Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Director Benh Zeitlin is known for his award-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild, which premiered at Sundance in 2012 and took home the Grand Jury Prize for US Dramatic feature, and later earned four 2013 Oscar noms including ones for best picture, best directing, and best screenplay. This year, he’s back at Sundance with Wendy, a film that covers the well-known story of Peter Pan and Neverland but from a new perspective. Who is this daring girl that runs away from home seeking adventure? In director Zeitlin’s adaptation, Wendy is no tag-along. She hops a freight train (with her brothers in tow) and meets Peter Pan who takes them to an island where no one is supposed to grow old.
Supervising sound designer/effects re-recording mixer Ruy Garcia and his sound team at Technicolor-PostWorks NY matched the tone of Zeitlin’s Wendy by incorporating realistic, natural sounds into their designs for the fantastical elements, making Neverland feel magical in an organic way.
And Wendy was awarded the Dolby Institute Fellowship, which provided the means to mix the film in Atmos. Re-recording mixer Martin Czembor and Garcia used the format to immerse the audience in the lush jungles and underwater caves of this tropical paradise.
Here, Garcia talks about the challenges of making the film and working with the young cast members, designing the film’s sonic palette, mixing in Atmos, and more!
Ruy Garcia (RG): I had worked with producer Paul Mezey on other projects. He sent me the script and we met with Benh before they started principal photography. That was back in October 2016. It’s always beneficial when you are able to read the script from a sonic perspective and start talking with the director and producers about specific and general requirements. We tried to make a plan of how we would approach some aspects during the film shoot — some of them worked out and others did not — but we were already off to a good start. We just finished mixing the film back in December. It’s been a long rewarding journey.
That’s fantastic that you were involved in pre-production, and that the post sound team wasn’t just coming in at the end…
RG: I mostly work on independent, very personal films. We have smaller crews and work closely with the filmmakers. It’s pretty surprising how many resources you can save and how closer you can get to a director’s vision even with a short mindful conversation ahead of time.
The story of Peter Pan is well-known and has been covered by a few films. How did the filmmakers want their version of this tale to sound different? What are some sonic aspects that distinguish the world of Wendy from other Pan films?
RG: It starts with the story; it’s a different take on the Peter Pan tale. The original tale was an inspiration for Benh and Eliza Zeitlin (director/co-writer/production designer) and it’s something they have been interested in since they were kids.
Also, this film is called “Wendy,” not “Peter.” The world we experience is from her point of view. Wendy is not a passive character with a crush on Peter Pan, and it’s not like the boys are the adventurous ones and she is just trying to bring reason to the situation.
This film…has a documentary aesthetic, which helps it feel spontaneous and real. So we tried to make it sound as raw and natural as possible.
This film — like Benh’s other film Beasts of the Southern Wild — has a documentary aesthetic, which helps it feel spontaneous and real. So we tried to make it sound as raw and natural as possible. There are of course fantastic elements, like the underwater scenes and the volcanoes and especially the character of Mother.
When we started talking, we were focused on how much we were going to get from the actors’ original performance because these are all non-actors; it’s mostly children whose ages will change as we move forward. So the part we mostly focused on at the beginning was how to capture and protect that performance.
The locations in the film are really outstanding. They shot on the island of Montserrat and they literally had to build a road to be able to get to the location. They had to fly to Antigua and then take boats to where they were shooting. The scenes with the underwater caves were shot in Mexico.
They shot on the island of Montserrat and they literally had to build a road to be able to get to the location. They had to fly to Antigua and then take boats to where they were shooting.
It became our job to build these worlds with layers and layers of sound.
That sounds really challenging for the production team. If they’re building a road to get there, then there definitely wasn’t a power grid to plug in to…
RG: Exactly. And even to feed the cast and crew, they needed zip-lines for equipment and food. They were shooting on 16mm film. And on top of that, they had to keep the process fun for the kids who are not trained, professional actors.
That was a big part of what we talked about, how we were going to achieve this and how much we would need to do in post. You can understand that even with the dedication of Allison Jackson and Michael Russo, the production sound mixers, these complicated locations were not the most conducive to getting a clean take.
This version of the Pan story seems very realistic, but there are also fantastical elements, like in the underwater scene with the Mother character/creature swimming by. What was your approach to these fantastical elements given the film’s otherwise realistic vibe?
It was like a big piece of marble and we were looking for the sculpture hidden inside it.
RG: We were literally chipping away at that until the very last day. It was like a big piece of marble and we were looking for the sculpture hidden inside it. From the first cut we received to the final locked picture, it feels like a different movie from a sonic point of view. There were evolving visual effects, which would require us to start from scratch. So we just kept chipping away until Benh was happy. He has a vision that needs every detail to be right to really come together. When he responds emotionally to something, that’s when we knew we got it.
So we went through different stages of experimenting with music and sound design. We used all kinds of animal recordings, a singer, and our vocal and synthesized elements, all going through different processing. In the end, it was a combination of many different elements from different iterations that we experimented with over the course of the film.
For the underwater scene, it was essential to blend sound design with the epic score. We used different impulse responses to make things sound like they were underwater, and used a lot of echoes and other processing; we also included sounds that were recorded underwater using hydrophones, like the sound of animals and water movements.
We did get recordings of very specific sounds from production. They had these caves where the water comes in and creates this great sounding vacuum. It’s a very subtle thing, but you feel the sound being blocked by the water. They also captured the sound of rocks rolling around on the beach in the waves, frigate birds, and the trains that were recorded on location.
We did a lot of work on the vocal processing. There’s a connecting thread from the train’s steam to the volcano and geysers and finally to the Mother’s voice.
I was lucky to be able to start designing sounds as they were cutting picture. Some of those made it into the temp, some didn’t, but when our team began our work on the film, we already had a whole palette of sounds to start from. Lately, there’s less and less time for that with schedules. Picture will finish the cut, send it to you and then check out what you’re doing right before the mix. This film was an extremely collaborative process. We were working with Benh very closely.
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What was the most challenging aspect of the sound on Wendy?
RG: The most challenging part was the kids who had been working on the film for two or three years because they were growing so fast and their voices were changing. There was a lot of ADR and we were very careful to match and preserve their spontaneous performances and make it sound natural. These kids are non-actors and Benh did a lot of ADR recording from his computer while traveling around the world.
The most challenging part was the kids who had been working on the film for two or three years because they were growing so fast and their voices were changing.
We had a fantastic dialogue team — ADR Supervisor Deborah Wallach who was involved with the actors from an early stage and Dialogue Supervisor Luciano Vignola — who were recording, cutting, matching, pitch shifting and re-syncing all the lines to get them to work. Luciano also spent weeks tuning voices and creature sounds to the music.
Roland Vajs did a great job with Foley, including recording at exterior locations. And Chris Foster worked on effects; he spent countless hours matching all the train bells and bugs to the tempo of the score. Michael McMenomy helped us enormously during the Atmos mix.
What did the Dolby Fellowship mean for this film? How were you able to take advantage of the Atmos format for Wendy?
RG: It was night and day. We had already mixed the film in 5.1 and were planning on doing a few tweaks here and there. When the Dolby Fellowship came in, it allowed us to take this film to a whole different level of precision, much closer to what Benh’s vision was.
There are all the jungle and underwater sequences, which are so fitting for Atmos. We placed the kids’ voices in the treetops and Peter’s footsteps on the roof so you can hear them above you…
In terms of the Atmos format, it was really fun; it helped us attain an immersive soundtrack. There are all the jungle and underwater sequences, which are so fitting for Atmos. We placed the kids’ voices in the treetops and Peter’s footsteps on the roof so you can hear them above you, and in the underwater caves, you can hear the echoes of the water droplets and rip currents surround you. Music in Atmos is amazing because you have all this extra bandwidth to work with and this is such a musically rich film.
The Fellowship also allowed us to do an extra pass on the detail, to bring in more elements to help the story. And this time we had the final VFX so we were able to fine-tune all those extra, fantastic character voices.
Where did you go to do the Atmos mix?
RG: We did the theatrical mix at Final Frame, a new stage that PostWorks is working on in the Flatiron District. It’s this great Atmos stage on the 11th floor with beautiful laser picture projection and windows overlooking the Empire state. We are used to dwelling in dark, closed rooms, so it’s actually a luxury to have windows on the mix stage. The Home Atmos mix was done at PostWorks Stage D.
In terms of sound, how was Wendy a unique experience for you?
RG: We had a small crew and we all played a big part in the sound. Typically on a film, everyone has a specific task. One person takes care of dialogue, one person takes care of ADR, and you have effects editors and Foley editors working on their own until it’s time to mix. But on this film, with a director as creative and hands-on as Benh, it was all hands on deck all the time.
We had a small crew and we all played a big part in the sound…with a director as creative and hands-on as Benh, it was all hands on deck all the time.
I’ve been working with re-recording mixer Martin Czembor for several years now and we have an approach that is very trusting and collaborative. Wendy had a non-linear process where we would work in parallel on an identical session and import tracks back and forth between two rooms. Sometimes we mixed a reel and then would need to take it back for editing without stopping the mix flow. Other times, we would need to re-build very complicated sequences and Martin would always find ways of making it all work together. He was a patient champion, keeping a positive and objective perspective throughout the whole process while making it sound great.
We spent about four months working as a team, but it wasn’t continuous. Sometimes the dialogue editor would cut sound effects. Or the sound effects editor would work on a dialogue line, and everything had to play with the music. Allen Lau, the first assistant sound editor, kept the ship organized and running at all times. It was all a very elastic and generous collaboration; we are friends and no one is possessive of their personal work. It was always about the film and doing what was best for the story. I loved working with this team on creating Wendy’s soundscape together.
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