'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'CREATIVE SOUND TEAM KEEPS THE SERIES FRESH 8/01/2009 8:00 AM Eastern
Good heavens, will we ever be rid of Lord Voldemort? Here we are, six installments into the Harry Potter film series — the latest, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released in mid-July — and the Supremely Evil One is still wreaking havoc around the globe; indeed, in his quest for ultimate power, he is no longer just threatening Harry Potter and the wizards-in-training at Hogwarts School, but also increasingly sending his dark minions into the regular (Muggle) world. Yikes! It's been quite a ride these past eight years as J.K. Rowling's magical books have unfolded on the screen. We've watched the young actors pass through adolescence before our eyes, seen the special effects become increasingly realistic and frightening, and marveled at how each film has built on the previous one, even with four different directors at the helm, each eager to carve out his own identity in the series. The Half-Blood Prince (and the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which will come out as two films, one in the fall of 2010 and one in 2011) brings back the director of the acclaimed fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, David Yates, and many others who came onboard with Yates, such as supervising sound editor James Mather. (Others are veterans of Potter films dating back to the first one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.) It's partly this blend of experience and new blood that has helped keep the series fresh all these years.
When Yates was tapped to direct Order of the Phoenix, it was somewhat of a surprise as the director had never made a film remotely like it before. The same could be said for Mather; his best-known work as a sound supervisor was for several productions that came out of England's Aardman Animations — various Creature Comforts shorts and Nick Park's two stop-motion masterpieces, Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. However, it was another film that led to his being hired by Yates for Order of the Phoenix (and the subsequent three Potter films).
“I did a very, very different film called Notes on a Scandal, which was an extraordinary actor's film [earning Oscar nominations for Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett],” Mather says from his Soho Studios, where he's working on the highly anticipated new version of Sherlock Holmes. “It caught director David Yates' eye because he's a very good director of people; a real actor's director. The producers wanted me to come in and interview [for Order of the Phoenix] because this was going to be David's first big feature and he was very keen to incorporate new people into the world of Potter who had experience — maybe not on that scale, but there would be a team of people he could come in and run with. There was nobody who was going to pull rank with anybody else; it was all a case of, ‘Let's all do this together.’ He liked Notes on a Scandal and was also a big fan of Wallace & Gromit with all the detailed work that went into that.” Mather also had experience running his own London-based post-production company, SoundByte Studios, which is partly what prompted Aardman to let him try his hand at supervising in the first place after years as a dialog, Foley and FX editor.
Coming into a well-established, big-budget film series was challenging, to say the least, Mather admits. “I had big shoes to fill — [previous supervisors] Eddy Joseph, Randy Thom and Dennis Leonard all did fantastic work. It was quite a daunting prospect, and my first point was to look at the English technicians they had used on the previous films — designers, dialog editors and assistants, as well — and incorporate as many of them as I could, while also introducing some of the people that I normally work with. For that film, we had probably a 60/40 split of people who were previous Potter editors, so A) they knew the material, B) they knew the process, and C) they all had generic elements in their systems from previous films. It meant that from my and the other new editors' point of view, there was a lot of security in knowing that there was a shorthand already established. I think what happened as a result was that it gave the other 40 percent a lot more confidence — it certainly gave me more confidence — a little more room for creativity and a little more room for me to then sit back and watch and understand the process without trying to lead it blindly, as it were. And by understanding the process, I could then adapt it and change it to the systems I was more familiar with.”
Like all the previous Potter films, The Half-Blood Prince was shot mostly at Leavesden Film Studios, but posted at Pinewood Studios. Daniel Laurie was ADR supervisor, Derek Trigg the principal Foley editor, Bjorn Ole Schroeder the supervising dialog editor, and the main re-recording mixers — who worked on a Euphonix System 5 desk fed by innumerable Pro Tools systems — were Mike Dowson (backgrounds, Foley and dialog) and Stuart Hilliker (music and FX). Nicholas Hooper — another carry-over from Order of the Phoenix — wrote the moody, dramatic score.
Asked to list a couple of the sound editors who were particularly helpful working on Half-Blood Prince, Mather notes that there were many, but mentions Michael Fentum, who previously worked with him on The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and is also part of the Sherlock Holmes team; Emmy- and BAFTA Award-winner Andy Kennedy, who has contributed sound work to the last five Potter films, and “is a trusted favorite, always good to have onboard”; and James Boyle, “who came in on Order of the Phoenix to take care of the fight between [good wizard] Dumbledore and Voldemort.” Mather says that in general he prefers to have his editors work on a multiplicity of tasks — say, a reel's worth — than specialize in a certain area (fire, cars, etc.) as is fairly common on big American films. “I like to give the editors the flexibility to try different things so they don't feel like they're being pigeonholed. And through that process, I devise who's going to be really good for design and who's going to be good for FX and allocate work according to their strengths. It's also refreshing for editors to pass scenes over to each other for a different perspective — this way, the scene builds in dimensions and benefits from diversity.
“It helps everybody if there's a lot more sharing,” he continues. “We don't have a big industry here. We have some big films that come through it, but we have a small industry, so it's crucial to get as many people into the fold — even if for only a short period of time — as we can.”
Mather says that when it comes to sound, director Yates is “very hands-on, but he's got a very light touch — he loves the idea of things being very delicate and very beguiling. He very much likes the simplicity of sound. He's very clear about how he wants to keep people enthralled rather than repelled by an onslaught of sound. I completely agree with him about that. You let the big scenes be big, certainly, but the rest of it doesn't have to be quite as brash or loud. The soundtrack on the whole is a lot quieter and more enigmatic than previously. A lot of what makes it work is small sound details, and that's where having worked in animation really helps.”
This isn't to say there aren't many big sound moments and highly sophisticated sound design elements in the film — after all, this is a rich and strange fantasy world filled with magic, where the very future of the planet hinges on the outcome of epic skirmishes between Good and Evil. The film starts off with a bang — the skies over modern London darken with grey, billowing (CGI) clouds, one of which forms into a giant skull — the Dark Mark! — which precedes a sensational attack by Voldemort's wizard lieutenants, known as the Death Eaters, who soar through the skies and swoop through the city like midnight-black vapor trails, causing mass destruction in their wake.
“It's composited in a very dynamic way,” Mather says, “and that was great fun for us because you're flying with the Death Eaters, and it's a bit like a fairground ride — we wanted the audience to experience the same momentum with their eyes shut as they did when open.” To create the sound for the Death Eaters in flight and attacking, “We actually used some very simple methods combining Foley and passes of objects, such as fire, water and such, which we recorded and played with. There are also a lot of vocal effects that we use, not just there but throughout the film. With plug-ins, you can pitch and change the quality of almost everything, and vocals are particularly good for doing that because you can make so many weird sounds with your mouth and then manipulate them. When you pitch down vocal sounds, they can be very ominous. So everybody on the team contributed to that — you open the door to that kind of opportunity and everybody wants to have a go at it; everybody wants to try.” [Laughs] Breath passes were doubled and tripled and manipulated. To add even more heft to some of the mayhem, “We recorded the sound of jumping on cardboard boxes — we had these DPA mics that can take a lot of level and we practically had them inside the boxes so we could really get the air movement.”
Among the plug-ins Mather and his team employed to alter sounds were various bundles from GRM Tools and iZotope. “We tend to record as much as we can at 192 kHz so we can actually import it in a 48kHz session in Pro Tools and it pitches down really cleanly, and you get an amazing amount of weight and body to it without the artifacts,” he says.
Field effects were generally recorded to Sound Devices rigs, then transferred to Pro Tools, but Mather adds, “Effects and dialog editors now all have small hand recorders that will record up to 96k, and they're 24-bit so they can go out and record anything they want. It only costs a couple of hundred quid to buy these things, so why not?”
We asked Mather to talk about three other scenes that feature imaginative sound design.
Order of the Phoenix was the rare Potter film without a Quidditch scene (Quidditch being the main sport played at Hogwarts — it's sort of like very high-speed lacrosse played high in the air on broomsticks), so for Half-Blood Prince Mather had to develop his own sonic vocabulary for the sport without completely abandoning the approach his predecessors had taken. “We played quite a bit with new effects,” he says. “What we wanted to lose was anything at all electronic-sounding. We wanted to make it sound as airy and realistic as possible, so we used a lot of brush wood and wind passes, and dynamically we tried to change the sound of some of the quaffle balls, which are the big football-like things.” For the sounds of the (mostly CGI) crowd in the stadium below the mid-air match, “We had a crowd [ADR] session in an airfield north of the studios where we could orchestrate 50 people all reacting in different ways. And, as is often the case, it was the specific yells and shouts that we recorded later on that really peaked through.” When it came time to mix the scene in 5.1, there were a huge number of perspective changes to deal with, between the action in the air and the people on the ground — it became quite a playground for surround sound. Add to that a prominent score, and you've got quite a full track.
One of the book's central storylines involves Dumbledore showing Harry Potter scenes from the life of a one-time Hogwarts student named Tom Riddle, who would grow up to become Lord Voldemort. To access Dumbledore's and others' memories of Riddle, Harry has to stare into a swirling silvery-liquid/gas in a stone basin known as a Pensieve to enter the scenes. “We played with a lot of liquid sounds, of course, because everything floats down [toward the center of it] in a sort of ink-through-water way. In one instance [where Professor Slughorn's memory of Riddle has been tampered with], we treated the voices with a really, really convoluted experiment. Basically, we took the dialog, reversed the words and laid them in sync back alongside the original words, then did a delay reverb, which we reversed and played back underneath the voices. So you have this kind of incoherent voice playing underneath the real voice. At the point where the memory has been tampered with, we dip out of the real voice and let the incoherent voice blur the words, keeping the ambiguity. It sounds watery because of the nature of the plug-in. It gave it that slightly off-set feeling. Again, it's a little thing, but it adds a lot. Although an arduous process, it worked in surprising ways, especially with footsteps! It was plug-in hell,” Mather says with a chuckle. “We also found ourselves incorporating low-end pulses and beats throughout the film, as though there was an ebbing and flowing heartbeat, to hint at the intimacy of the script, as well as complement the music score.”
And then there is the eerie set-piece that leads to the eventual denouement: Harry and Dumbledore must find a secret cavern that holds an important relic connected to Voldemort's past, and then travel across a lake there that's infested with ghastly and ghostly Inferi to retrieve it. To establish the ambience of this environment, “Initially, we went tonal,” Mather says, “so we used vocals and slowed them down, things like that. And one of the key points of it is the lumos [the little balls of light that illuminate the cave's antechamber]. Originally, the lumos lights had a high-pitched tone and it was a bit uncomfortable, but then one of the designers came up with a lovely sound that was very much like a small firefly in a jar, so we went for this sound that had much more texture to it and was a bit, without sounding too corny, like a Tinkerbell effect. It's funny how sound prompts things already familiar. [In the scene,] that sound comes and goes, and that does so much to locate you and also the space — you could suddenly bounce this reverb off the huge cavern. We used ice and water sounds, obviously, which we played around with a lot. We spent some time down on the coast recording sea-wash scooping into inlets and gullies. But a lot of what you hear is very subtle.”
For the attack of the Inferi, who try to drown Harry in their lake, Mather and his team employed a combination of liquid sounds and heavily manipulated screams from another ADR group. “We also did an ADR session with Daniel [Radcliffe, who plays Harry] where he insisted that he should record his vocals under water! So a large bucket of water was prepared and, with his head in it, we recorded his shouts and so on. He's incredibly enthusiastic with things like that. He wants it to be as much fun as it possibly can, as they all do.”
This is just a small handful of the enormous number of settings and FX that had to be created for the film by the sound team. Needless to say, there is also fantastical wand-work throughout (both whimsical and dire), not to mention rooms ranging from grand, stone-walled castle halls to claustrophobic huts, crashing waves on a forbidding coast and flames devouring a small village; spells and potions that inspire their own sonic signatures; even a decrepit house magically transforming to its former glory: “The house looks derelict and Dumbledore conjures it back together!” Mather says. To get one of the sounds for the scene, Mather's team dropped a piano from 30 feet high and recorded it from different angles. “The piano was one of the objects that reverses from broken to fixed, along with the splintering wood, et cetera. We also used some of the discords made during the break-up as elements for the cave ambience at the end of the film.”
As Mather continues to toil on Sherlock Holmes, more Potter awaits him up the road: The Deathly Hollows, parts 1 and 2, are currently in production at Leavesden, and that means scores of new sound challenges will be coming his way shortly. Then, like the actors young and old who have populated this magic universe for so many years, Mather will join the rest of us in a world without a new Harry Potter story coming around the next bend.