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Behind The Sound Design of Predators

By Mel Lambert. The benefit of using complementary control solutions was readily evident during production of Robert Rodriguez’ production, Predators. While compact control surfaces dramatically enhanced the creative options for its talented sound designers, assignable, large-format digital consoles enabled mixes started in one facility to be completed at another, with full compatibility between all mix-session data.

By Mel Lambert.

For the motion-picture community, digital audio workstations offer an extra dimension of creativity. The key advantage is that we can retain critical mix and processing options from editorial through the re-recording process, where literally hundreds of dialog, music and sound effects elements will be balanced against the final edited picture to produce the film’s multichannel soundtrack. This alone is sometimes challenge enough, but add to the process the complexity of switching from one studio to the next, from large consoles to small consoles, and working within a decidedly ”non-Hollywood” workflow, and the process could be fraught with technical difficulties. But when control systems work in harmony, the resulting mix and accompanying workflow can be inspiring.

Nowhere was the use of complementary control solutions more evident than during production of Robert Rodriguez’ film Predators. While compact control surfaces dramatically enhanced the creative options for its talented sound designers, assignable, large-format digital consoles enabled mixes started in one facility to be completed at another, with full compatibility between all mix-session data.

Directed by Nimród Antal from a script by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch, Predators continues the saga of the off-world creatures that take delight in testing their warrior abilities against all comers. In this latest outing, which opened nationwide on July 9, a new class of predators emerges that pursue not only men, but the original predators. As we discover, the goal is not just the thrill of the hunt, but to use a prey’s DNA to modify their own, and hence become ultimate hunters. The Predators cast includes Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Danny Trej, Alice Braga and Laurence Fishburne.

“I use Avid Pro Tools for its powerful editing and mixing flexibility,” supervising sound editor Tim Rakoczy from Rodriquez’ Austin-based Troublemaker Studios offers. “Our seasoned crew included re-recording mixer/dialog editor Brad Engleking and lead mixer Sergio Reyes, together with sound designers Paula Fairfield and Carla Murray” from MHz Sound Design. Music editor Jeff Carson from Liquid Music handled John Debney’s film score. Joaquin Avellan edited Foley tracks prepared by Catherine Harper and Chris Moriana, and recorded by Darrin Mann.

“On virtually all of his films, Robert [Rodriquez] likes to be very hands-on,” emphasizes Engleking, who worked first with Reyes at Troublemaker Studios and then subsequently at Warner Bros Dub 6 facilities in Burbank. “We completed maybe 90 percent of the mix in Austin on our two-man 32- plus 16-fader Avid ICON D-Control console, and then took the Pro Tools sessions to Dub 6, where we opened them on the larger 96-fader D-Control [laid out for two/three-man operation]. This meant that we could hold everything open right up to print mastering, making our final 5.1 pass and stem mixes from [Avid] Pro Tools automation, rather than relying on a lot of pre-dubs.” Engleking and Reyes have worked together on all of Rodriquez’ films since Spy Kids 2; Reyes has been with the director since Desperado.

“In Austin, we laid out the dialog, Foley and backgrounds on the 16-fader ICON section,” the re-recording mixer says, “and the music and effects on the other 32-fader ICON. We used custom faders to arrange the sources we need on the faders in front of us. It’s a nice function because you’re not roller skating across a huge console; the faders come to you! We used a similar setup at Warner Bros on the larger [multi-section D-Control console] and didn’t change much of anything. We flew out Memorial Day, loaded in the next morning and, within two hours, were up and running with the exact sessions we had been mixing in Austin 48 hours earlier.

“Since we knew that the project would be moving from Austin to Warner Bros [for print mastering], we did a fully automated mix completely ‘in the box,’ so that everything would follow when we got to Dub 6. This type of workflow is fantastic because, when picture changes happen, all you have to do is conform the Pro Tools sessions and the automation is conformed at the same time. This capability removes a lot of variables and makes the conforming process a lot less painful!”

“One of the big advantages of leaving the mix open until the final mix,” Rakoczy acknowledges, “is being able to deal with the vast number of visual special effects that go into a film like Predators, which are always in state of flux right up until the last minute. On Predators, there is a creature that was referred to as the ‘Ram Runner.’ About halfway through post, [director] Nimród [Antal] mentioned that we were now calling that creature the ‘River Ghost.’ Just the nomenclature alone made me think of two different sounding creatures. So, when the visuals started to come in, it became obvious that this was a very different creature than the one we had originally imagined, and we needed new sound effects. Keeping things open allowed us to retain parts of the original design that Nimrod really liked, and then add those to the final version without having to take the time to go back and unspool things.”

Brad Engleking (right in red T-shirt), dialog re-recording mixer,
with Sergio Reyes, effects/music re-recording engineer

“The Pro Tools translation [from Austin to Burbank] was exactly the same,” states Engleking. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel as far as console layout since we had been final mixing in Austin for two weeks, and already knew where everything was. We couldn’t be happier with ICON; it’s a real time saver.”

According to Rakoczy, “Nimród Antal’s and Robert Rodriguez’ main direction was that this movie be a love letter to the fans of the original predator. Having worked with Robert for almost 10 years – I came to Austin as an assistant sound editor on Spy Kids 2 and ended up supervising sound on the last six Troublemaker films – he always gives me the same primary direction: Make it Cool.”

Sound designer Paula Fairfield from MHz Sound Design developed elements for the four predator characters and similar alien voicing. “One of the predators is based on the classic creature we saw in previous versions,” she offers. “The others were variants on that same theme, while updating the vocalizations. I used an ADR loop group [at Warner’s Burbank ADR Stage] – three men and two women. I shaped these sounds to provide individual textures that would help identify the on-screen characters, using responses from the loop group to develop a language between them.

Sound editors Paula Fairfield (seated) and Carla Murray at MHz Sound
Design with Avid’s Euphonix Artist Series Pro Tools controllers.

“I used a number of automated Pro Tools plug-ins to process each sound in a different way,” the sound designer continues, “and ended up delivering three or four 5.1-channel pre-mixes for each character: original human sounds; signature clicking sounds that predators made; and a number of treated animal sounds that I pulled from our library, including walruses, seals, elephants, pigs, dogs and so on that would work with other mix elements, but in subtle, not too obvious ways.”

With so many mix balances and plug-in parameters with which to experiment, Fairfield needed more than a mouse. “I made extensive use of [Avid’s Euphonix] Artist Series controllers while pre-mixing the creature and other effects tracks,” she says. “The MC Mix, MC Controller and MC Transport use HUI protocol to control and automate the settings of all my plug-ins, panning and mix levels while building those 5.1 pre-mixes. The controllers are so much faster and easier to use than a conventional mouse; they totally saved my butt.” Carla Murray, Fairfield’s partner at MHz Sound Design, used Pro Tools to prepare a number of tonal beds that underscored the film’s music. “These ambient beds emphasized various dramatic moments; they build and create suspense and/or convey a mood or feeling such as fear or uneasiness,” Murray says. Additional effects were contributed by Bill Jacobs, Angelo Palazzo, and Clark Crawford.

While, for Predators, Fairfield pre-mixed her effects tracks, the mix was so large that some compromises needed to be made. “On other productions, I will route the Pro Tools tracks to aux sends and then send the session to the stage,” she says, “where the automated mix, pan and plug-in data can be retrieved.” Here, the data was used on tracks running on the D-Control consoles with identical aux mixes re-assigned to 5.1-channel buss outputs. “I used the eight main faders on my MC Mix with the four on the MC Control to develop submixes, with one of the faders acting as a master for the others. I re-assigned these submixes to different layers and recalled them as necessary. I also automated the plug-ins using assignable [rotary encoder] knobs on the MC Control. It couldn’t have been easier.”

Pro Tools plug-ins used on Predators included the Eventide Anthology II collection – mainly H949 and H910 Harmonizers – plus Sound Toys, Waves CLA Vocal Series for added presence, Aphex Exciter and Big Bottom. “I also used Waves Renaissance X-Noise to clean up some of the ADR tracks,” Fairfield recalls, “and other Waves plug-ins for noise reduction, bass enhancement, vocal emulation and dynamics control, etc. I used a lot of plug-ins – after all, you need more than a hammer and screwdriver to build a house!”

“The cool thing about Pro Tools is that there are at least six ways to do anything,” re-recording mixer Engleking considers. “The biggest thing that I like about Pro Tools 8 is the new satellite feature. We locked up five Pro Tools systems for the final mix; things work the way you think they should and you don’t feel like you’re fighting the transport controls. Mixing is so much faster and you can get into a groove with less distractions.

“In terms of plug-ins,” he states, “we used Cedar noise reduction extensively for Predators. [Production mixer] Ethan [Andrus] did a fantastic job getting the raw tracks, but the jungle is a pretty noisy place – the Cedar plug-in was invaluable. We experimented a lot on this mix with the convolution reverbs in [Trillium Lane Labs] TL Space to add a little ‘air’ to the dialog during those jungle scenes. There were many times where we went with just the lavalier mic, so TL Space helped out a lot. We also used Lo-Air from Waves to add some sub-harmonics to the sound effects.”

“We are constantly revising things from project to project,” Rakoczy concedes, “whether it’s our workflow or, in the case of Predators, the installation of our new ICON D-Control console. We are always tweaking or fine-tuning the post process. All dialog editorial and mixing was done in Pro Tools. The production mixer delivered multitrack audio from a Zaxcom Deva [hard-disc] recorder that included a mixed track, and separated boom and lavalier tracks. The picture department locked the Deva audio to picture in the Avid [Media Composer] and delivered OMF files to sound department for conforming. It’s a streamlined workflow. Pro Tools and ICON are a powerful combination; we couldn’t have done Predators on any other system.”