He covers everything from crafting Captain Marvel’s signature sounds, the sound of the Kree technology, the Skrull shape-shifting sound, to how they made the conflicts feel distinct, sonic teamwork and creative sound design solutions. He also talks about creating the impressively-sounding final mix:
Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Disney/Marvel Studios. Note: Contains spoilers
It’s no surprise that Disney/Marvel Studios’ film Captain Marvel continues to kick-butt at the box office. Captain Marvel, aka Vers, aka Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is such a fun, powerful, and decidedly human superhero. There’s a lot to admire. For starters, her power comes from within. There’s no magic weapon or supersuit that aides her abilities. And the moment Vers realizes her power is a part of her that no one can take away, she becomes unstoppable. Glad she’s on the side of good!
The film’s solid story is supported by first-class visuals and sound. From the shape-shifting Skrulls and the battle on Torfa to the massive explosion of Dr. Lawson/Mar-Vell’s experimental engine on Earth (which ultimately gives Carol Danvers her powers), there’s so much happening on-screen. The soundtrack is never overwhelming though, thanks to the Skywalker Sound team, led by supervising sound editor Gwendolyn Yates Whittle, supervising sound designer/re-recording mixer Christopher Boyes and re-recording mixer Lora Hirschberg.
The sound design team on Captain Marvel is jam-packed with superheroes of the sound world. In addition to Boyes, there was Gary Rydstrom, Dave Acord, David Farmer, Nia Hansen, Kyrsten Mate, Al Nelson, and Shannon Mills. Sound effects editors were J.R. Grubbs, Teresa Eckton, Lucas Miller, Kimberly Patrick, Dee Selby, and Doug Winningham.
Here, Boyes shares details on how they created Captain Marvel’s signature sounds, the sound of the Kree technology, the Skrull shape-shifting sound, and how they made the conflicts feel distinct. He also talks about crafting the final mix with Hirschberg, which, I feel, is one of the best film mixes I’ve heard this year.
The sound on Captain Marvel was incredible, particularly the mix. It flowed so smoothly in and out of design and music moments…
We pre-dub here at Skywalker and then final mix down at Disney. From a technical perspective, I feel like the two dub stages matched so well, and that’s a testament to both engineering departments (at Skywalker and Disney). We’re really like one company now and so they’ve teamed up. The room down at Disney really matches our room up here at Skywalker, and that’s key because you get used to a certain sound. If you pre-dub in one room and final mix in another and the two rooms don’t match, then you spend so much time trying to find where you thought you were again. That didn’t happen on this mix, and that paid a huge dividend for us.
How did you create the unique palette of sounds for Captain Marvel/Vers/Carol Danvers?
CB: We had a who’s-who hit list of sound designers on this film, of which I was one. We divvied up the work and so I took on Captain Marvel’s powers. There was one specific scene where I needed to establish the sound of the powers first, and that is what we call the ‘binary moment.’ It’s where Vers confronts the Supreme Intelligence and she realizes the full potential of all of her powers. She breaks free of the tentacles that are holding her in the S.I. space.
We had four or five different sound designers (myself included) do a full pass of that section and then we presented those to the two directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the two picture editors Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham, and executive producer Victoria Alonso from Marvel Studios. They gave me a heads-up of what they liked from each version and so I incorporated that into my material and continued work from there.
I was looking for a jagged edge that would give me clarity — to establish the power without the sound blurring out into a mess of low-end
One challenge was to give Captain Marvel’s power clarity and to enunciate this glowing, intense energy that she possesses as she crosses over from the S.I. back into reality on the ship. I ultimately ended up creating a stuttered effect that you can clearly hear as her feet are landing back on the ground. If you have a lot of low-frequency energy, the sound can get very muddy and not be very defined. So I was looking for a jagged edge that would give me clarity — to establish the power without the sound blurring out into a mess of low-end. In addition, I knew that this was one of the biggest music moments in the film and so the sound of her power had to come through.
Victoria also clued me into this needing to be a beautiful and glorious moment as well as a powerful one. Using Falcon — a virtual instrument by UVI — I started building all of these musical, glorious moments. I apologized to the Music Producer Steve Durkee and Music supervisor Dave Jordan because I wasn’t trying to score the movie by any means but I needed to get a buy-off on an approach. Steve said that was the biggest music moment in the film, and it was, but we were able to find a way to make it work. I presented him with several different musical approaches, but all were long notes through which the score could still play. The musical notes were meant to capture the beauty and intensity of Captain Marvel as she discovers the glorious purity of her powers. So that musical note with the stuttered effect really became that moment.
Then, later in the film after she’s come into her power more, Captain Marvel confronts Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) and the Kree crew that she had previously been teamed-up with. She realizes they are actually the enemy and so confronts them with these immense powers she has, with these power blasts. The challenge there was (as Anna [Boden] had said) to make it feel as though the power is emanating from within her and then coming out of her. Many other superheroes have apparatuses — a shield, or hammer, or a repulser in their suit — but Captain Marvel didn’t have any of that material to hang her blasts off of. They needed to feel like they were coming from within her and then out of her. That proved to be a real challenge and ultimately was an amalgamation of sound design from myself, Nia Hansen, and David Farmer. I married that material and created a signature blast — probably 200 versions of it — for our sound editors to cut into the film.
Behind the scenes feature on the making of Captain Marvel
What about the sound of the Kree blaster technology? How did you create that?
CB: That was done by sound designer Dave Acord, with whom I have collaborated on many projects. The edict there was to make sure the Kree’s weapons didn’t sound like ray guns or lasers. They needed a sound all to themselves that was mean and powerful but not overly sci-fi. They needed to barely bridge the gap between a conventional, ballistic weapon and an energy-based gun. They needed to live in the in-between world and not go too far in either direction.
In a scene we called the “dog fight,” both Kyrsten Mate (sound designer) and Dave [Acord] collaborated to create this intense chase in the air between Marvel’s light speed engine and the Kree fighter piloted by Yon-Rogg and the devilish Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan).
Another cool Kree tech sound was for the jump points — the hexagon shaped portals they use to travel through space. How did you create the sound for those?
CB: Those were established in previous films that I’ve worked on, both Guardians of the Galaxy and Vol. 2. We call them portals.
Dave [Acord] created those sounds and then J.R. Grubbs (sound effects editor) added that crispy, sizzling sound for the honeycomb that surrounds the portal and precedes the deep sonic boom that signifies the appearance of the portal on the screen.
What went into the Skrull shape-shifting sound?
CB: That required lots of organic material. It has four levels of components. We wanted it to feel very visceral and organic. It’s almost like 3-D printing; that was the edict. The Skrull are pixelating themselves in appearance. So there’s a digital stuttering component. There’s a morphing quality which is a sweeping organic type of viscous sound. And there’s a bony crunch. There were three or four elements that I could play, leaning into one or the other to fit the picture. Typically, I’d start with the crunchy, organic sounds and then finish off with the pixelation, so that it felt like it had shape and meaning.
They wanted to hear every detail, including her hair. But they’re next to the ocean, and there’s waves and surf! It was a challenge but we got there.
One of the more evident morphs that we worked on a lot was when Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) takes on the body of a female surfer at the beach. They wanted to hear every detail, including her hair. But they’re next to the ocean, and there’s waves and surf! It was a challenge but we got there.
The morph sound needed to have shape and movement. It needed to have an evolution of sound to sell the visual. It’s a classic example of what Marvel gives us — these incredible scenarios that are a marriage of visual effect and creative sound design. It comes together and delivers that movie magic for the moment in a way that I really enjoy.
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In terms of the combat and battle sounds, what was your approach? How did the directors want the combat to feel and how did you achieve that with sound?
CB: The film opens in a very ethereal way, with memories of battles. That was fun because it was a unique way to open a film. There were echoed reflections of mortars going off and all those slow-motion shots of debris flying through the air gave us this ability to play really low sweeps of grit and debris echoing in the distance.
Then there’s the hand-to-hand combat between Vers and Yon-Rogg and you really feel that.
The next conflict comes when the Kree Starforce team led by Yon-Rogg and Vers try to extract their comrade Soh-Larr (Chuku Modu) from the planet Torfa. That was a real challenge because we needed to start as absolutely quiet as possible. It’s a stealthy mission and so you hear the atmospheric world. Then, all hell breaks loose. That was a huge challenge that kept me on my toes until the final days of the mix.
We had one of the best sound designers in the world, Gary Rydstrom, along with the amazingly talented Al Nelson do battle cries for the Skrull during the moment when it’s revealed that the Skrull have taken on the likeness of the Torfans. (This would be a design element I chased right up until the end of the final mix but given the bones of the design from Al and Gary, I had great material to work with.) When the Kree discover the deception, the lead Skrull basically calls out to the other Skrulls and they respond back and then attack. Then, the battle is on. That scene was worked on right up to the end of the final mix. We wanted Anna [Boden] to be happy with the vocals right out of the gate, to basically build the charge before the attack. Then we had to enunciate the differences between the Kree gun fire and the Skrull gun fire. It was one of those massive battles that you had to bring definition to.
What was the most fun, for me, was the final battle in the sky near the end of the film. There’s this wonderful moment where Captain Marvel is falling through the air, descending to earth. That was a ‘final mix moment’ where Lora [Hirschberg] and I had to decide how to play it. We fell out of music and into the sound of rushing air. We used the sounds of Captain Marvel’s Foley to make that moment feel personal. Then there’s a beat of silence just before she’s about to hit the ground. That’s another binary moment where Captain Marvel pulls her powers from within and uses them to cushion her fall. Instead of hitting the earth, she flies back up through the air and continues battling.
Because I had done so much of the Iron Man flying sounds for Iron Man (2008) with Frank Eulner (co-supervising sound editor), I wanted to celebrate that sound of a person flying through the air. But I needed and wanted it to have a unique quality that we’ve never heard before from a flying superhero. When I was creating the binary moment, I had come upon these glowing, ringing sounds that are kind of signature to Captain Marvel. So, if you listen to her flying sounds and her blasting sounds they have this pretty ringing resonance off the tail end of them.
I brought in David Farmer and had him try a pass at that sound. He came up with this wonderful, wavering, pulsing energy that was a great marriage to my rocket sounds
Then, there’s this other component because her energy is emanating all around her, almost like an envelope. I was really struggling to come up with a sound for that because I knew that sound was important for the directors. So I brought in David Farmer and had him try a pass at that sound. He came up with this wonderful, wavering, pulsing energy that was a great marriage to my rocket sounds. So, if you listen to her flying around in the final battle, you can hear both of those components very much in her acrobatics.
Captain Marvel is doing battle in the air and those are always challenging scenes because Marvel put so many physical assets on the screen and you have to decide which ones to mark and which ones not to. Again, that was the scene we had J.R. Grubbs cut because he’s just so good at those complicated scenes.
Then, it came down to days and days and days of mixing between Lora and I, deciding where to let things blossom and have power and where to step back and give the music the ability to drive. There’s that final moment where Captain Marvel confronts Ronan (Lee Pace) and she throws her palms together and sends out an energy beam that’s meant to warn Ronan — if he wants to do battle with her, then he’s not going to win. He gets the message and backs off. That energy blast was a return to the binary moment I had created earlier.
Another fun scene was the Kree dropships chasing the quad-jet flown by Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) which had the Skrull refugees on board.
One of my favorite things about Captain Marvel is the mix. There’s a scene when Vers walks into the bar and she’s flooded with memories of Maria and their time together in the Air Force. The transition from score to subjective sound design is so smooth you don’t realize what’s happening until the diegetic music from the jukebox suddenly pulls you back to reality. It’s beautifully done!
CB: We spent a long time on that scene. A big component of that was Lora taking the music from playing as score into source and then into an ethereal, echoing world. Meanwhile, the sound effects supported that move with this low-frequency envelope that wrapped around everything. You hear the components of things as she’s remembering them, from the clink of their glasses to pieces of karaoke that she’s singing.
We probably revisited that scene 25 times in the final mix to get it to where they wanted it to be.
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