This week, A Sound Effect is bringing you behind-the-sound coverage of four films: Save Yourselves! in US Dramatic Competition, Nine Days in US Dramatic Competition and a recipient of the Dolby Institute Fellowship, The Killing of Two Lovers in the NEXT category, and Wendy (another Dolby Institute Fellowship recipient) presenting its world premiere.
First up is supervising sound editor/sound designer Mac Smith on creating sound to support the deeply philosophical story in Nine Days:
Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Writer/director Edson Oda’s Nine Days — currently in US Dramatic Competition at Sundance — takes a philosophical look at existence. The film’s description reads: What if being born is not the beginning but the goal? In a house distant from the reality we know, a reclusive man named Will interviews prospective candidates—personifications of human souls—for the privilege he once had: to be born. Five contenders emerge. During the course of nine days, Will tests each of them, but he can choose only one. The victor will be rewarded with a coveted opportunity to become a newborn in the real world, while the others will cease to exist—nine days is everything they’ll ever experience.
Nine Days was a recipient of the Dolby Institute Fellowship which provides the means for extended editorial work and for mixing in Atmos.
Award-winning supervising sound editor/supervising sound designer Mac Smith at Skywalker Sound had the unique task of creating sound to support the complex emotional and philosophical concepts explored in Nine Days. Here, Smith talks about his collaboration with director Oda, how they approached the sound of the non-reality world in which the story unfolds, how they effectively used the Atmos surround field, and more!
When did you get involved with Nine Days? Can you tell me about your collaboration with the filmmakers? What were their goals for sound and how were you able to help them achieve that?
Mac Smith (MS): I came aboard the project this past fall, and travelled to New York for a spotting session with director Edson Oda and the picture editors. I had read the script last summer and seen an early cut of the film just prior to our meeting. Together we spoke a lot about the approach and how important sound was going to be to convey not only the locations, but also convey what was going on with the internal struggles of the main character, Will (Winston Duke). We spent a good portion of the meeting just talking about philosophy and life before we started talking about specific scenes in the film. They were very valuable conversations that informed the rest of our creative process.
We spent a good portion of the meeting just talking about philosophy and life before we started talking about specific scenes in the film. They were very valuable conversations that informed the rest of our creative process.
While Brandon Proctor (re-recording mixer) and I hadn’t worked with Edson or the picture editors before, we have a long history of working with producer Jason Michael Berman who brought us onto the Nine Days team. Jason is a big advocate for sound and trusts the way we approach films. Our goal with sound is to always focus on what’s best for the story.
The film description calls Nine Days “supernatural, metaphysical, and deeply emotional.” What did this mean for you in terms of sound and what you were asked to bring to the table creatively?
MS: I knew right away that sound was going to have to take a front seat to convey a lot of what’s happening emotionally in the story. We are in another realm with these characters; it’s not earth, but the visuals don’t convey an overly fantastic setting. Edson emphasized that he didn’t want anything to sound sci-fi, which made sense. It was a great piece of direction and it was a good barometer for me to make sure I didn’t go too far with my approach in regards to the sound design. That being said we had a lot of freedom to be imaginative and to experiment with ideas.
What does this alternate reality sound like? What feeling should this environment evoke and how did you help that with sound?
MS: We spend a lot of time in Will’s house throughout the film, so that location had to have a personality of its own, and since this isn’t the real world, we had a bit more latitude to go in a slight otherworldly direction with the sound. While we revisit the same rooms over and over, they didn’t necessarily need to sound exactly the same each time. Often times the room tones and backgrounds were reflecting the mood or what was happening in the story. It was also important to have enough layers of sound in these locations to be able to strip them away when the story called for it to get quiet.
Since the exterior locations are very barren, and not on earth, we decided that there shouldn’t be any sounds of living creatures outside.
Since the exterior locations are very barren, and not on earth, we decided that there shouldn’t be any sounds of living creatures outside. That throws out any option of using sound recordings that contain insects or birds, which are sometimes the first things that sound editors reach for when we start our work. We also couldn’t use any sound recordings with distant vehicles, so this became an exercise in using many layers of wind recordings to sell the exterior locations.
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What was the most challenging scene for sound? What were your challenges and your creative solutions for that scene?
MS: There is an extraordinary place in the house that we don’t visit until about a third of the way into the film. This location features moments where we experience special things through a character’s point of view. Since this movie takes place before these characters could be born, these moments had to convey what it’s like to be alive. They are hyperreal and Edson really wanted to make them as immersive as possible. We used the Dolby Atmos format to a larger degree in these moments and I think it worked.
The most challenging aspect of the sound work throughout the film was the wall of TVs in Will’s living room. There are 30 tube televisions of different sizes and shapes stacked upon one another, and through these TVs, this is the only window into the real world. While the camera isn’t always looking at these televisions, there is almost always sound coming from them and we are often in close proximity to the TVs.
There are 30 tube televisions of different sizes and shapes stacked upon one another, and through these TVs, this is the only window into the real world.
We had to convey everyday life through the TVs with dialogue (in multiple languages), music, and sound effects. We were able to record a number of talented voice actors over the course of a two-day loop group session. Most of the performances from these actors were improvised and not performed to picture. In essence, we were creating a sound library of voices to use throughout the film, so a wide variety of vocal content was required between different ages, genders, moods, and languages. The TVs also became a great storytelling tool for us to use to help set the mood when we were in adjacent areas of the house throughout the film.
What did the Dolby Fellowship mean for this film? How were you able to take advantage of the Atmos format for Nine Days?
MS: The Dolby grant allowed us to mix this film in the Atmos format which was a huge thing for us and for the film. It allowed us to not only get additional mix time, but to also do some additional sound editorial work. This is by far the most complicated film that I’ve worked on because there are so many unique aspects to it.
It’s a lot like the importance of having a wide range of dynamics throughout a film. If it’s all loud then none of it feels loud. The same goes for the sound field.
Once we knew we were going to do a native Atmos mix, Brandon and I established some rules that we stuck to through most of the mix. Outside of Antonio Pinto’s beautiful score, and the TVs, we decided to keep all of the interior room tones and backgrounds in the front speaker channels, behind the screen. Then when we come to a few key scenes in the film, the sound layers spread into the surround and ceiling speakers and you end up feeling much more immersed because there hasn’t been a lot of sound coming from those areas of the theater up to this point. It’s a lot like the importance of having a wide range of dynamics throughout a film. If it’s all loud then none of it feels loud. The same goes for the sound field.
In terms of sound, how was Nine Days a unique experience for you?
Much of the film explores the meaning of life, and asks the question, “What is it like to be alive?” My focus is usually on the sound design, so in key emotional moments I needed to figure out how the design could enhance those complex questions…
MS: This film pulled me out of my comfort zone a bit, since it was so unique and delicate. I learned a tremendous amount that will influence my approach as I continue my career. Much of the film explores the meaning of life, and asks the question, “What is it like to be alive?” My focus is usually on the sound design, so in key emotional moments I needed to figure out how the design could enhance those complex questions, and then get out of the way when the dialogue and/or music should take the lead.
Nine Days is such a beautiful film, and it was a very rewarding experience to be a part of it. The film gets very deep and I guarantee that it will stick with you long after you’ve experienced it.
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