Fallout Amazon series sound design and sound effects interview Asbjoern Andersen


Amazon MGM Studios' Fallout is a live-action series based on Bethesda Game Studios' fan-favorite RPG franchise - and with a staggering 80 million viewers so far, it's a gigantic hit. The show tells a unique story set in the world of the Fallout games, so staying true to the sound established in the games was the goal.

Here, supervising sound editor Susan Cahill and sound designer Daniel Colman at Universal Studios in Los Angeles talk about incorporating actual sounds from the games into their work on the series and expanding those sounds to fit the action on-screen. They talk about creating the sound for inside the Vaults, the town of Filly, and Dr. Wilzig's lab. They discuss their approach to designing sounds for the Titan power armor and Vertibirds, creating the sounds for Jim's Limbs and the bone saw, and much more!


Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Amazon Prime Video; Susan Cahill; Daniel Colman
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There was much anticipation leading up to the Fallout series streaming on Amazon Prime Video. As one of Bethesda Game Studios’ most popular IPs, fans were hoping the series’ showrunners would get it right. And they absolutely did. The show’s success has even sparked renewed interest in the Fallout games. According to Bethesda’s Fallout account on X (formerly Twitter), over one million players were on Fallout 76 in a single day, with almost five million playing across all Fallout games in a single day.

The show tells an original story that’s set in the world of the Fallout games. To help the series sound team – led by 2x-Emmy-winning sound supervisor Susan Cahill and Emmy and MPSE Award-winning sound designer Daniel Colman at StudioPost at Universal Studios in Los Angeles – stay true to what’s been established so far, Bethesda supplied them with a library of sound effects from the games. Cahill and Colman also watched tons of gameplay videos to become well-versed in the sound of the Fallout game franchise. This invaluable knowledge allowed them to confidently create sounds that would fit the live-action series while also fitting the Fallout IP.

Here, Cahill and Colman talk about their opportunities to put actual game sounds into the series, how they created the sound for different locations in the show, what went into designing the sound of the Vertibirds, the Titan power armor, Jim’s Limbs leg replacement, the yao guai (irradiated bear) and gulper, and more. They also break down their work in scenes from Ep. 2 “The Target,” like Dr. Wilzig’s lab, the Ghoul’s fight in Filly, and more!



Fallout - Official Trailer | Prime Video


Fallout – Official Trailer | Prime Video

Since Fallout began as a game franchise, did you get to collaborate with the game sound team in order to re-create some of the iconic game sounds? And how did the showrunners – Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Jonah Nolan, and Graham Wagner – want to honor what’s been done in the game for the sound of the series?

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Sound supervisor Susan Cahill

Sue Cahill (SC): We didn’t get a chance to collaborate with the game sound team, but we did have access to a library of sound effects from Bethesda. So that was really great.

We all wanted to stay true to the game and honor its sound. It has a huge fan following, and serious fan base. So working with the library from Bethesda, we were able to incorporate some of those sounds from the game into the series. Of course, the sounds from the game were really short pieces, so they needed a lot more layers to build out and to play with the picture. But the authentic sounds from the game are in the series and serve as our foundation.

Daniel Colman (DC): When we couldn’t use those exact sounds, they still served as a great reference point for where we needed to take things.

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Sound designer Daniel Colman

Even between the various games, the sounds kept on changing, so we had the ability to take little pieces from each game when they felt appropriate. For example in the pilot, when Lucy finally exits the vault and comes out of the big circular door, I went through all of the different vault door sounds they provided and found the little pieces that trigger the ear and sound iconic. When the vault door starts opening up there’s a little bit of Vault 111 from Fallout 4 in there. And as the door is getting towards the end of the roll, where it’s just about to be fully open, there’s some of Vault 76 in there.

We also watched so many hours of gameplay videos to get the feel how it all sounds in the game.

Once we premiered, there was very much that tenterhooks feeling of, “Will the fans like it? What will they say? Will they be pleased with what we did?”

 

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So were you able to direct lift those sounds, like the sound of the Pip Boy, or did you have to recreate it in order to match the actions in the show?

DC: Actually, the Pip Boy was one thing for which we could use a lot of sounds from the game. And when the Pip Boy is doing something in the show that it didn’t necessarily do in the game, we could make something that sounds similar, and then futz it through a little speaker so it feels like it’s coming out of the Pip Boy.

We were able to use a lot of the UI sounds from the game for things in the show – for instance, the heads-up display inside Max’s armor.

 

6 Sound Facts about Fallout:

 

Q: Who did the sound design for Fallout?
A: The sound team at StudioPost at Universal Studios in Los Angeles was led by sound supervisor Susan Cahill and sound designer Daniel Colman. Re-recording mixers were Keith Rogers and Steve Bucino. Cahill and showrunner/director Jonathan Nolan (brother to director Christopher Nolan) had worked together on Westworld.

Q: Who composed the music for Fallout?
A: The music for Fallout was composed by Ramin Djawadi. Djawadi previously worked with Fallout director Jonathan Nolan and sound supervisor Susan Cahill on Westworld.

Q: What was one important sound the Fallout series team created using elements from the games?
A: Sound designer Daniel Colman used many of the UI sounds from the game for things in the show, such as the heads-up display inside the Titan armor and for the Pip Boy.

Q: Who handled the foley on Fallout?
A: The foley on Fallout was performed by Pamela Kahn (foley artist), Dominique Decaudain (foley artist), and Nancy Parker (foley artist), with Mike Marino as foley mixer. Additionally, there was Randall Guth (foley editor) and Katherine Rose (foley artist).

Q: What went into the sound of the Ghoul’s gun in Fallout?
A: The Ghoul’s gun was one of the hardest sounds to nail down in the show. Many versions of it were created before they settled on a potato gun-based sound designed by Joe Fraioli.

Q: What’s the most surprising story behind the sound of Fallout?
A: The sound of Fallout is full of humor and humanity. For the sound of the gulper, director Jonathan Nolan performed vocalizations that were recorded on the dub stage. Sound designer Daniel Colman pitched these down, added some resonances, and cut them into the sounds he’d already designed for the gulper. Nolan’s vocals add a human aspect to the creature, which started life as a human but was transformed by failed experiments.

What went into the sounds inside the Vault? There’s this cool retro vibe and vintage gear, like the film projector and the Shure 55SH. Can you talk about creating the sound for this space?

DC: The vault needed to feel like it was this isolated, underground space with pressurized air. There are a lot of heavy metal drones, air vent rattling, and water flowing through pipe sounds. We used a bunch of old submarine sounds in there too, as well as broken fans and so on, really playing up the old, thick metal feeling of it all.

The interior vault doors are made of multiple metal panels, so I made them scrape and clunk as they’re going up. Nothing is smooth like it would be in a spaceship or something like that. It’s all very mechanical and grounded.

The Shure 55… mic was plugged in and was feeding the PA system when he was talking to the crowd in the wedding scene.

SC: As far as the voices we hear in the vault, the general feeling we were going for in loop group was to convey a very polite and positive tone. There’s always a silver lining with everything, right? This is a society where everyone helps each other and works together. We were trying to really get that point across. In one scene, Lucy says that she comes from a place where the worst thing you can do to someone is to forget to say, “thank you.”
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DC: For the projector, in one of the close-up shots you see it going through three different stages. So, you’ve got a thick Moviola sound, and then it goes to a 35mm projector, and then to a 16mm projector. When it gets shot up during the battle and starts winding down, I recorded a bunch of old mag film flapping around over my desk for it coming undone.

The Shure 55 that you’re asking about – that Kyle McLaughlin is talking into – that mic was plugged in and was feeding the PA system when he was talking to the crowd in the wedding scene. For his close-ups, we’re using a regular boom mic, but we’ve got that nice contrast with the actual old mic.

 

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In addition to recording the mag film, did you do any other field recordings/custom recordings for the show?

DC: Sure, but a lot of it was just odds and ends, like metal scrapes and gear grinds. I’ve got my handy Zoom F3; that is my go-to field recorder because it’s so quick to use and you don’t even have to set levels with 32-bit float recording.

The Vertibirds are based on V22 Osprey helicopters that the military uses.

In general, the things that I saw in the show leaned heavily into my personal sound library of 30 years of recording for and editing sci-fi shows. There was very little that I needed to go out and record. The one thing I thought would be a recording session was for the Vertibird, because the sound from the game is a two-second loop of a helicopter blade and that wasn’t going to work for all of the many things that the Vertibirds are doing throughout the show.

…two of our recordists here at Universal had just done a full recording of the V22 Ospreys a few years ago…

The Vertibirds are based on V22 Osprey helicopters that the military uses. They sound different than other helicopters because the blades are positioned above when they are rising up, and then shift to facing forward when flying, so it switches to more of a dual prop plane sound. I thought we were going to have to go out and record them, but it turned out that two of our recordists here at Universal had just done a full recording of the V22 Ospreys a few years ago, down at Miramar Air Force Base for a movie they did here. I was able to use that as the basis of the Vertibird sound, and added other things to give the ships more of a menacing feel. To make it feel more in the game world, I added in layers of metal creaking and rattling. These are not well-maintained military helicopters; they are junky things that have been sitting around after a nuclear war.

 

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Looking at Ep. 2, what went into the sounds for the scene in Dr. Wilzig’s laboratory?

SC: What’s interesting about this scene is all the perspective shifts. We’re constantly cutting in and out between the dog’s point of view. So when we’re in the dog’s vision, we have everything sound blurred and foggy because the dog is just a puppy and still discovering the world. So we’re really with the puppy in those shots, seeing and hearing it through her eyes. In those POVs, we have this pulsing sound that’s like blood in the ears. It gives us a sense that it’s hard to hear what’s going on.


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… we’re in the dog’s vision, we have everything sound blurred and foggy because the dog is just a puppy and still discovering the world.

And this progresses throughout the scene. At first, the dog (they call her Four) can’t understand Wilzig and then it’s very clear at the end. In fact, we played it even brighter in the last dog POV shot when Wilzig says “sit” since dogs hear better than humans.

DC: In contrast to all of the blurry sounds for the dog vision, we have the thick, harsh sounds of the machinery in the lab. Like when Wilzig injects the diode into his neck, there’s a sharp jarring crunch when he kicks the lever on the floor. We also incorporated some of the stim pack sound from the game to tie it in.
 

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What went into the sounds of the Titan power armor? And the vocal processing for the Titan?

DC: The power armor sound I built from some large machinery recordings I made way back in the day for Battlestar Galactica that I didn’t end up using. The walking sound for the Titan is a big industrial press. I also used a bunch of steam engine hatches and doors to get the feel of the thickness of the metal armor.

I even put some sounds inside as if there are pieces that aren’t quite attached because again, these aren’t state-of-the-art suits.

One fun thing was that we could play him very differently in certain scenes. In the interrogation scene in Ep. 1, where the knight is walking behind Max, we played it more from Max’s perspective of what the armor sounds like. There are thunderous booms and metal creaking of the ship and stuff. It’s this gigantic sound because it’s the emotion of what Max is feeling about the armor.

In contrast to that, when Titus is in the back of the Vertibird in Ep. 2 as they’re flying to Filly, there’s this great shot where you see his head bouncing back and forth so I put in these janky metal sounds of it rocking and hitting stuff. I even put some sounds inside as if there are pieces that aren’t quite attached because again, these aren’t state-of-the-art suits. They have flaws to them that they talk about later in the show. They were never designed very well.

SC: For the treatment of the voice coming through the suit, we had a combination of plugins, like gate, futz, and pitch shifting, and also the radio sounds going in and out before and after he speaks because he’s physically clicking a speaker every time he speaks.

Every line was individually adjusted based on the actor’s performance. Every line needed to be treated differently.

With all these settings, it wasn’t just a one-size-fits-all processing. Every line was individually adjusted based on the actor’s performance. Every line needed to be treated differently. That was really important. It was also a lot of fun because sometimes it needed to be more threatening, and other times we could play up the comedy. So for example, there was a funny moment when Titus removes his helmet and we see it’s Michael Rapaport. The Titan suit vocal processing made him have this low, menacing voice, and when he takes off the helmet his real voice was high. That got a great response from the audience during our screening.

 

Fallout_sound-10

I love the scene where Max is in the Titan suit fighting The Ghoul, and he’s doing a not-so-great job of flying through the air during his escape. His processed screams are hilarious!

The Titan and Maximus take on an irradiated bear. What went into the bear sounds? And can you talk about building the sound for this attack scene?

DC: The yao guai (the irradiated bear) was my audition for working on the show. I got a call on a Friday afternoon that two of the producers wanted to come down and show me some scenes. The sound designer they had worked with on Westworld had recommended me for this. They had already worked with a few other people trying to develop what the sound of the show would be. It was a whole process of discovery. So, they came down and showed me the yao guai scene from Ep. 2 and the Gulper (the giant salamander monster) scene from Ep. 3.

We talked about the different contrasting ideas that were going on – this is a huge, scary monster from Max and Titus’s point of view, yet for the game, there’s also comedy to it. There are a few moments where the yao guai’s reaction are almost Scooby-Dooish as it’s shaking off a punch. So how do you play the various different aspects of it?

In the end, the yao guai is about 90% one of the versions I did on that Saturday…

I told them, “Great, go away and come back Monday morning.” And when they came back, I had six different versions of both of the creatures. With the yao guai, it ranged from using all different kinds of bear sounds to making it a full monster with no bear sounds whatsoever, using different creature and animal sounds that conveyed the emotion that I wanted to get in each moment.

When they came back, there wasn’t this moment of, “Yes. That’s the sound.” We had a lot of different creative voices, a lot of executive producers on the show, so it was more for them to know that I could stretch creatively and go in different directions, to work with them on developing the sound of the show.

In the end, the yao guai is about 90% one of the versions I did on that Saturday – with a couple of little tweaks, mostly because the visual effects changed. There are some bear sounds in there, but it’s definitely a combination of a lot sounds, and for some of it, it’s actually my voice.

 

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Were you using any plugins or software, like Krotos’s Dehumanizer, to turn your voice into a creature?

DC: No, I find it better to just tweak a vocal performance manually. I don’t usually go to plugins that do multiple things for creatures. I want to go hands-on and adjust each aspect myself. I did use Dehumanizer later in the show on some of the lines when the feral ghouls are talking.

 

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Any tips for performing monster/creature sounds? What’s your favorite way of achieving the sound you’re imagining?

DC: The first thing when you’re doing a monster voice is realizing that you’re going to pitch it down, so you want to record it at a high sample rate to have more information when you process it lower.

You can get really close to a dynamic mic to get a good-sounding low-frequency boost from the natural proximity effect.

Then you can add some animal sounds on top of it, matching the pitch and envelope of your vocal performance until they sound like one voice.

 

Fallout_sound-12

Let’s talk about creating the sound of Filly. How did you make this place feel foreign and intimidating for Lucy – completely different to everything she has experienced in the Vaults?

SC: Yeah, exactly. We needed to really feel the danger here and how out of place Lucy was in this world. The surface dwellers have had a rough life. The effects of radiation really come through in their voices. What we’re hearing in the group is very gravelly and gruff; we’re hearing off-putting sounds like these maniacal laughs, coughing, and other unsettling voices. We have a fight going on in the distance. We just want to feel that there are threats all around her. We really want the audience to feel that way when she first enters Filly. The Dolby Atmos mix here really helped us because we feel the voices bloom as we’re entering, as the camera moves in, and we’re entering this world.

…the group is very gravelly and gruff; we’re hearing off-putting sounds like these maniacal laughs, coughing, and other unsettling voices.

The group had to be versatile and be able to switch up their voice because we have some Vault scenes where they have to sound polite, sound like they come from a place of peace and order, and then they have to do a 180 and have a completely opposite tone for Filly.

DC: From a sound standpoint, Filly is really a wild Western town, with lots of dangerous voices and animals. There’s plenty of wood and thin metal creaks, as opposed to the thick metal droney sounds in the vault. It’s this busy space with wind and things flapping and banging around. In the marketplace outside of Filly, we have some recordings of a Morocan souk in there with distant shouting to add to the foreign feel. It makes for a big contrast between both the Vault and the wide-open empty desert that Lucy’s been walking through.

 

Fallout_sound-13

What went into the sound of The Ghoul’s overpowered gun? There’s this cool moment when we’re flying behind one of his bullets that then slams into an assailant – can you talk about your sound work there?

DC: A lot of the guns in Fallout (in the game and in what we did) aren’t real guns. They’re these contraptions put together from spare parts. For example, you’ve got the junk jet that fires the baby doll’s limb into the guy at the end of Ep. 1.

The Ghoul’s gun was one of the hardest sounds to nail down in the show because nobody knew exactly what it needed to be. We did many versions of it before settling on a potato gun that Joe Fraioli came up with. There’s a metal element in it too, and a bit of a lightning strike. In some shots, I added other elements to the sound to give it more power and drama.

We did many versions of it before settling on a potato gun that Joe Fraioli came up with.

For the slow-mo shot, I added in a mortar launch at the beginning of it, and then this air ripping sound that I slowed down as it was getting to the first body. As it’s petering out and right before it hits, you can hear it stutter as if it’s having a hard time getting through, before it finally explodes into the first guy. The sound then really ramps up and hits the second guy and takes off his head.

It’s one of those subtle things; by taking out all of the other sounds around it and focusing on just the bullet flying through the air in slow motion, we can make the audience lean in with anticipation, before getting hit with the wave of sound on the impact. On many shows, that would be really hard to do because action scenes are played so often with loud music over them. But the score in this was so easy to work with because composer Ramin Djawadi just knows when to leave space for the sound effects and then have music take over in other places. He’s such an incredible composer and fun to work with as a sound designer.

SC: He is just gifted. It’s an absolute pleasure to work with him.

 

Fallout_sound-14

The Ghoul faces off against the Titan – what were some of your opportunities for having fun with sound here?

SC: This scene is definitely a highlight.

One of my favorite moments in this scene is when Maximus loses control of the jet pack and flies around uncontrollably. What a great opportunity there. Our mixers, Keith Rogers and Steve Bucino did an awesome job using Atmos to make the sound bounce around overhead and in all directions. And as you mentioned, his screams were hilarious there.

We had a lot of fun in this scene with ADR…We let actor Walton Goggins play around with that in ADR and he gave us some great material to work with.

We had a lot of fun in this scene with ADR. There were a couple of Indiana Jones kind of moments where the Ghoul gets thrown around. Jonah just loved that and we wanted to play that up. We let actor Walton Goggins play around with that in ADR and he gave us some great material to work with. So that was just one of those really fun days on the job.

DC: My favorite part was when Max flies down and lands on the wooden path, getting stuck as his armored leg crashes through it. I played up the strain on his servos and the wood groaning as he tries to break free. He’s just this trapped animal that the Ghoul is playing with.

 

Fallout_sound-15

What went into the sound of the Jim’s Limbs replacement leg? This thing was wonderfully awful…

DC: Yeah, I loved hearing the audience’s reaction to getting grossed out by that in our screening.

This was a multi-layer device and we wanted to feel each stage of it. It first turns on and you get that close-up shot of the teeth grinding and then it attaches to Wilzig’s leg. Ma June works it through the first bone, and it breaks through that, and then it goes into the flesh. So there’s all these different layers.

… I took a big metal can and put shards in that, and put the microphone right in the middle and swirled around the shards.

I started off with two different garbage disposal sounds – one that was a normal functioning garbage disposal and then one that was broken with metal grinding in it. Then I took a big metal can and put shards in that, and put the microphone right in the middle and swirled around the shards. You can really hear those pieces moving around in that close-up shot of the teeth.

Then, when it pushes in, there’s this low, big servo sound that beefs up and shimmies as it’s grinding through that first bone. We then added in all of the gore sounds of the blood pouring out on the floor.

 

Fallout_sound-16

What went into the sound of the limb saw that Lucy uses to remove Wilzig’s head? (This sounded exactly how you’d think it would sound. Perfect!)

DC: There’s no gasoline in the Fallout world. That’s long gone. So the initial sound you hear is an electric chainsaw. Then, for when you see the teeth moving, I took a metal chain and rubbed it over a metal bar so you get that clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk sound; a very sharp, recurring metal sound. Then of course, when it cuts to black and she cuts off his head, I added in a surgical saw and then more blood and guts.

 

Fallout_sound-17

What was unique in your experience of creating the sound for Fallout?

DC: For me, what was unique about it was the process of it. Normally on a TV show, once you get through the playback mix for the executives and address all of their notes, that’s it. It goes to air. This show was done much more like how we do a film. I started with sound design way before it locked and cut effects that went into the Avid. The video editors got to work with that for a while. Then we got a cut of the show, built everything, and did a temp dub. Those tracks went back into the Avid as they kept on cutting and as more visual effects came in. So, the producers got to live with the sounds that we had done in the first mix and got to decide over time what worked and what we needed to improve on. It was really about dialing in the sound of Fallout.

…the producers got to live with the sounds that we had done in the first mix and got to decide over time what worked and what we needed to improve on.

One big example of that is the Gulper in Ep. 3. The end result uses some sounds from the game and there are a lot of sounds that I did in that initial Saturday audition for the show. There are these gross belchy, gurgly sounds that Joe came up with. And then, there’s Jonah Nolan’s voice in there. We got to the mix stage and everything was working for everybody else but he just shook his head and said, “It needs one thing more. Can you put up a microphone?” So he did a vocal pass through a couple of the scenes, mostly to add a little more comedy to it. When the Gulper is chasing Thaddeus up the beach, and it’s going, “rah rah rah rah rah.” That’s Jonah’s voice that I pitched down, added some resonance to it, and cut in time with all of the other sound effects. You really get that humanity because the creature used to be a man and was turned into this in a failed experiment.

The close-up shot of all the fingers in the Gulper’s mouth was a last-minute VFX update that we didn’t know was coming. Crystal Whelan, our post-producer, had the idea that we should hear the sound of a thousand lost souls screaming when we see the fingers. I grabbed a ton of screams from my library, both human and animal, and threw them in a deep dungeon reverb and then added some recordings I had of two of my Aztec death whistles to create that horrible scream.

One thing for me that was so unique was to work on something that already has fans even before it’s released.

SC: One thing for me that was so unique was to work on something that already has fans even before it’s released. It was just really exciting to be part of something that’s so highly anticipated. Of course, we all just hope that it lives up to all the expectations. But I think it’s been really well received by the fans. We’re just so proud and feel so grateful to be a part of this iconic world. We’ve gotten to take a deep dive into the world of Fallout and we just feel so fortunate. I can’t wait to see what happens next season!

 

A big thanks to Susan Cahill and Daniel Colman for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of the Fallout series and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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