In this exclusive A Sound Effect interview, sound designer David Farmer and supervising sound editors Addison Teague and Katy Wood from Skywalker Sound share how they created signature sounds that don’t bug the audience.
They cover everything from the specific tools they used to create Ghost’s wispy phase effect, how they created Wasp’s blasters, to how they used the camera’s POV to have fun with sound, what T. Rex-sized pigeons sound like + much more:
Written by Jennifer Walden. Images courtesy of Disney and Marvel. May contain spoilers.
Marvel characters have taken over the theaters this summer, and they’re totally crushing it. Both Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 have had remarkable box-office success. And now Ant-Man and the Wasp is up to bat. This duo offers something different from the gravitas of Avengers and the not-safe-for-kids content of Deadpool. “We were told that this is a superhero movie but first and foremost it’s a comedy,” says sound designer David Farmer. “The funnier we could make this film for ourselves, the closer we knew we were to hitting the mark.” And since it’s a PG-13 film, the whole family can be in on the jokes.
Here, sound designer Farmer and supervising sound editors Addison Teague and Katy Wood — of Skywalker Sound take us behind the sound Ant-Man and the Wasp. They talk about playing with perspective, creating signature sounds for superheroes Scott/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Hope/Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and the villain Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), and how the film’s sound evolved from editorial through the final mix.
Ant-man and the Wasp can get super small, and grow really big. They can make other objects do the same! How much fun was that for sound?? How were you able to play with that perspective, sound-wise?
Addison Teague (AT): We’re taking our cues from the footage that they give us. It’s all about perspective and scale. When the camera is with the point of view of Ant-Man or the Wasp, then everything that is normal-sized would sound overly large, and the reverse when the camera point of view is human-size, making Ant-Man and the Wasp tiny.
Can you share some details of your work on those scenes? For example, Luis (Michael Peña) and Wasp are driving in an SUV and bricks are raining down on them…
It becomes much more fulfilling when you both see and hear the perspective shift.
AT: What’s fun with that moment, and other moments like this, is when they take the same action and show it from two different perspectives. You can do a large and small version of the same sound. This, with the shifting visuals, helps ground the audience as to who they are with in that moment. It becomes much more fulfilling when you both see and hear the perspective shift. The bricks falling on the ground sound like bricks from the human-size POV, but then they sound like massive boulders to Luis and Wasp because they’re so small.
David Farmer (DF): There’s the pigeon scene in the beginning. Scott (Ant-Man) wakes up and he thinks he is in a full-size car talking with Hope (Wasp). He tries to get out of the car and the next thing he knows there is this T. rex-sized pigeon eye looking in through the window of the car. We are able to play the pigeons huge while he’s in the car and then the camera cuts to outside the car and they look like regular pigeons just trying to peck the car and you hear these tiny little tinks. The director really wanted to play up those moments. We could juxtapose the giant pigeon sounds to the regular size, which plays into the comedic style of the film.
AT: It’s more fun when the audience is not aware. They think Ant-Man and Wasp are in a real-sized car so prior to that moment we had to walk the line of making it sound like a regular car. Everything outside the window is blurry and you don’t know that they’re tiny yet. The audience realizes at the same time as the character.
Also, there’s a car chase through the streets of San Francisco, which we’ve all seen before. But when the vehicles can shrink and expand (which was not the case in the first film) it’s more fun. You get the opportunity to give a twist to a typical car chase.
Once you set it in there, it makes people smile. It’s the right sound for that moment.
The first approach was to make a miniature-sized version of the vehicles they’re driving around in — a Mercedes Sprinter and different SUVs. What makes it really work is that it sounds like a toy car. And there was some question about that. Should you go that far with it or not? By the time we got to the end, even on one of the last fix days, I was replacing some car sounds. Instead of starting with the original engine and making a miniature version of that, I just went for go-carts and then pitched up from there. So we were already starting from a pretty high-pitched place. But once you set it in there, it makes people smile. It’s the right sound for that moment. You know if it’s right when you put it in.
What do T. rex-sized pigeons sound like? How did you come up with that sound?
We recorded real pigeons … and slowed those recordings way down. They actually (surprisingly enough) sound like lions
DF: We recorded real pigeons with a Sanken CO-100K microphone and slowed those recordings way down. They actually (surprisingly enough) sound like lions when you slow them down far enough. So we also augmented the sound with actual lions to give them real ferocity when they’re giant. We tried to walk that line between dinosaur and pigeon as much as we could without overdoing it.
Early on, we were told that this is a superhero movie but first and foremost it’s a comedy. The funnier we could make this film for ourselves, the closer we knew we were to hitting the mark.
For the cars, Addison [Teague] did a great job of making them sound tiny. When we play it back, if we don’t laugh then we know we might need to go a little bit further. When we play it as hyped up as we can to make ourselves laugh we know we’ve crossed that threshold of where it needs to be.
Like Addison said before, we’re taking our cues from what we see. At times we’ll have a tiny car and a big car in the same shot, and we’ll play them as we see them. Just that contrast alone, it sort of sells itself.
How did you handle Ant-Man’s sounds in this film?
DF: We were instructed not to make Pym-Tech too high-tech. It’s not so futuristic but a little bit retro in a lot of ways.
Take Ant-Man’s suit, its mostly standard latches and pneumatic air releases. Most of the elements came from a scuba diver buoyancy compensator and there are lots of valves and dials that have funky little air releases. So, for the first Ant-Man I did a bunch of recordings with that and played with them using iZotope’s Stutter Edit. That generated the sound that’s used for the shrinking effect. That combo gave us a modern glitchy feel, but with just the right amount of retro.
Ant-Man is not a super noisy character. He pretty much only makes noise when he shrinks and expands. That’s it. We don’t play a lot of sounds for his normal activities.
Katy, what went into the processing on Ant-Man’s voice?
Katy Wood (KW): We didn’t do too much to his voice but we put a metallic futz on him when he has his helmet on. If you go too far with those treatments then you’re compromising intelligibility and given that it’s a comedy, you want to hear all the words.
In the Atmos mix, we have him panned into the overhead speakers too. So if you get to watch it in Atmos, the sound really does match the scale of the shot.
When he becomes giant Ant-Man we use a larger treatment on him, adding in some bass elements. And in the Atmos mix, we have him panned into the overhead speakers too. So if you get to watch it in Atmos, the sound really does match the scale of the shot. How far we go is based on what is happening in each shot. It wasn’t anything too extreme though.
We used Audio Ease’s Speakerphone plug-in on occasion, but mostly the processing came from filters on the Euphonix System 5 console.
What about the sounds for Wasp?
DF: We started this film thinking that we should differentiate the shrinking/expanding sounds of Ant-Man and Wasp. So I made a whole bunch of new sounds for Wasp. They felt cooler and they were a little bit bigger than the original Ant-Man sounds. When we played it back for director Peyton Reed, he liked the original shrinking for both. So we ended up using the same sounds for both of them, from the original Ant-Man movie.
Those new sounds that I made for Wasp we beefed up a little bit more and used them for the vehicles and the lab shrinking and expanding. So the objects got all the new shrinking/expanding sounds.
AT: The major new addition for Wasp’s character is her wings. Ant-Man rides around on a carpenter ant and they had already established wing sounds from the first film. We knew that Wasp was going to be flying around at the same time as Ant-Man, and we needed to differentiate her wings. Carpenter ants are real insects, but Wasp is flying around with man-made technology. We asked questions of the filmmakers such as, do these wings sound mechanically driven? They were not sure and like us, decided all paths should be explored.
We played around with drone recordings and even a remote control bird. The electric whines just seemed to get in the way though, so the solution was to just go with a very precise and perfect wing flap. While the carpenter ant’s wings have a lower thump and are a little messy, her wings were quick and very consistent in speed. There is no ramp up with Wasp. If her wings are out and flapping, she is full throttle. Zero to 60 in 1 second!
Once we established the sound of wings … then we added back these signature zip sounds that David had made. This helped to give Wasp momentum
David [Farmer] had done an initial workup on the wings, which had a really cool signature sound. The reaction was positive, but also that it sounded too metallic. I think what they were missing was the practical ‘wings flapping’ sound which hadn’t been created at that point. Once we established the sound of wings — whether it is hovering, or tracking it in flight, or flying by, then we added back these signature zip sounds that David had made. This helped to give Wasp momentum because she is very quick, and it also gave her a signature sound. The combination of those two elements worked out well.
Another sound we needed was for Wasp’s blasters. This is when it’s great to have someone like David on the film. I’ll get a call that says, “We need Wasp blasters,” and a few hours later David has come up with some sounds and they’ll go in the film and never change. It never became a thing.
I use Reaper’s session playrate automation to generate laser-type sounds from the various sources
DF: They were made from a lot of sparks and laser elements generated from synths. I use Reaper’s session playrate automation to generate laser-type sounds from the various sources, as well as many of the other power up and power downs. This allows me to slow down multiple sounds at once non-destructively.
The blasters did evolve a little bit later in the process. We added a little start sweetener to them during the mix. I took some of the original elements that I had and reversed them, so that it had a little short lead-in. So the sound doesn’t start with a peak, like a typical blaster. It has a little build-up and then the shot.
AT: That’s a really good example of how these sounds can evolve in the mix even when the filmmakers are happy with a sound right out of the gate. Once we put it into the full mix with everything going, the sound didn’t stand out enough from some of the other hits. In this case, it was a fight effect and Wasp is shooting while people are punching. So that’s how it evolved, adding that little sweetener to give it more presence in the mix. When you put all the pieces together then you can see how it all plays.
DF: I believe that observation came from re-recording mixer Juan Peralta. He did a fantastic job mixing the effects on this movie. We try not to deliver too many elements and make it too burdensome for the mixers but at the same time, we usually send too much. He did a fantastic job of finding the right pieces and playing them well. So that’s one thing he saw, that the blasters sounded cool but weren’t quite different enough from the regular punches. With all the fight sounds (punches, kicks, and body falls), the blasters just sounded like a spark punch as opposed to a blaster. Adding that one little reversed sound in the beginning differentiated it from everything else.
AT: Juan was a great collaborator, not only helping us find the right sounds but by looking at it with fresh eyes and fresh ears. He’ll see something that’s missing and his instincts are always right. Juan had just finished mixing Avengers: Infinity War and so he didn’t premix Ant-Man and the Wasp. Our re-recording mixers only had two weeks off from Avengers before coming on to this film. So, they were coming into it even fresher than they would have been if they had premixed the film.
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What about Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen)? What went into her sounds?
AT: My job as supervising sound editor means that I get put on the films early, around the time that the director starts putting the film together. At that point, they may not be able to give me scenes to work on but may ask for certain sounds.
In the case of Ghost, they called up and asked for a variety pack of ‘ghost’ sounds to cut. There wasn’t anything visually to look at yet; they hadn’t done post viz. I had read the script and they described her character as being able to move through walls, but really I had no idea what this was going to look like.
So I spent the day and came up with a variety of sounds that were quite different from each other just so that there was something to choose from. I handed those off to Craig Wood, the picture editor, who chose a sound he liked and cut it into the film. I didn’t hear anything else about it for a while.
Fast-forward six weeks to when David comes on, and they’d been living with the temp sound long enough for us to feel like this was the right direction. David then took that base concept and worked up a more developed version of these sounds, and expanded it in even more interesting ways for our tracks.
It gets complicated because as the film was being developed so were the concepts behind Ghost — both visually and sonically because it’s a hand-shake. So that process I just described evolved into something completely different. David, you can take it from there.
DF: The sounds that Addison gave them for Ghost were really cool. He gave them a lot of synth-based elements — sparky and sputtery.
Of all the sounds in the film, Ghost’s sounds evolved the most from where they started to where they ended up. Her treatment, visually, was done by a temp house and we were living with an “early-days” visual look of her for quite a long time. It was like a quick version of what she might look like when she is phasing in and out of reality, and it looked very pixilated. The sounds we put in initially were synthetic and sparky. It matched what we were seeing at that point but that wasn’t what she was going to look like in the end. She looks more like she is being blown by the wind, very smeared and very smooth, like she’s in multiple places at once.
We were working with some sounds that were pretty aggressive, synth-based and with some sparks and sounds from packing tape that was being ripped. They were very percussive and big. Those sounds are still used a lot when she is in agro-mode when she is fighting because they make her feel more forceful and scarier.
But when she is just walking around and talking, she’s just phasing and you can’t have those aggressive sounds going all the time because its just too much.
So for Ghost, I used the MSpectralDynamics’s plug-in to subtract the frequencies of her ADR lines from the wind and breath tracks.
We went through three or four versions before we finally settled on a version that everybody liked. Her final sound is made from wispy wind and some breath combined together. Then I took a bunch of John-Kamen’s ADR lines that Katy [Wood] had recorded and put those into a session randomly and then processed the breath-wind with MeldaProductions MSpectralDynamics plug-in, which is a plug-in used to carve out frequencies. For example, it will carve frequencies out of a bass line so that the kick drum can read through it. When the kick drum and bass tracks are played back together, it sounds great. When you solo the bass track, there’s this weird phasing effect where the kick drum would have been. So for Ghost, I used the MSpectralDynamics’s plug-in to subtract the frequencies of her ADR lines from the wind and breath tracks. Since I’m not playing the ADR lines with the wind and breath tracks, we’re left with this phasey hole where her voice would have been. MSpectralDynamics created a filtering effect caused by Ghost’s actual voice so it sounds completely natural in a way but has a subtle phasing quality to it. We didn’t want her effect to sound like just a puff of wind. It had to have a little bit of character and movement to it.
AT: In addition to making the effect less aggressive, they also lessened the frequency of it (how often it happens visually) because you just don’t need it as much. They dialed it back across all departments.
When they asked for a sound that was ‘wispy,‘ I thought it might turn out cliché but David came up with something that is unique. It worked out well and everybody seemed very happy at the end. It’s one of those things that didn’t get decided until the very end.
DF: We were crossing our fingers because it was at the very final playback that they said we got a sound that they liked for that. We didn’t know until the end. With these films we’re always hoping that there isn’t some big redesign that needs to happen at the last second. We make a lot of things along the way; we do our best as a committee to try and decide if something is going to work or not.
AT: Whoever made that comment probably had no idea that there were about four or five people on the dub stage who exhaled at that moment.
How did you approach the sound of the Quantum Realm?
DF: We spend some time floating in the Quantum Realm, like we did in the first Ant-Man film. We also spent some time on what looks like a planet — but not a lot of time. It’s a gorgeous place that is very busy visually, so once you see it you know right away that we aren’t going to be able to play everything that we are seeing. We knew that we would probably end up playing it quiet, otherwise we would get really annoyed with being there, at least sonically.
For the planet itself, I gave Juan way too many tracks in this case. But we had to keep his options open since the look of it was evolving all the way through the end of the mix. He had several tracks that were all of various frequencies so he could dive in and out of different sounds with what he needed at any given time. In the first film, when Scott is traveling through the Quantum Realm, I made a lot of sounds using Stutter Edit and plug-ins like that to give it a glitchy quality. There are glass sounds and whooshes that have been glitched. So we used a lot of that stuff as we are traveling through and it has a familiar feel to the first film.
I could replace the source sounds or add new elements, or just shift the audio that was already in there and it would hit the plug-ins differently this time and create a whole bunch of new material.
I work in Reaper for my design. One of the things I like about Reaper is that every time you render out a file you can save a copy of the session with the same file name as what you are outputting. So when I found some sounds from the first film that I liked, I could easily find those sessions and reopen them and it would point to all the same media and the plug-ins were set up exactly the same. I could replace the source sounds or add new elements, or just shift the audio that was already in there and it would hit the plug-ins differently this time and create a whole bunch of new material. So that’s how I handled the traveling sequences and I was able to come up with a few new approaches to make more sounds but in a similar style as the first film.
Did you have a favorite scene for sound?
KW: The kitchen scene because it’s exciting and percussive. There’s a play between the music and the sound effects so it becomes a bit more of a dance. There isn’t just music driving all the way through it.
AT: We are always looking for moments when sound and music can work together because typically it’s the classic fight — should music lead or should the effects lead? Most moments require one to take a backseat so the other can poke through.
There’s also a couple places in the car chase sequence that have a nice handshake between the music and effects.
Since you don’t often get to hear the final score until you hit the dub stage, did you make a lot of edits to get the effects and music to work so well together?
The big lesson that I learned on this is that … you don’t want to pay too much attention to the score and you want the sound effects to do their own thing and stand on their own.
AT: I was on a film once where we were lucky enough to get a score that was very close to the final score, and I thought it was such a fantastic opportunity to create something that was going to work well with the music because there was music all throughout the film. The big lesson that I learned on this is that you almost don’t want it; you don’t want to pay too much attention to the score and you want the sound effects to do their own thing and stand on their own. When they blend too much, that’s where you can have a problem because the sound effects don’t poke out as much.
One example of this was an establishing shot in Muir Woods. They had an owl in the track forever and once the music came in it completely masked out that owl. I wondered how in the world we were going to get that owl through. I used the same owl but I pitched it slightly and then moved it slightly into a little gap so that it would come through. Those are the types of adjustments that you do with all of your pre-existing sound effects when you hear that final score.
It’s the same with dialogue. We make little micro-tweaks so that everything has its little moment. There was a tire squeal that had dialogue right on top of it. The studio executive says the tire squeal got a huge laugh and we want to make sure that we can hear that tire squeal. So then we all worked together — Katy moved the dialogue a little bit, just a few frames here and there, to try and make it so you can hear each of the elements.
What’s one thing you’d want other sound pros to know about your work on Ant-Man and the Wasp?
KW: That we all worked very collaboratively on it. It was very much a give-and-take because we were all careening towards the finish line, trying to get there in the most graceful manner with the most humor we could.
AT: We’ve been on this film for awhile. I started at the end of November and the others came on in January. So I had a five-week jumpstart on everybody. On this one, the shoot kept pushing back because they wanted to have their script dialed-in before they shot anything, which makes a lot of sense. I think by the time they got in front of the camera they had pushed the schedule back six weeks. So the director has 10 weeks to cut the film before any of the executives come in. Marvel is very hands-on with their films but their directors still get 10 weeks to edit on their own. So backing up from where we started mixing, because everything got compressed, the sound crew started working on the film before the Marvel executives had seen it. Because of that, we chased down an awful lot of changes that we may not have if the sound crew came on after the executives had seen it. So it was a good schedule, but we were chasing our tails a bit on it.
When a lot of the crew came on, we were about eight weeks out from premixing. That sounds like a lot of time but it didn’t feel like it.
A big thanks to Addison Teague, David Farmer, and Katy Wood for giving us a look at the size-shifting sound of Ant-Man and the Wasp – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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