Exclusive Interview with Paul Ottosson, Sound Designer of "2012"
Designing Sound: First of all give us an introduction about your carreer and your past works.
Paul Ottosson: I’ve been a sound supervisor and sound designer on movies like 2012 , The Hurt Locker, Spider-Man 2 and 3. Drag Me To Hell, Grudge 1 and 2. I also snuck in a comedy here and there like RV and Harold and Kumar.
DS: How did you get involved with 2012?
PO: End of last summer (2008) I got the chance to interview with David Brenner, the picture editor on 2012. Roland Emmerich was already in Canada shooting. David and myself got along, I’m a very big fan of his work and style of picture editing. David was very complimentary of my past work and he recommended me to Roland. Sony wanted me to fly to Canada to meet with Roland but that never happened so I was actually hired before I met him. People like myself very often get hired by the picture editor but I usually meet with the director before we make it official. Of course they already know your work from previous movies. Otherwise you wouldn’t be considered.
DS: How was the relationship with Roland Emmerich? What was the importance he gave to the sound of the film?
PO: I had meetings with Roland as well as producer, Harold Kloser ( he was also writer and composer ) and the picture editors. We had two for a good part of the post schedule. David Brenner and Peter Elliot. The meetings with Roland was more of the broader strokes of the movie. Based on that I would cut sequences that picture department turned over to me some of them way before vfx was even there. I cut sounds for it and mixed it down to 4 stereo pairs, kind like stems so picture department would have control over it and this was a way to present sound ideas for all of them.
Then a few weeks later I got the scene again, different cut and with vfx. I re-cut it, mixed it down and gave it to them again. At some point that all ended, it got too overwhelming with this barrage of vfx coming in everyday for 10 months. Then I would do playbacks of scenes in my design suite.
DS: What did you feel when you knew you are in charge of the creation of the sounds of the apocalypse? How the main concept of “destruct the earth” affect the first sound design decisions?
PO: How I felt, kind of sick to my stomach. The movie was over 3 hours long at the time, with more destruction then I’ve seen in any movie, ever. You kind of think, will we ever get done on time. Will most of these visual fx actually come before we pre-dub. (which they didn’t, as an example we pre-dubbed The Yellowstone sequence 3 times, I forgot how many times we re-cut it). There’s always a dribble of shots rolling in on the stage while you final a movies like this but you hope you have pre-dubbed the backbone of the scenes at least.
My biggest challenge was also to be able to maintain the chaos for so long time and be able to come up with a great variance in how things sounds while they get destroyed for 2 hours and 38 minutes. I knew I was in for a lot of recording and designing ordinary things to sound extraordinary. When you design for sci-fi you can paint from a larger selections of color on a larger canvas. When you work on a movie that is very much reality based as far as what objects are being destroyed I like to root it in reality.
DS: There is a extensive process of selection of many destruction sounds. You have to create too much of them, and each destruction with a “unique factor”. How was that process of sound selection and give a unique destruction sound to each scene?
PO: I read the script and start thinking about the movie story wise and what I can do to follow the story and enhance it. You can come up with the coolest sound ever but it needs to be appropriate for the movie, so telling the story should be the most important thought. With that in mind I take notes of what I think I need to record. I always try to record and design all the story telling elements for every movie to give the movie a unique sound.
DS: How long the team took to create all the sounds? You had a lot of sounds to record. Which were the first to create? and what the most difficult?
PO: I like to stay organic I think it just plays better with something that looks natural even it if is on the biggest scale ever. The first to be recorded was a lot of the destruction sounds for rocks, earth rupture etc.
I needed so much of it and it had to be varied. I went to a foley stage with our foley team for the movie. I spent I think 3 days on the stage just recording raw material. What I did and have done on a few movies now is that I record all that stuff on an analog 1/2 inch tape machine. I like how the spikey stuff gets flattened and warmed up with the analog tape. I would then vari speed, slow down it etc and re-record into a DAW at 192KHz 24bit for further destruction I would do some more compression/EQ pitching etc. I would then layer and build a huge bank of these sounds and cut a few sequences to make sure they worked and then I gave them to my sound editors to cut with.
Most difficult was to have to come up with so much destruction and try make it sound interesting and huge without having to be played at a very loud level to impress. I do that by compressing with a multiband compressor so I dont suck the life out of a sound but get it to bite where it needs and held back where it hurts. I use all the McDSP plug-ins stuff for that. I think every piece of destruction sound at some point went trough a McDSP plug-in.
DS: Did you have some special field recording experiences to share? I think the foley team also had a lot of crazy work to do. How was the work there?
PO: I rented an airport and recorded the limo and the plane they’re escaping in. We took two of the limos with us on a trailer out to an airstrip outside of Los Angeles. We tricked out one of them by changing timing, spark plugs, exhaust pipe etc. I wanted the limo to change sound over time as it is getting torn apart by all the destruction. The limo was a V8 but by the time they stop at the airport I think I had it running on only for cylinders and we had completely removed all the parts of the exhaust system. The plane recording was mostly done on the ground. I picked the same plane as in the movie but with a slightly different motor, one without a gearbox in it. We could rev it slightly higher we would also change the pitch angle of the motors. I almost thought we were going to tear the motors of the wings. We also pushed the engine to its limits and held it down with the breaks. The plan was about to tilt over then we had to let it go. I think it is the loudest thing I’ve ever recorded as an constant.
DS: One of the most important and rich scenes was the crazy limo race to go to the airplane You have a lot of destruction, flying cars, people going crazy and many changes in the point of view. I think the sound team have a lot of important decisions to make on that sequence… How was that? How you destroy with that earthquake?
That was a very hard scene but also rewarding. I knew from the start there was not going to be any music in it. Which is tons of fun but also harder. You have to build it but still maintain O/S stuff like music does. So besides getting all the onscreen mayhem you had to maintain the chaos off screen to let us know it is happening everywhere, it is not stopping only because you cut away. I had to drive the picture cuts with chaos like music would usually do. In many ways it had to be scored with sound fx and sound design. I had to try to find places where we could quiet down a bit, arc the mayhem to be able to get back to huge again.
We always needed some kind of rumble it had to be built so we still could get the shock of when something happens as a smash cut into a huge something being destroyed. I built just about everything for the sub as well. The only thing we triggered with a sub synth harmonizer in the movie was the water. It works very well for that but I hate it when it get used to much. I hear it and recognize it in most movies. It does something that always make it sound the same, it doesn’t react correctly to what is happening in the main speakers so it end up sounding like it is a separate sound.
DS: How was the process on the slow moments and critical scenes? such as the plane passing between two buildings that are falling There is a particular sound work in those scenes.
PO: It seemed like the only way to play the scene. Our characters is kind of going into a disbelief moment, kind of like time is standing still and we’re wondering are they going to make it. One of those moments when something bad is about to happen and you can here that old pin drop.
DS: The fall of the cruise and the U.S Navy ship was totally amazing… Could you tell us something about the sound design of that pieces? What are some sources of that sounds?
PO: The hard part about that scene was to get the ark of the sounds to find a flow that would allow us over a not so long time to get loud, quiet, loud, quiet and louder again. I’m very happy with the end result. The quietness seemed to be seamless so we could hear the president saying “Dorothy, I’m coming home” He had to have his moment before crush him with the JFK.
DS: And how about the mixing process and the narrative approach there? There are a lot of cuts with sounds anticipated to the visuals, and things like that.
PO: Lot of the prelap of sound was something that David Brenner our picture editor was a huge fan of to drive all these cuts. In the action scenes I think ever cut has something driving it into the next cut, be it a arm through water, building exploding, start of an airplane or car. Always something pre-lapping the cut with 5-7 frames. If a slower scene sometimes a few seconds. I always tried to make it out of something that could be justified with something on the screen.
DS: Finally, please tell us about your future projects, what’s coming next to the apocalypse?
PO: I’m working on a movie called The Green Hornet. A huge action with tons of comedy then after that I will go onto Spider-Man 4, I have not read the script yet but I assume it will not be a “talkie” either. That should take me to middle of 2011.
As a closing note, a movie like this is of course impossible to make sound great without a great sound team there with you every day and every night. ADR mixers, foley mixers and foley walkers, dialogue and adr editors, sfx and foley editors and re-recording mixers.
We had to write, cue, record and cut group walla from every corner of the world as well.
So thanks to all of the team from me.