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Sound Designing Riddick‘s Alien Landscapes

Instruments and Exotic Animals Form An Organic Sonic Base for The Chronicles of Riddick

Describing how he works with sound effects and design, Scott Gershin reveals a lot when he "orchestrates" these sound elements for film. "Sound effects, sound design, even dialog and ADR – it's all music, and you play it like an arrangement," says Gershin. "In the mix, you constantly have to make choices as to whether this is a dialog moment or a sound design moment. So you definitely want the sound effects and design elements to be as compelling to the narrative as dialog or music, and you want a certain harmony between them."

Gershin had that harmony in mind when he first contemplated the sound design and effects work for his latest effort, director David Twohy’s SF action-adventure The Chronicles of Riddick, over a year ago. (It marks Gershin’s second collaboration with Twohy, following the director’s previous film, Below.) That lengthy gestation period took Gershin back to his roots as a guitarist and synthesizer programmer. Working at his studio at Soundelux, Gershin took electric guitars and a Marshall amplifier and began trying to make them sound like anything but guitars.
"The entire show takes place in an unearthly, alien environment," he says. "The guiding principle behind the development of the movie’s sound design and effects was to create kind of a parallel but still organic universe. And I wanted the sounds to be as original as possible, something we haven’t heard before." Thus, Gershin loosened the strings on the guitars, fed them into the amplifier and processed them heavily using an Eventide Orville. "I literally mangled them, using really bizarre pitch-bending and filtering. The effect is like nothing you’ve ever heard, but there’s still some hint of musicality to the sounds."
For sounds that would match the startling look of the film’s alien weaponry, Gershin enlisted the help of long-time friend and musician Rob Arbittier, owner of music company Noisy Neighbors. Arbittier is known for a collection of analog synthesizers that approaches museum status, including several ancient and exotic Moog synthesizers. Gershin and colleague Peter Zinda worked on the weaponry sounds using the synthesizers, emphasizing the analog synths’ ability to generate powerful low-frequency sounds. "The gravity weapons seemed to want sounds that moved air, just as the weapons moved the people and things they hit," he reasons. "We chose sound combinations with a lot of low end and put a lot of the information into the subs." There’s a subliminal point here: Gershin points out that the lower-frequency weapons sounds generally indicate the bad guys. In other words, the whiter the hat, the higher the weapons’ sounds.
Sound development wasn’t limited to instruments. Gershin vocalized into a variety of vocal processors, including the Native Instruments Vokator. Many of the spaceship sounds, for instance, are vocalizations. Another variation on the theme was to take pieces of hip-hop recordings and beats, coaxing the low frequencies out of them and using those sounds as sonic frosting on the ship and weapons sounds. In fact, The Chronicles of Riddick may well set new standards for the amount of low-frequency information in a film soundtrack. "This is going to be an interesting test for the subs," he says.
Where The Wild Things Are
Taking the notion of unconventional sound sources one step further, Gershin and Zinda booked time at animal specialist Steve Martin’s compound in Frazier Park, CA, auditioning and then recording various exotic animals. Gershin, using a Neumann 191 microphone, and Zinda, with a Sennheiser 461 shotgun, recorded in the field to DAT rather than in a studio setting. "A studio is too dead-sounding, we thought," he recalls. "It compresses the dynamics of animal sounds. And Steve Martin has specially made harnesses that are noiseless when the animals move in them. We purposely chose feeding time, since the animals would be more naturally vocal around that time of day." Animals including a Bengal Tiger, a black leopard and several types of wolves not only contributed to the voices of specific characters, such as the Hell Hound, but also made up an ominously cacophonous sonic backdrop.
Gershin was developing the sound elements well prior to the availability of CG elements, working off sketches and extended conceptual conversations with Twohy, meaning the audio characterizations preceded their visual manifestations. As the sound design became more complex, Gershin assigned specific aspects to other sound designers: Peter Zinda handled the weapons sounds, Ann Scibelli worked on the Hell Hound, Bryan Bowen created sounds for fight scenes, and John Title came up with sound design for a planet of fire. The size of the audio crew grew as deadlines approached, and Gershin didn’t receive final CG designs until a week before the first temp dub was to be made.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Gershin views the audio for Riddick as a collection of elements to be arranged and orchestrated as a single piece. That includes elements such as the music score and the extensive ADR work. "Much of the dialog had to be replaced," he says, noting the amount of ambient noise produced on the large shooting stages. "It’s an issue for sound design because you don’t want differences in the ambience behind the dialog to disrupt the flow of the soundscape from scene to scene."
To solve the problem, Gershin worked closely with the Foley crew and dialog/ADR supervisor Hugh Waddell ( Titanic, The Thin Red Line). With polystyrene sets and neoprene costumes squeaking and groaning on the interior sets, plus the hiss of steam and smoke generators, Waddell estimates that 80 percent of Riddick’s dialog will have been looped. " Scott was careful about carving out a frequency range for the dialog," Waddell explains. "When necessary, he would clear the effects out of the center channel and let them swim in the surrounds. That kept the sound design consistent but let the dialog come through at critical points."
That applied to Foley, as well. "It’s all part of sound design to me," Gershin states. "When Lord Marshal walks across the room, the footsteps have to be very authoritative. They have to have the right attitude. The ADR and Foley have to be consistent with the rest of the sound design."
As does the music. Graeme Revell, whom Gershin describes as "a composer willing to listen," returns the compliment, citing Gershin’s willingness to consult with him while developing sound design. This is the fourth film they’ve worked on together, and Revell says they have developed a sense of what each one will do in given circumstances. "There’s a scene in which Riddick is pursued by creatures called Lensors, who use these peculiar night-vision scopes," Revell says. "I know it’s an important point for Scott’s effects, yet I need to get a scare into the music, which I created with a high string cluster. So I made sure to record it on a separate track, in case it doesn’t quite work against the effects and I can take it out and record something else."
This sort of ongoing watchfulness-an effort to keep various audio elements from slamming into each other- has developed in response to the sheer breadth of sound elements that routinely go into feature films. "The potential for a frequency-related train wreck has definitely increased," Revell notes.
The mix, performed at Universal Studios by Chris Jenkins, Frankie Mantegna and Rick Klein, was equally complex. Dialog and effects took up the better part of six 32-output Pro Tools systems. Gershin, Wadell and Zinda each added one more Pro Tools rig, and another 32-channel utility system made it an even 10 Pro Tools systems. (Riddick marks the first time a feature film was mixed completely to Pro Tools at Universal.) In addition, Gershin had network access to his sound effects on Soundelux servers at the mix stage. "We can download 1.5 GB a minute through that pipe," he estimates. "And we’re going to need all of that bandwidth on this film."

1 Comment

Categories: Audio, Creativity, Project/Case study, Technology

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Aaron-Goldblatt/707820579 Aaron Goldblatt

    Great article! As a sound designer, I dream of the possibility to one day work at Soundelux or any other company. I am always amazed and awed by how much effort and cooperation is needed for feature films.