It's the ultimate double-edged sword in the world of audio post-production for films — the eye candy feature, as a remake, to boot. Yet, that's exactly where supervising sound editor Scott A. Hecker found himself when he started to work on MGM's revamp of the 1975 classic Rollerball. “It is very stunning, and the bar is high to sonically augment what you see visually,” Hecker says. “We had our work cut out for us.”
And then some, considering much of the production effects (especially the crucial skating tracks) were unusable. Well, actually none of it when it came down to the wheel sounds. “Absolutely none,” Hecker says. “The director, John McTiernan, wasn't crazy about the sound of the track that they had constructed, so we have approached this completely from scratch.”
The film takes place in Russia, circa 2004, and the Rollerball “athletes” are competing on a figure-8 track complete with a bevy of ramps and jumps. During the game, a shotput-like ball is put into play, and the players jockey to put it into a satellite dish-sized goal that is high in the air.
Hecker's first step while thinking about the film's skate sounds was to look for any and all rolling sounds from Livewire Audio's catalog, his own and those of his colleagues. “No one had that many sounds,” he explains. “Maybe just a few isolated roller sounds, but I realized it wasn't going to work, and it wasn't dramatic enough for the intensity of this film. So, we immediately knew that we had to go out and do this from scratch.”
The key for director McTiernan was the resonance of the track, Hecker explains, and not just the literal sound of skates rolling on a surface. So they set out to experiment with some different surfaces, finally setting up at an indoor skate park in Simi Valley, Calif. “There was one area that we utilized a lot,” he says. “We refer to it as a salad bowl — it's like being inside of a huge wooden salad bowl where, if you stand in the middle of it, the lip is about 12 feet up in the air. Acoustically, it created a very unique, resonating sound, which we were after.”
Hecker found former professional skateboarder John Gurule, who brought in five pairs of roller skates with different wheels and bearings, as well as four skateboards. “It brought in a degree of differentiation, where we recorded pretty much all the same moves just using different skateboards and different types of skates and wheel bearings,” Hecker says.
The first step was to record Gurule performing a variety of maneuvers on different surfaces. John Fasal, who recorded the skate tracks, used various Neumann microphones for those performances. During the last part of the day, Fasal attached Audio-Technica omnidirectional lavalier microphones directly to the roller skates — one pointed at the front skate, another pointed at the rear. He recorded the tracks on an HHB Portadat. “It really picked up this very intense resonating sound,” Hecker recalls.
Mission nearly accomplished. Hecker and sound editor Eric Norris took the salad bowl dates, dumped them into Pro Tools and got ready for some sweetening. Along with the typical and obvious tools of roller coasters, thunder rolls, jet sounds and animal noises, the team could have been found rolling shotputs, bowling balls and barbell weights in the studio. Within Pro Tools, they mainly used three plug-ins: Serato Audio Research Ltd. Pitch 'n Time, Maxx Bass and Waves Renaissance Compressor. A handful of EQs and harmonizers also came in handy.
The final piece to the skate sounds puzzle came during the Foley sessions for the skate striking tracks, which were performed by Hecker and Matthew Dettman.
The key, in the end, was to bring in some of the old-school roller derby audio buzz without it becoming overwhelming. “I think what we've come up with has a lot of personality,” Hecker says. “We wanted to try and make it pretty peaky and specific to the actual movements of each skater on the rink, rather than it being general. When you listen to the skating sounds, you can isolate and hear each individual person's movement very distinctly; it's not just a cacophony of various roller skates rolling on a surface.”