With such striking and imaginative films as the Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and Blade II under his belt, Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro has established himself as a master storyteller and a visual poet. And though we may think of those films as effects extravaganzas to a degree, they are all rooted in strong conventional filmmaking techniques. Del Toro's latest is a fantastical sequel to Hellboy — Hellboy II: The Golden Army — and it required an army of top film craftspeople to realize his vision of a battle royale between the mythical world and the human world.
Photo: Egon Endrenyi Copyright: © 2007 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
“Despite the superhero, superblockbuster exterior, Hellboy II's challenges for the sound department were fairly traditional,” comments the film's production sound mixer, Mac Ruth. “In fact, the stakes were pretty high to capture the actors' performances faithfully, adding credibility to the ‘character beneath the costume,’ so to speak.”
For Mac (as everyone calls him) — who got his start in the film business in the mid-'90s as a boom operator, and has worked on numerous features (Underworld, Eragon, The Cave, etc.) and film-style TV productions (BBC's Robin Hood, Showtime's The Lion in Winter, et al) — working on Hellboy II meant spending six solid months at the brand-new Korda Studios complex outside Budapest, Hungary, beginning in June 2007. This wasn't the hardship it might have been for some — though American, he's lived in Eastern Europe for a number of years, so it was essentially a local job.
“I was working on another show until six hours before call time on the first day of Hellboy II,” Mac recalls during a break from shooting Bunraku in Romania, “and although I had tried repeatedly to meet Guillermo for a prep discussion, we never managed to be free at the same time. This is, of course, very unusual, but as it turned out, the way he works is very conducive to the work of the sound department, and the work was fairly traditional, so it went smoothly.
“Compared to more and more shows that rely on a completely computer-generated environment,” he continues, “Hellboy II was created on very detailed and elaborate sets for the most part.” In addition to using four giant soundstages and various back-lot locales at Korda, which opened just two months before the Hellboy II shoot, the film required Mac to bring his production sound rig to a few unusual spots. “One significant interior location was shot entirely on an elaborate set built in what used to be a working mine,” he recalls. “Obviously, the walls were not ‘flyaway,’ so we were forced to work within the space provided. The air was a little funky, as well, but the set was amazing!”
Wherever possible, Mac likes to capture production sound with one, or preferably two, boom mics (typically Schoeps CMC 641), operated by his longtime associates Paul Szuros and George Mihalyi. “I rely on them entirely,” he says. “I couldn't do without them.
“In most cases, the use of two booms and hard-wired plants — as opposed to the indiscriminate use of one boom and wireless body mics on all characters — creates a more faithful reproduction of a given space, maintaining camera perspective in the production sound. Frankly, I'm inclined to use wireless equipment as little as possible.”
As for his recording rig, Mac says, “I've made a recent major shift in recorder manufacture to Sound Devices' 7 Series recorders. They have a very clever, ‘scalable’ system, which I use to add tracks or use fewer tracks — for greater portability — as needed. A multiple-recorder system allows the flexibility of recording in discrete locations simultaneously without being tethered to just one cart. A multiple-recorder system also allows for material with differing delivery specs to be handed off to their separate destinations without the burden of receiving unnecessary data — for example, picture editorial via telecine needing two ‘mixdown-only’ files that can be pulled down to match image converted to video — with sound editorial receiving iso tracks and safety tracks recorded with a sample rate not modified for pull-down. A very robust file-naming convention identifies sound roll, discrete recorder and recording number sequentially throughout the sound roll, and slate metadata is identified by cross-referencing a written and computer-generated sound report, thus eliminating any errors in metadata entry that can cause more harm than good when scene and take information change very rapidly on set, often after the take itself.
“One always pays attention to what's going on in terms of technical advancements in the field, and attempts to implement them when they improve things,” he continues. “But, basically, I'm a traditionalist, and the most accurate, transparent sound reproductions are created by recording a clean signal chain in a clean acoustic environment paying close attention to the perspective that the visual image calls for.”
Asked if miking a scene that is going to be dominated by blue- or green-screen action changes his approach at all, Mac replies, “On a green-screen set, the mics can be well within the frame of the camera, as they'll be ‘drawn’ over later. This allows for recordings [that have] lots of presence, but often don't take into careful account an attention to camera perspective sound, which is an important part of the aesthetic we're trying to create.”
And what about the presence on set of noisy wind machines or hydraulics? “If the visual image calls for the use of wind machines or water pumps or hydraulics,” Mac says, “then everyone knows that those are required for the shot. It's pretty simple acoustic physics: If the sound source is there, it's there; all one can do is hope that the visual effect that requires such a device also calls for the character to yell like hell over the windy weather condition they're caught in! Even then, a lot of time what you're getting will only be a good guide track [replaced later in ADR].”
Typically, Mac delivers “mixed tracks to picture editorial via telecine, and everything including mixes, iso and safety tracks to sound editorial. Ambiences and specific effects are nice to get, but dialog is always the priority. Generally, the production schedule dictates what we have access to record, and a 600-person crew is not going to stand still for a stereo ambience recording on the studio back lot — maybe on a student film, but this was a summer blockbuster studio picture.”
That said, Mac notes that “Hellboy II supervising sound editor and sound designer Martin Hernandez and I did go on a field trip on an off-day to a zoo in the quiet early morning off-hours, and gathered natural organic animal sound elements to aid in the sound design of various creatures in the world of Hellboy. I was on the edge of the zoo's staff-only lion-feeding cage, recording several females hissing and growling at our furry-animal-like [mic] windscreens when the male lion freaked and charged the fence, jumping up on hind legs way taller than me and less than a foot from my head! Let's just say I wasn't thinking about signal-to-noise ratio at that moment! The limiters in the mixer held, but the limiters in my human survival instinct almost didn't!”
In director Del Toro, Mac found an ally who was both sympathetic to his requirements on set and someone who is interested in sound in general. “Undeniably, Guillermo's attention to the artistic aesthetic includes an attention to sound, as well as image, to further the narrative.”