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5 Films, 5 Reasons to Listen

Musical Effects, Emotional Dialogue and a Clock Based on a Guitar

No two films are alike. Even if two films seem superficially similar—say, for instance, two period dramas about English queens—they can actually be quite different, and not just from a story perspective. Each comes with unique opportunities for creativity in sound, along with challenges to overcome. Here, Mix looks at five films released in 2018 that caught our attention, each with a special sonic attribute that helps define their tracks.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls: Playing with Space

Universal Pictures’ The House with a Clock in Its Walls is set in Michigan, 1955. Recently orphaned 10-year old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) moves in with his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). During the night, Lewis hears a mysterious ticking sound. It’s coming from a doomsday clock hidden in the walls by an evil warlock and witch. Jonathan and Lewis must destroy the clock before it puts an end to human existence.

Oscar-winning supervising sound editor Karen Baker Landers at Formosa Group in Hollywood was in charge of creating that all-important doomsday clock sound. Because the clock is a character, director Eli Roth wanted it to feel like a monster and sound extremely different from the hundreds of other clocks in the house. “It had to be big and powerful but still sound clock-like,” Landers says.

She borrowed a Gretsch electric guitar from sound effects recordist Charlie Campagna and hooked it up to a 400-watt speaker. She then experimented with thumping all the strings at once, across different frets, to produce two distinct sounds: a tick and a tock. “We tried doing this with other electric guitars, too, but there was something about the Gretsch. It had this feeling that we couldn’t get with the others,” Landers says.

She recorded the Gretsch guitar tick and tock sounds into Pro Tools and cut them into a clock rhythm. Landers and Campagna world-ized the sound by playing it through a 1,200-watt P.A. speaker set up in various places around the facility. They recorded the sound coming through the ceiling of Landers’ studio and down a staircase and through a hallway. “We got these big tick and tock sounds with all this natural reverb and those are used all throughout the movie,” says Landers. For the final touch, sound designer Randy Torres added clock mechanism sounds.

During Lewis’ first night in the house, he hears the clock in the walls. It pulls him into the hallway and leads him downstairs to a room on the first floor. Landers notes that they played with panning the clock sound into discrete speakers to match Lewis’s movements.

Related: Danny Wallin: Six Decades of Classic Film Tracks, by Kevin Pergantis, Oct. 26, 2018

“We start with just the left front speaker,” Landers explains. “Then we put the clock in just the right front speaker when Lewis turns right. We wanted to be that deliberate so the audience could hear how the sound was leading Lewis through the house. Then Jonathan thinks he’s located the source of the clock and uses an ax to smash the wall open. There, we jumped the sound from one speaker to another, from front to back, and spin it all around the room. It was really fun because we could use speaker placement to our heart’s content.”

A Quiet Place: Silent Intensity

In the post-apocalyptic world of Paramount Pictures’ A Quiet Place, sound is synonymous with death. You’re either quiet or you’re dead. That’s because the world is inhabited by creatures that kill anything that makes noise.

Supervising sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl of E² Sound have helped to create some sonically massive soundtracks over the years for films such as Godzilla, the Transformers franchise, Terminator Genisys and Pacific Rim: Uprising. They’ve also created their share of signature creature sounds—including those for A Quiet Place. But what makes this film special is that it is purposefully quiet.

“It breaks convention and creates a cinematic experience that is kind of unique,” says Aadahl. “Loud films have this effect of pushing an audience away. By inverting that, flipping that on its head, this quiet film allowed us as sound designers to engage the audience in a much more profound and powerful way.”

For instance, they go into the sonic perspective of the deaf daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), so the audience can experience the world the way she hears it. “That allows the audience to connect with her,” says Van der Ryn. “The sound design approach helps to put us in the shoes of these characters. That’s so important for feeling the connection between these characters and that helps us to connect with the story.”

A Quiet Place opens on a shot of a vacant town. There are no people on the sidewalks, no cars driving by. There’s only the sound of light wind and skittering leaves across the empty street. “In any other movie, that would be the quietest scene—the sound of desolation,” says Aadahl.

But then the scene cuts to inside a pharmacy, where the mother, Evelyn Abbot (Emily Blunt), is foraging for medical supplies. Now, there’s the noticeable absence of wind and leaves. “We go another stair-step down in the level of quiet,” Aadahl adds. “Taking that step from quiet into something even quieter makes the audience hold onto all of the little details—the little breaths and little movements of the pill bottles. After a while it makes you hold your breath. You become part of the experience with the characters. It’s a really interesting movie because it’s so tense without us having to push decibels at people.”

Van der Ryn adds, “It is tense because we’re sucking sound away. That’s forcing people to lean in and hold their breath and engage in the experience because we are stripping layers of sound out.”

Jane: Nature from Scratch

When you think of primates, you think of Jane Goodall. The National Geographic documentary Jane, written and directed by Brett Morgen, focuses on Goodall’s early work with chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. After organizing roughly 140 hours of found footage from the 1960s, Morgen and picture editor Joe Beshenkovsky crafted a coherent and captivating look at Goodall’s life in the jungle.

According to supervising sound editor Joshua Paul Johnson, the found footage was shot without sound. The immersive soundtrack that director Morgen desired had to be created completely in post. Johnson handled the chimpanzee vocalizations and co-supervising sound editor Warren Shaw took charge of the environmental sounds and design. Both sound editorial and mix were handled at Formosa Group in Hollywood.

Because the footage was silent, sound editing needed to take place concurrently with picture editing. Johnson, who spent more than two years on the film, had to figure out what sounds the chimps would be making, find those sounds, and fit them into the scene. And it had to be scientifically accurate enough to earn a stamp of approval from Jane Goodall herself.

Related: Brian Schmidt on Audio for VR/AR Experiences, by Tom Kenny, Sep. 7, 2018

As Goodall literally wrote the book on chimp vocalizations, Johnson decided that would be a good place to start. In that textbook, Goodall gave names to the different chimpanzee vocalizations, like “pant-hoot” and “wah-bark,” and describes the behavior or reaction associated with each sound.

“For instance, the chimps make a certain type of sound when they are being attacked versus when they are witnessing an attack,” Johnson says. “There are subtle differences in their vocals, too. The ‘pant-hoot’ is the most common sound, and it has about four different variations.”

Johnson compared the MOS footage with Goodall’s textbook and he researched other chimpanzee videos on Google and YouTube to become familiar with their different sounds. “Slowly, through listening and paying attention, I was able to teach myself about these vocalizations,” he says.

Then Johnson listened through thousands of amateur recordings of chimpanzees that he received from primatologists. “I had a massive library of raw, unlabeled recordings and I had to listen to every single one to try and find the right sound for the right moment,” says Johnson, who also had to make distinctions between males and females and babies, to find sounds that matched the cast of “characters” in the film.

Johnson notes one scene in Jane that shows the chimpanzees grooming each other. Cameraman Hugo Van Lawick (Goodall’s husband) captured close-up shots of the chimps picking through one another’s hair and eating the bugs. It’s a quiet, intimate scene that required lots of detail. Foley artist Tara Blume covered the touching sounds of hands and hair, while Johnson added in the chimpanzee breaths and subtle reactions.

“That was the hardest thing to find in the chimpanzee recordings,” he explains. “Because chimps are so dangerous, they’re recorded from a distance. Occasionally I would get really lucky in the audio files, especially with infant chimpanzees. You can really hear their breaths. Those sounds were important for the grooming scenes.”

The Favourite: Musical FX

Fox Searchlight Pictures’ The Favourite tells of the friendship between Queen Anne, ruler of Great Britain and Ireland in the 1700s (Olivia Colman), and Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Their closeness is challenged by the arrival of a new servant, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), who ultimately vies for the queen’s affections.

Supervising sound editor/sound designer/music editor/re-recording mixer Johnnie Burn, who had previously worked with director Yorgos Lanthimos on The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, says the key to The Favourite was making sure the tonality of the music was reflected in the soundscape. He regularly pitch-shifted the atmospheres and sound effects and edited them in rhythm with the music.

But the most effective technique was to hit specific musical frequencies with EQ. Using DMG Audio’s EQuality plug-in, Burn boosted extremely narrow bands of frequencies in broad-spectrum sounds to bring out specific musical notes or chords. “I have a chart of musical notes and their corresponding frequencies,” he says. “It shows that 415 Hz is a G-sharp note, for example. So when you boost that frequency with EQ in a sound like wind or fire, you can coax out a musical frequency.”

A prime example of this technique is a sequence that begins with Abigail one night being summoned to the queen’s bedroom. Burn blends the sound of the chimney winds and the fireplace rumbles into the song “Didascalies” by Luc Ferrari. Abigail sits on the bed and starts to rub the queen’s aching legs.

“I use the whistle of the wind to augment the very simple G note of ‘Didascalies.’ The wind builds upon it, and you almost get a melody coming through the wind,” Burn says. “Throughout the leg rubbing scene, the winds grow from just a G note to a G minor chord as Abigail goes a bit higher up the legs. The excitement and tension of the moment are very much reflected in the atmospheric sounds in a rather musical way.”

Lady Marlborough enters the room and discovers what’s happening. Burn drops the tone of the wind using an EQ sweep, taking it from a G minor chord into an E-flat major for Shuman’s “Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44,” which follows “Didascalies” almost immediately.

Related: “The Long Road Home,” by Jennifer Walden, Jun. 29, 2018

“The problem with having two pieces of music so close together is that normally you need 10 seconds or so for the brain to forget the note that it was just listening to,” he explains. “We help that transition by using the wind to pick up the note of the outgoing music and sweeping that down into the upcoming music. The key change and the chord change are represented in the winds.”

Burn mixed the final 5.1 surround version at Goldcrest Films in London at their Dean Street location, Theatre 1.

Mary Queen of Scots: Emotional Dialogue

Two royal cousins—Mary Stuart of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie)—are pitted against one another in a struggle for independence and dominance in Focus Features’ historical drama Mary Queen of Scots.

Clear dialogue is the object of desire for most dialogue editors, but UK-based dialogue supervisor/re-recording mixer Steve Single had loftier goals set by director Josie Rourke on Mary Queen of Scots. In addition to clarity, Rourke wanted the dialogue to hit the right note emotionally. By adjusting levels, manipulating pitch and playing with the timing of the lines where possible, Single says, they were able to contribute significantly to the narrative energy of the film.

“Coming from a theater background, Josie had an almost forensic approach to the performance of dialogue,” Single says. “Guided by her encyclopedic knowledge of language and vast experience with actors, we would examine and re-examine each line to ensure we were getting exactly the dramatic or comedic effect she intended.”

As a period piece set in the mid-1500s, it was equally important to have dialogue tracks that were free from any modern intrusions, like cars, planes and generators. “There’s the constant battle to strip that away to ensure the truth of that time is never compromised,” says Single.

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One of the most dramatically important moments in the film is an eight-minute dialogue-driven scene in which Mary and Elizabeth secretly meet in a laundry hut deep in the forest. In reality, the hut was located directly under a flight path. “Given the beauty and delicacy of the dialogue and the incredible performances of both Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, it was imperative to keep the sync recordings,” says Single.

He used a combination of iZotope RX Spectral Repair to draw out problematic frequencies and the Cedar DNS One plug-in for background noise suppression. “Dialogue editing is a slow process of elevating the dialogue beyond the extraneous background noise; it’s a progression of inches, not yards,” he says. “In the end, only two small ADR lines from Saoirse and three small lines from Margot were all that was needed. It’s all about the small victories.”

Every effort was made to avoid ADR, so Single used alternate takes to rebuild lines when he could. A successful example was during a scene in which Mary and Moray (James McArdle) were walking together along a glen. Mary is attempting to reconcile with her half-brother after his betrayal, but any poignancy in the delivery was ruined by machinery noise in the background. Single notes that it is extremely problematic to film in remote locations, and these environmental issues were out of the production sound mixer’s control. Fortunately, the alternate takes were clean and Single was able to reconstruct the scene.

“Like a puzzle, you slowly put it all together, always trying to match performance and the sync of the selected take,” he says. “It doesn’t always work—and to be fair, it’s more successful with one or two lines only—but in this case, the entire scene ended up working with a patchwork of every other take available.”