of Mather’s sound editorial choices for Wonder Woman. “I was amazed by Patty’s intent, from the very beginning, to veer away from very high-end sounds. She did not want to have those featured heavily in the film. She didn’t want too much top-end sonically,” says Mather, who handled sound editorial at his Soundbyte Studios in West London.
James Mather (far right) and crew take to the streets.
Soundbyte Studios offers creative supervision, sound design, Foley and dialog editing. The facility is equipped with Pro Tools 12 systems and Avid S6 and S3 consoles. Their client list includes top studios like Warner Bros., Disney, Fox, Paramount, DreamWorks, Aardman and Pathe. Mather’s team includes dialog supervisor Simon Chase, and sound effects editors Jed Loughran and Samir Fočo. When Mather begins a project, he likes to introduce his team to the director as soon as possible “so that they are recognized as contributors to the soundtrack,” he says. “It gives the team a better understanding of who they are working with and the kind of collaboration that is expected. I always find that if you can get everyone to work as a collaborative team and everyone has an emotional investment or personal investment in the project, then you get better work.”
Following Jenkins’s direction, Mather and his team designed a tranquil sound for the Amazonian paradise of Themyscira. They started with ambience tracks that the film’s sound recordist Chris Munro captured while they were on-location in Italy. Then Mather added Mediterranean ambiences that he and his team had personally collected over the years. Mather embellished the ambience with songbirds from Asia, Australasia and the Amazon. Since there are white peacocks roaming the island, he added in modified peacock sounds. Howler monkeys and domestic livestock, like sheep and goats, round out the track. Regarding the sheep and goats, Mather says, “We pitched them and manipulated them slightly so that they didn’t sound quite so ordinary, like a natural history film. It was very much a case of keeping the soundtrack relatively sparse. We did not use crickets or cicadas — although there were lots there while they were filming, because we wanted to stay away the high-frequency sounds.”
Waterfalls are another prominent feature of Themyscira, according to Mather, but thankfully they weren’t really on the island so the sound recordings were relatively clean. The post sound team had complete control over the volume, distance and frequency range of the waterfall sounds. “We very much wanted the low-end roar and rumble of the waterfalls rather than high-end hiss and white noise.”
The sound of paradise is serene in contrast to London and the front lines of World War I. Mather wanted to exaggerate that difference by overplaying the sound of boats, cars and crowds as Steve [Chris Pine] and Diana [Gal Gadot] arrived in London. “This was London at its busiest and most industria
l time. There were structures being built on a major scale so the environment was incredibly active. There were buses still being drawn by horses, but there were also cars. So, you have this whole mishmash of old and new. We wanted to see Diana’s reaction to being somewhere that she has never experienced before, with sounds that she has never heard and things she has never seen. The world is a complete barrage of sensory information.”
They recorded every vehicle they could in the film, from planes and boats to the motorcycle that Steve uses to chase after Diana later on in the film. “This motorcycle was like nothing we had ever seen before,” explains Mather. “We knew that we would have to go and record it because we didn’t have anything in our sound libraries for it.”
The studio spent days preparing the century-old motorcycle for the recording session. “We got about four minutes of recording with it before it fell apart,” admits Mather. “The chain fell off, the sprockets broke and then it went up in smoke. It was an antique and probably shouldn’t have been used! The funny thing is that it sounded like a lawnmower. We could have just recorded a lawnmower and it would’ve sounded the same!”
(Mather notes that the motorcycle Steve rides on-screen was a modern version of the century-old one they got to record.)
Mather and his sound team have had numerous opportunities to record authentic weapons, cars, tanks, planes and other specific war-era machines and gear for projects they’ve worked on. While they always start with those recordings as their sound design base, Mather says the audience’s expectation of a sound is typically different from the real thing. “The real sound is very often disappointing. We start with the real gun or real car that we recorded, but then we start to work on them, changing the texture to give them a little bit more punch or bite. We might find that we need to add some gun mechanisms to make a gun sound a bit snappier or a bit brighter and not so dull. It’s the same with the cars. You want the car to have character, but you also want it to be slightly faster or more detailed than it actually sounds. By the nature of filmmaking, you will always end up slightly embellishing the real sound.”
Take the gun battles in Wonder Woman, for instance. They have an obvious sequentiality. The gun fires, the bullet travels toward its target and then there is a noticeable impact. “This film has a lot of slow-motion bullets firing, so we had to amp up the sense of what was propelling that very slow-motion bullet. Recording the sound of a moving bullet is very hard. All of that had to be designed for the film,” says Mather.
In addition to the real era-appropriate vehicles, Wonder Woman has imaginary, souped-up creations too, like a massive bomber. For the bomber’s sound, Mather sought out artist Joe Rush who builds custom Mad Max-style vehicles. They recorded all of Rush’s vehicles, which had a variety of different V8, V12 and V6 engines. “They all sound very different because the engines are on solid metal with no suspension,” explains Mather. “The sound was really big and beefy, loud and clunky and it gave you a sense of a giant war monster. They had this growl and weight and threat that worked well for the German machines, which were supposed to feel threatening. In London, you had these quaint buses being drawn by horses, and the counterpoint to that were these military machines that the Germans had, which had to be daunting and a bit terrifying.
“One of the limitations of the WWI-era soundscapes is the lack of some very useful atmospheric sounds. We used tannoy (loudspeaker) effects on the German bomb factory to hint at the background activity, but had to be very sparing as these were only just invented in that era. (Same thing with the machine guns — a far more mechanical version than the ‘retatatat’ of the familiar WWII versions).”
One of Mather’s favorite scenes to design starts on the frontlines as Diana makes her big reveal as Wonder Woman. She crosses No Man’s Land and deflects the enemies’ fire with her bulletproof bracelets and shield. “We played with that in so many different ways because the music was such an important part of Patty’s vision for the film. She very much wanted the music to carry the narrative. Sound effects were there to be literal in many ways. We were not trying to overemphasize the machismo of it. The story is about the people and not necessarily the action they were in. So that became a very musical-based moment, which was not the way I would have normally done it. I learned a lot from Patty about the different ways of telling the story.”
Following that scene, Wonder Woman recaptured the Belgian village they were fighting for by running ahead and storming into the German barracks. Mather describes it as a Guy Ritchie-style fight, with Wonder Woman taking on 25 German soldiers. “This is the first time that we really get to see her use all of her powers: the lasso, her bracelets, her shield, and even her shin guards. As she dances her way around the room, it goes from realtime into slow motion and back into realtime. She is repelling bullets, smashing guns with her back, using her shield as a sliding mat and doing slow-motion kicks. It is a wonderfully choreographed scene and it is her first real action scene.”
The scene required a fluid combination of realistic sounds and subdued, slow-motion sounds. “It was like pushing and pulling the soundtrack as things slowed down and then sped back up. That was a lot of fun.”
Where would Wonder Woman be without her signature lasso of truth? In the film, she often uses the lasso as a physical weapon, but there was an important scene where the lasso was called upon for its truth-finding power. Early in the film, Steve’s plane crashes and he’s washed onto Themyscira’s shore. The Amazonians bind Steve with the lasso and interrogate him. Eventually the lasso of truth overpowers him and he divulges his secrets. “There is quite a lot of acting on Chris Pine’s part to signify that he’s uncomfortable and is struggling,” says Mather. “We initially went by his performance, which gave the impression that he was being burned. He says, ‘This is really hot,’ so we started with sizzling and hissing sounds as if the rope was burning him. Again, Patty felt strongly about not going into the high-frequency realm because it distracts from the dialogue, so we wanted to keep the sound in a lower, more menacing register.”
Mather and his team experimented with adding a multitude of different elements, including low whispering voices, to see if they added a sense of personality to the lasso. “We kept the sizzling, but we pitched it down to make it more watery and less high-end. Then we tried a dozen or so variations of themes. Eventually we stayed with this blood-flow sound, which is like an arterial blood flow. It has a slight rhythm to it and if you roll off the top end and keep it fairly muted then it’s quite an intriguing sound. It feels very visceral.”
The last elements Mather added to the lasso were recordings he captured of two stone slabs grinding against each other in a circular motion, like a mill. “It created this rotating, undulating sound that almost has a voice. So that created this identity, this personality. It was very challenging. We also struggled with this when we did the Harry Potter films, to make an inert object have a character without making it sound a bit goofy and a bit sci-fi. All of those last elements we put together, we kept that very low. We literally raised the volume as you see Steve’s discomfort and then let it peel away every time he revealed the truth. As he was fighting it, the sound would rise and build up. It became a very subtle, but very meaningful, vehicle to show that the rope was actually doing something. It wasn’t burning him but it was doing something that was making him uncomfortable.”
Wonder Woman was mixed at De Lane Lea (Warner Bros. London) by re-recording mixers Chris Burdon and Gilbert Lake. Mather reveals that the mixing process was exhausting, but not because of the people involved. “Patty is a joy to work with,” he explains. “What I mean is that working with frequencies that are so low and so loud is exhausting. It wasn’t even the volume; it was being exposed to those low frequencies all day, every day for nine weeks or so. It was exhausting, and it really took its toll on everybody.”
In the mix, Jenkins chose to have Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score lead nearly all of the action sequences. “Patty’s sensitivity and vision for the soundtrack was very much about the music and the emotion of the characters,” says Mather. “She was very aware of the emotional narrative that the music would bring. She did not want to lean too heavily on the sound effects. She knew there would be scenes where there would be action and there would be opportunities to have sound design, but I found that we were not pushing those moments as hard as you would expect. The sound design highs weren’t so high that you felt bereft of momentum and pace when those sound design heavy scenes were finished. We ended up maintaining a far more interesting soundtrack that way.”
With DC films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Spider-Man, the audience expects a sound design-heavy track, but Jenkins’s music-led approach to Wonder Woman provides a refreshing spin on superhero film soundtracks. “The soundtrack is less supernatural and more down to earth,” says Mather. “I don’t think it could’ve been any other way. It’s not a predictable soundtrack and I really enjoyed that.”
Mather really enjoys collaborating with people who have different ideas and different approaches. “What was exciting about doing this film was that I was able to work with someone who had an incredibly strong idea about the soundtrack and yet was very happy to let us try different routes and options. Patty was very open to listening to different ideas, and willing to take the best from those ideas while still retaining a very strong vision of how the soundtrack was going to play for the audience. This is Patty’s DC story, her opportunity to open up the DC universe and give the audience a new look at a character. She was an extraordinary person to work with and for me that was the best part of the process. In the time of remakes, it’s nice to have a film that is fresh and takes a different approach.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @AudioJeney