A Murder At The End Of The World Sound Design Asbjoern Andersen


FX Network's hit streaming series A Murder at the End of the World – now streaming on Hulu – follows amateur sleuth Darby Hart who untangles a murder mystery during a tech retreat at a remote, upscale hotel in Iceland. Here, supervising sound editors Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Chris Scarabosio – at Skywalker Sound – talk about creating the sound of the show's next-gen/high-end tech, evolving the sound of the environment to fit the story, how they tackled challenging episodes with a small team and short schedule, and more!
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of FX Networks; Chris Scarabosio
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The true crime genre is so popular that it’s popping up in fictional stories, like FX Network’s binge-able series A Murder at the End of the World – now streaming on Hulu. The show follows Darby Hart, a tenacious web sleuth who gets invited to a retreat in Iceland that’s hosted by tech billionaire Andy Ronson. Set in Ronson’s remote luxury hotel in Iceland, the location goes from feeling exclusive yet cozy to feeling like a death trap as retreat attendees begin dying and personal motives for murder start stacking up.

Here, supervising sound editors Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Chris Scarabosio (also sound designer) – at Skywalker Sound – talk about changing the sound of the environment to fit the story, designing the sound of high-end ‘Ronson’ tech, cleaning up dialogue for the outdoor scenes shot on location, crafting the underwater scene in Ep. 5 and Ep. 6, and more!



A Murder at the End of the World | Official Trailer | FX


A Murder at the End of the World | Official Trailer | FX

How does the sound of this location support the feeling the showrunners wanted to elicit? The feeling of the location changes over the course of the show, so how were you able to support that with sound?

Supervising Sound Editor Chris Scarabosio

Supervising Sound Editor Chris Scarabosio

Chris Scarabosio (CS): The idea was the feel of the hotel changes with the story; as more of the story comes to light, the feeling of the hotel gets more and more hostile.

When we start out in Iceland, it’s meant to be somewhat isolating and yet comforting. Eventually, a storm begins and that is indicative of how things are starting to change – how it’s not so comfortable or inviting anymore – and it actually might be somewhat contentious in this hotel.

We worked hard trying to give the hotel a vibe. The harsh but beautiful elements of Iceland are part of that, but inside the hotel, technology is at odds with nature.

Supervising Sound Editor Gwendolyn Yates Whittle

Supervising Sound Editor Gwendolyn Yates Whittle

Gwendolyn Yates Whittle (GYW): Brit Marling (writer/director) said it nicely at one point when she was giving notes. She said, “The hotel should feel warm, welcoming, super wabi-sabi luxury. And then the feel of it turns to a cold, hostile prison.” That’s the arc of the hotel, which is in some ways like a character in the whole thing.

The quality of the wind and how raging the storm is made a big difference in how the hotel feels.

You start feeling and hearing the cracks – the hotel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

CS: When I was creating some of the ambient room tones, I started with the idea of what quiet is and what can make you feel like you’re relaxing or in a meditative state. Then as we get into the hostile prison part of it, the storm begins to grow. This hotel is super high-end. It’s almost hermetically sealed; you are protected from the outside. But as the story goes on, we realize maybe it isn’t hermetically sealed. The harsh reality is how powerful Mother Earth can be and these elements are bigger than some nuts, bolts, caulk, and insulation. You start feeling and hearing the cracks – the hotel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I was working in New York last winter and staying in an apartment building that had a public use 51st floor with a large outdoor patio. The view was spectacular so I’d go up there regularly. One day the wind was really blowing and there was a corner that was creating some excellent howling, whistling wind. I always travel with a portable recording rig (in this case the Sony PCM-50). I did extensive recording which sounded great and worked well for the cold Icelandic landscapes.

 

AMurderEndWorld_sound-02

Scarabosio’s recorder capturing winds in NYC

Can you talk about your approach to the high-tech sounds in the show (e.g., the room key ring and its box opening in Ep. 1, the sounds associated with the AI assistant Ray, the Ronson Vision glasses, the ‘Swarm Robotics’ machines, the climate suit helmets detaching, and so on)? What tech sounds are you most proud of, and how did you create them?

CS: The idea is Andy Ronson is probably one of the most brilliant and wealthy people in the world, and this is a hotel he built to host some of the most spectacular minds, and he would demand that all sounds used in the hotel had to be unique and bespoke.

The concept is that the machinery and software are super high-tech but need to be based in ancient, organic ideals.

…I did a deep dive on the topic and started finding various ancient Japanese instruments.

At one point, Zal Batmanglij (one of the showrunners) mentioned wabi-sabi, so I did a deep dive on the topic and started finding various ancient Japanese instruments. The task became how to use these instruments in a way that I could turn them into different sounds for this super high-end hotel that feels in line with the Ronson aesthetic. I made a ton of stuff that felt like sentient responses – super intelligent but also welcoming. Some of it is based on the “wabi-sabi, ancient way of life” idea. Then I picked the sounds that best represented the concept and put them in front of the showrunners, and then we found the right sounds for each aspect of the hotel.

For the “Swarm Robotics” machines, those graphics weren’t developed when we first started. There was some talk that we would probably play it silent. But then I thought, this is a big moment in the arc of the story, and I should probably prepare something. For their direction (high-end robotics), I think the idea is more tissue and less gear. Even though these machines are not organic mass, the development of these types of robotics tends to go towards fibrous and tissue rather than hard metal gears. The metallic sounds were generated to sound like a rare earth material.

AMurderEndWorld_sound-03

We tried to sell the idea that no matter where you were, Ray could find you in the space.

GYW: For the sounds of Ray, when we first meet him in Ep. 1, he needed to sound like he’s coming from everywhere – from all the speakers in Darby’s apartment. So we had him go through tiny speakers, laptop speakers, and the Bluetooth speakers around her room. We had Ray sound like he was speaking from outside the window when Darby looked down into the parking lot. You couldn’t quite figure out where he was or what he was. He seemed omnipresent. We tried to sell the idea that no matter where you were, Ray could find you in the space. He could meet you in your space. So, there was processing on him depending on where his voice was living.

Chris can talk about that lovely little “Ray Chime.”

CS: The “Ray Chime” goes back to building out a library for the high-tech/Ronson-tech ideal. You start working and finding tidbits. The sounds needed to be somewhat simplistic. It doesn’t seem like overly complex sounds are what people respond to. So we were trying to find the right combination of a one-note or two-note chime. In this case, it’s a two-note combination of a Japanese flute and a synthesizer. I thought a lot about artificial intelligence during the process and how that might be represented by sound. Again, just building out a library and finding what I thought was the best of the bunch, and then collaborating with the showrunners.

 

AMurderEndWorld_sound-04

Any tips on creating a library of simplistic sounds that all feel like they belong to the same suite of technologies (in this case, Ronson-tech)? How do you make them all feel like they belong together, yet all sound different? What are some tips on navigating that?

CS: It’s an aesthetic choice. I started in the high tech somewhat synthetic realm, trying to find synthetic sounds that still had a naturalistic, organic quality. After discussing with the showrunners, I started bringing in the wabi-sabi aspect. It has to be simple and yet still feel like there’s some complexity to it. That was the real challenge. And I made many sounds that were more complex as well.

…you know if one is no good, or if it feels right – it’s a feeling or response to a sound.

As far as tips, as you’re making sounds, you’re just riffing on ideas. Then you listen back and you know if one is no good, or if it feels right – it’s a feeling or response to a sound. You fill your mind full of ideas and then narrow them down based on the conversation with the showrunners. In this case, often I was listening for sounds that felt simple yet complex. I don’t know if that’s a tip; I don’t really have a simple answer for that.


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To find the proper source sounds, I listened to many samples and recordings of older-sounding Japanese instruments. Some of them just sound old by their nature. A lot are wind instruments or stringed instruments that aren’t symphonically large. Also, I gravitated toward smaller organic synth patches. It was mostly about choice though, finding sounds that felt naturalistic to the space. And that space – being super high-end tech – would be able to handle clarity and full-frequency sounds rather than it sounding like they’re coming from crappy little speakers.

 

AMurderEndWorld_sound-05

What about the survival suit helmets? When they take the suit helmet off, there are great little mechanical detaching sounds and a little whoosh of air – as though the suits are also hermetically sealed…

CS: It’s the same idea of next-gen tech, with high-end pneumatics and servos, so I looked for sounds that fit that “Ronson tech” aesthetic. This is gear and machinery designed and built specifically for Ronson. Then those sounds were processed in a way that felt almost like life support tech.

For processing, I still use GRM Tools. Even though they’ve been around for a while, you can still get some amazing results. I’m a big fan of Warp, and Freeze. They can make things sound either slightly more techie to fully whacked-out sci-fi to almost bizarro. I love that plugin and still use it a ton.

 

AMurderEndWorld_sound-06

Can you talk about your approach to the underwater scene that ends Ep. 5 and starts Ep. 6? Let’s start with Darby’s vocals. Was that production? Did you stick actress Emma Corrin in a water tank for her ADR?

GYW: We didn’t put her in a tank for ADR but she was clearly in a tank for production. We used that production sound as a base for what she needed to do for ADR. She heard that track and then just performed it like she was drowning. We were very careful to save the more panicky vocal bits for the end, so there’s a place to build to, and at a certain point, she goes a little bit dreamy.

So, no tank for ADR. She just did it. She’s so talented. She did it in two takes.

 

AMurderEndWorld_sound-07

On the effects side, there’s a moment when the glass cover gets smashed and shards float down past Darby in the water. Such a cool little sound! What went into that?

CS: This needed to be a terrifying moment; drowning seems like one of the worst ways to go. At this point, the hotel is getting more and more hostile. The shards were something that the showrunners were very specific about. That had to be a real and terrifying moment.

We had great sound effects editors on the show: Justin Doyle and Samson Neslund. Justin had Ep. 5 and Samson had Ep. 6, and that moment was a combination of their work so there had to be some cohesion. When I listened back to what they’d both done, I didn’t end up doing a whole lot because they did such a phenomenal job of creating the terror, the action, the heart-pounding thriller aspect of it all. We had such a phenomenal crew and that’s one reason why this whole show sounds as great as it does.

 

AMurderEndWorld_sound-08

What episode was the most challenging for sound editorial? Can you talk about your challenges and how you handled them?

CS: There’s close to seven hours of content and that was challenging given the schedule. I think Ep. 4 was the most challenging because that’s when the snowstorm starts up. The snowstorm had to feel indicative of what was to come and give the idea of nature’s power. Then there are snowmobiles, the car is driving then crashes in the snow/ice, and we had to give a real vibe to the desolate rock formations where people are searching and being hunted. There was a lot of challenging material in that episode.

GYW: Also, all the helmet dialogue is in that episode. And the production sound has a lot of wind on it since they’re outside. So, it was a challenge for dialogue, a challenge for effects, and a challenge for foley. Every episode had its particular issues, but that one was wall-to-wall an uphill climb.

We were able to keep about 80% of production thanks to the beautiful use of plugins and noise reduction tools.

For the outdoor scenes, a lot of it was shot in the natural environment and not on a set. We were able to keep about 80% of production thanks to the beautiful use of plugins and noise reduction tools.

One of the biggest problems we had was snow footsteps. They tend to be very loud and crunchy and overpower the dialogue. Also, they were wearing their down coats, which were really slippery and that was very difficult to remove from the dialogue.

We used GOYO, iZotope RX, and searched for alt readings from the production takes.

Most of the ADR was done for breathing; it was keeping Darby, in particular, alive through all those quiet moments where she was thinking. You can tell a lot about a person’s mood and state of mind by how they’re breathing. So she did a lot of that in ADR.

AMurderEndWorld_sound-10

CS: Every episode had its own set of challenges, but Ep. 4 was a beast – just a lot to get through. To the showrunners’ credit, their aesthetic is super sharp. The picture editor, Dylan Tichenor (who I’ve known and worked with over the years), has an excellent ear and is super tuned in to sound. Both Brit and Zal wanted the show to be as cinematic as possible. Ep. 4 was certainly a test to get it done in the amount of time we had.

…they used a lot of transitions from the hotel to Darby’s flashbacks and those are based on her sound memories – a sound that takes her back to a memory.

GYW: The soundtrack deserved to have the full gorgeousness that you’re seeing on screen with the visuals. We all wish we could have done a Fincher-style mix and editorial where we had the time and budget to weave the ambiences in and out. But considering that we didn’t, I think we pulled off an incredibly amazing job to match the visuals and story that they provided for us.

One cool thing was they used a lot of transitions from the hotel to Darby’s flashbacks and those are based on her sound memories – a sound that takes her back to a memory. Those transition moments are all very specifically choreographed by Brit and Zal. It was great working with them. They fully appreciated the power of sound to support what they were trying to tell. That was a true delight.

 

AMurderEndWorld_sound-09

What are you most proud of in terms of your sound work on A Murder at the End of the World?

CS: It’s probably twofold. First is the sheer bulk of sound and the results. I’m proud of the fact that, given the amount of content, we were able to give it such a unique sonic aesthetic that everybody was really happy with.

Second, it was a fun challenge to come up with the sounds for the hotel and the Ronson high-tech bespoke sounds – sounds for a “master of the universe” type – and integrate those and make it feel part of the hotel or the specific tech. I’m very proud of both those things.

GYW: Exactly what Chris said. Making Brit and Zal happy was the best thing. And I’m proud of the work done by our tiny team: our dialogue team of Matt Hartman and Brad Semenoff, effects team of Justin Doyle and Samson Neslund, and our two assistants, Marco Alicea and Ian Chase. We had an incredibly difficult schedule to maintain and to carry off. They changed composers midstream, which was a challenge too. Jason Ryterband, the music editor, was also a key member of our team. We were a very tight, cohesive crew, and we couldn’t have pulled it off any other way. It helped that Zal and Brit really appreciated everything we did too.

 

A big thanks to Chris Scarabosio and Gwendolyn Yates Whittle for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of A Murder at the End of the World and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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