Epic fantasy productions seem tailor-made for streaming television, whether as a limited series or as an episodic, multi-season bonanza. HBO pioneered the genre with its hugely successful, eight-season run for Game of Thrones, and now, after 20 years of bouncing around to various studios, Sony Pictures Television and Amazon Studios have released Season 1 of Robert Jordan’s immensely popular 14-book series, The Wheel of Time, on Prime Video. The wait proved worth it.
There are sword battles, evil creatures and a band of youngsters on a quest. There’s a duality built into the story between man-woman, dark-light, good-evil, all based around the magic of the One Power. There are also swords and spears, horses and wolves, and wind and leaves, right alongside swirls of power emanating from those who can Channel. It’s a magical world rooted in the familiar environs of what appears to be the late Middle Ages. It’s an open palette for sound.
SONA, an East London-based sound coalition founded by supervising sound editor Matt Skelding and sound designers Ben Meechan and Luke Gentry, got the gig and ran with it, producing a Dolby Atmos (plus 7.1, 5.1 and stereo) soundtrack that feels big, broad, dynamic and cinematic, while at the same time making sure that the audience feels the whispers, silence and all the Foley nuance of a well-told story, even coming out of a sound bar.
THE FAMILIAR WORLD
“We wanted it to be bold because we come from film and television, and we wanted to create the track to be as dynamic as you can be with a TV program,” Skelding explains. “All of the sounds in there were created by us in some way. When we did have to go outside of our own original recordings, we would end up twisting the source in whatever way we could to fit what’s happening up on the screen.
“When we needed the detail of, say, the horses’ bridles or the rustling of all the leather, we had an excellent Foley artist in Barnaby Smyth,” he continues. “We will do the breaths and the snorts and the general idea of the horse, then add the Foley to give them a character, as well. The horses are with them all the time, so the more real stuff we can put in, the more believable it is. We’ve recorded many horses over the years, and in The Wheel of Time, the horses are kind of like the bridge, the rhythm game—like a nice car that has to be performed, and we performed.”
Wind figures prominently throughout the eight episodes, a constant presence that tends to eat up frequencies in the space usually occupied by dialog and music. Wind through forest, wind through the windows, wind in the hair—if wind doesn’t have movement, a track can get static awfully quickly.
“Wind is noise, and noise is usually stuff that we don’t want,” Gentry says. “You need to push deep into it, and you need to make it interesting. So we do a lot of doctoring—maybe changing its pitch subtly, maybe there’s two or three winds layered, maybe a different one in the front or a different one on the roof than in the sides. It’s all about getting that movement through the speakers to make it feel real. It’s technically quite difficult to make wind sound real. It involves a lot of twisting and a lot of manipulation.
“At the same time, we weren’t afraid to push those winds and the music up against the dialogue,” he adds. “You do have to be careful because there is a lot of information the audience needs to know. But I think we move it around enough so that it comes and goes in your ears. A huge part of the mix process, then, is figuring out that balance.” Sometimes finding that balance means removing the wind altogether, as in Episode 2 when the band of travelers enters the old, forbidden, empty city of Shadar Logoth and is attacked by Mashadar, the darkness left behind to protect the spirits.
“It was the one opportunity where we could come out of the wind,” Skelding laughs. “By making things so busy elsewhere on the journey, we ask the audience to notice the silence The horses had bigger breaths, everything in the characters was bigger, but then the river is less outside than when you get inside, so it feels bigger on the interior. We put everything into the actual characters themselves, rather than the backgrounds, to create distance.
“This is the point where Mat finds the evil dagger, a big part of the books, and we wanted to make it feel like he was being pulled there. A character whistle sort of draws him in,, but we had some really subtle whispers on the cuts and quiet elements that would make you lean in and go, ‘Did I just hear something?’ as he’s walking through the empty streets We wanted to establish a beat and draw him toward it. We did that primarily by making things very, very quiet, pulling away sounds.”
THE MAGICAL WORLD
Production of The Wheel of Time began in Prague, the Czech Republic, in September 2019, then was halted by the pandemic in March 2020 before picking up again in April 2021 and finishing in May. Most of the sound edit took place remotely, with the team collaborating over Source Connect. Gentry and Meechan took advantage of their time at home to work up the sounds of the magical world, starting with the Trollocs and the massive Episode 1 closing scene featuring the battle of the Two Rivers.
“The Trollocs are these sort of half-human, half-animal hybrids,” Meechan explains. “We couldn’t be too alien. It had to feel like a bear or a wolf but still have that human quality, so, yeah, we did a lot of recordings of us screaming into microphones, we recorded some seagulls fighting over bread—that was pretty good sound; we just pitch it. We wanted new elements, something that hadn’t been heard before so that they could sort of tie the human and the animals together. We ended up recording this musical instrument that is essentially the equivalent of bending a ruler over the desk, whacking it, and having it go, ‘whoa-whoa-whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” You bow it, so we hired a musician and we got some unbelievable stuff. That helps form the bigger, scarier screeches.
“Then in the battle, we try to vary the swords to the kind of war it is,” Skelding adds. “We started out using a lot of scrap metal for these kinds of Trolloc swords, then varied them by adding weight. They were big. But I think the human fighting is more precise than the Trollocs. For Lan, who is warder to the main character, we tried to develop a signature set rather than using generic swooshes. We actually played a lot with resonances, to take away the swishes and keep a resonance, so that as he moves and fights, we give him flavor and a little motif, because he’s such a cool character.
“When you see a sequence like that opening battle as a sound editor, it’s terrifying,” he continues. “You just have to take it shot by shot, then section of shot by section of shot. The crowd was always a difficult balance—getting enough crowd in there to tell the fear and the chaos and just the sheer horror of what was going on. But if you add a little bit too much, you suddenly obliterate everything else and there’d be no danger; you wouldn’t get any of the details in the mix.”
The wonderful score, which weaves so well in and out of the effects track, was composed by Lorne Balfe, and the series was mixed by Doug Cooper at De Lane Lea in London. Before production had even wrapped on Season 1, Amazon Studios announced that there would be a Season 2, which enters post-production this very month.