Creating sound for an outer-space movie can be an incredibly creative and challenging endeavor. There are a lot of decisions to be made about how you are going to address certain aspects of the sound editing and design. It really is anything but straightforward.
Gravity, the recent blockbuster by director Alfonso Cauron, has certainly taken the art form to a whole new level. The meticulous directionality of the Gravity soundtrack, and the attention to each small sound detail, are amazing to experience in a 7.1 surround, or Dolby Atmos theater. Paired with a score that is sometimes gentle, sometimes raucous, and that rides the ambient line between tonal design and music; and you end up with a unique and riveting sound experience.
Dig It Audio had the chance to flex some creative space muscle on the sound design and mixing for Europa Report. At a fraction of the budget of a big film like Gravity, Europa Report shows what smart indie filmmaking can achieve with big ambitions and somewhat modest means; and actually the sound challenges between these two films are quite similar. This is the first article in a three-part series that will detail the specific challenges concerning dialogue, FX and music in these space movies. This first article will cover the dialogue challenges. The second will offer insight into FX, and the third will be about the music. Since Dig It was solely involved in the sound work for Europa Report, the focus will be more on this film, but I think the comparisons will prove to be useful.
When you are doing a movie where spacesuits and spaceships are concerned, you have some very interesting decisions to make right up-front. Even the treatment of dialogue requires careful planning. In the case of Europa Report, we were fortunate to have excellent location dialogue, recorded by location sound mixer Christof Gebert. Because the film is set mostly inside a spaceship, and was shot with up to eight small HD cameras, covering all angles simultaneously, the majority of the dialogue was best captured with lavalier microphones. There were also plant microphones and camera-mounted microphones, but unless the actors happened to be close by, they were not as useful as the lavaliers.
Before we edited the first word of dialogue on Europa Report, the sound team sat down to have an in depth discussion about what we were setting out to do. The main topic of conversation was how we would choose to effect the sound of the dialogue in different instances in the movie. The primary instances were: ship to suit, suit to ship, suit to suit, and then the sound perspective from inside the suit, and the perspective from outside the suit. Each one of these should or could potentially have a different sound treatment. Since it is easiest to effect all the sounds on one individual track similarly, the dialogue editor Paul Bercovich started to set up groups of tracks, where each group was routed through a group master that could have its own unique processing for each instance. He also set up the initial settings for intercom processing or “futzing” for each group in his dialogue edit tracks. So, from the very beginning, we were able to listen to the dialogue with an approximation of the various levels of futzing we would be using later in the mix. This is, of course, very helpful as you can really see how the “futzed” dialogue will stand up to music or large effects sequences as you build those tracks.
In Gravity, I noticed that the actors wore ear-mounted microphones with a small stiff wire that brings the mic head to the side of the cheek. In a brief video by SoundWorks Collection, with Gravity sound designer Skip Lievsay, he says that they were able to use a good deal of the dialogue recorded during location shooting in the final mix of the film. I am confident that is because of those special microphones, which are always in the right position regardless of the actors’ movement. Although I normally preach that the “Boom” sound is best, these actor-worn microphones do offer certain advantages. Besides the fact that they are always well-positioned, they also can make it much easier to record ADR that matches production, since the “miking” is so consistent. Another advantage is that the dialogue for each actor is greatly separated from the others, so you can separately effect or pan the dialogue for each actor as you wish.
There is also a big creative advantage to doing sound for a space movie, where the cast wears helmets, in that you can be very flexible with ADR. As I just mentioned, it is much easier to match the ADR with these actor-worn microphones, and since moving around in spacesuits provides a great deal of opportunities for the actor’s mouths to be “off screen,” you can alter dialogue as much as you want. This was something that the director and producers of Europa Report took full advantage of. I know we recorded more than 400 lines of ADR for the movie. There were several details of the story line that they wanted to clarify, and we experimented with various bits of dialogue to see what would work best. This option can also have a significant effect on the picture editing. If you know you have a line that you want to change, you can simply use the camera angle that puts that actor’s face off-screen. Then you can change the dialogue at will.
As I mentioned earlier, the first pass of dialogue futzing for the intercom effects was done in the sound editing. We then made quick mixdowns of this first pass of futzing, and these mixdowns were passed on to the sound effects team, so they could hear and work with this first round of processed dialogue in their edit sessions during the FX edit. The final treatment of the dialogue, however, is saved for the mix. In the video with Skip Lievsay, about the sound for Gravity, he talks about how they realized that the amount of futzing they used on the dialogue affected the emotional detail of that dialogue. The more futzed it was the less the emotion came through. He says that they tweaked the futzing a little more or less to make sure they were keeping the emotional content strong in certain areas. We had a similar discovery when working on Europa.
The way I thought of it was that the more we futzed the dialogue the more distance we felt from the characters. At times that can really work to your advantage. For example, when the crewmembers are working on remote parts of the ship during a spacewalk, it can be a nice effect to feel distanced from them. In some ways it even makes them feel more vulnerable to the forces beyond the safety of the ship. But we also realized the same kind of emotional effect as they did in Gravity. We originally had all the dialogue that took place in the spacesuits processed with a moderate degree of futzing. We were using a Speakerphone setting that both filtered and distorted the voices. Because we wanted to feel more connected to the characters, we decided to apply no futzing, only a small tight helmet reverb, to any shot where we were in close POV on the actor’s face or POV from inside their helmet. We also lightened up the futzing effects in the instance of suit-to-suit communication. Meaning when we were on the close helmet POV of any given actor, and they were hearing someone speaking to them from a spacesuit, the effect was less, providing more intimacy in the sound between the astronauts in suits, than in their communications to and from the ship.
Another decision point concerning dialogue is about panning. In Gravity, they chose to be very active with dialogue panning, in the video, Skip says that they wanted the dialogue to float around with the characters in space. This is a choice that works very well in the design scheme for the film. I chose to be more conservative in the panning of dialogue for Europa Report. I chose to pan dialogue in selected places where the effect of the panning would be most effective. Also, because Europa is supposed to be a found-footage kind of film, we were very conscious of not pushing the surround specifics too far. We felt that we could get away with a certain amount, but wanted it to be subtle and mostly unnoticeable.
If all of this is not enough, we still had one big direction from the director and producers; and it would mean an entire additional treatment on the dialogue tracks. One of the major concepts in Europa Report is that the data transmission equipment on the ship has been badly damaged. The direction was that they wanted to apply “glitching” moments where the video signal would just break up, or cut out entirely. They wanted us to cut the audio or glitch the audio in those places, and they also wanted the dialogue to be additionally degraded or “glitched” in other areas as well.
In order to tackle this task, we enlisted the skills of sound editor/designer Abigail Savage. She took each section of dialogue that needed to be glitched, and copied it three times onto three different tracks stacked together. She then processed each of the three with progressively more degradation. The first was mildly distorted. The second was moderately distorted, and the third was completely distorted. This worked perfectly in the mix, as I could use the three faders on those tracks to create more or less degradation depending on which of the three I brought up at any given moment. It allowed us to craft these moments in real time in the mix and take specific direction as to what words we wanted to hear more or less of, and it was easily changeable on-the-fly. The end result was great. We could alter any glitching moment by choosing the appropriate track, and we could experiment with what worked the best.
As you can see, the challenges with the dialogue alone, on Europa Report, were huge. Not only did it take a creative team to pull it off but also an organized one. I think we all felt that we had done some of our best work on this project. I will follow up this article with two more. Stay tuned for the next installment of Europa Report vs. Gravity with a discussion about the FX design and editing.—By Tom Efinger