‘The Flash’ is a spin-off from popular superhero series ‘Arrow’, and it’s been a runaway hit on The CW network, making it their most popular show ever. Season two premieres this Tuesday at 8pm/7pmC on The CW, and I got the chance to get the story behind the sound for the show:
Here’s sound designer Mark Camperell, on superhero sound effects, excitement, workflows – and how you strike that delicate balance between high-impact vs too much in sound design:
I was hired by the good folks at Atomic Sound Post Production to edit and design the sound effects for The Flash. I had previously worked with Atomic Sound on Almost Human so they were familiar with my work. The show’s sound supervisor, Michael Mullane has been kind enough to let me, more or less, have free reign on the sound effects and sound design. It’s always great to have ownership of something! (Aside, I don’t cut the BGs on the show. Sebastian Sheehan Visconti, another one of the team members at Atomic Sound, expertly cuts the BGs. I’m just on the hard sound effects and sound design. It’s a big show)
What does a superhero sound like?
BOOM! ZOOM! BAM! CRAAAK! BOP! CRASH! POW! THWACK! We’ve no doubt all seen these in countless comic books (and Adam West era Batman episodes) over the years. “The formation of a word… …by imitation of a sound made by or associated with its referent” is onomatopoeia, according to Dictionary.com. The challenge of sound design and sound editorial for superhero shows is to give the onomatopoeia of comic books a voice in a manner that is organic, iconic, signature, and consistent with the feeling of the book. All in real acoustic space mind you. The signature nature and iconic qualities have been my focus on The Flash from day one. These also prove to be the most challenging sounds to get right because they are so subjective. Every comic book fan could have a different idea of what “THWACK!” sounds like. Thankfully though, the more challenging a sound is, the more fun I get to have. I feel pretty lucky to work on a show that challenges me in this way every week.
Excitement is the key goal for the sound of The Flash. Everything I’m doing on the show is to excite the viewer and to add to the overall storytelling experience. There are superpowers, special weapons and gadgets, natural disasters, creatures, futuristic vehicles and plenty of other craziness to contend with. There are also good and evil variants of these categories and thus the sounds need to be consistent with a viewer’s already preconceived notion of this classic dichotomy.
Excitement is the key goal for the sound of The Flash. Everything I’m doing on the show is to excite the viewer and to add to the overall storytelling experience.
Finally, I’m trying to make sure that everything is properly covered. I don’t go to the mix stage, so I end up having to over cut stuff in case the client wants an alternate take on something or they might want to hear something that I might not have considered the focus of the scene. There isn’t a lot of time for back and forth, so we have to make sure absolutely everything is covered.
Sound workflow on The Flash
This is how I work: I’m not suggesting that this is for everybody, but for me it has managed to be a good strategy.
When we receive an episode from the picture department, the first thing I do is drop markers in Pro Tools for just about everything I see. I’m not dropping markers for every gunshot in a gunfight, but I am marking those sections. VFX dependent shots are marked as such and the marker isn’t deleted when I’ve cut this so that I don’t have to search the timeline for them. Again, time is at a premium so we don’t want to miss anything. Dropping the markers gives me a visual list of how deep an episode is sonically. Additionally, it helps me to figure out exactly how much I need to get through each day. After I’ve dropped in my own markers, I’ll drop markers for the stuff that the supervisor and clients have noted as needing coverage.
After the markers have been dropped in, I start cutting sound effects in. This is where things might be really unusual
A big episode will have well over 500 markers dropped. A lighter episode will have 350-400 dropped. And this isn’t even taking BGs into account.
After the markers have been dropped in, I start cutting sound effects in. This is where things might be really unusual. I have a master sessions built with all of the episodes from each season. There are a lot of repeated sound effects throughout the series that need to maintain continuity so these things need to be moved over and dropped in. For the stuff that is continuity based, its like a really big conform. The sync won’t be exactly the same, but it’s a start. This way too, the SFX mixer (Ethan Beigel) is getting the material in the similar way every week. Avoiding surprises for mixers will keep them happy and hopefully make their process run smoothly.
Once the continuity type things get cut in, (screens, Flash powers, weapons and gadgets) I move on to the new material for the episode. We only get about a week on each episode so the first couple of days are spent doing the continuity items. After that, I try to leave myself an entire day for the material that is new and unique to the episode. Usually each episode is dealing with at least one new super power, vehicle, disaster, or some new and unique piece of technology. I’m trying to build these new items from scratch as much as I can and giving an entire day to these things helps me to focus on them.
Finally, the VFX shots start trickling in and I go back and check my sync on these shots and adjust the sound accordingly as the final concept can be drastically different than the pre-vis and temp VFX, both in look and in detail.Usually what I end up doing is re-syncing stuff and adding detail to the shots.
Some of you may know Mark Camperell from The Library by Empty Sea, a great collection of independent sound effects libraries. He’s been involved with the independent SFX community for many years, and has also written this guide on how to get started creating your own indie SFX libraries. Here are some of the libraries from The Library by Empty Sea:
Designing the sound of speed
The Flash is all about speed. In season 1, Barry was discovering his abilities and learning to push them to the limit. He is really, really fast. Sometimes he’s only on screen for a few frames as he motors by. Sometimes he’s on screen for 20 seconds and objects are flying by him. My approach for the sounds of The Flash’s ability was to editorially treat him like a really aggressively driven hot rod. This doesn’t mean that I used car sounds for him, though. What I mean is that when thinking about how to edit his sounds, I thought about it like cutting a car chase. There are approaches, bys, aways, stops, on-boards, even power slides and skids… but all for a superhuman speedster and not a Ford Mustang. This approach for cutting has helped to keep up the aggression and the excitement of his power.
My approach for the sounds of The Flash’s ability was to editorially treat him like a really aggressively driven hot rod. This doesn’t mean that I used car sounds for him, though.
Next up were the sounds themselves. I have blended several items together to make up Barry’s sound. There are elements of thunder, electricity, jets, fireballs, and various custom whooshes and impacts. These things are manipulated for certain situations to give a feeling of perspective. A more distant shot of Barry speeding through the city could be more on the side of fireball and jet, whereas a closer Flash by is heavier on the electricity and impact elements. POV and on-board type shots are more focused on the blur of his body moving, electricity zapping around him and environmental elements speeding by. If this isn’t crazy enough, there is of course the evil variant of Barry in season 1, The Reverse Flash. So same approach, but you know, completely different and evil sounding.
Serious about superheroes – striking a balance between high-impact vs overblown & too much
Very few superhero-related things on this show are requested as subtle elements. It’s a big show in size and scope. I’ve alluded to our short timeline for an episode previously. My thought has always been it’s a lot easier for a mixer to pare something back and make it smaller than it is for them to make something bigger. So I always aim to provide the elements as big — bordering on overblown, big. The SFX mixer, Ethan, has the difficult task of adjusting the size of the sound to be appropriate for the situation. (Bless his heart.) This could be via EQ, some reverb for perspective, or ducking out elements of what I have provided to make a sound fit better. It varies from situation to situation.
So while what I’m cutting for The Flash is big, I aim to hit it hard quickly and then try get out of it quickly. This keeps things punchy and allows for space between elements, which in turn gives clarity and dynamic range.
That being said, I try to be sensitive to a mixer’s plight. Something I learned early on in my career is that when you’re working with a lot of material that is large, you need to hit the big moments quickly and get out of them. Then, fill in the gaps with unique, detail elements. That way, you aren’t simply filling your entire timeline with massive stuff. If you make everything big, the viewers won’t perceive it as such. So while what I’m cutting for The Flash is big, I aim to hit it hard quickly and then try get out of it quickly. This keeps things punchy and allows for space between elements, which in turn gives clarity and dynamic range. Big is always exciting. But so are dynamic changes.
In some of the more cinematic sequences, a sound designer / editor needs to try to make sure to think like a mixer. With all of these choices though, we need to be prepared for the possibility that the producers will want it the opposite way. This leads to cutting variations or alternate versions of things. For instance, I might want to let music have a section completely to heighten an emotional connection to a moment. But if something is happening on screen there, I still have to cut the material and leave it muted on the tracks. This way, if my concept doesn’t pan out with the producers, the material is already cued and ready to be played.
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Favorite sound design tools for the show
As much as I’d love to be able to build everything from scratch on a show like The Flash, it simply isn’t possible in the time allowed. So first and foremost, my number one tool for the show is my ever-expanding sound library. That is slightly misleading, because it makes it sound like I have a massive library.
I know my library extremely well and that’s important for hitting a deadline
It’s actually kind of on the small side, but I feel having a smaller library helps me to better know what I have to work with. I know my library extremely well and that’s important for hitting a deadline. I also like constraints and limitations. I feel they help me to make better choices because I don’t have the ability to noodle around as much, looking for all the sound possibilities that could work.
I guess it’d be nice to give some credit where it is due so here goes. My library is made up of indie collections (in no particular order and I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff too, sorry) from Rabbit Ears Audio, Echo Collective, Airborne Sound, Tonsturm, The Recordist, Sound Morph, Boom Library, Sound Dogs, and my own material from The Library by Empty Sea as well as proprietary stuff I have recorded that isn’t a part of any collection. There is also stuff from The Hollywood Edge and even some things that I personally recorded for the Soundelux Library back in the day.
As far as software tools go. I’m using a lot of Izotope Iris, Waves Element, and Absynth to make unique UI for some of the story-driven screens and sci-fi stuff for weapons and vehicles. I’m using Waves Soundshifter to varispeed things quite a bit. I’m also using Melted Sounds Whoosh to create layers for the sounds of the Speedsters (Flash / Reverse Flash). With Whoosh, I’ll start with their presets, manipulate settings and add in my own sounds to create weird stuff. There are countless others, but I’ll round out the name-dropping with Waves MondoMod and SuperTap Delay. They have been very useful for making unique layers on pretty much everything.
Looking back at the sound for season 1 – and what awaits in season 2:
Season 1 was a blast. We had a girl who could teleport, a guy that could shoot lightning from his hands, another guy who could turn into a toxic mist, people who could manipulate the weather, a giant telepathic gorilla and that’s just a few of the super powers.
We had a girl who could teleport, a guy that could shoot lightning from his hands, another guy who could turn into a toxic mist, people who could manipulate the weather, a giant telepathic gorilla and that’s just a few of the super powers.
We had tidal waves, weird vortices, wormholes, and event horizons. Special weapons like a gun that could freeze people, a super flamethrower, a gun that could turn things to gold. Weird vehicles like drones and time machines. In short, we had lots of fun stuff to play with sonically.
I can’t go into much depth as to what there will be in season 2, but I can say with certainty that it is going to be just as challenging as season 1. You’re going to have to tune in to hear it!
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