On the final day of April, the Technology Building at Skywalker Ranch is buzzing with activity, as post-production work on director Ang Lee's eagerly anticipated film The Hulk charges toward its final mix and its much-hyped June 20 opening. Outside, the rolling Marin County hills are Hulk-green, thanks to heavier-than-usual spring rains. Inside the main mixing theater, Oscar
“There are three dogs,” Rydstrom explains, “and the problem when you do any sort of creature vocals is to make them distinguishable. The first one I'm doing today is mostly from bear recordings that Eugene [Gearty, co-sound designer with Rydstrom] had. The [Hulk] poodle sound is mostly from dogs: pit bulls and other dogs pitched down a little bit. One dog has a particularly drool-y, wet mouth, so we emphasize that. We're trying to make them not so overtly dog-like, now that they're big and they're Hulk-like.”
Of course, Rydstrom is no stranger to this sort of sound work, having contributed to many big effects shows through the years, includingTerminator 2, Jurassic Park, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan (all of which earned him Oscars), The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, A.I., Minority Report, Monsters, Inc. and dozens of other films. Before beginning work on The Hulk, he had completed Pixar's latest, Finding Nemo, a children's film as benign as The Hulk is disturbing.
Making a big, and at times very loud, blockbuster action film is new for director Ang Lee, best known for Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Filming on Universal soundstages and on location around the San Francisco Bay Area, Lee initially assembled a technical crew that mixed veterans of his previous films and a number of new faces. The former included cinematographer Frederick Elmes, film editor Tim Squyres, production sound mixer Drew Kunin and supervising sound editor Gearty.
“This is the second time we see Hulk freak out,” Gearty says with a smile, pointing at the not-so-jolly green giant on the computer screen. The New York-based Gearty, who earned an Oscar nomination for his previous film, Gangs of New York (see Mix, December 2002), is working this morning at the Pro Tools rig in Rydstrom's usual suite. “What's key to this scene is Hulk is bigger than the first time we saw him, and he will get bigger as he gets madder. So by reel eight, he's in the street in San Francisco and he's the size of a small apartment complex. We have to start with the building blocks of the Hulk sounds and add to them as the film goes, because he keeps changing and getting bigger and scarier.”
However, Hulk is more than just a monster, and clearly this was one aspect of the Marvel Comics story that appealed to Lee. Gearty says that in his early discussions with the director, “Ang kept emphasizing that the Hulk is not a bad guy and he's not a creature. He's a human and we want to have compassion for him. He has a lot of internal strife. He's struggling with his inner rage. He needs anger management!
“One thing we did was give Hulk his own set of premixes, so we literally have four or five 5.0 premixes of just Hulk,” Gearty continues. “So there's one [premix] for his footsteps and one for what he steps on underfoot. When we first did Hulk's foot stomp, Ang thought it was too singular, so we went back and re-addressed it as a heel-toe stomp. For some of the foot stomps, we took a tree trunk and wrapped it in leather, and we'd [pound] that on certain surfaces, and then that gets sent to a subwoofer, which makes it really big.
“Then, to give a further sense of the Hulk's size and his physicality, we've done the equivalent of a Foley rustle track for him, which is all of this skin movement. Then we've used his regular movement to gate a rumble, so every time he moves, he has this sort of air-pushing presence that gives him some heft. Also, Ang has this sound he wants to have every time the Hulk's around. And [composer] Danny Elfman has been scoring around this low-frequency rumble: the Hulk tone. It's the equivalent of the Jaws theme, I guess.”
Gearty adds, “Ang also wanted the transformation to be painful; his whole thing was, ‘This is not a happy experience.’ He wanted to hear cartilage and bone growth and muscle tendon tearing and growing. He wanted sinewy sounds of stretching and ripping. This is a very traumatic transformation. So we did the usual Foley stuff…”
You mean the dog food coming out of the can noise? “We didn't do the dog food,” he says with a laugh. “It's about the only thing we didn't do, and actually Ang mentioned it: the sucking can. But we did a lot of ripping of things, like hemp doormats, anything that was fibrous and gave an interesting sound of individual rips.”
Gearty did his initial sound work on the film at C5 Editorial in New York (where he often works) and that company's new Foley facility in northern New Jersey. “Skywalker is responsible for all the effects editing, and Gary [Rydstrom] is then mixing everything,” he notes. “That said, C5 and I have done all of the Foley editing, but there's a complete layer of what I would call nontraditional Foley. I spent a week up there [at C5 in N.J.], just doing wild recording where we examined some of the bigger areas in the film and went at them, non-synched to anything, which then became a library. We would do things like set up a crane and break down cinder-block walls and wooden frames, smashing them to pieces. There was lots of broken glass. We needed that for Hulk's rampages.”
Hulk's vocalizations — his grunts, growls and roars — created a special challenge to the sound team, as well. “At the very beginning,” Gearty comments, “I passed it on to Gary, thinking, ‘Well, he's the man for dinosaur vocals, he'd be perfect for Hulk.’ So he did a pass and Ang heard it and he thought it was too creature-like. So I started to develop some ideas and I decided, ‘You know what, fellas, let's get an actor; let's have Ang direct this vocal.’ So we went down to Universal in L.A. about two months ago and we got a loop group happening. Barbara Harris brought in some actors. There was one particular actor in the film who doesn't even have a speaking part, but everyone said, ‘You've got to hear this guy's voice, you won't believe it.’ And I didn't believe it! He had the deepest voice I've ever heard, like Barry White two octaves down. It was to the point where you can count the cycles. But we started to realize that the depth of the voice wasn't the issue; it was more the depth of the cavity of the chest and hollowness and the resonance of the chest. So we started with the loop group and I added some formant-based pitch-shifting using this [Pro Tools] plug-in called Pure Pitch, and I also started to play around with the Ultra-Harmonizer, which has some cool formant-based pitch-shifting that allows you to play a little more with intonation, as opposed to just sheer math of plus or minus pitch.” In the end, the vocalizations also incorporated bits of Gearty's, Rydstrom's and even Lee's voices, sweetened with animal/creature sounds.
NOT JUST A COMIC BOOK
“This is an action film with a comic book figure, so it can be larger than life,” Rydstrom notes. “Everything gets reallybig. But everything has its unique side, and what makes this film not standard action summer fare is that Ang Lee has directed it in sort of a quirky way sometimes, or a very personal way. There are a lot of internal moments: getting inside the mind of the Hulk, with memories and flashbacks and dreams. The story of the Hulk is a very psychological story, so those kinds of moments demand a different and very stylized and almost metaphysical treatment. Then we have moments where he's beating up a tank or fighting the dogs and it becomes fairly standard action, but even with that, who's seen a large Hulk poodle before?”
According to Rydstrom, Lee “wouldn't talk about specific sounds as much as the feeling he was going for. He's looking for sounds that reflect the inner Hulk. Even before the Hulk turns into the Hulk, Ang wanted us to create a sound world that suggested something lurking really deep inside him that was struggling to come out. After that discussion, we came up with sounds that almost sound like internal growls. It's all about the rage that turns him into the Hulk. What does that inner rage sound like?
“We played with growls, but not making them from real animals. We made some of it from a cello played reallylow, so you get this weird, stylistic growl. Then we played a lot of sonogram ultrasound recordings of heartbeats and arteries and babies: living internal sounds.” Where did he get those recordings? “We used our hospital friends at Marin General to hook into that,” he says with a smile. “We have weird things swimming around his head; things that sound like a voice, but is not really a voice. Things that sound like growls but are not really growls. It was an interesting challenge.”
Even the standard battle-action scenes have a twist, and not just because the main character is the Hulk. Lee's advisers made sure that he had the most up-to-date military hardware to battle the Hulk in the film; indeed, there are pieces that are still technically classified but appear in the film in CG form.
“There's this amazing Comanche helicopter that we didn't actually see, but we were allowed to talk to people who flew them,” Rydstrom says. “It doesn't have the traditional chop of a ‘Huey’; in fact, you don't really hear them until they're almost on top of you. So in the film, you first hear them as wind, and then when they come on you, we had to make them sound different from other helicopters. If they were completely stealthy, the audience would think we made a mistake, but we made them wispier than regular helicopters.”
Rydstrom and company also had to deal with the sounds of the new F-22 super-jet that features “a movable after-burner that swivels and pitches, which allows it to take corners and move quicker than regular jets”; and a bizarre gun called Metal Storm, which can shoot up to a million bullets a minute: “It's mounted on the Comanches,” Rydstrom explains. “It can shoot at different rates, and at the slower rates, it sounds like a traditional machine gun. But then it gets faster and faster, and when it gets to a million rounds a minute, it essentially fires off all of its bullets at once and sounds like a .38 pistol; it just goes pop! It's one of those things where the more impressive it is on paper, the less impressive it is in sound.”
BUT WAIT — IT IS SORT OF A COMIC BOOK
One of Lee's most audacious experiments in The Hulk is the occasional use of comic book-style panels. A scene might emerge in a triangle at a top corner of the screen and then gradually expand to take up the whole screen. There are up, down and sideways wipes, and even a fair amount of multiple-image moments, where we see a scene from different angles, with different emphases, or even the action taking place in different locales at the same time.
“The split screens and dissolves are difficult from a sound aspect because, at this point [in our work], we can't tell which of the split screens is going to be favored [sound-wise], so we have to edit all of them,” notes co-supervisor Richard Hymns, as he sits in his workroom overlooking a vineyard. “There might be five things going on: There'll be a SWAT van here, there'll be a police car here, there'll be another police car here, there'll be the Hulk here and something else here,” Hymns says, indicating different areas on the monitors. “And sometimes, one of them zooms in a bit bigger than the others, so you get a sense that that's the one they're going to favor, but what we have to do is edit all of the screens as if they're all going to be the sound playing at that moment. And then there are all the extensions of that: Are they bringing the SWAT van from the right surround into its skid-stop here? Is the police siren going to come in over our heads? You have to allow for all of this, and it may be that ultimately, Ang will say, ‘Oh, no, I only want to hear the Hulk roar there and nothing else.’ Or he may say, ‘I want everything, but I want them all featured in different moments.’ So we have to allow for that.”
Rydstrom, who is leading the final mix, loves this aspect of the film: “There are all sorts of wild moves, sweeping transitions, multiple panes based on a comic book model, I suppose. Even with something as simple as the ambience of a room or a street, the sound is sweeping in spatially with [the visual], so if it comes in from the right, the sound of the neighborhood comes in from the right. We're using the spatial element of the track to help differentiate different panels of information and how they transition into each other. And since there are a lot of these quick-sweep transitions, we're trying to come up with natural sounds from within the scene to kind of give you a sweep that matches the visual change, as opposed to some pink-noise thing. It's a great way of both moving the film along and gluing it all together.”
ONWARD TO THE FINAL!
At this stage in the film's posting — less than two months before it hits your local multiplex — there is still much to be done. As he fine-tunes the Hulk's movements, Gearty is thinking ahead to how the sound team will give voice to Bruce Banner's father (played by Nick Nolte) after he is transformed into some sort of humongous rock creature late in the film. Rydstrom is still building backgrounds and mixing in effects, and everyone is dealing with the minute picture changes that stream in daily as the folks at ILM complete their work.
“The biggest challenge,” says Hymns, “has been just getting everything in place and in time against a very tight schedule for this enormous film with such an enormous scope and an enormous amount of visual effects that are still not ready. With a one-frame edit in the picture that takes them 30 seconds to do, we might have 100-plus tracks to do something to. It could take us a day-and-a-quarter to straighten [that] out, because even a simple edit across that many tracks takes a lot of time.”
And then, lurking even further down the road, is the matter of Elfman's score, which was still being worked on down in Los Angeles the day I was at Skywalker. Though a gifted composer, Elfman is not exactly Mr. Subtle. How will the music, which the sound crew won't hear until the final mix, affect the intricate dance between Foley, effects and dialog?
“Well, that's always the big question, isn't it,” says Hymns with a smile. “We have no choice but to proceed as if there is no music, so we've basically covered everything every way that we can and been as creative as we can, and we'll just have to have our battles in the final mix. It'll be me and Eugene and Gary and Michael Semanick [dialog] and the music mixer [Ellen Segal], and we'll be huddling with Ang seeing what works and what doesn't.
“It's a difficult situation because the music editor is fighting for the composer at all costs, and we're fighting for our effects at all costs, and sometimes the director doesn't know which way to go. And we'll try things: ‘Let's hear it with effects only.’ ‘Let's hear it with music only.’ ‘Let's try it with this passage of music and effects, and then duck out the effects for this piece and take the music out only for this.’ I could make some guesses as to what Ang wants, but we want to keep the options open as much as possible.
“It's a very wide mix that we've done; much more so than usual. Instead of premixing everything onto one batch of tracks with no leeway, we've spread the effects out over two ambience MMR8s — that's eight tracks each — and nine or 10 effects MMR8s, and then three sound design MMR8s. So the magnitude of tracks that have material spread out on them is really huge. But I think in terms of picture changes and choices in the mix, it's going to be a very wise decision to be spread out that far, because we're locked into less than we ordinarily might be.”
Whichever way it goes in the final mix, the viewing audience will be blissfully unaware of the behind-the-scenes skirmishes, where this brilliant piece of music was dropped in favor of some bone-rattling roar, or this ingenious effect — a product of countless hours of work — ends up stranded, unheard, on some hard drive. The audience will (hopefully) be swept away by the totality of the director's vision; wowed — but not distracted by — the genius of his million-and-one hard choices.