Written by Jennifer Walden. Images courtesy of Marvel Studios, Steve Orlando & Samson Neslund. Contains spoilers.
Avengers: Infinity War is probably my favorite Marvel film to date. There are A LOT of characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — all of which had their stories told in previous films. Thankfully, Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t waste time on back-story. It jumps right into the action and doesn’t stop until the end when half of everything just, well, stops. Did you see the film? If not, you might want to save the last third of this Q&A until after you see it. Seriously, how can we not talk about that ending??
Avengers: Infinity War’s award-winning supervising sound editor Shannon Mills at Skywalker Sound has worked on many Marvel films — Thor: Ragnarok, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, Ant-Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: Dark World, Iron Man 3, The Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Iron Man. And, he’s working on the next “Untitled Avengers Movie” slated for 2019. It’s safe to say he’s well acquainted with the sound of Marvel superheroes. In fact, I’d call him an expert on it. Here, he shares his knowledge of how he and his team created the sound of Avengers: Infinity War.
Shannon Mills (SM): I’m glad someone finally noticed because it seems like everything is pretty much made out of metal in this movie. There is metal from dying stars, special metal from Wakanda, and the metal made of nano-bots. There is lots and lots of metal.
We always try to help distinguish the different kinds of metal, especially when two characters are using metal things against each other or are wearing metal. We always try to differentiate each character and to keep the audience aware of who is doing what, sonically. We do whatever we can to help distinguish weapons from different weapons and tech from different tech to keep things fun and exciting.
Did you do a lot of field recordings of metal sounds? Did you source metal sounds from libraries? How did you keep all that metal sounding distinct?
We did a lot of field recording and we used some commercial libraries too. We also have a large collection of private libraries that the team shares with each other. We also modify existing recordings and layer elements to create new sounds. I think a lot of distinctness comes from our team of sound effects editors — Nia Hansen, Josh Gold, Samson Neslund, and Steve Orlando, who are really good at building sequences that are dynamic and original by layering all these elements together.
Can you tell me about your field recording trips? Where did you go and what did you record?
SM: We did a fair amount of recording around Skywalker Ranch because it’s a working ranch and there are a lot of metal things here. So we go out to the farm area of the ranch and there would be a tractor and a barrel — whatever we could find. We’d bang around on things to find an interesting variety of metal sounds.
For recorders, we use Sound Devices quite a bit but on this particular movie I started using the Zoom F8 a lot just because it has eight channels. You can do a multi-mic set up pretty easily.
There is so much happening in this film — numerous environments, sci-fi tech, magic sounds (for example, sounds for Doctor Strange and the infinity stones), mechs, ships, gun fights, creatures, and more! How did you divide up the work with your team on this film?
SM: It’s always a group effort with my team. We all work really well together and we are a solid group. I try to assign people tasks based on their strengths for each film we do. I usually divide the work up by reels. I feel like when we cut in categories it’s hard to do, because rhythm is one of the most important things in sound effects editing.
That being said, there are some specialized tasks — for example, magic or creatures that I’ll assign to certain people. Sometimes I’ll have one editor cut the magic sounds and then hand it off to whoever is working on that reel. David Farmer is really good at sci-fi sounds and creatures so I often rely on him to help me with that. Nia Hansen is really good at magic, so I’ll often have her help me out with the magic sounds.
The team consists of me (Shannon Mills), co-supervisor Daniel Laurie, re-recording mixers Tom Johnson and Juan Peralta, sound designers David Farmer and Nia Hansen, sound effects editors Josh Gold, Samson Neslund, and Steve Orlando, dialogue editors Brad Semenoff and Ryan Frias, Foley editors Jacob Riehle, Christopher Flick, and Kimberly Patrick, and assistant sound editor Jamie Branquinho. We couldn’t have done it without this incredible team of talents.
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In Avengers: Infinity War, you’re dealing with a lot of established Marvel characters who all have their own signature sounds. Did you have access to the sound material created for the previous Marvel Universe films? Were those sounds helpful, or did you have to re-create a lot of them to fit the needs of this film?
SM: Many of the Marvel films we originally did the sound for, but there were a few that we didn’t. Fortunately, our friends did them. We’re a friendly group who work on the Marvel movies. We are pretty gracious about sharing because you never know when that character will show up in our movie. Any movie could have a special guest character from another movie. So we did have access to the other movies, both from things that we’ve done in the past and from friends who did the other movies.
Some of that material from the previous films was helpful but so much of the tech and the superpowers have evolved over time. So a lot of it required new sound design, for example Iron Man got a new suit. So we had a revamp of his tech. Thor got a new weapon, an axe, so his hammer sounds we didn’t use in this movie.
SM: It’s a lot of different things but one of the more successful sounds was lots of small metal pieces that we would imagine nano-bots would sound like, such as small nuts and bolts. We recorded those and tried to create patterns, like ticky patterns, and I would pull those into Pro Tools and work with various delays by Soundtoys to fatten and thicken the sounds up. I added a little bit of high-tech servos and such to them to make it sound like a bunch of super tiny robots coming together and moving around.
What was your approach to creating the sci-fi/magic sounds? Could you share some examples of your process and tools for creating those?
SM: For me, these are some of the harder sounds, as they are so subjective and you can’t really just go out and record them. When it comes to magic and sci-fi, I like to keep those in the more realistic camp as opposed to synthetic. I like to start with a sound that exists and then modify it, just alter it enough to make it magic. It still has to feel real in the film because there are a lot of real elements as well. It has to live in the real world. David Farmer and Nia Hansen did a lot of the heavy lifting on the magic and sci-fi stuff.
We used a variety of tools but I probably do less processing than most people. I know David Farmer used Transformizer, and he was testing the Envy software by Cargo Cult. He used that a lot on the sci-fi stuff especially. He also does a lot of processing in Reaper. Nia does a lot of plug-in work with Soundtoys and Waves. We all love Soundtoys, and used their plug-ins often. We used a variety of tools, anything we could get our hands on really.
I used Native Instruments Kontakt when I was making the Iron Man suit. Those rhythmic phrases I created by laying sounds out on a keyboard and playing them through an effects chain. I do that often because I’m an old Synclavier user. They don’t really exist anymore so that’s why I use Kontakt now. But I cut my teeth in that arena years ago while working with Gary Rydstrom. So I’m used to working like that with a keyboard and I use Kontakt or Digidesign’s Structure sometimes.
One common sound design challenge is to create a feeling of motion and change for a relatively static event, which visually may seem like it needs a steady sound but we want it to have more character and to pop out in the mix. I took the “mulched” recordings and edited them again, cleaning them up with filters and compressors (I enjoy the McDSP ML4000 mastering limiter and dynamics plug-in) as I would a raw recording, and then layered that with other sounds and processed it further. I like the Soundtoys plug-ins, especially Crystallizer to add additional depth and movement, and Decapitator to adjust tone and punchiness.
The ending is so quiet in comparison to the rest of the film. There’s this gravitas since half of all existing humans and aliens suddenly disintegrate into dust. Sonically, what was your approach there?
SM: This was a big event from the beginning. It was always by design. The directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and picture editor Jeffrey Ford talked with us about this very early on because this is a crucial moment in the film and in Marvel history. It’s such a heavy moment and we wanted to take it way down and make it emotional and frightening in its quietness. We wanted to leave the audience floored and silent. Early on in the process, we worked on the scene a lot and decided to go with no music, and have it be very quiet and somber and somewhat ethereal or mystical in some ways.
We played our idea for the directors and they loved it. It really never changed after that. That’s one of the first things we worked on that stuck.
What was your biggest challenge on this film, and how did you tackle it?
SM: There were so many. The film of this size is often dismissed as “easy” because it’s just a bunch of fighting, but that’s actually not true. It was very complicated and required a lot of care and detail to make sure the audience is engaged but not beaten over the head with sonic overload.
The biggest challenge for us was figuring out when we could take a break and when we could come back and build it up again without fatiguing everyone. Each scene we kind of break down and determine where we are building to, what is the biggest moment in the scene. Then, how do we build up to that and then get back down to take a rest. It’s a film of big moments! There are so many big moments in the film that you have to make it dynamic so that you aren’t just plowing through and fatiguing everybody that is watching the movie. Fortunately, our re-recording mixers Tom Johnson and Juan Peralta are masters at doing this, and it was awesome having them on the team to help us carve this out.
Did you have a favorite scene for sound?
SM: I have several but the one that is sticking in my mind is what we call the sorcerers duel. It’s towards the end of the film, when Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) battle it out with magic on Titan. It’s a really cool, innovative, no-holds-barred magic fight. In that scene, there was a lot of sonic freedom for us, there weren’t a lot of rules attached to the visuals we were seeing or any realistic equivalent of what that might sound like, so we had a lot of freedom in that way. Nia Hansen was the master of that piece. She was perfect for the task. She created a fun and interesting track for that scene.
In terms of sound, what are you most proud of on this film?
SM: One of the more fun challenges that the directors presented to us was towards the beginning of the movie when the Q-Ship arrived in New York City. Much of that scene is told with sound. The characters are in a closed building, Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Santorum, and they hear something arriving. They don’t know what it is and there are no visuals to tell you. The characters are just standing there listening. Then they run outside and things are slowly revealed visually. That was fun for sound to tell that story and have it evolve over a minute or two. That was a cool opportunity that you don’t often get in a movie — to rely mainly on sound for the drama and story.
A big thanks to Shannon Mills for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the thrilling sound for Avengers: Infinity War – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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