By Jennifer Walden
Bill Nye, the science hero of a generation of school children, has expanded his role in the science community over the years. His transformation from TV scientist to CEO of The Planetary Society (the world’s largest non-profit space advocacy group) is the subject of Bill Nye: Science Guy — a documentary directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg.
The doc premiered in the US at the SXSW Film Festival and had its international premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.
Supervising sound editor/sound designer Peter Albrechtsen, MPSE, started working with directors Alvarado and Sussberg in 2013 on their first feature-length documentary The Immortalists. When they began shooting the Bill Nye documentary in 2015, Albrechtsen was able to see the rough cuts and started collecting sounds and ambiences for the film. “I love being part of projects very early on. I got to discuss some sonic and musical ideas with David and Jason. On documentaries, the actual sound design schedule isn’t typically very long. It’s great knowing the vibe of the film as early as I can so I can then be more focused during the sound editing process. I know what the movie needs and how I should prioritize my work. That was invaluable on a complicated, complex and multilayered movie like this one.”
Before diving in, Albrechtsen, dialogue editor Jacques Pedersen, sound effects editor Morten Groth Brandt and sound effects recordist/assistant sound designer Mikkel Nielsen met up for a jam session — as Albrechtsen calls it — to share the directors’ notes for sound and discuss their own ideas. “It’s a great way of getting us all on the same page and to really use everyone’s talents,” he says.
Albrechtsen and his Danish sound crew had less than seven weeks for sound editorial at Offscreen in Copenhagen. They divided their time evenly between dialogue editing and sound effects editing. During that time, Foley artist Heikki Kossi spent three days on Foley at H5 Film Sound in Kokkola, Finland.
Bill Nye: Science Guy mixes many different media sources — clips from Bill Nye’s TV shows from the ‘90s, YouTube videos, home videos on 8mm film, TV broadcasts from different eras, as well as the filmmakers’ own footage. It’s a potentially headache-inducing combination. “Some of the archival material was in quite bad shape, but my dialogue editor Jacques Pedersen is a magician with iZotope RX and he did a lot of healthy cleaning up of all the rough pieces and low-res stuff,” says Albrechtsen. “The 8mm videos actually didn’t have any sound, so Heikki Kossi did some Foley that helped it to come alive when we needed it to.”
Albrechtsen’s sound edit was also helped by the directors’ dedication to sound. They were able to acquire the original sound effects library from Bill Nye’s ‘90s TV show, making it easy for the post sound team to build out the show’s soundscape from stereo to surround, and also to make it funnier. “A lot of humor in the old TV show came from the imaginative soundtrack that was often quite cartoonish, exaggerated and hilariously funny,” he explains. “I’ve done sound for quite a few documentaries now and I’ve never tried adding so many cartoonish sound effects to a track. It made me laugh.”
The directors’ dedication goes even deeper, with director Sussberg handling the production sound himself when they’re out shooting. He records dialogue with both a boom mic and radio mics, and also records wild tracks of room tones and ambience. He even captures special sound signatures for specific locations when applicable.
For example, Nye visits the creationist theme park called Noah’s Ark, built by Christian fundamentalist Ken Ham. The indoor park features life-size dioramas and animatronics to explain creationism. There are lots of sound effects and demonstrations playing from multiple speaker setups. Sussberg recorded all of them, providing Albrechtsen with the means of creating an authentic sound collage.
“People might think we added lots of sounds for these sequences, but actually we just orchestrated what was already there,” says Albrechtsen. “At moments, it’s like a cacophony of noises, with corny dinosaur screams, savage human screams and violent war noises. When I heard the sounds from the theme park that David and Jason had recorded, I didn’t believe my own ears. It’s so extreme.”
Albrechtsen approaches his sound design with texture in mind. Not every sound needs to be clean. Adding texture, like crackling or hiss, can change the emotional impact of a sound. For example, while creating the sound design for the archival footage of several rocket launches, Albrechtsen pulled clean effects of rocket launches and explosions from Tonsturm’s “Massive Explosions” sound effects library and transferred those recordings to old NAGRA tape. “The special, warm, analogue distortion that this created fit perfectly with the old, dusty images.”
In one of Albrechtsen’s favorite sequences in the film, there’s a failure during launch and the rocket explodes. The camera falls over and the video glitches. He used different explosions panned around the room, and he panned several low-pitched booms directly to the subwoofer, using Waves LoAir plug-in for added punch. “When the camera falls over, I panned explosions into the surrounds and as the glitches appear I used different distorted textures to enhance the images,” he says. “Pete Horner did an amazing job on mixing that sequence.”
For the emotional sequences, particularly those exploring Nye’s family history, and the genetic disorder passed down from Nye’s father to his two siblings, Albrechtsen chose to reduce the background sounds and let the Foley pull the audience in closer to Nye. “It’s amazing what just a small cloth rustle can do to get a feeling of being close to a person. Foley artist Heikki Kossi is a master at making these small sounds significant and precise, which is actually much more difficult than one would think.”
For example, during a scene in which Nye and his siblings visit a clinic Albrechtsen deliberately chose harsh, atonal backgrounds that create an uncomfortable atmosphere. Then, as Nye shares his worries about the disease, Albrechtsen slowly takes the backgrounds out so that only the delicate Foley for Nye plays. “I love creating multilayered background ambiences and they really enhanced many moments in the film. When we removed these backgrounds for some of the more personal, subjective moments the effect was almost spellbinding. Sound is amazing, but silence is even better.”
Bill Nye: Science Guy has layers of material taking place in both the past and present, in outer space and in Nye’s private space, Albrechtsen notes. “I was thinking about how to make them merge more. I tried making many elements of the soundtrack fit more with each other.”
For instance, Nye’s brother has a huge model train railway set up. It’s a legacy from their childhood. So when Nye visits his childhood home, Albrechtsen plays the sound of a distant train. In the 8mm home movies, the Nye family is at the beach. Albrechtsen’s sound design includes echoes of seagulls and waves. Later in the film, when Nye visits his sister’s home, he puts in distant seagulls and waves. “The movie is constantly jumping through different locations and time periods. This was a way of making the emotional storyline clearer and strengthening the overall flow. The sound makes the images more connected.”
One significant story point is Nye’s growing involvement with The Planetary Society. Before Carl Sagan’s death, Sagan conceptualized a solar sail — a sail for use in space that could harness the sun’s energy and use it as a means of propulsion. The Planetary Society worked hard to actualize Sagan’s solar sail idea. Albrechtsen needed to give the solar sail a sound in the film. “How does something like that sound? Well, in the production sound you couldn’t really hear the solar sail and when it actually appeared it just sounded like boring, noisy cloth rustle. The light sail really needed an extraordinary, unique sound to make you understand the magnitude of it.”
So they recorded different kinds of materials, in particular a Mylar blanket, which has a glittery and reflective surface. Then Albrechtsen tried different pitches and panning of those recordings to create a sense of its extraordinary size.
While they handled post sound editorial in Denmark, the directors were busy cutting the film stateside with picture editor Annu Lilja. When working over long distances, Albrechtsen likes to send lots of QuickTimes with stereo downmixes so the directors can hear what’s happening. “For this film, I sent a handful of sound sketches to David and Jason while they were busy finishing the picture editing,” he explains. “Since we’ve done several projects together we know each other very well. David and Jason totally trust me and I know that they like their soundtracks to be very detailed, dynamic and playful. They want the sound to be an integral part of the storytelling and are open to any input. For this movie, they even did a few picture recuts because of some sound ideas I had.”
For the two-week final mix, Albrechtsen joined re-recording mixer Pete Horner at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, California. Horner started mixing on the John Waters stage — a small mix room featuring a 5.1 setup of Meyer Sound’s Acheron speakers and an Avid ICON D-Command control surface, while Albrechtsen finished the sound design and premixed the effects against William Ryan Fritch’s score in a separate editing suite. Then Albrechtsen sat with Horner for another week, as Horner crafted the final 5.1 mix.
One of Horner’s mix challenges was to keep the dialogue paramount while still pushing the layered soundscapes that help tell the story. Horner says, “Peter [Albrechtsen] provided a wealth of sounds to work with, which in the spirit of the original Bill Nye show were very playful. But this, of course, presented a challenge because there were so many sounds competing for attention. I would say this is a problem that most documentaries would be envious of, and I certainly appreciated it.”
Once they had the effects playing along with the dialogue and music, Horner and Albrechtsen worked together to decide which sounds were contributing the most and which were distracting from the story. “The result is a wonderfully rich, sometimes manic track,” says Horner.
Albrechtsen adds, “On a busy movie like this, it’s really in the mix where everything comes together. Pete [Horner] is a truly brilliant mixer and has the same musical approach to sound as me. He is an amazing listener. The whole soundtrack — both sound and score — should really be like one piece of music, with ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys.”
Horner explains their musical approach to mixing as “the understanding that the entire palette of sound coming through the faders can be shaped in a way that elicits an emotional response in the audience. Music is obviously musical, but sound effects are also very musical since they are made up of pitches and rhythmic sounds as well. I’ve come to feel that dialogue is also musical — the person speaking is embedding their own emotions into the way they speak using both pitch (inflection or emphasis) and rhythm (pace and pauses).”
“I’ll go even further to say that the way the images are cut by the picture editor is inherently musical. The pace of the cuts suggests rhythm and tempo, and a ‘hard cut’ can feel like a strong downbeat, as emotionally rich as any orchestral stab. So I think a musical approach to mixing is simply internalizing the ‘music’ that is already being communicated by the composer, the sound designer, the picture editor and the characters on the screen, and with the guidance of the director shaping the palette of available sounds to communicate the appropriate complexity of emotion,” says Horner.
In the mix, Horner embraces the documentary’s intention of expressing the duality of Nye’s life: his celebrity versus his private life. He gives the example of the film’s opening, which starts with sounds of a crowd gathering to see Nye. Then it cuts to Nye backstage as he’s preparing for his performance by quietly tying his bowtie in a mirror. “Here the exceptional Foley work of Heikki Kossi creates the sense of a private, intimate moment, contrasting with the voice of the announcer, which I treated as if it’s happening through the wall in a distant auditorium.”
Next it cuts to that announcer, and his voice is clearly amplified and echoing all around the auditorium of excited fans. There’s an interview with a fan and his friends who are waiting to take their seats. The fan describes his experience of watching Nye’s TV show in the classroom as a kid and how they’d all chant “Bill, Bill, Bill” as the TV cart rolled in. Underneath, plays the sound of the auditorium crowd chanting “Bill, Bill, Bill” as the picture cuts to Nye waiting in wings.
Horner says, “Again, the Foley here keeps us close to Bill while the crowd chants are in deep echo. Then the TV show theme kicks on, blasting through the PA. I embraced the distorted nature of the production recording and augmented it with hall echo and a liberal use of the subwoofer. The energy in this moment is at a peak as Bill takes the stage exclaiming, “I love you guys!” and the title card comes on. This is a great example of how the scene was already cut to communicate the dichotomy within Bill, between his private life and his public persona. By recognizing that intention, the sound team was able to express that paradox more viscerally.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.