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The Lone Ranger Rides Again!

Sound Challenges of a Fun-Filled Western

Photo: Courtesy of Disney

Making a western in this day and age is a risky proposition. But leave it to Gore Verbinski—director of the mega-popular Pirates of the Caribbean films—to come up with a crowd-pleasing summer epic to give the genre a much-needed shot of adrenalin. The Lone Ranger, starring Armie Hammer in the title role and Johnny Depp as Tonto (his character elevated from sidekick to second lead) is a western for a new generation of moviegoers, a deft blending of imaginative, cleverly staged action sequences, a compelling classic story and doses of humor, both silly and dark. This just might work.

Many of the major players on The Lone Ranger sound team are veterans of multiple past Verbinski films, from production mixer Lee Orloff to supervising sound editors Addison Teague and Shannon Mills and rerecording mixers Chris Boyes (FX) and Paul Massey (dialog, music). Add in longtime picture editor Craig Wood and composer Hans Zimmer and you’ve got a core crew that’s largely in sync with both the discriminating, hands-on director, and with each other.

“In the 17 or so years Gore has been making features, technology has evolved and opened the door to allow him to fold visual effects, music and sound into one simultaneous creative process,” Teague comments. “Gore wanted each of these departments to inform each other, as he put the film together for the first time. Under one picture department roof, he brought together traditional picture editorial with sound design, music and VFX. This core team was at his disposal for months to address any direction he was taking on a given day. It was a really exciting phase. He works on one sequence at a time. Being all together created a conversation about how music and sound could help contribute to what the picture editors were constructing.”

“Gore is very involved in the soundtrack,” Mills adds. “Because of the schedule and demands on Gore’s time, we spent a lot of time early getting a few important scenes worked out and put into the Avid. Gore very much likes to develop sound and picture at the same time, having them both inform each other. On the flip side, when we hit the final mix stage, there are a lot more options and opportunities that arise there, and Gore is not afraid of taking advantage of those. Sometimes a change in the music, or a new line of ADR, can open up opportunities to experiment with sound in ways that weren’t possible previously. So there can also be a fair amount of sound shaping on the final mix.”

Fittingly, most of the film was shot in gorgeous outdoor locales around the West—primarily New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. Production recordist Orloff “did an absolutely amazing job under pretty grueling conditions,” says dialog re-recording mixer Massey, “because they were out there in the desert, climbing mountains and all the rest. He went through a lot of gear, he told me; he had a lot of sand and dirt in his recording equipment. But he always does a fantastic job recording the dialog. It was very rich; sometimes a little noisy because of the environment and because of generators and wind-blowers and all that. Still there was very minimal ADR recorded for technical reasons, which is, of course, a credit to him.” Massey did his dialog premixes at his own studio in Ojai, Calif.

To pull off a big period film like The Lone Ranger, which is mainly set during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad during the 1860s, attention to historic detail, both aurally and visually, was a high priority for Verbinski and the crew. From a sonic perspective, this meant going to great lengths to capture the sound of trains of that era—the biggest set piece in the movie is an elaborate locomotive chase and gunfight—as well as various firearms, authentic interiors (jail, saloon, etc.) and, naturally, horses galore.

Teague says, “Effects recordist Jake Riehle and I traveled to New Mexico, where production had constructed a five-mile loop of jointed rail with real trains for the shoot. These were usually pushed or pulled by modern diesel engines, so our goal on that trip was to collect jointed track and car movement sounds. For two days they let us go anywhere we wanted on these trains while they shot, as long as we were out of the camera’s view. And to capture the sound of the period steam engine, Jake and his recording partner Bob Kellough went on an amazing train recording adventure.”

“The Santa Fe 3751 is a Los Angeles-based steam locomotive currently owned by the San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society,” Riehle adds. “Its crew of volunteers maintain the 85-year-old steam engine and take it out at least once a year on a passenger-funded exhibition. Last May, we were fortunate enough to have our mics ride along with the locomotive on its trip from L.A. to the Grand Canyon and back. During its six-day trip, we had a Sound Devices 744T strapped to the train’s tender [coal car] with a Sennheiser 8050 on top of the locomotive about 10 feet behind the stack, a Sennheiser 8040 down by the 80-inch drive wheels, and a Schoeps MS rig above the engineer’s cab pointed at the nose of the train.

“Since we knew the train’s route, we decided to map out spots each day that could be good for pass-by recordings. Obviously we would have to get ahead of the locomotive, set up our mics quickly, wait for it to pass, and hop back in our car to get in front of it again. So we fitted our onboard recording rig with a Spot personal locator, which leaves Google Maps-based digital bread crumbs in real time that we could follow on our iPhones. We were updated every 10 minutes of how close the train was to our recording location, so even if we couldn’t see the train, we knew about where it was.”

When it came to weapons, such as that rare rapid-fire 19th-century marvel known as a Gatling gun, Riehle once again hit the road: “We found an 1874 Colt Gatling gun replica out in East Texas to record. It took the gun owner two days to hand load the 400 .45 caliber black powder rounds we fired on his private shooting range. We surrounded the gun with a Schoeps MS rig, two Sennheiser 8040s feeding into a 744T, and a Sennheiser 8020 recording into a Sound Devices 722. We also put a Sony PCM-D50 downrange to capture a more distant report from the gun.”

Riehle and Mills also made other gun recordings in the hills and canyons at Skywalker Ranch, in Northern California, “to emulate the echo and slapback in many of the locations in the film,” Mills says. Mills even borrowed several historic guns from his father, a huge fan of westerns and a gun collector. Most of the sound design—which early on also included contributions from Gary Rydstrom, who left to work on another film—was done at Skywalker Sound, where the majority of the crew members have been regulars for years and have amassed significant sound libraries covering thousands upon thousands of FX and atmospheres.

The all-important horses were a combination of library recordings and Foley. “In the end, it was probably about 50-50,” says FX mixer Boyes. “The Foley works really well when the horse comes in and stops and moves around. Addison and Shannon made a really wise choice to make sure that the editors who cut the Foley horses also cut the FX horses; that was key. So what that meant is, often times, unless you were actually looking at the horses’ feet, I could use both, because the FX will give you the body and the size and that wide stereo field you want that tells you this horse is riding through the desert, and the Foley will give you the specificity, but also the power and the deep resonant quality that [Foley artist] Dan O’Connell gets on the Foley stage. He’s amazing.” Nia Hansen was the Foley supervisor for what was a very Foley-intensive film from beginning to end.

Photo: Courtesy of Disney

Another aspect of the film that required unique expertise and an unusual recording session was the loop group recording for the film’s Comanches—Tonto is a Comanche in this Lone Ranger, and the railroad is being built in part through Indian Territories. “We arranged a loop group recording session near Lawton, Oklahoma, in the home of the Comanche Nation,” dialog supervisor Murray explains. “Since there are no recording studios within range of their rural homeland, we decided to record outdoors. I was lucky to have Lee Orloff, the production sound mixer, and Joe Magee, who had supervised the music playback, on set. We staged our recording session in a dry irrigation pond bed in a field away from the highway. The walls of the pond sheltered us from any road noise and also gave a nice little bounce to the sound. We spent Saturday morning recording women and children for the Comanche river camp scene, and the afternoon with men singing and drumming for the death dance scene. On Sunday we recorded men doing conversation and call-outs, as well as full Comanche war whoops and traditional songs.”

The final mix for the film, which took place during May and June at Sony’s Cary Grant Theatre in L.A., using that room’s Harrison MPC4-D console, was as long and intense as you might expect for a two-and-a-half-hour music- and FX-heavy summer extravaganza overseen by a perfectionist director. Long hours notwithstanding, Boyes says, “This film exemplifies what you want to obtain in a mix in terms of the balance between sound effects and music. The rhythmic element is a big reason why. The rhythmic elements for Gore go beyond just train clacks in rhythm with a cue. In Gore’s mind, everything—footsteps, impacts, horses—should be in beat with something, and even if it’s not in beat with music, it should be in a rhythmic way in beat with itself. For an effects mixer, that’s a tall order because you have to support the sync and also find the elements within your tracks that will give you a rhythm.”

The lengthy climactic train chase, in particular, required a herculean effort from everyone. Teague reveals that initial sound work on that scene actually began before it was even shot: “We were sent a 17-minute pre-visualization of the finale train chase and asked to do a sound-effects pass against the music. We saw this footage before we even read the script, but it gave us a good idea what the third act set piece was all about—trains, and [Rossini’s iconic] ‘William Tell Overture’ [which for decades has been known colloquially known as the “Lone Ranger theme” because of its use on the popular ’50s TV series]. We had not yet ventured out to collect train sounds, so we worked with existing library material for this quick task, and immediately realized the challenge on our hands was how to put the sound of something as rhythmic as a train under driving music and not have them clash. The trains never stop and the music never stops and the trains are constantly changing perspectives, and that needs to be in sync with itself as well.”

Months later, all the elements for the scene came together in the final mix. “You have the clickity-clack of trains on jointed rail creating one constant rhythm” Teague says. “The chuffing stack of the steam engine creates another rhythm. The music will create the dominant rhythm. All the while, you can’t ignore what speed the train is actually moving on screen. Track and chuff rhythms are defined by speed, but other elements, like the wood creaks of the cars, or the metal shings of the wheels on the rails, could be recorded in isolation and placed in or out of rhythm as desired. With wind and steady movement sounds added, you suddenly have a train come to life, with the ability to simplify as needed. These balances didn’t happen until the final mix, when the final music was in and we could find the moments that felt right to take away the repetitive track clack and play up tonal winds for tension. At other times, we relied on the track clack as if it were a ticking clock, adding to the tension and anticipation.”

Of course, The Lone Ranger isn’t wall-to-wall action. There are also, as Boyes puts it, “a number of quiet moments that have a lot of texture, in terms of the ambiences. Early in the film, there’s a scene in the desert at night where [Tonto and the Lone Ranger] are for the first time really talking to each other, and there’s a snapping and crackling fire and all these distant creatures that are going in and out, and wind that comes and goes. There’s a tremendous amount of that sort of interplay—where we’re supporting the world with various different desert winds and cicadas and crickets, and every once in while, a bird or insect to spice through. It’s a very full and robust ambient track, when it gets its chance.”

There is also a mystical element to this version of Tonto, which also gave the sound team a chance to be creative in spots. In one scene cited by Mills, for example, “Tonto starts doing a chant, and out of this chant we go into a sonic dream state of spiritual reverence of sorts, as he conjures help from the spirits. By slowly pulling away the sounds of reality—ambience, voices, wind—and slowly sinking into a dream tone, we were then able to set the stage with sonic characters from the spirit world, like crows, elk, and deer.”

Hans Zimmer’s score “was huge, as you’d expect,” Paul Massey says, “and it was very much an evolving score throughout the final mix here. We actually did almost a final mix for a preview in the early stages of the mix—Gore wanted a final-grade audio track for a preview, and at that point a lot of the music was temp mockups and works-in-progress. It was still multiple stems out from Hans, but a lot of it was synthetic and was going to be replaced later. Gore was working very closely with Hans and his crews in the evenings, while he was on the stage with us during the days.”

Typical of the always-versatile Zimmer, the score runs the gamut from grand orchestral themes to moodier, more intimate passages that have a Native American or Old West feel. Still, good and memorable as the score may be, chances are that audiences are going to come out of theaters humming the “William Tell Overture.” “For many, many weeks we’ve had that running around our heads; can’t get it out!” Massey says with a laugh. “But that’s good! People are going to really remember that scene.”

Effects recordist Jake Riehle sets up the mics on the Santa Fe 3751, an 85-year-old steam locomotive.


More on sound for The Lone Ranger, from members of sound team: Supervising sound editors Addison Teague and Shannon Mills, rerecording mixers Chris Boyes and Paul Massey, dialog supervisor Douglas Murray and FX recordist Jake Riehle.

Addison Teague on the early collaboration between the sound and picture departments:

“On my first week on the job, Gore showed me a shot of a telephone worker perched on a pole, and explained that a train was going to speed past and pull down a whole row of poles behind him. Gore was trying to figure out visually how many poles would be pulled down. He asked me to create the sound for this moment, with varying numbers of wood pole breaks coming toward the camera at different speeds, so we could put them to the picture cut and see what felt right. This also helped them adjust the length of the cut. Since there were no visuals, we were free to create a rhythm and speed ramp that created a satisfying sonic crescendo. Once defined, the sync frames were passed to ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] to animate the right number of accelerating pole breaks to the sound. For months that remained a blank visual plate with just the sound effects, until one day the shot arrived from ILM in perfect sync. So many times sound effects editors have their hands tied to the visuals they are given, so this is a great example of Gore’s understanding that the sound of this moment is more compelling than the visuals, so he let sound lead.”

Shannon Mills on the use of IR (impulse response) location recordings in post:

“There was no IR recording done by the production team, but we did use IR for things in the film. IRs we had of different landscapes—like slick canyon walls or desolate deserts—were used on certain FX to fit into the landscape. Ambiences are tricky, because sometimes they want to be true to the setting, and sometimes they want to be extraordinary and much more emotional than the actual setting. So sometimes the ambiences might not technically reflect the actual setting, but do reflect the emotional content of the scene.”

Chris Boyes on some of those settings:

“There are a lot of canyons, which are always interesting to work with. Some of the guns have some really exciting and delicious echoes on them that slap around in the room and really make use of the surround. I enjoyed that.”

Boyes on some of the subtle touches:

“One thing that’s kind of exciting on this film is we have these incredible cicadas and crickets. Many directors will say, ‘Yeah, thanks—can you take that out?’ [Laughs] Gore never did. I was surprised I got in as much of it in as I did. [Q: Do you think that sound adds tension?] I think it does. There’s a difference between having a steady cicada track that becomes a sort of pulse for the scene, as opposed to using an insect as a statement that comes and goes—and we do both. Sometimes a rhythmic noise gives quiet moments a little edge.

“Shannon and I created a lot of these little silver [badge] stings and spiced design elements. For Tonto, we did a bunch of shaker sounds. I had a rattlesnake rattle on the end of a stick and various different native instruments and created a whole library of different things, some of which are woven in there.”

More from Douglas Murray on capturing the Comanche language for the film:

“Gore wanted to keep the film as authentic as possible in every way. Well before the shoot began, Johnny Depp courted the Comanche and was made an honorary member of the tribe, in a ceremony comparable to a citizenship or adoption rite. The film hired Comanche tribal historians and native Comanche speakers William Voelker and Troy to advise during the shoot. Depp learned some Comanche from them, and speaks or sings Comanche several times in the film. There are a few other Comanche characters in the film who also speak the language. All the sync production sound was vetted during the shoot by Voelker and Troy. The picture editors on the film, Craig Wood and Jim Haygood, were very careful not to rearrange the lines arbitrarily, to avoid distorting the original lines. As dialog editors, that made our job easy. We just had to ensure that in our editing work—using Lee Orloff’s master audio with the separate channels to maximize the sound quality of the production dialog—we didn’t get carried away and change any of the syllables or phonemes of what was in the cut.

“[For the loop group recording in Oklahoma] Bill Voelker was instrumental in getting us access to fluent Comanche speakers, and some of the best singers and drummers. The whole group of young and old men and women and two children were Taft-Hartleyed into SAG [Screen Actor’s Guild] for the show, since this group is uniquely qualified to perform authentic voice work in the Comanche language. The experience of working with the Comanche couldn’t have been more wonderful for me. They told me that they had never been accurately portrayed in any Hollywood feature film before, in part because John Wayne told [director] John Ford that he didn’t want to work with the Comanche, so all the Ford westerns were shot with members of other tribes, even while playing Comanches. One member of our group said she hoped the film would motivate young tribe members who are more interested in pop culture to learn the endangered Comanche language and culture.

“We have Spanish and Cantonese dialog in the film, too, and that required as much attention as the Comanche language material. We had Karen Huie, who is a member of Holly Dorff Long’s marvelous loop group, and also a Cantonese language consultant, supervise the added Cantonese dialog for the film. After we cut the group material, I sent it to Karen for translation and approval. We also had a Spanish speaker approve the few lines in Spanish that were added. So by practicing due diligence, the problems were all surmountable for us non-speaker editors.”

More from Jake Riehle on the train California-Arizona train recording expedition:

“The only day we physically rode the train to record was on the leg of the trip between Williams, Arizona, and the south rim of the Grand Canyon. This was the only day the train would be traveling exclusively on jointed rail, which is period-correct for The Lone Ranger. Most high-speed railroads in America are now made up of continuous welded rail, which doesn’t give you the stereotypical clickity-clack that we associate with railroads. So we shoved our mics as close to the rails as we could get them, and we also recorded in some of the older metal and wood passenger cars, trying to capture the sounds of an on-board train ride.”

More from Addison Teague on the train sound effects working with music:

“We found it critical to cut the track clacks in time with the music. It is easy to bump it out of sync on the final mix, but not easy to suddenly put it in sync, so this was a tremendous task taken on by FX editor Josh Gold. With each music revision, the music editors would supply him with the latest music click-track and a MIDI tempo file, allowing Josh to adjust the changing train track speed within Pro Tools to align with the new music. The day they would record the score for a scene, we would update the track clack speeds in our final mix to match what the scoring stage was doing. When the final music was delivered, which was typically late in the mix schedule, we were already in sync and just ready to final mix with Gore.”

Chris Boyes says you should stick around for the final credits of the film:

“After the main titles, we go to the crawl, and we go to the crawl in the splendor of crickets and birds and cicadas and winds, and then this big gust of wind comes and takes that away and you’re left with footsteps and a very beautiful cue Hans wrote for Tonto walking away in the desert. Initially, we were going to have 10 minutes of these backgrounds, but in the end I think we ended up with about 45 seconds of it; very subtle, and discreet in a way. But that’s fine. I don’t think the audience was ready to have 10 minutes of background sounds. [Laughs.]

Paul Massey on working closely with Gore Verbinski:

“Gore has always pushed the limits. He has very high expectations and very high-quality standards, which is great. He does allow you the time to explore and experiment, and then he’ll obviously be there deciding and telling you whether it’s working or not, or if it’s going in a direction he doesn’t want to take.

“Sometimes he’ll describe a music cue and the approach to a music cue with the emotion of a scene, and I can see him trying to find one key word is for a particular cue. He wants me to work the cue on my own—he doesn’t mind being in the room, but he wants me to explore it—and he will direct me with one key word or a phrase as to how it relates to the film. He might say ‘humble’ as the word for the cue, and the more I think about that I start to understand where he’s coming from. He’ll give direction like that so I’ll pick up on the mode of how to mix it. It’s a shorthand we’ve developed over the years which I really enjoy, because he gives me great freedom to mix the cues how I feel they should be presented. We’ll work through it and fine-tune it. But he has a great musical ear and he often treats effects as musical instruments, as well.”

Final words from Chris Boyes on film mixing:

“Paul [Massey] and I are definitely ‘conventional’ mixers in the sense that we love what a real console brings to a mix, and we believe that is really the best way to work. You’ve got some really cutting-edge people working on this film, and we all know how to use Pro Tools in unique ways, and have done so. But the process of mixing is still a really revered art form which brought a tremendous amount to the dynamics of this track. I see our business going the route of an MP3 with some of these box mixes, and that’s not to say that box mixing can’t create wonderful results. It has. It does. It’s a tool like anything else. But what a console brings to the mix when it’s deftly used, is in danger of becoming a lost art; I’m kind of worried about it. [The Lone Ranger] is a very full mix, but its got details that are really delicious. And these big film consoles are still developing. Some of the things in the Harrison borrow from the world that Pro Tools mixing is bringing about. They’ve got plug-ins in these consoles that are pretty amazing.”