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Setting the audio tone of ‘Everest’

Glenn Freemantle sounds off on making this film’s audio authentic

By Jennifer Walden

Immovable, but not insurmountable, Mount Everest has always loomed large in the minds of ambitious adventurers who seek to test their mettle against nature’s most imposing obstacle course, with unpredictable weather.

Reaching the summit takes more than just determination, it requires training, teamwork and a bit of stubborn resolve not to die. Even then, there’s no guarantee that what, or who, goes up will come down. Director Baltasar Kormákur’s film Everest, from Universal Studios, is based on the tragic true story of two separate expeditions who sought to reach the summit on the same day, May 10th 1996, only to be bested by a frigid tempest.

Glenn Freemantle

Glenn Freemantle

Supervising sound editor/sound designer Glenn Freemantle at Sound24, based at Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, UK, was in charge of building Everest’s blustery sound personality. All the wind, snow and ice sounds that lash the film’s characters were carefully crafted in post and designed to take the viewer on a journey up the mountain.

“Starting at the bottom and going right to the top, you feel like you are moving through the different camps,” explains Freemantle. “We tried to make each location as interesting as possible. The film is all about nature; it’s all about how the viewer would feel on that mountain. We always wanted the viewer to feel that journey that they were on.”

In addition to Freemantle, Sound24’s crew includes sound design editors Eilam Hoffman, Niv Adiri, Ben Barker, Tom Sayers and sound effects editors Danny Freemantle and Dillon Bennett.

Capturing Wind
Glenn Freemantle and his sound team collected thousands of wind sounds, like strong winter winds from along the shores of western England, Ireland and Scotland. They recorded wide canyon winds and sand storms in the deserts of Israel, and on Santorini, they recorded strong tonal mountain winds. At the base camp on Mount Everest, they set out recorders day and night to capture what it sounded like there at different times. “At the base camp on Everest, even if we didn’t use all the recordings from there, we got the sense of the real environment, exactly what it was like. From a cinematic point of view, we used that as a basis, but obviously we were also trying to tell a story with the sound,” he says.

To capture ambience from various altitudes on Everest, Freemantle sent two small recording set-ups with the camera crew who filmed at the top of Everest. “The equipment had to be small, portable and resistant to the extreme conditions,” he explains. For these set-ups, owner of Telinga Microphones, Klas Strandberg, created a small, custom-made omnidirectional mic for an A/B set-up, as well as a pair of cardioid mics in XY configuration that were connected to two Sony D100 recorders.

The best way to record wind is to have it sing through something, so on their wind capturing outings, Freemantle and crew brought along an assortment of items — sieves, coat hangers, bits of metal, pans, all sorts of oddities that would produce different tones as the wind moved through and around them. They also set up tents, like those used in the film, to capture the tent movements in the wind. “We used a multi-mic set-up to record the sound so you felt like you were in the middle of all of these situations. We put the mics in the corners and in the center of the tent, and then we shook it. We also left them up for the night,” he says.

They used Sennheiser MKH8020s, MKH8050s and MKH8040s paired with multiple Sound Devices 744T and 722 recorders set at 192k/24-bit. For high-frequency winds, they chose the Sanken COS-100k, which can capture sounds up to 100kHz. “This allowed us to pitch down the inaudible wind to audible frequencies (between 20Hz – 20kHz) and create the bass for powerful tonal winds.”

With wind being a main player in the sound, Freemantle’s design focused on its dynamics. Changing the speed of the wind, the harshness of the wind and also the weight of the wind kept it interesting. “We were moving the sound all the time, and that was really effective. There was a 20-minute section of storm in there, which wasn’t easy to build,” explains Freemantle. “We would mix a scene for a day and then walk away. You can exhaust your ears mixing a film like this.”

Having the opportunity to revisit the stormy sequences allowed the sound team to compare the different storms and wind-swept scenes, and make adjustments. One of their biggest challenges was making sure each storm didn’t feel too big, or lack dynamics. “We wanted to have something different happening for each storm or camp so the audience could feel the journey of these people. It had to build up to the big storm at the end. We’d have to look at the whole film to make sure we weren’t going wrong. The sound needed to progress.”

In addition to wind, Freemantle and his team recorded sounds of snow and ice. They purchased a few square meters of snow and froze big chunks of ice for their recording sessions. “We got all the gear the actors were wearing and we put the jackets and things into the freezer overnight, so they would have that feeling, that frozen texture, that they would have out there in the weather,” he says. “We tried to do everything we could to make it sound as real as possible. It’s exhausting how that weather makes you feel, and it was all from a human point of view that we tried to create the weather that was around them.”

The weather sounds weren’t the only thing to be recreated for Everest. The soundtrack also hosts a sizable amount of ADR thanks to massive wind machines that were constantly blowing on set, and the actors having to wear masks didn’t help the dialogue intelligibility either. “That’s why the film is 90 percent re-recorded dialogue,” shares Freemantle. “Sound mixer Adrian Bell did a hell of a job in those conditions, but they are wearing all of these masks so you can hardly hear them. Everything had to be redone.”

The dialogue was so muffled at times that it was difficult for the picture-editing department to cut Everest. Director Kormákur asked for a quick ADR track of the whole film, using sound-alike actors when the real ones weren’t available. In addition, he also asked for a rough sound design and Foley pass, giving Freemantle about a week to mock it up. “You couldn’t follow the film. They couldn’t run it for the producers to get a sense of the story because you couldn’t hear what the actors were saying,” he says. “So we recreated the whole dialogue sequence for the film, and we quickly cut — from our sound libraries — all the footsteps and we did a quick cloth pass so they had a complete soundtrack in a very short period of time.”

During the ADR session for the final tracks, Freemantle notes the actors wore weight vests and straps around their chests to make it difficult for them to breathe and talk, all in an effort to recreate the experience of what is happening to them on screen. As CG was being added to the picture, with more sprays of snow and ice, the actors could react to the environment even more.

“Having to re-create their performances was a curse in one way, but it was a blessing because then we had control over every single sound in the soundtrack. We had control of every part of their breathing, every noise from their gear and outfits. We have everything so we could pull the perspective in the sound at any given moment and not bring along a lot of muck with it.”

Everest was mixed in three immersive formats: Dolby Atmos, Barco Auro-3D and IMAX 12.0. “Each one of the formats works really well and you really feel like you are in the film,” reports Freemantle. “The weight of the sound hits you in the theater. There is a lot of bass in there. With sound, you are moving the air around, so you are feeling it when the storm hits. The presence of the bass hits you in the chest.”

But it’s not a continuous aural onslaught —there are highs and lows, with rumbly wind fighting against the side of the mountain on Hillary Step and hissing wind higher up towards the summit. “You have to have detail and the sounds should be helping to tell the story,” he says. “It’s not about how much you put in — in the end, it’s about what you take out when you finish. That’s very important. You don’t want the film to be just a massive noise.”

The Mix
Everest was mixed natively in the Dolby Atmos theatre at Pinewood Studios by Freemantle and re-recording mixers Niv Adiri, CAS, and Ian Tapp, CAS. Sound24’s tried and tested Avid set-up helped bring the sounds of Everest to life, working on the powerful Avid System 5 large-format console, using Pro Tools 11 with EUCON control. Their goal was to put the audience on the mountain with the climbers without overwhelming them with a constant barrage of sound. “The journey the characters are going through is both mental and physical, and mixing in Atmos helped us bring these emotions to the audience,” says Adiri. Since director Kormákur’s focus was on the human tragedy, the dialogue scenes were intimately shot. This enabled the mixers to shift the bala

nce towards dialogue in these sequences and maintain the emotional contact with the characters. In the Atmos format they could position sounds around the audience to immerse them in the scene without having the sounds sit on top of the dialogue. “The sheer weight and power of the sound that the Atmos system produces was perfect for this film, particularly in the storm sequence, where we were able to make the sound an almost physical experience for the audience, yet still maintain the clarity of the dialogue and not make the whole thing unbearable to watch,” says Tapp.

Once the final Atmos mix was approved by director Kormákur, the tracks were taken to Galaxy Studios in Mol, Belgium, for the Barco 3D-Auro mix, and then it was on to Toronto’s Technicolor for the 12.0 IMAX mix. Despite the change in format, the integrity of the film was kept the same. The mix they defined in Atmos was the blueprint for the other formats.

For Freemantle, the best part of making Everest was being able to capture the journey. To make the audience feel like they are moving up the mountain, and make them feel cold and distressed. “You want to feel that contact, that physical contact like you are in it, like the snow is hitting your face and the jacket around you. When people watch it you want them to experience it because it’s a true story and you want them to feel it. If they are feeling it, then they are feeling the emotion of it.”

For more on Everest, read out interview with editor Mick Audsley.

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

Mick Audsley: Editing ‘Everest’

This veteran editor walks us through his process

By Randi Altman

Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world and the Holy Grail for many climbers, often is the symbol of a personal struggle to achieve an incredibly difficult task. It also happens to be the subject of a new film from director Baltasar Kormákur that is based on the (sometimes contradictory) true story of two climbers who, in the spring of 1996, got caught in a violent blizzard — and fought to survive.

The goal of the filmmakers behind Universal’s Everest was to tell this story of tragedy and survival and, in doing so, make the audience feel the desperation of the characters on screen, and to tell this story of tragedy and survival. To give us a glimpse into the process, we reached out to Everest’s editor, Mick Audsley, whose work includes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Twelve Monkeys, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, Dangerous Liaisons and many more.

Starting 4th from left: Director Baltasar Kormákur, Glenn Freemantle and Mick Audsley, with the audio post crew.

He acknowledges that, “from a storytelling point, there was a huge responsibility to make a film that worked, but also to be as honest as possible. We wanted to help preserve the legacy of the story for the families and climbers who are still alive.”

Audsley cut the film — shot with the Arri Alexa by DP 
Salvatore Totino — on an Avid Media Composer in DNX36 over 55 weeks, which, amazingly, isn’t the longest edit he’s been involved in. Goblet of Fire takes that award, coming in at 73 weeks.

Let’s find out more about Audsley’s process on this film and his philosophy on editing.

How did you give the audience that “you are here” feeling of peril in your edit?
There’s a montage early on, which shows the sorts of dangers they had on the way up, including the altitude, which has a huge impact on your health. There’s a great deal of peril in the sheer physics of it all, but as the story unfolds, we never felt we had to overly dramatize what went wrong, because it’s a series of small, rather human, mistakes and misjudgments with catastrophic consequences. Editorially, we felt it should just relentlessly build up, tightening its grip around the audience’s throat, if possible, in order to engage them.

How did you work with director Baltasar Kormákur, and how early did you get involved in the film?
I began at the start of shooting, although we weren’t together. Balthazar and the crew spent 10 shooting days in Nepal while we were setting up in the the mountains in Northern Italy —basically at a ski resort — where we were for about six to eight weeks doing the photography… with climbers in real snow. We were accessible to everybody and would show the work as it progressed. We then split up, because they built a base camp in Cinecitta Studios in Rome. That was only going to last two weeks, so it made sense to come back to London for the rest of the schedule, which was completed in Pinewood Studios on the big 007 stage.

We were all very busy, and I didn’t see a great deal of Balthazar during shooting, but we would meet. It was a very tough shoot, as you can imagine, and he was kind enough to trust me just to carry on.


When did you get into a room with him?
After they finished shooting and Balt had gone back home to Reykjavik. We were meeting everyday, based at RVX https://www.rvx.is/, his visual effects company’s building in the center of Reykjavik. We then spent the best part of 14 weeks working together in Iceland.

Fourteen weeks, just in Iceland?
It was the director’s cut period, which is normally 10 weeks, but we stayed longer since it worked so well for Balt as he was able to carry on with things and visit my team and I almost every day. We would get together in the afternoon and I would show the work I’d done the day before, discuss it and make the plan for the next day.

Were you given direction in terms of how it was going to be edited? Or where you given free rein?
I was given a large amount of free rein. Balt is extremely trusting of me, and we would just bat ideas around and constantly try to move the film to where we felt it was functioning in the way we needed it to. There were many strands of the story that were shot, which then had to be whittled down or re-balanced or changed or taken out. The editorial process was not just cutting; there was a certain amount of changing of dialogue, rewording things and re-recording things in order to make the narrative move forward in the right way. It was a big job, and we were constantly throwing things at each other.

I obviously had the task of doing the actual editorial work of realizing it, cutting the scenes and putting it all together, but I was given an enormous amount of freedom and could express myself very freely. So it was very much a joint venture.

Everest Film Title: Everest

Can you describe your editing set up?
We had three Avid Media Composers with shared storage. Actually, we had four because my visual effects editor, Keith Mason, joined us in Iceland for that period. We had to turn over material as quickly as we could so the visual effects work could be started and run in parallel with us as the cut progressed.

I had two assistants on Everest because it was a very labor-intensive film. There was a lot of material. On average I was receiving between five and six hours a day from each day’s shooting. So over a period of 16 — 18 weeks that builds up quite a big library of material to be evaluated, understood and cut. It worked very smoothly and efficiently.

Do you typically cut on a Media Composer?
Yes, it’s a very good tool, one that I’ve been using for the last… God knows. What we need is something that’s reliable and fast and allows us the freedom to think and to store the many versions and permutations we need. A lot of the work that we do is keeping a very tidy cutting room in terms of organization of material and the different versions and what we’re doing and where we’re putting our efforts.

How do you work with your assistant editors, specifically on this film?
Pani Ahmadi-Moore is my first assistant, and we’ve worked together for about six years now. But she’s much more than just an assistant editor; she’s a filmmaker in her own right, in the sense of being a collaborator in the project. Although she’s not actually cutting the movie, she’s very much involved in it.

So, all of the prep work, and making things available to me, is handled by Pani and her assistant. They present bins for each scene of material. I keep an absolutely precise log of what comes in and when and what it relates to, which is also presented by Pani. This frees me up to concentrate on cutting the scenes, putting the film together and aiming towards a first cut. We generally present this within two weeks of the end of principal photography.

Everest 5

The film was released in 3D stereo and Imax. Can you talk about that?
We didn’t put on 3D glasses, or anything like that, in the cutting room. When we got back to London and we had a cut, we then started sending sections to the 3D house, StereoD, and the stereo process began to run in parallel with us and those scenes would be updated as the cut changed.

It’s a bit like a VFX process in its own right. There are three strands of things going along in parallel on the pictorial side: the cut developing and being shaped and editorializing in the traditional way; the turning over of visual effects within that cut and keeping them up-to-date with the changes editorially; and, similarly, the same process going on for turnovers to Stereo D in Burbank, California.

After the conversions are made, do you get to see the final product?
Yes, we do. In fact, though, in this case, I was so busy with the cut that Balthazar, bless him, took a lion’s share of directing the 3D. We had to divide our labor, as it were, and I was still very busy shaping the content of the film. It comes to a point when it’s “How do we best use our time and what is the best distribution of our time?”

You mentioned VFX, were you working with temp VFX? How did that work?
We did have temp VFX, and we would be given early versions of critical shots. A lot of the summit material, where we had the climbers on the set without the backgrounds, took quite a while for us to get. For me, it was quite hard to judge the impact of some of these shots until they were available in a form where we could see how good they were going to be and how extreme the environment was. It takes time… it’s a slow cooked meal.

Can you talk about the film’s sound?
We had extremely difficult audio. There was a high percentage of ADR and replacement on this film — we had wind machines, we had people on the real mountains with clothes blowing and making noise, so the audio in its early stages was very difficult to hear and use. It wasn’t until we got substantial ADR and tracks back that were clean that we could build it all up again. That was very challenging.

Who worked on the sound?
The sound designer was the wonderful Glenn Freemantle and the dialogue editor was my old friend Nina Heartstone. She did an amazing job scheduling the artists to come back for ADR. They also had to do very physical things — now in a studio environment —in order to get the vocalization and the physicality to sound convincing. The sound is quite extraordinary.
It wasn’t until we had a temp dubbed and temporary visuals that started to feel that the film was being realized how we had intended it to be, and we could start to read it properly.

Is there any one scene or section that you found the most challenging?
I think the whole film was challenging. Obviously, the storm sequence is a visceral experience that you want to have the audience experience — the complexity of what was going on apart from the physical hardship, and the way in which the tragedy unfolded.

We had filmmaking issues to resolve as well. The identification of people was one, actually seeing the climbers’ faces since they were hidden most of the time. There were lots of issues that we had to understand, to decide whether to solve or to accept. For example, the story of what happened with the oxygen is confusing, and nobody really understands exactly what when wrong. In filmmaking terms, that can be tricky to communicate. Whether we got away with that, I don’t know. Everybody was very confused about the oxygen, and that’s how it was.

It goes back to what I was saying at the beginning, Randi, which is this responsibility towards the subjected storytelling for those who survived and the reality of what happened.

What’s next for you?
I was to be making another film for Terry Gilliam (we worked together previously on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), which is his long-awaited Don Quixote movie, but this has been postponed until the spring..

In the meantime, I’m helping set up a film networking organization here in London. It’s called Sprocket Rocket Soho (@srsoho) It’s an international endeavor aimed at bringing young filmmakers together with older filmmakers, because in the digital world we’re all feeling a bit isolated and people need to get into a room and talk. I’m very pro-education for young filmmakers, and this is part of that incentive.