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The Rules and Tools Behind the Mixes of ‘The Darkest Minds’

By Steve Harvey. Working on “The Darkest Minds,” co-supervising sound editors Will Files and Warren Hendricks were challenged to give the characters’ mind control powers individual sonic signatures with a good or evil twist.

Culver City, CA—In The Darkest Minds, a 20th Century Fox film directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, most of the world’s children die, while the survivors are rounded up by the government after they develop mind control powers. The movie is based on the first in a series of young adult novels written by Alexandra Bracken. For co-supervising sound editors Will Files and Warren Hendricks, the principal challenge was to give the film’s mind control powers individual sonic signatures with a good or evil twist, while also—rather more prosaically—dealing with an evolving post-production schedule.

In fact, the evolving schedule was what led Files and Hendricks to share their credits. “I came on to supervise and I brought Warren on to help do the sound design,” Files recalls. “He did some great sound design and the clients really loved it. Then the schedule extended so far that I could no longer stay on the project full-time.” Fortunately, Hendricks was able to take over File’s role and shepherd the project through the mixing stage, he says.

“It was a perfect scenario in many ways because Warren and I have very similar and overlapping skills. I felt very confident handing the reins to him, and the clients felt very confident with him taking them because he had been involved with the sound design up to that point, and he’s also an excellent mixer. I had mixed the temp mixes, then Warren took over and did the final mix, primarily with Andy Nelson.” The final mix was completed on Fox Studios’ Howard Hawks Stage in Culver City, CA.

“I’ve joked a number of times over the years that my entire career at this point is based on kids with superpowers,” laughs Hendricks, whose sound design credits include two installments of the X-Men series, Deadpool and Fantastic Four, among many others. In X-Men, he observes, characters have distinct powers with distinctive sounds. In The Darkest Minds, the kids have one of five powers, designated by color: orange, red, yellow, blue or green. “You have people with the same general power, but you still need to make them sound distinct,” says Hendricks.

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“All the powers need to sound distinct from each other, but even within the characters who have the same power, they need to sound the same but slightly evil, or slightly good,” says Files. “It was all about characterization. We had to make the powers sound powerful and cool and cinematic, adding drama to the scene, but the challenge was to give them some real character.”

Hendricks set his own rules for the characterization, he says. “They would sound ridiculous if you were to explain them to somebody else. But I know that this three-frame sound is for a Yellow-powered person’s eyes coming on, and this is the sound of a Blue using their powers.” Once the underlying sound was established, he says, he would add elements specific to the character.

How does a sound communicate good or evil? “The character Clancy and the main character, Ruby, are both Oranges,” Hendricks offers as examples. Each character’s sounds were layered. “There were high tones and low tones and sounds for eyes coming on, stuff like that. We built similar sounds for Clancy, as far as pitch and rhythm, but they were built out of things like screams or reverse metal ‘ronks,’ and when we isolated those elements more out of the general Orange power sounds, they really felt a lot darker and more imposing.”

Any sounds that came from the editors’ respective libraries were processed specifically for this project, but there was an opportunity to grab new sounds at California City Municipal Airport in the desert north of Los Angeles, a go-to location for recording cars. “That was our primary recording for this show; we recorded a Dodge [Challenger] Hellcat,” says Hendricks, with Hollywood recordist John Fasal. “He has a good relationship with that airfield. [The sounds are] meant to be over the top and crazy and make the character driving the car feel a little dangerous, so we concentrated on drifting, high-speed bys and takeoffs—all the dangerous stuff.”

Files and Hendricks came onboard as the director’s cut was being assembled, which was fortuitous, as their sound design “rules” essentially set the tone for the film. Those rules were picked up by the new picture editor when there was a change partway through the project.

“He really got it,” says Files. “He understood the language that we had created and ran with it. He took our stuff and made it even cooler, because he reused it more and more and pushed more sound design in the movie.”

Files reports that about 75 percent of his studio movie projects are released in Dolby Atmos, and he works natively about 90 percent of the time. This film was different, however; it was released in Dolby Atmos, but that was a last-minute decision.

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“Warren and I like to blur the lines between editing and mixing. As soon as we start designing and editing sounds, we’re also mixing. We try to set up our workflow in such a way that we have all the mixing tools available to us from the beginning,” he says.

In that sense, they were ready to mix in Atmos, but were delivering temp mixes for early cuts and audience playback in 5.1. Eventually, with the changing schedule, the budget would no longer stretch to a final Atmos mix.

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“After the final mix was done, the next week they called and said, ‘Hey, we want an Atmos mix,’” Hendricks reports. “We had to reverse engineer it in only three days—without the clients.” The director, having signed off on the final mix, and emotionally exhausted following the studio screenings, couldn’t return for the Atmos mix, he says, “so we had to be really conservative,” and not stray from the 7.1 mix.

Hendricks continues, “The workflow that we set up, where it’s all native, and especially now with Atmos functionality being built into Pro Tools, made it all possible with a minimal amount of prep time and a minimal amount of crew people having to deal with it.

“Had it been a year ago, it would probably have taken a couple of weeks to figure it out. But with the new [Pro Tools] functionality, it turned out not to be a super-painful process—though I would not recommend that this be the way people approach Atmos!”

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