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From the Guild


THE SOUND OF TRANSFORMING ROBOTS

07/08/2009

© 2009 DW Studios LLC and Paramount Pictures

The Sound of Transforming Robots
Part One: The Mixers

by Michael Kunkes


Just when you thought that the US auto industry was headed into the crapper, director Michael Bay on June 24 unleashes his all-new line of Autobots and Decepticons into motion picture showrooms in the form of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (TF2), the high-octane action sequel to the 2007 sci-fi hit, distributed by Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks SKG.

While the plot brings the Autobots into a military alliance with British and American forces, called NEST, the post-production of TF2 reunites the first movie’s sound editorial team of supervising sound editors Erik Aadahl (sound designer on the first Transformers) and Ethan Van der Ryn with ADR and dialogue supervisor Michael Hopkins––the latter two sharing a 2007 Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Sound Editing on Transformers, as well as winning Best Sound Editing Oscars in 2006 (King Kong) and 2003 (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).

Speaking of new alliances, TF2 features the first-time teaming of two of the industry’s leading re-recording mixers: Greg P. Russell in the sound effects chair and Gary Summers handling music and dialogue.  For Russell, with 180 mixing credits to his resume, TF2 continues 14 years of collaboration with director Bay, an association which has earned him Best Sound Oscar nominations for The Rock (1996), Armageddon (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001) and Transformers (2007) among his total of 12 nominations.  Summers, who got his start in 1980 as a recordist on The Empire Strikes Back, has close to 120 mixing credits and is a four-time Best Sound Oscar winner, for Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), Titanic (1997) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).  In addition, Greg Orloff, a 2005 Best Sound Oscar winner for Ray, was brought aboard as additional re-recording mixer. 

There’s no denying that TF2 is a big-sounding film.  But in this first part of a two-part interview on creating sound of Transformers 2, Russell and Summers talk about the idea of keeping it big, while thinking small.  Part Two (to appear the week of June 29) will highlight the sound and dialogue editing process. 

Transformers 2's re-recording mixers Greg P. Russell, left, and Gary Summers.
Photo by Erik Aadahl


Editors Guild: How long was the mix for TF2?

Greg Russell: There were six weeks of pre-dubbing for effects, backgrounds and Foley, two weeks for dial pre-dubbing, and four weeks for the final mix on the Cary Grant Stage at Sony Pictures Post-Production in Culver City, California.

EG: What was your progression on the mix?

GR: I usually like to do backgrounds first and then build the rest of the track with all the different treatments and reflections within the backgrounds.  In this case, I didn’t hear the background pre-dubs that were done by Greg Orloff until the final mix.  For Transformers 2, we start sound effects pre-dubs with the robots, starting with the foundation of the feet and building up to the last pre-dubs, which are the vocals.  We do a total of nine robot pre-dubs and then we do the hard effects, starting with vehicles, then weapons, etc., for a total of 14 pre-dubs, and then we do the Foley.  The dialogue was done on another stage with Gary.

EG: Did you make changes in the temp or final based on reactions to previews?

GR: Not very much on the mix, but the picture department made a ton!

Greg Russell.  Photo by Dan Pinder
 
EG: How does the TF2 mix differ from the first film?

GR: Michael Bay is not one to rest on his laurels.  Every movie I’ve ever been on with him –– from The Rock to Armageddon to Pearl Harbor –– has been more ambitious than the one before.  Even if you removed the robot effects in Transformers 2, this would still be an incredibly busy movie –– every aircraft in the US armed forces except one is in this movie, plus there are cars, guns, submarines, aircraft carriers and explosions galore.  The fire charges in the explosions are, to my knowledge, the largest ever done on film.  And then you have the robots!

Also, there is more motion in this soundtrack than anything I’ve ever done before, in terms of panning.  Separating sounds with placement and frequency selection is key for greater definition.  The transformations and visual effects in TF2 are much more sophisticated, smoother, cooler and more detailed than in the first movie, so we had to up our game to match that detail sonically.  Our main job was to sonically deliver Michael’s vision of the story and provide a soundtrack that would be believable and real –– not just within the scope of such an epic film, but also to enhance the emotional bond of our cast and robots. 

We also did a lot of pitching of frequencies on this movie, because when sounds are happening that are in the same frequency range, it all balls up and they cancel each other out.  So we will go down an octave with one sound, or pitch down or pitch up to get some variations in similar sounds.

Director Michael Bay, left, with Greg P. Russell.  Photo by Erik Aadahl

EG: How did you and Gary balance the music with the effects?

GR: The music has a lot of driving rhythms that in many cases didn’t jive with the ‘bots.  Gary has spent many years in the effects chair himself, so he understands how this works, and he and Romero Belgardt, our lead music editor, would take things out, which would create a better marriage of music and effects.  We did anything we could to create a better marriage between music and effects that was cleaner, more articulate and not overwhelming. The music or the effects may not be too loud by themselves, but put them together and it can be too big, and so you end up pulling the whole package back.  But if we can –– and we did this on both the music and effects side –– say, “What can we do to help each other clear out anything that’s fighting and come up with a great blend that best plays the scene?”  That is the essence of collaboration on a final mix.  And on a movie of this magnitude, it’s essential.  I love what Gary brought to the table in terms of being sensitive to what we had in the effects package and, when something clearly wasn’t working with the music, he did what he could to uncover it, discard it or lower it to where they weren’t fighting each other.  And I did the same on the effects side. 

Gary Summers: We had a very unique situation with the music in that the 71-piece orchestra was recorded on the Streisand scoring stage at Sony in parts rather than all at once.  The music was separated out into 60 tracks of 5.1 stems, including low, mid, and high percussion, short and long strings, chorale, brass, synth, etc.  This created a lot of flexibility for Michael Bay.  If he objected to one part of the music, the editor could eliminate the offending element.  On the stage, I attempted to keep the original balance that Alan Meyerson, the scoring mixer, provided, and would re-balance the internal elements only when necessary.  Also, if we got into a situation where there was a conflict between music and efx, we could easily go into ProTools and mute out whatever part of the music we wanted and let the effects carry a scene, or do the opposite—remove some effects and allow the music to play.

EG: What board did you use and what did your outboard gear consist of?

GR: We worked on one of two new Harrison MPC3D digital consoles that Sony recently installed with TFT viewing screens.  It’s an extremely effective console, and there were several Harrison plug-ins that we used a great deal, all part of the onboard toys package.  There was a four-band compressor that Gary used quite a bit to process the robot voices, a flexible de-essing tool, notch filtering of camera noise and a sub-harmonic boom box for the low-end elements.  I prefer to utilize whatever native plug-ins I can within the console because when we go back into reels, you can’t automate outboard gear for the most part.  With onboard automation, every time you go through a section, the parameters remain exactly as you set them; it remembers everything and you never have to write anything down. 

EG: How was the automation set up on the console? 

GR: The biggest challenge of the movie was that it was constantly changing.  Most movies take it down to the wire, but I’ve never seen anything like this.   It was a constant challenge to maintain the conform.  For example, when you made a move at say, 10 feet and raised a fader, you roll back and the fader raises at 10 feet; but if picture makes a cut at seven feet and then adds five feet, we have to conform the automation so that the move now happens at 12 feet and not 10.  Multiply that by some 250-odd faders and hundreds of cuts, and you sometimes wonder how you’re going to get it done.  Your automation is your mix; it’s everything.  If your automation doesn’t match what’s on your recorder, you are in trouble.  Our engineering department met a huge challenge by implementing the conforms that were constantly coming from the picture department. 

Gary Summers, left, Erik Aadahl, Ethan Van Der Ryn and Greg P. Russell.

EGM: One of the hallmarks of the first film was the idea of using effects alone to carry a scene.  Did that continue in this film? 

GR: On the first Transformers, it was something we had to work through with Michael as to how it would play; this time, he wasn’t as accessible during the final mix and had the confidence in us to make some of those calls.  There’s a jaw-dropping sequence, where a group of eight or nine vehicles all start to transform, then come together to create Devastator, a 100-foot tall Decepticon.  It’s all sound effects and no music, and at the end of the shot, he stands erect and lets out this loud growl.  Another of my favorite sequences told with sound effects only is where a robot called Ravage is shot from a satellite down to a military base on Earth in search of a shard of the AllSpark Cube, which is the reason the Transformers have come to Earth.  He dispenses thousands of ball bearings form his mouth, which come together to form one cool robot.  In sequences like that, we are always looking to use effects to be true to the extraordinary visual effects work.  Of course, there were also instances where we left out the effects and let the music play over the top –– which can feel more emotional and that helps give the story heart and emotion.

EG: How many pre-dubs and tracks were you working with? 

GR: We created 14 hard effects pre-dubs that were built from around 500 tracks for guns, explosions, firearms, etc.  There were nine 5.1 dubs for the robots, with a total of maybe 600 tracks.  Greg Orloff, who was brought in as an additional re-recording mixer, contributed another 80 tracks of feet and backgrounds.  Altogether, with all pre-dubs and outboard gear, I was out to 256 tracks on the console, which was pretty much a full load.  This also includes an additional 30 tracks we needed for more sweetening, as the cut and the visual affects changed during the mix.  The pre-dubs were then used to create a huge supersession that represented the 5.1 of all the premixes.  We had two ProTools rigs, one for the hard effects and backgrounds, and another for the robots and Foley.  The music rig was 60 tracks –– split out to separate the brass, rhythm, synth, keyboards, guitars and music effects tracks.  This was a huge breakdown that gave us great flexibility to be able to selectively utilize what best served the movie. 

GS: We didn’t use a ton of tracks for the dialogue and music — 60 tracks of music score and two stereo pairs of source music.  The dialogue consisted of four pre-mixes: production dialogue and ADR, each eight channels, and two group pre-mixes, English and non-English.  Because they were cutting picture right to the end, we knew the tracks were going to be put through a cheese slicer in the mix, so it was important for conforming and re-synching to have full separation between the human and robot voices.  The editors did an amazing job; they would turn over new versions to us daily, and within two hours we’d be mixing the new version on the stage.

EG: How do you keep such a dense soundtrack from tripping over itself?

GR: That is truly the art form of this type of movie; I’ve now done 180 in my career.  I draw upon everything I’ve done in the past and ask, “How do we look at each and every moment in a sequence and make it great?  What do we really need to hear or don’t need to hear.  If it’s with music, then so be it; if it’s effects, how do we sculpt it without being muddy and noisy?”  Being selective in your creative choices is what will make or break those moments, and that’s what I love most about this job.

GS: In scenes such as the huge fight in the woods, there is a lot of percussion and you have to make choices as to what you want to hear.  Sometimes we left the percussion in and pulled the robot footsteps down because you want to create the driving rhythm while the robots are running through the woods.  Other times, you lose the percussion and let the hits and big punches shine.  The audience won’t perceive the shift, because you’re just substituting one rhythmic pattern for another.  Later in that scene, a major robot character is killed, and there is a major stylistic change, with choral music and voices and effects set back in the reverb.  It’s abstract and surreal, and provides a nice contrast to all the frenetic action that precedes it. 

EG: How much of the dialogue was production and how much was looping?

GS: Michael is very anti-looping.  There were places I thought we could have gone with ADR, but he likes the production.  Sometimes it’s a little gritty and noisy, but he’s looking for the performance.  And he hears it.  However, if we really feel strongly about a line being too noisy, we’ll go to bat for looping that line.  Audiences may not know technically what goes into the dialogue process, but they do understand the human voice, so when something isn’t clear, subconsciously they are pulled out of the flow of the film, even if its just for an instant.

© 2009 DW Studios LLC and Paramount Pictures.

EG: How did you process the robot voices?

GS: Mainly for repeatability, most of the robot voices were processed in ProTools.  The automation in ProTools is event-based, which means that if you take any event and move it, the automation goes with it –– which was necessary on a show like this where the picture was constantly changing.

EG: Was composer Steve Jablonsky at the mix? 

GR: He was an absolute pleasure, and it was very helpful to have him with us on the stage during the last week of the mix because we had Michael Bay with us for that entire time.  There was one sequence where Bumblebee is battling Skipjack, who has this chain-like extension that he uses as a weapon.  It was a very cool sequence with music and effects and a very heroic ending.  Steve had written an alternate version of the music for that sequence but hadn’t played it for Michael yet.  Sure enough, Michael had a problem with the music for the last section of that scene and asked for a new version.  Steve had this version in the back pocket, delivered it in the bottom of the ninth, and Michael lit up like a Christmas tree.  It was brilliant!

GS: Steve Jablonsky was on the stage a lot, and that is unheard of.  It would be great if more composers would do that.  They have a unique vision and understanding of the music.  They wrote it!  I have a limited time in the mix to become intimately familiar with all the musical moments.  If there is an intricate movement or theme, the composer can suggest an emphasis; that’s a huge help.  The music editors are on stage representing the composer, but its just not going to sound the same way it did on the scoring stage.  On the mix stage, it’s a different situation and the music has to work with all these other elements, particularly dialogue.  Unfortunately, a lot of composers don’t like the dub stage, they feel that that’s where their score can be plowed over and ruined by effects and dialogue, but it’s not about that.  It’s about achieving a mix of dialogue, music and effects that is going to propel the audience into the movie and provoke the strongest response at any given moment.  Everyone wants clarity, and that’s what we’re always going for.

EG: What is your overall philosophy of mixing that has carried forth through your career?  Do you regard it as a craft or more of an art form?

GR: Simple; it’s to utilize all the sound elements in the most effective way to best tell the story and support the context of each and every scene.  I believe it’s an absolute art form and a craft as well.  We are painting on a huge canvas with hundreds of colors and textures of sound to create a film’s soundtrack.  Creatively, the choices made within that process directly affect the entire experience for the filmgoing audience.  Michael Bay considers sound to be 50 percent of the experience of his films.  Bringing these epic action films to life has been the most rewarding and challenging experience of my career.

EG: Any final thoughts?

GR: This movie pushed the limits unlike any I’ve ever seen, because Michael was still working on his picture cut right up to the last few days of the mix.  I have to say that I don’t think this movie could have come together without Ethan, Erik and their entire editorial team.  These people had to deal with constant conforms of reels that were ever changing.  If you look at the sessions, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more edits in reels in my entire career.  For these reels to go out and come back completely conformed, in sync without snaps and pops, is pretty amazing.  It’s the most efficient crew I’ve ever seen, and I told Michael how lucky he was to have these people behind the scenes, because this could have gotten f-cked up so easily with these down-to-the-wire changes. 

EG:  What’s your next project?

GR: I’m mixing a 3-D animated feature with Michael Semanick, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

GS: I am currently working on James Cameron’s Avatar, which will be released this Christmas.

Editor’s Note: Part Two of this article will appear in this space the week of June 29.

The cound crew of Transformers 2 with director Michael Bay, in cap.

Credit Roll: Sound Crew
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Ethan Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl, supervising sound editors
Mike Hopkins, ADR/dialogue supervisor
Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, re-recording mixers
Greg Orloff, additional re-recording mixer
Greg ten Bosch, Warren Hendriks, P.K. Hooker, John Marquis, sound effects editors
Ulrika Akander, Wayne Lemmer, dialogue/ADR editors
Ramiro Belgardt, Alex Gibson, music editors
Jonathan Klein, foley editor
John Roesch, Allyson Dee Moore, Foley artists
Mary Joe Lang, Foley mixer
Andy Sissul, first assistant editor
Stephanie Brown, second assistant editor
Graham Hick, post-production sound assistant
Elmo Weber, temp mixer
Hamilton Sterling, temp conform editor
John Fasal, sound effects recordist


Michael Kunkes is a freelance editor and writer specializing in animation, production and post-production.  He can be reached at
writermk@sbcglobal.net.
 

   


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