It was ambitious adapting “Watchmen”, the most celebrated graphic novel of all time for the screen. Fortunately, Director Zach Snyder wanted to be as faithful to the source as to his film crew hiring many of the same sound folk he had on his previous hit, “300”. Mixed at Universal studios in the Hitchcock Theater, re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins and Frank A. Montaño handled dialog, music and effects respectively while supervisor Scott Hecker along with his crew of sound designers, Jeremy Peirson, and Eric Norris all helped to change comic book Onomatopoeia into a cohesive soundtrack. Answering the call for production sound, mixer Michael McGee arrived on set which, among others included Canadian Motion Picture Park Studios where the bulk of the city pieces were constructed. Composer Tyler Bates scored the film, tracking at the Eastwood Scoring Stage on the Warner Bros. lot and Dan Goldwasser of scoringsessions.com provides another collection of great photos from those sessions, HERE. I wanted to thank sound supervisor Scott Hecker for the following Q and A.
Designing Sound: How was Rorschach’s dialog handled? How much of it was production? How did you guys match Jackie Earle Haley’s masked performance on the ADR stage?
Scott Hecker: Rorschach’s character and his dialogue were very important to the storytelling of the film as his voice over revealed the storyline with his regular entries into his diary. His voice is very low, gruff and gravely, sometimes muttering under his breath, so our dialogue mixer Chris Jenkins had his job cut out for him to make sure that all of his dialogue was as intelligible as possible. Jackie Earle Haley’s performance was amazing so every effort was put into keeping the ADR to a minimum. If a few words in a sentence were muddled, our film editor Bill Hoy and our dialogue editor Denise Horta would go out of their way to find alternate production readings, or sometimes even a single alternate production word in order to maintain as much of the original performance as possible. Only a few lines here and there were ADR when intelligibility was an issue, and most of the voice over was done on the ADR stage as Zack and Bill worked through the picture editing process to maximize the storytelling. Jackie matched his performance on the ADR stage without the mask on, to keep the lines as clean as possible, leaving Chris Jenkins the task of matching the ADR to his surrounding production lines using various amounts of volume, equalization and reverb.
DS: Did Zach have any direction for how the sound effects were to define the 80’s or at least help convey the tension brought on by the Cold War? Are there any era specific sounds in the film?
SH: As far as direction goes, Zack definitely knows what he likes and doesn’t like but the best part about working with him is that at the beginning of the process at least, he pretty much leaves you to your own devices to create the various sounds for the film. I think he’s smart in that way so that what comes out of you creatively is based on your own initial instincts without immediately having to stretch to interpret and articulate someone else’s ideas. If he initially started telling you all of his ideas of what he thought everything should sound like, he would run the risk of possibly never getting to hear what you thought it should sound like. With his approach he frees everyone to be creative and contribute in a unique way and if along the way he feels that a sound isn’t quite what he had in mind or just doesn’t care for it, he can at that point infuse his sensibilities as to what he’d like to hear from event to event. Don’t get me wrong, we definitely run through the film before we start on the film and talk in generalities about things with an opportunity to ask him questions about things that may be unclear or discuss what certain visual effects are going to look like so that we can start thinking about what they might sound like. This particular film was complicated in the sense that the story is voluminous, with many characters, locations, and set pieces and you definitely want to retain the integrity of the original graphic novel.
There were no specific sounds in the movie that I can think of that helped convey the tension brought on by the Cold War. The only tension relating to the subject of the Cold War was induced by the dialogue in the related scenes such as “The Mc Laughlin Group TV” show showing the “doomsday clock”, scenes with Nixon and Kissinger plotting their next moves while watching the movement of the Soviets, and various scenes where our main characters are discussing the impending doom and wondering if Dr. Manhattan could save the world.
As far as period sounds go, we always are sensitive to covering the various sound effects in a film with the most accurate sounds as they pertain to whatever period we are working in. Obviously, we were accurate with our car and truck sounds, as well as the police sirens in the distance. In one scene we used early electronic 80’s style Merlin office phones in Adrian Veidt’s corporate offices as well as older OS 9 Apple computer sounds in the scene where Nite Owl and Rorschach are going through his files to find secret info. But really our main focus wasn’t on the various “period” sounds, as we were encumbered by more challenging considerations like trying to figure out how to keep the fight sounds as interesting and varied as possible throughout, as there were many fights in the film that we didn’t want to sound repetitious; Other challenges: Aside from the effectiveness of the score, what kinds of sounds should emanate from Dr. Manhattan to help convey his emotions throughout the film (a confused and sensitive man trapped in a God like omniscient presence )? What was the Owl ship going to sound like? What does a glass palace with moving parts sound like on Mars? What does Dr. Manhattan’s energy signature sound like as it destroys New York? What does an object or person being teleported sound like? Dan’s apocalyptic dream needed to be very dark and surreal and the list goes on…How many sound editors/ designers get to have this much fun on a film as dense and full of opportunities as this film was?
DS: One of my favorite sequences in the film was the opening credits. Aside from a fitting song and its ability to set tone I really enjoyed the type of stings, explosions, and weapon sounds that poked through. Were these sounds built to accompany the song so well or did it take some experimentation during the mix to find the right balance and or con
SH: An opening title sequence as stylized and elegant as this one was, needed little if any additional sound design especially with Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin” as a relevant thread. But Zack asked us to come up with some cool sounds for each of the shots that would blend well with the visuals and the music.
I worked with Eric Norris, my partner in sound for the last 11 years, to come up with some diffused wind gusts and soft, billowy whooshes for the fade in and fade outs of each of the shots. Many of the shots had camera flashes in them so we came up with a variety of reverberant, stylized camera flash sounds to use. We also incorporated some slowed and pitched gun shots and explosions for the shots that called for them, along with a variety of a few other sounds that meshed well with the music. Frankie Montano, our sound effects mixer did a great job of tastefully lacing the sounds unobtrusively into the fabric of the visuals and song.
DS: After “300”, I’m sure you guys were prepared for the amount of speed ramping and slow-mo in this Zach Snyder film. Watching some scenes you could almost imagine Zach acting out the sound through onomatopoeia. How do you guys approach these sequences and how specific was Zach in his direction of how they should play?
SH: Although “Watchmen” has less camera speed ramping and slow motion than “300”, Zack still presented quite a few great opportunities to have fun with our sound design. Again, Zack let’s his visuals tell us how to use sound to make these transitions in and out of slow motion. He creates the opportunities depending on how fast or slow the ramp is and what in the composition of the shot lends itself to some interesting sound design.
Using whooshes to sonically cover speed ramps can quickly become quite cliché especially if they are used too often or come from familiar sound effects libraries. With that being said, we were very sensitive about only using whooshes when we absolutely had to and when we did, we made sure to come up with some new and interesting flavors of them. But most of the time we concentrated on using sounds related to the scenes with slow motion to sonically sell the various speed ramps.
One example is in the opening scene when the Comedian gets thrown through the plate glass window. Initially he crashes through the window with the sound of a huge real time window crash and as the camera slows down, we transition into some dreamy, tinkling and chiming glass debris sounds as the shards of glass are suspended and floating through the air. Then we come right back into real time speed with the glass shards smashing against the sidewalk where he has fallen to his death.
In another scene, Dr. Manhattan is flashing back to one of his first dates with Janey Slater at a carnival. As we are listening to his voiceover, we see them in slow motion laughing together and as we transition out of the slow motion and into the actual scene of them at the carnival, Zack used a speed ramp to get us back to real time. To help sell that transition, during the slow motion, we hear a reversed and reverberant carnival bell eerily ringing in and getting louder and turning into a real time carnival bell ring as the camera ramped back into real time with the characters dialogue at the carnival. Those are just a couple of examples of how we used the related sounds of a scene to help sonically articulate some camera speed ramps.
DS: With so many “costumed adventurers” in the film, which of them had your favorite specific movement or Foley sounds?
SH: I do have a couple of favorite moments in the film where the foley, performed predominately by my brother, Gary Hecker, actually spices up the soundtrack with some interesting flavors.
When Laurie’s mom, Sally Jupiter goes into a room to change out of her costume after a photo shoot, she starts undressing and Gary did a great job articulating all of the small intricate sounds relating to the various parts of her costume being unhooked, unlaced, and unsnapped, especially a really cool string lace that whips around her body and slices through the air before her costume falls to the floor…sexy sounds for a sexy super hero!
The Comedian’s costume has a very distinctive heavy leather creak that is part of his character as such a bad ass throughout the film.
The Nite Owl has a great cape sound that we hear fluttering in and past us very sharply as he is flying through the air from the Owl ship on his way to the prison riot, as well as when he jumps out of the Owl ship and lands with his arms outstretched at the street riot. I also really like the sound of the foley when the Nite Owl rips his mask and goggles off his face upon witnessing the death of his friend Rorschach.
And last but not least, one can’t argue with the sexy sound of Laurie’s form fitting latex costume either! The sound of this film relied heavily on a lot of varied and nuanced foley performances throughout.
DS: As in any creative job in film I find that you succeed when the audience accepts your work as fact. One of my favorite examples of this is when the Comedian’s smiley face pin wobbles to a stop on the street after he has been thrown out of his high rise apartment. Assuming getting the sound of that iconic item right was of utmost importance, what did it take to get the final sound we hear in the theater, (recording/brainstorming)? How did you know you had found the right sound to present to Zach?
SH: Oh, you had to touch on one of the more difficult sounds to come up with in the film! That close up of the smiley faced pin spinning on the sidewalk was 100% visual effects, as was the close up Persian coin spinning on the floor in “300”, and trying to get the right sound and at the same time stay in sync with that “spinning hub cap” – rhythm is a killer!
For our first temp mix, I asked Michael Lyle, a foley artist here at Universal Studios to perform this cue to what I thought looked like a final version of that visual effect. In order to have control of the sound, he took a big heavy metal coin between his fingers and circled around against the inside of a circular tin New Year’s eve noise maker with the top taken off to expose the ribbed bowl like surface. Many takes later we had the right recording for our foley editor Derek Pippert to work with. It worked really well for our previews and the only comment Zack made was that he would like it to sound a little heavier for the final, which I thought could be easily accomplished by pitching it down to create a sound with more weight.
Well, when they gave us a new picture version of that scene as we got close to the final mix, it looked like it was the same visual effect but when we played our sound against the new shot it was obvious that it was a completely new visual effect spinning in a completely different pace and rhythm!….back to the drawing board….
By this time we were doing our final foley with my brother Gary and I asked him to perform his own version of the spinning pin while behind the scenes we tried to salvage and resync our original version that I was happy with at that point.
Well, it ended up working out great because he came up with a new version that not only had a different and interesting sound to it but it also sounded a bit heavier, per Zack’s request. To accomplish his version, Gary took a
wooden pepper grinder with a metal crank and twisted it in rhythm against the bottom of the inside of a tin Sucrets box to create a sound with resonant weight! As good as Gary’s version was, we continued to add pieces of Michael’s original recording on top of Gary’s to accentuate the peaks of the spinning pin, which is what you now hear in the film. As someone I worked with long ago said, “Pain is temporary, film is forever!”
DS: What was your first gig like?
SH: After attending the University of Akron in Ohio, I came out to California in 1977. I started as a driver and apprentice for Bob Rutledge and his mom Evelyn, who had a small independent sound editorial company called Angel Editorial, (later known as Blue Light Sound), in a 3 bedroom house on Larchmont Blvd in Hollywood. Making $125 a week at 21 years of age, I felt like I had hit the jackpot! I was lucky because Bob, having worked on “Star Wars” and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” took me under his wing and taught me almost everything I know about sound editing and design work. 32 years later, I am happy to be working at Universal Studios in my 7th year; a part of an amazing sound department put together by Chris Jenkins who I’ve had a working relationship since Michael Mann’s “Thief” in 1980…. I really love working in sound for film!
You can read more about Scott’s work on “Watchmen”, HERE!