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'Metallica Through the Never': Sound Helps Tell the Story in 3-D Concert Film

Leave it to Metallica—modern metal monsters with unquestionable integrity and boundless creativity—to come up with a unique twist for their 3-D concert film, Metallica Through the Never. Rather t

Leave it to Metallica—modern metal monsters with unquestionable integrity and boundless creativity—to come up with a unique twist for their 3-D concert film, Metallica Through the Never. Rather than merely presenting the quartet live in an arena, or peppering concert footage with intimate backstage looks at the band, director Nimród Antal’s film is interspersed with a dark, impressionistic 24-minute story that takes place offstage, out in the streets, depicting a chaotic and violent dystopian world. A great selection of heavy Metallica favorites—shot with 3-D cameras, the band in-the-round in sold-out arenas—still dominate the 92-minute film, but no one is going to accuse this always dangerous band of playing it safe for their epic big screen debut.

It all starts with the concert, of course. Although a plethora of cameras (and many more microphones) were employed to capture the band live, “The primary shows, of which there were four—two in Edmonton and two in Vancouver—were like regular Metallica concerts,” comments music producer and mixer Greg Fidelman, who has worked with the group for the past several years (while also amassing many other credits, ranging from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to Adele, The Civil Wars and Black Sabbath, to name just a few). “None of the pacing was altered. The band came on and played all the way to the end as if there were no cameras. We also did one other night of pickup shots, where the audience knew that there were going to be some starts and stops. But the great majority of the concert footage is from the other nights.

“When we started putting it together,” he continues, “the first thing I did was sit down with the band and say, ‘We’ve got four full shows and a partial show—let’s look at it like a live album and pick the best performances of each song, without taking into consideration anything but the best version of the music. Then let’s present those versions to [picture] editorial and go from there.’ It was like playing tennis with editorial—we’d give them a song and they’d say, ‘We’re really in a corner for these sections, because we’ve got a great overhead shot from Edmonton, but the musical performance selected doesn’t match up. Is there any way you could use the audio from this section based on the visual?’ We went back and forth like that, and that went on until the end.”

How similar were the versions of each song, from night to night? “Metallica is a real, live rock/metal band and they don’t stand in the same place every night, they don’t play the same drum fills or guitar solos,” Fidelman says. “There are about a dozen vocal microphones on the stage, yet there are only three spots in the whole concert where you know James [Hetfield] is going to be on that mic, and on this song he’s going to be on this other mic when it starts. Other than that, he’s free to roam the stage as he wants—and it’s a big stage—so front-of-house has to keep track of that.”

Metallica Through the Never movie poster

The shows were recorded to Pro Tools with the Music Mix Mobile truck and staff. Because Fidelman and the band wanted to capture the full dimensionality of the crowd, they set up 18 audience mics. Fidelman comments, “If you’ve got the band at one end of an arena, it’s obvious where you put the audience mics. But when a concert is in the round it’s more of an unusual scenario, so we had one set of microphones on the stage facing the crowd, there was another array hanging from the ceiling that was in the crowd about halfway up pointing down, and then another pair way back as far from the P.A. as we could get. Once we had it, we had to crack the code and figure out what was the best combination of all those elements to capture what it sounded like in the arena.”

Those audience tracks became a critical element for veteran Oscar-nominated sound designer Mark Mangini, who was tasked with creating the sound for the largely wordless narrative sections of the film, as well as figuring out how to seamlessly weave from songs to story and back throughout the film.

As far as the design was concerned, “The cars in flames and riots and crowds all have the sounds you’d expect, and we don’t disappoint in that regard,” Mangini says. “But there were also a lot of ethereal and surreal moments that needed conceptualized sound, and there’s where we got into using different reverbs and designing weird noises and various wash-y, drone-y textures I made out of material from my library and fooling around with plug-ins.

“From day one,” Mangini continues, “there was always this concern that the connection between the narrative and the concert is a little oblique, so I felt compelled to have sound help tell that story. The first thing I did was come up with this idea for the opening of the film, which starts with a long aerial shot that goes from space to the parking lot where Metallica is playing. For this one-minute-long stretch I put in sounds as if someone was tuning in through a radio, and every time he lands on a station, we get a little tidbit of information about the plot. You don’t know that initially, but the hope is that we’ve planted little seeds, such that all these ideas pay off as the movie progresses.”

Joining Mangini on the post team working at Technicolor Paramount Stage 2 in Hollywood on a Euphonix System 5 were a pair of perennially busy re-recording mixers—Jeff Haboush mixed FX, Foley, backgrounds and crowds; Rick Kline mixed all the music and handled the sync crowds and dialog. Both are multiple Oscar nominees. They had their work cut out for them, too. Besides the 7.1 mix that was their starting point, they also created completely separate original mixes for IMAX, 5.1 for the home theater environment, stereo and, toward the end, a Dolby Atmos mix.

“It would be nice if you could just transfer your mixes across the different formats,” Haboush says, “but we found we had to approach each one differently, rebalancing for the different speaker configurations. Like with IMAX, you get a little more girth below, so you have to balance the low end differently than with 7.1, and it’s a different surround experience. For the 5.1 near-field you have to raise a few of the very low sounds and get a nicer dynamic range package for that environment. Then we made a left-right [stereo] mix, which is one the band really cares about a lot because it’s what a lot of their fans will probably listen to. They’re going take this movie, pop it into a laptop, put their headphones on and listen to it that way. We worked hard to keep the balances, but we manipulated some of the sounds and made sure it played clearly in left-right.

Metallica movie crew L-R: Graham Stumpf, post-production supervisor; Matt Fausak, music editor; Rick Kline, music and dialog re-recording mixer; Sara Killion, music recording/mix engineer; Mark Mangini, supervising sound editor/sound designer; Adam Ellison, movie co-producer; Jeff Haboush, sound effects re-recording mixer; Jim Monti, music recording/mix engineer; Eric Flickinger, re-recording mix tech; Greg Fidelman, music producer/mixer; David Whittaker, sound effects editor; Bryan Pennington, Dolby tech.

L-R: Graham Stumpf, post-production supervisor; Matt Fausak, music editor; Rick Kline, music and dialog re-recording mixer; Sara Killion, music recording/mix engineer; Mark Mangini, supervising sound editor/sound designer; Adam Ellison, movie co-producer; Jeff Haboush, sound effects re-recording mixer; Jim Monti, music recording/mix engineer; Eric Flickinger, re-recording mix tech; Greg Fidelman, music producer/mixer; David Whittaker, sound effects editor; Bryan Pennington, Dolby tech.

“When we finished that, we went to my favorite format, Atmos,” he continues. “This was my first Atmos mix and it was a real treat getting to fill the room with the little details [the format] allows. There’s a sequence when Robert Trujillo is playing a bass and he’s in this little room that’s coated with hundreds and hundreds of speakers, and as you walk by, the camera is shaking, the low end is shaking the theater and there’s debris coming from the ceiling. So in that instance, I took a little of the debris—gravel and stones and rattling—and put them up in the top speaker and it created a cool effect. It’s nice to be able to take not just big, loud stuff, but also little subtle moves, and put them in the space of the room, and you feel it and you sense it.”

Kline explained some of the challenges of the music mix: “In a nutshell, I’ve got 128 channels coming into the board of things that Greg and Joseph Magee—who’s credited as the supervising music mixer on the show—groomed so there were a lot of things already summed inside the music rig. I’ve never come across the level of detail and reshaping that I have, working on this film. Greg is so intimately connected to it, and having worked on it for a year, he wants every subtle nuance to be heard in every format.

“Greg’s conscious choice from day one was to set a pan on the array on the band and that would be it [through the movie], so the only way you feel manipulated by space is if there’s an extreme close-up of the bass player, we’ll bump it up a bit.” There is not, however, tremendous volume variation in the music as the visuals shift back and forth from music to narrative. “Those [narrative] scenes are meant to be atmospheric and otherworldly,” Kline says, “so you hear that in some of the sound design, but the music still plays energetically, so you never feel the song is diminished. You may be offstage, but there’s still the energy of the band driving everything.”

Kline also highlights the contributions of Hungarian-American director Antal (Vacancy, Predators): “He brought great filmmaking skills and his familiarity with the music—he’s a huge fan of the band, though that would not have been enough to get him the job. He was so involved with every aspect, yet still respectful of the process. He was conscious of the fact that he had to deliver a full-on concert, but he also had to deliver a story and a thread. He was very hands-on, but he also let us run with it.”

Complicating the project a step beyond the multitude of film formats it required, is the fact that there is also a music-only CD release and a couple of DVD extras that required more work—a version of the concert without the narrative portions; and the narrative without the concert. No wonder the final mix stretched to three months, long even by Hollywood blockbuster standards. How much input did the band have in the film? “A lot,” says Mangini. “Greg, who has worked with the band over the last seven or eight years, was their voice, to a degree. But they were in the edit room a great deal; they were heavily involved with the edit and heavily involved with the mix. So we heard from them constantly. To be honest, going in I wondered if their hearing might be thrashed from 30 years of 130-decibel concerts. But to the contrary, they all still have really keen hearing and they heard nuances that even I didn’t hear in our mix. That was quite impressive.”

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