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Sound for The Aeronauts

Dramatic Storyline Taken Even Higher by Dolby Atmos Immersion

Looking for a reason to splurge for that Dolby Atmos home theater? Try The Aeronauts. Amazon Studios’ aerial adventure, set in Victorian-era England, follows meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) and balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) as they travel higher than anyone had yet dared in order to study upper atmospheric conditions and their effects on weather patterns.

The Aeronauts will run in select U.S. theaters beginning December 6 before becoming available worldwide via Amazon Prime on December 20. This release tactic—similar to Netflix’s Roma last December—is great for getting the film to the masses faster while still qualifying for Oscar consideration, but the main drawback is that viewers who live far from a big city (or just like to avoid them generally) will probably miss hearing the Dolby Atmos mix. That’s a pity, because director Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts fits the format like a hand in a glove.

The body of the story unfolds in an 8-by-6-foot wicker basket suspended miles above the ground by a massive gas filled balloon called “The Mammoth.” Multi-award winning rerecording mixer/supervising sound editor Lee Walpole, at Boom Post in London, used the Atmos format to put the audience in the basket with the actors—panning the balloon and its requisite network of ropes into the ceiling speakers, darting individual wisps of wind around the theater, playing wicker creaks across the front and side walls, and assigning the tinkling and whir of scientific instruments to pinpointed locations in the surrounds.

“Stuart Hilliker [dialog/music re-recording mixer] was also panning the dialog with me, following with the Foley movement to match,” Walpole says. “We panned the dialog way more than we traditionally would—using sound to create a first-person perspective for the viewer.”

Early on, as Harper was exploring picture ratio options and the possibility of shooting the balloon sequences in IMAX, Walpole pitched a similar approach for sound—to mix in 7.1 on the ground and then open up into Dolby Atmos when they’re aloft. “Tom [Harper] was instantly on board with that idea,” shares Walpole, who’s collaborated with Harper on projects like Peaky Blinders, War & Peace and Wild Rose.

The spatial separation of Atmos’ extended surround field allowed Walpole to pack a significant amount of sound into complicated, dense sequences while still maintaining clarity. For instance, the Aeronauts encounter a massive storm that thrashes the balloon, heaving it through the sky.

“There are ropes straining, rain pounding against the balloon and its fabric buffeting, and thunder across the ceiling,” he explains. “We have different wind sounds spinning around the walls to totally surround the viewer, and rain across the front three speakers hammering the wicker basket. That separation allows the viewer to absorb way more audio information than they could with a traditional 5.1 or 7.1 mix.”

Starting the design and mix in 7.1 gave Walpole a clear picture of how to upmix to Atmos and downmix to 5.1. “I knew I’d be putting ropes and balloon sounds in the rear surrounds for the 7.1 and 5.1 mixes. That gave the sense of immersion without getting in the way of all the detail in the front. I knew the mix worked in 7.1, and from there it was easy to choose which elements would get height information or would get pulled to object tracks while I was premixing for Atmos.”

In one of the more dramatic sound scenes, Amelia must climb the balloon to release a frozen valve and stop its ascent.

The mix’s translation to 5.1 is essential; due to The Aeronauts’ limited theatrical run, most viewers will experience the film at home on a 5.1 surround or simple stereo system.

But there are many magical moments best experienced in Atmos, like the swarm of butterflies. For this scene, Foley artist Anna Wright recorded a variety of fine tissue paper on the Foley stage at Boom. Next, sound designer Andy Kennedy fed the recordings through GRM Shuffling and GRM Warp plug-ins to create delicate, fluttery sounds for individual butterflies. Those were placed onto 10 object tracks and supported by several stereo beds that Walpole created to form the base of the swarm.

“It was real trial-and-error,” he recalls. “We were treading gently to see how much sound we could get away with. You accept the idea that hundreds of butterflies would make a cumulative sound, whereas hearing individuals would draw you out of the film. So we wanted it to be the bare minimum, just enough to make the scene immersive and have a sense of movement.”

The sound of a butterfly swarm was created in Foley and blown up in the Dolby Atmos mix.

The moments of thick fog also play best in Atmos. On the way up, for example, the balloon passes through a dense cloud. Director Harper wanted to feel the mist swallowing the sounds. Walpole achieved that by gradually condensing the ultra-wide Atmos surround field, “pulling back on the sounds to amplify the silence. The spot effects and balloon sounds are super-dry, with absolutely no reverb and a little EQ rolloff to make them dull.”

Another Atmos-optimized scene occurs at the apex of the balloon’s ascent. Up to that point, the interplay of the balloon’s four key sonic ingredients—the fabric, the ropes, the basket, and the scientific instruments—signaled the conditions the characters were experiencing. But as the balloon climbs higher, the temperature drops, the ropes and basket freeze, and the air is still. The sound of singing wind is replaced by a deep, subharmonic drone. It’s up here that Amelia discovers the air release valve has frozen shut and she must climb to the top of the balloon to open it so they can descend.

In this cold, quiet atmosphere, every sound plays hyper-real. Each time Amelia grabs a rope there is the sharp crystalline crunch of ice. “Her peril is emphasized by the macro-focused details of her actions. You’re hearing the repercussion of her every movement,” Walpole clarifies.

The Foley team froze leafy vegetables like cabbages and lettuce, and froze nylon and taffeta. They layered those frozen materials with different fibrous ropes, manipulating those to create the sound rather than freezing the ropes themselves. They even froze a wig for the movement of Amelia’s hair.

Foley artists Anna Wright and Catherine Thomas in the handmade replica wicker basket brought into Boom Post, London, for adding realism to the effects track.

Walpole adds: “We used real crusty snow footsteps for her feet in the frozen basket. We also added in frozen, crispy ice elements to give a constant sense of tinkling icicles, to make the ropes feel very brittle. We had some contact mic elements, too, to support the extreme close-ups and macro-focus on Amelia.”

As Amelia climbs higher, the ropes become tauter. Unable to use her frozen hands, she slides her arms under the network of ropes to pull herself up. Her elbows impact the frozen balloon, creating a deep wubby sound. For this, Walpole layered subharmonic drum hits—timed to match pings and emanations of the sheet ice covering the balloon—with hydrophone recordings captured under lake ice that he pitched down to fit the balloon’s scale.

The frozen ropes pop and twang under the force of Amelia’s weight. “They’re constantly evolving and changing in character. They’re deceptively complex,” says Walpole. “We had a frozen rope bed that Andy [Kennedy] captured that first winter we began work on the film, which adds an all-important sense of reality. We have leather-and-rope layers we captured from the basket on-set. We had icy rope sweeteners from the Foley team, too. Finally, we went to town with layering in ice recordings that we accumulated over the last few projects. My library of recordings for The Terror series on AMC certainly came in handy.”

At the top of the balloon, at 36,000 feet, Amelia drags herself to the center of the balloon. Here, Walpole chose elements like frozen wood creaks and body slides on ice-crusted snow, and Foley created close, ice-cracking sweeteners using polystyrene sheets and dry noodles. Amelia stands up and stomps on the air release valve trying to pop it open. Again, the wubby balloon impact plays in addition to snow elements, fire bursts and deep-pitched rock impacts. “It’s a nice partnership of real and unreal sounds,” says Walpole.

He also added in the sound of snow and ice falling into the basket below. Walpole says, “We tried to have as much off-screen sound as possible, not just here but throughout the entire film, to add to the sense of realism and scale, and to tell the story of cause and effect.”

Re-recording mixer/supervising sound editor Lew Walpole.

Amelia passes out as the balloon slowly deflates and she wakes to the sound of cracking ice. As her body slides over the edge, there’s a swirling rush of air. The camera pans one way and the wind whooshes pan the other, flying across the wall and ceiling to amplify the sense of disorientation.

Walpole adds, “The nice thing about Atmos is that you can get a completely fluid pan and can properly spin the audience around with it. It doesn’t sound disjointed as you pan from the front across the room. The movement feels smooth, and that takes the audience along for the ride.”

Walpole and his sound team captured massive amounts of custom recordings for The Aeronauts. They created their own rope rigging, choosing ropes for their particular sonic qualities, which they attached to a wooden handle bar and hoisted over a tree branch. The rubbing, creaking, twisting sounds they generated created a realistic, open rope bed against which they set their effects and Foley details.

First sound assistant Peter Davis wears a blue Lycra bodysuit so that he could get the boom mics tighter in the shot to capture crystal-clear dialog.

For James’ scientific instruments, they captured the actual props on-set, plus random items that the Foley team chose purely for their sounds. “We spent a hell of a lot of time editing those recordings and making sure they stuck to the images on screen,” says Walpole.

He and his team recorded various silk sheets and yacht sails that they pitch-shifted and filtered to create the gentle swishing sounds of the balloon’s fabric rustling and flapping above the audience’s head. “We didn’t want people’s attention to be drawn to it too much, but it’s always there to varying degrees; we’re changing the character of it from scene to scene,” he explains.

For rain on the balloon, they recorded hoses spraying on canvas and nylon, which they pitched down to match the balloon’s size. This bass-y element plays in contrast to the higher-pitched wave sprays they put in the front speakers to represent rain on the wicker basket.

Sound effects editor Saoirse Christopherson led a live Foley session in the production basket while it was suspended from the soundstage ceiling. This was prior to the application of a glue solution—devised by production sound mixer Tom Williams—meant to quiet the basket’s creaking.

In addition, Walpole commissioned a 5-by-5-foot wicker basket from a woman in Wales who makes wicker coffins. The custom basket was nearly too large to fit onto the Foley stage. “I thought I was going to have to saw it in half!” exclaims Walpole.

He took down decorations, took doors off their hinges and cleared their path of any obstructions. “It got stuck in the stairwell but we managed to get it around the corner and with one final kick, it popped free like a champagne cork onto the stage,” shares Walpole. “It was great because a Foley artist could climb inside and perform the sounds to picture. We then layered the basket recordings from the soundstage on top of that.”

Williams’ dedication to clean production dialog didn’t end with the basket treatment. He took advantage of the soundstage’s blue screen by putting blue covers on his boom poles and mics and having the boom ops dress head to toe in blue Lycra—even over their heads. This meant he could get the booms right in the shot. He also put lavalier mics on each of the actors.

“This kind of diligence enabled him to get us clean sound in the most compromised conditions—even getting some usable production dialog during the storm sequence,” says Walpole. “Tom [Williams] also worked with the practical effects team, trying to minimize water spray impacts on the mics. He did a fantastic job.”

With so much of the visuals relying on CGI, Walpole’s goal was to minimize the use of ADR because, “If you have too much ADR and too much VFX, then the film starts to lose its anchor of reality. Things feel disconnected; it’s in danger of feeling constructed and fake. Having the production dialog supports the illusion of this being real. You need some element or layer of reality to help the constructed aspects feel realistic.”