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The gritty and realistic sounds of Joker

By Jennifer Walden

The grit of Gotham City in Warner Bros.’ Joker is painted on in layers, but not in broad strokes of sound. Distinct details are meticulously placed around the Dolby Atmos surround field, creating a soundtrack that is full but not crowded and muddy — it’s alive and clear. “It’s critical to try to create a real feeling world so Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) is that much more real, and it puts the audience in a place with him,” says re-recording mixer Tom Ozanich, who mixed alongside Dean Zupancic at Warner Bros. Sound in Burbank on Dub Stage 9.

L-R: Tom Ozanich, Unsun Song and Dean Zupancic on Dub Stage 9. Photo: Michael Dressel.

One main focus was to make a city that was very present and oppressive. Supervising sound editor Alan Robert Murray created specific elements to enhance this feeling, while dialogue supervisor Kira Roessler created loop group crowds and callouts that Ozanich could sprinkle throughout the film.

During the street scene near the beginning of the film, Arthur is dressed as a clown and dancing on the sidewalk, spinning a “Going Out of Business” sign. Traffic passes to the left and pedestrians walk around Arthur, who is on the right side of the screen. The Atmos mix reflects that spatiality.

“There are multiple layers of sounds, like callouts of group ADR, specific traffic sounds and various textures of air and wind,” says Zupancic. “We had so many layers that afforded us the ability to play sounds discretely, to lean the traffic a little heavier into the surrounds on the left and use layers of voices and footsteps to lean discretely to the right. We could play very specific dimensions. We just didn’t blanket a bunch of sounds in the surrounds and blanket a bunch of sounds on the front screen. It was extremely important to make Gotham seem gritty and dirty with all those layers.”

The sound effects and callouts didn’t always happen conveniently between lines of principal dialogue. Director Todd Phillips wanted the city to be conspicuous… to feel disruptive. Ozanich says, “We were deliberate with Todd about the placement of literally every sound in the movie. There are a few spots where the callouts were imposing (but not quite distracting), and they certainly weren’t pretty. They didn’t occur in places where it doesn’t matter if someone is yelling in the background. That’s not how it works in real life; we tried to make it more like real life and let these voices crowd in on our main characters.”

Every space feels unique with Gotham City filtering in to varying degrees. For example, in Arthur’s apartment, the city sounds distant and benign. It’s not as intrusive as it is in the social worker’s (Sharon Washington) office, where car horns punctuate the strained conversation. Zupancic says, “Todd was very in tune with how different things would sound in different areas of the city because he grew up in a big city.”

Arthur’s apartment was further defined by director Phillips, who shared specifics like: The bedroom window faces an alley so there are no cars, only voices, and the bathroom window looks out over a courtyard. The sound editorial team created the appropriate tracks, and then the mixers — working in Pro Tools via Avid S6 consoles — applied EQ and reverb to make the sounds feel like they were coming from those windows three stories above the street.

In the Atmos mix, the clarity of the film’s apposite reverbs and related processing simultaneously helped to define the space on-screen and pull the sound into the theater to immerse the audience in the environment. Zupancic agrees. “Tom [Ozanich] did a fabulous job with all of the reverbs and all of the room sound in this movie,” says. “His reverbs on the dialogue in this movie are just spectacular and spot on.”

For instance, Arthur is waiting in the green room before going on the Murray Franklin Show. Voices from the corridor filter through the door, and when Murray (Robert De Niro) and his stage manager open it to ask Arthur what’s with the clown makeup, the filtering changes on the voices. “I think a lot about the geography of what is happening, and then the physics of what is happening, and I factor all of those things together to decide how something should sound if I were standing right there,” explains Ozanich.

Zupancic says that Ozanich’s reverbs are actually multistep processes. “Tom’s not just slapping on a reverb preset. He’s dialing in and using multiple delays and filters. That’s the key. Sounds of things change in reality — reverbs, pitches, delays, EQ — and that is what you’re hearing in Tom’s reverbs.”

“I don’t think of reverb generically,” elaborates Ozanich, “I think of the components of it, like early reflections, as a separate thought related to the reverb. They are interrelated for sure, but that separation may be a factor of making it real.”

One reason the reverbs were so clear is because Ozanich mixed Joker’s score — composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir — wider than usual. “The score is not a part of the actual world, and my approach was to separate the abstract from the real,” explains Ozanich. “In Arthur’s world, there’s just a slight difference between the actual world, where the physical action is taking place, and Arthur’s headspace where the score plays. So that’s intended to have an ever-so-slight detachment from the real world, so that we experience that emotionally and leave the real space feeling that much more real.”

Atmos allows for discrete spatial placement, so Ozanich was able to pull the score apart, pull it into the theater (so it’s not coming from just the front wall), and then EQ each stem to enhance its defining characteristic — what Ozanich calls “tickling the ear.”

“When you have more directionality to the placement of sound, it pulls things wider because rather than it being an ambiguous surround space, you’re now feeling the specificity of something being 33% or 58% back off the screen,” he says.

Pulling the score away from the front and defining where it lived in the theater space gave more sonic real estate for the sounds coming from the L-C-Rs, like the distinct slap of a voice bouncing off a concrete wall or Foley sounds like the delicate rustling scratches of Arthur’s fingertips passing over a child’s paintings.

One of the most challenging scenes to mix in terms of effects was the bus ride, in which Arthur makes funny faces at a little boy, trying to make him laugh, only to be admonished by the boy’s mother. Director Phillips and picture editor Jeff Groth had very specific ideas about how that ‘70s-era bus should sound, and Zupancic wanted those sounds to play in the proper place in the space to achieve the director’s vision. “Buses of that era had an overhead rack where people could put packages and bags; we spent a lot of time getting those specific rattles where they should be placed, and where the motor should be and how it would sound from Arthur’s seat. It wasn’t a hard scene to mix; it was just complex. It took a lot of time to get all of that right. Now, the scene just goes by and you don’t pay attention to the little details; it just works,” says Zupancic.

Ozanich notes the opening was a challenging scene as well. The film begins in the clowns’ locker room. There’s a radio broadcast playing, clowns playing cards, and Arthur is sitting in front of a mirror applying his makeup. “Again, it’s not a terribly complex scene on the surface, but it’s actually one of the trickiest in the movie because there wasn’t a super clear lead instrument. There wasn’t something clearly telling you what you should be paying attention to,” says Ozanich.

The scene went through numerous iterations. One version had source music playing the whole time. Another had bits of score instead. There are multiple competing elements, like the radio broadcast and the clowns playing cards and sharing anecdotes. All those voices compete for the audience’s ear. “If it wasn’t tilted just the right way, you were paying attention to the wrong thing or you weren’t sure what you should be paying attention to, which became confusing,” says Ozanich.

In the end, the choice was made to pull out all the music and then shift the balance from the radio to the clowns as the camera passes by them. It then goes back to the radio briefly as the camera pushes in closer and closer on Arthur. “At this point, we should be focusing on Arthur because we’re so close to him. The radio is less important, but because you hear this voice it grabs your attention,” says Ozanich.

The problem was there were no production sounds for Arthur there, nothing to grab the audience’s ear. “I said, ‘He needs to make sound. It has to be subtle, but we need him to make some sound so that we connect to him and feel like he is right there.’ So Kira found some sounds of Joaquin from somewhere else in the film, and Todd did some stuff on a mic. We put the Foley in there and we cobbled together all of these things,” says Ozanich. “Now, it unquestionably sounds like there was a microphone open in front of him and we recorded that. But in reality, we had to piece it all together.”

“It’s a funny little dichotomy of what we are trying to do. There are certain things we are trying to make stick on the screen, to make you buy that the sound is happening right there with the thing that you’re looking at, and then at the same time, we want to pull sounds off of the screen to envelop the audience and put them into the space and not be separated by that plane of the screen,” observes Ozanich.

The Atmos mix on Joker is a prime example of how effective that dichotomy can be. The sound of the environments, like standing on the streets of Gotham or riding on the subway car, are distinct, dynamic, and ever-changing, and the sounds emanating from the characters are realistic and convincing. All of this serves to pull the audience into the story and get them emotionally invested in the tale of this sad, psychotic clown.


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


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