In this exclusive A Sound Effect interview, sound designer/supervising sound editor Alexander Würtz talks about the team's aesthetic approach to the sound of Dark - and how they achieved the series' edgy and unsettling tone:
Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Netflix. Note: Contains spoilers
Netflix’s first Germany-language original series Dark — now available for streaming, tells the story of a child who goes missing in a small town in Germany, which wasn’t the first time this happened in that town. The story connects people and events across time and space thanks to a wormhole that’s hidden in a cave owned by the nuclear power company. But the sci-fi aspects of the series aren’t immediately apparent. Nor are they overplayed. Here, sound designer/supervising sound editor Alexander Würtz at ARRI Media in München, Germany, talks about their aesthetic approach to the sound of Dark and how they achieved the show’s edgy and unsettling tone.
How did you get involved with Dark? Who was on your team at ARRI Sound for this show?
Alexander Würtz (AW): First of all, thank you very much for this interview. We are big fans of A Sound Effect; your interviews are informative and interesting!
Early 2016, ARRI Media was contacted by Wiedemann & Berg Television, asking for a complete picture and sound package. ARRI Media offers a full range of postproduction services — editing, grading, VFX, sound design, mixing, and all the broadcast deliverables. This was a huge benefit for Wiedemann & Berg and postproduction supervisor Sven Nuri as postproduction schedules could be easily optimised to be the most efficient.
In February 2016, I was asked to join the team as supervising sound editor. I had a meet and greet with showrunners Baran bo Odar und Jantje Friese, who I hadn’t met at that point. They already had a re-recording mixer they trusted, that is Ansgar Frerich. He mixed the blockbuster Who am I for them. Ansgar and I got along quickly and we were very excited about Dark! Then the team on the project was formed — Achim Hofmann (sound editor at ARRI), Jörg Elsner (sound editor, freelancer) and myself as the core. Dialogue editing was handled by Thomas Kalbér (sound editor at ARRI). The Foley team consisted of Michael Stanczyk (Foley artist at ARRI) and Bernie Maurer (Foley recordist at ARRI). Later, Wolfi Müller and Laura Plock joined the Foley team as freelance editors. We’ve all known each other for a long time and have completed many projects as a team.
The signature sounds for the show, such as for the cave, the forest, and the nuclear power plant, can you talk about your early work on those and how the sound evolved into what we hear in the finished episodes?
AW: In October 2016, I got the script of the complete first season of Dark. Whereupon, two weeks and 500 pages later, I started developing ideas for sounds. These included the forest, the cave and the nuclear power plant you mentioned. We also integrated the first bang of the hatch in the cave and the heavy rain.
For the sound world of Dark it was vital to find the perfect ratio between reality and the abnormal world. We didn’t want exaggerated science fiction, but something weird, unique and subliminal. Something is really going wrong in the town of Winden and that’s what we wanted to portray.
For the sound world of Dark it was vital to find the perfect ratio between reality and the abnormal world
The flickering lights, the clocks, and Jonas’s (Louis Hofmann) whimpering when stressed are all part of that. I was able to watch fresh dailies on the ARRI Webgate to get an impression of the shot material. I designed the signature sounds mentioned above, bounced these thematically and sent them to Bo and Jantje as audio-only, so they could brainstorm on the sound world of Dark.
There are also some interesting sci-fi sounds, like the handheld light that Jonas got from Michael/Mikkel in Ep. 5, and of course the wormhole/blackhole or the “Apparatus” in the final episode, and the futuristic ambience and drone helicopter. Can you talk about your approach to the sci-fi sounds for the series and how you split up your work?
AW: Achim and Jörg both did a great job in designing the handheld light and the black hole. Generally, Jörg did the 80’s and 2052’s ambience and some of the effects while I was on the 2019’s ambiences and most of the effects of this era. Both of us shared ambiences and effects in the 50’s. Achim did the remaining effects.
To enforce Jonas’s movements in the sound, we created variations with different phaser and Doppler presets plus hardware synthesizers, like Doepfer’s Dark Energy.
We had a lot of creative freedom for these sounds. First we created a variation of sounds based on Bo’s directions and our own. In the case of the handheld lights, we delivered quickly because a picture reference and final VFX were not necessary. A smooth sound was the goal, nothing aggressive. The light was composed of processed buzzing, chirps and library air conditioner sounds, plus various synth samples from Native Instruments Razor. To enforce Jonas’s movements in the sound, we created variations with different phaser and Doppler presets plus hardware synthesizers, like Doepfer’s Dark Energy. The rest was editing to final picture.
The time machine and black hole required more direction from Bo, since finished VFX were not available until the final mix. Our last fixes actually had to be done during the final mix phase. To meet this challenge, we created a sound pool with different elements. With every VFX update we got more precise, finally reaching the final design. We used Native Instruments Reaktor, especially ensembles by Tonsturms Whoosh and Richard Devine’s Grain Cube. Both are fantastic for creating interesting variations of the same sound. For the final tweak, we added some alienated overtone singing sounds and ripped paper.
The helicopter was a mixture of classic jet fighters, helicopters, and motorcycles — all of them manipulated and EQ’d. As a texture, we added some real swarms of bees. The rest was also picture editing, like in the bunker we used Waves Doppler plug-in to establish a flyby.
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Did you capture any field recordings for Dark? How did you use those recordings in the show?
AW: Before Dark, I was working on a different feature film as a sound editor. Many scenes in this movie were also located in a forest and I was able to create a special pool of forest sounds. I spent a few days in a forest creating variations of footsteps and sounds like crackles and creaks. After reading the script, I was anxious to fill the gaps in my sound pool. I found, for example, an old iron shack and a water hose and recorded variations and different intensities of rain for the scene at the Obendorfs in Ep. 2. Using these, we were able to create different sound perspectives in the scene.
The setup I used was rather sporadic — a Roland R-26 for XY stereo and a Sennheiser MKH 40 for the center. Also, my RØDE i-XY is always ready to go. In many situations, spontaneity and flexibility are very important. Most of the time things have to happen fast.
We had to work without production sound effects due to a tight schedule and the conditions on-set. Close to one of the locations for example, was a building site worked on day and night. That didn’t make the job any easier for Thomas our dialogue editor. Both he and the recordists on-set did a great job though, allowing us to use almost all of the production sound. Of course, the heavy rain wasn’t less of a challenge. If possible, hogs hairs were placed on roofs and cars to minimise rain noise. It was also used on stage floors and in front of windows if there was VFX rain.
There are some unsettling sounds that play through the series, like deep metallic whooshes and deep breaths or buzzing flies that are used on scene changes. Were those sound design or part of the score?
For me, it’s comparable to a bartender. Throw in some elements you want to fuse, then tweak a few parameters and you get super unique sounds!
AW: These sounds were mainly generated in many hours of blind, random-recordings with Twisted Tools S-Layer. I love that tool! For me, it’s comparable to a bartender. Throw in some elements you want to fuse, then tweak a few parameters and you get super unique sounds! Using the random function, presets are a little rougher. After every pass, parameters can be changed automatically so the result is always different. It does require several tries and the loot is smaller, however you get many results in a very short time.
Of course, the scene changes need more work than that. Additional elements have to work together and have to be edited since timing is crucial. I had the idea to connect the scene changes with preliminary picture content. For example, in the first episode we see Jonas standing in the forest at the fence close to the nuclear power plant. Here we used high voltage sounds, thanks to S-Layer. In the mix, we changed or added some sounds to these transitions because Ansgar had some really nice ideas!
What was the direction for music on Dark? Was composer Ben Frost able to hear some of the early sounds that were sent to the showrunners during the shoot? Did the tone of those sounds affect his approach to the music?
AW: That it should be a standalone character within the story — one that would move and flex with the narrative, spanning and binding timelines, and feeding and pushing back against itself, often violently.
Ben Frost always had the latest picture versions and corresponding sound design. The sound editorial team and Ben got introduced when the first edits were done. He was composing and working in Iceland and delivered layouts and compositions to Bo that we got as well. In this way, we could match our sound design for some scenes to the music. We stuck to this workflow until the final mix, which gave us a chance to always react and edit accordingly.
Alexander, you had mentioned that you were asked to move from Munich to Berlin at the beginning of sound post. Why the move? What challenges did that present in terms of sound editing the show?
AW: Yes that’s right. Bo and Jantje wanted all department supervisors at close distance. I moved to Berlin late in May — so 4 months before we started mixing. This made intensive work with Bo, Jantje, Sven and editorial possible.
Working from Munich would have restricted that. For example, Bo wanted to approve the episodes including sound for every edit version before he screened for Netflix in the feedback round. These feedbacks resulted in contextual changes and it was easier to discuss and perform these changes in Berlin. When things quieted down a little, I commuted between my sound edit in Munich and the mobile edit in Berlin, this way our Munich team could work in familiar environments. If there was a new feedback round, I returned to Berlin.
What were some challenges in upmixing this soundtrack into the Dolby Atmos format? What opportunities did the Atmos format present in terms of sound for the series?
AW: In mid-August, Netflix asked for a Dolby Atmos mix. This was close to the scheduled start of the 5.1 mix in Berlin. Christian Bischoff, who also pre-mixed the series in Munich with Mat Maydl and Ben Rosenkind (all three are re-recording mixers at ARRI Sound), planned a Dolby Atmos upmix template corresponding to Ansgar’s main-mix setup. Then we waited for approval of the episodes in Berlin and returned the finished main-mix session to Munich. Here Christof Ebhardt (sound editor at ARRI Sound) prepared the edit session and sound design for the Dolby Atmos format. The challenge was not to change content, if possible. Also, the balancing of spatial sounds had to stay approximately the same.
Another challenge was transferring reverbs from a 5.0 format to 7.0.2 without changing the sound and preset.
It is very interesting how the relationship of sounds changes when comparing both formats, especially reverbs. This upmix was intensive aural training!
Music surround panning presented another problem. In the 5.1 mix some characteristic pads and synths came with strong surround levels and had to be attenuated to avoid changing the front-back balance. We had to directly compare the 5.1 and Atmos mix for many scenes, especially in terms of music balance. It is very interesting how the relationship of sounds changes when comparing both formats, especially reverbs. This upmix was intensive aural training!
In terms of sound, what are you most proud of on Dark?
AW: Regarding content, I think we were able to create an oppressive atmosphere. Often, we found that the mix didn’t need music to create the mood we wanted. Bo decided to use ambience instead of music a lot, for example, rain/storm scenes inside, or the cave interior. Also, the synergy of music and sound design was very successful because they complement each and both are very special.
What makes me really proud though is the flexibility within our team. We had varying locations, countless re-conforms, three fundamental changes in the sound post workflow due to global rescheduling and a high demand from the showrunners and production. I think we were able to deliver that.
A big thanks to Alexander Würtz for giving us a look at the unsettling sound behind Dark – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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