Imagine living in a 121–square-foot space, a room half the size of a standard hotel room – unless of course you’re in Manhattan. There you’d probably spend $2,000/mo. to live in a loft that size. At least in Manhattan you’d be able to order out for sushi and a sixer. No, what I’m talking about is being locked inside an 11’ x 11’ room, for seven years, with your five-year-old child (the result of rape by your captor) whom, of course, you’ve given birth to while in captivity.
That’s the reality of Ma and Jack, the main characters in director Lenny Abrahamson’s latest film Room, based on the 2010 novel by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue. While the subject matter is decidedly dark, the story is ultimately a life-affirming tale of human resilience. Room, already the winner of several audience awards on the indie film circuit, including the Toronto International Film Festival’s Audience Award, arrived in US theaters on October 16th.
The story begins in what Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and Ma (Brie Larson) refer to as Room, a soundproofed shed furnished with a small kitchen, a bathtub, a bed, an armoire, and a TV. It’s Jack’s whole existence. His only exposure to the outside world comes in the form of nightly visits from Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), their captor. Donoghue’s novel is written from Jack’s perspective, and he sees Room as a magical place, but the film, by nature of the medium, paints a different picture.
“There is a harsh reality to this world that we as the audience see, but Jack’s experience is more fantastical. So that was an interesting sound challenge,” says supervising sound editor/supervising ADR and dialogue editor Niall Brady at Ardmore Sound in Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland. So even though the audience sees the world on-screen the way it is, director Abrahamson still wanted them to experience the film from Jack’s perspective. Sound designer/sound effects editor Steve Fanagan adds, “When in doubt, we would just remember that this is from Jack’s POV. What is he experiencing? What is the world delivering to him? That was a very helpful indicator of the POV.”
For several months, as Room was being cut, Brady and Fanagan experimented with sonic possibilities for the film. They created a workflow that allowed them to develop the sound concurrently with picture, by working on temp mixes with director Abrahamson and film editor Nathan Nugent, who works in Ardmore Sound’s sister facility, Screen Scene, and then updating those temp mixes based on editorial changes and feedback from the director and editor. “The sound perspective, and what was correct for this film, really worked itself out through the editorial process. There was no eureka moment. The sound just evolved,” says Brady.
There was a great informality to the process, notes Fanagan, thanks to their long-standing relationship with director Abrahamson, with whom they’ve worked on several films, including the off-beat comedy Frank (2014) starring Michael Fassbender. Instead of starting work on Room with a typical spotting session, where details are hashed out scene by scene, Brady and Fanagan were able to develop their sound ideas first before sharing them with the director. “He can give us notes without worrying about how we’re going to react,” says Fanagan. “It becomes this very open conversation. Lenny [Abrahamson] is very sound savvy and very interested in sound. The four of us – Lenny, Nathan, Niall, and I, have an open-door policy in how we work, and so we were able to discover this film together.”
As the sound evolved, Brady and Fanagan were able to establish a set of rules for how to build an interesting sonic palette for a soundproofed space. “There was a great liberation in setting rules. It kind of frees you in a certain way,” says Brady. “The production design department did such a great job of making the place look weathered and run down. Things are a bit broken and so they would generate sounds that aren’t smooth.” They captured recordings of rattling air conditioners, old refrigerator compressors, and lighting hums. There is a cistern in Room that occasionally fills and bubbles and makes noise. “We thought about how things would sound if they were a little rusty, or if they were a bit worn out,” says Fanagan.
Another challenge was expressing time – the time of day, and the passage of time. Since Room is soundproof, they couldn’t use traditional signifiers like crickets or birds, so they played with the tone of the ambience. “We worked in collaboration with Nathan [Nugent] to evolve this idea of using lighter tones for early in the day and then, as we get toward night, the sound gets heavier,” says Fanagan. He and Brady captured numerous recordings of quiet spaces, from inside different ADR booths and studios with all the equipment powered down. “We would automate EQ across a scene so that the air is slowly changing, depending on a time, mood, or story-point shift,” Fanagan details.
Eventually, Ma and Jack devise a way to escape, and the audience stays with Jack during his first experience of the world outside Room. “It’s an adrenaline-filled, tense, emotional, and powerfully subjective sequence for both Jack and the viewer,” says Fanagan. “It’s an incredibly well shot and edited sequence that has dramatic and claustrophobic perspective shifts; it’s also the first opportunity in the story to bring in the sounds of the outside world.” Their goal was to share Jack’s sensory overload by heightening the reality of the sounds. “At this point in the soundtrack there is sync sound, ADR, Foley (including some material created with a transducer mic), backgrounds, vehicles, and sound design that reflects what Jack is feeling. There is also a big music cue,” says Fanagan.
Throughout the mix, they carefully selected which sounds to feature at each moment and when to let composer Stephen Rennicks’ score take the lead. “Our golden rule was to always ask ourselves, ‘What is Jack experiencing?’ and to make our mix choices accordingly,” says Fanagan, who was also the re-recording mixer handling the FX/backgrounds/Foley/music. He co-mixed the film with Ken Galvin, re-recording mixer on dialogue.
After the police rescue Ma, she and Jack find themselves dealing with the overwhelming experience of living outside of Room. Even though the world has opened up around them, director Abrahamson still wanted the audience to feel close to Jack and Ma. To keep that intimacy, Brady layered in a breath-track for Jack, which was recorded during the ADR session. “Sometimes Jack is just out in the world observing and we are close to him and feeling him breathe and reacting to things that are happening,” says Brady. “If we wanted to feel Jack a bit more in the scene, we would see if adding in his breath would help make it more in his POV.”
Additionally, the Foley for Jack and Ma helps bring the audience in closer, giving the perception that they’re right there next to Jack, experiencing the claustrophobic closeness of Room, and eventually the larger world, from his vantage point. “By virtue, everything Jack touches had to have character because this is Jack’s whole world and how we hear those things is very important. There had to be a bit of texture and depth to it,” says Brady. “The work that Caoimhe Doyle, the Foley artist, and Jean McGrath, the Foley mixer, did was full of texture and detail.”
The Foley team at Ardmore Sound spent 10 days recording all of the cues. Fanagan explains the challenge for the Foley team was to make each sound have an emotional quality, everything from a simple skin-on-skin touch to a toy being picked up. “Because you’re in a space that’s so confined, and because it is such a limited palette of sound, every sound you hear needs to have a meaning and be emotionally correct for the moment,” he says. “They did an incredible job in achieving this.”
In regard to dialogue, recording in an 11’ x 11’ space posed its own set of challenges. Scenes inside Room were shot on a soundstage, where walls could be removed to accommodate the film crew, the sound crew, the actors, and the director. Even so, it was a tight fit. Brady used the Spectral Repair tool in iZotope’s RX 4 Advanced to remove the knocks and bangs from the production tracks in an effort to save as much of the production dialogue as possible. “It’s clear from the production tracks that the director was on the floor with the actors, giving pointers in and around the dialogue. The production performances were really important to preserve as the relationship that Ma and Jack had was so genuine,” says Brady.
Another useful tool for creating a believable space inside Room was Audio Ease’s Altiverb. Fanagan recorded a variety of unique impulse responses in dead spaces, like different-sized mix theaters, ADR and voice-over (VO) booths, and any small space he could fit a speaker and a couple of mics into. “We were looking for a sound of a space that didn’t feel familiar. It had to be something that was a little bit otherworldly and very much of the point of view of someone stuck in that experience,” says Fanagan. They ran Altiverb in both the dialogue sessions and effects sessions during the edit, using the same room IRs to ensure that the dialogue and ADR, Foley, and effects would sit in the same space. Brady notes, “It also meant that the reverbs were in place when we combined our sessions, to complete updated temp mixes for the various screenings of the film, and through to the final mix.”
Outside of Room, the film was shot on location in Toronto, which posed all of the typical noise problems for the production track. Brady notes they recorded quite a bit of ADR. “One scene in particular was shot on the streets of Toronto in a moving police car. There were a number of people in the car during the shoot and so there was a build-up of unwanted condensation on the windows,” explains Brady. “The decision was made to roll down some windows. This solved the condensation problem but it meant that the production track was compromised by an amount of uncontrollable wind, car-bys and city traffic.” Story-wise, this was a very delicate scene; one that they needed complete control over. Although the actors’ performances were perfect, the production track wasn’t able to be saved. “We knew we would want the ability to shift subjectivity and perspectives so we ended up rebuilding the dialogue track for that scene,” says Brady. “I think this was very helpful in the end. The ADR was a technically better recording and that gave Lenny [Abrahamson] the ability to shift perspectives and focus on storytelling.”
In total, there was one day of ADR recorded with Brie Larson (Ma) in London, and two-and-a-half days with Jacob Tremblay (Jack) at Sony in L.A. “Jack’s ADR booking was a little bit longer than usual as we recorded both his VO and ADR, and there were some minor time/work restrictions that we had to adhere to when working with a child actor,” notes Brady. The balance of the Canada-based actors and crowd ADR was recorded over an additional two days in Toronto and via Source Connect for actress Joan Allen in New York and actor Sean Bridgers in New Orleans.
Room is a powerfully emotional film, delicate and overwhelming, and the team at Ardmore Sound was there to sonically support the story and the performances every step of the way. Fanagan says, “We had a really amazing time on Room and hugely felt the benefit of beginning on the job early in the picture edit. It was really nice to have the time and resources to be able to experiment with and develop the sound design for the film as the cut was developing and we were working on the various temp mixes.” Brady adds, “It felt like we got to explore the film to discover the right sound universe for the story on screen, working closely together as a small sound crew, with Lenny [Abrahamson] and Nathan [Nugent].”
Watch the trailer:
(Photos courtesy of A24 and Ardmore Sound)