Written by Jennifer Walden. Images courtesy of Universal Pictures.
In the post-apocalyptic future of Universal Pictures’ film Mortal Engines, it’s not “the big fish eats the little ones,” but more like “the big city eats the little ones.” Cities are mobile entities. They’re giant vehicles that roam the land in search of resources. But it takes a lot of energy to move a city the size of London. So instead of searching for resources the land can provide, London searches for smaller cities to cut up and feed into its furnace. It’s not a very sustainable source of fuel, thus London must seek out a new way to provide for itself. The solution lies beyond a massive ‘Shield Wall’ that blocks off the Himalayan Mountains, which is guarded by a fleet of airships piloted by the anti-traction league. To break through the Shield Wall, London needs a weapon that has cataclysmic power.
Enter Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a London historian who discovers remnants of the MEDUSA, a super weapon that caused the demise of the world’s cities hundreds of years ago. After he and his team rebuild the weapon, they attack the Shield Wall. (You’d think, as a historian, Thaddeus would know better than to repeat the mistakes of the past. But, alas…)
Visually and sonically, this film does things on a grand scale. And that was one challenge that the sound team — led by supervising sound editors Jason Canovas of POW Studios in Wellington, New Zealand and Brent Burge on the Sound ‘Freelancers’ roster at Park Road Post Production in New Zealand — had to meet head-on. How do you make something sound massive without competing with the dialogue and score? Here, Burge discusses their approach to that puzzle. He’s joined by sound designer Dave Whitehead (at White Noise in New Zealand), who shares details on how he designed the sounds for Shrike, Scuttlebug, the airships, MEDUSA, and more!
How did director Christian Rivers want to use sound to help tell this story? What were his goals for sound on the film?
Brent Burge (BB): Christian’s brief was straightforward and challenging at the same time. The world we inhabit in Mortal Engines is familiar in that it has evolved from the world we live in now, but we have gone through the age of steampunk into a world of invention and repurpose. It’s a post-steampunk universe, so he didn’t want to focus on that “genre.” He was after a sense of how things have developed from that concept.
How did you divide the sound supervision duties on Mortal Engines? And what were your biggest challenges on the film?
BB: These shows have the writers involved through the post process, so the dialogue department has to be prepared for any scenario of changing content or takes, as well as ADR requirements. Jason [Canovas] manages this department, and we both manage the final mix for content and style.
I run the effects side of the soundtrack, which involves ensuring we have the right crew for the areas of the show that can play to their strengths (on Mortal Engines I assigned the crew based on location). I ensure that we have content available, and where we don’t, I arrange recording sessions to generate the right material that we can use. Also, I run the temp mixes as we progress through the show, which gives me great insight into how the mix will come together, and how the effects from my editors will work in context with material from the other departments.
In terms of challenges, it’s about finding the right fit for the material to the editors, and working with Dave Whitehead on areas we felt needed his input, which amounted to most areas,
How did you enhance the film’s steampunk-look through sound? What were some of your sound sources?
BB: As I mentioned, the steampunk concept was minimized somewhat in our early concept discussions with Christian. Instead, we were prioritizing the material he wanted to focus on. For me, the other main consideration was concerning scale.
We had some material in our libraries that was useful, but — as is our approach to shows — we were determined to create a unique soundtrack.
This show came into our consciousness back in 2010, when Peter [Jackson] created an original pitch as an animated sequence. This was similar to the setup in the original teaser that showcased the small town of Salzhaken. We did a lot of recording even at that stage, working through various rhythm-based mechanics and machines to see how we could scale them up to the size of the towns on screen. We had some material in our libraries that was useful, but — as is our approach to shows — we were determined to create a unique soundtrack.
Foley was integral to this approach. It’s always recorded fresh and specifically for the needs of the show. The biggest challenge was the movements and the sounds of Shrike — in particular, his hand movements and footsteps. Dave Whitehead created the blueprint for the sound of Shrike, and the Foley added the icing.
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Dave Whitehead (DW): One of the first recordings we did was around 2010. We had an opportunity to record a steam train so we rigged it up with as many mics as we could possibly muster. One team chased the train as it travelled north and got every bridge and tunnel pass-by. We were simultaneously recording it on-board. This gave us a great source of heavy metallic motion, creaks, ronks and impacts. There was so much material in that one record — almost too much.
I took my sons on a trip to Vietnam and boarded … the Sapaly Express. … In between carriages, it sounded like metal was being ripped apart.
One of the next records was not intentional. I took my sons on a trip to Vietnam and boarded a train from Hanoi to Sapa, called the Sapaly Express. I only took a Sony M10 with me, but I’m glad I did. It was possibly the best and most terrifying sounding metallic machine I’d heard in my life. In between carriages, it sounded like metal was being ripped apart; the wheels were screeching on bends. It was basically sound heaven. I booked a cabin which you were meant to sleep in, but I recorded all night and got some real gold. It became a major element for Scuttlebug.
One of the best libraries I purchased was Michal Fojcik’s “Heavy Industry” library. Michal shared some of his recordings with me a couple of years ago and when this library came out via A Sound Effect, I knew it would be great. What a glorious bag of goodies.
Video featurette on the sound for Mortal Engines
Peter Jackson has a great collection of tanks and vehicles, which we record whenever we get some up and running. I also have a great network of sound designer friends worldwide, some of whom shared some awesome personal tank recordings with me.
It was actually the first time that we started a film with more than enough raw material.
How did you approach the sound for Shrike? His movement sounds? His vocal processing?
DW: There were two sides to Shrike. He was a stalker originally created to be a killing machine, but there was a human side to him that occasionally breaks the surface in the film. I was on early enough to see Shrike’s physical design develop and change quite a bit. The early ideas for Shrike were far more metallic and less human, but he quickly shifted into a very organic character.
Actor Stephen Lang had a fantastic voice for Shrike. The vocal process merely accentuated the nuances and performance that Stephen gave. I vocoded his voice using iZotope’s VocalSynth. It was very useful in helping to accentuate the rasp in Shrike’s voice. Using a plug-in vocoder meant it was also easy to change lines if necessary and to process new ADR, etc. Shrike’s hunting call was derived from a very short screech that Stephen did on-set.
The first sound I made for Shrike was an internal perpetual pulse, much like a heartbeat. I designed several components and recorded them through a vibration speaker on surfaces that I thought matched the chest size of Shrike, essentially worldizing them. They felt like they were attached to him and they do play a part in the final mix. I recorded most of his feet myself at home, on-set, in the Foley room, and various other locations.
The Traction Cities range in size from huge (like London) to small mining towns (like Salzhaken). What were some sonic distinctions that you made between these two cities?
BB: Scale. Hayden Collow (sound effects editor) took on the behemoth task of creating the London effects. And with the amount of possible conflicts confronting us, he also finished Salzhaken (which I had done the original pass on), so we could map out the chase sequence so it didn’t have collisions of massive sounds that masked one another.
London was also too big to consider elements such as tank tracks. When we tried these, they diminished the scale of London. It started sounding smaller than we intended. So, it became a challenge of textures. When we worked these textures into the track, we also found volume a major determiner to how the scale worked. It seems obvious, but volume is determined by context and how the textures are perceived, which took a lot of trial and error.
Christian suggested having the upper tiers of London be quieter, to indicate the class of people who would live there, as well as being that much further from the engines. We settled on a “pulse” that worked for the driving force of London, and this was featured in a way to create contrast and distance from the Gut and workers’ areas.
Salzhaken was a rattling rust bucket that refused to start, and when it did, started falling apart once under the chase. So, between London and Salzhaken, we had massive momentum and power versus an almost put-put ramshackle crate.
I loved the scene where London’s giant saws are cutting apart Salzhaken and feeding it into the furnace. What went into the sound of that scene?
BB: Music, along with a number of up-rez’ed blades, burns, sparks and chainsaws, and impacts. With the music being a dominant element in the sequence, having any constant blades cutting, etc., was a death sentence to that particular sound. So, impacts became big players in this, along with big pitch changes for the pass-bys.
Also again, level created contrast so featuring the big crusher required huge rhythm and volume changes on the cut-aways that were exaggerated more than usual.
Last but not least, it became a selection process in finding the right sounds in context and whether they hindered the momentum of the scene.
The other determining factor in the scene above the waste chute was the quieter delivery of the dialogue. This created a challenge in the mix for re-recording mixer Chris Boyes, who had to achieve a delicate balance between that and the brutal surroundings.
What were some of the unique sounds you created for Scuttlebug? How was your approach to that town/vehicle different from London or Salzhaken?
BB: Some of Scuttlebug was the original recordings from the set. The Scuttlebug was completely constructed as an articulated set-piece, and sounded great but paled into a bed once Dave [Whitehead] created its voice.
DW: I was excited to play with Scuttlebug. I had the recordings I had made in Vietnam, which were perfect for the graunching (i.e., grinding and crunching) metal and squeaks of its plated centipede-like body.
The core of Scuttlebug has a kind of modulating pulse which was made from rhythmically dabbing the loosened strings of a guitar. Once I had the looping pulse, I then kept building up this rhythm with other elements, including the coffee machine at work.
I only had the interior Scuttlebug shots first, but as soon as I saw the legs and the motion of the outside, I cut a new version of the legs and changed the interior rhythms to match. I used The Cargo Cult’s plug-in called Envy to analyze the amplitude and formants of the legs I had cut and applied them to different textures, e.g. tires on dirt or train recordings. This helped create a sweetening palette very quickly for the legs. One of the best features of that plug-in is the ability to apply ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) to the amplitude.
I loved the airship sounds. The pass-bys were really cool, particularly during the anti-traction league’s attack on London. How did you create those airships’ sounds?
BB: We really needed a unique voice for the ships, what with the references to other shows. Dave [Whitehead] focused on the main airship called the Jenny Haniver, and the 13th Floor Elevator (Thaddeus Valentine’s airship) while sound effects editor Matt Lambourn tackled the ships at Airhaven and the rebellion ships. They all needed very unique signatures — again, to counter the music and each other.
The Zainab we felt was metallic, like a blade. The Idiot Wind was about hovercrafts. Michelle Child developed Kora’s ship which was based on an old V8 car you would find in a New Zealand country town and sweetened with a didgeridoo.
DW: Christian thought it would be cool to play into the idea of Anna Fang’s (Jihae) alias, ‘Wind Flower.’ He asked me to try developing the Jenny Haniver out of flutes, wind instruments and wind in general.
Fortunately, I do have a good collection of flutes from around the world. Plus, Michelle Child and I recorded around 30 different instruments. They all had different qualities, but I mainly used an Aztec-style wooden flute and a metal pipe which had a deep resonance about it. I blew across this for more subtle sounds and tried blowing across it with an air compressor for a heavier version.
I wrote a bunch of pitch, Doppler and EQ automation for every Jenny Haniver scene, covering all of its moves. I then had a plug-in chain that meant I could drop any sound into it and I would have an instant engine of that flavor. If I dropped a whistling wind in there it would follow my automation and I would have a whistling wind sweetener for the ship, for example. I ended up with about twelve main elements I could shift between for different moments.
I was very happy when the lovely folks at Tonsturm offered me a trial version of their awesome new Doppler plug-in called Traveller. That was a bit of a game changer as you can create some very precise and complex Doppler moves. It’s a very welcome addition to my toolkit. I also used Traveller for some of the MEDUSA moments.
Blasting synths in a large space like that while resonating objects helped us create some very physical and organic sounds.
I also used synthesizers for the 13th Floor and the Jenny Haniver. We had the fuselages of the two ships available on the sound stages in Wellington, New Zealand. I took my Moog Voyager XL, Roland JD-XA, Roland System-1m and my four AIRA Modular FX units down to the set after they finished shooting. We took a PA system and placed it into each fuselage. Everything has a resonating frequency, so I played the synths through the system and tweaked them until I found something that either vibrated the fuselage in a cool way or just sounded like an awesome ship. It was a great record and I came away with a great deal of palette to use. Blasting synths in a large space like that while resonating objects helped us create some very physical and organic sounds.
I also tried the same thing in a large reverberant tank-type room next to Park Road Post, but they were less interesting with long reverb tails and harder to use. I think you can hear the synth vibration most as the 13th floor takes off, particularly on the interior shots.
What was your approach to the weapon sounds?
BB: Christian was happy for us to create sounds for what we see on-screen.
Fang’s shotgun was a traditional gun sound with some additional elements to take it out of the ordinary.
Valentine’s machine-pistol, The London Bobbies machine guns and the airships’ guns in the attack on London were all developed to be different, and in the case of the airships, created to work with the battle sounds and more particularly the music.
Matt Lambourn did some magic with the ship guns, while Hayden Collow was responsible for the London guns.
How did you create the sound for the ‘ultimate weapon’ MEDUSA? The firing and explosion sounds during the attack on the Shield Wall were so fun! How did you create that massive explosion?
DW: MEDUSA needed explosions, rock hits, winds, synthetic textures, a sub drop or two, and great electricity components.
I tried to cut shape into this as quickly as possible to try and play it to Christian for shaping feedback. Once he was happy with a concept, we set about creating and recording new elements. We set up Tesla coil records with a small and large Tesla coil. The smaller coil actually gave us the best results as it was in a less reverberant space and we could get our mics closer. We had a MIDI keyboard attached to it so you could play the electricity, which was fruitful and fun.
We also recorded various welders and other electrical sources for arcs and sparks. I have to give some credit to the folks at Tonsturm, who I think have recorded some of the best electricity ever with their “Electricity” library. I definitely used that for some of MEDUSA’s arcing in St. Paul’s Cathedral. I again reached for my Roland System-1m and the Roland AIRA FX to create some synthetic textures, bends and sweeps, etc.
It really was fun developing the elements for the MEDUSA explosions, but hats off as always to re-recording mixer Chris Boyes, who really brought those moments to life with his mixing superpowers.
In terms of sound, what’s one thing you’d want other sound pros to know about your work on Mortal Engines?
BB: As always with the soundtracks we build, it’s about the perfect sound for every moment that is intended to be unique. This was a tricky concept for Mortal Engines as we also had to deal with scale.
Beyond that, the sound had to work with the music from composer Tom Holkenborg (aka, Junkie XL), who is a master at music that crosses so many barriers into electronics and sound design.
The soundtrack (as always) has to navigate this terrain and reveal something unique and “right” about the soundtrack we are building.
So, the soundtrack (as always) has to navigate this terrain and reveal something unique and “right” about the soundtrack we are building. This requires a lot of patience, and collaboration. And that’s what I hope people take away from hearing the track — that the mix is born out of a huge collaboration between the separate sound departments with outstanding crews on dialogue, crowds (huge), music, ambiences, effects, and Foley.
A big thanks to Brent Burge and Dave Whitehead for giving us a look at the sound of Mortal Engines – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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