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SFP: “Watchmen”


Jackie Earle Haley’s character, Rorschach, wears a mask that is a constantly changing inkblot.

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Watchmen is not your typical superhero film. Yes, it comes from the DC Comics stable — it was originally published as a 12-comic series by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons in 1986 and ’87, then collected into a highly successful, award-winning graphic novel. But the “superheroes” aren’t the sort of band of crusading do-gooders with unusual powers you’d find in the Justice League of America, the Legion of Superheroes or even the X-Men. Indeed, in the alternate-reality 1985 America of Watchmen — where world events didn’t transpire as we remember them — the costumed vigilante heroes are mostly retired and powerless, so when they become the targets of a plot to discredit and kill them all, they have to use their wits and ingenuity to defeat the evil forces that are threatening them and seeking to start a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. That’s an extremely simplistic explanation of what is actually a very complex and convoluted plot — a story so big that it sprawls over two hours and 40 minutes in the film (and it could’ve been much longer).

The film was directed by Zack Snyder, who knows a thing or two about bringing graphic novels to the screen. His previous opus was the hit 300, Frank Miller’s bloody retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae between Greece and Persia. Snyder did all the storyboarding for that film himself, hewing close to the original artwork and then shooting the movie using a comics-like chroma-key technique. For Watchmen, Snyder again storyboarded every frame himself, capturing as much of the look and detail of the graphic novel as possible, but this time he went for a more conventional film approach — not that there’s anything conventional about what’s actually in the film. It’s loaded with unusual characters — from decidedly “old-school” heroes to one major CGI-enhanced creation, Dr. Manhattan, who looks like a blue field of energy — a plethora of big action set pieces with the requisite pyrotechnics and settings that range from the mundane to the truly bizarre. (Mars, anyone?) The film required a considerable amount of visual effects work, but really a lot of its “look” comes from the intricate sets (it was shot in Vancouver) and creative lighting and cinematography.

It was an immense sound job, as well, and for that end of things Snyder tapped much of the same team he’d worked with on 300 and also his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, including supervising sound editor Scott Hecker, sound designer Eric Norris, FX re-recording mixer Frank Montaño, and dialog and music re-recording mixer Chris Jenkins. (Montaño and Jenkins were nominated for a 2009 Oscar for their mixing work on action thriller Wanted). The music score was by Tyler Bates, another veteran of Snyder’s earlier films. The film was mixed on a Harrison Series 12 console in Universal Studios’ Alfred Hitchcock Theater.

“Zack’s approach is the most liberating that any person working in sound could ask for,” Hecker says during a break in the final mix, “because basically he hands you the ball and says run with it and make it as beautiful, spectacular, vibrant, colorful, exciting, violent — all those adjectives — as you can. He really trusts us, which is great, and it actually started on Dawn of the Dead. But this film has everything in it, from love scenes to prison riots, wars, Antarctica, Vietnam, an atomic bomb, film noir Mickey Spillane-type detective storytelling; it’s amazing to sit back and watch it.”

“If you don’t really watch and listen, you’re lost in this film,” Montaño adds. “It’s not an action film where you can check out and munch on your popcorn.”

“As far out as this is as a graphic novel,” Jenkins notes, “it’s also a really serious dramatic effort. It’s amazing to see how forceful the performances are and how well Zack tells the story. He’s a deceptively smart filmmaker who never takes his eye off the ball with storytelling, yet he’s known as a guy who uses sleight of hand and techniques that other people maybe haven’t found yet. He’s very articulate about things — if he wants to make just a little change with music or an effect, he thinks about it very seriously: Does this change help tell the story better? Is it propelling the action or the actors forward?”

Hecker, again: “You can never be too bold for Zack. There’s a series of fights in the film and our picture editor, Bill Hoy, is very musically oriented, and he looked at me during the third temp dub, and said, ‘Scott, this is our third fight in the film; we’ve gone really big in Zack’s style with the big hits and the stylized fight effects and whatnot. What do you say we tone down the sound design and the fight effects so that we can let the music carry this a bit?’ So we did that and during that temp dub, Zack never said anything. But then we went to do a trailer, and the trailer was predominantly from that particular scene that we’d lowered the FX and featured the music on — it was like a two-minute trailer. So I’m at the trailer mix, Zack comes in to review it, and at the end he looks at me, and says, ‘What happened to the effects?’ So I reminded him of what Bill had suggested about that particular scene, and Zack said, ‘Well, we have to undo that when we get back to the mix.’ So it all came back up. He’s really into martial arts and weaponry and he’s a very viscerally oriented guy.”

Standing: supervising sound editor Scott Hecker (left) and re-recording mixer Chris Jenkins. Seated: re-recording mixer Frank Montaño.

Photo: Gary Krueger

There was plenty of room for creativity in both the sound design and the mix because of “the wide variety of locations where the film takes place and the decades it spans,” Montaño says. “There are realistic things and situations, and also things you’ve never seen before. It allowed us a lot of leeway; it’s like a smorgasbord of sound.”

One thing you’ve never seen before is The Nite-Owl’s strange flying vehicle known as the Owlship. Hecker says, “We wanted to try to keep it from sounding like a jet as so many spaceships do. It does have a couple of elements like that, but mostly we wanted it to sort of sound purple, like a vibrating, humming, whirring orb; a modulating and oscillating being. You sort of feel it, too — it’s got a rich, warm low-end hum to it.” Hecker and Norris ultimately processed and layered synth tracks, as well as various organic sounds to get the overall sound they were after.

Wait a second — purple? “Visually and sonically,” Hecker notes of the film’s sound design. “Some of it is like ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ — looking or hearing through a kaleidoscope; really colorful and almost psychedelic in a certain way. Even though it is reality-based, it’s sort of an alternate reality fantasy world.”

“The whole main title [sequence] is a subversion of recent American history.” Jenkins adds. “All the iconic images that you knew growing up from the ’30s and ’40s are subverted, and then music is subverted, sounds are subverted, and all of a sudden you’re establishing right away you’re going to break all the rules, that it’s okay to break rules as far as sound goes. So whether it’s with music or sound design or dialog, you have this huge license — 12 or 15 minutes into the movie, all bets are off.”

The “electric” Dr. Manhattan character was another sonic challenge, Hecker says. “He’s tortured and conflicted and he has human emotions, but he’s trapped in this god-like [form], so we tried to articulate his feelings with various different sounds that would convey his emotions, whether they be happy, sad or angry.” Among the sounds that were used for the character were moaning whales. “But I hate to even say that,” Hecker continues, “because I don’t want people sitting there listening for whale sounds. They’ve been worked with, modulated and pitched and whatnot, and it’s very subtle. I don’t want the audience thinking about it; you want them to tune into the emotional quality you’re going for throughout the film.”

Despite the tremendous latitude the designers and mixers had on this film, “We tried not to over-cover,” Hecker says. “Before we get to the stage, we’re very selective; like when we Foley, we don’t do the people in the distant background and pedantically just cover every single thing that moves.”

“It’s all about audio focus,” Montaño offers. “Are we telling a story here? Are we in an action sequence? Is it a combination of things? Wherever you want to focus in a given scene, or even a given frame, determines what you’re going to emphasize or play down. And it’s fluid all the way through the film.”

“Chris and Frankie do a fabulous job of articulating what we want to hear from moment to moment; it works really, really well,” Hecker adds.

The team did four temp mixes — the first three for studio executives, the last for a regular audience — and along the way they managed to get the film into good enough shape that the final mix wasn’t nearly as taxing as it sometimes is. Of course, there was the usual situation of having to adjust sounds along the way as visual effects came in, but mostly director Snyder liked the direction the sound was heading throughout the process and his comments were minimal. With Bates’ music, too, the sketches he offered and the temp music that was selected made it so there were no rude surprises when the final score came in.

And the fun (and work) didn’t end with the final mix for the theatrical version. When I spoke to Hecker again a few weeks later, the sound crew was in the throes of finishing up the Ultimate Watchmen director’s cut — 25 more minutes of story, plus a 22-minute stand-alone animated featurette that’s part of the graphic novel called Tales of the Black Freighter. “It’s a lot of work,” Hecker says, “but it’s all been very cool. Zack really knows what he’s doing. The fan-boys are gonna love this!”