Written by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of HBO / John P Johnson and Tom deGroter
The teaser trailer for Westworld
HBO’s new series Westworld, airing on Sundays at 9pm, melds a world of futuristic technology with the dusty grind of the wild west. Westworld is essentially a ‘theme’ park where guests can fulfill their dark fantasies without fear of retribution, because the guests are interacting with sophisticated artificial lifeforms and not real humans.
Series co-creator Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, based the Westworld series on Michael Crichton’s identically named 1973 film. Annalee Newitz’s Decrypted podcast offers an insightful breakdown of the Westworld milieu — the park world of the robot hosts and behind-the-scenes in the elaborate inner-workings of the high-tech laboratory where Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and his team fabricate this intricate, immersive park experience.
Emmy-winning supervising sound editor Thomas deGorter, at Atomic Sound Post Production in Burbank, CA, says, “Westworld is a sound person’s dream show because it is a western and it’s sci-fi. We get to mix these two worlds in the same project. We get to go as far as we can and just have a ball with it.”
Westworld is a sound person’s dream show because it is a western and it’s sci-fi
His sound team includes sound designer Mark Allen, and sound effects editor Marc Glassman. DeGorter, who has worked on sci-fi/fantasy series like Lost and Once Upon a Time, shares with us his Westworld sound experience.
Supervising sound editor Tom deGroter
How did you get involved with Westworld?
I got involved with Westworld because of my relationship with Jonathan Nolan on Person of Interest. And I’ve had a long relationship with the production company, Bad Robot, having done shows like Lost and Alias. Person of Interest was a Bad Robot production so I was able to meet Jonathan Nolan and that’s where our relationship started.
You’re no stranger to sci-fi/fantasy series, having worked on The Leftovers, Lost, and Once Upon a Time, where you got to explore worlds beyond our own reality. How have those experiences prepared you for Westworld?
Every one of those shows was different in its own way, but the one common thread that runs through them all is that they wanted a real feeling to the show.
We wanted the sound to feel grounded and real
They didn’t want anything too sci-fi, too over the top. We wanted the sound to feel grounded and real. And that idea also carries over into Westworld.
This series is inspired by the 1973 film, Westworld. Did that film have any influence on your sound for the series?
Not really. We wanted a clean slate. We had to create a whole new world and we wanted it to be all fresh and new.
The original trailer for the 1973 Westworld film
Workflow – did you get all the episodes at once to work on, or were they delivered weekly?
The episodes are delivered on a weekly basis. It’s an ongoing process where we are constantly getting picture changes. We are working on each show individually, but we really have to pay attention to the reoccurring scenes throughout the series. So we have these robots in the western world, called hosts, and they’re on a loop. They live a certain life, and they do certain activities, but these things will be similar from day-to-day. But however, based on how the guests interact with these hosts, their routine will slightly change. So we have to keep everything consistent, and this happens over the course of the entire season. We have to revert back to those episodes, see what the action was, and reference back to that.
Have you devised a way to do that efficiently?
My sound designers Mark Allen and Marc Glassman have built these reoccurring scenes as one huge session. This way they can go back and see how they did that scene, bring that into the new episode, and tweak it. We keep things consistent to a point and then vary them ever so slightly. It’s a very efficient way of handling that.
What are some challenges for sound design on this show? How did you and your team handle them?
The main sound design challenge of the show is that we have a future world, and for that, we didn’t want it to sound cheesy. We wanted to keep it real and not sound like the typical science fiction show.
The main sound design challenge of the show is that we have a future world, and for that, we didn’t want it to sound cheesy
It needs to have a realistic feel, and not go over the top. It took a little bit of experimentation to find that balance. With every episode, we do change things slightly. There will be a new wrinkle that gets thrown into it, but for the most part, we wanted to keep it believable.
You have two disparate worlds in the series — the western world inside the ‘experience’ and then the sterile glass-and-steel laboratory world of ‘reality.’ How did you design those two worlds? What are some sounds that populate those different worlds?
Designing the two different worlds was pretty straightforward. As far as the western part of the world, it’s very gritty, with old cowboy dirt and grime. You have horses, and carts, and blacksmiths, and those types of things. While in the laboratory, the environment is very sterile. We wanted to keep it clean, just using light ambiences. We didn’t overload the show. In fact, when we are in the western world it’s much noisier and grittier than when we get into the inner workings of the park. For that space, we really wanted to keep it nice and clean and quiet.
How about processing for these two worlds? It seems that reverbs or any other processing/filtering on ‘reality’ would be very clean, and bright. While the reverbs, processing/filtering on the western world would be warm, and maybe a bit dirty? What was your approach there? And what are some of your go-to tools for processing/filtering on this show?
My sound designer Mark Allen says one of the main tools that he used for the laboratory reverb was Audio Ease’s Altiverb, which is a convolution reverb. Our effects mixer, Scott Weber, uses other reverbs on the stage. But here, we tend to use Altiverb for our design. It comes with some very unusual reverbs, for example, sometimes we will use the ‘trashcan’ or ‘vacuum cleaner’ presets to give an ordinary sound a more distinct sound. But when we are out in the western world, the reverbs are more natural.
So we tend to choose sounds that have a more natural roomy tone that’s appropriate for that scene. Instead of doing anything artificially with plug-ins or processing, we try to find a sound that fits the space on-screen. We accomplish this through field recordings — recording the sounds ourselves and not miking them too close. We want to get a little air so that the sounds feel real.
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So you got to do field recordings for the series? Where did you go, what did you capture, and how did you capture it?
We went to the Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, CA, where they were shooting the series and we were able to record a lot of practical effects, like various doors, blacksmith hammering, people walking up and down the wooden boardwalk, et cetera. One thing that was really interesting in the show was this player piano and we were able to go and record the actual player piano and all the inner workings of it. That made for a nice, authentic piece of sound.
What was your field recording kit like?
We used Sanken CS-3 shotgun mic, as well as Sanken CSS-5 stereo mic. We recorded onto a 4-channel Edirol recorder. We wanted it to be really straightforward miking. For the player piano, we were able to get the mics right up into the inner workings and mechanicals of it. That made for a very fun, real element for the show.
The park is closed for a little robot removal
You have this great sci-fi element in the series; essentially they’re making artificial life forms in this high-tech lab. What are some of your favorite science-esk sounds for the show? How did you create them?
As for the sci-fi sounds, the manufacturing of the robots is one of my favorite things. Most of the time the robots are being made off-screen, while dialogue is happening. Part of the challenge in designing that sound was creating a sound that could sit between the dialogue. A good example is when our character Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) is talking to Bernard (played by Jefferey Wright), in Manufacturing. We had to create the idea that the robots are being manufactured all around you.
We used the sound of wet paint, oatmeal, and mud mixed together for the vat in which the hosts are dipped
Visually, we have lights flashing on and off off-stage. So we had to create a sound that was quiet enough to let the dialogue be heard between the characters. We used the sound of wet paint, oatmeal, and mud mixed together for the vat in which the hosts are dipped. The fluid in the vat builds a skin around them. We also used explosions, microphone taps, electrical arcing, and other sounds like that. Mark [Allen] manipulated the sounds by pitching and reversing them. We wanted to create an interesting sound that wouldn’t overwhelm the scene.
Another example of a sound design challenge for the show was creating the sound of the character Old Bill. Old Bill is an antiquated robot that Dr. Ford created when he first built the park. Old Bill has a more primitive technology due to his old age. This challenge ended up being very difficult. After many attempts we ended up using adding machines, clocks, and old typewriters synced to Old Bill’s movements. The sounds were manipulated with iZotope’s RX 5 primarily to remove artifacts, such as the ring of bells on the clock chiming, just leaving us with the whirring sound of the clock mechanism. So that made the sound for this antique robot’s movements, to make it feel like he’s moving with this servo-clicking sound.
After many attempts we ended up using adding machines, clocks, and old typewriters synced to Old Bill’s movements
What’s one audio tool you couldn’t live without on Westworld? Can you give some specific examples of how you used it?
Mark used a number of plug-ins but really Pro Tools and Soundminer were indispensable. While Soundminer is mostly known as a sound effects database program, it’s also a very handy design tool. Soundminer has a built-in VST rack where you can stack effects plug-ins, to pitch, and effect, and loop sounds in real-time while recording your performances in the background. There were many sound effects in Westworld that were created this way. It’s very quick and handy. Some of his go-to processing tools are iZotope’s RX 5, Serato’s Pitch n’ Time, Audio Ease’s Altiverb, Eventide’s H3000, and Soundtoy’s FilterFreak and EchoBoy plug-ins.
For me, I use a lot of iZotope, Pitch n’ Time, and VocALign by Synchro Arts.
Any highlights in regards to Foley?
The Foley is handled by Geordy Sincavage at Sinc Sound. He’s been working with me since Lost. I really love working with him. The Foley was pretty straightforward but it was also a lot of creative, fun stuff that we get to do. Because this is a western, everything is so tactile and real. We wanted the Foley in the park to feel as if the props were manufactured in a time where production tolerances were not very precise, so everything is a little bit heavier, a little bit clunkier. ‘Grit’ seems to be the word of the day. That pretty much describes the whole feel of the park and how we want it to be.
In terms of weapons sounds and Foley, we aimed to make things sound bigger than they are. In one scene for example we have a Gatling gun. The mechanism of the Gatling gun had to sound big, and nasty, and not smooth and pretty.
In terms of weapons sounds and Foley, we aimed to make things sound bigger than they are
The mechanisms did not move as smoothly, and so we wanted to carry that same feeling into the weapons. Everything sounds a little bigger and clunkier than you think they would. The firing of the gun was done with sound effects, by Mark Allen, and Foley was used to sweeten various elements like the cranks, and the shells dropping out. We actually went with bigger shells then would’ve normally been in that gun just to give it a little bit bigger sound. There’s also the main villain, played by Ed Harris. He is this big, mysterious guy and he has this big, mysterious handgun. It’s a unique Civil War pistol called a LeMat. It’s a very large handgun with a shotgun shell in the center. We needed a big, boomy sounding gun because he is this very menacing guy. So we were able to have some fun with that.
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