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Defying Gravity with Sound Designer Glenn Freemantle

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  • February 10, 2014
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Director Alfonso Cuarón with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

“We wanted to do something different that pushed boundaries,” explains Glenn Freemantle, the sound designer for Gravity. “Director Alfonso Cuarón wanted to make the kind of film with the biggest picture and the best sound – a true cinema experience you can watch over and over again.” Different? Check. Pushed boundaries? Check. Something I would watch again nearly immediately? Check.

From the film’s opening sound treatment that’s layered over the Warner Bros. logo, to its final fade, moviegoers are inundated with innovative sound design and imaginative visuals. “Gravity is a huge emotional journey. That’s how Alfonso imagined it, and we were lucky enough to have the support from the studio and producers,” notes Freemantle.

Glenn was tapped in December 2010 when he was asked to design sound for a 45-minute pre-visualization that would be screened to Warner Bros. “It was before anything. Before they shot any Sandra or George, Alfonso wanted to design a sequence to show the studio,” says Freemantle. It was here Glenn created a 5.1 mix with Cuarón that helped establish the film’s sound design rules and principles. “In our very first meeting, we came out of it with the concept to create sounds through touch and vibrations. At the heart of it, Gravity is a survival story, and the sound had to be as big as what you’re seeing on screen. We wanted to portray it emotionally instead of action-packed. It was a great idea, but I thought to myself; ‘How are we going to do it?,’” admits Freemantle.

GRAVITYCreating sound for a 7.1 mix was always the initial concept for Glenn and his team, which consisted of Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Nina Hartstone and others, but it was up until the advancement of the new Dolby Atmos technology that pushed the film to a new level. “I was under an NDA at the time, and I reached out to Dolby and I told them I have the perfect film for this medium,” says Freemantle. “With 7.1 you can constantly move, but only through the dimensions you have. In Atmos, you can mix smoothly while you move and a viewer can become even more a part of it. When Sandra turns her head from left to right, so did the sound. When the whitepaper came out on Atmos, Cuarón was all for taking the step further to accomplish something great.”

Designing the elements for screen became a journey in itself. “We wanted it to be a powerful part of the film that you could immerse yourself in. Whenever Sandra was touching something or banging into an object, we wanted the viewer to feel it. When she stopped touching something or stopped using a tool, we dropped the sound and you don’t hear it,” explains Freemantle. Foley became an integral part of the process. With the help from Nicolas Becker, he and Glenn recorded some interesting sounds. One being a submerged acoustic guitar that they rubbed various items along the strings. They recorded the sounds with hydrophone and contact mics and manipulated them in post. Some of the recordings were used during the scene where Sandra is entangled with a parachute.

For the background radio chatter, Glenn turned to people who worked for NASA. “Our company was able to get a group of NASA guys together in Florida. Through Skype, we mic’d each one and walked them through scenarios without giving away any of the plot. We recorded about four hours of space talk and chatter and that became part of the track,” says Freemantle.

Other powerful parts to the design were Sandra’s breath and her heartbeat. “From the very start of the film, we wanted you to feel like you were going on a journey with her. The sound has tons of layers and everything we created aimed to be original. We wanted you to become attached to her right from the beginning. I remember watching one of the very first viewings and I saw people moving in their seat and holding their breath – I knew we made something great,” says Freemantle.

The production sound recordings were handled by Chris Munro and boom operator Steve Finn. “I’m sure Chris had many set challenges,” mentions Freemantle. “He was able to see the 45-minute concept video, so he knew what we were going for, but there was a lot going on. Sandra and George were in these boxes for most of the filming and there were these massive robots and things making noise. He was able to get great quality dialogue for us by micing inside the helmets and with an overhead microphone. Because most of the visual effects were done, they would have to trigger dialogue lines so  the visual effects would match perfectly. His team did a really good job.”

Score from Steven Price played to the emotion with unique tones as well. “Alfonso and Steve worked together relentlessly to come up with ideas,” says Freemantle. “Those two were brilliant and conceptualized towards creating an amazing cinema experience. Steve would record an instrument and treat them in a way that wasn’t recognizable. When sound wasn’t used traditionally, like an explosion, he would let the music become more like a ballet.” The score received the same type of panning as the dialogue and sound effects so everything moved together.

“We also used the score to help focus on things we weren’t describing with sound design. Even underneath the design and score, we had a subsonic layer of sound so the screen had a presence. The screen has to have weight. The picture has to have something to attach to. You don’t necessarily hear it but you feel it in your stomach. It’s like if you went to a desert or a massive empty stadium, it’s quiet, but you still feel something,” adds Freemantle.

In their final mix, for Glenn, it was the sum of all parts created. “We were a team. And this team was great. Everything was made for the good of the film instead of one single person trying to be great. We all worked together to create the best immersive sound experience we could. It was a true collaboration from start to finish.”

Besides receiving an Oscar nom for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, Gravity has been nominated in eight other categories.

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Inside Llewyn Davis with Production Mixer Peter F. Kurland

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  • February 3, 2014

inside-llewyn-davisEven with four Oscar noms, a handful of Cinema Audio Society Award wins, and being recognized by BAFTA for his work, production sound mixer Peter F. Kurland is as cool as the other side of the pillow. I don’t know what it is about sound guys, but they are just fantastic people to talk to – there’s never a harsh edge or doubts – they’re just determined storytellers who want to perform their best job.

It’s the same for Kurland when he teams up with the Coen brothers. His latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, was nominated for Best Achievement in Sound Mixing alongside other creatives from Gravity, Captain Phillips, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and Lone Survivor.

“With Joel and Ethan, we’ve known each other for most of our lives. It very much feels like a family situation,” admits Kurland. “Skip Lievsay (nominated re-recording mixer) and I have done all their movies. We’ve done many with 1st AD Betsy Magruder and script supervisor Thomas Johnston, he’s been on since Raising Arizona. It’s like a big reunion to work with them. The shooting schedule is brief and they only make one film every year or two, so it’s easy to say yes.”

The film shuffles us back to 1961 and follows Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as a young Greenwich Village folk singer struggling to make it as a musician. The first frame finds us on a stage and we are immersed in the tranquility of Davis’ voice and presence. As the story unfolds, we travel beside his life’s misadventures, which are methodically measured with melodic tones from music producer T Bone Burnett.

On set with  Kurland recording wild tracks

On set with Kurland recording wild tracks

“Joel and Ethan really know music. It isn’t like they decide to have music in the movie and figure out how to deal with it. Even on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Ethan was involved in the music editing early, and if something needed to be changed during shooting, to add a verse or a few bars, it happened. They are so deeply skilled they know what it needs to sound like and what’s possible. That provides me with a bit of a challenge, but a great level of support at the same time,” notes Kurland.

In addition to Kurland’s tech scouts, he took an opportunity to attend the New York recording session with Oscar, T Bone and the rest of the music producers. “They had a week of pre-recordings scheduled, but it turned out they weren’t really pre-records, but more rehearsals. It still was an opportunity to see how the pieces were going to be arranged and how all the elements were going to sound, which was very important to find out,” says Kurland. “T Bone is a genius. He finds ways to put musicians and songs and situations together organically that are unbelievable to me. He was with us for the club and recording studio scenes in the film – to get an opportunity to work with him – I knew we were accomplishing something great.”

Though a soundtrack was in the making, the Coens wanted to record everything as live as possible during production. “The great thing about visiting the recording studio was that it’s very much like a set. You have time to sit around and talk things out and see what’s going to happen. It gave us an opportunity to explore what the possibilities were going into production,” explains Kurland. “When we started shooting, Oscar’s pitch and tempo were very consistent which allowed the single camera coverage, shot beautifully by DP Bruno Delbonnel, to be cut together,” explains Kurland.

The singing of  500 Miles

The singing of 500 Miles

For the song 500 Miles, which was sung inside the Gaslight Café by a trio that included Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake), with the use of earwigs, they would playback only the instrument tracks so the voices could be recorded clean. When Please Mr. Kennedy took center stage at a recording studio between Llewyn Davis, Jim Berkey, and Al Cody (Adam Driver), a different assortment of playback techniques were used, but all the vocals were live for every take.

With the exception of the Irish quartet singing Old Triangle scene, all the vocals managed to be recorded live. “The reason being there was that background players filled roles where music was sung by Timberlake and Marcus Mumford (associate music producer),” adds Kurland. All of Oscar Isaacs’ solo performances were totally live for vocals and guitar.

To help Peter with sound, he turned to long time friend and boom operator Randall Johnson. “We’ve been a team for many movies and Randy is a great boom operator and a master of the frame line,” says Kurland. For his third, Timothia Sellers was tapped with Julian Townsend filling in as well. “Timothia is a mixer in her own right, and it was helpful having her on. I have a set of Comteks that didn’t seem to work in New York, so she brought in hers till we could find a replacement,” notes Kurland. When playback became part of the workflow, Egor Panchenko was brought in to work from his Pro Tools rig.

Peter also designed a new cart for the production. “Interesting challenges we contended with were these incredibly narrow hallways. None of the sets were built. The entire show is practical locations with the exception of the bathroom where John Goodman falls down, and some of the office work,” mentions Kurland. “I built a special cart that was light-weight and slim. It was partly based on a Chinhda cart with a custom built box on top. It became a fairly extensive project as I wanted it to be as compact as possible. I did most of the wiring myself with the help of the crew over at Trew Audio in Nashville.”

At its heart, a Zaxcom Deva 16 recorder was paired with a Mix-12 control surface. Whenever they could Kurland preferred using his hard-line boom over radios. A Schoeps CMC641 was the workhorse on the film. A Schoeps CMIT-5U and Sennheiser MKH 60 were also brought out of the toolkit, but Kurland relied heavily on the 641 covering about 90% of the project. When they did look to radios, Zaxcom wireless and Sanken COS-11Ds were utilized. “We are pretty adamant about finding a place for the boom. But for some of the exterior scenes like the New York park, which had wider shots, we’ll put a radio on before moving in for coverage,” adds Kurland.

The era also introduced vintage microphones. Several scenes hallowed a Shure 55SH vocal mic provided by props. Peter and Randy managed to hollow out the instrument and place Schoeps microphone inside to match sound of the boom if Randy couldn’t be close.  “Randy and I have this philosophy of: ‘the best microphone is a smart microphone.’ What makes it smart is Randy Johnson,” laughs Kurland.

Since there was very little score in the film, effects had to be very specific to the city and time period. “Skip and Greg Orloff and the FX editor Paul Urmson did a fantastic job with what we were able to give them. We had to record the cleanest possible track in very hard Manhattan surroundings. Like in Jean’s apartment, there was heavy street noise, so we asked the art department to sound proof the windows. Besides the sound proofing, we ended up putting a piece of plexiglass there to block out the air conditioners which were right outside the window,” explains Kurland.

Another obstacle for sound was the Gaslight Café where much of the music was done. “The problem was the roof drains were running into the audio tracks. Production went through the trouble to re-plumb and silence them so we wouldn’t hear water running up there during shooting,” says Kurland.

Jean (Carey Mulligan) & Llewyn (Oscar Issac) inside the coffee shop

Jean (Carey Mulligan) & Llewyn (Oscar Issac) inside the coffee shop

One of my favorite scenes is when Jean and Llewyn have a conversation in a coffee shop. This provided some of the tighter working spaces. “That coffee shop was small. It was a funky building. There was a separate entrance. You couldn’t get behind the counter without using this weird secret passage. Just a little place where the compact cart really helped out,” mentions Kurland. The team also had to contend with the sounds of the neighboring street which played in the background. “Almost all the cars out there were period cars which mean they’re loud, and you can have RF issues. When we switched sides to shoot away from the window, the police wanted to open up regular traffic on the outside, so that can bleed into your track too.”

Part of the climax to the movie is when Llewyn travels to Chicago and ends up playing a song in front of Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) at the The Gate of Horn, which was shot in a Harlem theater. “It was quiet in there. We turned off the electronics and stage amps as much as we could, which allowed us to do the scene all with a boom,” notes Kurland. “The coverage was done with two slow push-ins. One of Llewyn. The other of Bud. For consistency, we just had Randy there holding the pole for the entire scene.” When the directors went to a wider shot high above, a plant mic was stashed underneath a table.

Peter has had a long term tendency to under record his tracks in the digital world, since there is little noise floor in the recorders he uses. “Working this way gives you an extra margin of safety in case an actor peaks. I’ll set a comfortable level for the bulk of the dialogue and for the people who do get loud, it won’t distort. And when there’s a particularly quiet scene, I’ll handle that separately,” says Kurland.

Behind the scenes of ILD

This methodology served particularly well near the end of the film when Llewyn goes overboard and starts yelling at Nancy Blake as she plays The Storms Are on the Ocean. “Nancy is singing and playing an autoharp and Llewyn is drunk and starts screaming at her. We were able to shoot the dialogue clean with singles, but there are two shots of them together. For this, we had Oscar do the dialogue at the same time Nancy was playing the song so the interruptions could be real and live,” explains Kurland.

Sitting in on the final mixing is one of Peter’s favorite things to do. For Inside Llewyn Davis, he was able to be there the entire time. “Skip and the guys can really astonish me with what they can do. A brilliant sequence in the film is Llewyn’s trip back from Chicago. We basically recorded that whole thing MOS, and what they managed to do was great. They built a score of music from car radios, the highway tones and passing cars. Sometimes we talk about things in advance about how they are going to play out, other times I’m surprised by it – and that was one of them.”

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Designing Sound in a World of Amnesia : An Interview with Michael Flowe

Misdirected

Freddie (Lauren Mora) & Josh (John T. Woods)

From writer/director Marion Kerr comes the indie web series Misdirected. Currently debuting its first season, the show centers on Freddie (Lauren Mora) who’s struggling with a recent diagnosis of amnesia. Now spit back in to a world she can’t remember, her friends Josh (John T. Woods), Gerald (Ross Philips) and Cameron (Joel Kelley Dauten) try everything they can to help Freddie remember the life she once had or the life they think she ought to have…

The cleverly edited episodes by Emily Chiu paint a comedic canvas that are engaging and fun to watch. Short. Sweet. And they keep you wondering – a perfect mix for the I-don’t-have-time-for-this web watchers. While the 9 episodes were visually captured by cinematographer Alex Simon, it was Michael Flowe who found himself recording the five days of production audio. He later sat in the post mixing chair to design the sound for the project.

Michael Flowe on set

Michael Flowe on set

The Atlanta, Georgia native talked to us about starting out, being a one-man-band, and what it was like to re-record his own production audio work.

What attracted you to putting on a pair of headphones and recording sound?

I studied sound design in college and our first project was to create an audio scene of all of our own captured sounds. This experience really put a spark in me that sound can create and mold the way you see a picture. After that, I was working as a sound designer at a production house in Atlanta. Their production sound mixer moved so they asked me to fill in – which began my production sound career.

What is it about sound and being part of the storytelling that you like the most?

I enjoy collaborating with people who enjoy the creative process and understand that we all need each other to make a greater product of art.

With smaller budgeted projects like Misdirected, what do you look for so you can say yes to a project?
Normally, I always look to the people that are involved in the project. I have a pretty strong discernment when it comes to people and character off of the first meeting, so I use this to help me decipher which projects are worth taking a risk for.

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Euphonia makes its premiere at SXSW

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  • March 22, 2013

recorder_in_lightDirected by Danny Madden, Euphonia follows a bored, K-Mart employed high school boy, Will (Will Madden) who for some reason or another hates every minute of his white, suburban existence. The film, which was well done, is a must watch for any sound recordist or designer and that’s why we’re so interested in it here at S&P.

As the minutes pass closer to the all conclusive fade to black, Will’s days of hanging out with his friend (Bejnamin Papac) and trading notes with a female classmate (Maria Decotis) become bleak. So he turns to what any teenage boy does to fill his loneliness-porn (kidding, but just a suggestion, Will). Nope, he actually buys a sound recording device, a Zoom H2, to be exact and starts to capture the audio world around him. Now consumed with his newly found obsession it eventually becomes so intense it slips him into a world of discontent.

Shot outside Atlanta, Georgia with a near zero dollar budget, Danny Madden, created a plot through sound imagery that’s engrained with inventiveness and passion. Though Will is center stage, the real characters are the sounds that begin to take over his life. Besides directing and writing the project, Madden also cut the film and looked to Steve Bissinger for additional sound re-recording and theory. We were able to sit down with the two storytellers to see what it was like creating a character we could only hear.

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The Sound of Nurse Jackie

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  • January 31, 2013

The good people over at Gotham Sound teamed up with Tekserve and Avid to bring a behind the scenes look at the sound of Nurse Jackie with production sound mixer Jan McLaughlin, and Steve Borne supervising sound editor. If you have the time to watch, it’s well worth a look.

 

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Emmys: Howard Bargroff on Sherlock

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  • August 13, 2012

Re-recording mixer, Howard Bargroff, AMPS, was nominated alongside production sound mixer John Mooney for their effort on BBC’s Sherlock. Known for his work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, amongst others, S&P asked Howard to take us behind the scenes and unlock the mystery of his final mix for the Emmy considered episode, A Scandal in Belgravia.

S&P: Sherlock landed you your first Emmy nomination. Pretty cool, huh?
Bargroff : Very cool. And totally unexpected. I’m still reeling a bit from the news.

S&P: What made you and production sound mixer, John Mooney, decide to submit A Scandal In Belgravia over the other episodes of season 2?
Bargroff : That episode had the most thinking time. And a real conscious effort was made to shape the tone of the piece. It was felt that we would keep sound fairly minimal apart from key moments. Hopefully, that made the big scenes feel more impactful, and helped to sell the shape of the drama.

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Huff Post talks with Bob Ludwig

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  • January 3, 2012

Mastering is the last and probably the least understood step in the audio recording process.

Mastering engineer Bob Ludwig is one of the true living legends of the music business. In addition to being a Grammy winning engineer, he has received many TEC Awards for excellence and was the first winner of the Les Paul Award from the Mix Foundation for setting the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of recording technology.

Bob is a classical musician by training, having obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Eastman School of Music. Inspired by Phil Ramone, Bob ended up working with Phil at the legendary A&R Recording Studios in New York. After a few years at A&R Recording, Bob moved to Sterling Sound and then to Masterdisk as Chief Engineer. In 1993, Bob and his wife Gail built Gateway Mastering in Portland, Me., a state-of-the-art record-mastering facility where he still masters records by top artists.  Read the full article here.

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