Tag Archives: Sony Pictures Post Production Services

True Detective’s quiet, tense Emmy-nominated sound

By Jennifer Walden

When there’s nothing around, there’s no place to hide. That’s why quiet soundtracks can be the most challenging to create. Every flaw in the dialogue — every hiss, every off-mic head turn, every cloth rustle against the body mic — stands out. Every incidental ambient sound — bugs, birds, cars, airplanes — stands out. Even the noise-reduction processing to remove those flaws can stand out, particularly when there’s a minimalist approach to sound effects and score.

That is the reason why the sound editing and mixing on Season 3 of HBO’s True Detective has been recognized with Emmy nominations. The sound team put together a quiet, tense soundtrack that perfectly matched the tone of the show.

L to R: Micah Loken, Tateum Kohut, Mandell Winter, David Esparza and Greg Orloff.

We reached out to the team at Sony Pictures Post Production Services to talk about the work — supervising sound editor Mandell Winter; sound designer David Esparza, MPSE; dialogue editor Micah Loken; as well as re-recording mixers Tateum Kohut and Greg Orloff (who mixed the show in 5.1 surround on an Avid S6 console at Deluxe Hollywood Stage 5.)

Of all the episodes in Season 3 of True Detective, why did you choose “The Great War and Modern Memory” for award consideration for sound editing?
Mandell Winter: This episode had a little bit of everything. We felt it represented the season pretty well.

David Esparza: It also sets the overall tone of the season.

Why this episode for sound mixing?
Tateum Kohut: The episode had very creative transitions, and it set up the emotion of our main characters. It establishes the three timelines that the season takes place in. Even though it didn’t have the most sound or the most dynamic sound, we chose it because, overall, we were pleased with the soundtrack, as was HBO. We were all pleased with the outcome.

Greg Orloff: We looked at Episode 5 too, “If You Have Ghosts,” which had a great seven-minute set piece with great action and cool transitions. But overall, Episode 1 was more interesting sonically. As an episode, it had great transitions and tension all throughout, right from the beginning.

Let’s talk about the amazing dialogue on this show. How did you get it so clean while still retaining all the quality and character?
Winter: Geoffrey Patterson was our production sound mixer, and he did a great job capturing the tracks. We didn’t do a ton of ADR because our dialogue editor, Micah Loken, was able to do quite a bit with the dialogue edit.

Micah Loken: Both the recordings and acting were great. That’s one of the most crucial steps to a good dialogue edit. The lead actors — Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff — had beautiful and engaging performances and excellent resonance to their voices. Even at a low-level whisper, the character and quality of the voice was always there; it was never too thin. By using the boom, the lav, or a special combination of both, I was able to dig out the timbre while minimizing noise in the recordings.

What helped me most was Mandell and I had the opportunity to watch the first two episodes before we started really digging in, which provided a macro view into the content. Immediately, some things stood out, like the fact that it was wall-to-wall dialogue on each episode, and that became our focus. I noticed that on-set it was hot; the exterior shots were full of bugs and the actors would get dry mouths, which caused them to smack their lips — which is commonly over-accentuated in recordings. It was important to minimize anything that wasn’t dialogue while being mindful to maintain the quality and level of the voice. Plus, the story was so well-written that it became a personal endeavor to bring my A game to the team. After completion, I would hand off the episode to Mandell and our dialogue mixer, Tateum.

Kohut: I agree. Geoffrey Patterson did an amazing job. I know he was faced with some challenges and environmental issues there in northwest Arkansas, especially on the exteriors, but his tracks were superbly recorded.

Mandell and Micah did an awesome job with the prep, so it made my job very pleasurable. Like Micah said, the deep booming voices of our two main actors were just amazing. We didn’t want to go too far with noise reduction in order to preserve that quality, and it did stand out. I did do more d-essing and d-ticking using iZotope RX 7 and FabFilter Pro-Q 2 to knock down some syllables and consonants that were too sharp, just because we had so much close-up, full-frame face dialogue that we didn’t want to distract from the story and the great performances that they were giving. But very little noise reduction was needed due to the well-recorded tracks. So my job was an absolute pleasure on the dialogue side.

Their editing work gave me more time to focus on the creative mixing, like weaving in the music just the way that series creator Nic Pizzolatto and composer T Bone Burnett wanted, and working with Greg Orloff on all these cool transitions.

We’re all very happy with the dialogue on the show and very proud of our work on it.

Loken: One thing that I wanted to remain cognizant of throughout the dialogue edit was making sure that Tateum had a smooth transition from line to line on each of the tracks in Pro Tools. Some lines might have had more intrinsic bug sounds or unwanted ambience but, in general, during the moments of pause, I knew the background ambience of the show was probably going to be fairly mild and sparse.

Mandell, how does your approach to the dialogue on True Detective compare to Deadwood: The Movie, which also earned Emmy nominations this year for sound editing and mixing?
Winter: Amazingly enough, we had the same production sound mixer on both — Geoffrey Patterson. That helps a lot.

We had more time on True Detective than on Deadwood. Deadwood was just “go.” We did the whole film in about five or six weeks. For True Detective, we had 10 days of prep time before we hit a five-day mix. We also had less material to get through on an episode of True Detective within that time frame.

Going back to the mix on the dialogue, how did you get the whispering to sound so clear?
Kohut: It all boils down to how well the dialogue was recorded. We were able to preserve that whispering and get a great balance around it. We didn’t have to force anything through. So, it was well-recorded, well-prepped and it just fit right in.

Let’s talk about the space around the dialogue. What was your approach to world building for “The Great War And Modern Memory?” You’re dealing with three different timelines from three different eras: 1980, 1990, and 2015. What went into the sound of each timeline?
Orloff: It was tough in a way because the different timelines overlapped sometimes. We’d have a transition happening, but with the same dialogue. So the challenge became how to change the environments on each of those cuts. One thing that we did was to make the show as sparse as possible, particularly after the discovery of the body of the young boy Will Purcell (Phoenix Elkin). After that, everything in the town becomes quiet. We tried to take out as many birds and bugs as possible, as though the town had died along with the boy. From that point on, anytime we were in that town in the original timeline, it was dead-quiet. As we went on later, we were able to play different sounds for that location, as though the town is recovering.

The use of sound on True Detective is very restrained. Were the decisions on where to have sound and how much sound happening during editorial? Or were those decisions mostly made on the dub stage when all the elements were together? What were some factors that helped you determine what should play?
Esparza: Editorially, the material was definitely prepared with a minimalistic aesthetic in mind. I’m sure it got paired down even more once it got to the mix stage. The aesthetic of the True Detective series in general tends to be fairly minimalistic and atmospheric, and we continued with that in this third season.

Orloff: That’s purposeful, from the filmmakers on down. It’s all about creating tension. Sometimes the silence helps more to create tension than having a sound would. Between music and sound effects, this show is all about tension. From the very beginning, from the first frame, it starts and it never really lets up. That was our mission all along, to keep that tension. I hope that we achieved that.

That first episode — “The Great War And Modern Memory” — was intense even the first time we played it back, and I’ve seen it numerous times since, and it still elicits the same feeling. That’s the mark of great filmmaking and storytelling and hopefully we helped to support that. The tension starts there and stays throughout the season.

What was the most challenging scene for sound editorial in “The Great War And Modern Memory?” Why?
Winter: I would say it was the opening sequence with the kids riding the bikes.

Esparza: It was a challenge to get the bike spokes ticking and deciding what was going to play and what wasn’t going to play and how it was going to be presented. That scene went through a lot of work on the mix stage, but editorially, that scene took the most time to get right.

What was the most challenging scene to mix in that episode? Why?
Orloff: For the effects side of the mix, the most challenging part was the opening scene. We worked on that longer than any other scene in that episode. That first scene is really setting the tone for the whole season. It was about getting that right.

We had brilliant sound design for the bike spokes ticking that transitions into a watch ticking that transitions into a clock ticking. Even though there’s dialogue that breaks it up, you’re continuing with different transitions of the ticking. We worked on that both editorially and on the mix stage for a long time. And it’s a scene I’m proud of.

Kohut: That first scene sets up the whole season — the flashback, the memories. It was important to the filmmakers that we got that right. It turned out great, and I think it really sets up the rest of the season and the intensity that our actors have.

What are you most proud of in terms of sound this season on True Detective?
Winter: I’m most proud of the team. The entire team elevated each other and brought their A-game all the way around. It all came together this season.

Orloff: I agree. I think this season was something we could all be proud of. I can’t be complimentary enough about the work of Mandell, David and their whole crew. Everyone on the crew was fantastic and we had a great time. It couldn’t have been a better experience.

Esparza: I agree. And I’m very thankful to HBO for giving us the time to do it right and spend the time, like Mandell said. It really was an intense emotional project, and I think that extra time really paid off. We’re all very happy.

Winter: One thing we haven’t talked about was T Bone and his music. It really brought a whole other level to this show. It brought a haunting mood, and he always brings such unique tracks to the stage. When Tateum would mix them in, the whole scene would take on a different mood. The music at times danced that thin line, where you weren’t sure if it was sound design or music. It was very cool.


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

Sony Pictures Post adds three theater-style studios

Sony Pictures Post Production Services has added three theater-style studios inside the Stage 6 facility on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City. All studios feature mid-size theater environments and include digital projectors and projection screens.

Theater 1 is setup for sound design and mixing with two Avid S6 consoles and immersive Dolby Atmos capabilities, while Theater 3 is geared toward sound design with a single S6. Theater 2 is designed for remote visual effects and color grading review, allowing filmmakers to monitor ongoing post work at other sites without leaving the lot. Additionally, centralized reception and client services facilities have been established to better serve studio sound clients.

Mix Stage 6 and Mix Stage 7 within the sound facility have been upgraded, each featuring two S6 mixing consoles, six Pro Tools digital audio workstations, Christie digital cinema projectors, 24 X 13 projection screens and a variety of support gear. The stages will be used to mix features and high-end television projects. The new resources add capacity and versatility to the studio’s sound operations.

Sony Pictures Post Production Services now has 11 traditional mix stages, the largest being the Cary Grant Theater, which seats 344. It also has mix stages dedicated to IMAX and home entertainment formats. The department features four sound design suites, 60 sound editorial rooms, three ADR recording studios and three Foley stages. Its Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage is among the largest in the world and can accommodate a full orchestra and choir.

Sound editor/re-recording mixer Will Files joins Sony Pictures Post

Sony Pictures Post Production Services has added supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Will Files, who has spent a decade at Skywalker Sound. His brings with him credits on more than 80 feature films, including Passengers, Deadpool, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Fantastic Four.

Files won a 2018 MPSE Golden Reel Award for his work on War for the Planet of the Apes. His current project is the upcoming Columbia Pictures release Venom out in US theaters this October.

He adds that he was also attracted by Sony Pictures’ ability to support his work both as a sound editor/sound designer and as a re-recording mixer. “I tend to wear a lot of hats. I often supervise sound, create sound design and mix my projects,” he says. “Sony Pictures has embraced modern workflows by creating technically-advanced rooms that allow sound artists to begin mixing as soon as they begin editing. It makes the process more efficient and improves creative storytelling.”

Files will work in a new pre-dub mixing stage and sound design studio on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. The stage has Dolby Atmos mixing capabilities and features two Avid S6 mixing consoles, four Pro Tools systems, a Sony 4K digital cinema projector and a variety of other support gear.

Files describes the stage as a sound designer/mixer’s dream come true. “It’s a medium-size space, big enough to mix a movie, but also intimate. You don’t feel swallowed up when it’s just you and the filmmaker,” he says. “It’s very conducive to the creative process.”

Files began his career with Skywalker Sound in 2002, shortly after graduating from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He earned his first credit as supervising sound editor on the 2008 sci-fi hit Cloverfield. His many other credits include Star Trek: Into Darkness, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Loving.

The sounds of Spider-Man: Homecoming

By Jennifer Walden

Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts, casts Tom Holland as Spider-Man, a role he first played in 2016 for Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo).

Homecoming reprises a few key character roles, like Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Aunt May Parker (Marisa Tomei), and it picks up a thread of Civil War’s storyline. In Civil War, Peter Parker/Spider-Man helped Tony Stark’s Avengers in their fight against Captain America’s Avengers. Homecoming picks up after that battle, as Parker settles back into his high school life while still fighting crime on the side to hone his superhero skills. He seeks to prove himself to Stark but ends up becoming entangled with the supervillain Vulture (Michael Keaton).

Steven Ticknor

Spider-Man: Homecoming supervising sound editors/sound designers Steven Ticknor and Eric A. Norris — working at Culver City’s Sony Pictures Post Production Services — both brought Spidey experience to the film. Ticknor was a sound designer on director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Norris was supervising sound editor/sound designer on director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). With experiences from two different versions of Spider-Man, together Ticknor and Norris provided a well-rounded knowledge of the superhero’s sound history for Homecoming. They knew what’s worked in the past, and what to do to make this Spider-Man sound fresh. “This film took a ground-up approach but we also took into consideration the magnitude of the movie,” says Ticknor. “We had to keep in mind that Spider-Man is one of Marvel’s key characters and he has a huge fan base.”

Web Slinging
Being a sequel, Ticknor and Norris honored the sound of Spider-Man’s web slinging ability that was established in Captain America: Civil War, but they also enhanced it to create a subtle difference between Spider-Man’s two suits in Homecoming. There’s the teched-out Tony Stark-built suit that uses the Civil War web-slinging sound, and then there’s Spider-Man’s homemade suit. “I recorded a couple of 5,000-foot magnetic tape cores unraveling very fast, and to that I added whooshes and other elements that gave a sense of speed. Underneath, I had some of the web sounds from the Tony Stark suit. That way the sound for the homemade suit had the same feel as the Stark suit but with an old-school flair,” explains Ticknor.

One new feature of Spider-Man’s Stark suit is that it has expressive eye movements. His eyes can narrow or grow wide with surprise, and those movements are articulated with sound. Norris says, “We initially went with a thin servo-type sound, but the filmmakers were looking for something less electrical. We had the idea to use the lens of a DSLR camera to manually zoom it in and out, so there’s no motor sound. We recorded it up close-up in the quiet environment of an unused ADR stage. That’s the primary sound for his eye movement.”

Droney
Another new feature is the addition of Droney, a small reconnaissance drone that pops off of Spider-Man’s suit and flies around. The sound of Droney was one of director Watt’s initial focus-points. He wanted it sound fun and have a bit of personality. He wanted Droney “to be able to vocalize in a way, sort of like Wall-E,” explains Norris.

Ticknor had the idea of creating Droney’s sound using a turbo toy — a small toy that has a mouthpiece and a spinning fan. Blowing into the mouthpiece makes the fan spin, which generates a whirring sound. The faster the fan spins, the higher the pitch of the generated sound. By modulating the pitch, they created a voice-like quality for Droney. Norris and sound effects editor Andy Sisul performed and recorded an array of turbo toy sounds to use during editorial. Ticknor also added in the sound of a reel-to-reel machine rewinding, which he sped up and manipulated “so that it sounded like Droney was fluttering as it was flying,” Ticknor says.

The Vulture
Supervillain the Vulture offers a unique opportunity for sound design. His alien-tech enhanced suit incorporates two large fans that give him the ability to fly. Norris, who was involved in the initial sound design of Vulture’s suit, created whooshes using Whoosh by Melted Sounds — a whoosh generator that runs in Native Instruments Reaktor. “You put individual samples in there and it creates a whoosh by doing a Doppler shift and granular synthesis as a way of elongating short sounds. I fed different metal ratcheting sounds into it because Vulture’s suit almost has these metallic feathers. We wanted to articulate the sound of all of these different metallic pieces moving together. I also fed sword shings into it and came up with these whooshes that helped define the movement as the Vulture was flying around,” he says. Sound designer/re-recording mixer Tony Lamberti was also instrumental in creating Vulture’s sound.

Alien technology is prevalent in the film. For instance, it’s a key ingredient to Vulture’s suit. The film’s sound needed to reflect the alien influence but also had to feel realistic to a degree. “We started with synthesized sounds, but we then had to find something that grounded it in reality,” reports Ticknor. “That’s always the balance of creating sound design. You can make it sound really cool, but it doesn’t always connect to the screen. Adding organic elements — like wind gusts and debris — make it suddenly feel real. We used a lot of synthesized sounds to create Vulture, but we also used a lot of real sounds.”

The Washington Monument
One of the big scenes that Ticknor handled was the Washington Monument elevator sequence. Spider-Man stands on the top of the Washington Monument and prepares to jump over a helicopter that looms ever closer. He clears the helicopter’s blades and shoots a web onto the helicopter’s skid, using that to sling himself through a window just in time to shoot another web that grabs onto the compromised elevator car that contains his friends. “When Spider-Man jumps over the helicopter, I couldn’t wait to make that work perfectly,” says Ticknor. “When he is flying over the helicopter blades it sounds different. It sounds more threatening. Sound creates an emotion but people don’t realize how sound is creating the emotion because it is happening so quickly sometimes.”

To achieve a more threatening blade sound, Ticknor added in scissor slicing sounds, which he treated using a variety of tools like zPlane Elastique Pitch 2 and plug-ins from FabFilter plug-ins and Soundtoys, all within the Avid Pro Tools 12 environment. “This made the slicing sound like it was about to cut his head off. I took the helicopter blades and slowed them down and added low-end sweeteners to give a sense of heaviness. I put all of that through the plug-ins and basically experimented. The hardest part of sound design is experimenting and finding things that work. There’s also music playing in that scene as well. You have to make the music play with the sound design.”

When designing sounds, Ticknor likes to generate a ton of potential material. “I make a library of sound effects — it’s like a mad science experiment. You do something and then wonder, ‘How did I just do that? What did I just do?’ When you are in a rhythm, you do it all because you know there is no going back. If you just do what you need, it’s never enough. You always need more than you think. The picture is going to change and the VFX are going to change and timings are going to change. Everything is going to change, and you need to be prepared for that.”

Syncing to Picture
To help keep the complex soundtrack in sync with the evolving picture, Norris used Conformalizer by Cargo Cult. Using the EDL of picture changes, Conformalizer makes the necessary adjustments in Pro Tools to resync the sound to the new picture.

Norris explains some key benefits of Conformalizer. “First, when you’re working in Pro Tools you can only see one picture at a time, so you have to go back and forth between the two different pictures to compare. With Conformalizer, you can see the two different pictures simultaneously. It also does a mathematical computation on the two pictures in a separate window, a difference window, which shows the differences in white. It highlights all the subtle visual effects changes that you may not have noticed.

Eric Norris

For example, in the beginning of the film, Peter leaves school and heads out to do some crime fighting. In an alleyway, he changes from his school clothes into his Spider-Man suit. As he’s changing, he knocks into a trash can and a couple of rats fall out and scurry away. Those rats were CG and they didn’t appear until the end of the process. So the rats in the difference window were bright white while everything else was a dark color.”

Another benefit is that the Conformalizer change list can be used on multiple Pro Tools sessions. Most feature films have the sound effects, including Foley and backgrounds, in one session. For Spider-Man: Homecoming, it was split into multiple sessions, with Foley and backgrounds in one session and the sound effects in another.

“Once you get that change list you can run it on all the Pro Tools sessions,” explains Norris. “It saves time and it helps with accuracy. There are so many sounds and details that match the visuals and we need to make sure that we are conforming accurately. When things get hectic, especially near the end of the schedule, and we’re finalizing the track and still getting new visual effects, it becomes a very detail-oriented process and any tools that can help with that are greatly appreciated.”

Creating the soundtrack for Spider-Man: Homecoming required collaboration on a massive scale. “When you’re doing a film like this, it just has to run well. Unless you’re really organized, you’ll never be able to keep up. That’s the beautiful thing, when you’re organized you can be creative. Everything was so well organized that we got an opportunity to be super creative and for that, we were really lucky. As a crew, we were so lucky to work on this film,” concludes Ticknor.


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

Mixing vet Kevin O’Connell returns to Sony Pictures Post

Twenty-time Academy Award-nominated re-recording mixer Kevin O’Connell has recently returned to Sony Pictures Post Production Services where he has already completed four projects — The Boy Next Door, Self/less, No Good Deed and Pitch Perfect 2.

He was previously on staff at the studio from 1993 to 2008 with credits including Pearl Harbor, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Memoirs of a Geisha and Transformers, all of which led to Oscar nominations for sound. O’Connell is currently working on the upcoming feature Goosebumps for director Rob Letterman.

O’Connell has spent the past five years freelancing as well as holding a position at Todd-AO, where he worked as a mixer and held an executive position.

“Kevin is a master of the craft of movie sound,” reports Tom McCarthy, EVP, Sony Pictures Post Production Services. “He has contributed his talents to scores of great films and worked alongside many of today’s finest filmmakers. We are glad to have him back as part of the industry’s best sound team.”

O’Connell began his career in 1978 as a sound technician at The Samuel Goldwyn Studios working on films such as the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of The Lost Ark. He earned his first credit as re-recording mixer a few years later on Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and garnered his first Academy Award nomination in 1983 for Terms of Endearment. He has also been nominated for 10 Cinema Audio Society Awards and a BAFTA Award. He won an Emmy Award in 1989 for Lonesome Dove.