Supervising sound editor Shannon Mills has worked on a number of Marvel movies, and in this exclusive A Sound Effect interview, he gives you the in-depth story about that Avengers: Endgame sound - including the audio team's tactics for creating sounds that match the scale of what’s on-screen, how they kept the epic battles from becoming a chaotic mess, working with (and recreating) unique superhero signature sounds & much more:
Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of The Walt Disney Company. Please note: Contains spoilers
Marvel/Disney’s Avengers: Endgame — in theaters now — gave me all kinds of new movie-going experiences. First, at 9:30am on a Friday morning, the theater was packed. I’ve never seen this happen before, not even for Star Wars releases. Usually, when I go see a film in the morning, I have the whole theater to myself. For Endgame, I was lucky I found a seat!
Second, the entire audience very vocally expressed their emotional reaction to the film. People were sobbing, cheering and whistling, clapping, and laughing — sometimes crying and laughing at the same time. It was a wonder. Even I cheered when Captain Marvel showed up on the battlefield. (She’s awesome! Did you read about the Skywalker team’s work on her film, Captain Marvel?)
The entire audience very vocally expressed their emotional reaction to the film. People were sobbing, cheering and whistling, clapping, and laughing — sometimes crying and laughing at the same time.
Third, and most shocking of all, absolutely everyone stayed until the very end of the credits. Perhaps they were hoping for some post-credits extra scene (as Marvel films tend to have), but there wasn’t any. Doesn’t matter, though. I was so happy that a general audience watched the long list of names and saw just how many people it took to create Avengers: Endgame.
On that list was supervising sound editor Shannon Mills at Skywalker Sound. As you know, Mills has worked on many of the Marvel films, including Avengers: Infinity War. He really is a walking Marvel-film encyclopedia! For Endgame, that was important. The final battle was a who’s who of superheroes, each one with his/her own unique sonic signatures that Mills and his team needed to faithfully reproduce. Plus, there were the time travel sequences that went back to previous films. Here, Mills talks about tracking down all those sounds, and then creating new material to expand the story. He also talks about their tactics for creating sounds that match the scale of what’s on-screen and how they kept the epic battle from becoming a chaotic mess.
In preparing for Avengers: Endgame, did you go back to the previous Marvel films and re-organize/search for sonic elements you knew would be showing up in this one — like, the Infinity Stones activating in the gauntlet, or character specific sounds like Captain Marvel’s energy, or Black Panther’s suit, or Ant-Man’s quantum realm machine, and so on?
Shannon Mills (SM): There was a lot of that. Since I’ve been doing a lot of the Marvel films, I’ve been keeping a log and a live version of all 22 films because you never know when someone is going to show up in a Marvel film that you are working on. So I have all of the films live and available. At this point, I’m a walking encyclopedia of sounds in the Marvel universe.
I’ve been keeping a log and a live version of all 22 films because you never know when someone is going to show up in a Marvel film that you are working on
When we first started on the film, it was obvious that we were going to have to go back to a lot of the films because in certain places there are direct lifts from previous films and in other places there are just references to characters that we are familiar with, who need to sound the same.
We try to carry that through all the films — whether it be their origin film or a film that they show up in with someone else.
We started by researching and listening to the previous films and moving those elements into this film to try to stay true to the originals.
I can’t even imagine the amount of work that is…
SM: It was a lot of work for sure! I have an excellent team and we had done a lot of the sounds together. We had Samson Neslund, Nia Hansen, Josh Gold, and Steve Orlando on the sound effects side. They were instrumental in helping to find those moments that we needed.
We also had a lot of assistance from our picture team — editors Jeff Ford and Matt Schmidt. They’re also very familiar with the films so if I ever had any questions or wasn’t sure I could always talk to them.
But, most of the sounds or scenes I recognize because I had worked on them in the past and have seen the other films that friends have worked on.
What were some unique challenges you had in terms of sound on Endgame?
SM: There are lots of unique challenges on a film like this, with such size and scope and so many characters. All of these characters have special abilities. Managing that in itself is pretty unique for a film. You don’t normally have a film that has 21 other movies attached to it. That’s pretty amazing.
The time travel was a big focus for us in this particular one. It comes from previous films like Ant-Man, the first one, which is where they started experimenting with the quantum realm. Our sound designer David Farmer worked on that, and so he carried those sounds forward into Ant-Man and the Wasp, where the quantum realm became more of a focus. Then it came forward to our film, and now they’re learning to control it. We had some of that vintage Ant-Man quantum realm sound at the beginning, when Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), and Captain America (Chris Evans) start to experiment with time travel.
Tony also creates those time travel space-GPS watches. Every time they time travel, the watch makes a specific set of beeps that sound designer Nia Hansen came up with. And those are now my ringtone.
Let’s start with that first time travel experiment. Ant-Man is popping in and out of time but it’s not perfect. He comes back as a baby and as an old man. How did you make that sound for Ant-Man popping in and out of the quantum realm?
SM: One thing we’ve always done with Ant-Man is give his technology a vintage sound because it comes from older days. And for Hulk — as he admits in the film — time travel is not his expertise. So he’s fumbling with the technology, and they’re doing time travel out of the back of a van. It’s new and experimental, so we tried to keep the sound vintage until Tony got involved.
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The Avengers split up into teams and go back in time to different moments to collect the Infinity Stones. Revisiting these past places, how close did you have to stay to the sound of past films? For example, Peter Quill shows up on Morag to get the Power Stone. We see him dancing and singing and kicking those little creatures like he did in Guardians of the Galaxy. But then we see him from James Rhodes and Nebula’s point of view. So it’s familiar territory but with a new twist. How did you approach the sound for that scene?
SM: We tried to stay as true as possible to the original films initially, when we first show up in that time. We wanted to keep it the same for the fans, but also, we wanted to really get back to that time and place. Then we had to figure out a way to blend out of that scene and continue with the story that wasn’t in the original films.
That moment with Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Quill (Chris Pratt) singing is one of my favorite scenes. It’s so funny. That scene was all about the comedy. Initially, we start with the Guardians scene, and then it’s all about when the music cuts out. It gets dead awkwardly quiet, just to make it that much more ridiculous with him singing and kicking things. So that scene in particular was about the comedy, about knowing when to be quiet and let the joke play.
SM: There were lots of fun opportunities for sound but that battle was so huge that our main focus was to try to help the viewer track the story. We tried to pare back everything as much as we could while still supporting the action, just to help the audience follow who is carrying the gauntlet. That was the over-arching story. We tried to keep people’s attention on that as much as we could.
We also had to leave some real estate for composer Alan Silvestri’s music, which helped to play the emotion and heroism of the scene.
It was an overwhelming moment to pick and choose where to focus.
You also have to keep the backgrounds going. There has to be something back there to convey the scale of this battle…
SM: Exactly. Luckily, there were scenes in there that we could take breaks, just to give the audience a break too. For example, when Peter Parker (Tom Holland) first sees Tony Stark, they have a nice little conversation. We took that opportunity to get really quiet — of course while supporting the background battle, but that was a nice little breather where we could bring it down and get quiet for a moment before we started back in with the full-scale battle going on.
Their talk gave us an opportunity to reset the ears before we go back into the battle. We didn’t want to continuously pound people with sound
Same thing with Quill and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), their talk gave us an opportunity to reset the ears before we go back into the battle. We didn’t want to continuously pound people with sound.
Check out this Tonebenders interview with Shannon Mills on the sound for the film:
How did you make the sound feel large enough to fit what is happening on-screen? For instance, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) wrecks Thanos’s ship and it falls out of the sky. That’s massive! What are some of your tactics for helping the sounds to feel huge without completely blowing every speaker in the theater?
SM: A lot of credit goes to re-recording mixer Juan Peralta. He’s really great at getting scale and size to match what’s on-screen. There are a variety of tricks that he uses, but one of the tricks that we do a lot is right before there’s supposed to be something huge happening, we try to get quiet. That way the next moment feels so much bigger than what you just heard. Working with Juan, working with the subwoofer, and also trying to get quiet before a big event gets us a lot of mileage.
A collection of official Avengers: Endgame behind-the-scenes video featurettes
That must’ve been so difficult for the Captain Marvel moment because you get a wide view of the battle right before she comes in…
SM: Right before she comes in, Thanos is “raining down fire” as he calls it. There are thousands of missiles shooting down on our heroes. It looks like it’s going to be the end of them. Then, everything stops. It’s totally quiet. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) looks up and sees Captain Marvel come in, and then, boom, she takes out the ship.There were so many explosions from Thanos’s missiles! Where did you get the elements for your explosion sounds? Did you get to go out and blow stuff up and record it?
SM: We do have quite an extensive array of explosions but we always try to record more when we can; it’s just hard to get permission to blow stuff up.
Often times, we’ll try to keep an eye out for when people are already planning to blow stuff up and then will send a team out to record it.
Did you have a favorite scene for sound design? What went into it?
SM: One of my favorite moments of sound design was when future Nebula comes into the same time as past Nebula. Their circuits interact with each other and get into a feedback loop. That reveals to past Thanos that the Avengers are using time travel to defeat his plan.
When the two Nebula’s get into a feedback loop, there are some interesting sounds that happen and that was one of my favorite things that Nia Hansen and I worked on a lot very early-on. We experimented with feedback loops and different chains of processing that resulted in sounds you typically don’t want to hear — it would be an accident or generate a sound that you are normally trying to prevent. But in this case, that’s what we were looking for. We were trying to create that feeling that these two were interacting in a wrong way.
Some of the plug-ins we used for processing were Crystallizer by Soundtoys and we used Waves MetaFlanger and the Eventide’s H3000 Factory plug-in. We chained those three together and created different feedback loops.
– check out some of the highlights from the blog:
• Creating Captain Marvel’s superb superhero sound – with Christopher Boyes
• How the epic sound of ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ was made – with Shannon Mills
• Designing Aquaman’s dramatic deep-sea sound
• Ant-Man and the Wasp – Creating Big Sound for Tiny Superheroes
• Deadpool 2’s Superhero Sound
• Behind the Supersonic Sound Design for The Flash
• The roaring sound of ‘Black Panther’
• Creating the sound design and score for ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’
• The breathtaking sound of Marvel’s Spider-Man – with Senior Audio Designer Herschell Bailey
Hungry for even more superhero sound stories? Find many more right here
What is something surprising you’d want other sound pros to know about your work on Avengers: Endgame?
SM: I think it’s surprising how much influence our early sound design had on this film. On this film and a lot of films that we do with editors Jeff Ford and Matt Schmidt, we start the process very early with sound design. As soon as they have picture and pre-viz, they are sending stuff to us and concepts to us to try to get us to start thinking about and creating things for the film. So much of the early sound design we did for this film had an influence on the VFX. They got so used to the sound and liked the sound so much that things started to get designed around the sound (as opposed to the other way, which is the way things usually happen).
A big thanks to Shannon Mills for giving us a look at the powerful sound of Avengers: Endgame – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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