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Spidey Flick Versed in Sound

By Steve Harvey. The Golden Globe- and Academy Award-winning audio team behind Sony’s recent hit animated feature ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ discuss their work.

Culver City, CA (February 22, 2019)—Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the first full-length animated feature in the franchise, is enjoying the 2019 awards season. Having already crashed through the $350 million mark in global box office since its release in mid-December, it has been picking up honors left and right: an Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Annie Award for Best Animated Feature. It’s also been recognized with six additional Annies, numerous craft awards, and, on the audio side, two MPSE Golden Reel Awards and a Cinema Audio Society Award.

At the end of January, Sony Pictures Studios hosted a panel discussion featuring some of the sound team’s key members in the Kim Novak Theater—where Into the Spider-Verse was mixed natively in Dolby Atmos—that revealed some of the secrets of the film’s success. The Los Angeles Section of the Audio Engineering Society and the Hollywood

Section of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers jointly presented the event.

While Spider-Verse was very much a collaborative effort, with three directors—Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman—and a host of producers at the helm, the project was essentially the vision of producers Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, the latter co-writing the screenplay with Rothman.

“The look is unique, a comic book come to life. They wanted the sound to match,” said re-recording mixer Michael Semanick, CAS, who mixed dialogue and music on the stage’s Harrison MPC4D X-Range digital console. “We didn’t want to assault the audience; we wanted to invite them in to have an enjoyable time. We worked hard to maintain the dynamics, with almost a childlike mix.”

Many of the panelists had worked previously with Lord and Miller, whose credits include The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street. This was the first project re-recording mixer Tony Lamberti, CAS, had worked on with the two filmmakers, but he quickly picked up on their style, he said. “Phil and Chris are very rhythmic-oriented guys. The comic timing and beats are super important to them.”

Lamberti, who mixed sound effects on an Avid S6 console, had previously mixed 2017’s live action Spider-Man: Homecoming, and used Dolby’s immersive system to bring new dimensions to the sound effects. “This was Sony Pictures Animation’s first native Atmos show, so we took the time to use the system and the format to get the most out of it,” he said.

The original Spider-Man, Peter Parker, makes an early appearance before the film introduces versions from alternate realities, including Miles Morales from Brooklyn and Peni Parker from the distant future. One early direction, according to supervising sound editor Geoffrey Rubay, was to reference the signature sounds from previous Spider-Man films before introducing updated versions for the new characters. “Wink at the old movies and move on,” he said.

By applying sounds to everything on the screen, some of the more visually stimulating scenes—the film features clashing timelines and parallel universes—could have been chaotic. But as Rubay commented, “We didn’t keep adding; we were done when there wasn’t anything to take away. You don’t have to hear every little thing. If we were as complicated with sound as those visuals are, your head would explode.”

With so many creative minds involved, decisions were hashed out on the stage, with Lord getting the deciding vote. “Everyone had a voice and Phil’s good at listening to everyone,” said Semanick.

There was a lot of give and take between departments in service of the storytelling. “You start stripping things out. What if we yank the music out right here? Does it feel better, does it feel funnier? They just want to tell a great story,” said Semanick.

Sony Drills Down into Spider-Verse Sound

The soundtrack is very dynamic at the insistence of the head creatives, said Semanick. “In order to make something loud, you have to get quiet before. Otherwise you’re just continually trying to raise the ceiling. They’re very concerned about how loud we are getting; we want to save the loud spots for when we want to be loud.”

Digging in to some of the signature sounds, most notably the “spidey-sense” associated with each character, Rubay said, “The visual and the sound don’t sync up as much as you’d think. A lot of times we’re early or late,” he observed. And each one was different for each character and depending on context. “There was kind of a kit—we had a recording session with some instruments, running bows over them then stretching the sounds.”

The team was more hands-off with the web-sling sound. “There was that classic sound that you can’t get too far away from. So that’s there,” said Rubay.

Lamberti leveraged the Dolby technology to bring a new dimension to Miles’ newfound abilities, spinning and panning those things around the room, and trying to get the motion out of them. “I did a ton of that on the previous film. On this one, I took that and used the Atmos mixing environment to really work its magic.”

The mixers offered some insights into their favorite tools. Lamberti reported that he has been leaning on Exponential Audio’s reverb plug-ins such as Stratus 3D and Symphony 3D when working in Atmos. “They really create a sense of space that completely opens the imagination in terms of what you can do with placement in the room,” he said.

Semanick is more traditional, he said. “I’m still on the [Lexicon] 960 and the TC 6000, as well as analog futzboxes.” Critical to this project was the Lexicon 2400, released in the 1980s. “It’s one of the most amazing pitch-shifters created, ever. It does one thing and one thing only.”

Lord encouraged the team to pitch-shift all sorts of sounds. “He’s very into experimenting and pushing the limits.”

At one point, Semanick was challenged by having to interweave Daniel Pemberton’s score with a song, “What’s Up Danger,” by Blackway and Black Caviar, when Miles becomes Spider-Man, a key moment in the film. “For the song, I had all the elements; the score plays underneath, and it takes over, then the song takes back over. By the end, the score has taken over from the song. I know the guys in the band loved how it played in the film.”