How 'Planet Earth II' Sound Conveys Realism and a Sense of Danger

9:00 AM 6/19/2017

by Carolyn Giardina

The pros behind series including 'Mars, ' The Get Down,' and "Westworld' also reveal their sonic secrets.

Courtesy of BBC

  • Planet Earth II (BBC America)

    Courtesy of BBC

    As is often the case with Blue Chip natural history shows, very little sound is actually recorded while filming on location,” explained Graham Wild, dubbing mixer on the David Attenborough-narrated documentary series. “Sometimes sound recordists are sent to gather wild tracks and atmospheres, but not always, so our biggest challenge as the sound team is to make the sequences sound as realistic as possible.

    “We were lucky on this series as there were quite a few location recordings done for us -- but even so, none were sync to picture apart from a couple of dialogue pieces. Sound editors Tim Owens and Kate Hopkins had the task of sourcing and choosing suitable tracks to match the pictures -- and these all have to fit with the correct location, species, etc -- often using in the region of 30 tracks just to make up the sound for one shot. My job as re-recording mixer is to then blend these all together with the Foleys to create what the audience hears."

    Wild related that In other instances, they “want to skew the sound slightly, for instance, what would it actually sound like for that mouse? This is where the sound design starts, and being creative with the sound can really help the story. A lot of the sound in Planet Earth II was about creating mood. Sometimes being dramatic and adding excitement or danger, but sometimes just leaving the audience time and space to reflect on what they've just seen.

    "Some of the animal behavior filmed in Planet Earth II has never been filmed before, and some sequences gave us their own particular challenges," WIld related, citing a sequence with Langur Monkeys "jumping over rooftops in a James Bond Style chase. Not only was a lot of it shot off-speed and used ramping to accentuate the really close up filming style, but also some of the behavior was really rare. Despite having some good wild tracks to work with, one particular really close-up call was missing. In the end we remembered working on a show many years ago that featured the same type of vocalization. Unfortunately it was well before the days of splitting out stems from mixes, so any version of the sound would have had music and commentary mixed in with it. Luckily though, they managed to find an old archive of the track lay, and even more fortunately managed to find someone with an old audio workstation that could restore audio from the track lay--even though it hadn't even been turned on for years.”

  • Mars (National Geographic)

    Courtesy of National Geographic

    Executive produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, National Geographic’s miniseries Mars is based on the book How We’ll Live on Mars by Stephen Petranek and combines real information with a fictional story—which was the challenge for Skywalker Sound’s Christopher Barnett and Roy Waldspurger, supervising sound editors and re-recording mixers.

    “It’s two-thirds drama and one-third documentary,” Barnett said. “The series is based on science, so we couldn’t go too far into traditional scifi. That was the hardest thing. There was a rocket, a base on Mars, space suits, drones — we had to come up with sounds that were grounded in reality, but were still dramatic. We had to walk a fine line.”

    He relates that the sound team tried to use as many real elements as possible, which included some NASA recordings from deep space for ambiance, as well as some sound provided by Elon Musk's SpaceX from its Falcon rocket. “We also had conversations with scientists about Mars’ atmosphere. The air is very thin, so things would sound different than they would on Earth.”

  • The Get Down (Netflix)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down follows the birth of Hip Hop in the Bronx during the late 1970s.. “With Baz, emotion is king, and bigger and bolder is always better,” said supervising sound designer Ruy Garcia of Technicolor PostWorks New York. “Regarding the sonic treatments, we established a set of rules to follow according to environments, worlds and characters. Shaolin Fantastic and The Get Down Brothers world is full of fantasy and vintage Kung-Fu film effects. Most of these sounds were taken from an old vinyl DJ sample record or recreated. The world of Cadillac and Fat Annie is surrounded by grit and train squeals, archival sounds and vehicle recordings from the '70s.

    “Music is the driving force in the characters' lives and the larger history of music and politics of the time,” he added, noting that characters are “united and divided by oppositional music worlds,” disco and yet to be named Hip Hop. “The themes and characters needed an associated sonic palate that was both authentic and adaptable, which meant a huge amount of period needle drops as well as re-interpretations of the sounds of the late '70s.”

    Garcia added that the sound team additionally learned some hip-hop techniques from Grandmaster Flash, “who was very involved in the show’s development and production.”

  • Westworld (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    “The challenge was creating an environment that supports the story without giving away anything for future episodes,” lead re-recording mixer Keith Rogers (of South Lake Audio Services at Roundabout Entertainment) said of the work on the series, which follows a Western-themed amusement park and its AI-driven humanoid robots. “We create environments that would feel real and be consistent—anything from the western streets with horses and buggys, to the lab where they are creating the hosts. So we had a traditional Western story and a furturistic, minimalist, high tech one. [Co-showrunner] Jonathan Nolan had a clear idea that the hosts are as close to being human as possible. They appear as human, not different, when they are in the park. Then we reveal different sounds or qualities in the lab. A lot the music was scored in a way to support the transitions. We also did that with sound design.”

  • Underground (WGN)

    Courtesy of Steve Dietl/WGN

    An accelerated schedule was the biggest challenge for this period drama about the Underground Railroad in Antebellum, Georgia, reported Sony supervising sound editor Larry Goeb.

    “Sound designer/effects editor Harry Snodgrass began researching sounds for Underground months before the first show turned over. Each episode had at least one new location; some had three. Harry made sure that the sounds were period accurate, that each location had a different texture, and that they the client had options,” Goeb related, adding that “Dialogue editors Ryne Gierke and Ben Whitver had to eliminate or minimize post-Industrial Age sounds in dialogue tracks, and provided alternate dialogue takes to minimize the need for ADR.

     “From the beginning, we were up against airdates, which meant delivering one show per week,” he said. “It was not uncommon for us to be cutting ADR, conforming sound to updated picture and adding new music cues on the last day of the dub."

  • American Gods (Starz)

    Courtesy of Starz

    The approach to the sound on American Gods--adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel—was to juxtapose a contemporary drama against its fantasy elements. “Every episode had its own challenges, as the series is essentially a road-show, so we never stayed in one environment very long. There were also a lot of scenes where reality would transition into a character’s headspace, and visa-versa,” said re-recording mixer Joe DeAngelis, who did the mix at Technicolor at Paramount.

    Added sound designer David Werntz: “The sound is not necessarily grounded in reality. For instance, there is a scene on top of a building in downtown Chicago that sounds like a mystical forest.”

    As the battle between the old Gods and the new Gods escalates, “the old Gods had a bigger, low-end, natural sort of presence, whereas some of the newer Gods have more of a process feel,” according to supervising sound editor/sound designer Brad North.