The Chernobyl sound - and the interplay between sound design and score - is outstanding, and it's a great pleasure to give you the story behind it in this exclusive A Sound Effect interview.
Here, supervising sound editor Stefan Henrix and sound designer Joe Beal share how they made its eerily haunting soundscape, and the lengths they went to capture and design an authentic sound for the series:
Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of HBO. Please note: Contains spoilers
HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl explores the cost of the lies that led to the Chernobyl disaster — the loss of lives (human and animal) and the far-reaching and persistent environmental contamination. The soundtrack does an amazing job of bolstering the already unsettling subject matter.
In terms of music, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s dark, ambient score sits like a lead weight in the pit of your stomach. It adds a sickening unease to the disturbing imagery of unprotected workers and first responders coming in close contact with deadly radioactive material, and seeing newly-recruited teenage boys shoot family pets and shovel radioactive debris off a rooftop since it literally destroys all remotely-operated equipment.
On the effects side, the commitment to authenticity adds to the reality of the characters’ situations, like the trio of divers who willingly submerge themselves in radioactive water to drain the pool underneath the melting-down reactor. The sounds of their suits were recorded from diving suits like those used during that event, reveals sound designer Joe Beal of Boom Post in London, UK. They also got recordings of a Ukrainian fire engine’s siren, a Russian tape machine, and various alarms and buzzers useful for heightening tension.
Here, Beal and supervising sound editor Stefan Henrix discuss their pursuit and use of era-appropriate and analog sounds to help series creator Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck bring the story of Chernobyl to life.
What were the showrunners’ direction for post sound? How did they plan to use sound to help tell this story?
Joe Beal (JB): We had our first meetings with Johan Renck (director) and Craig Mazin (creator) via video chat because they’re in the US. The first thing that struck me was their emphasis on authenticity. That’s true for all of the departments, from costumes to vehicles. That was the one big thing they wanted to impress upon us, was that they were striving for authenticity. So, the alarms, sirens, vehicle sounds, etc. had to be as accurate as possible.
In terms of building the dramatic atmosphere, the ‘authentic’ direction had to be a part of that. We had to use mechanisms that were of that era to build the tension, like the dosimeter and alarms. There are only a few design sequences that aren’t based in reality somehow, for instance when we cut into the reactor core in the first episode. Aside from that, in the control room, offices and reactor corridors we went for realism. The alarms, dosimeters and silence are all used to increase the tension as opposed to using some otherworldly design drones.
Was it difficult to track down all of the authentic alarms, sirens, buzzers, and vehicle sounds?
Stefan Henrix (SH): Yes, that was a challenge. In particular, the fire engine was a tough one to track down. We had to find a 1986 Ukrainian fire engine that had the correct siren. They had the right vehicle for the show, but it had the wrong siren for the period. It took about four months, but we did manage to track down one fire engine in Kiev that had the correct siren we needed. We arranged for a local sound recordist to go out and record the siren for us.
The alarm and buzzer sounds all had to be analog to be authentic. I sourced some sounds from contacts I managed to find in Russia and the Ukraine. If I didn’t have them I had to make them up. They were taken from analog devices, like old telephones, sirens, and any machine I could lay my hands on that made a beep!
The characters are walking around inside the nuclear plant after the core exploded. How did you want that space to feel? What sounds did you use to help evoke that feeling?
There was quite a bit of discussion about "less is more."
SH: That was quite interesting because Craig and Johan didn’t want any sound at all, especially within the control room. There was quite a bit of discussion about ‘less is more.’ Initially, as sound editors we felt that we wanted to hear the building creak and move. We wanted it to feel threatening, like it was falling in upon us, to heighten tension.
Johan didn’t want that at all. That was an interesting thought. The reactor control room was isolated, away from the core itself and so he didn’t want this room to feel under threat at any time. Apart from the alarms the room would work and behave as normal. Even when we are in the reactor, in the corridors, you could have expected to hear more creaking and groaning, but they didn’t want that. So those sounds are kept to a bare minimum.
JB: The sequence where we first see the corridor (in the aftermath of the explosion), we go on a journey through these different rooms and hallways, and at first we laid-up a lot of sound. Rightly, we pulled back those groans, creaks and throbs and focused-in more on the people you’re meeting and trying to understand what is happening to them as opposed to what’s happening to the building.
There was one section when we cut into the turbine hall and the combination of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score and our design goes beyond reality of what we see. It cuts to a wide shot and you are looking at the inside of the ruined hall and we have distorted tones that ramp up completely unnaturally with Hildur’s score. Then, we cut back into the control room and it feels very isolated and real. There’s the sound of the alarms and the stark background. The contrast was quite nice.
SH: I think Hildur did an amazing job on the score. They went out to a sister plant in Lithuania to record with sound recordist Chris Watson. They recorded atmospheres, rhythmic beats and the sound of metal impacts bouncing around these huge spaces that were utilized in the music. Her score is very atmospheric and haunting, it works so well within the show.
JB: With Hildur’s score being arranged the way it is, and with that instrumentation, there was quite a lot of crossover between design and music. When we came to the mix and brought everything together, it was an interesting process looking at what she delivered and seeing that we had been given similar briefs. Aspects of the music and our design elements ended up being very similar and it was a bit much in places. It was an interesting process having to pick our way through that and decide which element to lose — whether it be a stem of Hildur’s score or a few tracks of our design — because they were competing with each other. It was an interesting process working out the relationship between design and music because at times they were very similar.
‘Chernobyl’ composer Hildur Guðnadóttir explains her unique process of creating the Chernobyl score from sounds she and renowned field recordist Chris Watson recorded in an actual nuclear power plant in Lithuania
What were the most challenging scenes for sound? Why?
SH: The overall challenge was that neither Johan or Craig had heard anything prior to the pre-mix. In fact, Craig did not hear anything until he came in for the final mix. This is always a bit nerve wracking, as you have no idea if you have got it right
Every fan was close-miked and we had great wild tracks of all of the rustling, of people moving around, getting up, sitting down… That was fantastic material that helped us to really feel like we were in the trial room.
JB: There was a repeated location that presented the most problems, and that was the trial room in Ep. 5 “Vichnaya Pamyat.” It was a challenging location and Vincent (Piponnier) did a fantastic job on the wild tracks. We had every single wild track you could possibly imagine. It was a big room on a hot day and there are about 10 fans going, as you see in the picture. Every fan was close-miked and we had great wild tracks of all of the rustling, of people moving around, getting up, sitting down… That was fantastic material that helped us to really feel like we were in the trial room.
When I was trying to work out the sound for the room, every time they cut or change the shot, there was another fan in a different location, so playing perspective without it being intrusive and annoying was interesting. On top of that, to make the location even trickier was the work that Stefan and Stuart Hilliker (re-recording mixer) did with the dialogue coming through the old Soviet PA.
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SH: We had to do a lot of work within Pro Tools. To get the accuracy of characters walking on and off mic, this was drawn in by hand on the reverb automation play list. I used Audio Ease’s Speakerphone for the processing. The plug-in has great presets, and so I manipulated a chosen preset, changing the room size, altering the EQ, and adding a bit of distortion. It’s a fantastic tool and It’s easy to use.
JB: The scene was mostly production dialogue. Despite the fans, the dialogue tracks were really clean. The most challenging aspect of the dialogue in that scene was playing the perspectives of where the camera is in the room in relation to where the loudspeakers are, when someone steps towards a microphone and away from the microphone, and the different perspectives within the room. We were really lucky with the quality of the production dialogue there. The scene would’ve been a lot more difficult if we didn’t have great sync sound.
HBO has launched an excellent 5-episode behind-the-scenes podcast series for ‘Chernobyl’ – hear it here
Scenes that look so simple can sometimes be the hardest.
SH: There was a scene at the beginning of Ep. 4 “The Happiness of All Mankind” where an old woman is milking a cow and a soldier comes to take her away for the evacuation. Some of her dialogue was re-written and so had to be recorded for ADR. The speech is acting like a voiceover because you cut to various shots outside the barn, interior of the old lady’s house and of family pictures on the wall. It was a huge challenge for Stu to ADR-match to keep the milking continuing and the feel of the natural environment. There were quite a few sequences like this within the show. Scenes that look so simple can sometimes be the hardest.
That soundscape had its own challenges, as there were no birds because they were all killed by the radiation. To create that stillness was very tricky.
Ep. 1 “1:23:45” was the most dynamic episode because you have the explosion and the sirens, and it’s quite frenetic. There was quite a bit of sound design work to create the atmosphere for the core, but in the later episodes, like in Ep. 4 when they’re out shooting the house pets, that’s more natural and atmospheric. It’s filled with winds and creaks. That soundscape had its own challenges, as there were no birds because they were all killed by the radiation. To create that stillness was very tricky. Any birds that were on the production track had to be stripped out. Michael Maroussas, dialogue editor, had to identify words or lines that had birds on them and replace those with other production takes. He did a great job on that scene which helped us to create that stillness. It’s a lot of gentle winds, grass and tree rustling, and a bit of insect life.
Did you capture any other field recordings for the show?
JB: We had the suits for the divers that go into the reactor in Ep. 2 “Please Remain Calm.” So that was all authentic Foley. For the first episode, you see Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) speaking into a microphone so we got a Soviet era tape machine.
SH: We managed to find one on eBay!
JB: Since authenticity was key, we had a tape machine from that period. Interestingly, it came with an old unlabeled tape of ’80s Russian orthodox choral music. We recorded about an hour of this Russian choral music into Pro Tools and I pitched, distorted and processed it in various ways to make a pack of drones that became the tonal foundation throughout the series for things like bass drones.
In one sequence in Ep. 1, Anatoly Sitnikov (Jaime Sives) is sent to look into the reactor to check if it had actually exploded. There’s a nice distorted tone that rises up as he’s looking into the smoke. That distorted drone was one of the heavily manipulated Russian choral tones from that tape we got in the tape machine from eBay.
SH: For Legasov’s voiceover in the beginning, we recorded his lines into the tape machine and then recorded it back into Pro Tools to get the authenticity and feel of the Russian tape machine.
In terms of sound, what are you most proud of on Chernobyl?
SH: It’s about the authenticity, getting that right was important. There are no real modern sounds in there.
JB: There’s one specific dog in Ep. 4 that pops his head up before he meets his grisly end and I’m quite happy with the little grunt I have on his movement.
Johan felt quite strongly that if you see a dog he didn’t want to hear a dog. If you see a cat he didn’t want to hear a cat. If you see a cow he didn’t want to hear a cow, etc.
SH: The reason Joe mentions this is because Johan felt quite strongly that if you see a dog he didn’t want to hear a dog. If you see a cat he didn’t want to hear a cat. If you see a cow he didn’t want to hear a cow, etc. Just because we see these images, he felt that we need not necessarily put a sound on it. There was quite a lot of conversation about this and I think we found the perfect balance.
JB: I think we found a good middle ground in the end. We weren’t quite as on-the-nose as we might typically be.
SH: You have to prepare the tracks in a certain way for the dub stage. We tended to overlay for Johan and Craig as we had no opportunity to run anything before the mix. If the sounds are not there they can’t decide what is working and what isn’t working. It’s so much easier to take things out rather than put them in when you are on the mix stage.
Because Johan is based in New York and Craig was in LA, they didn’t get a chance to hear anything in the studio prior to the mix. We did send out QuickTimes to them but they are listening to folded down tracks on a computer in stereo not in 5.1. A lot of the detail and subtlety gets lost. Really, the only place to hear things correctly is on the mix stage. Craig only attended the final mixes and this was the first time that he was hearing the tracks.
Chernobyl was a pleasure to work on. These shows only come around every so often. It is quite unique and it’s a true story and I am proud to have been associated with it.
A big thanks to Joe Beal and Stefan Henrix for giving us a look at the authentic sound of Chernobyl – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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