Tag Archives: Twickenham Studios

Creating the sonic world of ‘Macbeth’

By Jennifer Walden

On December 4, we will all have the opportunity to hail Michael Fassbender as he plays Macbeth in director Justin Kurzel’s film adaption of the classic Shakespeare play. And while Macbeth is considered to be the Bard’s darkest tragedy, audiences at the Cannes Film Festival premiere felt there was nothing tragic about Kurzel’s fresh take on it.

As evidenced in his debut film, The Snowton Murders, Kurzel’s passion for dark imagery fits The Weinstein Co’s Macbeth like a custom-fitted suit of armor. “The Snowtown Murders was brutal, beautiful, uncompromising and original, and I felt sure Justin would approach Macbeth with the same vision,” says freelance supervising sound editor Steve Single. “He’s a great motivator and demanded more of the team than almost any director I’ve worked with, but we always felt that we were an important part of the process. We all put more of ourselves into this film, not only for professional pride, but to make sure we were true to Justin’s expectations and vision.”

Single, who was also the re-recording mixer on the dialogue/music, worked with London-based sound designers Markus Stemler and Alastair Sirkett to translate Kurzel’s abstract and esoteric ideas — like imagining the sound of mist — and place them in the reality of Macbeth’s world. Whether it was the sound of sword clashes or chimes for the witches, Kurzel looked beyond traditional sound devices. “He wanted the design team to continually look at what elements they were adding from a very different perspective,” explains Single.

L-R: Gilbert Lake, Steve Single and Alastair Sirkett.

L-R: Gilbert Lake, Steve Single and Alastair Sirkett.

Sirkett notes that Kurzel’s bold cinematic style — immediately apparent by the slow-motion-laced battle sequence in the opening — led him and Stemler to make equally bold choices in sound. Adds Stemler, “I love it when films have a strong aesthetic, and it was the same with the sound design. Justin certainly pushed all of us to go for the rather unconventional route here and there.  In terms of the creative process, I think that’s a truly wonderful situation.”

Gathering, Creating Sounds
Stemler and Sirkett split up the sound design work by different worlds, as Kurzel referred to them, to ensure that each world sounded distinctly different, with its own, unique sonic fingerprint. Stemler focused on the world of the battles, the witches and the village of Inverness. “The theme of the world of the witches was certainly a challenge. Chimes had always been a key element in Justin’s vision,” says Stemler, whose approach to sound design often begins with a Schoeps mic and a Sound Devices recorder.

As he started to collect and record a variety of chimes, rainmakers and tiny bells, Stemler realized that just shaking them wasn’t going to give him the atmospheric layer he was looking for. “It needed to be way softer and smoother. In the process I found some nacre chimes (think mother-of-pearl shells) that had a really nice resonance, but the ‘clonk’ sound just didn’t fit. So I spent ages trying to kind of pet the chimes so I would only get their special resonance. That was quite a patience game.”

By having distinct sonic themes for each “world,” re-recording mixers Single and Gilbert Lake (who handled the effects/Foley/backgrounds) were able to transition back and forth between those sonic themes, diving into the next ‘world’ without fully leaving the previous one.

There’s the “gritty reality of the situation Macbeth appears to be forging, the supernatural world of the witches whose prophecy has set out his path for him, the deterioration of Macbeth’s mental state, and how Macbeth’s actions resonate with the landscape,” says Lake, explaining the contrast between the different worlds. “It was a case of us finding those worlds together and then being conscious about how they relate to one another, sometimes contrasting and sometimes blending.”

Skirett notes that the sonic themes were particularly important when crafting Macbeth’s craziness. “Justin wanted to use sound to help with Macbeth’s deterioration into paranoia and madness, whether it be using the sound of the witches, harking back to the prophecy or the initial battle and the violence that had occurred there. Weaving that into the scenes as we moved forward was alMACBETHways going to be a tricky balancing act, but I think with the sounds that we created, the fantastic music from composer Jed Kurzel, and with Steve [Single] and Gilly [Lake] mixing, we’ve achieved something quite amazing.”

Sirkett details a moment of Macbeth’s madness in which he recalls the memory of war. “I spent a lot of time finding elements from the opening battle — whether it be swords, clashes or screams — that worked well once they were processed to feel as though they were drifting in and out of his mind without the audience being able to quite grasp what they were hearing, but hopefully sensing what they were and the implication of the violence that had occurred.”

Sirkett used Audio Ease’s Altiverb 7 XL in conjunction with a surround panning tool called Spanner by The Cargo Cult “to get some great sounds and move them accurately around the theatre to help give a sense of unease for those moments that Justin wanted to heighten Macbeth’s state of mind.”

The Foley, Score, Mix
The Foley team on Macbeth included Foley mixer Adam Mendez and Foley artist Ricky Butt from London’s Twickenham Studios. Additional Foley for the armies and special sounds for the witches was provided by Foley artist Carsten Richter and Foley mixer Marcus Sujata at Tonstudio Hanse Warns in Berlin, Germany. Sirkett points out that the sonic details related to the costumes that Macbeth and Banquo (Paddy Considine) wore for the opening battle. “Their costumes look huge, heavy and bloodied by the end of the opening battle. When they were moving about or removing items, you felt the weight, blood and sweat that was in them and how it was almost sticking to their bodies,” he says.

Composer Jed Kurzel’s score often interweaves with the sound design, at times melting into the soundscape and at other times taking the lead. Stemler notes the quiet church scene in which Lady Macbeth sits in the chapel of an abandoned village. Dust particles gently descend to the sound of delicate bells twinkling in the background. “They prepare for the moment where the score is sneaking in almost like an element of the wind.  It took us some time in the mix to find that perfect balance between the score and our sound elements. We had great fun with that kind of dance between the elements.”

MACBETHDuring the funeral of Macbeth’s child in the opening of the film, Jed Kurzel’s score (the director’s brother) emotes a gentle mournfulness as it blends with the lashing wind and rain sound effects. Single feels the score is almost like another character. “Bold and unexpected, it was an absolute pleasure to bring each cue into the mix. From the rolling reverse percussion of the opening credits to the sublime theme for Lady Macbeth’s decline into madness, he crafted a score that is really very special.”

Single and Lake mixed Macbeth in 5.1 at Warner Bros.’ De Lane Lea studio in London, using an AMS Neve DFC console. On Lake’s side of the board, he loved mixing the final showdown between Macbeth and Macduff — a beautifully edited sequence where the rhythm of the fighting perfectly plays against Jed Kurzel’s score.

“We wanted the action to feel like Macbeth and Macduff were wrenching their weapons from the earth and bringing the full weight of their ambitions down on one another,” says Lake. “Markus [Stemler] steered clear of traditional sword hits and shings and I tried to be as dynamic as possible and to accentuate the weight and movement of their actions.”

To create original sword sounds, Stemler took the biggest screw wrench he could find and recorded himself banging on every big piece of metal available in their studio’s warehouse. “I hit old heaters, metal staircases, stands and pipes. I definitely left a lot of damage,” he jokes. After a bit of processing, those sounds became major elements in the sword sounds.

Director Kurzel wanted the battle sequences to immerse the audience in the reality of war, and to show how deeply it affects Macbeth to be in the middle of all that violence. “I think the balance between “real” action and the slo-mo gives you a chance to take in the horror unfolding,” says Lake. “Jed’s music is very textural and it was about finding the right sounds to work with it and knowing when to back off with the effects and let it become more about the score. It was one of those rare and fortunate events where everyone is pulling in the same direction without stepping on each other’s toes!”

L-R Alastair Sirkett, Steve Single and Gilbert Lake.

L-R Alastair Sirkett, Steve Single and Gilbert Lake.

To paraphrase the famous quote, “Copy is King” holds true for any project, in a Shakespeare adaptation, the copy is as untouchable as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. “You have in Macbeth some of the most beautiful and insightful language ever written and you have to respect that,” says Single. His challenge was to make every piece of poetic verse intelligible while still keeping the intimacy that director Kurzel and the actors had worked for on-set, which Single notes, was not an easy task. “The film was shot entirely on location, during the worst storms in the UK for the past 100 years. Add to this an abundance of smoke machines and heavy Scottish accents and it soon became apparent that no matter how good production sound mixer Stuart Wilson’s recordings were — he did a great job under very tough conditions — there was going to be a lot of cleaning to do and some difficult decisions about ADR.”

Even though there was a good bit of ADR recorded, in the end Single found he was able to restore and polish much of the original recordings, always making sure that in the process of achieving clarity the actors’ performances were maintained. In the mix, Single says it was about placing the verse in each scene first and then building up the soundtrack around that. “This was made especially easy by having such a good effects mixer in Gilly Lake,” he concludes.

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

Sound effects and dialog design for ‘The Martian’

By Mel Lambert

In The Martian, during a manned mission to Mars astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and is left behind by his crew. With only meager supplies, he is forced to draw upon his scientific ingenuity to signal NASA that he is alive and awaits rescue. Based on the book by Andy Weir and a screenplay by Drew Goddard, the film adaptation of Twentieth Century Fox’s The Martian was directed by Ridley Scott.

“I had read both the book and the script months before we started post sound on The Martian,” recalls supervising sound editor and sound designer Oliver Tarney, who was nominated for an Oscar for his sound editing work on Captain Phillips. “This meant that I could start thinking about the design of the sound long before I received the first turnover. I’d also spoken to picture editor Pietro Scalia, ACE, about how he and director Ridley Scott wanted to approach the soundtrack. The number one priority was keeping the audience connected to what the character Mark Watney (Matt Damon) was experiencing throughout his journey, so I knew we had to have a palette of sounds that described the isolation and jeopardy of his situation, right from the time we started on the director’s cut.”


A month before he started on the film, Tarney took a road trip around the southwestern part of the US and brought along his recording equipment (shown right). “I wanted to build up a library of desert winds and footsteps in remote areas such as the salt flats in Death Valley and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. I’d ended up in Los Angeles for a few days before returning home to London and the opportunity came up to visit the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena to record the Mars rover.”

He says the JPL engineers at the Mars Yard were incredibly helpful, not just in giving him access to recording the Rover but also giving him an insight into the NASA approach.

The soundtrack was edited and re-recorded at Twickenham Studios/TW1 in West London, with Paul Massey handling dialog/music and mixer/editor Mark Taylor overseeing sound effects. Michael Fentum was co-sound designer, Rachael Tate was dialog/ADR supervisor, James Harrison was sound effects editor, Hugo Adams was the Foley supervisor and Tony Lewis was music editor.

“While recording the Rover,” Tarney recalls, “what became immediately apparent was that although the engineering is absolutely state of the art, there is also this raw, buzzing, whirring and — surprisingly — unsophisticated element to it. The cost of sending anything into space is so extreme that these machines have to be purely functional, stripped down to the bare minimum… aesthetics and ergonomics are secondary to function.”

L-R: Dafydd Archard,; Rachael Tate,Oliver Tarney, Mark Taylor and Michael Fentum. Not pictured: Paul Massey.

L-R: Sound mix technician Dafydd Archard,  Rachael Tate, Oliver Tarney, Mark Taylor and Michael Fentum. Not pictured: Paul Massey.

That realization became the basis for Tarney’s sound design. “We needed to convey the austere rawness of the technology used in keeping Mark Watney alive,” he says. “Mike Fentum and I recorded a huge library of sounds with Schertler contact mics, building up a palette of electrical buzzes, clicks and whirs that would be the basis for the equipment Watney uses in the film. It helped to describe that, although there may be billions of dollars of technology up there, there’s also a certain fragility and therefore constant threat to life. The raw sounds of the technology also played along with the fact that Watney himself is an engineer and could access, repair and re-imagine uses for it, which he does throughout the film.”

This was the fourth film on which Tarney had worked with director Scott — including Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Counselor. “You start to get to know some of the regulars he uses in other departments,” he says. “The costume department was very generous in giving us both a Mars surface suit and an EVA space suit right from day one of sound. Janty Yates’ detailed work on the suits is absolutely beautiful, but the best bit for us was that they sounded great!

“The very first scenes sent to Ridley and Pietro [Scalia] to review were of Watney outside on the Mars surface. The footstep recordings I’d made in the desert, combined with the suit Foley and temp helmet breaths, worked really effectively. They made sure that even during the director’s cut, viewers were always connected to Watney’s plight – experiencing the isolation, the discomfort of the heavy suit and the claustrophobic in-helmet breaths. Although the visuals are truly beautiful, we wanted to remind the audience that survival on the inhospitable surface of Mars is near-impossible for any lone human.”

Tarney says Scott wanted Watney’s Habitat on Mars to sound like he was living inside a life-support system. “We still wanted to have the same sense of the raw technology at play here, but with an almost womb-like protection from the dangers of Mars,” states Tarney. “We recorded very low frequencies oscillating extremely loudly though a subwoofer loudspeaker in a range of rooms, and also inside spaces such as filing cabinets. Those tracks made up the foundations of that environment. The rhythmic nature of the sounds adds an almost comforting feeling. But because Ridley wanted us to sell the idea that the Habitat wasn’t designed for use over such a long period of time, as the film progressed we also introduced various BPM-matched squeaks and creaks to the pulses. Again, the technology is there, but it is not pretty, just purely functional. With the Habitat designed to last for only 31 days, it degrades slowly, as the narrative unfolds.

(from left) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars.

Tarney considers that the Habitat sounds are particularly effective in Dolby Atmos immersive format. “Mark Taylor was part of the sound editorial team before he switched to mixing the FX,” he says. “He had a 9.1 set-up in his cutting room, which allowed Mike Fentum and me to review our ambiences and discuss with Mark which elements we should be looking to bleed into the overheads. The extended low frequencies in Atmos were incredibly useful in giving us that ‘enveloped’ sound we were looking for when mixing those Habitat scenes.”

“I pre-mixed all the sound effects and Foley virtually in Pro Tools,” Taylor confirms. “This [approach] gives me ultimate flexibility if something needs to be removed or altered on an elemental level. I then routed the separate buss outputs from Pro Tools into the Neve DFC console as pre-dub inputs. I love what the DFC does EQ- and dynamics-wise; it makes material blend nicely, with some gentle compression and a final EQ shaping on each pre-dub. I also love the console’s overheads pan feature, which I used extensively for the Atmos mix, with all the Hab interiors being sent in varying measure to these overhead loudspeaker channels.”

Designing Dialog and ADR
At first glance, it might appear that for the dialog department The Martian soundtrack was pretty straight forward, since most of the screen time is composed of one character who is alone on Mars. But dialog/ADR supervisor Rachael Tate quickly realized the film was actually going to be very multi-layered and technically demanding. “Our biggest challenge was the opening scene of the film,” she explains, “with a dust storm so fierce that it forces the crew to abort their mission. Ridley is always thinking about the story, so dialog clarity is paramount.

“Most of the dialog in the storm is played as if we are overhearing radio comms between the characters,” she continues. “We had to find a way of getting the lines to cut through the immersive FX of the storm without it becoming painfully sharp or distorted. We did this by using a blend of three different helmet-‘worldized’ treatments [secured by replaying dialog lines in the actual costumes], and altered slightly depending on the tone, projection and pitch of each line. Often a great sounding Futz for a low male voice will be too harsh and crisp for a female shouting at the top of her voice. Despite this, we retained a consistency, with dialog re-recording mixer Paul Massey skillfully blending within the boundaries of the overall effect we wanted to create.”

Early on, the editorial team experimented with a multitude of DAW plug-ins but found that the most effective results always came from worldizing. “We fed all in-helmet dialogue through an Avantone speaker that was placed inside a helmet we’d been given by production using a Sanken Cos-11 lavalier mic clipped inside to record the results,” explains Tate. Right from the beginning of sound post, I had this setup as an Aux Send from my Pro Tools session. This arrangement really helped instill that sense of claustrophobia Ridley was seeking to emphasize.”

Helmut mic.

Helmet mic.

Another example came when the team needed to create a sense of distance while NASA Mission Control is monitoring the communications between Watney and the Hermes space vehicle holding the Ares III crew as it returned to Earth, some 140 million miles away. “We set up a tube shortwave transmitter in one room and broadcast the lines to an old radio in another, using a [Placid Audio] Copperphone mic,” she explains. “The naturally lo-fi result gave a far more believable sense that these lines had travelled through the ether, rather than having been processed.”

NASA was particularly cooperative, Tate reports, by providing help in re-creating the world of Houston’s Mission Control. “We were put in touch with a great group of NASA employees who work regularly in Mission Control. They were amazing, immediately giving those scenes the textures we needed, with those unique timbres in the way they communicate. The way they deliver lines is incredibly flat; it’s just about delivering information to each other in the most efficient way, rather than performing a line. They provided not only general comms for background color, but we also got them to react to specific story points and launches throughout the film so that we could create 360-degree NASA activity, specific to on-screen events.”

In the studio’s EPK, Scott said, “This is the ultimate survival story. Mark Watney is placed under unimaginable duress and isolation; the movie is about how he responds. Mark’s fate was determined by whether he succumbed to panic and despair and accepted death as inevitable — or chose to rely on his training, resourcefulness and sense of humor to stay calm and solve problems.”

The Martian, which has been garnering Oscar buzz, is in theaters now.

Mel Lambert is principal of Content Creators, an LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. Follow him on Twitter @MelLambertLA.