The Deepwater Horizon sound team was led by supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman – and here, sound designer/re-recording mixer Dror Mohar tells the story behind the dramatic sound for the movie:
Written by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Dror Mohar and David Lee
The teaser trailer for Deepwater Horizon
Creating a dramatic film about a historical event is tricky business. A story is a very powerful thing. It has the power to rewrite events, turning villains to heroes and vice versa, depending on the perspective of the storyteller. Director Peter Berg, known for the biographical action film Lone Survivor, takes on the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In what light will he paint this event in his film? For the sound team, led by supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman of Twenty Four Seven Sound, Deepwater Horizon presented an interesting landscape.
The oil rig was a 29-story machine that never stopped. It was a mad-made island surrounded by the sea. It was a temporary home for the crew employed to keep it running. Sound designer/re-recording mixer Dror Mohar, at Technicolor in Hollywood, CA, has been a long-time collaborator with Stateman. In addition to Deepwater Horizon, they’ve created sound together for films like Lone Survivor, Django Unchained, and Inglourious Basterds. Here, Mohar shares his story of creating the mechanized world of Deepwater Horizon and designing its destruction too.
How was this film a unique experience for you?
The story of the disaster onboard the Deepwater Horizon and its implications is extraordinary. It’s an important story that demands answers to difficult questions regarding the means and ends of our energy industries – it was also a very ambitious cinematic undertaking. For both these reasons, being a part of it was an inspiring experience.
It’s an important story that demands answers to difficult questions regarding the means and ends of our energy industries
In terms of sound, creating a sonic vocabulary that describes the technology, human trials and incredible forces of nature was an intense and uniquely satisfying journey. For the first half of the project, I worked with Peter [Berg], Colby [Parker], and Gabriel [Fleming] at their picture cutting room where we worked in short, intense bursts to explore sound elements, designs, and treatments that speak to the identity of the story. This collaboration was very special in that the rapid exchanges led to picture, sound, and visual effects constantly informing one another. It was an opportunity to push the definition of storytelling both within the frame and beyond it.
Dror Mohar on the Deepwater Horizon mixing stage
What were some challenges you had in creating the sound design?
The film involves a lot of technical information, destruction and action sequences that hand off to one another. In terms of sound, these are components that can quickly saturate the experience and the biggest challenge was to design and choreograph the sound in ways that would immerse, but not exhaust, the audience. This meant a lot of experimentation with size, weight, tonal character and where sounds start and stop. It was a task that we carried out all the way to the final printmaster.
The biggest challenge was to design and choreograph the sound in ways that would immerse, but not exhaust, the audience
The designs were tailored to describe the extreme conditions onboard the rig, inform the audience of the technology of oil drilling and express the specifics and magnitude of the destruction. As far as the choice and placement of sounds – or their absence – the focus was twofold: to ensure that the sound effects never overpowered the human experience of the crew and to clearly articulate the implications of mechanical failures.
One challenge was to create acoustical space, since the geography of the story happens in two very isolated locations: on the ocean floor, five thousand feet underwater, and up on the rig platform in the middle of the ocean. In order to express scale, speed and distance, some of the design favored feeling over sound accuracy.
In terms of rig mechanics, we needed to establish the sounds and functionality of the rig’s components under normal conditions and later under overloaded conditions. The rig’s navigation system, engines, pumping systems and BOP (blow out preventer) on the ocean floor all needed to be established and become quickly familiar to the audience.
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What was the first sound you tackled for this film?
The design I tackled first was the opening sequence. The scene takes us down the pipe to the bottom of the ocean, revealing the BOP. This was a great introduction to the filmmakers’ stylistic approach. They were determined to have the audience “be the camera” to see what is going on under the hood. This also inspired the idea to use sections from the original recordings of Mike Williams’ original testimony as the very opening of the movie which we play over the opening titles.
How did you go about designing the mechanical elements, like the thrusters for example? Were those sounds created using sounds from libraries? Did you record any sounds in the field?
The mechanical sounds evolved and changed over time. Some of the machinery came from original recordings and some were a combination of recorded source together with design. I did a field recording in a port in Israel where I got access to pumping facilities and ships; these served as a great base for a lot of the industry we hear on the rig. For some of the big set pieces, I added a layer of design elements to inform a sense of weight, movement, and energy.
Expressing size and weight was tricky because details that I would have ordinarily omitted were necessary in order to understand functionality. The solution was to consider cause and effect. Favoring the reaction of the environment to an event in the design created the impression of width and weight while making room for specifics. This was done in the form of structural vibrations, impacts on the rig, echoes to the PAs, tonal elements to the underwater environment, and water movement to express the force of the underwater mechanics. In the case of the thrusters, the final sound is a combination of elements that Wylie Stateman (supervising sound editor) designed with Harry Cohen, Sylvain Lasseur and myself.
The oil rig is surrounded by water. How did you use the ocean in your design? What was your approach there?
In terms of the elements that contributed to the disaster, the ocean itself was not a major player. On the day of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the sea was actually calm. The lack of water turbulence was a very valuable tool. It presented the opportunity to use it exactly as that, as an element of quiet and calm to counter the chaos. This was very effective in the wide shots of the rig where the sounds speak to the vastness of the geography and isolation of the rig in contrast to the violent water at the bottom of the moonpool and the rushing water inside the lower decks after the explosion.
On the oil rig, things are breaking down and exploding apart. How did you approach the different types of explosions in the film?
As with other elements of the story, the main focus was to clarify what the different explosions meant for the loss of control over the rig. Each breakdown, system malfunction or overload was given specific attention using a variety of elements. More important than the blasts themselves were their sources – each called for a different treatment. The first two major explosive events were the ‘kick’ and blowout, where pressure sent mud blasting out on the drilling floor. Here, the focus was on pressure and the force of the particles. The next major explosive events involved methane gas. The gas accelerated the engine to the point of overload and that is when fire exploded through the lower levels of the rig that resulted in an atomic-like explosion. This explosion is designed to be a massive, instantaneous eruption.
Recording fire sounds for Deepwater Horizon
How did Foley play a role in the sound design for the explosions and breakdowns?
Foley Supervisor Gary Hecker (at Sony Pictures Studios) provided us with a great palette of sounds. The Foley component was used in the designs to add visceral detail. Gary’s performances were great, both in the explosions and the portraits of the lead characters as they wade through the debris across the rig.
Any favorite audio tools for this film? Can you give some specific examples of how you used them?
As far as plug-ins and instruments go, I would say that my main tool was a series of processing chains of saturation, distortions, delays, futzing and low end. I used these in creating textures, hard edges and mass for things like the PAs, explosions and underwater movement. That said, I am more of a story guy than anything else. At the top of my list for gear is always a field recorder, great monitors and a good sounding room where, together with the filmmakers, I can shape sounds and make choices that stand the test of time. I look to find a singular sound signature that creates a connection to the visuals.
You got to do the sound design and then keep your hands on it through the mix. Is that natural for you? Do you feel it’s easy to make decisions about your sound design during the final mix in regards to what elements serve the story best?
Mixing is not only an extension of the editorial design process, it is an inseparable part of the design of the sound experience. Everybody does it differently. For me, it’s about when to listen and when to let go and just hear. To me, listening is about the sound and hearing is the perception of the entire experience. It’s a bit of a dance.
Maybe it’s just semantics, but the point is to pay attention in different ways to determine how it all feels together – to determine how the track performs.
To me, listening is about the sound and hearing is the perception of the entire experience
As far as making decisions on the stage, I am not precious about any sound that doesn’t work for the story – losing it is not a compromise, rather a step forward. That said, nobody is perfect and a great mixing partner will always help balance me out.
Being intimate with the material is a strength in the mixing chair – it lends to knowing what elements to reach for as we shape the track against dialogue, music and the intentions established by the filmmakers.
I do it with my own material so I wouldn’t hire someone like me if I were not mixing. Instead, I would get a great mixer who is a great storyteller that has serious technique and experience under his belt. Sometimes that’s better for the film. A full-time mixer brings to the table very different things than I do – we overlap but don’t replace one another.
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