The Midnight Sky Sound Asbjoern Andersen


Skywalker Sound supervising sound editor/sound designer Randy Thom talks about his organic approach to Netflix's apocalyptic sci-fi film The Midnight Sky — directed by and starring George Clooney, and seen by an estimated 72 million viewers in its first four weeks.
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Netflix
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Randy Thom needs no introduction in sound circles. The two-time Oscar-winning sound designer, at Skywalker Sound , is an active member of Twitter’s sound community (@randythom), regularly shares industry insights on his Thoughts on Film Sound Design blog, and does interviews (like this one!) in which he discusses his creative process, collaboration dynamics, history in the biz, and other interesting tidbits that promote the advancement of sound craft in various ways.

Thom worked with director/actor George Clooney on the newly released Netflix film The Midnight Sky, which combines an apocalyptic human extinction event with a sci-fi space adventure, told through the experience of Augustine (a dying man surviving alone in the Arctic) and the last-living space crew returning from a mission to Jupiter’s potentially habitable moon K23.

The film covers lots of ground — an alien planet with its unique biosphere, a remote scientific observatory, a trek through an Arctic storm and all its environmental threats, a near-future spacecraft interior with future-tech (like holographic projections of the astronauts’ families), plus a spacewalk, asteroids impacts, and flashbacks to Augustine’s days as a young scientist. There’s a huge variety of sounds that needed to be designed to fit The Midnight Sky‘s “sound style,” as Thom calls it, while still feeling like they’re part of the same film.

Here, Thom talks about the film’s use of wind to characterize locations, how they found their version of ‘sound in space,’ recording trains to get multi-syllable impact sounds, and so much more!



THE MIDNIGHT SKY starring George Clooney | Official Trailer | Netflix


THE MIDNIGHT SKY starring George Clooney | Official Trailer | Netflix

 

What were director George Clooney’s goals for sound on The Midnight Sky? When you first met up, did he have initial concerns or places where he wanted you to focus your efforts?

Randy Thom (RT): One concern or one question was how we were going to treat the sound in space — when we’re outside the space ship.

As I’m sure you know, he [Clooney] played a character in the movie Gravity. They made a decision in Gravity to have a very specific and distinctive sound-style when you’re out in space, which was basically to come as close as they could to obeying the laws of physics. And since sound doesn’t get transmitted in space, they really minimized sound of all kinds in space.

…one question was how we were going to treat the sound in space…

So one question on The Midnight Sky was whether we were going to follow that paradigm or invent our own.

After talking about it quite a bit, I did some experiments and sent them to George to listen to. We decided that the approach that we wanted to take in The Midnight Sky was to not strictly obey the laws of physics.

…the approach that we wanted to take in ‘The Midnight Sky’ was to not strictly obey the laws of physics.

Instead, what we would hear is essentially the POV of the people inside the spaceship as it’s getting bombarded by asteroids, for example. So it’s a version of their POV. When we’re outside the spaceship and seeing asteroids impact the outside of the ship, we certainly don’t hear it in the way that we would hear it if we were seeing asteroids hit something on Earth and we were in a normal atmosphere. We hear a semi-muffled version of it.

The idea is that we were hoping the audience gets the impression (whether they think about it consciously or not) that they are hearing it as the people inside the spaceship are hearing it, reverberating around in the acoustics inside the ship.

 

MidnightSky_sound-10

Did you achieve this through Foley with non-traditional miking techniques or were you processing the sounds?

RT: We tried everything. And as usual, a lot of the things we try don’t work and that’s how you learn what does work.

And we were fortunate to have enough time to do that kind of experimenting. George really insisted on it. And it’s what we all wanted to do to find what was really going to work for this particular movie.

Every movie has a sound-style, just like it has a visual style…

Every movie has a sound-style, just like it has a visual style and a big part of my job is to work with the director to figure out what that sound-style is.

So, yes, we absolutely used miking techniques in Foley. We used a lot of fairly radical equalization on the sound effects. So if we’re using the sound of a sledgehammer banging a big piece of metal and we record that, we would roll off most of the high frequencies to give it that kind of muffled acoustic.

 

MidnightSky_sound-3

If you had to pick three adjectives to describe the sound-style of this film, what would they be?

RT: Well, I think POV is certainly one. I don’t know if that counts as an adjective or not, but I’ll claim it is anyway.

I think a kind of naturalism was important to George, that everything sounds organic. And so that’s certainly another adjective I could use.

He didn’t want anything to sound synthesized or artificial. We were very careful to use raw sounds that were organically recorded in the real world, whether it was exterior or interior.

 

MidnightSky_sound-9

What were some of your design challenges for the Aether‘s damaging trip through the ice field? The sides of that spaceship were really interesting because they were malleable. They weren’t your typical rigid material, which I thought was really cool. How were you able to play with that sonically?

RT: In a sequence like that, where you have lots of impacts in a fairly short period of time, you certainly don’t want all of them to sound alike. That would be pretty boring and would feel unreal.

And so in a sequence like that, we always try to vary the impact sounds as much as we think we can get away with while still making it feel like it’s in the same world, in the same acoustic universe.

It’s one of the great sources of metallic impacts (especially big ones), this sound that you get when you record train cars bumping into each other.

For the asteroid impacts, we used all kinds of metal impacts. There are train cars locking up. It’s one of the great sources of metallic impacts (especially big ones), this sound that you get when you record train cars bumping into each other.

You get an amazing variety of sounds when that happens because each train car is manufactured a little differently from every other train car and the mechanism that locks the train cars together varies also. And, how old it is determines what it sounds like.



The Midnight Sky - Mix Presents Award Season 2021


Special Video Sound Feature: The Midnight Sky – Mix Presents Award Season 2021

Sometimes you get this really great, multi-syllabic squeaking and impacting sound and that’s very useful to us in a sequence like this because one thing that makes a sound feel big is if it has multiple syllables.

…one thing that makes a sound feel big is if it has multiple syllables.

There’s a funny thing that I often think about. When I first started working in movies, I began in Northern California, but obviously needed to go to Los Angeles a lot for various reasons. I’d never spent much time in L.A. and there was a street in Los Angeles the name of which always sounded funny to me: Cahuenga. It sounded funny to me because it’s like onomatopoeia. It’s like a sound effect — Ca-huen-ga! And so that’s the kind of multi-syllabic sound I’m talking about.

So when the asteroid impacts the outside of the ship, you don’t want it to be just ‘bang.’ You want it to be ‘Ca-huen-ga!’ You want it to have several syllables and that’s part of what makes it seem huge — larger than life — like you’re hearing the sound (not only the initial impact) reverberating around, bouncing around on the ship and within the ship.

You get that kind of sound with something like a railroad car banging into another railroad car.

 

MidnightSky_sound-6

How do you get these railroad car sounds? Do you just show up at a rail yard and they let you in?

RT: Well, it’s usually a good idea to ask permission. When I began doing this stuff, it was long before the internet, of course, and so I used to use the yellow pages a lot and look up train companies and railroad lots and call them out of the blue and say, ‘Hi, can I come up and record some sound?’

Like any cold call situation, a lot of people will just say, ‘No. Why are you bothering me?’

But a lot of people are also intrigued. Some companies think I was actually from OSHA, from the government, trying to get them in trouble for being too loud and so I’d have to convince them that that was not the case.

But, as I said, a lot of people in those situations are intrigued, especially if you say the sounds might potentially be used in a movie. They’re very into that.

…people in those situations are intrigued, especially if you say the sounds might potentially be used in a movie.

Now we do most of the searching on the internet. We give them a call and then very often we are routed to somebody in their PR department initially. And they point us to the right people on the ground to talk to. And so then it’s just about figuring out where to put the microphones more than anything else. And obviously, in a situation like that, you want to stay safe because railroad lots like that can be pretty dangerous places.

When you’re recording a sound like that — when you’re recording most sounds — it’s useful to have microphones in multiple positions: some on the train cars, some at a medium distance (maybe 30 feet away), and if it’s a loud enough sound, you might very well want some at 150 – 200-feet away so that you really get the natural acoustics of that location.

Though, in our modern world, there’s so much noise everywhere that a sound would have to be very loud to justify having a mic 150-feet away from it. Because otherwise, most of what you will pick up are vehicles going by that you don’t want to record.

 

[tweet_box]Randy Thom Sheds Some Light on the Sound of ‘The Midnight Sky'[/tweet_box]

How open to suggestion are these rail yard workers? Like, can you request to have this car and that car sort of bang into each other? Or do you have to just wait for the opportunity of these railroad cars banging into each other?

RT: Well, some people in those situations are much more cooperative and amenable to trying things than others are, of course. And it also depends on how busy they are and how much time they have to allocate to it, or how bored they are with their normal jobs.

…old things almost always sound more interesting than new things.

But yeah, absolutely, we often make specific requests. For instance, old things almost always sound more interesting than new things. So an old railroad car, because it squeaks, is much more likely to squeak on impact and is probably going to be more interesting and more useful sonically to you than one that doesn’t squeak.

And so we might very well say, ‘That old rusty one over there. Can we use that one?’ And sometimes they’ll say, ‘No, I don’t think we can even get that one to move.’ Or they’ll say, ‘Yeah, sure. We can do that. We haven’t moved that one in a while. It’ll be fun to move it.’

So it depends entirely on the situation.


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MidnightSky_sound-7

Let’s talk about your approach to the different settings in the film. You have this frozen exterior of the Arctic Circle where Augustine is hanging out. And that stands in contrast to Jupiter’s moon K23, which is very lush but sort of devoid of life. Then inside the spaceship and inside the observatory, those feel kind of similar — stark yet functional. What were some of the sonic characteristics you designed for each of these large set pieces in the film?

RT: As you mentioned, K23 — the planet that they are exploring for possible habitation — has plenty of vegetation, but doesn’t have any birds or insects that we see or hear.

George specifically said that he didn’t want to hear any off-screen animals or birds or insects or frogs. And that’s always a bit of a challenge for us sonically because those kinds of elements are some of the main things that we use to help tell a story.

…those kinds of elements are some of the main things that we use to help tell a story.

When you subtract those from the equation, what you have left (pretty much) is wind and water, and the sounds of people moving around (their footsteps and the things that they pick up) and maybe a few other sounds. So it does make it a bit more of a challenge to give the place a character that you think will help the story if those kinds of elements are not in the deck that you’re working with.

So we did a lot on that planet, as much as we could, with the waterfall and the stream and wind to help tell the story.

 

 MidnightSky_sound-8

How did you get good clean wind tracks without having bugs and birds on them?

RT: We often rely upon recordings made in the winter for that kind of situation because obviously there are fewer birds and few, if any, bug sounds during the winter.

We’re lucky at Skywalker to have an enormous sound library. I think it’s about 10 TB now. And in it, we have thousands and thousands of recordings of wind that we’ve made over the years.

Even when we’re not working on a specific project, we often go on sound recording expeditions, just because we know that almost anything that we record we’ll be able to use at some point on some project. So we have been all over the world in all kinds of situations recording wind.

Even when we’re not working on a specific project, we often go on sound recording expeditions…

The sound of wind varies enormously. Wind is basically about air moving over some kind of object or through some kind of object. So there’s the wind that you get that’s blowing through telephone lines or tree branches, which is completely different from the wind that you get blowing around a shack, or whistling through the cracks of a structure of some kind.

We’re always looking for character and wind is one of our main tools for doing that. And The Midnight Sky was really a playground for wind sounds.

 

MidnightSky_sound-12

Yes, indeed, especially in the Arctic when Augustine goes on his trek to the weather station and he’s trapped in crazy swirling, Arctic winds…

RT: Buffeting winds are always fun to play within those situations.

Sometimes even the sound that you get when you have a microphone out in the wind and the wind is literally blowing through the microphone — it’s a sound that you often want to get rid of because it’s considered a mistake or a technical problem —

…adding a little bit of that kind of ‘distorted wind through microphone’ sound can be useful in terms of vérité…

but adding a little bit of that kind of ‘distorted wind through microphone’ sound can be useful in terms of vérité also, because if you do it in a subtle enough way, and if you combine it with other winds, we hope that the impression that the audience gets is, ‘Wow, this must be real because I’ve heard that sound before when I was trying to record a video outdoors.’

And as long as it’s not the main sound that you feature (but it’s just there as a kind of suggestion) it really helps with a feel of naturalism and realism and vérité.

 

MidnightSky_sound-1

The film score is a major force in the final soundtrack. Did it impact your design in any way? Or did the score and sound design first meet on the dub stage?

RT: We certainly got early samples and sketches from composer Alexandre Desplat and we always try to work as closely with the music department as we can.

…the music department and the sound design department always start with the best intentions in terms of collaborating.

Very often, the music department and the sound design department always start with the best intentions in terms of collaborating. When push comes to shove and everybody is kind of crazed trying to get done everything that they have to get done in their own departments, it’s almost always the case that there winds up being less collaboration than you hope there will be.

But it was really helpful for us to get sketches from Alexandre to the degree that we could, to get the sound design to work with the music so that it all kind of felt like one thing.

There was one sequence in the film where Augustine goes outside the observatory and finds all the dying birds. There was score for that sequence and in the final mix, when we listened to the score with the sound design, we decided with George that we just didn’t need both.

The most important thing in that moment seemed to be making it feel as real as possible, almost like a scene from a documentary where you’re seeing this explorer go outside and find this field of dying birds. So we experimented with dropping the score and decided that was the best way to play that sequence.

I think it’s pretty rare that a sequence can have huge music and huge sound effects and constant dialogue and really work very well sonically.

In mixes, I like to think I’m often the first person to say, ‘Why don’t we try the sequence with no sound effects or with minimal sound effects, because the music is really what’s able to tell the story here more than the sound design is.’ Obviously, it can work the other way too.

I’m a big believer in handing the baton back and forth in terms of sound. I think it’s pretty rare that a sequence can have huge music and huge sound effects and constant dialogue and really work very well sonically.

I think usually the trick is finding a way to orchestrate a sequence so that, in one moment, the main thing you’re hearing is the music and the next moment, the main thing you’re hearing is the dialogue, and then the next moment, the main thing is the sound effects. And if you can find a way to do that gracefully enough, the audience never catches on that they’re being tricked. They feel that they’re hearing everything they’re supposed to be hearing in each of those moments.

That’s one of the things mixing is about: finding a way to do that kind of orchestrating of the sound as gracefully as you can.

 

MidnightSky_sound-2

Did you have a favorite scene or aspect of the soundtrack that you wanted to talk about?

RT: The icebreaking sequence was a big challenge and a lot of fun to do. In many ways, the movie was really designed to be a playground for sound and that’s certainly a sequence that was.

The more mystery there is visually the easier it is for sound to make a contribution…

It is dark visually, which always helps. The more mystery there is visually the easier it is for sound to make a contribution, because when there are these visual question marks hanging in the air, there’s something about the human brain that flips a switch and says, ‘Okay ears, help me figure out what’s going on here.’

And so it’s a great opening for us to do something for sequences that are dark, or foggy, or shot from unusual angles — any kind of visual question mark is an open door to us. So that icebreaking sequence was certainly one of those.

The sound of cracking ice is such a musical sound, so dynamic and harmonic in a way…

The sound of cracking ice is such a musical sound, so dynamic and harmonic in a way — at least it can be. In this scene, the trailer that they’re inside of begins to crack through the ice. The sounds of ice cracking and water flowing grow and grow and grow as this whole lake that they’re sitting on top of is having a spring thaw, I suppose. And so the cracks are going out farther and farther and you hear them coming from farther away. That was a fantastic sequence to work on in terms of sound.

We haven’t talked about other sound collaborators yet, but Kyrsten Mate was the other sound designer working on the movie and she did a wonderful job with the radio sounds, which are really interesting and kind of musical in a sense, but they all sound organic and totally believable.

She also did a lot of work on the sounds of the spaceship itself, which were great. When we see the spaceship moving or beginning to move, we applied that same kind of aesthetic that I mentioned, in terms of the asteroids hitting, where what you’re hearing most of the time is the POV of the people who were inside the ship.
So she applied those kinds of techniques to all the spaceship’s sounds as well.

 

MidnightSky_sound-4

The spaceship in this film was really interesting. The materials it was constructed from were so unique, something I’ve never experienced in anything else I’ve watched…

RT: As you mentioned, some of the surfaces that you see asteroids hitting look almost like they might be made of cloth. And so we did some recordings of things ripping through canvas and similar kinds of fabrics. And those are elements in some of the asteroid hits.

 

Randy, thank you for taking some time out to talk with me about The Midnight Sky!

RT: My pleasure. It was great talking with you.

A big thanks to Randy Thom for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of The Midnight Sky and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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