Behind the 3 Body Problem series sound design Asbjoern Andersen


Netflix's 3 Body Problem – from showrunners David Benioff, D. B. Weiss and Alexander Woo – tells the tale of first contact by aliens. Season 1 sets up an impending invasion, and explores humanity's mixed reaction to the aliens, including acceptance and resistance – both of which have catastrophic consequences. Here, supervising sound editor Tim Kimmel and sound designer Paula Fairfield talk about creating alien tech sounds, building scenes of chaos and destruction in reality and virtual reality, and more!
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Netflix; Tim Kimmel; Paula Fairfield
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3 Body Problem is Netflix’s new hit series from showrunners David Benioff, D. B. Weiss and Alexander Woo. Benioff and Weiss tapped Emmy-winning Game of Thrones sound team alumni Tim Kimmel (supervising sound editor) at Formosa Group and sound designer Paula Fairfield to create a soundscape that weaves together 1960s China, modern-day UK, and a virtual world. They also needed to create the sound of cutting-edge human technology, advanced alien tech, and low-tech sounds from bygone eras (both real and fabricated for the virtual world). Here, Kimmel and Fairfield break down their sound work on Ep. 5 “Judgement Day,” talk about the interplay of music and effects in the show, and much more.



3 Body Problem | Official Trailer | Netflix


3 Body Problem | Official Trailer | Netflix

Can you tell me about your collaboration with the showrunners on 3 Body Problem? Of course, you’ve worked with them on Game of Thrones, and although 3 Body Problem is very different, were there things that carried over in terms of how they wanted to approach the sound of this show, or what their aesthetic tastes are for sound?

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Sound Supervisor Tim Kimmel

Tim Kimmel (TK): Yeah, it was great to be back with Dan Weiss and David Benioff. I’ve done a couple of other projects with them since Game of Thrones. They’re phenomenal guys to work with, super smart, very creative, and very loyal. They had reached out to me to do a feature that Dan wrote called Metal Lords. And they were both executive producers on The Chair for Netflix, so I didn’t work as closely with them on that. But they’re just a lot of fun to work with creatively.

By knowing their tastes, how they like their music played, and what they like featured, I could go into it knowing the kinds of moments when they like to push music more, or moments to let the sound design push through, or ADR-wise, what stuff they want to try and fix, how much they want to try and keep production and clean it up. So going into it knowing their tastes was very helpful, having that relationship with them and knowing what they like.

Paula Fairfield (PF): I always look forward to working with Dan and David. I love their minds and they are such lovely, curious humans. This project was a challenge in that it is completely new territory and so there was a lot of discovering of what this show would sound like – it couldn’t be farther from Game of Thrones in sonic feel. And I love that. It’s always interesting to build worlds in sound and this show has so many dimensions to it that it made for a very interesting ride.

 

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The series takes place in 1960s China (Mongolia), in modern-day UK, and in a virtual environment experienced through a VR headset. What are some of the key aspects of the sound in each of these settings? How did you set up those different places in space and time to have their own unique flavors?

TK: With China in the 1960s, we had to do a ton of loop group to keep that feeling real, to make sure we had the proper language because we don’t have a ton of that stuff in our effects library. Also, we wanted all the sounds in China to feel bleak, to convey a sense of dread. That opening sequence, obviously, doesn’t need much help in feeling that way. What I loved – that they really pushed for – is when that sequence ends and it’s just her on stage in the aftermath, it’s just this light wind and it feels so lonely, which is what we’re trying to accomplish in many of those sequences. When she’s first going up to the top of the mountain, it’s windy. It’s lonely. You could see this desolate forest that has been destroyed by them down below. For China, that’s what we’re going for.

The game was interesting because we – the sound editorial and design side – went a little farther with very specific, detailed design, and the ambiences were heightened.

Present-day UK was a bit easier to do; we’re just keeping that alive. I’ve done enough shows like that. We have plenty of that type of material to provide that ambience.

The game was interesting because we – the sound editorial and design side – went a little farther with very specific, detailed design, and the ambiences were heightened. They had us pull it back a bit, and I love where it ended up. That was just a misunderstanding of where I thought they wanted to go with it, where the winds were pushed a little heavier and the ambiences were a little more in your face when we first started it. We were just trying to hit the viewer over the head, to show how real this experience feels. But they had us dial it back to a more realistic place. Then, when the big moments happen, when things go wrong and chaos ensues in the various parts of the game, that’s when things get very heightened sonically.
 

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Let’s talk about some of that chaos. In Ep. 3 “Destroyer of Worlds,” in the virtual environment, there’s a scenario in which the three suns align and the gravitational force of that pulls everyone off the surface of the planet. Can you talk about your approach to the sound of this sequence?

TK: That was a huge sequence. Leading up to it, we had the first guy’s suggestion of the human abacus of the millions of soldiers and the signs turning. That was a really tricky one because turning those signs wouldn’t make much of a sound, but as is the nature of Hollywood, you have to accentuate things.

Paula was designing that, trying to get the feel of this massive army making those signs move. There are lots of different cool elements to it.

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Sound designer Paula Fairfield

PF: The signs were interesting. Ultimately, it came down to lots and lots of layers. I recorded a variety of cards – playing cards, tarot cards, and 8×10 card stock – and did a bunch of flips and moves with them. I tried messing with larger pieces but these smaller cards worked the best for the precision of the moves needed to build this human-computer.

I recorded with a Sanken CUX-100k and a CS-M1 – the CUX because of its high-end for pitching and the CS-MI for its supercardiod tastiness.

Then I pitched down the samples and layered them up to create the illusion of these big cards the soldiers are flipping. When it begins, we are close to the soldiers so I established a lot of detail in the cards, and that helps to sell it as we pull out and see there are millions. In the wide shots, I added things like bicycle spokes and roulette wheels to help sell the mechanical nature of the “big machine.” It was a lot of work but thrilling when it all came together.

6 Sound Facts About 3 Body Problem:

 

Q: Who led the sound for 3 Body Problem?
A: Tim Kimmel was the supervising sound editor, and Paula Fairfield was the sound designer. Both have worked with showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss on Game of Thrones.

Q: Who composed the music for 3 Body Problem?
A: The music for 3 Body Problem was composed Ramin Djawadi, who also scored Game of Thrones.

Q: How was loop group integral to the show’s sound?
A: Loop group for 3 Body Problem was recorded in several languages. It was used to create an authentic atmosphere for the crowd in ’60s China, and to create an international vibe aboard the Judgement Day ship.

Q: How was the sound of the Sophon created?
A: Paula Fairfield created the sound of the Sophon – a proton that the San-Ti have turned into a sentient computer – by processing ominous low-end rumbles and delicate, intricate sounds (like glass tings and scratches for the etching) using Zynaptiq’s WORMHOLE to add an otherworldly feel to these earthly elements.

Q: What’s the most surprising story behind the Judgement Day ship being cut apart in 3 Body Problem?
A: Instead of editing in sounds of objects being sliced, Tim Kimmel focused on the specific sounds things would make as they came apart, which is different.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the sound on 3 Body Problem?
A: The story of 3 Body Problem unfolds across different times and in different places both real and unreal. The sound team needed to create a cohesive sound overall that tied time and space together.

TK: Before the gravitational force lifts everything off the surface, it went quiet at first, which I always love. I love the quiet before the storm; you feel that something is off because it got quiet. And then, they say, “What’s happening to my army?” and you see that everybody’s starting to float. You feel this low end of something going on and then just the chaos of men yelling and horses screaming, and you hear the wind as everything is starting to swirl around you. You feel that chaos build as everything starts to float away and the followers are screaming for help.

…when you see the horses floating we put in some panic horse vocals and bits of metal movement for the armor on the horses and the soldiers.

We had a lot of fun putting in specific sounds, like when you see the horses floating we put in some panic horse vocals and bits of metal movement for the armor on the horses and the soldiers. You feel the water movement as it floats by. That was a little bit of foley and a little bit of sound effects working together there. Visually, that came out really cool and it gave us some fun opportunities to play with sound.

PF: Yeah, I loved this scene because of the massive amount of movement and swirling. It was super fun to do and with the rest of the details Tim is talking about, it feels really wild and immersive.

 

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When the San-ti first make their presence known to everyone on the planet – all the screens says, “You are bugs” – this is a very music-driven sequence. Were you able to help it with other sounds?

TK: We went more with the crowds; it’s more of a murmur of what’s going on versus full chaos at that moment. And though we have the details of that, I think composer Ramin Djawadi did such a phenomenal job (as he always does) with the score. It was a moment to let the music drive. You feel the presence of the bubble that engulfs the earth as the eye in the sky. You have a little low-end design for that, but the score was so beautiful. It was just what it needed. The showrunners love Ramin’s score and aren’t afraid to tuck it back if needed but that was such a powerful moment for the music.

 

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The sound for the countdown clock that some scientists see was a music-driven element, at times. Was it enhanced by sound design as well?

TK: It is. They work very well together so it’s hard to tell which is which. We were a little heavier on the design at one point but the showrunners were very adamant that we never track the seconds ticking by. It’s so hard when you see a countdown to not sync up with the ticking of the seconds, even if it’s something subtle, but they were pretty adamant about not ever feeling the ticking of the clock. We want the tension of it, want to feel that she’s seeing something, but we don’t want anybody to think that she’s also having auditory hallucinations. It always had to stay a little vague as far as that goes. So the sound for it was the music and the design was more about the emotion of it than the actual sound of it, if that makes sense.

PF: This was one of those things that took a lot of trying because it’s both a hard concept to express and it’s very difficult to find its place sonically without attracting the wrong kind of attention. I like where it ended up – it serves the story well.

 

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When they’re sitting in the park, waiting for the universe to ‘blink,’ Auggie sees the clock running but there is no sound, nor music…

TK: They picked and chose when you heard it because it felt a little weird for it to come and go just when you saw it. When we did that, it definitely leaned towards her hearing something versus feeling it. We’re careful with it. The first time we introduced it in the karaoke bar, it’s super subtle – enough that, honestly, I barely hear it. But there’s a little bit of a high-pitched element that goes along with it. We chose our moments for design to help emotionally, and the score would help it at times, but there are other times when she saw it and we knew it was there and that’s all that was needed, sound-wise.

 


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That’s similar to your approach to the nanofiber slicing machine in Ep. 5 “Judgment Day.” You could have gone super huge with humming or vibrating sounds to convey energy flowing through the nanofibers. But you didn’t. One character even comments that it’s not working. Then you start to see the effects of the fibers slicing through the ship. Can you talk about the sound for that sequence of the fibers cutting through the ship and the devastation that causes?

TK: That was a big talk we had while spotting that episode. They said, “These are not like lasers. They don’t make a sound. The only sound we should hear is the effect of what they’re doing, not the sound of them.”

So they didn’t want them to buzz. They didn’t want the nanofibers to make any sound. It was a matter of designing what they came in contact with. These nanofibers are so fine, finer than human hair, so you don’t see them. The first thing we see that gets cut is the hose the guy is using, but we don’t hear it. The hose just splits all of a sudden. And then he gets cut into pieces. You don’t hear him getting sliced; you just hear the sound of his flesh separating from itself.

Similarly, when we go inside the ship, you hear the cut pieces of paper that start falling, but you don’t hear anything slicing through them.

It was a lot of fun to focus on the specific sound something would make as it comes apart versus it getting sliced, which is different.

That was a really cool idea they had with that. It was a lot of fun to focus on the specific sound something would make as it comes apart versus it getting sliced, which is different. It’s a lot easier to come up with the sound of slicing than to come up with the sound of it already being sliced by something you don’t hear.

So it was fun, but it had to get pretty noisy because they described it later as God’s fingernails on the chalkboard. So once the ship starts coming apart, then that’s when the sound had to get much bigger. There’s metal scraping against metal as the different layers that had been sliced start to slide on top of each other. They go from subtle to ear-splitting, higher-pitched metal as well as rumbles. You feel that ship just completely coming apart.

Foley helped with the smaller side of things, the details of the paper falling, the clocks getting sliced in half and their pieces falling apart, and their light fixtures falling. They did a great job with all those details.
When it came to the bigger elements, that was mostly sound effects from our massive library – going through and finding the right metal sounds and the right screeches and wronks to see what would play. The hard part was to keep detail to it because that could just turn into a wall of metallic noise.

I tried to connect the initial nanothread demo and the boat slicing with the immediate ‘impact’ of the threads, the immediate visceral slicing effect.

We were careful about getting the details, but giving room for specific things to stick out. Danielle Dupre, the sound effects re-recording mixer, did a great job of weaving that stuff so it worked. It played with music and came out for a little bit, so we could have all the space to use all our frequencies that we needed to get that stuff to play.

PF: This was another interesting challenge sonically. I tried to connect the initial nanothread demo and the boat slicing with the immediate “impact” of the threads, the immediate visceral slicing effect. I ended up using a pane of glass and a crystal quartz bowl, dragged airplane wire, guitar strings, fishing wire, etc. to create a variety of long cutting sounds, pitching and stretching throughout the boat scene to express the variety of weights, volume, and materials the nanothreads encountered along their path of destruction. The overall effect, with all the details of the effects of the slicing Tim described, worked really well.

 

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When the ship slides apart and all those layers slide out onto the shore, it’s such a long sequence to have huge metal wronking and grinding sounds…

TK: Picture-editorially, I was glad they do a lot of back and forth between the chaos of the ship and their little hideout tent where they’re monitoring everything. They can’t hear it because they’re far enough away. It helps to have that silence in between. It’s loud metal wronking that’s in your face and then we cut back to the quiet tension of them watching, somewhat in shock at what’s happening. It also gives your ears a break, which is nice because when you go back, it makes that impact even bigger.

 

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What was your biggest challenge sound-wise on 3 Body Problem?

TK: In Ep. 5, there’s an explanation of the Sophon – a proton that the San-Ti have turned into a sentient computer. It’s how they’re monitoring Earth and how they’re able to engulf it and control what everybody’s seeing. That was an interesting one because the showrunners were very particular about what they were looking for. They wanted very unique sounds, not from Earth type of sounds. Paula came up with phenomenally cool sounds that I really loved. It was finding that right blend of technology that doesn’t exist here in any way and matching what we see. These little machines are sliding over and etching, and we’re hearing the detailed sounds of it etching.

PF: The Sophon sequence tells a lot about the San-Ti and their technology. Based on the story and what we are seeing, I felt like it somehow had to be a very elegant technology, intricate, precise, intentional, powerful yet understated, like we are only able to understand the tip of the iceberg – if that.

Lots of hits, whooshes, and cracks, etc, were mixed with organic elements and then processed with compression, distortion, and plugins like Zynaptiq’s WORMHOLE, to glue it all together.

It couldn’t sound like anything we know and it had to tell the story under a relatively soft voice-over. So for me, it was a process of finding sounds with good edges and carving and sculpting them to the picture in a very detailed and dynamic way, taking out any random sonic debris, choosing frequencies that wouldn’t interfere with the voice-over, and then processing them together to give a unified high-tech sheen.

Lots of hits, whooshes, and cracks, etc, were mixed with organic elements and then processed with compression, distortion, and plugins like Zynaptiq’s WORMHOLE, to glue it all together. I used low-end rumbles with lots of ominous movement, and tiny delicate intricate sounds (little glass tings and scratches for the etching, for instance), looking for moments where different layers and levels of the San-Ti technology are revealed, and trying to remain unpredictable at times, expressing its vast multi-dimentional nature.

TK: The voiceover made that scene more of a challenge. I love her voice but it’s very soft spoken. So we had to be very careful what we do around it sound-wise. Plus, you have score going around it. Trying to find the right sounds that captured what the showrunners were looking for – that captured the weight of it all – without stepping on the voiceover and without interfering with music was challenging. Music gave us the space we needed. Ramin is very good about that stuff. It all worked together well. That was a really fun sequence to put together.

 

3BodyProblem_sound-12

What episode are you most proud of in terms of the sound? Why?

TK: Ep. 5 because it has the Judgement Day ship and the Sophon sequence we talked about. That’s such a fun episode in so many ways sound-wise.

I’m very happy with where that ended up. I think everybody on the crew was very proud of how that all came together. That was a big deal, a big team effort across the board from sound design, sound effects, and the dialogue side with tons of loop group to cover on the Judgment Day ship, because there were a bunch of different languages. Also, we needed the feeling on that ship to go from a happy place with all these different communities that are together to complete chaos and destruction.

PF: I agree, Ep. 5 is massive and jammed pack with wild ideas and sound moments. That was really fun and it all came together in a very satisfying way.

 

A big thanks to Tim Kimmel and Paula Fairfield for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of 3 Body Problem and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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