Contagion Sound Design Asbjoern Andersen


Not surprisingly, there's been a resurgence in the popularity of director Steven Soderbergh's film Contagion due to its realistic and mostly-accurate portrayal of a global pandemic. Here, Soderbergh's longtime-collaborator supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake looks back to how they crafted its sound.
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Larry Blake
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Hand washing, social distancing, remote working, and staying at home unless absolutely necessary — this is our current reality in the COVID-19 pandemic. But nearly a decade ago, it’s a scenario that director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns presented in Contagion (2011), which is considered to be one of the most scientifically accurate pandemic films out there.

What makes this film so believable (aside from its list of CDC recommendations) is its realistic approach. Looking at the sound side, the film isn’t overstated. There’s nothing that stands out as flashy or hyped up. It’s purposefully designed to feel real, which is an aesthetic approach shared by Soderbergh and his long-time collaborator supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake.

Since the start of their careers in the late ’80s, Soderbergh and New Orleans-based Blake have collaborated on 30 films and Blake won an Emmy for his mix on Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. In addition, Blake has worked on another 30 features and 15 feature documentaries with other directors.

Here, Blake looks back at his work on Contagion, and talks about recording production effects, building believable crowds, cutting in that horrific cough, working with composer Cliff Martinez’s iconic score, and more!

 

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‘Contagion’ Trailer

How did Dir. Soderbergh want to use sound to help tell the story of Contagion? And what were your goals for sound on this film?

Larry Blake (LB): I’m not sure that Steven and I had any specific discussion about what he wanted. At that point, nine years ago, we’d been working together for over 25 years. I don’t think we had any discussion about what he was going for.

 

Contagion_sound-2

Larry Blake in Hong Kong recording backgrounds for ‘Contagion’

So there was a lot of trust in the relationship? He just said, “Here’s this. Do your thing…”?

LB: Steven is so low-key and that’s what was implied but there was no real talk about anything that I remember.

When we got to specific, granular effects it was a different thing. One thing that was important to him was that the coughs had to sound nasty. It was rarely ever just a production recording of the actors’ coughing. As stupendous as the actors were, we were always layering on top of their performance — subtly and completely invisibly, we hope. We layered in effects of other people hacking and coughing because that was one specific trait of this mythical virus, in addition to causing encephalitis in the brain. So we were topping all of the production coughs in the film.

I was lucky to be on location in Hong Kong, Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta to record background sound effects. The coughing was easy, but when it comes to crowds sometimes you just have to be there on the day. For example, at one point in the film they had converted an armory into a makeshift hospital. There were hundreds of people coughing and wheezing. After shooting wrapped at that location, I was able to get a complete suite of sounds of what that place would have been like, with all of the extras hacking away. It’s the type of thing where, if you prepare—i.e., just being there, as Woody Allen says, “90% of life is just showing up”— then it’s easy to do it right. Seeing that on the call sheet and knowing that would be shot, I wanted to be there that day. I had to push the ADs to get the extras to stay a little longer but usually it’s little or no extra cost for that part of it and it reaps great benefits. You can’t just pull that out of a library, and group ADR can only go so far.

 

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Infected woman in a grocery store coughs and reaches toward Mitch and Jory

That cough! Ugh… It sounds awful (and perfect!) From Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) to Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) to the young boy Clark (Griffin Kane), it really fits nicely in the actors’ mouths. Who supplied that cough? Where did you find it?

LB: I’m not quite sure. I know it was a pre-existing recording. We didn’t put masks on and record coughs from sick people.

 

Any tips for making sounds added in post feel like they’re emanating from the person on screen?

LB: You just have to use your instincts. I remember having a discussion with a director (not Steven) about 15 years ago on how to make ADR sound right. I listed everything: First, the actor’s energy is the most important thing. You can’t turn a knob and fix that. The actor has to be there correctly, and the chest cavity placement — how they’re sitting, or standing, or moving — all that has to be right. The technical stuff isn’t important; it’s all about performance….

He stopped me and said, “The number one rule: ADR can’t suck.”

The only thing I can say is that you have to use your instincts as to what is right and what is not right. You have to trust that what you are doing is helping the image, and helping to tell the story.

You have to use sound for what it’s good for, and its great ability is stealth. We can use sound to get to the viewer without them knowing they’re being gotten to.

One of the problems these days is that people want to tell a story too obviously, and show what they “got for Christmas” with the mix, putting Foley fork drops in the surrounds and shit like that. Or they want to go for the jugular too much, creating too wide of a dynamic range in the mix. Subtle is better almost all of the time, with sound.

You have to use sound for what it’s good for, and its great ability is stealth. We can use sound to get to the viewer without them knowing they’re being gotten to. By the way, this is not an original observation!

 
 


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One thing that Contagion captures so well is the rate of panic that happens in people — from cloaked civility to full-on riot. Can you tell me about building these moments sonically? What are some essential elements for building that escalation? How do you instruct the loop group to get the necessary reaction? Do you have them perform the escalation of panic all at once, or do you do it in stages?

LB: You always hope to start with a great production recording and indeed the production sound mixers, Dennis Towns and Mark Weingarten, did a superb job on this movie. You also hope that the director and ADs allowed them time to do their job. With Steven, that’s not an issue, although he shoots really, really fast. They have to be on their toes. Even better is being lucky enough to be there to do sound effects recordings yourself, as I did on Contagion, or have someone like Eric Potter or John Fasal there. That’s the holy grail.

I put emphasis on getting group ADR right. It’s almost like Bondo; you need it to fill in little bitty gaps here and there with specific voices. For example, Lorraine (Monique Gabriela Curnen) is waiting in line at a drug store to get Forsythia and a man behind her coughs. She asks him to cover his mouth and he says, “Fuck off, lady.” So a friend just wrote me saying that he’d seen the movie and asked, “Is that your voice?” It’s definitely not me, and I remember that line being production. But that’s the type of thing you might get in group, those little bitty things you can add in.

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Civil crowd turns into a riot when pharmacy runs out of Forsythia

It’s important for me to do group right. I always record it in LCR stereo because it fits in nicer with the backgrounds and on the screen. I don’t understand the people who stick one mic up in the group session and record like that. That’s too antiseptic.

I take great pride in group. I’m not sure how many sound supervisors are there for the group recordings because they might leave that to the ADR editor but I am always there at those sessions. That’s a real point of pride for me in doing movies.

For Contagion, at that point, we were using LA Mad Dogs in Los Angeles but recently we’ve been doing most of our work in New York using Dann Fink and Bruce Winant and their company Loopers Unlimited. It’s great to have a good, longtime relationship with them.

 

The dialogue on the film sounds fantastic despite the fact that some of the actors are wearing PPE, like the positive pressure suits, masks, respirators, and face shields. Can you tell me about your challenges in dealing with the dialogue on this film? Was there a lot of ADR?
LB: There was very little ADR. As I said, Mark [Weingarten] and Dennis [Towns] did a great job. I don’t remember doing any ADR for technical reasons; we only did ADR to change words or add in lines.

They did such good work in production and my job was not to fuck that up.

As for the labs, I did capture recordings in the labs at Columbia University [New York] where our chief science consultant, Dr. Ian Lipkin, is based. He’s one of the top epidemiologists in the world.

I also went to the labs at UCLA with Natasha Griffith, who was like the right-hand of our production designer Howard Cummings on the design of the labs and the use of the suits.

Natasha brought one of the positive pressure suits to the Foley stage and we did a lot of recordings of them. This was the suit that Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and Dr. Eisenberg (Demetri Martin) wore in the BSL 4 scenes in the film. Foley was shot at Fox, where my long-time Foley artist Alicia Stevenson was working at the time.

Contagion_sound-2

David Betancourt, Larry Blake, and Natasha Griffith at the Fox Foley stage recording the suits

 

There was really great TV futzing on this film! There are a variety of TV and internet broadcasts. Was this before the days of Audio Ease’s Speakerphone? What were your go-to tools for futzing? (Did you worldize?)

LB: It was whatever I could do with an equalizer and a compressor. I was definitely not using Speakerphone. I’m not sure if it was even out in 2010. There was no worldizing. It was just accomplished using knobs and taste. It was done old school.

 

Cliff Martinez’s score is a strong sonic component of this film — being featured in several music montages. As the re-recording mixer, can you tell me about your approach to bringing your sound and Martinez’s score together? Did you get to hear some score during editorial? Or were you hearing both elements together for the first time at the final mix?

LB: We usually go through a few temp dubs. Cliff [Martinez] is a very close friend; I’ve done almost 10 movies and two seasons of The Knick with him. He worked with music mixer Dennis Sands, who did a great job with the recording and pre-mixing of the music.

The score was well done, and all I had to do was not fuck it up. My job is easy when we have people like Cliff and Dennis [Sands], and Dennis [Towns] and Mark [Weingarten] handing you work.

This is the type of thing that Cliff excels at. It’s pretty astonishing how he does it. I remember he came down here [New Orleans] for Mardi Gras and he was composing in his hotel room. It was pretty hysterical. He’s a unique talent and his scores for Steven’s movies, such as Solaris, Contagion and The Limey, among many others, really add an instantly recognizable signature to them. You can’t mistake it for anything else.

 

Usually it’s the music that sets the emotional tone but there were some scenes in Contagion where the sound (rather than the music) helps to convey the emotion — for instance, the heavy air tone that plays during Jory’s (Anna Jacoby-Heron) visit to her dad Mitch in isolation at the hospital. Any other scenes where you used sound to help convey the emotion?

LB: I haven’t watched the film since it came out almost nine years ago. But I can say that we are following what the actors and Steven are doing. In this case, I was really lucky to be working with such a great group of people, with the production sound team and Cliff. It was a great movie and a great learning experience. I got to know Ian and Natasha, and I’m friends with them to this day. I learned so much from them.

As a complete side note, the film is extraordinarily accurate. One of the inaccuracies is how quickly the vaccine was made. That’s very contracted and restricted compared to what would happen in real life. It would take a year to a year and a half to test and manufacture the vaccine, but it happens much quicker in the movie. Dr. Hextall injecting herself with a potential vaccine and that being “it” was definitely Hollywood.

How quickly the virus spreads is also a stretch. For example, when Beth shakes the chef’s hand at the casino, she would not have been immediately able to transmit the virus at that point. But those are small, small things. You know you’ve got it right if those are the only accuracy errors made in a script about such a complex subject.

 

What would you want other sound pros to know about your work on Contagion?

LB: That I hope they didn’t notice it! I hope they were sucked into the story and that my work helped to tell what Steven, Scott [Z. Burns, writer] and the actors were trying to put forth on the screen. They shouldn’t notice my work. The only thing they might notice would be that Cliff wrote a badass score that’s going to get under their skin whether they like it or not.

A big thanks to Larry Blake for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of Contagion and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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