Erik Aadahl Special: All About the Sound of "Transformers"
Transformers has been one of the most important titles for Erik Aadahl’s career. As we are on his special, I take the opportunity to do a mashup of articles, interviews, and videos, trying to put all the info about Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen I found in the Internet, including also material from the rest of the crew on the mix, dialogue and foley. Also an exclusive interview with Erik on Transformers is coming in the next days.
I’ve read a lot of discussions lately about defining a Sound Designer. What were your duties on Transformers?
Erik Aadahl: The term “sound designer” can mean lots of things. In some cases, a designer is brought in to handle a scene or a concept, with effects editors handling everything else. In other cases, a designer may have a broader role and oversee the overall track. This movie was a little of both–I was brought on by Ethan van der Ryn to design the robots, but as time went by that job broadened to encompass the entire final track. By the end of the final mix, I had plenty of chances to go over the whole film, tweaking details till we couldn’t do it any more.
Had to ask it. Is the signature transforming sound from the cartoon in the film?
Ethan Van der Ryn: We used the original transforming sound twice in the film. It is used for one of the largest transformers and also for the smallest. More importantly we were inspired by the original transformation sound in the creation of new sounds. The very first sounds heard in the movie which play over the Dreamworks and Paramount logos are an example of sounds which are inspired by that original transformation sound vibe.
How much time did you get to spend on conceptional proofs before going full bore on design and editorial?
Erik Aadahl: It all happened at the same time. The first scene I got was Blackout (at the time his name was Vortex) destroying the Qatar airbase. I had a week to come up with the transformation and weapons and destruction and the shape of that very first pass stayed pretty much intact until the end. After that first week, I had a chance to catch my breath and go conceptual again, spending my days under headphones recording everything that might be useful–scissorlift servos, remote control copters, sliding acrylic sheets, power windows–and then throwing them into ProTools to manipulate them into fun sounds. After a few weeks of that, I had a palette of several hundred fresh robot sounds that I could draw from as the movie progressed.
Out of all the Transformers, which was your favorite sounding?
Ethan Van der Ryn: Bumblebee is my favorite sounding Transformer. For me he is the most emotive robot in the film and the emotional center of the film. He manages to achieve this despite or perhaps because he has a damaged voice box which forces him to communicate with a montage of sound fx and songs and old movie lines.
Erik Aadahl: Bumblebee was my favorite, too. I was a pleasure to give him his voice and act for him. We used our own voices with processing to give him his personality. For the emotional scenes where Bumblebee is in pain, we used the pitch down cries of a baby and even a little bit of vocal that Mike Hopkins performed.
Did you guys do anything differently on this film you don’t normally do on others?
Kevin O’Connell: Yes, we basically mixed the movie with mostly temp music tracks. The final music trickled in throughout the mix and was not all available until late during the final mix. At that point I basically had to re-mix the entire music stem on every reel and Greg (Russell) and the sound effects team had to re-shape a bit as well. Having had the benefit of mixing all of Michael Bays films helped enormously on Transformers. Michael is a guy who knows what he likes but more importantly knows what he does not like and communicates that very well.
“You always hear cool new sounds every day,” Aadahl said. “Like Ethan found a pogo stick online and we started playing with it and realized that it had a really neat sound to it.”
It became part of the unique sounds of a robot named Bumblebee. So did a car door.
“Took that and slowed it down 25 percent and it sounds like a huge robot footstep,” he said.
For a vending machine that comes to life and shoots soda cans, he recorded soda cans dropped from a building.
“It’s a lot of fun when you get to make a little bit of a mess on the job,” he said.
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen
Van der Ryn, who worked with Aadahl on the first Transformers, said, “We do a certain amount of brainstorming–how we want shape it and general ideas about what we want things to sound like–but Erik really does the majority of the hardcore sound design work, mostly focused around all the robots, which is what the movie’s all about. Erik’s just incredibly talented when it comes to making it happen. He’s a genius; that’s no overstatement.”
ROTF features 40 or more new robots not in the original film that range in size from tiny insects to 150-foot tall giants. After visiting the art department early on in the film’s development, the supervising sound editors set about creating different sounds for each character from a variety of sources. “We used every trick in the book that we could think of,” said Aadahl. “A lot of it is simple, real stuff, like the Decepticon fly scout–his sound is essentially a grungy old electric razor being shaken.”
He continued, “There’s something very real and immediate about an actual sound that has so much character. It can contrast some of the totally hyper-real absurd things that we’re doing. The goal is that it all fits together like an acoustic puzzle so that there’s the whole spectrum of totally unreal and real–and together they create this universe that transcends the real world but still feels real.”
Work began in August 2008 while Bay was still shooting, according to Van der Ryn. “We went and recorded some vehicles that they had on set, but the main work started at the end of October. We set it up knowing we would want that much lead-time. On a film like this, it’s important to start the sound work in parallel with the shoot and as the visual effects are developing, so the cut can come together with the sound as an integral part of the storytelling process. When you have so many things being created on a computer, the sound really helps bring them to life, so it’s important to get it going earlier. It becomes increasingly important for the sound to start working to ground us in reality and make us believe it, otherwise it just doesn’t work. The sound becomes more valuable in a film like this.”
Aadahl added, “We did the weapons in October. Just on our own, we went on expeditions recording a variety of sounds we knew we would use, just building the palette. We shot a whole array of M16s, AK-47s, sniper rifles, .308s, suppressed ammunition, .22s–but a lot of the robot weapons have nothing to do with real guns. For the RC bots’ weapons, we used compressed air to make squeal sounds, then did little pitch bends on them to make nice little zaps.”
Building on the Transformer theme, many of the sounds feature an organic element, as Aadahl noted. “One thing that we had a lot of fun playing with was a theremin, which we used as a sound design device. It’s basically an oscillator that you can control with your electrical field and adjust volume and pitch. It’s an instrument but you can physically, three dimensionally, control the tone that you’re generating. We’d run that through different processing tools and chains and perform in real time. We made sounds into motors, vocals, all sorts of bends, accelerations, decelerations. That generated a huge amount of new material that’s really different.”
It’s probably the most ambitious sound movie I’ve been a part of,” said Greg Russell. But, he allowed, “The first film really helped to lay out a plan. The initial layout was crucial, and that was done pretty well in the first film. Our starting point on this one was so far advanced in the approach and what we were going to do to bring this film to life. We’re just trying to support what you see onscreen as best we can so it’s believable.”
He added, “The choreography in this film is improved from the first film. The robots are more graceful; there’s a sense of fun to watch them, yet there’s a visceral, aggressive attitude. It’s rough but pretty!”
ROTF features a lot of battle sequences, he continued. “Michael [Bay] wants to keep the activity of that offstage intensity alive, but when there’s onscreen material that is our focal point, we do need to shape that offstage material. We do that in predubbing and even more in finaling. The objective is to focus an audience on a given moment, a given visual, and not be distracted.”
The biggest challenge of the movie was how to get everything to play. Part of the solution for Russell was to create two stems within the final mix, one for hard effects, such as regular military hardware, and another for the robot weapons and sounds. Still, it was necessary to distill the sounds to provide focus: “What can we do to clean this out, to make this much more specific? What can we mute in our Pro Tools session? What can we mix down, or highlight, to get the cleanest possible sequence?”
Russell gave kudos to Van der Ryn and Aadahl: “I really love their focus on trying to deliver very concise, precise elements to me; I don’t have to spend my time weeding out. In a movie of this nature, it’s critical that they edit and make choices before it gets here. Otherwise, we just wouldn’t have the time and it would be a lot messier. It’s been a wonderful collaboration–and I love the sounds; it’s something completely different than anything else out there. I felt that way about the first one, and I feel that way even more on this; I think we’re stretching our legs a little on this movie.”
How important was it to separate the robot sound effects from the rest of the track?
Erik Aadahl: That was a whole other realm of “meat and potatoes” recording. Because production was still shooting when we started, we had access to all the Transformer vehicles: an Audi R8, Corvette concept car, Ducati motorcycles, Hummers, semis. So with the help of John Fasal, who is probably the premier recordist in the world, we got some stunt drivers, closed off a section of the Playa Vista Studios and went to town burning rubber. We also sent John on board an aircraft carrier, the USS Stennis, to record deck landings and takeoffs, as well as to Edwards Air Force Base, where we had a B-1 bomber at our disposal to record fly-bys 50 feet off the ground.
What was the sound department’s relationship like with Michael Bay?
Erik Aadahl: Michael has been known for being hard on crews, but he let us do everything we wanted to do. He was excited that we wanted to create something big and bold, but also something that was less of an assault. We heard that the picture department couldn’t wait for him to hang out with us, because when he went back there, he’d be in a great mood!
What was your progression on the mix?
Greg Russell: I usually like to do backgrounds first and then build the rest of the track with all the different treatments and reflections within the backgrounds. In this case, I didn’t hear the background pre-dubs that were done by Greg Orloff until the final mix. For Transformers 2, we start sound effects pre-dubs with the robots, starting with the foundation of the feet and building up to the last pre-dubs, which are the vocals. We do a total of nine robot pre-dubs and then we do the hard effects, starting with vehicles, then weapons, etc., for a total of 14 pre-dubs, and then we do the Foley. The dialogue was done on another stage with Gary.
How many pre-dubs and tracks were you working with?
Greg Russell: We created 14 hard effects pre-dubs that were built from around 500 tracks for guns, explosions, firearms, etc. There were nine 5.1 dubs for the robots, with a total of maybe 600 tracks. Greg Orloff, who was brought in as an additional re-recording mixer, contributed another 80 tracks of feet and backgrounds. Altogether, with all pre-dubs and outboard gear, I was out to 256 tracks on the console, which was pretty much a full load. This also includes an additional 30 tracks we needed for more sweetening, as the cut and the visual affects changed during the mix. The pre-dubs were then used to create a huge supersession that represented the 5.1 of all the premixes. We had two ProTools rigs, one for the hard effects and backgrounds, and another for the robots and Foley. The music rig was 60 tracks –– split out to separate the brass, rhythm, synth, keyboards, guitars and music effects tracks. This was a huge breakdown that gave us great flexibility to be able to selectively utilize what best served the movie.
Gary Summers: We didn’t use a ton of tracks for the dialogue and music — 60 tracks of music score and two stereo pairs of source music. The dialogue consisted of four pre-mixes: production dialogue and ADR, each eight channels, and two group pre-mixes, English and non-English. Because they were cutting picture right to the end, we knew the tracks were going to be put through a cheese slicer in the mix, so it was important for conforming and re-synching to have full separation between the human and robot voices. The editors did an amazing job; they would turn over new versions to us daily, and within two hours we’d be mixing the new version on the stage.
How do you keep such a dense soundtrack from tripping over itself?
Greg Rusell: That is truly the art form of this type of movie; I’ve now done 180 in my career. I draw upon everything I’ve done in the past and ask, “How do we look at each and every moment in a sequence and make it great? What do we really need to hear or don’t need to hear. If it’s with music, then so be it; if it’s effects, how do we sculpt it without being muddy and noisy?” Being selective in your creative choices is what will make or break those moments, and that’s what I love most about this job.
Gary Summers: In scenes such as the huge fight in the woods, there is a lot of percussion and you have to make choices as to what you want to hear. Sometimes we left the percussion in and pulled the robot footsteps down because you want to create the driving rhythm while the robots are running through the woods. Other times, you lose the percussion and let the hits and big punches shine. The audience won’t perceive the shift, because you’re just substituting one rhythmic pattern for another. Later in that scene, a major robot character is killed, and there is a major stylistic change, with choral music and voices and effects set back in the reverb. It’s abstract and surreal, and provides a nice contrast to all the frenetic action that precedes it.
How were the robot voices created?
Erik Aadahl: There is a lot of alien language, and I worked on that along with Mike Hopkins, who is the ADR and dialogue supervisor. I won’t give away my tricks, but I will say that conceptually, we wanted it to read as language, but because these are robots, we needed to convey the idea of data transfer. We went frame by frame into these little languages integrating specially designed sounds for each character that would accent certain syllables, and would, for example, replace a consonant with computerized sound for that part of the word. We’d have the shape and feel of language, but it would be a hybridized, digital language.
Mike Hopkins: We shot a lot of robot ADR. Their lines changed quite a bit, so we had a few “go backs.” Also, we had a lot more talking robots this time, so a lot of studio hours were used. As Michael hates ADR, I didn’t cue as much as I would have on any other movie. We only used ADR when the production was totally no good. Even then, it would sometimes take a bit of convincing to be allowed to use it. For the human characters, I would say we used no more than 300 cues all up, including loop group singles.
“All of our sounds are performing almost like actors,” said Aadahl, whom Bay described as the “secret weapon” of the films. (via)
Do you want more? Check:
- Transformers Sound Panel Event Videos
- Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen Interview on AudioMedia
- Kevin O’Connell and Greg Russell Interview on Mix
- Greg Russell, Gary Summers and Geoffrey Patterson – Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen
- Greg P. Russell Interview – Revenge of the Fallen