Sound Design for Deep Space: Audio, Androids and Aliens on 'Prometheus'
Ridley Scott has already directed two iconic sci-fi features: Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). Three decades down the line he returns to the genre with Prometheus, an ambitious 3D space epic that combines the gory horror and gripping dread of Alien with a high-minded story involving the very creation of life on Earth and our possible extraterrestrial origins. Though conceived many years ago as a prequel to Alien, what he eventually put on the screen is a standalone original saga set in a time a little before Alien, but which still “shares some of the DNA” of its famous predecessor, Scott has said.
Always a great storyteller and a visual poet, Scott also cares deeply about sound. His team on Prometheus certainly had their work cut out for them, dealing with various unusual exterior and interior environments, late 21st century space ships—the Prometheus is one—and land vehicles, particle storms, indescribable alien creatures and beings large and small, as well as futuristic gizmos of every variety (lasers, holograms, tracking devices), assorted com voices and warnings, and mayhem always lurking close by.
Co-supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger—an Oscar nominee in 2010 for his work on the runaway train film Unstoppable—did some minor sound editing work on Scott’s Gladiator, but he got his first intensive exposure to the director when he supervised 2010’s grim take on Robin Hood with Wylie Stateman. That project couldn’t have been more different—it was set in the Middle Ages, shot almost entirely outdoors and required an extensive palette of organic, mostly realistic sounds. Nevertheless, Stoeckinger says, Scott’s approach to working with the sound crew on each was similar.
“He really likes sound that helps tell the story or set the mood,” he explains. “He’s such a big-picture story person, he’s always cognizant of when the sound is supporting what he’s trying to do. At least from my experience, he never seems to get bogged down in the nuances of what might contribute to the big picture. Instead, he gives you a lot of freedom, which is refreshing and rewarding. He expects you to bring it, figure it out and present him with interesting ideas.”
Is he a director who will want to hear multiple versions of something or choose between several different approaches? “No,” says Stoeckinger. “Interestingly, I think we were in the ballpark more with Prometheus than Robin Hood as far as the way his notes were. I don’t know why that was. Maybe because Prometheus is far more abstract, so there was more latitude, in a sense.”
Stoeckinger’s co-supervisor on the film, dealing largely with dialogue issues, was Victor Ennis, an Oscar nominee last year for Drive (and Stoeckinger’s assistant supervisor on Unstoppable). Much of the post work on Prometheus took place in Hollywood at Soundelux (where both Stoeckinger and Ennis work), though foley and the mix by Doug Hemphill (effects) and Ron Bartlett (dialogue and music) were done over at 20th Century Fox in West L.A.; the final was at the AMS Neve DFC-equipped John Ford Theatre.
Hemphill—a seven-time sound Oscar nominee; he won for The Last of the Mohicans in 1992—and Bartlett have a long history mixing films together: In just the past few years, their slate of big-budget action picture collaborations has included Terminator Salvation, Sherlock Holmes, X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the 2007 “Final Cut” version of Blade Runner, which, Hemphill says, “we spruced up more than we changed it. Some of the sounds are not as sophisticated as what you would hear today, or the recordings weren’t quite as good, but that’s part of the alchemy that makes the original tracks interesting.”
The same could be said of the original Alien, yet Stoeckinger, Hemphill and Bartlett all speak admiringly of that film’s sound design and kept it in mind as they created the new sonic worlds of Prometheus.
Stoeckinger says, “When I went to England [while the movie was being shot], I met Ray Merrin, who mixed on the original Alien, and Terry Rawlings, who was the picture editor, and that was as helpful as anything just because they’re great guys—now retired—with a lot of interesting memories about the making of Alien. The inspiration I got out of that was, ‘Yes, we’re doing this film that’s based in part on a classic, but it doesn’t have to be this more modern, polished version of it. It’s still a meeting of the real world and the sci-fi world.’ There are a lot of aspects of the sound [of Prometheus] that are old and clunky and metallic like they had in the original film to a certain degree.
“Also, even though we can obviously do more with electronics now than they could then, if you listen closely to the original film, they used things like fax modems connecting and various phone sounds and alarms very effectively, so a lot of the sounds started off that way for us as well. The end result would be something that was a little granular—gritty and not overly clean, like some of the sheen had been taken off it.”
“We spoke with Ridley a lot about Alien—what he liked about it, what the cool elements were,” Bartlett says. “We tried to bring some of those concepts into the new one. There were some specific things. For example, David, the android character, has a certain moment in the film where his voice is altered, so he’s talking in that same altered way as a character in the first Alien. He’s got that same kind of gargly voice. We analyzed that and tried to come up with our own version that would be slightly different, because it’s a different kind of android, but hearkening back to the first Alien.”
Stoeckinger adds, “I called [Soundelux editor/sound designer] Charlie Campagna and asked, ‘What would they have done in 1979 to create that warbling effect in his voice? I know how we could do it now, but how would they have done it then? Let’s reverse engineer this a bit.’ So we broke out a bunch of guitar pedals and used things like a [Dunlop Manufacturing] MXR Flanger and found ways to do something similar. And what can we do for the gurgling and gakking? I had a bottle of water and a microphone on my desk and made some weird, wet, sticky voice sounds and that got processed a little bit. So we took inspiration from what they’d done and put our own spin on it.”
Hemphill also suggested using an Electro-Harmonix Ring Thing, a single sideband ring modulator. Bartlett says, “I used it in a weird way, where I was trying to age this character who’s supposed to be very old. Ridley had commented that he sounded too young, so I used that [Ring Thing] and it gave him the sense of a little phlegm in his throat; it roughed up his voice a bit so it wasn’t such clean ADR.”
Hemphill also employed some “old school” Fulltone ETC-1 tape delay/echo. “I have a quad delay built into the board [DFC], but it doesn’t give quite the same feedback characteristics as 15 ips [tape]. So if I wanted a certain sproing-y sound for caverns, I would use that.” Hemphill used an Eventide Space delay judiciously, as well as more conventional reverb tools, such as Lexicon 480 and 960 and an Altiverb Pro Tools plug-in.
Another challenging aspect was dealing with the large amount of dialogue that is spoken inside bubble space helmets. Production recordist Simon Hayes placed radio mics in the space suits and captured what he could, but the combination of fans inside the suits to keep the actors cool and changes in the sound as they moved and turned their heads led to a fair amount of that dialogue having to be replaced. Having lead actress Noomi Rapace hold one of the fishbowl-like helmets in front of and slightly above her during ADR “sounded pretty good, but it wasn’t controllable,” Stoeckinger says.
Bartlett interjects and further explains: “So Charlie [Campagna] took a helmet from production, placed it over a speaker and mic’ed the inside of it, sending a sine wave through it and recording it. Then it was processed through Altiverb, and it makes it, in essence, a reverb chamber. I took that and sent a dry recording of the ADR through that reverb and it re-created the helmet. It worked great.”
Ann Scibelli designed the creature sounds in the film, as well as many of the interior cave spaces, and creatively employed electronic blips, bleeps and zaps, along with Alan Rankin, who created all the vehicles. “Alan made a lot of interesting sounds for the Prometheus based on real-world sounds—rocket-type sounds and metal sounds and also organic vocal elements, but the vocal elements are very covert; they’re just helping to give some shape and movement, rather than creating a sound,” Stoeckinger notes. (Stoeckinger, Scibelli and Rankin all worked on Unstoppable and Star Trek together; they’re quite the team.)
Stoeckinger notes that “the flamethrowers and most anything that blows up always has a vocal element of sorts to give the sound either pitch and tonality or just something to color the sound and make it more intense or evil-sounding.” Scibelli’s sonic legerdemain included recording her parrot, Skippy, and tweaking the sound electronically, as well as using altered dog recordings for part of the sound of the high-tech tracking/sensing devices (called “pups” by one character) used to explore mysterious caverns.
Remember Pop Rocks, that candy that exploded on your tongue? “We put them on different surfaces and recorded it,” Stoeckinger says. That was foley artist Dan O’Connell’s idea.
“Also, Charlie and I roamed the Fox lot, where they had these huge old blowers and water cooling systems from the old studio days that are still in use, and used that as one of the elements of the interior of the ships,” Stoeckinger says. “It was this big, bulbous sound of water bubbling or gurgling. It’s very unsettling, and it doesn’t matter that you don’t see water.”
“The way we worked,” Hemphill notes, “we weren’t trying to literally create sound for what we see; we were trying to do a feel thing. If it’s cool or interesting or what we were trying to say story-wise, it doesn’t matter if it’s what we were actually seeing.
“Do we want people to feel claustrophobia in this part? Or do we want to impart the vastness of something? The original Alien had oodles of that claustrophobia, and we definitely brought that out of the toolbox a few times. So much of it is about creating a mood and a feeling, so whatever it takes to communicate that.”
After two temp dubs, when it came time to start the final mix, Bartlett relates, “Ridley walked in the first day and said, ‘Here’s what I want to do: I want to go through the whole movie in, like, three days so I can really get a look at it.’ So it was all predubs up—hundreds of tracks—and go! It was big moves and a flow. ‘Play a scene, don’t stop. Give me a flow of what you’re feeling!’”
Hemphill adds, “When Ron says Ridley said ‘Just play the scene,’ what he meant and expected was for us to respond to the movie with our hands on those faders. You’re working on instincts in the mix, so you work very quickly and work on the concepts, rough ’em out—what the sound of a particular environment is, the creatures, what the flow is, the pacing. Because he was very into creating mood. It was a barrel of fun.”
Bartlett continues, “It’s a real performance-based way of looking at it. We would latch onto something and he’d say, ‘Yes, yes, more of that! Get rid of that other stuff. That’s what I want!’ It was a real good way to sit back and watch the flow of the film. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutiae that you lose sight of the film as a whole.”
“And of course that’s not how the audience sees it,” Hemphill says. “Sometimes a scene becomes not about the details of what you see but of the flow of energy that’s building toward something. And that is more important than any details in any film, but especially a film like this.”
Of course, following this fast-paced three-day exercise in big-picture flow came weeks of more traditional final mix work—fine-tuning the dialogue and effects tracks (some because of late-arriving visual effects) and balancing those with Mark Streitenfeld’s haunting and evocative score, which combines traditional orchestrations with processed instruments and tones. “There may be times you’ll be hard-pressed to tell when music starts and sound design ends,” Stoeckinger comments. “Ridley responds really well to musical sounds, no matter where they’re coming from.”
“Ridley is one of the most creative, inspirational people I’ve ever worked with,” Hemphill says. “When I start a mix, the first thing I think of is mood and story and character; that’s what drives me. Ridley is one of the masters of that, so working with him was a real pleasure every day. Part of mixing a Ridley Scott film is working directly with him. Some directors will come in and hear final playback or whatever, but it’s sitting there with Ridley and getting his ideas and having a group of people work with him that really makes it spark.”