Written by Jennifer Walden - may contain spoilers
Marvel Studios’ latest feature Black Panther (in theaters now) tells the story of T’Challa (aka Black Panther), King of Wakanda, who fights to recapture his throne from a foe who seeks to distribute a cache of Wakandian weapons to people of African descent around the world. The weapons are made from a special, strong metal called vibranium, which is a resource that’s unique to the Wakandians. T’Challa looks to his family and friends to help him defeat Killmonger and save the world from war.
Even superheros need a strong team to rely on to get things done. So it’s not surprising to learn that behind the sound of this superhero film there was a team of super-skilled people getting the job done. Skywalker Sound’s Steve Boeddeker was a sound designer and re-recording mixer on Black Panther. He says this film was easily the most collaborative sound project that he’s ever done, and not just in terms of the sound editorial team. Everyone from the sound editorial team, the mix team, the engineering people at Skywalker and at Disney, as well as the Marvel producers and executives all worked closely together. “This goes for our leader too, director Ryan Coogler, who set the tone for all of this. Whenever I say, ‘I,’ I really mean ‘we,’” says Boeddeker. Here, Boeddeker shares their approach to the film’s sound — not as an individual talking about his work but as a representative of the group talking about their collective work.
What does the city of Wakanda sound like?
Steve Boeddeker (SB): Wakanda is representative of a lot of what we (the sound crew, as well as director Ryan Coogler) were trying to accomplish and that is this Afro-tech blend of cultural history and heritage combined with next level technology like you’ve never seen or heard before. When you go into the city of Wakanda, there are these amazing magnetic levitation trains going through the city but also skyscrapers with thatched roofs on them. The people are walking through the city with all of this technology around them but they are wearing very traditional African clothes. That was a good guide for how we approached the movie as a whole. It was fun and daunting at the same time.
How did you create the sound of that city? What were some of your sources and elements?
SB: As far as the technology, that was all sound design. I was involved in that, as well as David C. Hughes who has done a ton of Marvel movies in the past, and my co-supervisor Ben Burtt. We made a bunch of technology sounds, and the idea was that they should be simultaneously high-tech and a bit musical but be potentially rooted in something organic and African. For example, some of the (air) ships and trains you hear would have these very high-tech elements to them but the signature sound of them going by was made from an African bird slowed way down. So we tried to approach a lot of things that way.
As far as the city itself, as they are walking through it, probably my biggest shout out would be to Kim Foscato, our dialogue/ADR supervisor. She’s done a number of Marvel movies as well. The ADR is all different languages, not only for the streets of Wakanda but also for Busan in South Korea. So they did a ton of recordings, trying to keep the language as authentic as possible.
To create these organic-based high-tech sounds, what tools were you using? I know Ben Burtt likes the Synclavier, although I’m not sure if he still uses it…
SB: We used Native Instruments Kontakt as far as layering and pitch manipulation. There’s actually a new Synclavier software-only kind of plug-in that David [Hughes] was able to get his hands on. He was able to make all kinds of really cool high-tech stuff that we used while we were mixing as sort of sweeteners for things. If we had a technology sound that was working really well but just needed something extra that was usually where those elements came from — either that or pitch-manipulated animals and birds.
How did you make the sound for Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) ship?
SB: The RTF (Royal Talon Fighter) ship was an interesting back and forth. In the end, we decided that we needed to have a lot of variety. Ryan really wanted it to be so high-tech that it was bordering on stealth. When we first talked about this as we were spotting with Ryan and the producers, they all agreed that as technology improves things get quieter and quieter. For example an electric car, like a Tesla, is almost silent. The exception to that is when you get the Tesla going really fast, it’s making sounds from its interaction with the air and the world.
So we essentially split the ship into three different categories. We had to have “moving through the air” type sound, which is generally a whoosh or wind sound. It just sold the idea that this giant ship is displacing air as it’s flying by at a high rate of speed.
Then we had what we basically called the ‘cool-sound.’ These things were driven by sonic propulsion, so sound is basically what’s making the ship move. So we made all kinds of fast, pitched sounds for that.
There were two or three different elements designed to work together but could also play on their own. This way, once we got the score, we could figure out which one worked in a more musical way.
For the sonic propulsion tonal sound, Ryan was adamant that it have a pleasing, musical quality to it. So in that category, there were two or three different elements designed to work together but could also play on their own. This way, once we got the score, we could figure out which one worked in a more musical way.
Then we had sounds that just basically anchored it in reality. These were the sound of the fins and physical objects moving.
I wish I could have figured this all out in the beginning because we talked about the ship having a musical characteristic and also being very stealth-like. But it was a challenge because when you first start working on something, and you first get the visual effects, they are a bit crude and you tend to overcompensate by putting too much stuff in. When we got toward the end, it ended up being very easy — as long as we had a movement/whoosh sound that had some weight to it, and a couple of alts for the musical-type sound that would work with the score, then it was totally solved. It worked. So, it was a fun and interesting evolution.
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How about the Black Panther’s suit? What was the approach to sound there?
SB: We had a lot of fun with the suit. Black Panther is supposed to be this stealthy character who can sneak around, so the suit shouldn’t make an enormous amount of sound. But, we also wanted to sell the idea that this suit was made from tons of miniature tiles, called ‘vibranium,’ which is the Wakandan’s stronger-than-anything metal. So we needed to have some sound to sell the precision of all those tiles coming together. One of the producers said she also wanted to have a sense of weight with the suit. So we were balancing between having the sound of those tiles coming together be very small and precise and also have a feeling of weight to them. David Hughes with that Synclavier plug-in was able to make some interesting, tonal/musical sounds that tied it all together.
Black Panther’s rival, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), he wears a suit too. Does his suit sound different? How does it compare to Black Panther’s?
SB: Killmonger’s suit isn’t dramatically different, but his suit doesn’t have that moment where you watch the suit form. Black Panther has a moment when we’re introduced to the suit and we get to see it form up close and it’s kind of a singular event.
Later on with Killmonger, and with Black Panther, the suits are happening so fast so you have these tile elements and tonal elements but they have to happen in a really quick way. They have to be at frequencies that cut through and work with the fight sounds that are around them — the yelling and screaming that is around them if they’re battling. There are sounds of spears and swords hitting each other. So the sound had to work really quickly.
They are slightly different. The Killmonger one is a bit heavier, and I would say meaner… if you can be mean in such a short period of time. In contrast, the Black Panther suit sounds more precise. But it’s all happening so quick that it’s hard to tell.
Fight scenes are a big part of superhero films. Aesthetically, what was director Coogler’s vision for the fight sounds? How did he want the audience to feel during the fight sequences? How did you help achieve that with sound?
SB: One of the most interesting aspects of the fight sounds are the fights that take place by the waterfall. That is a ceremonial battle, and it’s a ceremony that has happened for centuries. So it was important that those fights be heavy and brutal. In the case of the first fight, T’Challa/Black Panther is fighting an enormous challenger. We wanted to make sure we felt the weight of him when he fell. For the most part, the spears and sounds of the fighting were intended to be brutal and as if they were from centuries past.
Later on, the fights are different and much more high-tech. At that point, we could play up some of the sounds of the vibranium, which is the metal that the weapons are made out of, and we can play up the impact sounds. Also, the weapons have other technology attached to them.
When bullets hit the vibranium, how did you make that sound?
The idea is that the suit is absorbing the bullet impacts. So we played with a lot of metallic hits … to make them more like the bullets were thudding into the suit and falling onto the ground.
SB: That’s a tough one because when we first started working on some of those sounds, the visual effects were almost place marks and they almost looked like ricochets. So the first instinct was to make it sound like the bullets are bouncing off of the suit, but really the idea is that the suit is absorbing the bullet impacts. So we played with a lot of metallic hits and reversing them and sweetening them with other hit/contact sounds to make them more like the bullets were thudding into the suit and falling onto the ground. Again, it was one of those challenging things that you have to throw several different elements at it knowing that, based on the context of where you are in the mix, one sound or the other might cut through better.
What were your favorite stylistic sequences? What went into the sound design there?
SB: Some of my personal favorites were the things that set Black Panther apart from a lot of the other Marvel superhero-type movies. There are some sequences that I would say are spiritual, where T’Challa/Black Panther is going to an alternate plane and walking around and meeting with ancestors. It’s a very beautiful and emotional and spiritual event. For that, I made these interesting tonal elements almost by accident. I was working on tonal sounds for the vibranium metal in Native Instruments’ Reaktor. We played with all kinds of things in Reaktor. I stumbled on this program that was making this tone that was forever changing. It was definitely musical but it wasn’t necessarily in a particular key. By itself it was very beautiful. So we started using that when we went into these spiritual scenes, and in scenes that felt like flashbacks, and what was interesting to me (and for everyone really from the get-go) was that the changing tonal characteristic of the sound was sometimes in harmony with the music, but then sometimes it would go out, and so it gave these scenes a weird discord to them. They were simultaneously pleasing and a little bit off.
That kind of stuff, to me, was one of our most exciting challenges. It’s the thing that really set this film apart from the other Marvel films. But, of course, I must mention the car chase scene. The cars were recorded and edited by Anthony De Francesco and Jon Borland and when we finally got to mix them with the final score and the songs it was just a blast. The movie really provides a wide range of sound opportunities to have fun with.
What was the most challenging scene for sound editorial?
SB: I’d say reel eight. The end of the film is big, and exciting, and climactic but it also had a nominal amount of visual effects elements that were changing and upgrading and so the challenging part was that we were doing design for that up to the moment that we left Skywalker (and headed to the mix stage). The visuals kept changing and so as I was mixing with Brandon Proctor on the stage, Ben [Burtt] and David Hughes were getting new updated versions of this one scene and they were trying to find ways to maintain the integrity of what we had done when we pre-mixed but some things were so different that they needed to be changed and they needed to evolve. So that kind of evolution behind the scenes of the mix was the most challenging because until you put it all together you aren’t sure how it’s going to work. In the end it did. Our editorial crew are amazing. We were able to put the sounds up on the stage and start mixing. We put the score, the dialogue, and the Foley in and everything started coming together. That was a pretty challenging scene, because of the logistics of it all.
There is a lot of African percussion in the score and sometimes the people on-screen are playing that percussion and sometimes it’s played as score.
Probably the most challenging — in terms of bringing all of the pieces together, was the first fight on the waterfall. That was the first reel we worked on and so that was an intimidating process — to work with something so challenging right out of the gate. But that scene has an enormous amount of music work. The music is going between diegetic (happening on the screen) to being score, and back and forth. There is a lot of African percussion in the score and sometimes the people on-screen are playing that percussion and sometimes it’s played as score. There is a lot of ADR work that Kim [Foscato] put together and Brandon [Proctor] mixed. There was a ton of ‘effort’ sounds because there were so many water sounds in the original dialogue recordings. They had a ton of work to add all those layers and yet make it sound natural.
Another huge challenge was that the fighters are standing on the waterfall, which is an extremely loud thing. You want to convey the power and size of the waterfall but at the same time, it just gets annoying after awhile. You think, “Enough already.” So we had to find ways to keep that waterfall alive and exciting but get it out of the way to allow the dialogue, loop group, Foley and efforts to really attach to the characters in the fight. We want to hear the brutality of the hits and have the bodyfalls come across. So I would say that scene was the biggest challenge for the sound department across the board.
You were a mixer on the film too, correct?
SB: Yes, I mixed alongside Brandon Proctor. We split up the mix in an interesting way. I mixed the music and effects on Creed and Brandon had mixed the dialogue. Brandon is also a musician and we’re really good friends. We have the exact same aesthetic in what we like as far as music goes. So when we started this mix, I suggested to Brandon that we team up on the music. There were scenes that needed the dialogue and music to have the appropriate blend and it seemed fitting that the dialogue mixer should grab the music tracks and duck those around the dialogue lines. Then there were other scenes where the music and effects shared the same frequency range. We don’t want them to fight, so it’s best if the effects mixer can grab the music tracks. So we had that balance back and forth.
There was one scene that Brandon and I were mixing and I was working on the levels of the music, the reverb levels, and as we’re playing through the scene I look over at Brandon and he was panning the music around the room. We realized at that moment that we were both mixing the music at the same time. It was kind of nuts. It was awesome.
We’d grab the head of music for Marvel and the music editor Ronald Webb whenever we’d get into a significant music scene. First off, we’d present the music that was for the scene; then we’d present what we wanted it to do. It was amazingly helpful for us as mixers because there’s a history (for any score) that as a mixer you’re not familiar with. When you start to talk to the music people, they know the history and can tell you the director’s likes, or what the execs were in favor of for a scene. They may have added some choir to a section, but they’re not sure now that they need it. We find out that kind of stuff ahead of time, and then when we do our pass, we’ll be conscious of those things. We can then grab the music guys and play it for them and find out what they think. It was such a fun collaboration.
What’s one thing you’d want other sound pros to know about the sound of Black Panther?
We made a very conscious effort to be united as a sound crew — that we were all going to have each other’s backs and to try and use the word ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’
SB: It’s that we made a very conscious effort to be united as a sound crew — that we were all going to have each other’s backs and to try and use the word ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ We wanted to collaborate. It was something that happened naturally on Creed (also directed by Ryan Coogler). We didn’t talk about it then but we talked about it this time. We’d all go out to dinner, all of us together, and hang out and have fun. We made sure that everyone in that mix room felt empowered and like they had an opinion that mattered.
One of my favorite moments of the mix was when we had all the execs in there, Ryan the director, all the music people, and we were playing through one of the more emotional sequences. There was this flashback moment and we had put this heavy, low boom on the flashback and there was a discussion in the room about it for 10 – 15 minutes. It was a pleasant argument. Half of the room felt that the boom made the sequence feel too dark. The other half thought it was perfect. We played it back and forth, all the possible variations, and it was just this one sound. But, it was this room full of people who were passionate about what that one sound was doing. It was incredible. It was a room full of people who understood how significant and how emotional sound can be in a movie.
A big thanks to Steve Boeddeker for giving us a look at the exciting sound of Black Panther – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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