By Mel Lambert
The 5th annual Sound for Film & TV conference was once again held at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, in cooperation with Motion Picture Sound Editors and Cinema Audio Society and Mix Magazine. The one-day event featured a keynote address from veteran sound designer Scott Gershin, together with a broad cross section of panel discussions on virtually all aspects of contemporary sound and post production. Co-sponsors included Audionamix, Sound Particles, Tonsturm, Avid, Yamaha-Steinberg, iZotope, Meyer Sound, Dolby Labs, RSPE, Formosa Group and Westlake Audio, and attracted some 650 attendees.
With film credits that include Pacific Rim and The Book of Life, keynote speaker Gershin focused on advances in immersive sound and virtual reality experiences. Having recently joined Sound Lab at Keywords Studios, the sound designer and supervisor emphasized that “a single sound can set a scene,” ranging from a subtle footstep to an echo-laden yell of terror. “I like to use audio to create a foreign landscape, and produce immersive experiences,” he says, stressing that “dialog forms the center of attention, with music that shapes a scene emotionally and sound effects that glue the viewer into the scene.” In summary he concluded, “It is our role to develop a credible world with sound.”
The Sound of Streaming Content — The Cloverfield Paradox
Avid-sponsored panels within the Cary Grant Theater included an overview of OTT techniques titled “The Sound of Streaming Content,” which was moderated by Ozzie Sutherland, a production sound technology specialist with Netflix. Focusing on sound design and re-recording of the recent Netflix/Paramount Pictures sci-fi film mystery The Cloverfield Paradox from director Julius Onah, the panel included supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Will Files, co-supervising sound editor/sound designer Robert Stambler and supervising dialog editor/re-recording mixer Lindsey Alvarez. Files and Stambler have collaborated on several projects with director J. J. Abrams through Abram’s Bad Robot production company, including Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), as well as Venom (2018).
“Our biggest challenge,” Files readily acknowledges, “was the small crew we had on the project; initially, it was just Robby [Stambler] and me for six months. Then Star Wars: The Force Awakens came along, and we got busy!” “Yes,” confirmed Stambler, “we spent between 16 and 18 months on post production for The Cloverfield Paradox, which gave us plenty of time to think about sound; it was an enlightening experience, since everything happens off-screen.” While orbiting a planet on the brink of war, the film, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo and Daniel Brühl, follows a team of scientists trying to solve an energy crisis that culminates in a dark alternate reality.
Having screened a pivotal scene from the film in which the spaceship’s crew discovers the effects of interdimensional travel while hearing strange sounds in a corridor, Alvarez explained how the complex dialog elements came into play, “That ‘Woman in The Wall’ scene involved a lot of Mandarin-language lines, 50% of which were re-written to modify the story lines and then added in ADR.” “We also used deep, layered sounds,” Stambler said, “to emphasize the screams,” produced by an astronaut from another dimension that had become fused with the ship’s hull. Continued Stambler, “We wanted to emphasize the mystery as the crew removes a cover panel: What is behind the wall? Is there really a woman behind the wall?” “We also designed happy parts of the ship and angry parts,” Files added. “Dependent on where we were on the ship, we emphasized that dominant flavor.”
Files explained that the theatrical mix for The Cloverfield Paradox in Dolby Atmos immersive surround took place at producer Abrams’ Bad Robot screening theater, with a temporary Avid S6 M40 console. Files also mixed the first Atmos film, Brave, back in 2013. “J. J. [Abrams] was busy at the time,” Files said, “but wanted to be around and involved,” as the soundtrack took shape. “We also had a sound-editorial suite close by,” Stambler noted. “We used several Futz elements from the Mission Control scenes as Atmos Objects,” added Alvarez.
“But then we received a request from Netflix for a near-field Atmos mix,” that could be used for over-the-top streaming, recalled Files. “So we lowered the overall speaker levels, and monitored on smaller speakers to ensure that we could hear the dialog elements clearly. Our Atmos balance also translated seamlessly to 5.1- and 7.1-channel delivery formats.”
“I like mixing in Native Atmos because you can make final decisions with creative talent in the room,” Files concluded. “You then know that everything will work in 5.1 and 7.1. If you upmix to Atmos from 7.1, for example, the creatives have often left by the time you get to the Atmos mix.”
The Sound and Music of Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man
The series of “Composers Lounge” presentations held in the Anthony Quinn Theater, sponsored by SoundWorks Collection and moderated by Glenn Kiser from The Dolby Institute, included “The Sound and Music of First Man” with sound designer/supervising sound editor/SFX re-recording mixer Ai-Ling Lee, supervising sound editor Mildred latrou Morgan, SFX re-recording mixer Frank Montaño, dialog/music re-recording mixer Jon Taylor, composer Justin Hurwitz and picture editor Tom Cross. First Man takes a close look at the life of the astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon in July 1969. It stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy and Jason Clarke.
Having worked with the film’s director, Damien Chazelle, on two previous outings — La La Land (2016) and Whiplash (2014) — Cross advised that he likes to have sound available on his Avid workstation as soon as possible. “I had some rough music for the big action scenes,” he said, “together with effects recordings from Ai-Ling [Lee].” The latter included some of the SpaceX rockets, plus recordings of space suits and other NASA artifacts. “This gave me a sound bed for my first cut,” the picture editor continued. “I sent that temp track to Ai-Ling for her sound design and SFX, and to Milly [latrou Morgan] for dialog editorial.”
A key theme for the film was its documentary style, Taylor recalled, “That guided the shape of the soundtrack and the dialog pre-dubs. They had a cutting room next to the Hitchcock Theater [at Universal Studios, used for pre-dub mixes and finals] so that we could monitor progress.” There were no Temp Mixes on this project.
“We had a lot of close-up scenes to support Damien’s emotional feel, and used sound to build out the film,” Cross noted. “Damien watched a lot of NASA footage shot on 16 mm film, and wanted to make our film [immersive] and personal, using Neil Armstrong as a popular icon. In essence, we were telling the story as if we had taken a 16 mm camera into a capsule and shot the astronauts into space. And with an Atmos soundtrack!”
“We pre-scored the soundtrack against animatics in March 2017,” commented Hurwitz. “Damien [Chazelle] wanted to storyboard to music and use that as a basis for the first cut. I developed some themes on a piano and then full orchestral mock-ups for picture editorial. We then re-scored the film after we had a locked picture.” “We developed a grounded, gritty feel to support the documentary style that was not too polished,” Lee continued. “For the scenes on Earth we went for real-sounding backgrounds, Foley and effects. We also narrowed the mix field to complement the narrow image but, in contrast, opened it up for the set pieces to surround the audience.”
“The dialog had to sound how the film looked,” Morgan stressed. “To create that real-world environment I often used the mix channel for dialog in busy scenes like mission control, instead of the [individual] lavalier mics with their cleaner output. We also miked everybody in Mission Control – maybe 24 tracks in all.” “And we secured as many authentic sound recordings as we could,” Lee added. “In order to emphasize the emotional feel of being inside Neil Armstrong’s head space, we added surreal and surprising sounds like an elephant roar, lion growl or animal stampede to these cockpit sequences. We also used distortion and over-modulation to add ‘grit’ and realism.”
“It was a Native Atmos mix,” advised Montaño. “We used Atmos to reflect what the picture showed us, but not in a gimmicky way.” “During the rocket launch scenes,” Lee offered, “we also used the Atmos full-range surround channels to place many of the full-bodied, bombastic rocket roars and explosions around the audience.” “But we wanted to honor the documentary style,” Taylor added, “by keeping the music within the front LCR loudspeakers, and not coming too far out into the surrounds.”
The Sound of Director Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born
A subsequent panel discussion in the “Composers Lounge” series, again moderated by Kiser, focused on “The Sound of A Star Is Born,” with production sound mixer Steve Morrow, music production mixer Nick Baxter and re-recording mixer Dean Zupancic. The film is a retelling of the classic tale of a musician – Jackson Maine, played by Cooper – who helps a struggling singer find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral. Morrow re-counted that the director’s costar, Lady Gaga, insisted that all vocals be recorded live.
“We arranged to record scenes during concerts at the Stagecoach 2017 Festival,” the production mixer explained. “But because these were new songs that would not be heard in the film until 18 months later, [to prevent unauthorized bootlegs] we had to keep the sound out of the PA system, and feed a pre-recorded band mix to on-stage wedges or in-ear monitors.” “We had just a handful of minutes before Willie Nelson was scheduled to take the stage,” Baxter added, “and so we had to work quickly” in front of an audience of 45,000 fans. “We rolled on the equipment, hooked up the microphones, connected the monitors and went for it!”
To recreate the sound of real-world concerts, Baxter made impulse-response recordings of each venue – in stereo as well as 5.1- and 7.1- channel formats. “To make the soundtrack sound totally live,” Morrow continued, “at Coachella Festival we also captured the IR sound echoing off nearby mountains.” Other scenes were shot during Lady Gaga’s “Joanne” Tour in August 2017 while on a stop in Los Angeles, and others in the Palm Springs Convention Center, where Cooper’s character is seen performing at a pharmaceutical convention.
“For scenes filmed at the Glastonbury Festival in the UK in front of 110,000 people,” Morrow recalled, “we had been allocated just 10 minutes to record parts for two original songs — ‘Maybe It’s Time’ and ‘Black Eyes’ — ahead of Kris Kristofferson’s set. But then we were told that, because the concert was running late, we only had three minutes. So we focused on securing 30 seconds of guitar and vocals for each song.”
During a scene shot in a parking lot outside a food market where Lady Gaga’s character sings acapella, Morrow advised that he had four microphones on the actors: “Two booms, top and bottom, for Bradley Cooper’s voice, and lavalier mikes; we used the boom track when Lady Gaga (as Ally) belted out. I always had my hand on the gain knob! That was a key scene because it established for the audience that Ally can sing.”
Zupancic noted that first-time director Cooper was intimately involved in all aspects of post production, just as he was in production. “Bradley Cooper is a student of film,” he said. “He worked closely with supervising sound editor Alan Robert Murray on the music and SFX collaboration.” The high-energy Atmos soundtrack was realized at Warner Bros Studio Facilities’ post production facility in Burbank; additional re-recording mixers included Michael Minkler, Matthew Iadarola and Jason King, who also handled SFX editing.
An Avid session called “Monitoring and Control Solutions for Post Production with Immersive Audio” featured the company’s senior product specialist, Jeff Komar, explaining how Pro Tools with an S6 Controller and an MTRX interface can manage complex immersive audio projects, while a MIX Panel entitled “Mixing Dialog: The Audio Pipeline,” moderated by Karol Urban from Cinema Audio Society, brought together re-recording mixers Gary Bourgeois and Mathew Waters with production mixer Phil Palmer and sound supervisor Andrew DeCristofaro. “The Business of Immersive,” moderated by Gadget Hopkins, EVP with Westlake Pro, addressed immersive audio technologies, including Dolby Atmos, DTS and Auro 3D; other key topics included outfitting a post facility, new distribution paradigms and ROI while future-proofing a stage.
A companion “Parade of Carts & Bags,” presented by Cinema Audio Society in the Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage, enabled production sound mixers to show off their highly customized methods of managing the tools of their trade, from large soundstage productions to reality TV and documentaries.
Finally, within the Atmos-equipped William Holden Theater, the regular “Sound Reel Showcase,” sponsored by Formosa Group, presented eight-minute reels from films likely to be in consideration for a Best Sound Oscar, MPSE Golden Reel and CAS Awards, including A Quiet Place (Paramount) introduced by Erik Aadahl, Black Panther introduced by Steve Boeddecker, Deadpool 2 introduced by Martyn Zub, Mile 22 introduced by Dror Mohar, Venom introduced by Will Files, Goosebumps 2 introduced by Sean McCormack, Operation Finale introduced by Scott Hecker, and Jane introduced by Josh Johnson.
Main image: The Sound of First Man panel — Ai-Ling Lee (left), Mildred latrou Morgan & Tom Cross.
All photos copyright of Mel Lambert
Mel Lambert has been involved with production industries on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also a long-time member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.