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‘Cowboys & Aliens’


On paper, it’s an idea that can’t miss: Cowboys (and Apaches) in 1873 Arizona are confronted by an alien invasion! It’s spaceships against horses; six-shooters, single-shot rifles, bows and spears against horrifying, zapping destructo rays from beyond the galaxy. Cowboys & Aliens is two—yes, two!—movies in one: an Old West saga about a mysterious amnesiac who stumbles into the town of Absolution only to learn he’s wanted there for committing heinous crimes he doesn’t remember, and one of the strangest sci-fi adventures you’re likely to see. Jon Favreau (the two Iron Man films) directed this intriguing hybrid, which is based on a 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. The appealing leads are Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.

Effects sound designer/mixer Chris Boyes

I was about 20 seconds into the first preview for the film last fall when it dawned on me that Cowboys & Aliens must have been really fun to work on sound-wise, and indeed, interviews conducted during the final mix in mid-June with supervising sound editor Frank Eulner, FX sound designer/mixer Christopher Boyes and sound designer Dave Farmer confirmed my suspicions. As Boyes puts it, “For both Frank and me, it was a gas because one thing about this film is it honors the Western tradition, and you are very much in a Western film when it opens and whenever we’re being cowboys in the West. We’re very true to the desert and the town. But then it’s this whole other thing, too.”

Neither Boyes nor Eulner had a pure Western under his belt (Boyes came close with the wonderful animated Rango earlier this year), but each brought extensive experience in different genres to this film—including work on the two Iron Man movies together. Multiple Oscar-winner Boyes’ CV lists the blockbusters Tron: Legacy, Avatar, The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean series, and King Kong among many others; while Eulner’s resumé includes such films as Hellboy, Saving Private Ryan, The Village, Blue Velvet, Backdraft and Mars Attacks! For Cowboys & Aliens, sound designer Farmer worked exclusively on the alien side, creating creature vocalizations and some alien crafts and weapon sounds. He is particularly well-known for his imaginative creature voices, having worked on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, Red Riding Hood and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, as well as videogames in the God of War series, BioShock 2 and many others.

Eulner says that he and Boyes were first approached about working on Cowboys & Aliens while they were on the final mix for Iron Man 2: “Jon said he wanted us to start thinking about this film, and thinking about spaceships and cowboys and aliens and what they’re going to sound like. It’s really exciting having a director who’s thinking about sound that early, before he even starts shooting. He plants a seed in your brain and then it gets to grow in there for a month or two before you get to execute any of the sounds. And you start hearing things every day—‘That might work for a spaceship,’ or, ‘That might work for this other thing.’”

They were pressed into service just a couple of weeks into shooting when they were asked to prepare a rough scene for Comic-Con (where Favreau and the top cast members appeared). A little later, Eulner says, “We went down to the set, too, which was interesting. We were in Santa Fe for three or four days, and we recorded some production sounds and some of the Native Americans whooping. We recorded gunshots in the canyon, with the black powder rifles they used back then. We try to be as accurate with all the firearms as possible—until we embellish them,” he says with a chuckle.

Boyes adds, “We went over to these box canyons that were really hard to get to. We were on our hands and knees climbing up with a bunch of [production assistants] so we could fire off guns in the canyons and get these tremendous echoes and delays.” Along with Sound Devices 744 recorders and shotgun mics, they also brought along a couple of handheld Sony and Zoom 4HN recorders so they could capture the shots from numerous perspectives. “I’m glad we had small ones because it wasn’t an easy trek,” Boyes says.

Oscar-winner Mark Ulano handled the production recording in a number of challenging locales, many with horses competing for sonic real estate, along with the people being captured with booms and RFs. Additionally, the sound team had a huge library of horse sounds from which to choose at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, Calif., and “the Foley crew supplemented the horses—[Foley artists] Dennie Thorpe and Jana Vance are really, really good at doing horse hooves, and it’s a challenge in the effects chair to blend the two,” Boyes says. Lora Hirschberg (who won an Oscar for Inception last year) mixed dialog and music; the score is by Harry Gregson-Williams. (See the sidebar, “A Western Sci-Fi Mash-Up.”) Though the design work and predubbing took place at Skywalker, the final mix, which ended in early July, was at Stage 1 at Todd-AO, Santa Monica, which is a Euphonix System 5 room.

Supervising sound editor Frank Eulner

When I mention that between the alien crafts and all the action on the ground, a film like this would seem to have enormous surround possibilities, Boyes laughs and says, “And they keep saying they want more surround! The surrounds are very active in this film. We’ll be in the desert and you’ll hear the crickets and the air and the wind, and suddenly something will come flying out of the middle of nowhere, and the juxtaposition couldn’t have more contrast. You’re in this very historically accurate visual representation of the Wild West and you have these cowboys climbing up to look over a ledge, and suddenly here comes this completely foreign sound zooming out from behind you. It creates an incredible dynamic and contrast that we use as a tool to scare and shock—because the townspeople seeing these aliens and the technology are really frightened; you can see it on their faces so it’s incumbent on us in the mix to reflect that.”

“The technology of the aliens has been challenging because we didn’t want it to sound sci-fi exactly and we didn’t want it to sound too high-tech either,” Eulner notes. “We didn’t want it to sound like movie lasers, which are sort of a cliché by now.”

Instead, they sought a balance between futuristic and the somewhat plausible. The main alien crafts in the film are multiple-wing “speeders,” which resemble large metallic dragonflies, except that they are equipped with advanced weaponry, as well as a supercharged version of a cowboy’s lariat that can snag somebody off the ground at dizzying speed. Eulner and Boyes developed the initial sounds for the speeders (including some screaming geese Boyes recorded while on vacation and electronically twisted on his trusty Synclavier as one of the elements of the speeder-bys), then had their work embellished by Farmer, who came onboard a little later in the process.

“Chris and I did a pass,” Eulner explains, “and then Dave took it to another level. Then I got it back and did some things, and Chris would do another pass. It was nice to get other people’s perspective on the same material. It’s a cool way to work if you have the right people to work with.”

“You need to have the right team,” Boyes agrees. “Nobody’s here to grandstand, or say, ‘I did it all,’ and that goes for the entire editorial team. In fact, one of our dialog editors, Marshall Winn, recorded this hummingbird and it’s become a signature element in the film. I’ve recorded hummingbirds in Costa Rica and all over the place, and this is the best recording of a hummingbird we’ve ever had.”

Those hummingbirds came in handy when Farmer was putting together the sound of lights from alien crafts sweeping the ground at night in search of prey to “rope” and take away. “They have these lights that are scanning the ground,” Farmer says, “and for that I had a patch I had made in [Virus] Indigo in Pro Tools with a nice throbby sort of pulsing sound. I was working in one of the ‘Pod’ rooms out at Skywalker—a really nice environment for building 5.1 material, speakers that are very full-range. So I took something from the Ben Burtt playbook when he made the [Star Wars] light sabers. I had a loop of this synthesized sound coming out of the speakers and I took a Sennheiser 416 and did all these mic Dopplers on it. To me, that worked so much better than plug-in Dopplers; there’s a realness to them that works. If you generate a synth sound and then cut it in Pro Tools, it doesn’t enter the air until it hits the speaker in the theater and then hits the audience. Every other sound you record has been in the air once already, whether it’s a tiger growl or whatever. So to take that synth sound and make it not sound like a synth, you can record it with a microphone and that helps bring it to reality some more. So I used that a lot for these light sweeps that were going around.

“Then I also used some hummingbird wings. If you’ve ever listened to a hummingbird up close, they have a really low-end sound to them. So it was those elements, some arc welding [sounds], because those lights looked like they might be searing across the ground, and also some Tesla coils I recorded years ago.”

More on the speeders from Farmer: “For the first temp, I tried to make them completely out of animals. I had a loop of some pig groans that I had left the Doppler process running on for about 10 minutes—you let the randomness of the universe present you with some material. Frank and I liked that a lot—just using that one element—but when they got down in the temp with the music and everything else, they weren’t quite reading the way we had hoped, so Jon mentioned using jets and rockets, too. That became a challenge because I didn’t want to just use plain jets and rockets. I wanted to mix it with other things so it had a certain cool factor that was unexpected. So Frank did a pass using jets and rockets, and Jon is really good about using very descriptive terms when he wants to hear something, and one of the things he said, which I would never have thought of, was, ‘When these things are flying by and the air passes through their wings, I want it to have a tonal sound, sort of like a didgeridoo.’ So I had some didgeridoo recordings and I did the same process—the mic Dopplers with the same speakers. So we had the animal element, the didgeridoos and the rockets and jets, and then I wanted to do one more thing to give it some ferocity. I had recorded these Ferrari F1s a couple of years ago and those things really have a sound that indicates speed, even if they’re not going fast around the track. So we had another layer of those and we delivered all those elements to Chris.”

When it came to alien vocalizations, Farmer once again turned to his extensive library of animal recordings (as well as some of Skywalker’s material), mixing in tigers—which he says are often a good base sound for creatures because of the depth and rasp in their growls—coughing and trilling seals, horses in heat (“if you pitch those up you get a scream-y element”), groaning pigs and, at one point, a New Zealand possum.

Rather than building a large palette of vocalizations and then cutting them into scenes, Farmer says he likes to work to picture and build each one from scratch—a painstaking process, “but in the end you wind up with a lot more variety and you repeat yourself a lot less.” Later, Eulner and Boyes did more work on specific alien vocals as scenes required (Farmer was on another project and not available during the final mix for revisions) and, as is typical on a production like this, things were changing up until the last second.

At least in director Favreau they had an ally with good instincts and a strong interest in sound. “He has very good ears and he notices very subtle changes, which is great,” Boyes says. “He’s very specific about how hard he wants things to hit, how much low end there is in them, and obviously he’s very involved with the music and how it evolves and how it plays out in the final. In terms of director involvement, he’s right about where we like them to be.”

Blair Jackson is


’s senior editor.

A Western-Sci-Fi Mash-Up
By Matt Hurwitz

Director Jon Favreau, left, at the console with composer Harry Gregson-Williams

Photo: Sam Urdank/Universal Studios and Dreamworks

How do you write a score for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens? Is it a Western? Is it a sci-fi movie? In a case like this, it’s best to start simple. “The best path for me is to follow the central character and see what I can find and uncover with him or her,” says award-winning composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia).

In this case, at the beginning of the film, Daniel Craig’s Jake Lonergan finds himself completely disoriented and unsure of who he is or where he is right after what appears to have been an alien spaceship landing in Arizona in 1873. “So initially you think, ‘Okay, here we are on some lonely prairie and this guy seems to be a cowboy; I mean, he’s wearing a cowboy hat and he rides around on a horse! But clearly something bad has happened to him.’ From this point forward, it’s all about discovery for this character. By the very nature of the film, it’s kind of a mash-up: It’s somewhere between Close Encounters and Unforgiven, so musically it was always going to be a hybrid. The score has echoes of what you might perceive a Western to be like, but it’s also firmly grounded in the 21st century.”

The spotting session with director Jon Favreau was also different from most movies. “We spotted the film quite early,” Gregson-Williams says. “The movie still wasn’t anywhere near final cut at that point. Consequently, I started by writing music that wasn’t too scene specific and made sure that I painted with broad brushstrokes at first. As the cut became more finalized, I began to zero in on specific scenes and set pieces.”

Working at his Venice, Calif.–based Wavecrest Music studio, where he has worked since December 2003, Gregson-Williams took several weeks getting a full grasp of the tone he would apply, and then began composing and recording mock-ups of his cues.

Wavecrest has a main composing suite, where Gregson-Williams does his writing, with four additional composing suites occupied by other busy, well-known composers. The building also includes two music editing rooms, a mix room and a recording space. “Our recording space is big enough to get some guitar amps and a bunch of drums in, but not big enough to house an orchestra,” he explains. “That sort of stuff gets done at one of the bigger scoring stages here in L.A. or at Abbey Road in London, for instance.”

The composer records directly into Steinberg Cubase 6, operating on a PC. Gregson-Williams will record many special instrumentalists or smaller groups of players right into Cubase. For this film, instruments included an assortment of acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, a variety of percussion instruments (such as Native American drums) and electric cello (played by a longtime friend, veteran Martin Tillman). He engineers the recordings himself with a selection of mics, including Sennheiser MKH 40s (for close-miking), Brauner FETs (overheads) and VM1s (room mics).

“I’m kind of at the controls for that,” he explains. “That part of the process is really creative for me because that’s an environment I know. And on many occasions, the people I’m recording are friends or people I know and have worked with many times. I’ll put them in a booth or in the recording room, and they’ll have the video running beside them, and I’ll talk them through it.” He is assisted in the recording by music technical engineer Costa Kotselas, who also handles anything to do with Cubase, and by in-house music editor Meri Gavin.

Gregson-Williams also uses an array of synths and samples in his original recordings, an ever-expanding library of sounds housed within Tascam GigaStudio and Native Instruments Kontakt (the latter used inside Vienna Ensemble Pro). “MIDI-wise, he has a huge spectrum of sounds, samples and instruments, which color his scores,” Kotselas explains. He says that these sounds include “a vast orchestral element,” most of which Gregson-Williams will replace with a live orchestra. The composer also uses a variety of VST instruments in Cubase, as well as a number of external hardware synthesizers.

Once a cue has been written and approved by the director, Gavin and Kotselas then create a “pre-record” session in Pro Tools|HD3 48/48 IO, a transfer of the recordings and MIDI samples from Gregson-Williams’ Cubase sequence. “These are basically the master recordings,” the composer explains. “They’re the building blocks of the final recordings, and often contain a lot of live elements already, and any orchestral or choral recordings that follow will be done playing along to these stems.”

A Western-Sci-Fi Mash-Up (Continued)

While Gregson-Williams’ more organic recording elements serve the Western theme, there’s always a place for an orchestra among the 60 cues and 80 minutes of music in a sci-fi film like this. “A big orchestra is the powerhouse that one tends to lean on when things get nasty,” Gregson-Williams says of the tension-filled battle scenes in the film. “And the last couple of reels are when one really needs weight and gravitas.”

The main orchestral and choral recording for Cowboys & Aliens took place at the Sony Pictures Scoring Stage in Culver City, engineered by longtime scoring mixer/collaborator Malcolm Luker.

Photo: Sam Urdank/Universal Studios and Dreamworks

The synth masters—now loaded onto a Pro Tools rig and brought to Sony—are the building blocks of the recording and meant, to a large degree, to be replaced by live recording. “We’re able to add these large live recordings and replace my samples,” Luker explains. “And by doing that, it changes everything—for the better. You put a bunch of live players on a track, and they live and breathe and move. Suddenly it brings things to life, and that’s a very satisfying experience.”

As is often the case, a second Pro Tools rig (Pro Tools|HD6 64/80 IO, with Advanced Audio Genex AD/DA converters) will be running in the control room for recording, with the first rig playing the synth masters through the console for monitoring. “We usually have two Pro Tools operators: one taking care of the record side of it, and one taking care of the pre-records and making sure that everything’s going to where it should go,” Luker says. “We just have it so that it’s available, and we can mute it so that when we’re replacing strings and woods, et cetera, it’s available to hear, as a guide, if needed.”

The rigs are satellite-locked, via Ethernet. “What’s great about that is, if you’ve got the video running off one rig, off of our synth master rig, then you can actually rock and roll it from the other rig,” Luker explains. “If you frame jump, you remain in sync all the time.”

The orchestra contained 14 first violins, 12 seconds, 12 violas, 12 celli and eight basses, double woodwinds, as well as two trumpets, four horns, four trombones and a tuba. Luker is assisted on the Sony stage by his son, Jamie, a partnership in place for a number of years.

The two own a substantial collection of microphones for use on such sessions, including Luker’s main mic of choice, the Brauner VM1. “Those are hand-built from Dirk [Brauner] himself,” he notes. “We’ve also been using a number of mics from a company in Australia called Bees Neez—their Lulu FET mic, which we use for spot [miking].” Luker is particularly keen on the Brauner VM1S, a stereo version of the company’s VM1. “I use it on different things, like for woodwind overheads or in front of the horns. It’s especially amazing on harps, because the top is just gorgeous. You can put it six feet away, and it gives you a little bit of a stereo spread, instead of just coming from one pinpointed position.” He also used Sennheiser MKH Series mics, and Neumann TLM 50s and TLM 170Rs. They use Swiss Vovox cables for the mics, and employ 64 channels of Grace Design m802r preamps.

“The cable run from the microphone to the microphone amplifier is as short as possible,” Luker says. “So you amplify the signal up to +4 and then you do your longer run. And they’re remote controlled. I have the control unit right next to me, so I can be adjusting mic level from the control room, which is perfect.”

Luker brings his favorite monitors—Quested V3110 self-powered speakers—wherever he goes. “Roger Quested, who designed them, was the chief engineer at a studio where I first started in London, Morgan Studios, when we were kiddies,” he laughs. “He’s developed a product which is absolutely excellent. And it’s great for what we do.” 

Once recording is completed, the team heads back to Wavecrest for mixing. The studio has an Avid Icon D-Command ES Console, with an extended surface containing 40 faders. The room also has Quested 5.1 monitors, another plus for Luker.

Luker brings in his own reverbs, including a pair of Bricasti M7s, four Lexicon 96S surround processors, and a Lexicon 480. Luker’s collection of favorite plug-ins includes Waves, Lexicon, and SoundToys plug-ins. Equalization is accomplished using the Manley Labs Massive Passive Vari-Mu passive equalizer.

Three Pro Tools rigs are used during mixing: the main mix rig (96 I/O HD6), a print rig (72 I/O HD6) and an extra, for any additional work, if needed (64 I/O HD3). Luker makes use of a number of Apogee A/D and D/A converters, including 16Xs and Rosetta. “I’m looking forward to working with their new Apogee Symphony system, as well,” he notes.

The stem layout is 64 channels wide, with 5.1 strings, 5.1 brass, etc., as well as 3.1 bass channels. Luker also creates surrounds from Gregson-Williams’s stereo sampled material. “You add surrounds, so that each stem has its own dedicated surrounds and LFE. So whenever any of that’s edited on the stage, everything remains together.” The reverbs come along for the ride, as well. “That’s really important. All of the different reverbs and effects are all dedicated for each individual stem, so that if you want to take out any one element, you can remove it, and it’s gone.”

Gregson-Williams, of course, counts on the expertise of his experienced music editors, Richard Whitfield and Meri Gavin, to keep up with any picture changes and keep a clear log of all and any versions of a cue. “As soon as a new cut arrives at our studio, we hit the ground running and make the changes immediately together. Harry likes to keep on top of it,” Gavin explains. “If we get a new set of reels, he likes to go into Cubase right away and make the alterations needed, thereby rarely leaving us to cut up his cues!” Adds Gregson-Williams, “They started by turning over a new cut to us once a week, but toward the end, we were seeing reels arrive every day.” This meant having to change start times and addressing any music edits for the 60 or so music cues in the film.

As challenging as the process might be, Luker still finds working projects such as Gregson-Williams’ here in the States a satisfying experience. “I’ve worked here, as well as in Europe, and the difference is that the attitude here is, ‘Okay, let’s start at perfection and see how much better we can make it. We’re doing this for the world market, it has to be the best that it can be, and that’s it.’ And Harry’s music comes together that way. A lot of it is done in the writing and in how it’s orchestrated. It’s a lot of subtle things that come together. It’s a great platform to work from.”