Interview by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Paramount Pictures & Formosa Group
Ghost in the Shell (1995) directed by Mamoru Oshii was practically required viewing for Gen Xers. Even if you weren’t into anime, it was one of those films that you just had to watch. Now two decades later, director Rupert Sanders (an Xer himself) released his live-action interpretation of the homonymous Japanese manga written by Masamune Shirow in 1989. Rupert’s film is not a direct copy of the Oshii’s untouchable anime, but it does give a nod to its predecessor by reenacting a few iconic scenes, such as Major’s dive from the top of a skyscraper and that street fight scene in the watery canal.
Oscar-winning supervising sound editors Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers at Formosa Group in Los Angeles, CA were the masterminds behind the sound of this latest Ghost in the Shell film. But they weren’t in it alone. Their sizable post sound team at Formosa Group included sound designers Odin Benitez, Jon Title, and Peter Staubli, and sound effects editors Adam Kopald and D. Chris Smith. Also Chris Jargo was ADR Supervisor, John Stuver the Dialogue Editor and Peter Sullivan as Foley Supervisor. Foley artists were Dan O’Connell and John Cucci at One Step Up. On the dub stage, Hallberg and Landers joined re-recording mixers Beau Borders, Andy Nelson, and Mark Paterson. The film was mixed at Fox Studios.
Here, Landers and Hallberg give us an extensive look of how they designed the near-futuristic sound of Ghost in the Shell.
How did you get involved with Ghost in the Shell?
Per Hallberg (PH): We have a long standing relationship with Amblin Partners and Mark Graziano, the head of post production there. He called us out of the blue on this one. We didn’t really know much about the movie. We had not met the filmmakers, but we’ve done quite a wide range of films. Mark feels like we can always keep it together when something looks big and messy. This one looked like it was going to be big and messy. So through Mark, we got an introduction to the filmmakers.
When you sat down with director Rupert Sanders for the first time, what were his initial focus points for sound?
Karen Baker Landers (KL): He had this big world and they already had some visual effects in. There were ‘ghost cams’ which are these shots of floating through the city; there are ‘solograms’ (solid holograms), vehicles, and apartments and a cityscape that no one had seen before or heard before. We wanted to create a sound where you have activity going all of the time, but without being too cluttered. Then there’s this digital world, this ‘data’ that’s coming at people all the time. We wanted to give the city a feeling of size and this feeling of the world being overwhelming at times, from a sonic perspective. These are things that the director wanted to focus on in the beginning.
PH: I concur with that. The filmmakers had been working on the film and had all kinds of ideas in their heads but they didn’t have any sound in place. The director just said, “We need sound design. Just go do stuff and show it to me.” So those were some areas that he pointed out.
Instead of designing very singular and specific things, like here’s a sound for this and that, what we did was to spot the whole opening of the movie. Karen and I sat down and came up with a plan. Then we got a crew on it. We prepared the whole opening — the opening credits, the ghost cam through the city, and the first shootout in the hotel as a continuous piece so we could show the filmmakers an idea of how this whole sequence might sound. That was a good way to do it. You can look at singular things or you can look at something as a bigger whole, and this way was a good start for them. It helped them to start commenting on what we were doing, and to keep working that way.
KL: We didn’t have any other complete visuals to work on. But, in the first 15 minutes of the film that they gave us, there was a lot going on. You get to see the city. You get to see Major’s thermoptic suit. You see the pleasurebots. So we could work on how they’re going to sound. You get to see the approach to communication and try out sound for that. There were weapons. We really did have a lot to work with in the first 15 minutes. There was a huge amount there already that we could establish sounds for, which would be used throughout the film.
How did you approach the sound of the city? What sounds did you put in there?
KL: The city is in the future, but not that far in the future. We based our decisions on the visuals, our own tastes, and what the director’s thoughts were. For the vehicles, maybe they are hybrids, or completely electric or run by solar power. We had common sounds, like sirens, that had a feel of familiarity to them.
We had general backgrounds for the city that matched the size, and they had an international feeling to them with numerous languages being spoken
We had general backgrounds for the city that matched the size, and they had an international feeling to them with numerous languages being spoken. The solograms were constantly evolving. Maybe they were doing an advertisement, so they were speaking. Well, what language would they be speaking? How far can we push certain concepts because the film rating was PG-13? Maybe you had a sologram of a sexy woman, so we tried to add alluring breaths as the camera passes by.
We tried to consciously stay away from adding insect sounds, but we do have birds — although they are very specific and only occur in specific moments. We are very specific about where we put those kinds of ambience in the film depending on the emotion. So we started building this city sound from the ground up and these were the areas we were dabbling in.
PH: The city is supposed to be completely multilingual, with every language in there to create this melting-pot feeling of a modern city. It was supposed to be like a beehive of languages and people. And that had to be done bit by bit and built up so that it feels like you are on a busy street in Hong Kong today, but in the future.
KL: We had Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Scandinavian, Hebrew, Spanish, and English. We went down the list of languages that you would commonly hear in a modern city today. So it’s all in there, but the dominant languages are Japanese and English.
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What went into the cyborg sounds? What were some choices you made for the robotic elements?
KL: With the cyborgs, we played around with that. There are different versions of cyborgs. There is Kuze who is an original, more ruff version of cyborg. There are the pleasurebots. There is Major, who is top-of-the-line.
We didn’t want the cyborgs, especially the older ones, to have too much of a servo metallic sound to them. Less is more when it came to that kind of stuff. For the pleasurebots we went with a more nylon sound for certain movements. Also, they have porcelain skin and so when they’re moving we just have the sound of the cloth, like silk cloth or nylon sounds. When they blink, there is a little sound on the eye.
When they got shot and you could see the inner workings of them, then you can see there are brass parts and mechanical elements. We became more mechanical with the sound. But when they’re intact, it’s a pleasurebots, and so it’s not going to make clanking noises.
PH: (Laughs) That would have been irritating to have on a pleasurebot.
KL: Major was perfect. We didn’t have anything but basic movement sounds. When she got shot and we could see into her body, then we have metallic or nylon sounds that would represent her muscles or tendons.
Kuze was the only cyborg that had movement sounds. He was a little more rough and so occasionally he makes a high frequency, metallic sound for his movement. Or a Kevlar sound. We wanted to keep the sounds very high tech and stay away from clanky, servo-type sounds.
PH: Kuze needed to sound like he wasn’t quite working at all times. For instance, when he’s walking, one leg would make sounds while the other one didn’t. It sounds a little off-kilter, and that was enough to make him feel a little bit off and not quite as sophisticated as Major.
KL: Another question that came up for the cyborgs was, “Do they breathe?” They have a brain and a brain needs oxygen but they don’t have a body that needs oxygen. So how much of the breath do you hear? For Kuze, he had a little wheeze to his breath. But we didn’t have any effort sounds because of his makeup, of what he was. So occasionally you’ll hear a wheeze, but we didn’t overdo it.
Another question that came up for the cyborgs was, “Do they breathe?”
Major has more actual breaths but they weren’t meant to sound like a real human’s breath. They stick out a little more. Again, we tried to keep it to a minimum. It’s subtle. These things are subtle but the more and more we sat on the stage with this movie, the more we thought about what’s actually happening inside, what that would sound like, and how we could do it without being too distracting for the audience. So we had a big conversation about the breaths.
What were your sources for the cyborgs’ movement sounds?
KL: One big source was Foley. We worked with One Step Up and Foley artist Dan O’Connell. They are phenomenal. Per and I both use Foley as field recording. You’re on the stage, you have all the mics, you have a big setup, and you have the talent. John Cucci and Dan O’Connell, who were our artists, we asked them, “How would this sound?” And we tried things and made things up because you don’t know what will work. You work on certain movements until it feels right. If something is technically right but it doesn’t feel right, then it is wrong. We pulled sounds from libraries as well but we really spent a lot of time on the Foley stage working with the guys to create these sounds for the cyborgs, particularly Kuze. A lot of the movement sounds we came up with in Foley.
PH: Foley is a process that we use all the time. We do a lot of recordings in Foley, then we bring them back here and we integrate those with all of the things that we cut — the effects and sound design, to make all of these different pieces fit together. It’s never separate groups of sounds. It all comes together here and you have this great plethora of material from the Foley stage and the editing we’ve done here with sounds from libraries, and elements we’ve created. If we need a little sound, we can do a recording right here to get what we need. It’s a bit of a puzzle. You listen to it all together, and work with it until you find that sweet spot. For field recording, on this one, we did a lot of voice recording. We had help from a recordist in Japan. And we had a lot of singular voices that Charlie Campagna, a sound designer here, recorded outside and in stairways. That became part of the world that we needed to create.
Major is connected to a network of data that’s ever-present, and at times overwhelming. How did you create the sound of that data network?
KL: That’s one of the first sounds we worked on. We created many layers of dialogue, all different kinds of recordings, and we processed a lot of them in different ways. Maybe we recorded some of them at slow speed and then played them back at normal speed so it sounds a bit higher and faster. Then we slowed some recordings down. We had all kinds of dialogue, from arguments to baby cries and just general conversation in all different dialects. We had 7.0 recordings of city ambience, with different voices of people passing by speaking in different languages.
The problem is that if you have that data sound throughout the film it starts to stick out and get in the way. You have to find your moments
We took all that and layered it and layered it and layered it. We tried to process it so it sounds like it’s going through this internet almost. Major is submersed in this constant information and data. The problem is that if you have that data sound throughout the film it starts to stick out and get in the way. You have to find your moments. The moments we chose to play it were while she’s in her apartment, while she is in Kuze’s lair, and a little bit in the beginning right before she dives into the hotel. You hear data coming through this echo box on the top of the hotel. The data (which is what we call it) is in the soundtrack, but we have to keep it to a minimum because it could get overwhelming if you are always hearing it.
Want to learn more about the sound for Ghost In The Shell? Check out this great podcast interview from The SoundWorks Collection, featuring Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers:
Can you share some examples of creative vocal processing you did on the film?
KL: One of our designers on the film, Odin Benitez, worked with us on getting the vocal processes for different characters. We made a vocal treatment for Kuze. We made treatments for characters in the bar. Then we had the vocal processing for the ‘mind-comms’ — when they speak to each other through their minds. That communication had a different process on it.
One of the most interesting vocal processes we did was for Kuze. For his process, we tried many different plug-ins. One in particular was the Dehumaniser, by Krotos Ltd. It’s interesting because you’re sitting in a sterile environment, in your cutting room, and you’re going through these different applications to see if it sounds right, if it sounds scary and threatening. Kuze also had to sound a little broken. So with editing, we would cut out a couple letters here and there so that he stuttered.
The process is very time-consuming. You come up with a voice you think is interesting and appropriate for a character, and one that the director and the filmmakers are happy with. Then once you spend all that time going through that process, you take it to the mixing stage and combine it with the other sounds and music in the film, and everything changes.
You also have to keep clarity in mind. Some of these characters have an accent. And so you have to go word by word, sentence by sentence. You’re sitting behind the dialogue mixer and you are adjusting the processing as you go, for each word, to make sure that: a) there is clarity, b) there is continuity, and c) the processing works with the music and all the other sounds. It is a slow, hard process to get a vocal treatment correct. Once you have the processed vocals in the environment with the other sounds, you might have frequency cancellation issues. So we worked a lot on that.
When we shot ADR for Kuze’s character, for example, the actor may have done his initial performance over a year ago and now we’re bringing him back to match that in a studio. His performance might be a little bit higher and so we have to pitch lines down. We have to match the two performances. It’s a complicated process.
PH: At the end of the day it’s almost like a live performance between Karen or me and the re-recording mixer. Everything that you have done, all the parameters, you have to leave it open so that you can change it up to the last minute. It can end up being too much in context, or too little. No matter how much you work on it, what you bring to the stage isn’t what it’s going to be in the end.
So the plug-ins you work with in editorial, those processes aren’t rendered to the dialogue file? They run in real-time so that the mixer can tweak them during the mix?
KL: If we knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of action in the scene, we might render the processing to the file. Towards the end we would do that just to expedite the process. We were going so fast and moving so quickly, and visual effects were coming in last minute. We really did have to move pretty fast. We figured out, towards the end, what we could render. But for 95% of the processing, we left it open.
If you watch the behind-the-scenes footage for Ghost in the Shell, you see there isn’t much there on-set. It’s a lot of green screens and random steel structures….
KL: That’s how it was to work on the film for a long time. The visual effects were changing quite a bit, up to the very last minute. You are imagining the scene and creating sound and then the visual would come in and it’s like, “Holy crap! I didn’t know that was there. That’s not right at all.”
PH: Or the visuals would change completely. They would be completely different from what you had before.
KL: The visual effects team is under so much pressure to get stuff done in a certain amount of time. They are constantly getting notes from the filmmakers or the studio asking to change things. On a film like this it’s difficult for everybody because with one little visual effects change some sound you spent months working on now doesn’t work. Now you have an hour to make it right. You’re moving so quickly because the visual effects changes are coming in at the last minute. You want to do something cool but you have such a small amount of time to work with.
That’s becoming something you have to adapt to. You have to realize on these big visual effects films that the visuals are going to change, they are going to change throughout the film, and they could change at the last minute. You still have to come up with something cool — something cool that’s in sync.
PH: One scene in particular was the beginning, with the ghost cam through the city. That is one of the first scenes that we started working on. At least once a week it was completely different. When I say completely I mean that every visual effect in the whole sequence of flying through the city was different. Everything they flew by was different. But, we got a lot of practice changing it.
There is a rhythm and timing. When that changes, it’s not about re-syncing what’s there; it’s reconceptualizing how the scene will play
KL: Sometimes things would come back. From a technical perspective you have to match sync, and update it. But from a creative perspective, you have a rhythm. You are creating a sonic rhythm and you are being very specific about the timing of when to play a sound. It has a lyrical quality. These different sounds play off of each other. There is a rhythm and timing. When that changes, it’s not about re-syncing what’s there; it’s reconceptualizing how the scene will play. And, how will those elements work with the score? There is score pretty much throughout this movie.
There are always technical aspects to what we do. But aside from those, what we are doing is trying to create. Sometimes you never get a scene exactly back to the way you wanted it to be. But that’s universal, I think. From the director, to the visual effects team to the composer, to the picture editor, I think they’d all say the same thing. At a certain point you have to meet a deadline. When you’re working on such a highly conceptual film that is so complex story-wise, just keeping up with it all is a win.
Comparing this film to the popular anime of 1995, there are some classic scenes that were redone, such as Major’s dive from the skyscraper and the street fight scene in the water. Did director Sanders want his film to echo the 1995 anime? Are there sonic links between the two?
PH: When we first started, before we had any discussion about what they wanted us to do with the film, the filmmakers wanted us to see that 1995 anime film, to get the base line of what they wanted to accomplish on their film. It was the type of sounds and the feel of sounds, and how they should work. That was the starting blocks for us. What we did needed to be based on what the anime had done. So we all watched it and it was very specific. It was very simple and quiet in between the big moments. The sounds had this specific feel to them.
That was our starting point, but of course, we’ve grown from there and evolved things to fit this live-action version. The feeling of the scenes started to change and the music came in, and the sounds evolved. The anime was our base line at the beginning but I think we ended up pretty far away from that by the end.
We had a bit more sound in there than the anime, just to make it a bit more contemporary. But sometimes having a lack of sound is the most powerful thing you can do
KL: The one scene that we tried deliberately to stay true to was the water fight scene. ‘Skinny man’ is the character that Major is fighting, and Kuze has gotten into his head. That is a highly stylized fight. The way it was shot looks very similar to the anime. So because they went very stylized, it didn’t have a lot of sound in there. We don’t really hear the city. That is one scene where we tried to stay pretty true because it’s so cool. You can’t do it much better. That was a choice that the director made visually and that we made sonically. We had a bit more sound in there than the anime, just to make it a bit more contemporary. But sometimes having a lack of sound is the most powerful thing you can do.
Can you share details on how you designed the scene where Major jumps through the plate glass window and shoots the bad guys?
PH: That scene has a little bit of everything in it, and it has different parts to it. It starts out with the bad guys coming in and shooting everything up. That is pretty straightforward. Then, when Major gets involved, at first we don’t know where she is at and what is happening. She comes through the plate glass, and everything slows down. It’s slow-motion from when she goes through it to after she shoots everything up. Then she steps back into the real world. That is three different parts and they are all treated a little bit differently.
Starting when Major gets involved, we don’t see her right away. We made a conscious choice of not playing the gunshots from her. All you hear are the bullets coming in and hitting their targets. That gives the audience and the characters on-screen this feeling of confusion. They are all looking around. So that is part one.
The second part is when we see her come through the window. Everything is in slow-motion. There is a big, fantastic glass break on her entry. Now you start to hear the gunshots when you see them, but it’s a slowed down version of them.
Then the third part is when she steps out of that little action sequence into real-time, and we bring in real ambiences. You hear, very sharp and very clear, her footsteps on the broken glass (which was done in Foley). You hear bamboo windchimes and the ambience of the city.
That was interesting to work on because you have these three sequences that are split up. They have to be completely different but, at the same time, they have to play as one nice piece together, emotionally and in terms of the action.
For the glass break, is that something you covered in Foley or with effects?
PH: That sound was started out by one of our sound designers Jon Title. He did a first pass on that. We really worked on getting that initial glass explosion. The sound at first isn’t really glass at all. It’s a low-end impact. We needed to have a lot of low-end, so that you see it, you hear it, and you feel it. Then, the reality of the glass and the ring out was something that Karen was involved with later. She really got those details into it.
KL: You wanted to feel the power of her coming through. So we really had a lot of low-end in the subs so you can feel that sound. It’s almost like the glass is bending before it breaks. The glass is stretching almost before it explodes. This is Major’s big entrance into the film. You start to see the power of what she can do.
One of the coolest things in that scene is after the gunfight, when everything has calmed down and it’s quiet. She’s walking through the room. She’s really high up, like 37 floors, and you hear the city and you feel the city. That is something that we timed perfectly around dialogue and music. That is something people will feel. It’s not just a bunch of wind and city sounds outside. It took some work to get that to feel just right, to get that whole moment to feel right. It may seem like such a simple scene but it’s one of the scenes I love most in the film, sonically.
Any scene or sound that you are most proud of, and why?
PH: When you look at a movie like this, it was an enormous challenge with all these different sounds. But at the end of the day, it’s funny because one of my favorite moments is when we are with Major in her apartment. There is this constant feeling of information that she gets bombarded with all the time. That is something she speaks about as a character, about how she likes being under the water because she likes the silence and the emptiness. She likes to finally get away from this buzz of constant input.
So, it’s this little scene where she is laying back, and she’s hooked up with the information that goes into her. She sits up on the bed and she pulls the cables out. There’s a cool little sound of her pulling them out and then it just goes dead quiet.
That silence right there, in that specific moment, it tells such a huge story in the context of the film. At that moment, she’s disconnected and it’s clinical and quiet for just that beat. I know Karen had to fight with everyone on the stage a little bit, to dare them to do it.
That’s one thing that’s scary for filmmakers sometimes, to go quiet and not play music or backgrounds. It’s challenging to just let the silence play for a little bit and to trust that. I think it’s a brilliant little moment, and emotionally very impactful. The audience will feel that subliminally and be affected by it.
KL: I love that moment that Per just described but I also really like a scene near the end of the film when Major is in Kuze’s lair, and she’s hung up. You can hear Kuze walking around. I love that whole scene, that whole feel in there when she’s connected to the data.
We played around with this idea that when Kuze gets emotional the data reacts. So when he slams his chest you hear the data ripple and swim around the room. We push it louder level-wise. You hear more of it. Some of those little sonic moments in the lair are my favorite in the whole film.
PH: That’s a complex scene because you have so many things coming together, like that data sound, Kuze’s voice treatment, his movement, her movement, and the eerie place that they’re in. The combination of everything is great.
A big thanks to Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg for sharing their experiences working on Ghost in the Shell – and to Jennifer Walden for conducting the interview!
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