The highly-anticipated sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, opened in theaters yesterday, June 24. All this week, the Pro Sound News blog goes ‘behind the scenes’ with the film’s sound crew, starting with today’s article. In the ensuing days, you’ll find in-depth interviews with audio principals, explaining what it took to add thunder to the cinematic spectacle.
By Steve Harvey.
Culver City, CA–The final mix for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen at Sony Pictures’ Cary Grant Theatre paired effects re-recording mixer Greg Russell with dialog and music re-recording mixer Gary Summers for the first time. Helping distill the soundtrack for one of the most anticipated movies of the summer were co-supervising sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl. Regular dialog and anything with a vocal component fell under the purview of supervising dialog editor Mike Hopkins, who worked with Van der Ryn and Aadahl on robot vocalizations that required substantial processing.
Crew photo (l-r): Gary Summers, Ethan
Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl, Greg
Russell, Michael HopkinsEthan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl, supervising sound editors:
Van der Ryn, who worked with Aadahl on the first Transformers, said, “We do a certain amount of brainstorming–how we want shape it and general ideas about what we want things to sound like–but Erik really does the majority of the hardcore sound design work, mostly focused around all the robots, which is what the movie’s all about. Erik’s just incredibly talented when it comes to making it happen. He’s a genius; that’s no overstatement.”
ROTF features 40 or more new robots not in the original film that range in size from tiny insects to 150-foot tall giants. After visiting the art department early on in the film’s development, the supervising sound editors set about creating different sounds for each character from a variety of sources. “We used every trick in the book that we could think of,” said Aadahl. “A lot of it is simple, real stuff, like the Decepticon fly scout–his sound is essentially a grungy old electric razor being shaken.”
He continued, “There’s something very real and immediate about an actual sound that has so much character. It can contrast some of the totally hyper-real absurd things that we’re doing. The goal is that it all fits together like an acoustic puzzle so that there’s the whole spectrum of totally unreal and real–and together they create this universe that transcends the real world but still feels real.”
Work began in August 2008 while Bay was still shooting, according to Van der Ryn. “We went and recorded some vehicles that they had on set, but the main work started at the end of October. We set it up knowing we would want that much lead-time. On a film like this, it’s important to start the sound work in parallel with the shoot and as the visual effects are developing, so the cut can come together with the sound as an integral part of the storytelling process. When you have so many things being created on a computer, the sound really helps bring them to life, so it’s important to get it going earlier. It becomes increasingly important for the sound to start working to ground us in reality and make us believe it, otherwise it just doesn’t work. The sound becomes more valuable in a film like this.”
Aadahl added, “We did the weapons in October. Just on our own, we went on expeditions recording a variety of sounds we knew we would use, just building the palette. We shot a whole array of M16s, AK-47s, sniper rifles, .308s, suppressed ammunition, .22s–but a lot of the robot weapons have nothing to do with real guns. For the RC bots’ weapons, we used compressed air to make squeal sounds, then did little pitch bends on them to make nice little zaps.”
Building on the Transformer theme, many of the sounds feature an organic element, as Aadahl noted. “One thing that we had a lot of fun playing with was a theremin, which we used as a sound design device. It’s basically an oscillator that you can control with your electrical field and adjust volume and pitch. It’s an instrument but you can physically, three dimensionally, control the tone that you’re generating. We’d run that through different processing tools and chains and perform in real time. We made sounds into motors, vocals, all sorts of bends, accelerations, decelerations. That generated a huge amount of new material that’s really different.”
“It ties into the whole idea of trying to morph between the electronic and physical worlds,” Van der Ryn elaborated. “That’s an idea we were playing with–how to morph between these worlds. The theremin was a perfect tool for being able to do that. It gives you this electronic sound but you’re able to perform in an organic way.”
Aadahl continued, “We look for as many things that we don’t need to process, too. The real unprocessed sound can often have even more visceral effect. A lot of what we’ve been doing, with vocals but also with motors, was starting with a totally real recording, and then finding ways to twist it into the electronic, or in the other direction, totally electric back into the organic, just so that the track can turn quickly on its heels and be dynamic and interesting on that conceptual level.”
The vast proportion of processing was performed using plug-ins. “The nice thing about plug-ins is we can automate, where as outboard, you can’t necessarily do that as easily. So the bulk of it, we do within the box,” explained Aadahl.
“My favorite new sounds are missile whizzes that Erik made out of firework recordings,” said Van der Ryn. “He got some of the vocals out of that, too.”
Aadahl elaborated, “We set off a bunch of fireworks. One was this whistler, and out of that, we made a whole array of bad guy bullet-bys and missile stings. One thing we found when we took those recordings and stretched them out and slowed them down was they had a really musical quality with lots of variation–really bizarre stuff. We used those for when the Decepticons arrive on Earth and they’re going into battle.”
In fact, some of the most interesting sounds were discovered accidentally, he continued. “For our ‘zang’ sound for the Fallen, the main bad guy, we were thinking, what signature energy sound could he have? He has different skills, one of which is he can control matter and levitate things, so we wanted a really powerful sound for that. We were running some sounds through some processing chains. We’d accidentally had a bad edit that triggered a plug-in in a totally unexpected way that gave it this crazy electrical ‘zang.’ That was a total accident, but that’s his sound.”
With so much mayhem onscreen, it was important for Van der Ryn and Aadahl to constantly strive for clarity and make some critical choices early on in the process regarding what remained in the mix. “If we were to not make choices until [the mix stage], it would be a wall of noise,” commented Aadahl.
He added, “Everything you hear connects to something on the screen, and if there’s anything that is muddying things up or washing things out, we do that in the editorial process. By the time we hit the predub stage, everything is cleaned and finessed as much as possible, and then Greg, who has incredible ears and skill, can take it to the next level and find even more clarity and punch and definition and shape.”