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Sound for ‘The Hunger Games’

Intimate Sound for a Savage Future

Photo: Murray Close

With the highest first-day advance ticket sales in history and an enormous worldwide fan base certain to fill seats for weeks to come, The Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collins’ mega-popular Y.A. (young adult) novel about a 16-year-old girl’s fight for survival in a brutal dystopian future, is poised to become a rare early-spring blockbuster. It would seem to have all the ingredients a youthful audience could want—an attractive and determined heroine, action and enough violence to earn a PG-13 rating, a smattering of romance, and intriguing futuristic fantasy elements. Yet, talk to the film’s sound crew, and you’ll hear that director Gary Ross consciously tried to avoid making a summer popcorn movie, instead delivering a more nuanced story rich in character development.

Ross, who is best known for writing and directing Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, and for writing such other films as Big , Dave and The Tale of Despereaux , took his cue on how to translate The Hunger Games to the screen by enlisting Suzanne Collins to co-write the screenplay with him and sticking to the book’s approach—which is to say, the story is told almost entirely through the eyes of lead character Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence). A girl from an impoverished area called District 12 in a post-apocalyptic North America known as Panem, Katniss becomes one of 24 young “tributes” who will fight to be the last person alive in an annual televised event called The Hunger Games, staged by Panem’s fascistic Big Brother regime. The lethal Games take place in an enormous, many-square-mile region of the country (called “the arena”) that appears to be outdoors, but is actually under a massive dome and totally under the control of the Gamemakers, who keep the games interesting for TV viewers by imperiling the combatants with extreme weather changes, forest fires, venomous genetically engineered wasps, and more.

Supervising Sound Editor Lon Bender

“I think there’s an assumption out there that this is an action movie, and it’s not,” comments supervising sound editor Lon Bender from his studio at Soundelux in Hollywood. “It’s really a visceral personal story that’s almost like a documentary of this one girl’s experience going through this whole quest for survival. That’s how the production design went and how the sound design went, and in every case we made that our primary mantra—‘What would Katniss be experiencing?’

“There’s very little emphasis on sonic extravagance,” he continues. “The muscular nature of the sound is very subdued, in particular because this isn’t a spectacle—it’s a story about a girl who’s a freedom fighter. She experiences things in a personal way. This movie has some great sound sequences in it, but they’re all knitted together in a way that stays with her, which is what Gary Ross wanted. He wanted the audience to never be distracted by the sound or visuals.”

Photo: Murray Close

As an example, Bender cites a scene before the Games begin in which Katniss demonstrates her skills with a bow and arrow before the judges: “[Visually] we’re very close to her, so we hear all the details of her fingers handling the arrows and the bow. When she pulls the bow string back and the tension increases right next to her head, we hear these very subtle catgut-type single clinks of tension of the string. Then we cut to the judges and a shot that pans along them, but what you hear are three specifically placed ‘tinks’ of that bow, so you’re staying with her even though you’ve cut to this point of view. Then, when you come back to her, she releases the arrow and it’s like you’ve totally been with her the whole time.”

Dialog and music re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood-Smith

Adds dialog and music re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood-Smith, “This film has some of the most intimate camera work that I’ve seen; literally, you’re on her nose and her lip with the bow string right there, so the sound had to reflect that sort of proximity. With the breathing and the Foley, it’s very intimate-sounding.”

Effects re-recording mixer Michael Keller elaborates on another instance where Katniss’ POV determined a different approach to a scene. “There’s a big shot of the forest burning, and of course my instinct was, ‘Let’s play it as huge fire.’ But that’s not what Gary Ross wanted. He wanted Katniss to be so shocked by it that it’s kind of a surreal fire moment. He wanted to start with a quiet rumble that wakes her up, and then that continues through that giant fire shot, where in any other movie you’d go full-on loud sound effects. But in this one it stays very subtle and muted and muffled—it was mainly a subwoofer and some wood stress [sounds]. Then, once she figures out what is happening and she realizes, ‘I gotta get out of here!’ then it opens up [sonically] and it’s more like what you might expect it to sound like.”

The fire forces Katniss to flee toward her foes, as orchestrated by the Gamemakers. Later, another explosion causes her to lose her hearing in one ear. “The familiar high-frequency ring of tinnitus, combined with the confusion one would experience, were combined in the sequence,” Bender says. “The goal there was to have the audience experience the same thing—the tone made almost painfully loud and the dialog and sounds muted, as an analogy for her confusion over what she is perceiving.”

With environments ranging from Katniss’ dirt-poor, Appalachia-like District 12 (the movie was shot entirely in North Carolina) to the gleaming Capitol, with its magnetic elevated trains, hovercrafts, high-tech interiors and the Gamemakers’ sophisticated control center, Bender, his sound design team and the mixers had plenty of opportunities to paint evocatively with sound. Bender made a couple of trips to North Carolina to collect natural sounds (including the region’s distinctive cicadas, great for slightly discomfiting background ambience) and even did some large-group 5.1 recordings on set with a DPA 5100 microphone. Mark Weingarten was the production mixer for the exterior scenes; Carl Rudisill handled the interiors, some of which were shot in an old, abandoned Philip Morris distribution center outside of Charlotte.

Effects Re-Recording Mixer Michael Keller

The Hunger Games turned out to be a fairly Foley-intensive movie (the ubiquitous Gary Hecker was the supervising Foley artist), and because so much of the movie takes place outdoors, Bender decided to try something that was new for him—having some of the Foley recorded out in nature instead of on a traditional Foley stage (though there was plenty of that, too, shot at Todd-AO West/Lantana). “I wanted the footsteps to have a really organic quality to them so I came up with a system to record them in a natural setting,” Bender explains. “We ended up going to a canyon in the San Gabriel Mountians with our wonderful Foley artist, Catherine Harper. We brought along a couple of production recordists to capture the film’s perspectives, and we actually did footsteps to picture in the forest. We also got some great material in this incredible oak tree, for when Katniss climbs various trees. What we came up with really does have an amazingly organic sound, and we were able to have a lot of variation all the way through using that material exclusively in the arena.”

FX mixer Keller was impressed. “The Foley was fantastic, probably the best I’ve heard,” says the veteran of more than two decades of work in almost every film genre imaginable. “They had a close-up mic on the walker and also a boom mic [both Schoeps], so I always had those two tracks going. So when I predubbed the Foley, I could run the boom mic for her being distant and then crossfade it on to the close-up mic to get the snappy and crinkly leaves and whatnot. It made a huge difference being able to change the distance of the microphone, which you normally can’t do in Foley. I also needed less background because I had it in the Foley.”

Bender makes a point to lavish praise on two of his principal sound designers/editors, William Dean and Kris Fenske. “Bill dealt with the ‘tribute parade’ [where the fighting contestants are unveiled as a group] and the big interview sequence [in which the tributes talk about themselves on TV], so he did some great crowd work. He also did the mag lev train and other sequences.” Fenske “was responsible for developing the tracker jackers and the mockingjays, and the fire sequence.”

Ah, yes, the tracker jackers and the mockingjays—two of the strange creatures that inhabit the forests of Panem, and also among the first effects tackled by Bender and his team.

The tracker jackers are a type of genetically engineered wasp whose sting causes insanity-inducing hallucinations and is often lethal. Bender’s initial sonic inspiration came when he was with his son at a mountain bike race “and all the kids were warming up on their trainers, and there was this incredible buzz of all the tire treads. I quickly grabbed my Zoom recorder, which I always have with me, and I recorded them. I couldn’t use those recordings because there were people talking, but later on we engaged with some mountain bike pros and we recorded all kinds of sounds, using different kinds of treads and different tires and different elements rubbing on the treads. So the tracker jackers are made up of some real swarms of things, but also some of these bike treads.”

As for the mockingjays, “Those are birds that can mimic what people say, sing or whistle,” Bender explains, “so there are melodies that the characters sing and whistle, and our task was to make birds that sound totally real follow these melodies. We used two elements that worked together: We listened to different birds and then took single tweet elements, or a small portion of the voice of a bird, and put those together in different sequences that represented the notes of the melodies. We used Melodyne to pitch them into the melodies and then, in sync with that, we did some whistling and put those in the same pitches. Those things together gave you this sense that the birds were real.”

Keller and Prestwood-Smith mixed the film’s plethora of Pro Tools elements on Stage 2 at Todd-AO Hollywood on an Avid System 5. “Working on the System 5 gave us a lot of flexibility because it can control Pro Tools directly through the EuCon protocol. Now that it’s one company, they opened up the code so you can pretty much access any parameter in Pro Tools through the System 5. The workflow never changed, except I had to deal with the Pro Tools automation modes, vs. the console automation modes. But the flexibility we had was fantastic because it was easy to take a [composite] sound and strip out single elements—mute parts of the clip—and not replace the whole thing. We could try things out that way until Gary liked it.”

This was the first 7.1 film for Prestwood-Smith, and he considered it a “serious jump ahead of 5.1,” in that the side speakers widened a lot of the atmospheres and music. Keller adds: “I was not aware before of what a difference it is to have the side speakers decoupled from the rears. What’s interesting is once you don’t play a sound effect in a rear speaker, and you only play it in the side speakers, it becomes way more apparent, since the ears face forward and sideways. When we took the 7.1 print master and folded it down to a regular 5.1, some of the detail in the surrounds disappeared. I assume it’s the reflections you get from the surrounds that shoots off the screen and back at you. That diffuses the whole sound field and it gets muddied. You can’t hear single birds or twig snaps.”

Prestwood-Smith also worked with an eclectic music score, which ranged from composed elements by James Newton Howard and T Bone Burnett (working independently) to a deconstructed opus by the Chemical Brothers, and tracks of voices by a Russian composer that were added to one of Burnett’s pieces.

“One of the ways music in film works is it can emotionally change your perspective without you being aware of it,” Prestwood-Smith says, “so a lot of the music was designed to play Katniss’ point of view and to almost take over what we would be hearing at that point and go with her feeling.”

“It always came down to her,” Keller adds. “Whenever the music played a driving Hollywood-style scene of typical ‘chase’ music, Gary didn’t like it and we downplayed it and stripped it down to make it more simplistic. He always wanted to support Katniss’ feelings or make the music reflect her curiosity about what was about to happen. But never state the obvious.