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The Exodus in Atmos

It’s a Ridley Scott epic, a biblical story with swords and battles and locusts and seas parting. And it’s an open palette for sound, from a sound-oriented director. It also was the first Dolby Atmos film to be mixed in London’s Twickenham Stage 1 on the Neve DFC, by the mix team of Paul Massey, Mark Taylor and Oliver Tarney, who also supervised. Here, Tarney recounts some highlights.

You must have known it would be big. What else did you know going in?

One of the main points we discussed was how to tackle the various languages in the film. Hebrew wasn’t going to be a problem for us to record, but to use contemporary North African dialect for the ancient Egyptians would have been too inaccurate. We ended up agreeing on the closest feasible permutation of ancient Egyptian, which is Coptic. Our Crowd Supervisor, Becki Ponting, liaised with one of the very few Coptic scholars to translate hundreds of lines and prepare “listen and repeat” audio guides for our crowd sessions. We did the same with the ancient Hittite language for the battle scene. Most of these large crowd sessions were recorded outside at Shepperton Studios, with Glen Gathard utilizing a 5.0 mic array. The “listen and repeat” nature of how we had to build up the huge crowd layer by layer was time-consuming, but we’re really happy with the way it turned out.

What are the challenges of working on a project that has no real references?

There were elements we could record, such as chariots and swords or frogs and flies, but there were many elements that were open to interpretation. The Passover, Burning Bush and the Red Sea sequences, for instance, were things we had no references for. The Editor, Billy Rich, was great at ingesting our sound design ideas into the Avid from a very early stage, so we were getting feedback from Ridley and Billy right from the beginning of sound post.

No mechanical, no modern. What filled the backgrounds? And how did you keep them moving?

Memphis at that time would have been a great metropolis, so we wanted to convey that level of sophistication and scale. During our Coptic crowd sessions we had recorded drill sessions that we used to describe the military presence and order in that environment. We could also use the rich range of wetland birds of the Nile to evoke a very lush element. There was plenty of fire for us to work with, and we had recorded some great, smooth-sounding 5.0 flambeaux tracks that we used as beds in the palaces. We made the Hebrew ghetto sequences much more stripped back and anxious. Gone is the melody of the birds; the background crowds are now more volatile and agitated.

The Battles? Two big armies, starting wide then crashing into each other…

There’s this huge, frenetic collision, driven by the clash of steel, the wild adrenalin of the horse breaths and vocals, the perpetual threat of arrows whooshing by, and the Coptic and Hittite soldiers screaming. Then a sudden shift from the carnage occurs as we pull focus on our two leads and the event that triggers the next part of their story. We’re only with them, the music, breaths and stylized design all heightening this perspective.

Environments? This is primarily open-air and stone buildings.

There were opportunities for us to strip everything back and go with just a lonely wind in a scene, and then register an energy shift to the grandeur of the palaces, or the oppression of the hellish quarries. Our director was keen on the use of cicadas as a constant electricity throughout the film. They’re a useful tool to subtly bring either an underlying sense of calm or anxiety to a scene. The stone-roomed palaces gave Paul Massey a chance to add long, rich reverbs to the dialogues, and that helped describe the opulence in those locations.

Was the sound designed with Atmos in mind?

Mark Taylor was on both the editorial and mix crew, and had his cutting room set up for 9.1 with the Dolby panner plug-in, so it was great to be able to play ideas early on in the schedule and start discussing how best to prepare for a native Atmos mix. We also had the Atmos panner plug-in installed on our Pro Tools systems for conforming the Atmos objects metadata as each new turnover came in.

For the plague events, such as the locusts, we had to make sure there was enough variation built into the material we designed to cover the extended soundstage. Mike Fentum, James Harrison and I all took turns at designing each major sound event in the film, starting each time from scratch, so that we had a deeper resource to draw from. The Atmos format allowed us to build up more layers, whilst still retaining definition. We ended up with a rich and defined mix, and the Atmos format was definitely a big part of that.