And this exclusive A Sound Effect interview gets you the inside-story behind the sound for the much-awaited movie, as told by Oscar-nominated supervising sound editor/sound designer Oliver Tarney and sound designer Michael Fentum.
Here, they discuss their approach to sound design on Alien: Covenant, from building on original Alien sound concepts to creating new sounds for the Neomorph, the Covenant ship, the radio transmissions from the Prometheus, and more.
Interview by Jennifer Walden
The Alien film franchise is easily the scariest sci-fi film franchise ever. It’s certainly responsible for my lack of interest in space exploration. Even if they are fictitious, just the possibility of encountering a facehugger makes me say ‘no thanks.’ But the Xenomorph, in all its stages, makes for compelling cinema.
Director Ridley Scott, who directed the original Alien space thriller and the Prometheus prequel, helms the latest Alien offering, Alien: Covenant. The story follows the crew of the colony ship Covenant, who land on an uninhabited planet ideal for supporting human life. The paradise planet soon becomes a living nightmare as the crew discovers the remains of the Prometheus expedition, and the deadly alien life-forms that brought about their ultimate demise.
Oscar-nominated supervising sound editor/sound designer Oliver Tarney and sound designer Michael Fentum discuss their approach to sound design on Alien: Covenant, from building on original Alien sound concepts to creating new sounds for the Neomorph, the Covenant ship, the radio transmissions from the Prometheus, and more.
Oliver Tarney (left) and Michael Fentum
How did you get involved with Alien: Covenant?
Oliver Tarney (OT): I’d been the supervising sound editor/designer on the three Ridley Scott films prior to Alien: Covenant, and was thrilled to be invited back to work with Ridley on this one. I think the project was first discussed whilst we were finishing The Martian.
The Alien film franchise began in 1979, and was directed by Ridley Scott, who also directed Prometheus — the Alien film prior to Covenant. Are they any sounds that carried forward from the previous film to this one? How about from the first film of the franchise?
OT: Mark Stoeckinger and his team had done a fantastic sound job on Prometheus, but there was only really one event that translated to this film — their design of the orb that activates the Orrery.
I love the sounds in the original film, and we wanted to use something from it. The sound of the egg opening is used as an element in this film, along with the original facehugger scream. We didn’t use those great gun sounds from Aliens, but I did design our weapons to sound like an earlier evolution of those pulse rifles.
What was Ridley Scott’s direction for sound? Were there specific effects, or scenes, that he wanted to focus on first?
OT: Before filming started there had been a request for a range of materials to be played on-set. There were various klaxons and turbulence sounds that I had given to location sound mixer Ben Osmo to give the actors some context on-set. There’s always a concern that these temp FX will obscure the production dialogue, but in the end Ben did a great job getting the balance of feeding this material into the location without obscuring the dialogue.
The appearance and movement of the Xenomorph and Neomorph evolved significantly over the course of post production, as did our creature sound design
As the editorial department started putting scenes together during the shoot, we got more requests for creature effects. Most were replaced as we started to get visual references, but the sound of the spores is more or less the same as my original offering.
Sometimes it is liberating to work to a description rather than to picture, and it worked well for the spores, but the appearance and movement of the Xenomorph and Neomorph evolved significantly over the course of post production, as did our creature sound design.
The film is set on a foreign planet. Can you tell me about the design of the environment?
OT: ‘No birds, no animals, nothing’ — as Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston) says in the film. That was the brief for the sound of the planet. We had to leave the ambience empty enough that the audience would initially register that there were no life forms other than the crew. We then added just enough icy winds, eerie tree creaks, and patter of rain on leaves to offer the plausibility that there could still be something tracking them as they venture further away from the Lander.
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For the Xenomorph sounds, were the design rules/parameters based on the original Alien sounds? Can you share some examples of Xenomorph sounds you created for this film? What went into creating those sounds?
Michael Fentum (MF): When it came to the actual Xenomorph vocals we had a challenge as in the first film they had that very effective hiss, but were otherwise fairly stealthy — maybe just a squeal or scream in surprise or attack. We had notes such as ‘power and presence’ but the tough thing was the increase in screen time the creature had compared to the other films and making it still feel like a Xenomorph.
One characteristic we particularly liked from the original was this kind of hiss of seething rage before it attacked. We went about emulating that by using lots of liquid recordings that were heavily processed with the Eventide H8000 and then blended together to taste.
One characteristic we particularly liked from the original was this kind of hiss of seething rage before it attacked
The other element that (film editor) Pietro Scalia was very keen on getting across was a low-end presence, a sort of malevolent aura that was just there with the creature. We then had to set out trying to get this low-end into something that didn’t feel too synthetic. We made low frequency tones from all different natural sources, then set about finding ways to modulate them through the Kyma (by Symbolic Sound). This seemed to glue natural movement onto a previously static sound.
OT: Sounds such as the hiss of komodo dragons and the hoarse screech of vultures were a great starting point for the seething characteristic, but blending them with dry ice, deep metal stresses, and sword scrapes in the Kyma gave it a little more individual identity and lent the sound that slight metallic element that seems to work for the physicality of the Xeno.
Some of the sounds used in the original film to great effect for the monster were shrill creature squeals, and our Director isn’t averse to the asking for them. We made sure we had a good palette of Xeno sounds based on this type of squeal, and they do cut through incredibly well when there’s a lot going on in a busy action sequence.
There are also some new versions of the aliens. What went into creating those sounds?
MF: For the Neomorph we began work before we had seen any picture of the creature. There was a video we were given by the picture department of a mantis shrimp that made a loud clicking sound with the note of ‘we like this’. So the idea was to somehow incorporate a click or clicking element into the Neo. We sent back some sounds and then waited to see how the creature looked and behaved.
On seeing the creature there was no real space for a click in its movement as it was so fast, and it was also gelatinous in its texture, so we tried the idea (as it had no eyes) of using clicks as an echolocation tool. We started then trying dolphins and beluga whales which worked for the first temp, but didn’t quite cut through enough.
OT: We started experimenting with blending various elements in the Kyma to see if we could move away from the more familiar dolphin sound, and add a little more agitation and aggression to the sound. One of the sounds that helped when added was a wood fracturing sound that provided a nice resonance. This element really came to life once Mark Taylor started moving it around the room in the FX premix, with delays pinging off the surrounds. It really helped sell the idea of the creature scanning its environment.
He bought several frozen racks of ribs which our Foley Artist, Andrea King, manipulated with a deft touch and a strong stomach
There’s a scene when David (played by Michael Fassbender) meets the adult Neomorph that gave us an opportunity to develop a little more character. We had the echolocation element, but really wanted to describe its physicality. In contrast to the incredibly resilient Xeno, the Neo has an almost sickly quality. We spoke to our Foley Supervisor, Hugo Adams, about coming up with an element to describe its torso. He bought several frozen racks of ribs which our Foley Artist, Andrea King, manipulated with a deft touch and a strong stomach. As the racks thawed it got pretty messy, and in the end it was the early takes with the frozen quality that worked the best. Its breaths were created in the Kyma by crossing a bear breathing heavily with a recording of air bubbling through mud, as though it had fluid in its respiratory tract. It helped sell the idea of the Neo being the sickly relative to the Xeno.
MF: For the main attack vocal we were given the note that they wanted it to sound like a ‘crazed baboon.’ We then set about making a large set of agitated creature sounds that we could then manipulate to create the personality Ridley had requested. We used a combination of various creature recordings in the end, including a great recording of an agitated fox I had made, baboons and baby elephants.
Can you share some details about the new ship sounds you created? What did you need to create a sound for? What went into creating that sound?
OT: When we were working on The Martian we had wanted to evoke a little of the Nostromo, and had given the hardware some of that raw buzzing, clicking, whirring mechanical quality. We took that further for this film, and created a huge library of EM recordings.
One of the main elements used for the sound of the Covenant itself was made from a recording of a railway maintenance machine that woke me up one summer night as it was working outside my house
The Covenant is not as slick as the craft in Prometheus, but the aim was to be not quite as utilitarian as the Nostromo. That early sequence on the Nostromo as it wakes up in the original film was a great reference for the type of character we wanted to build for this ship.
MF: One of the main elements used for the sound of the Covenant itself was made from a recording of a railway maintenance machine that woke me up one summer night as it was working outside my house (I live by a railway line). It was very loud, with an especially eerie tone that once processed, had a fascinating texture. We used this to precede the rockets as the Covenant passes by.
There’s a lot of creative work with radio transmission sounds in the film. How were these done?
OT: The most important radio treatment we created was for Shaw’s distress signal that the Covenant picks up. We had originally treated this to be short shards of audio, to be read as fragments of data packets being decoded by Mother.
MF: We started with the sync track of Noomi [Rapace — actress who plays Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus] singing and set about mangling it up as much as we could in various ways whilst still being able to get from there to the clearer version that Mother decodes.
The result sounded edgy, and I liked it aesthetically, but we felt it was better for the narrative to hear a tuning sound as if Mother was honing in on the message
We played with various outboard FX like Mutable Instruments Clouds, the Intelijel Rainmaker and the Thermionic Rooster, recording take after take through these and others so we had a large palette that we could cut together, starting fully mangled and gradually becoming clearer.
OT: The result sounded edgy, and I liked it aesthetically, but we felt it was better for the narrative to hear a tuning sound as if Mother was honing in on the message. I played multiple takes through a small valve AM transmitter and recorded the results over the radio. It had great natural breakup and long, sweeping tuning whistles. I worked through the various takes to get a blend that would slowly reveal the content, so the viewer isn’t too far ahead or behind Tennessee(played by Danny McBride) as he works out what he’s listening too. We used the same real radio setup for the final transmission in the film, with that natural breakup as the voice disappears into the distance.
Favorite scene or single sound to design? Why? How did you design it?
OT: The sound design in the original Alien film is just perfect, and has been a reference for this type of sci-fi film ever since. Being such fans of the original film, it was as big a thrill for Michael and I to reference those uneasy, atmospheric chain clinking, water dripping environments in our work as it was to be involved in the creature design. Of the elements that are new to the series, we liked how the Neomorph character develops through the film up to the meeting David scene.
A big thanks to Oliver Tarney and Michael Fentum for the story behind the sound for Alien: Covenant + to Jennifer Walden for conducting the interview, and to Peter Albrechtsen for some additional questions!
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