Skywalker Sound’s Tim Nielsen — a big fan of the original film — discusses how they brought the characters to life and filled this fantastical world with unique creature sounds.
He talks about the important role of Foley, and shares some insight on how they created the sound of the Skeksis, Peeper Beetle, Spitters, and much more.
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Netflix
Puppets, like those favored by Jim Henson, are a rarity in entertainment these days. So much so, that while watching the Netflix series Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance with my kids, they were taken aback. They asked, what are these characters? What is this world? But their pint-sized skepticism was soon replaced by wonder as they were sucked into the story. This fantastical, beautiful, strange, scary, and magical world made them forget all about puppets. Little did they realize that it was the sound of the show that helped them to accept the look of it. The lush forest filled with odd insect and animal sounds, the peculiar creatures in cages in the Scientist’s lab, the power of the Skeksis’ essence extracting machine — it all sounded so believable, and so, they started to believe.
Skywalker Sound’s Tim Nielsen — the series supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer — was nearly the same age as my oldest child when he first saw The Dark Crystal. The film made such an impression that it literally set the course of his future career. Interestingly, Skywalker Sound legend Ben Burtt was a special sound designer on the original film, and he was a source of inspiration (and even a bit of material) for Nielsen’s work on the series.
Here, Nielsen discusses the important role of Foley on the series — how it helped to make the puppets and their world feel real. He also talks about designing the sound of specific creatures, like the Peeper Beetle, the Spitters, the lightning bugs, and many more!
Did you go back to the 1982 film and reference the sound work by Ben Burtt? How much influence did that film have on the sound of the series?
Tim Nielsen (TN): I’m very familiar with the first film. When I was 11 years old that film made me want to work in the movies. So I know the film inside and out, and I’ve watched it dozens of times. I actually chased this project for quite a few years.
I did watch it again before starting the series, and I talked to Ben about it. He was kind enough to pull up whatever sounds he had still from the first film. Although Ben didn’t do the entire first sound job, he had been hired to create some special creature and atmospheric sounds. But, he was kind enough to share the files that he had and I was able to incorporate some of them as an homage to the original.
Certain characters in the original film are quite iconic sounding, for example, the Landstriders. I love the sound of them and so I didn’t want to drastically change them. But I needed more sounds for them to fit what they do in the series. I had to create a wider palette for them. So I updated them and created new sounds but I wanted to keep the character of what Ben had established. So, some of Ben’s files went in directly and some of them were layered in with the pieces that I had done to make them match the current shots.
There are so many wonderful, fantastical creatures in this series…
. . . they sent me a character list of all the creatures and puppets . . . in the world. There were probably 13 pages and over 150 different creatures
TN: It’s a very lush world and it was fun to be able to fill it out. When I first started on the show, they sent me a character list of all the creatures and puppets and little descriptions of what they do and where they are in the world. There were probably 13 pages and over 150 different creatures; some of them didn’t end up making it into the series but still, we had so many little creatures and little details that we needed to create and put in there. It was a lot of fun but it was a big challenge.
What was the most challenging of all the creatures to design?
TN: The Landstrider was the trickiest because I was trying to match the character of what Ben had done. I needed what I created to match that established Landstrider sound. Some different people on the project had some different opinions of what the Landstriders should sound like. Some of them didn’t necessarily want it to sound like the original movie but I was pretty adamant that I wanted to make sure that the Landstriders didn’t seem completely different from the movie. So that was a tricky one, to get a palette of sounds that worked with the original film but also fit the new series.
Lore — the rock monster character — was also very difficult. He doesn’t technically talk but he has to be very expressive. His vocals are sort of his movements. So we had to find a balance between something that would sound like a vocal but still sound like a movement and that took us a while.
One of our sound effects editors, Andre Zweers, did a lot of work pitching rock movements that I made, and David Farmer, who helped out on some special sound design moments, came up with a really nice vocally-element to layer into Lore. Really, together they gave Lore life that way. It was a tricky character and it took us quite a few tries to get that to where we wanted it to be. I had created quite a few movement files, but it was those two who really brought Lore to life!
Can you tell me about the sound of Lore’s phonograph arm? How did you create that vocal sound?
There were a lot of tricky things . . . on this show! Things I had never seen before and that made me wonder how we were going to make it or what it was supposed to sound like
TN: That was a combination of Audio Ease’s Speakerphone and then layering in EQ’d rock scratches and scrapes under the voice. We recorded a bunch of rock sounds on the Foley stage and then cut those rock layers in and around the words and syllables. It was a lot of editing. That took a while to try and figure out how to make that sound rocky but still play like a phonograph. We had to find that balance of using enough processing but still making the voice intelligible. It had to be somewhere in between.
There were a lot of tricky things like that on this show! Things I had never seen before and that made me wonder how we were going to make it or what it was supposed to sound like, and that was fun but challenging at times.
Get an in-depth look behind the scenes on the making of Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
There was probably a substantial amount of Foley on the series…
TN: Yeah, we recorded about 16,000 Foley cues in total. Foley artists Shelley Roden and John Roesch walked the Foley and Scott Curtis recorded it.
Shelley is a huge fan of the original film like I am, and a huge Jim Henson fan. I knew when I got this show that if I didn’t hire Shelley she’d never talk to me again!
So there was a huge amount of Foley and we are operating on something closer to a TV budget than a feature film budget. We only had about four days per episode, which is about 15 minutes of Foley each day. That’s a lot to get through, especially with material this dense.
There wasn’t a single piece of audio from the shoot that was used. So we had to do an incredibly elaborate cloth job on this show
One of the things we realized very quickly was that in a normal live-action film or an animated film, you might do a very simple cloth pass. But as we had no sound from the set, we literally started from scratch. There wasn’t a single piece of audio from the shoot that was used. So we had to do an incredibly elaborate cloth job on this show. And there wasn’t enough time for Foley to do it all.
Our solution was to spend several days in Foley building an entire cloth library for each character of the show — so, walking, running, movements. And then over the course of the show, any editor that was available would jump on the movement tracks for a while and cut the sounds. We ended up cutting almost 40 tracks of cloth movement for the series which is as many tracks as some TV shows might cut for an entire show.
It became important for us that each character had a signature sound for movement. For the Skeksis cloth, we recorded cloth that was wet. We soaked all the cloth first so that it became slimy sounding.
The Mystics have this very leathery movement to them. Every character has its own jewelry library. So, depending on where people came from in the series they had quite a different sound.
. . . this elaborate movement pass . . . was one of the hardest things in the whole series to do, just because the sheer amount of work it took to create the movement for these puppets to make them feel believable. But once we did, the puppets really came to life
That was something we never really planned on in the beginning but we realized that just adding the footsteps and a simple cloth pass didn’t make the puppets believable. We really needed this elaborate movement pass. That was one of the hardest things in the whole series to do, just because the sheer amount of work it took to create the movement for these puppets to make them feel believable. But once we did, the puppets really came to life; you believe that they’re there and doing those things. So the Foley movement track was the final piece of the puzzle for us. Honestly, adding in those final layers brought the sound and believability to life.
What are some differences in the sounds for the different Gelfling clans?
TN: I really wanted the seven different clans of Gelflings to feel unique. There is the Vapra clan which is the royal clan. They get very silky movement and things like that. Then there’s Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel), who is part of the Grottan clan. They live underground and so her clothes sounded more rough, like canvas and burlap, and homemade.
Anthony De Francesco was the main Foley editor. He did lots of duties on the show actually, but he was the one who cut a lot of the movement and Foley. It was a huge job. He’s probably still not recovered yet!
The Foley also made the environments and props feel more real. If a prop was supposed to be metal, it sounded like metal and the audience believes in what they’re seeing…
TN: The sets are really Styrofoam or fiberglass. Again, because we weren’t using any of the original voices from the set (they were recorded but were all replaced), it was kind of like doing an animated movie. But it was more detailed than an animated movie because the puppets are real things and they’re interacting with real objects. So if you see ‘rocks’ falling they needed to sound like real rocks. We were very aware of the world and tried to think about the surfaces.
There are different environments from snow to desert to forests — every kind of landscape you could imagine over the course of these 10 episodes. The backgrounds were something that were very important to me. I did most of the background work, or at least made all the final passes across it. I wanted them to be dense and rich and detailed. The backgrounds had to be believable but also fantastical. You have to believe that these places exist.
One thing I remember from the original "The Dark Crystal" was the lushness of these certain scenes that Ben [Burtt] had done. He had done things in 6-track with all of these crazy swamp creatures.
They also built these massive sets for the show and you really want those to feel believable. One thing I remember from the original The Dark Crystal was the lushness of these certain scenes that Ben [Burtt] had done. He had done things in 6-track with all of these crazy swamp creatures. We have quite a few scenes like that in the series as well. It’s the sounds that really brings all of that to life and makes it feel believable. That was our goal anyway, and I hope we accomplished that.
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The backgrounds were so detailed. In addition to the lush forests, I really love the Scientist’s lair with all the little weird creatures in cages…
TN: The director Louis Leterrier really wanted the castle to have a life to it. So wherever you are in the castle, you can hear things going on elsewhere, echoing through the corridors. So we built a whole library of just castle accents, like steam and banging on metal in the distance.
Lee Gilmore, one of the sound effects editors, was working on the show from Los Angeles. He did the first pass of the Scientist’s lair, with all the machines and gears and things. It’s a very mechanical world, almost steampunkish. We wanted the sound to reflect that. So there are elaborate mechanical things that the Skeksis have constructed.
What was your favorite environment to build?
TN: I loved building the forest of Thra. I particularly loved Episodes 2 and 3, when Deet has just arrived above ground and she’s exploring the world. She’s wearing a blindfold because her eyes are so sensitive that she can’t see. So she’s guiding herself around by sound. Her first two forays above ground I’m really quite fond of. It’s very lush and very orchestrated, with all these creatures singing around her and moving around her.
. . . we timed all the creatures to a tempo track so their sounds are more musical, as if the forest is one big musical instrument
When she meets Hup (Victor Yerrid) for the first time, we timed all the creatures to a tempo track so their sounds are more musical, as if the forest is one big musical instrument. Louis had this idea that the creatures are sort of like music — that they’d all sing along to a beat almost. He had this idea that the creatures all respond to each other and sing together in this world. That scene took a while to come together. Sound designer David Farmer lent some really nice sounds to that scene and I put some things together. We spent some time on it. I really love that sequence.
I’m also quite fond of several of the night scenes, when Deet is in the scary part of the forest, and when Aughra (Donna Kimball) meets The Archer (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). While each scene is at night, each is quite different. One needed to be scary while the other is quite comforting. I love the challenge of tailoring the sound of each scene to the emotion of the scene.
I also really love the Skeksis bath sequence when Aughra comes in. It’s dripping and steamy. I had a lot of fun doing that scene as well.
The Gelfling essence extracting machine was super cool and kind of scary. What went into that sound?
TN: That was built up in editing. Lee Gilmore did the first pass of that whole sequence, the first time that the Skeksis successfully extract Mira’s (Alicia Vikander) essence. Finding the sound for that sequence was about focusing on each little part of the machine as we cut around it. Each bit has to pop out. It’s a delicate maneuver of finding a sound for each part — the bellows, the water drips, this suctiony air sound. Lee did a lot of that.
Then, when we were mixing it, we had to decide what we wanted to hear for any given scene.
When they extract multiple Gelfling essences at once, that was a lot of the same sounds but there’s also a big music track. So we let the music drive that sequence because we had already established the sounds of the machine earlier.
But when they’re trying to drain Aughra that’s different. They’re kind of up against what they’re able to do. We did a lot of work with all of the electrical sounds to make them sound like they’re straining because they’re basically not successful in draining Aughra’s essence; she’s too powerful at first. So we needed the machines to sound like they are about to explode. We reworked a lot of the electrical sounds there, to the actual Crystal sound itself, to make them sound straining and on the edge of being painful to listen to in an attempt to convey that.
For me, the easiest way to get variation is to find new ways to record things. That’s how I get new sounds
As far as processing, we did some flanging on the electrical sounds but I tend to do as little processing with plug-ins as I can. Mostly, those sounds were recordings of electricity that we did for Solo. So we had this really great library of things. A lot of the pieces came out of that library.
I tend to not do a lot of processing. I find that when you send sounds through a lot of plug-ins, the result starts to sound the same at some point. There’s this generic, processed sound that I try to avoid whenever I can. For me, the easiest way to get variation is to find new ways to record things. That’s how I get new sounds. I do a lot of recording and editing.
What were some new recordings you captured for this show?
TN: We did a lot of recording on the Foley stage. For the ambiences, a lot of that came from mining our libraries and creating new animal calls, etc. We had recorded some animal calls at high sample rates and then pitched those down. And we spent a lot of time on the Foley stage recording anything we could. For Lore, we spent a couple days down there recording rocks — sliding rocks and scraping rocks.
We recorded a lot of cloth to build the cloth libraries.
The Garthim near the end of the series was another tricky thing. It had a very particular sound from the original movie but it wasn’t necessarily a sound that we would have picked today. It basically sounded like castanets. So the sound had to match the original movie but it had to be something else entirely. I spent a day trying to take anything I could think of and scrape it and slide it and move it and pitch it to figure out what the Garthim could sound like that matches the original. Then David Farmer did something really nice as a final layer as well.
In the end, I found this huge pinecone on the Foley stage and this big wooden bowl. I found that — strangely enough — just rolling the pinecone around inside the wooden bowl and recording it with these super-wide frequency range mics and then pitching that down gave me a cool sound that kind of matched the original but it was something else entirely. A lot of the Garthim movement was based on that.
There were some other cool creatures with great sounds, like the lock snake. How did you make the sound of the lock snake?
TN: The lock snake vocals were from snake recordings that we had in our library. The movement was made by sliding things along pieces of corrugated metal. We were trying to get this ratchety metal sound. There are also some sounds from Rango. Peter Miller, an Australian sound designer, had created these sounds for the tail of this snake called Rattlesnake Jake, who is a bad guy. He had this ratcheting, pitching, flanging sort of tail sound. So a little bit of that was used as well for the lock snake.
And what about the Peeper Beetle?
TN: The Peeper Beetle is maybe my favorite scene in the entire series. Lee Gilmore cut the movement and the incredibly great crunching for when we cut to black.
I honestly don’t remember what I used for the vocals, which is the case for a lot of things. When you are moving quickly you find something and you make it work and then you move on.
We did a lot of recordings on the Foley stage for the sound of the Peeper Beetle scurrying around in the glass. That was a hard sound to come up with because we needed it to sound scary every time it bumps its mouth of against the glass. Foley did a great sound for that. We needed it to sound terrifying even in the jar. So we had a bunch of different little glass jars with things in them and we shook them around in there to build up the sound of it moving.
How about the Imperial Unimoth? That had a really cool sound for when it emerges from its chrysalis…
TN: That was entirely Foley. I believe that was made using these giant pasta shells that they wet a little bit and then they slowly broke them apart. I could be wrong. They’re good at secrets, our Foley Team.
Foley also did some sounds for the wings. We also did some of the wings using effects as well.
But the Unimoth was a nice Foley moment. It’s something they were very happy to do.
The lightning bugs from the light fixture breaking in Episode 3 were fantastic. How did you make that?
TN: The main sound of those is a tonal element that I had in my library. That one I processed using Waves Morphoder to impart a tremolo/trilling sound. That’s a fun sound.
At one point, we tried to give them little voices. So we recorded a whole series of little chittery, meepy vocals. But in the end, we decided the lightning bugs had more of a character without the voices. With the vocals they felt cartoonish.
The lightning bugs also have wing sounds. This company called Red Libraries just released a collection called Mutant Insects while I was working on the show. They are friends of mine and asked me to check out this new library. So some of the wings were used right out of that library. They did a really great job on the wings.
Wings are one of the harder things to record and have match what’s on screen. I’ve done lots of versions of wings over the years, with Foley and different things. But insect wings are particularly challenging.
Wings are one of the harder things to record and have match what’s on screen. I’ve done lots of versions of wings over the years, with Foley and different things. But insect wings are particularly challenging. Most of the insect wings in the Mutant Insects collection are designed, but they did a great job. The sounds are very useful.
How did you create the sound of the spiders, called Spitters (and the Ascendancy)?
TN: It’s a race of spider, called Arathim. When they all join together they call themselves The Ascendancy. There’s a little tiny version of them as well.
The vocals for that were a lot of my own vocals, processed. We also had some ADR loop group recordings for when they are in the large spider form, and some for the individuals as well.
The movement was pretty much all built on the Foley stage. I spent an entire day down there creating a footstep library, on different surfaces at different intensities. I tried a lot of different things. I bought some pickaxes, thinking they would give me a nice thick sound but it didn’t really work. What is usually the case is that a smaller sound becomes a bigger sound better than trying to record a big sound. While I was poking around on the Foley stage I found this strange, flag marker (like something you’d use in the snow so you didn’t run off the road) and the bottom was frayed. There were all of these thin fiberglass rods inside that were bound together. I found that if I pushed the end of that into various rock surfaces it would pop and skitter and snap and make all of these interesting sounds which then, when pitched down, became the perfect sound for the Spitter feet.
Again it was a very tiny sound that was recorded but then pitching it way down made it become this huge sound.
For when the Skeksis call The Ascendancy by plucking on their web, that sound went through many iterations. It’s mostly built in editing. It has some little parts from some of the laser sounds that I made for Solo. It’s an homage to all of the wire recordings that I did for that.
In the end, it’s an amalgamation of strange sounds. We started just throwing sound that it and kept adding things. That’s a classic example of us thinking too hard about it in the beginning and it never feeling right. Eventually we came to the realization that it just had to sound cool and be a little bit scary. So we just started layering in anything and everything we thought was cool and we built up this huge palette of things and then we weeded through it. It was mostly trial and error. Sometimes you just come across the answer by playing and experimenting and that was definitely one of those situations.
What was the most challenging scene for sound?
TN: I think the Scientist lair scenes were challenging because they were very elaborate. When the machine starts up, you have lightning and the machine sounds; there’s a lot happening there.
In terms of the mix, my most challenging sequence was the big battle at the end of Episode 10. The battle took up most of the episode and it was a very difficult one.
. . . it took time to figure out how to make the scene chaotic, to give the sense of these gluttonous disgusting creatures that are talking the entire time. It was challenging to find the balance of how much sound we could put in, to keep it focused on the shots but to also have a lot happening off-screen.
Another challenging scene for sound was the Skeksis dinner scenes. That was my favorite scene from the movie and so I was glad when they included some in the series. The main one in Episode 4 was particularly challenging. The writers had written lines for every character and they’re talking throughout the dinner scene — overlapping each other and cutting each other off. Tim Hands, the ADR Supervisor in London, prepared all of the dialogue for the entire scene but it was so hard to work with. We quickly realized that we had 80% too much dialogue. So it took time to figure out how to make the scene chaotic, to give the sense of these gluttonous disgusting creatures that are talking the entire time. It was challenging to find the balance of how much sound we could put in, to keep it focused on the shots but to also have a lot happening off-screen. We spent a full day just mixing that scene, trying to get the appropriate level of disgustingness. They’re farting off-screen and belching, and there are the sounds of the little creatures they are killing and eating.
It’s clanky and slimy. Foley did a whole layer of disgusting sounds and we would then cut in more effects.
This entire show was such a collaboration between all the departments. We would all tackle everything together. We’d get the Foley and be inspired to add this or that to it. Foley wanted to do so much more. They had such a fun time in this visceral world as well; we all did.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance?
TN: I think it’s that we took this incredibly lush visual world and I hope we gave it an equally lush audio world. I hope that people feel like this place lives and breathes and sings and exists, and they don’t question it. I hope that when the audience is drawn into the story that the sound helps them become drawn in the way that the incredible visuals and the puppetry do. On a technical level, this show is just astonishing and beautiful. That was our goal, to bring this entire world to life in a way that you so rarely get a chance to do. I hope that we succeeded in that. And I’m most proud of that, because I think that we have. I think we’ve created something quite special with this sound job. We’re all really proud of the work that we did.
A big thanks to Tim Nielsen for giving us a look at the magical sound of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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