Don't Look Up film sound Asbjoern Andersen


Netflix's Don't Look Up is a dark comedy about the destruction of Earth via a planet-killer comet. Here, supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Christopher Scarabosio talks about respecting science in his space designs, finding creative ways to distinguish locations on quick cuts, building big crowds for nearly empty stadiums, and more!
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Netflix
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Netflix’s Don’t Look Up is a satirical look at the collision of science, politics, and corporate greed caused by the impending destruction of Earth by a massive comet impact – brought to you by Oscar-winnning writer/director Adam McKay, known for film like The Big Short, Vice, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

He tapped 3x Oscar-nominated and Emmy and CAS Award-winning supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer Christopher Scarabosio at Skywalker Sound, who has experience with both comedy films (The French Dispatch, Despicable Me, Vice ) and “space” films (Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).

Here, Scarabosio talks about designing space scenes using NASA recordings as reference, creating massives crowds for concerts and rally events that had a limited number of on-screen extras, finding the best way to define distinct locations for quick-cut scenes, and more!



DON'T LOOK UP | Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence | Official Trailer | Netflix


DON’T LOOK UP | Official Trailer | Netflix

Chris, you had so many roles on Don’t Look Up — supervising sound editor, sound designer, and re-recording mixer…

DontLookUp_sound-02

Sup. sound editor/re-rec. mixer Christopher Scarabosio

Christopher Scarabosio (CS): First base, second base, third base, catcher…

It gets to be a lot sometimes, but it’s the relationship I’ve built with the filmmakers over the years. Last year was a little crazy because projects overlapped due to the pandemic. Normally, it’s good, but when projects overlap it can get a little nutty.
 

It must be gratifying to see the film all the way through, to have a hand in the creation and the final mix.…

CS: It’s why I do it. I started getting scenes from Hank [Corwin, picture editor] in November 2020. He was asking for help with scenes that were challenging due to Covid protocols, like the big concert and rally scenes. He wanted the sense of large crowds but there were only about 40 people in this giant stadium. That was all they were able to film with. He needed help sonically to feel what the scale was going to be like.

Getting involved early and getting ideas during conversations with Hank and director Adam McKay, and getting a sense of what the film was going to develop into is really why I do this – why I’m willing to take on the various roles. It’s gratifying being involved early and seeing it evolve.

 

DontLookUp_sound-03

You were an ideal choice for this film since you’re no stranger to “space” films, having worked on Star Wars and Star Trek projects. What were the filmmakers seeking in terms of how space is handled sonically on Don’t Look Up?

CS: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked on a space movie and the same question still comes up: Is there sound in space?

With this particular film, because they did want the science to be as accurate as possible, it came up.

They didn’t want the space scenes to be an overwhelming visual effects and sound effects bonanza…

They didn’t want the space scenes to be an overwhelming visual effects and sound effects bonanza (not that there’s tons of it in this film). On the Shuttle launch, we definitely went all in. But in space, they had talked to experts at NASA, and I had access to those people. I could listen to NASA recordings.

The general takeaway is you’d feel sounds more than you’d actually hear them. So, that was guiding me on the scenes when we’re in space.

 

DontLookUp_sound-04

One of the biggest “in space” scenes is when the BASH droids are landing on the comet and they’re trying to blow up sections of it to diminish its size and potentially save Earth in the process. Can you tell me about your sound work on that scene?

CS: I’ve always spent a fair amount of time on the NASA site – not only for the amazing images from space but also to listen to the recordings from the Mars Rover and sound clips of various events that have taken place in space. So I’ve been studying that.

Also, there’s a cinematic element you have to play to as well.

The early conversation with Adam and Hank — in regards to their conversations with the NASA expert – was more about how you’d feel sound more than you’d hear it.

Even with things fairly muted, Hank felt that it was too much, too flashy.

For the first pass, we did the scene how we would normally do it, and then I mixed it in a way that felt more representative of feeling sound in space. Even with things fairly muted, Hank felt that it was too much, too flashy.

So I took his note and went further into the idea of what we might feel rather than hear in those moments. And that’s where we ended up. When we’re inside the capsule, we see one of the BASH modules blast off. I referenced recordings from the Mars Rover and created similar sounds for that moment.

I referenced recordings from the Mars Rover and created similar sounds for that moment.

The BASH module fly-bys are another example of feeling motion rather than hearing a loud whoosh. When the BASH droids land on the comet and the explosions start, those explosions have more tonality and low-frequency elements than big, loud explosions you’d hear on Earth.

 


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DontLookUp_sound-05

In addition to the science side of Don’t Look Up, there’s a very human side. As this comet is hurtling toward Earth, there are some scenes of chaos and quiet moments happening all around the planet. How were you able to have some fun with the sound of that montage? Or, what were some of your challenges on this montage?

CS: This was something we worked on in those early meetings with Hank – and we did a fair amount of temp mixes that were played for audiences. So we had several cracks at it. But, it was about trying to capture the visceral and human quality of chaos and loss of the natural world, and how powerful that is, how sad and awful.

…we were trying to maximize each cut and focus on that specifically…

We were trying to integrate all those emotions and feelings in a primal sense of how this could possibly be happening. There are a lot of quick cuts and we were trying to maximize each cut and focus on that specifically instead of having an interconnected wall of sound. It was about embracing the cutiness of the sequence and trying to bring focus to each of the quick cuts and the intensity of the event.

 

DontLookUp_sound-08

Another fun scene is when President Orlean makes the announcement that the comet is going to impact the Earth. She delivers the speech aboard a naval ship. Her speech is seen on different screens in different places and also aboard the ship. Can you talk about your approach to the different treatments you did for her voice, and for building the different locations that the scene cuts to?

CS: Hank and I were constantly talking. His thoughts were: what can we do to make this feel worldwide – like it’s happening across the globe? It started with the treatment of the dialogue for all the different scenes and environments. We did recordings of different TVs and speakers in different environments with those lines.

We did recordings of different TVs and speakers in different environments with those lines.

When shots are so quickly cut, it’s hard to find sounds that read immediately. Most sounds develop over time and that’s how we build environments – over time, they evolve. But you don’t have that opportunity when things are moving around so fast, and you can’t get in the way of the dialogue. We had to find what sound registered as different – what felt like you were in different environments.

We tried to be specific to where we geographically, like this shot is in Asia so maybe there are bicycle bells. We had to find sounds that matched the location, and then find little bits that read for a quick second. It was hard to do.

At one point it hit me that a hum has a tonality without being musical, and that could give the sense of changing locations.

Hums and fans, which we normally try to get rid of, became very helpful. At one point it hit me that a hum has a tonality without being musical, and that could give the sense of changing locations.

It was almost an inverse challenge, trying to make these short cuts read as a specific environment in a short amount of time. We had to find sounds that didn’t seem too choppy and somehow gave a sense of moving across the globe. It was a combination of finding proper sound effects and treating the dialogue in a way that felt distinct for each edit.

 

DontLookUp_sound-07

That’s a great idea to use hums to create a subtle frequency shift when you cut from one place to another. It’s just enough of a difference, and it’s not an overt change. You just get the hint that the room tone has changed and so you’re in a different location. That’s cool!

CS: Yeah! I’ve been fortunate to work with filmmakers who are both directors and writers. I know their dialogue is always a pinnacle part of these films. So, part of the challenge is not getting in the way of the words.

 

[tweet_box]Designing and Mixing the Sound of ‘Don’t Look Up’ – with Christopher Scarabosio[/tweet_box]

DontLookUp_sound-06

I loved the treatment you did on President Orlean’s voice on the ship. It has that wonderful, too-live podium mic sound and then this great slap delay on it…

CS: That went back to the work of January 2021; it was one of the scenes that Hank wanted to feel as big as it could possibly be. It’s almost as if the speakers were overloading a little bit.

All of that is very intentional, and we hit on that quality very early and kept it through the whole thing.

…I boosted the low end and added subtle distortion on everyone who spoke at the event, so that it felt like they were overselling it…

The production dialogue there wasn’t super clean. It was a combo of a boom and the lav mic.

As part of the treatment, I boosted the low end and added subtle distortion on everyone who spoke at the event, so that it felt like they were overselling it – like they were trying to cover up how inept they are at their job. It adds to the idea of the event being rushed with a lack of preparation. They didn’t have much time to suss this out. That was all part of the thought process.

 

DontLookUp_sound-10

How did you create the sound of the Bronteroc that eats President Orlean at the end?

CS: For the Bronteroc, I give credit to the picture department because that sound came from them early on. We didn’t have an early visual for the creature.

We helped with the attack part of it, but the first Bronteroc vocal from the picture department could not be denied.

That sound always made us laugh. We asked ourselves, “Are they really going to use this?” We prepared our own versions that were perhaps more literal, or perhaps a different “professional” grade of sound effect. But the original sound stuck. It was so goofy. And every time we tried to change it, we felt like the goofy one always seemed right.

We ended up putting in a few of the nasty calls right before the flock of Bronterocs attacked the crew from the ship. We helped with the attack part of it, but the first Bronteroc vocal from the picture department could not be denied.

 

DontLookUp_sound-11

Did you have a favorite scene for sound design? What was the most fun for you to build?

CS: I love the opening scene because it’s so great. I made big telescope movement sounds and those are intercut with Kate singing Wu-Tang. I love the way that starts off the movie.

I liked having to find weird, exotic animal sounds to create this Xanadu environment.

There are lots of little moments I really like, for instance, the Shuttle liftoff with the big choral score and massive rocket launch sound effects.

I like the big spaceship at the very end when they finally find a suitable planet to land on. Again, with the pods detaching from the big ship in space, we were trying to make it as cool and slick as possible but also keeping in mind that we’re feeling the sound more than we’re hearing it. I had to find sounds in the low-mids that didn’t have the high-end aspect. Then when they land on the planet, it’s full-frequency sound. I liked having to find weird, exotic animal sounds to create this Xanadu environment.

It’s this very humbling, humanistic moment intercut with the madness of trying to mine a comet.

The social media madness was fun. There are mashups of dialogue from various people and sound effects for the different computer posts and music. Those were a lot of fun, and they were ever-changing as well. We were constantly trying to keep up and redesign for the changes.

I also loved the scene during the BASH launch and Dr. Mindy, Kate, and her boyfriend Yule are driving to the grocery store before heading to Dr. Mindy’s house to make peace with his wife. There is intercutting between a quiet, cold night as Dr. Mindy walks up to the front door, tail between his legs, trying to get back home and massive rockets blasting off. I love how it goes back and forth between those two moments. It’s this very humbling, humanistic moment intercut with the madness of trying to mine a comet.

 

And what about the mix? Did you have a favorite scene to mix?

CS: For me, they go hand in hand. Design is nothing if it doesn’t end up in the film. It’s about the weaving of it all. It’s all one big tapestry of design and mixing; for me it’s all the same thing.

 

DontLookUp_sound-12

Overall, what was unique about your experience of working on Don’t Look Up?

CS: There are a few things. The first thing that pops into mind is my relationship with Hank Corwin, the picture editor. And Adam McKay being such an amazing, brilliant filmmaker. I was interacting more with Hank than with Adam in the early stages.

There is nothing like having everybody in the same room during a mix.

Also, everyone working remote makes the process more difficult. There is nothing like having everybody in the same room during a mix. Eventually, we got there with everyone wearing masks. We did a lot of the temp mixes remotely. Tony Villaflor, the other re-recording mixer, and I at one point were lamenting the fact that mixing remotely works but it’s not better. You’re never quite sure what someone else is hearing in their location versus what you’re hearing in yours. They’re different rooms. It’s amazing that we can do all this work remotely, and there are a lot of positives to it, but when it comes time to finish, there is nothing quite like everyone being in the same room.

It’s also about the banter, and being with people you like.

It’s also about the banter, and being with people you like. With someone like Adam, who has a brilliant comedic mind as well as factual knowledge, having those interludes between playing back a scene ten times and then being able to joke about Step Brothers or whatever, those are the things that make a mix feel like you’re collaborating and building relationships. When you’re working remotely, there’s an inherent delay where you wait and they wait and then you both talk at the same time.

The fact that we’ve been able to keep working is phenomenal and amazing; there are so many pros to it. But I miss these people. I like working with them! That’s a big part of the process.

 

A big thanks to Christopher Scarabosio for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of Don’t Look Up and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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