How Sound Pros on 'Watchmen,' 'Star Trek: Picard' and More Created "Physical and Psychological" Soundscapes

12:30 PM 8/28/2020

by Carolyn Giardina

Creating the noises of the future involved power tools and a church for these Emmy-nominated sound editors and mixers from shows including 'Devs' and 'Westworld.'

'Star Trek: Picard,' 'Devs,' 'Westworld,' 'Watchmen'
Courtesy of Networks

'Star Trek: Picard,' 'Devs,' 'Westworld,' 'Watchmen'

  • 'Star Trek: Picard'

    Supervising sound editor Matthew E. Taylor describes the Star Trek spinoff as a journey through "many soundscapes, both physical and psychological — physical in that the heroes experience new locations, technologies and languages. Psychological in creating the worlds of our characters’ minds as they experience nightmares, grief, horror and doubt.”Futuristic technology needed unique sound, as did the La Sirena ship. The sound team incorporated the noise of an electric motorcycle combined with electromagnetic recordings of a Dremel rotary tool powering up and down. Another key sound was the inactive Borg Cube vessel. "When inside the research section of the inactive cube, it needed to sound full of unassimilated organic life, a contrast to a Borg Cube. Yet the cube was still menacing, a threat and, to some ... revered," Taylor relates. "[Sound designer] Tim Farrell’s manipulated recordings of St. Peter’s Basilica was a fun element that contributed to a sense of the cube’s size. Also, parts of the cube walls would shift or reform. Dominoes and wood tiles were recorded and manipulated to help build the constant shape-shifting. And lastly, phrases such as 'Resistance is futile' and 'We are Borg' were recorded and manipulated to form subtle and foreboding textures when Picard finds himself isolated in the cube."

    Different worlds (and a different time, with the events of the new series set 20 years after Star Trek: Nemesis) needed their own unique sounds. "Our team wanted to sonically differentiate each location and time, so we took into consideration such things as, 'How has technology evolved since we were last with Picard?' and, 'What do we think the life on this planet sounds like?' " rerecording mixer Todd M. Grace says. The Romulan refugee planet included voices of actors speaking Romulan plus elements such as "alien" birds and insects. "We also took care to give each starship unique treatments for their intercoms, displays and large chambers," says Grace. "Our basic guideline was to use sound to help tell the story without getting in the way."

  • 'Devs'

    For the Silicon Valley-set series, supervising sound editors/designers Glenn Freemantle and Ben Barker treated the Devs company’s main facility as a character, almost as if its quantum computer were alive. "We wanted to create something that had a recognizable 'vibe' that ever so slightly evolved through the series, and to be in stark contrast to the beautiful nature sounds outside," Freemantle says. "We used multiple processes and techniques to give the building its quantum personality, slightly shifting as you moved from room to room, making it feel completely unique and always with the characters when in the facility. We went about recording a lot of hums and tones but found that using an electromagnetic recorder was really key to the soundscape."

    At the facility, the computer can project the past and future, meaning the sound team created "time zones" — their own sense of past, present and future. "We were sonically trying to connect and sync into the past/present/future; we looked at the process as if you were sitting in traffic watching multiple cars indicate to turn," Freemantle says. "Out of sync they seem distorted (the past), but at one moment they will all connect and be in time clear, full and present. After that you drift off to an ethereal soundscape — the future."

    As the story progresses, the software becomes better at seeing the past (and ultimately predicting the future), so the sound had to mirror that development. "This meant creating a palette of sound treatments which could be tailored as we travel through the episodes," says rerecording mixer Howard Bargroff. "These treatments had to sound unique, modern and quantum, so a lot of time was put into designing a bespoke new set of processes to manipulate the audio from the computer." Bargroff points to episode three as an example of this process: "[It] starts with a two-minute section of pure Devs output; a swirling parade of morphing sound and visuals which make it feel like the audio and picture are being 'tuned in' — like trying to find a distant signal on a radio." 

  • 'Watchmen'

    In "This Extraordinary Being," the sixth episode of the HBO limited series, Angela Abar (Regina King) overdoses on Nostalgia, a drug that allows her to experience her grandfather Will Reeves’ memories. The sound team was tasked with blending Angela and young Will’s (Jovan Adepo) perspectives during the episode, which reveals the origin story of Will’s alter ego, Hooded Justice.

    "[As] she’s starting to OD, the sounds of Angela’s world and Will’s world are starting to swim together," supervising sound editor Brad North explains. "We see her going down the rabbit hole and we start messing around with ... dialogue, making it all swimmy, and then all of a sudden we start hearing little bits and pieces of Will’s memories." The effect added tension as Angela experiences Will’s memories, almost in real time. "We just have all the stuff building up and building up on Angela, and then everything starts going away as the drum roll starts up when Will’s onstage and he’s [inducted into] the police department."

    Aiding the transition to Will’s perspective was a "sweet and somber" cue from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. North adds that as the music starts to change, the sound editors reduced the ambient sound. "We still hear the flash pops from the cameras, but the music kind of takes over right there," he says.

    The sequence was shot in long takes, which North admits allowed for creative sound opportunities. "We tried to use production [sound] as much as possible, but there were times we had to use ADR [automated dialog replacement]," he says, citing as an example the scene in a club, focusing on dialogue between Will and his wife, June. "You can hear the band playing in the background. ... As they get deeper into the conversation, Will has a flashback to Tulsa as a little boy. We hit that flashback, we cut back to them sitting at the table, but [then] you don’t hear any of the world around them." 

  • 'Westworld'

    HBO's dystopian series expands beyond the titular park in season three, bringing with it new sound requirements to create "the sound of the future in the real world," says supervising sound editor Sue Cahill. "We were trying to create this whole new landscape and had this idea of a sonic coherence in the real world, where everything was pleasing and harmonious and mellifluous. That directive applied to all aspects of sound for the episode ["Parce Domine"] and the whole season."

    The "voice" from tech firm Insight — "this voice was everywhere, kind of like our Siri today," says Cahill — involved an "extensive search" for an option that sounded computerized. "We tried existing computer voices and text-to-speech programs, but none of them was quite right," Cahill says. "Then we had auditions at a loop group [to find] the right [actor] that was pleasant but had to be clearly identified as a computer voice. That voice was really a main character for the show." The performance also received a treatment on the mix stage.

    Production sound mixer Geoffrey Patterson elaborates on recording dialogue, primarily on locations, including downtown L.A. "Cars and other forms of transportation are theoretically silent [in this futuristic world]; of course, locations in Los Angeles tended to have very high ambient noise levels, and the characters had to speak in really measured tones," he explains. "The story is complex and takes a level of focus from the audience. I just wanted the dialogue to be as clear as possible."

    On the final mix, Cahill points to the scene during which Dolores is drugged in a vehicle. "She shoots the person in the passenger seat, then gets out. ... It’s one continuous shot. The way the shot pulls your focus to all these different parts of the scene — the sound is really working with the picture to draw your focus and make you feel as if you are surrounded by all this action."

    This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.