Written by Doug Siebum, images courtesy of Jeremy Peirson and Soundworks Collection
Jeremy Peirson is a Supervising Sound Editor, Re-Recording Mixer, and Sound Designer with over 20 years experience in film sound. He has worked on films such as Christopher Robin, The Dark Tower, Hunger Games: Mocking Jay 1 & 2, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I Am Legend, and Public Enemies.
Doug Siebum (DS): Hello and thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a little about your background, how you got your start in audio and how you ended up as Supervising Sound Editor for shows such as Hunger Games Part 1 & 2 and Public Enemies?
Jeremy Peirson (JP): Initially I got my introduction to audio and recording through being a drummer in a band. Whenever we would play out I would never be super excited about the monitor systems that we were using. That eventually led me to figuring out ways to have my own little monitor setup that I’d bring to the various gigs and that eventually led me into recording.
In terms of how I got into film post, I’d had a moment of clarity of knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I was sitting in a movie theater in Chicago and started paying attention to the mixing of the movie. The light bulb went off and I knew at that moment what I wanted to do. After graduating from Columbia College Chicago, I moved out to California and thought “okay I’m going to hand out my resume to all of the various places that I can find and get started and make a path for myself through town.”
I was actually returning from dropping my resume off at a particular place in West LA and I happened to be stopped at a stoplight. I looked over and there was this place called Danetracks Inc. that was right next to me. So after I got home, I looked it up and I realized that it was a post facility. I called the next day and it turned out that they were looking for interns. I then met with them the day after that and it went well enough that I started the following day as an intern on the Matrix. That was my first entrance into Hollywood and that was pretty exciting.
DS: Wow, that’s a great start.
JP: Yeah [laughs] and completely luck of the draw, random chance. So I worked there and worked my way up and became a sound design assistant and an editor, while also mixing some small films. I got an insight into how movies are being made or what the approach is or what the thinking is.
Moving forward, Laurent Kossayan had been hired on to do Michael Mann’s Public Enemies as the sound supervisor. He had just moved to the US from Paris and I had met him through his contact with Skip Lievsay whom I was working with at the time. The Co-producer had requested an American counterpart to help make sure everything was going to run smooth. Since Laurent and I knew each other, it was okay with him. We agreed that he’d handle the creative work and that I’d help with the management and workflow. I then met with the Co-producer and realized that I had worked with him before. We had a great meeting and I became the co-sound supervisor on the film, and that’s sort of what has led me into sound supervising. I just took it from there.
DS: So it was all from that one requirement of having a second sound supervisor that was American that started your new path as a sound supervisor.
JP: Exactly, Michael wanted this sort of, for lack of a better word, the exotic European nature in the soundtrack that Laurent Kossayan brings to the table. The Co-producer wanted someone who knew how we do things in Hollywood, workflow and timelines and all of that kind of stuff, so it was a good partnership.
DS: Our current topic is Field Recording. Can you name a couple of shows where you did a good amount of field recording? What sounds did you record for those shows? Can you name a few and talk about them?
For the humans, we got into a music studio and we brought in probably 10 or 12 group actors that would come in and do 3-4 hours of creature type work. Then I brought in a bunch of death metal singers and had them do a wide variety of things.
JP: I tend to record a lot on most of the shows that I work on. However I would say without a doubt, I Am Legend and all of The Hunger Games movies that I worked on, which is the last three: Catching Fire and Mockingjay Parts I & II. We did a ton of recording. There was a wide variety of things that we needed. I Am Legend, because of it’s specific nature, it needed more ambient type stuff in addition to creature type work, so I spent a lot of time out in the desert and out in the woods recording different types of winds. Winds over fishing line, winds over different types of wire, wire bundles, slatted closet doors, anything that has something that wind could go through it, I probably took it out to the desert and tried to record with it. I even got the opportunity to record a coast guard helicopter.
For all of the creature work, we recorded a variety of animals and humans. We recorded elephants, lions, tigers, bears, hyenas, chimpanzees, wolves and pigs. For the humans, we got into a music studio and we brought in probably 10 or 12 group actors that would come in and do 3-4 hours of creature type work. Then I brought in a bunch of death metal singers and had them do a wide variety of things. And then to cap it off I had Mike Patton from Faith No More come in and do half a day with us. That was probably the most intense and rewarding part of that whole experience. If everyone else was at 100, he was at 1,000 by comparison, so it was pretty amazing.
Behind the sound of Hunger Games: Catching Fire, with Director Francis Lawerence and Jeremy Peirson
DS: What did you have him doing?
JP: We would put up the picture, and I had everything cued up, and we would go through and say “hey I need this creature to do this, can you do something for that?” and he would come up with it. We sort of went through the movie and we would do things pretty specifically. There were a couple of things where we would do some wild passes of just him, doing a wide variety of similar type things. Death screams, efforts, grunts or whatever and get it that way. That was pretty fun.
With the Hunger Games movies, I did a whole bunch of stuff. Some of it I recorded specifically for the movie while some of it I happened to have recorded it while I was in between shows. If I happened to see an event and wanted to go out and record it, I’d grab my gear and go. One of those things was, there was a set of fires out here in southern California and I had gone out to where the fire helicopters were coming in and scooping up the water and going back out. I got underneath the flight path and I got all these crazy helicopters going back and forth, and that sort of became the fundamental basis for the hovercraft in the movie. Using that with taking bullet shells on fishing line and spinning that around, that became another element of the hovercraft.
I got underneath the flight path and I got all these crazy helicopters going back and forth, and that sort of became the fundamental basis for the hovercraft in the movie
We also recorded all kinds of guns, in both a forest type environment and also in an urban industrial park so that we could get that kind of city slap and those certain natural acoustics that you can’t really re-create as well in post. We recorded bullet impacts, bullet ricochets, and bullet by’s. We did concrete K-Rail drops, which are those big 20 foot long concrete dividers that you see on highways. We had like 10 of those and we would raise those up about 40 feet and then drop them. Then repeat the process until we couldn’t do it anymore.
For Catching Fire, I got to go to Atlanta and we hired 100 extras and we got to do a whole bunch of crowd reactions and all manner of things both in interior space and also in an exterior parking lot. That was pretty cool. Those were the big ticket items that we did for those shows, but invariably there were all manner of things that had to be done. Little…touching certain items, sort of like foley-ish type of elements, certain types of doors and stuff like that. In terms of recording, I tend to go for it. If I can’t find what I’m looking for, or hear in my head that I want to put on screen, I try to go get it. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t work, but it’s the experience of trying and learning that’s a lot of fun in terms of field recording.
DS: Has field recording always been part of your process as a sound editor or sound designer, or did you start out cutting from libraries and moved into field recording as well?
JP: When I got my start with Dane Davis at Danetracks, he was recording all manner of things. His approach was to record as much as possible to let his films be unique, new, and specific. He was recording tiny little motors that would be sound design source to process and become various much larger things. They were recording guns. I even helped build some of the walls that we used for the sound effects for the slow motion bullets during the Morpheus rescue in the first Matrix. So recording has always been something that I’ve thought of as part of the process.
Obviously you have to cut from a library when you’re starting to put the show together because you don’t necessarily have the time to go out and get those things that you need to get started. We don’t live in the workflow timeline that allows for us to get the show, and then go out and record everything, and then put it together. We sort of have to do everything all at the same time. For me, I first try to cut with as much of the library stuff as I can to get everything covered. From there I have an idea of what I’m going to need to record or replace based upon the needs and direction of the show.
Behind the sound of ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2’, with Supervising Sound Editor, Sound Re-recording Mixer and Sound Designer Jeremy Peirson, Sound Re-recording Mixer Skip Lievsay and Film Editor Alan Bell
DS: Can you talk a little bit about that process? Do you keep a list as you’re working on it?
I Am Legend is the perfect example, it starts with this specific Ford Mustang, a new GT500, that starts tearing up the deserted streets of New York because he can, and we had to go and get that.
JP: Absolutely we keep a list. I know when we start a show there will be really obvious sounds that need to be recorded specifically for that movie, but we won’t be able to until later in the process. The cut will change, VFX might change how the action happens or even change the type of vehicle. I Am Legend is the perfect example, it starts with this specific Ford Mustang, a new GT500, that starts tearing up the deserted streets of New York because he can, and we had to go and get that. No library car had all of the right elements that we needed, so we had to plan it out and go find the car and find the various locations where we could do this stuff. That’s just part of the process. Conversely, early on in the process, I still had to use library material to have our bases covered for the screenings that were early on in the process. We definitely replaced it by the time that we got to the final mix.
DS: I would imagine that the library material helps you to recognize what you’re going to need to record in the future.
JP: Absolutely. You need to have something when you’re starting out editing a movie as everything has to be covered. A director’s not going to be okay with the idea of watching an entire reel without a certain set of elements, that just aren’t there. So you have to have something for that kind of stuff. It also helps inform what direction you want to go for certain things. Does that car need to be super aggressive, or is it going to be laid back, or is it going to be some weird sci fi car? You don’t really know that stuff until you have something that you can put on screen to try out. In terms of when I’m working, I’m always making a list of all sorts of things that I want to go get. Some of them are big. Some of them are small. Some of them are more specific, that I just feel that we need to have in the movie for a specific event.
You don’t really know that stuff until you have something that you can put on screen to try out
It could be something that we shoot in foley later on, or it might be that I’m tired of all the door sounds that we’re using. So I’m going to go out and record some new doors so that we can have a fresh kind of approach.
It’s just a wide variety of needs and decision making that goes into that process.
Also, in terms of being a sound designer, I always need building blocks for various things. I’m always constantly recording a variety of things, just source elements to use, to process later. That part of it comes into play as well. Needing the obvious kinds of things, versus needing the pieces that will eventually make up the designed elements.
DS: Do you have a favorite sound that you’ve recorded?
JP: I have a favorite sound, but I don’t get very many opportunities to use it. I’ve recorded a couple of the sonic booms from the space shuttle re-entering the atmosphere when it would come back and land here at Edwards Air Force Base. And that’s always fun. It’s also a little nerve racking because you never know exactly when it’s going to happen, so you have to get to a place, get set up, and set a level that you think it’s going to be at, because you have one shot. That’s kind of a fun experience.
My new favorite set of things that I just recorded is, I went out and recorded for 4 days out in the woods and I did a wide 7.0 forest recording. I created an array of microphones that was basically an LCR that was about 50 feet spread. And then sides and surrounds that from front to back were about 100 feet. So I created a 50 ft by 100 ft array and when you listen to it in a theater, it sounds like you’re there, which is pretty impressive. It’s pretty awesome.
DS: That sounds like a big and wide space.
JP: Yeah, it’s a pretty unique and interesting sound field too, because it has all of the natural decay. If a bird chirps, you hear it travel through. If the wind come through, you feel it move through the room. Each microphone has it’s own perspective and set of things that it’s getting that none of the other microphones are necessarily getting. That was born out of not really liking some of the multi channel exterior recordings. Things felt too similar in a way, too close to each other. If there was a bird, it felt like it was everywhere, as opposed to being very specifically oriented in a space. I did some testing up in Angeles Forest then I went on this 4 day trip to the south of Yosemite. The work was hard, but the results paid off. That’s probably my new favorite sound for sure.
A Soundworks feature on director Wally Pfister’s debut film Transcendence, featuring Jeremy Peirson, Wally Pfister, Supervising Sound Editor Mark Mangini, Re-recording Mixer Terry Porter, Dialogue and ADR Supervisor Byron Wilson, and Music Editor Erich Stratmann
DS: What are a few of the other interesting sounds that you’ve recorded?
JP: There’s been a bunch of stuff. I recorded a chimpanzee once that came over, got on my shoulders, took my headphones off and put it on him. And he was hearing himself through the microphone, through the headphones.
The pigs that I recorded for I Am Legend were pretty impressive because you would just go up to them and they would just scream like you were murdering them and you weren’t even touching them
The pigs that I recorded for I Am Legend were pretty impressive because you would just go up to them and they would just scream like you were murdering them and you weren’t even touching them.
For creature sounds, it was what I needed.
That was a pretty unusual experience. Recording elephants is always exciting because they’re huge, and you’d think they’d be loud, but they are super super quiet when they want to be.
DS: To record something like an elephant, do you get permission from a local zoo, or do you travel and go out on safari’s, how do you go about getting an elephant?
JP: For all the animal stuff that I’ve done, we hire an animal trainer. Those are usually his animals or his friend’s animals. We bring in the trainer that knows the animals and we work with him. He has their respect. We usually go out to their place which is not usually in the city, so it’s a lot of a quieter environment. Recording someplace like a zoo is going to be a mess because you’re never going to get clean isolation of what you’re trying to record, let alone get close enough. You definitely need the trainers, their experience, and their relationship with the animals to help you along.
DS: At what point do you know that you’re going to need to do some field recording for a show?
JP: I know at the beginning of a show that I’m going to do some field recording and I start making a list based on that.
DS: What kind of gear do you use for field recording?
JP: My main go to set up is something that I’ve had for awhile. I use a sound devices 744 with a 302 mixer on it. My main bread and butter recording is with a Schoeps MS or OTRF stereo setup, also with another stereo Sennheiser 8040 in ORTF. I use the 2 pairs because if I’m recording sound effects, I love the idea of recording something close and also something farther off, so you get a lot of different perspectives. Sometimes you can use it simultaneously, sometimes you use just one or the other, but it certainly gives you a lot of options.
I love the idea of recording something close and also something farther off, so you get a lot of different perspectives
In addition to that I’ve added another 744 because I had another Sound Devices 442 mixer. That’s what I did all the 7.0 forest recordings with. I’ll run Sennheiser 40’s or 8020’s or DPA’s or whatever we need for what we’re trying to get. To me, in terms of what mic’s I’m going to use, are subject to what are the needs and how am I going to use it? I sort of discovered early on that I love the sound of the Schoeps and also the sound of the Sennheisers. I had recorded some trains out in San Bernardino. The Schoeps really captured all the high end metal detail of it, but with the Sennheisers, you get all the realistic stuff and all the low end off of that huge train going by. For microphones that weren’t all that far apart, they couldn’t have sounded more differently. It was sort of shocking and I’ve kept forward with this, having different sounding microphones to try to have as many options as I could down the road.
DS: Besides your main recording rig, do you also have a smaller pocket sized recorder for quick and dirty stuff?
JP: I do. I use a Sony M10, which I don’t think they make anymore, but it’s the size of an iPhone. It doesn’t necessarily give the best stereo image, but you can do things with it that you couldn’t do with any microphone and a zeppelin. Anywhere you’re at, you can sit and you can record, and no one pays attention to you these days. It’s funny because any time you do city recordings, invariably someone will walk up to you and say “hey, is that a camera”? “is that a microphone”? And you’re like “I’m trying to get sound, can you please go away”. With this thing you can just be anywhere and record anywhere. The other beauty of it is if you always have it with you, no matter what’s going on, you can always get something. Getting something is better than wanting to get it later. That’s been my experience. Any time I’ve said to myself “I’m going to go back and record” whatever that was, by the time you go back there it’s either not doing it anymore, or that event, or that magic on that particular day is now gone. So whatever you can do to capture it in the moment is extremely helpful.
DS: Do you get advice from people on what to buy or do you research it yourself?
JP: I have a pretty wide group of friends and colleagues and we’re all pretty passionate about recording sound effects. We’re always talking to each other about different pieces of gear and different recording techniques or I found this cool microphone and you should really check it out. It all sort of starts from that. I know some guys, and all they do is record sound effects, like John Fasal. I can call him up and ask him about any sound effect, microphone, or piece of gear and he’s probably used it or recorded it. I would say getting advice from people who have been out there and done it is extremely helpful.
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DS: Do you go alone to record, or do you need help?
JP: It depends on what we’re doing and what the situation is. Because I have the gear that I have, more often than not I go out by myself, but there’s often times like if we’re doing cars or something like that, I like to have someone else there. If we’re doing guns, there’s a group of people that go out. Trying to put up 20-30 microphones, you need both a bunch of people manning the various recorders as well as putting up the mics and all that kind of stuff. For those recording events, we definitely go out with other people. That’s also sort of a fail safe. If one recorder goes down, you have somebody else who’s at least got the opportunity to get something. The sort of things that I record by myself, if my recorder goes out and I didn’t get whatever it was that I was doing, I can always go back. It’s not that big of an expensive situation.
Anytime that you’re renting something, or booking a space, or bringing in those people, it’s always helpful to have other recordists with you for sure. Another thing is that whenever I budget a movie, I try to include some recording budget to help pay for the various recordings, the travel, the rental of the vehicle, or the location, or buying k rails to smash. It just depends.
DS: I can see how that could get expensive quick.
JP: Yeah, I’ve been wanting to do an explosion session and I haven’t found a show with the kind of budget that I can do that yet. Some day, fingers crossed.
DS: Do you typically record in stereo, mono, 5.1, or other format?
JP: More often than not, I record in dual stereo like I was saying with a close up MS setup close and a further back stereo ORTF setup. But depending on what it is that I’m recording, I’ll switch it up and do a couple of mono’s or a couple of stereo’s. I tend not to do a whole lot of multi channel recording. However, the forest recording that I was telling you about is sort of the exception to that.
In terms of backgrounds and stuff like that, I tend to like to have a lot of different layers that sort of create that sound space as opposed to having a single set of mics capture an event, but that’s just me and my taste. I also find that to do the sort of wider multi channel formats, that takes a lot of time of setup and tear down and that kind of stuff and there’s also some practical limitations of what you can and can not do. For me, with a recorder on my shoulder, dual stereo is enough most of the time.
DS: How long do you stay out to record? Do you just stay out until you capture everything on your list?
JP: Ideally you definitely stay out until you capture everything. Living in Los Angeles, we have easy access to great quiet places to record. I can drive an hour and I can be in the desert. I can drive an hour and be up in the mountains depending on what I want to do. Or I can go into the studio and I can record stuff on a foley stage, or ADR stage, or sound stage or whatever. I try to manage my time, so that I know that if it’s going to take me an hour to get out there and an hour to get back, I need enough of a list of things to do to make that travel commitment worth it.
Invariably while you’re out there, either something’s not working like you want it to, or it’s not sounding like what you expect it to, so there’s a lot of trial and error to how you capture the sound as best as you can. Or you’re out there and all sorts of other things start happening that you want to capture that have nothing to do with what you’re doing, like there’s a fleet of jets that go overhead, or stealth fighters fly over. You start recording that stuff as well. The shortest I’ve been out is like half a day. The longest is like 4 or 5 days.
DS: What is your process for cleaning up and mastering your recordings?
JP: The biggest thing for me is if I’ve recorded backgrounds, I want to go through and I want to edit it so that all of the tics and pops and mic bumps, any of those things that you don’t necessarily want in the track, you get rid of all of that. So anytime you use that file, you know that you can just put it up and you don’t have to worry about listening to it from start to finish to make sure it doesn’t have any weird sounds in it. The other thing I do is I make those background sound tracks loopable. If I recorded 2 minutes of a background, but the scene is 8 minutes, I can just duplicate that file and not worry about cross fading, and I can sort of just move on.
In terms of sound effects and stuff like that I get rid of all the talking on the track, the breathing, and movement, all the stuff you definitely don’t want. I tend to also do a lot of hi rez recording either at 192KHz or 96KHz. If I’ve got a bunch of hits and there was a plane that went by and I didn’t hit stop, I’ll clean that up so that I don’t have that, so the files are smaller and kind of contained.
I want that sound as raw as possible, knowing that if it’s something that I’m going to be using as a sound design element, I’m going to process it
In terms of processing, I don’t like doing too much processing to the file unless there’s something severe in the file that I know that I want to get rid of. Hums and those kinds of things. I don’t want to do too much EQ’ing because I want that option at the mix phase. I want that sound as raw as possible, knowing that if it’s something that I’m going to be using as a sound design element, I’m going to process it. I’m going to limit it. I’m going to put it through a wide variety of plug ins to change it. I don’t want to take away from what actually happened unless there’s a problem. The other thing is now that we have tools like Izotope, cleaning up the files is so much more precise and so fast now. Before you just had to cut out those things or section that had a really good car by in it, but also had a bird chirp right on top of it, now you can get rid of the bird and keep the cool car by. That’s sort of my approach.
The other thing for me is making sure that you name the files and put enough metadata into Soundminer so that you can find it or quickly search for it, and be able to get back to that detailed information later on. There’s been plenty of times where I’ve recorded something years ago and I’ve wondered where did I record that? I want to go record more of those. Where did that come from? With some of that information that I put in my files, I can say “oh I need to go to this place and look for this”. That’s been pretty helpful. And it pays off.
DS: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
JP: Take into account the kind of acoustics, the natural acoustics of what you want in the recording. I’ve been in a couple of situations where I record something in my bedroom and it had this natural kind of slap and reverb to it. And I thought “the recording’s dirty, now I need to go into a sound stage to re-record the sound in”. And having done that, I’ve used the new clean recordings and they didn’t have the same kind of natural magic. It didn’t have the same life to it. So I’m a big fan of natural acoustics. Certainly in loud transient sounds like guns and stuff like that, the difference between a gun in a forest and a gun in a warehouse or a parking lot are totally different. To me deciding where you’re going to record is just as important as deciding what you’re going to record and how you’re going to record it.
The other thing is for anyone who wants to get into this, I fully recommend you buy whatever microphone or recorder you can afford and use it. Record something with it and bring it back and start using it and seeing, does that work? Does that not work? If so, let’s go out and try it again. So much of this is a huge learning experience every single time we go out and record. We’re always learning and we’re always trying new and different ways to do things and that’s sort of the fun in the whole process as far I’m concerned. I also like the fact that when I’m working on a movie, there are sounds that people are going to hear in that movie that are unique to that movie. So that’s why I really enjoy recording stuff. There’s also a benefit to all these custom libraries that are out there now. But they can’t cover everything.
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