Michael Bay is best known for directing the Transformers film franchise. So when you see his name as director on the modern-day war film 13 Hours you expect big action. And 13 Hours does not disappoint. The film opens with American mercenary Jack Silva (John Krasinski) joining a paramilitary security team employed by undercover CIA agents in Libya who are buying black market weapons obtained after dictator Gaddafi was overthrown. After landing in Libya, Jack immediately encounters resistance from a local faction on the drive from the airport to the secret CIA compound. This initial confrontation is a foreshadowing of what Jack experiences during his two-week contract term in Libya.
For 13 Hours, Bay worked with his go-to Technicolor post sound mix team of Greg P. Russell and Jeffrey J. Haboush, as well as re-recording mixer Gary Summers, at the Technicolor at Paramount facility. Bay and Russell have worked on every single Transformers film together. Haboush and Summers have also worked with them on a fair share of projects. Their work together over the years has given the mix team a deep understanding of Bay’s sensibilities as a director, as well as an appreciation for each other’s mixing talents. The three-man mix team has earned an Oscar nomination for their work on 13 Hours. Here, Haboush and Russell talk about how they mixed the film.
S&P: You guys are no strangers to working with each other and with director Michael Bay on the Transformers films. Is that how you got involved with 13 Hours?
Jeffrey J. Haboush: I was involved with the first Transformers, and I helped out on the second film, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Then on the third one, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, we all worked together. Greg [Russell] has done other Michael Bay films too, like Armageddon and The Rock. I was a helper on those films also.
These last few years have been great because Michael has gone to a three-man crew. Greg is on sound effects, Gary [Summers] is on dialogue, and I handle music. It goes back to an old school three-man mix team. That’s how it always was. One person concentrated 100% on dialogue, one person concentrated 100% on sound effects, and another one concentrated solely on music. That’s a great way to work. When you have so much sound in a film and so many creative choices, it’s nice to have all hands on deck to give the director what he’s looking for. None of us are sure what that’s going to be until we start working on the mix and find it. It’s always very satisfying when you find that perfect balance altogether. You know it is right when it happens, and it’s a great thing. Greg, Gary, and myself, plus sound designers Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn have been Michael’s go-to sound team for the past number of years. And fortunately we were all able to jump in on 13 Hours.
S&P: What was director Bay looking for in terms of the sound mix on 13 Hours?
Greg P. Russell: Michael wanted this film to be a gutsy, boots-on-the-ground, honest depiction of what happened there in Benghazi. His primary focus was to tell their story as accurately as possible. The sound of the film was to do the very same thing. It had to be intense and dynamic, but most of all it had to be authentic!
S&P: What stage did you mix on at Technicolor?
JH: We mixed on Stage 1 at Technicolor at Paramount. Gary did some dialogue pre-dubbing on Stage 3, I believe, while Greg was pre-dubbing the sound effects on Stage 1. Then we all hooked up together. The score was composed by Lorne Balfe, and he did an amazing job. The music editing team was headed by Alex Gibson. Alex is a great music editor. He always has his hands full on these types of projects because every element of the sound is important — all the dialogue and all the effects and backgrounds that keep the sound of the film feeling real, gritty, and raw. Then there is the music, and that is used to propel emotion. Music is such a tricky thing. There are so many different choices and balances. We had a lot of great separation in the score, in the tracks they provided us, and that gave us an opportunity to play and experiment and find the right levels and materials that help to tell the story.
S&P: There was a lot happening with the sound effects especially during the fights, and composer Lorne Balfe’s score wasn’t overpowering those moments with a sweeping, cinematic sound. What was your approach to music during the fights?
JH: The thing I love about Michael Bay’s films is that there are always these hero themes in the music. There is great hero music when the good guys are winning. The score on 13 Hours still has cool, driving, percussive moments but it also had a lot of eerie, synth-based, unusual sounds that sort of put you in the location of Libya. These Americans are walking through this little town that they’ve never been in and it’s spooky. They never know what’s coming around any corner.
As far as the music goes, I was provided with roughly 15 stems — 5.0s, 5.1s, and LCRs that were giving me control and separation of all the different flavors that the composer provided. Our approach is to listen to it the way it was composed first. 9 out of 10 times that’s the best way to play it. If you have to go in and make a shade here and there, that’s all part of our creative mixing choices. What’s going to blend the best with the sound effects? If we’re in a scene where Greg is mixing sound effects of machine guns and rocket launchers, and other high, percussive sounds, and I have percussion in the music that is playing along with some strings or other bed, then I can shape the percussion so that it doesn’t become a wall of noise. You have to get a feel for what you want to hear on the screen.
S&P: What was the approach to the gunfire in the mix? What about the explosions? Those felt huge!
GR: The guns were huge and very punchy. These guns were some of the best recordings I’ve heard in a while. Very tight and concussive, that was our approach to them. Also, we wanted enough variation in them so it would be interesting and fun to listen to. When things all start to sound the same it gets boring. The same thing applies to the explosions. We wanted those to be very punchy and concussive so you feel them go through you in the theater. I’ve mixed all of Michael’s films since The Rock to present day. So needless to say, I’ve mixed my share of explosions. We try to add different sound elements to create variation such as a metal wronk on one and then a wood impact on the next and so on. This keeps the ear intrigued for something new. The big low-end sub-channels are also tight and precise. I’m not a fan of over-boomed films.
S&P: Favorite scene to mix?
JH: There’s a sequence later in the film when the American guys are up on the roof of the CIA compound and they are decompressing between the waves of attacks. They are discussing reports they heard of the ambassador’s body being found, and they are looking through their night vision goggles at the bad guys who are assembling outside the walls. What’s great about this film in particular is there are moments in the sound that let you breathe. And what’s happening in the story gives you time to breathe. There are a lot of dynamic ups and downs both visually and sonically. In the backgrounds, you can hear these Libyan dogs barking in the background. And those are actual dogs from that location in Libya. It’s not like a standard dog bark you would hear in Mayberry, USA.
So there is this air as you see the bad guys approaching the compound. The Americans on the roof are setting up and waiting for an attack. During those pauses in the action, there are interactions between the guys. For example, Rone (James Badge Dale) is setting up this huge gun and Oz (Mark Martini) asks if it’s loud. Oz says he forgot his earplugs and he starts pushing toilet paper or something into his ears. Then the firefight happens. It’s quick but it’s stylized. Our guys are starting to get the upper hand as they are protecting the CIA compound.
In terms of audio, we were able to trade off stylistically with sound effects and music. We are going through this surreal moment where they blow up a bus, and they blow up bad guys in the building across the street. It’s full and powerful and you hear every sound, and then it crossfades out of this big explosion into the music. It’s patriotic and cool. Those are fun sound mixing moments. You can change what you are seeing. You still have the results of what you’re seeing on-screen but you can pull the audience in a little differently with music. That leads into this moment where Sona (Alexia Barlier) is trying to help out by calling in a fly-over from the US Air Force. It’s emotional, and it’s a slight lull in the action before the fight picks up again.
GR: The ambassador’s compound invasion was a very cool scene to mix and it’s the classic balancing act between music and sound effects to create the tension and intensity of the situation. Clearly, the ambassador’s men that are there to protect him were no match for what they were faced with. The attack on the compound was intense and terrifying and the sound and mix needed to create that with this sort of cacophony all around his safe room, which wasn’t safe enough. Having the ambassador running through the engulfed house as it was burning all around him was ferocious, and the fire traveling through the ceiling in Atmos was awesome.
S&P: What was one of the most challenging scenes for you to mix?
JH: That sequence when the US ambassador is smoked out of his compound, and he dies. The bad guys set the compound on fire, and it’s a 30-minute sequence. The first time I saw it I thought, “Oh my gosh.” Just watching it and thinking about how an audience will experience it — we’re trying to keep the tension and also allow the sadness of the sequence to come through the sound. We spent a lot of time getting that right and we felt really good about where we ended up. That was one of the trickiest parts of the film to mix. It starts off as a slow build, and you know that something is coming. Then when it kicks in, it just goes all the way to the security team coming back to the CIA compound. They get to take a breath for a moment and talk about what happened with the ambassador before they have to prepare for the next wave of attack.
GR: I’d have to say the final battle sequence was the most challenging, as that was the most emotional and truly heartfelt scene. We had a mortar shell launch that, in typical Bay cinematic vision, follows that bomb all the way down to impact. The results were the loss of two of our guys on the GRS team — brothers to the other guys in war and a tragic, horrible situation. The explosions of death and the aftermath of silence is the dramatic moment where we reflect on the horrors of war. The sound is designed to bring to life those extremes in a visceral way and leave you with the haunting sense of loss.
S&P: There were several subjective sound moments, like that POV mortar fire shot during the last fight. Also, there’s the rally of the local bad guys before they stormed the ambassador’s compound. How did you handle the processing on those scenes? Any specific EQs, reverbs, or pitch/time shift tools?
GR: We all use several different reverb plug-ins and machines to achieve our goals. I’m a fan of the Altiverb plug-in and Phoenix Surround reverb plug-ins. In addition, I always have my TC Electronic and my Lexicon 480 still on the console. I use my channel strip EQs on the Euphonix S5 console with my filters and compressors in line to the faders themselves. I do use the Avid Pro Subharmonic and reFuse’s Lowender but I always have my DBX 120A’s there for my mega bottom end. I also believe in the Avid Pro Limiters to catch transient peaks and keep my recorders clean.
JH: That’s Michael Bay right there, where you have that mortar POV shot and we follow the missile as it comes down and hits right behind one of the American guys. It’s heavy-duty. It’s one of those stylistic moments where you take everything out and you feel the score. Then you sneak in breathing and all those little sounds that bring it back to reality. All that takes time. You can’t just slam it out. You have to try it out and feel it out, to get that correct balance. That was a great cue.
S&P: Were there other moments where you were able to let the music shine?
JH: Another great cue came at the end of the film when the guys are finally getting to the airport. The CIA personnel get onto the plane, which can only carry so many people. So the security team is left on the runway. The cue there sounded very patriotic and very emotional. It said a lot. The cue conveyed how the guys were feeling. Then you go to Jack talking to his wife and telling her that his best friend is gone. It’s one of those heartstring-pulling cues that just really gets to you. It sums up what just happened, and then you read the true facts of what really happened. The ambassador was indeed loved by Libyans, and a significant amount of them showed up to the ambassador’s funeral. He was there trying to help those people and it was really unfortunate how everything unfolded. And then you see the CIA guys who lost their lives, and the security force team members who lost their lives. That was a very powerful cue there.
S&P: Talking about the Dolby Atmos mix, how did you handle music in the Atmos set up?
JH: Atmos is one of my favorite formats. It’s reliable. It’s solid. If you have a theater that is aligned and ready to play back, then it’s going to play back. We upmixed in Atmos, but it was more than just an upmix. I love sound effects. I grew up loving sound effects. Sound effects are part of my movie mixing world. They are so important and I love to be able to pull back the music and let the sound effects live. There are sequences where mortars are flying across the room in Atmos. And the atmospheres, the backgrounds, are great in Atmos. You can creep some things up into the ceiling.
As far as music goes, what I’ve been doing is setting up three different regions of the room. I have a flat side, a middle upper room, and then I have a back-high area where I have some panners and I can put delay there or some processing from some of the instrument sounds. When I go through it I like to bleed something into those speakers. Balance is the key. We want to have the correct balance of our final mix but I’m utilizing a little more of the dome in the room. I don’t want to just take the 7.1 mix and put it into the Atmos speakers. When you take some of the sound into the ceiling, you can have some fun with it. You can hear it when you play it back, well, you feel it. You sense it. It’s a tricky balance because you don’t want to put too much in the ceiling and take away from the spread of the mix that’s wrapped around you. It’s a fine line of getting that right sound. Obviously, for sound effects, you have those moments that are just made for Atmos. This film had a bunch of those moments.
S&P: For effects, what scenes really stood out for you in Atmos?
GR: War films in particular lend themselves to the ultimate panning resolution of bullets whizzing by, to gunfire all around you, to offstage explosions from afar. Dolby Atmos is the best sound format for this type of cinematic experience. All the rooftop battle sequences were incredibly intense and we used Atmos to help create an immersive experience for audiences, to make them feel like they’re right up on the roof with them, feeling every bullet-by and impact around them.
S&P: Any final thoughts you’d like to share on 13 Hours?
JH: Michael Bay has such a great ear. He knows what he wants to hear. He wants us to present something for him, so he can say, “That’s great” or “That sucks.” It’s nice to have that trust where he lets us try to put together the sound for him, and then when we present it to him, he picks up on everything. His taste is amazing. When he comes in, he likes to have the three of us sitting there. He will say things like, “Raise that dialogue line. Lower that music cue. And put more sound effects there.” He’s directing the three of us and we’re all doing exactly what he is saying, all at the same time. You don’t want to say, “Hold on a second.” You just have to do it. Having the capability to do that is great, to give the director what he wants when he asks for it. And that really shows on the soundtrack. You get to hear everything because everything is being blended properly together. Each individual on the mix is adding their creativity to the film. Being able to do this and experience the mix this way, I can hear that on the screen.
The three of us mixed on a Euphonix S5 console, and each of us had Pro Tools playback. We all have all the tools we need, and can playback and mix in many ways. If we want to make some moves in the box, or use plug-ins and play around with what is being played back on our own individual system, then all that capability is right at our fingertips and the editors’ fingertips. That’s one of the great things about Technicolor. Everyone has a station and can jump in on any Pro Tools rig at any time. The music editor can recut something, or a sound effects editor can build something, and when they’re done, they can pop it into my session, or Greg’s session, or Gary’s. It’s a very efficient way to do everything. It’s nice to be able to use the automation on the desk, which gives us access to everything at our fingertips. We’re not mixing with the mouse or trying to switch a lot of faders around to different banks. We have everything laid out in front of us. You have EQ and compression and reverb all fingertips away. So if you get a request to put a ton of reverb on a sound, and to roll all of the top end off, and then fade it out, you say it, and then the next pass, it happens. You just go. And that’s because of the setup we have at Technicolor. For a director who wants instant gratification, you have to be able to perform when he asks you to do something.
GR: We strive to create a well-balanced mix with great attention to detail and definition. Our fabulous sound design team of Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl; and our many amazing sound editors Tim Walston, Brandon Jones, and Tobias Poppe; our mix team of Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush, and I, and our mix tech Drew Webster — who by the way is the M.V.P. on our team by keeping our console and recorders and playback machines all up and running, we all try and create a cinematic experience that is true to the story but also engages an audience to be a part of the film in this immersive world we’re living in at the movies!
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures & Technicolor at Paramount