Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Creating the Sonic Worlds of ‘Terra Nova’


It’s a great gig to land if you work in sound for picture. A hotly anticipated sci-fi series with the name Spielberg attached. A plot set in the future and the prehistoric past, opening up all kinds of sound-design possibilities. Machines and gadgets, weapons and vehicles, nature and science, humans and dinosaurs. Supervising sound editor Michael Graham, MPSE, knew that he and his team at Smart Post Sound (Burbank, Calif.) were in for an exciting challenge when they picked up Terra Nova. But there was one catch.

From left: supervising sound editor Michael Graham, MPSE; sound designer Rick Steele; co-supervising sound editor Chris Harvengt; and sound designers Bob Costanza and Mike Dickeson

Already busy at work on another big Steven Spielberg–produced sci-fi series, Falling Skies, Graham was given a mandate or, more accurately, a restriction. “It was explained to us that the dinosaurs in Terra Nova shouldn’t sound like anything in Jurassic Park,” he recalls. “You can see the dilemma: Every child who’s ever watched Jurassic Park knows that is the vocabulary of the dinosaurs. Everybody knows that’s what they sound like!”

Terra Nova begins in the year 2149, when Earth is overcrowded and in decline, and the government is desperate for options to relocate and repopulate. Meanwhile, a physics accident has resulted in the discovery of a particle accelerator capable of passing humans back in time through a portal located in the fictional Hope Plaza in Chicago. The accelerator lands travelers to a lush existence millions of years earlier, in the Cretaceous Era, in the settlement of Terra Nova. The past then becomes home to military and civilian populations, who must share the planet, naturally, with dinosaurs.

The premiere episode was one of the more complex pilots the Smart Post team had worked on. “It really was very much like a feature film,” says Graham, who supervised the first hour, while his co-supervisor and ADR editor, Chris Harvengt, picked up the second hour and the remainder of the series. The initial sound design was developed by Graham and Smart Post’s primary sound designer, Rick Steele, along with Bob Costanza and Mike Dickeson, whose main focus was on the show’s fascinating collection of vehicles, both in year 2149 and in Terra Nova.

Smart Post’s roots in Burbank go back nearly 40 years, when it was founded as Echo Sound. Now owned by Graham and partners Mark Friedgen, Joe Melody, Rob Weber, Sue Jesse and Matt Preble, the company operates out of two buildings: an editorial/layback center in the equestrian district on Riverside Drive; and mix, ADR and Foley stages on Hollywood Way. The company has garnered numerous Emmys and Golden Reel Awards for its work over the years, both as Echo and Smart Post.

The 2149 version of Chicago has one key quality that the producers wanted to convey: disrepair. “It’s a future environment that has broken down,” says Graham. “It’s a planet that has consumed itself.” Adds Harvengt, “The machine has taken over plant life, so to speak. So what you hear is the sound inside: a low, thundering machine life. It’s really about coming up with sounds that the audience will connect with as being of that time, but always slightly different.”

Co-supervising sound editor/sound designer Michael Graham

Vehicles, such as the maglev trains ferrying passengers around the city, are given such a treatment. Though, by definition, a maglev vehicle is suspended above its track by a magnetic field, it has a decidedly squeaky wheel to it. “They still have the telltale sign of disrepair—a squeal,” Graham explains.

“We change the pitch of it and add other elements,” says Harvengt, “so it takes us out of what we normally hear, but it’s still grounded in what we know.”

Rick Steele has been editing and designing sounds for 25 years. He has access to an extensive library of sounds, maintained across 6 terabytes of local and server storage space. Steele searches and accesses files through Sound Wrangler, a proprietary software developed by Steele (and available in Beta form for free online at

“I can search either by the sound’s name or by the path at which the sound is stored,” he explains. “So if I’m looking for ‘Matterhorn roller coaster,’ I can search ‘Disneyland,’ ‘amusement’ or ‘coaster,’ even if the sound’s file name is only ‘LOUD BY.’ I can then cut any section of that sound right to my timeline at the cursor position, in any track or stream configuration with handles. Or just drag and drop the entire selection set to my timeline and start cutting away.”

Hope Plaza’s particle accelerator required Steele to preview no less than 2,500 sounds to find an appropriate combination of roughly 13 sounds that went into the effect. First, he took the explosive “whoomp” sound of a parachute opening and looped it at various intervals and processed it to give it a pulsing “whappy” sound, adding an explosion underneath with a previously created sound called “Green Rubber Slime.”

“I had used Sound Toys’ Crystalizer plug-in and processed a short lion snarl and I doubled it up,” he explains. “That sound runs underneath the whole thing.” The startup of an industrial electric pump begins the whole process.

“The producers wanted to feel that this place was enormous, full of energy and dangerous at the same time. Then we had to explode them back into the past,” Graham explains. “Most of that was Rick Steele.”

Terra Nova re-recording mixers Dean Okrand (left) and Brian Harman

Steele and fellow designer Dickeson use similar rigs—Pro Tools|HD Accel with 24-fader ICON control surfaces, which, in Steele’s case, is strictly used for monitoring. “I’m pretty much a keyboard cutter,” he says. “To me, that is really the editing process—cutting, pasting, dragging, trimming.”

Working in the box, the two make use of some favorite plug-ins from Avid—including Vari-Fi for ramping up sounds, such as engine revving—and a collection from Sound Toys, including Crystallizer, FilterFreak, Tremolator, PhaseMistress and, Steele’s main workhorse, PurePitch. “Pitch is really almost everything, and PurePitch is especially useful in the formant of the sound— changing the pitch of the intonation without changing the pitch of the vocalization itself. And when you apply it to non-vocal effects, it has some very interesting characteristics.”

While creating the sounds of a rundown future provided the base, Graham says creating dinosaurs that don’t sound like, well, dinosaurs (i.e., Jurassic Park) was the show’s biggest challenge. “We all identify certain sounds coming out of certain dinosaur faces,” says Steele. “So the real task is to come up with groups of sounds and put them together with what we’re seeing, and, in a sense, try and create a personality.”

So what makes a good dinosaur? “Anything that roars,” replies Graham with a laugh. “You can use a bear, a lion, a cougar—you can use all of those, but they all have to be treated, manipulated in such a way that it’ll fit the size of the creature. And they need to be married with a large-body-cavity animal, such as an elephant, rhino or walrus, to give it size and weight, especially for low growls and breaths. And the key is combining all of those sounds so that they have one vocalization and sound like they’re a single animal.”

Creating a personality for the beasts is what sets them apart from the real thing, says Steele. “Every roar can’t be the same; you have to create that deviation. If you listen to animals in the wild, they kind of sound the same from vocalization to vocalization. They don’t have human-like personalities, but you still have to create that emotional attachment. These are characters, not just animals.”

For the beastly Carnotauruss, Steele worked up a new, intimidating sound. “The producers told us they wanted it to have a bird-like quality,” Graham explains. At the core of Steele’s Carno is a condor with lots of other ferocious animals added. “But it’s that condor that gives it that distinct, bird-like feel,” says Steele, noting that it can be heard as the last sound out of its mouth before it attacks.

Sometimes the dinosaurs interact with each other, not “speaking” per se, but communicating nonetheless. In the second hour of the pilot, some “Slasher” creatures—prehistoric animals that hunt in packs, with large tails with a saw on the end—are heard offscreen “talking” to each other as they form their attack. “It makes the scene more terrifying, the fact that you’re not seeing them, but you hear them going back and forth,” Harvengt explains. “Each one of those vocalizations has to be as if we’re hearing an actor offstage playing a role. That’s the difference between design effects and hard effects; design effects have an emotional effect on the audience.”

Another dinosaur is the giant, green-eating Brachiosaurus that, in one scene, is found bending down from the tree branches to eat out of a little girl’s hand. The direction from co-producer Livia Hanich and executive producer Brannon Braga during the episode’s spotting session was simply that the animal needed to sound “friendly.”

“The producers give us clues, in a way, as to what they’re looking for,” says Harvengt. “So we have to take those simple clues and create sounds that we know will forward the story. A lot of times, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You’re looking for that piece to put in there that will complete the full picture.”

The friendly Brach, says Steele, is a combination of a bear, a dog “and certain parts of a walrus.” And when it bends down, “That’s from a cow.”

Dinosaurs aren’t the only sounds that had to be created in Terra Nova. Mike Dickeson was charged with, among other things, creating the electric-powered vehicles the military uses to get around. “The problem with electric vehicles is that they are very quiet,” Graham explains. “If you look at a Prius, you just can’t hear them. So Mike had to create electric vehicles that have an acceleration and a deceleration, with revs, et cetera. It was a big challenge; these are vehicles that don’t exist in any library, and Mike responded with great stuff.”

Dickeson also created the sounds for the unique weaponry used in Terra Nova to ward off the dinos. “We had to create a sonic canon, something that would have impact on them, make ’em mad, but would also make them afraid, without killing them,” Graham says. “The design has an energy that ramps up, then an expulsion and there’s a projectile. There are three different events that take place in a matter of a tenth of a second. They had to be distinct elements. And most people won’t even notice. But if it were cheesy, they would. They’ll just know it sounds cool.”

Once all of the sound elements for an episode are completed, they are copied from the server in the editing studio on Riverside Drive and brought over on a drive to the dub stage at Hollywood Way for the final three-day mix. Re-recording mixers Dean Okrand (dialog and music) and Brian Harman (sound design/effects/Foley) work a pair of 24-fader D-Command control surfaces in Pro Tools, something Harman says has vastly sped up the process. “We can work independently or we can work together. That’s one of the nice things about Pro Tools and digital video versus the old days. I can be working on a scene at the 10-minute point, and Dean can be at five minutes working on a different scene. It’s an extremely powerful tool.”

Though the impressive pilot episode featured a whopping 300 tracks, Graham expects the typical episode to have between 125 and 140. Harman typically receives eight to 10 mono and eight to 10 stereo effects tracks, mostly for the dinosaurs themselves. “I spread them across the front wall, adding sub for each,” he says, before moving to the rear speakers. “I love using the surrounds. It fills out the rooms and really gives the mix life. I’ll take certain birds or calls and put them in the back, and then put some reverb on it to have it wash around back up to the front. The surrounds and the boom are fully utilized in this show.”

It’s not unusual for design effects to require some additional attention during the mix. Graham handles the changes himself from his MacBook Pro. “I have a 2TB drive with 100,000 sounds, and another drive with all the dialog and ADR in case they want an alternate take or something,” he explains. Notes Harman, “I’m able to go inside and grab the sound, and then I have the plug-ins where I can pitch-shift things down or time-expand it or compress it—all right here. In the old days, it would have to go back to the shop and be done. I’m doing it right there at the console.”

An example of such a change took place during the mixing of the scene when the Brachiosaurus bends down to eat the plant out of the little girl’s hand. “We were dubbing that, and [co-producer] Livia [Hanich] said, ‘You know what? When it bends, I’d like for us to want to pet it,’” Graham recalls. “So I’m able to go into that library of stuff that we created, find a sound that evokes that feeling [in this case, the cow] and I could re-cut it, right there on the stage. And I’ll put it through the board, they’ll mix it in, and the producers say, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’” Problem solved.

Hanich and executive producer Brannon Braga are typically at the dub providing feedback and direction throughout. “They actually enjoy the process. And it’s fun to watch them,” says Graham. “Particularly if they’ve written an episode, and all of a sudden something comes to life, something they only thought about in their head. And now they’re seeing it and hearing it. That’s exciting for me, as the supervisor, to watch because it means you’ve done your job.”