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From the Guild


A RETELLING OF THE SUPERMAN SAGA

07/18/2013

Sound Design and Re-recording for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel

– A retelling of the Superman Saga –

By Mel Lambert 
 


                                                                                                          Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

“In the world of Super Heroes, Superman is the completely uncompromising figure who exists to represent the best that all of us can be,” states Man of Steel director Zack Snyder. “He is the ideal; he’s what we strive for, the kind of icon that has extended beyond the comics world and into all of popular culture. We knew that to tell Superman’s story in a modern context meant addressing the trappings of our modern times and, having been around and idolized for 75 years, the character inherently comes with a lot of expectations. So, it was important that we vetted the ramifications of every decision we made in updating him and his environment, from Smallville to the S-shield.” Man of Steel was released on June 14 by Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures.


Having worked with Snyder on the majority of his previous high-profile offerings, including 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch, the creative team of co-supervising sound editors Scott Hecker and Eric Norris, plus re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins and Frankie Montaño, came together in the spring of 2012 to begin crafting the film’s intricate and effects-laden soundtrack. “At the end of 2011,” Hecker recalls, “we supplied some basic sound-design elements to picture editor David Brenner, who is very sound-savvy and likes to build a full track in the Avid [non-linear edit workstation]. Back then, we knew that this was going to be a serious film, with an epic feel – an iconic re-telling of the Superman story. Man of Steel is not your average popcorn action film; instead, Zack [Snyder] fills the screen with colorful and dynamic visual elements that need to be supported by a smart, well-paced soundtrack. It was a huge challenge for us.”

 

Man of Steel Sound Crew: The Sound Crew on Warner Stage 9 (from left): Emma Thomas – producer: Bob Badami - music wrangler; Andrea Wertheim – post-production supervisor; Hans Zimmer – composer ; Chris Nolan – producer ; Chris Jenkins – re-recording mixer; Melissa Muik - music editor; Nevin Seus - assistant music editor; Chuck Roven - producer; Zack Snyder – director; Deborah Snyder – producer; David Brenner – picture editor; Frank Montaño - re-recording mixer; Ryan Murphy - mix technician; Eric Norris – co-supervising sound editor; Scott Hecker - co-supervising sound editor; Roy Seeger - first assistant sound editor; Wesley Coller - co-producer; Kira Roessler - dialog supervisor; Tony Pilkington - mix engineer; and Curt Kanemoto - associate producer.

Photo courtesy of Eric Norris



The sound-editorial team also included: Kira Roessler, supervising dialog/ADR editor who also pre-processed all character voices within CGI-added helmets, and created a number of computer-style voices; Gary Hecker, supervising Foley artist; David Werntz and Ai-Ling Lee, sound-effects designers; Jay Wilkinson, who handled design of several action and fight sequences; and Chris Aud, background and atmospheric effects designer. Melissa Muik served as music editor, working with composer Hans Zimmer’s energetic score, recorded by Alan Meyerson and Thomas Vicari.

 

“My co-supervisor, Eric Norris, focused on sound-effects design elements, and specifically all things Kryptonian plus the flying objects, including Superman,” Hecker states, “while I served as a ‘ring leader’ on the rest of the material.” Sound editorial was handled by Universal Feature Sound Department, with the final 7.1-channel mix on Warner Bros. Studio Facilities’ Stage 9, Burbank, and a Dolby Atmos multichannel mix on Stage 10.

 

“We wanted to avoid the most typical approaches to spaceship sounds,” the co-supervising sound editor continues, “and strove to use as few jet and rocket sounds as possible. Also, because the Kryptonian environment was so unique, Eric and I decided to utilize and process a wide range of synthetic sounds as its foundation. Inventive Foley was critical for Man of Steel. The visual effects supervisor advised us that the surface of the spaceships was not metallic or your average stone, so in sound effects and Foley we developed a pallet of compressed bone and shell sounds [with his brother, supervising Foley artist Gary Hecker]. All the armor from Krypton was also made from compressed bone and shell, which we approached creating in the same manner. Gary and I are always interested in stretching the boundaries of what sounds can be created on the Foley stage [at Todd-AO West's Lantana facility] to develop dynamic and detailed effects, including a little of the added breathing from behind some of the character's masks.”

 

“We also came up with a number of dynamic cape sounds that were not just pieces of cloth,” the supervising Foley artist recalls. “We tried all types of material and settled on a large piece of thick velvet that we recorded in stereo to provide a big, open, very clear sound with a lot of low end – my arms were pretty tired after that session! The armor for General Zod [played by Michael Shannon] and other characters was intended to sound thick and ‘beefy’ – not at all metallic – which we then processed and equalized. We also brought in several hundred pounds of real shaved ice for all movements in the film’s snow scenes. Foley adds a naturalness to the soundtrack; it is far better to do as much as you can on the Foley Stage because it always sounds fresh.”

 

For scenes involving military figures, the designers visited Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles, to record the interior sounds of a Boeing C-17 Globemaster transport jet both on the ground and in the air. “We also recorded an A-10 Thunderbolt ‘Warthog’ at the Davis–Monthan AFB in Arizona,” Scott Hecker continues, “including flybys and the sound of canon shells hitting concrete [at the Barry M. Goldwater Range, Gila Bend, AZ] from 150 yards away. For the destruction scenes at the end of the film, we visited a vendor in Thousand Oaks, west of Los Angeles, to record the sound of K rails - freeway barriers - being dropped from 50 feet and smashing onto concrete and asphalt, to develop a library of crashing and ripping sounds; there is a lot of destruction in Man of Steel! We also found a graveyard for cement light poles, which were able to push over and record the resultant crunching and ripping sounds.”

 

“We normally prefer to start sound editorial six weeks before the first temp dubs,” Norris recalls, “but for Man of Steel we added an extra six weeks to develop the intricate sound designs. Our edict for sound design was to come up with very colorful and interesting sounds, but not anything so unusual that it would take the audience out of the film. For Jor-El – Superman’s father [played by Russell Crowe] - we developed a number of body armor sounds that Gary Hecker walked on the Foley Stage, which we then blended with latch sounds and clicks. We also took river rocks into the Foley Stage to record the sound of hits and slides, which I compressed heavily to smash the transients and increase the apparent loudness. I then carefully synchronized the rock elements with the rest of the armor sounds. For the Krypton computer displays, I also recorded the sound of ball bearings, glass beads and BB pellets falling in glass and metal bowls to develop a library of particle sounds that I layered and reversed in Pro Tools. I also tried recording rain sticks, a xylophone and wind chimes, but they sounded too metallic.”

 

One of Norris’ signature sounds for Man of Steel was a “World Engine” that the villainous General Zod unleashed on Earth in an attempt to terraform the planet into a viable replica of the now-dead Krypton. “I was looking to create a pulsed effect, working with animatic pre-visuals for the CGI effects. In the end, I created the sound using a Native Instruments’ Kontakt sampler. After searching through many samples, I found one that seemed to have a good balance between the ‘synthetic’ element of something from another world, and an ‘organic’ element to make it sound real. I then processed the track further to make it sound more threatening and powerful.” The sound designer recalls that he processed the sound, assigned it across a keyboard controller and used portamento to change the pitch as he keyed each pulse.

 

The score for Man of Steel also features samples of the same World Engine sound. “We replayed the early effects to [composer] Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL [credited as providing additional music and rhythm sections], who liked it so much that they integrated the sound into the score at various points throughout the film.”

 

Norris also processed a number of flying objects “by time stretching them beyond anything sane in Pro Tools using the [Serato] Pitch ‘n Time plug-in; the processing artifacts became part of the final sound. I used the [Audio Ease] Altiverb convolution reverb to impose a metallic impulse response on jet recordings to make them sound otherworldly. I also added the sound of a diesel train that was recorded without any rail clicks, in addition to a new recording of my 1992 Acura Integra car that had an awesome 20 mph reverse-gear whine, which found its way into the space-ships byes, with added flanging to give it a sci-fi characteristic.”

 

Assigned to prepare unique backgrounds and atmospheres, Aud developed “organic signature sounds for Krypton, Smallville and Metropolis which, given the amount of flash backs in the film, would allow the audience to instantly recognize where they were in the action. To reduce the low-end interfering with hard effects or music, sounds created for the atmospheres were pretty much high-passed at 150 Hz; it’s so easy to create rumble tracks but I was shooting for something much more engaging. I used the iZotope Iris [sample-based synthesizer] plug-in to create a series of custom filters that added a sense of isolation, and added new tones to shape the required atmospheres. I started with winds, voices and related sounds and then ‘painted’ the effects with Iris, often filtering, slowing down and reversing the sound to create an emotional element underlying a scene.” Aud delivered a total of 10 5.0-channel background pre-dubs of wind, birds, insects, traffic and walla for the Daily Planet and Metropolis scenes.

 

Werntz was responsible for the tornado sequence in Smallville, starting with field recordings of desert winds made at 192 kHz for enhanced fidelity. “I added [processed and well-disguised] animal growls and other tones,” the effects editor recalls, “together with some high-end ethereal sounds. My trick is to stay out of the way of the music score by focusing on the high- and low-end. I was also watching a CNN report during last year’s tornado season, and heard somebody say that the sound was ‘like a large train coming at me.’ So I filtered the sound to add some low-end rumble. I turned over 22 5.1-channel pre-dubs, almost running out of voices in Pro Tools.”

 

ADR/dialog supervisor Kira Roessler recalls that one of her key roles was “to prepare processed voices for the characters whose helmets were added in CGI. I needed to develop muffled voices to mimic the masks, as well as build mechanical robot voices, and radio futz the voices of pilots and aircrew members; all processing was kept virtual in Pro Tools on the dub stage. I used a lot of Waves plug-ins, including MondMod and flangers to create robot-like effects. One of my biggest challenges was to match the production sound of a message heard from outer space in English –and which had been processed in a very low-tech way - to the clean ADR; I used an iZotope Trash distortion plug-in effect. And, for the foreign-language dubs using M&E mixes, I prepared extensive notes of all of the processing I’d made on the dialog tracks.”

 

The co-supervising sound editors turned over a variety of material to the re-recording team, including 22 5.1-channel predubs of main effects, 10 5.0 channel predubs of backgrounds, 12 channels of Foley footsteps and 24 channels of Foley props.

 

“Our overall tone during the mix was to honor [director] Zack Snyder’s dramatic focus and ‘humanize’ the film,” states Jenkins, who handled dialog and music re-recording duties on Man of Steel. “Zack was looking for a ‘small-town,’ naturalistic vibe for the Smallville sequences - which is a very different feel for him – with a small, three-note score from [composer] Hans Zimmer during the scenes with Kevin Costner [as Jonathan Kent, Superman’s step father] and Diane Lane [as his wife]. We contrasted that delicacy with the final destructive scenes as General Zod tries to transform Earth and the impending sense of menace. But every 10 minutes there is a set piece, culminating in the 45-minute conclusion, so we needed to keep up the audience’s interest during long descriptive arcs. Dialog was a key ingredient, together with non-stop music, which supports the action. Music editor Melissa Muik did a great job of preparing the tracks for Hans’ score.

 

“I kept everything wide through the pre-dubs, with 16 channels of dialog and eight of ADR, and every scene having its own characteristic reverb. We developed an early Temp 1 mix for the producers and director, and ultimately refined that mix over three subsequent temps; we were pre-dubbing for six weeks.”

 

“We were still waiting for final music after the Temp Dubs,” recalls sound-effects re-recording mixer Montaño, “so my mixes had to remain pretty amorphous – you cannot settle on an effects balance without locked music. And we were also waiting for the inevitable last-minute CGI effects to be delivered. The mix stayed fluid throughout the final and into the print masters.”

 

Montaño offers that dynamics is the key to a successful mix. “At times we were able to reduce the SPL of a scene, only to shift dynamically and throw the audience back into their seats. We maxed out our Pro Tools rigs on the SFX, Foley and Atmospheres side, with more than 400 inputs. The final mix took just over three weeks on Stage 9’s Neve DFC console. After a final two hour and 18 minute playback with [producer] Chris Nolan, Zack Snyder, [picture editor] David Brenner]and [composer] Hans Zimmer, we received under 20 notes with no structure notes; the final 7.1 playback mix fixes only took a day and a half to complete.”

 

When it came time for the Atmos mix, as Jenkins relates: “Zack just told me to ‘Make it awesome!’ I chose to spread out the music channels into the side and overhead channels – the music is as close to a cathedral as I have ever heard. Also, more than 60% of the soundtrack is not coming off the main front speakers.” Jenkins also handled the IMAX mix for Man of Steel on Stage 5 at Warner Bros, in a three-day session that also produced the necessary M&E IMAX elements.

 

“We knew the action had to be bigger than big, with heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat thrills,” Snyder confesses, “We never lost sight of the fact that we were making a Superman movie.”

 

       

                
Recordist John Fasal checking levels in anticipation of recording an A-10 strafing run.    Eric Norris and recordist Milo Train at the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Gila Bend, AZ.
     

 

John Fasal, Eric Norris and Milo Train record the sound of an 8,000-pound K rail dragging through a pile of rocks.

 

 

 

   

   


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