The films Spider-Man and Fantastic Four were tour-de-forces of creativity, both visually and sonically. The superhero franchise is really one of the venues for sound design that can be both fun and challenging due to the character flaws and traits of the protagonist, and the usually insanely busy nature of the story and how it takes the heros from the relatively typical, to the extraordinary. These stories also typically enjoy a “super-sized” villain with all sorts of fantastic schemes to destroy the hero, or heroes…
The story of Peter Parker, and his transformation into Spiderman certainly addresses all of these points and as Marvels’ highest grossing adaptation proved immensely popular with many theatre goers. As everyone knows, the film- set in Gotham City, IS New York- This New York was set however in a time we no longer quite know… Basically the NY that had been untouched by the political violence of the 9-11 attacks- Practically speaking, the mindset of the city and characters is much closer to the 1960’s era Americana that most of the classic Marvel Series are set in. There was no evidence of the sort of heightened security awareness of our modern times. We simply had old school criminals and super villains.
So, back to the actual topic, Sam Raimi, who seems to share a lot of the core sensibilities of the Marvel writers is a truly great director in the old fashioned sense of the auteur- he enjoys constructing his track and examining all the elements we bring to him. He does have a very specific idea about what will work in the sound track, and seems to prefer decisively engaging the material long before it hits the dubstage so he can be sure his vision is clear for his re-recording mixers. The sound team for the film was headed by Stephen Hunter Flick (who won Academy Awards for the films Robocop and Speed) and had a great sound editorial crew including many of the folks at Sony Studios and Creative Cafe. The sound track was developed over a relatively long schedule and was honed by the fine mixing of Kevin O‘Connell and Gregg Russell at the Cary Grant Theatre on the Sony Pictures lot. The sound design team consisted of my good friend Martin Lopez, Steve Ticknor and myself. As to the design issues and tasking- the ground did cross over a fair amount with each of us doing different things. Martin covered a lot of Peter’s emerging powers in the first part of the film, notably his learning to use his web casting abilities- and the development of his “spidey sense” Steve developed a lot of the Green Goblins sounds- including the rocket skate he used to harass both Spiderman and Gotham City, and the the items I focused on were the more visceral web work that Spider man used in chasing down his uncle’s killer in the chase that takes them through Gotham at night. Since the film was so long in development, Steve’s brother Donald Flick wrangled the cuts as the picture progressed and was further refined.
In crafting the web sounds for Spiderman it seemed the path was easy and hard all at the same time. The expectations were high, and I was aware of Sam needing all the sounds to be absolutely believable as “real sounds” so synthetic sounds were pretty much dismissed very early- the key attributes that we need to address were a somewhat forceful shooting sound from Peter’s wrist- (This was defined as a physiological feature- not a device), the sense of the web traveling in space, The web impacting whatever surface it was intended to hit, and the sound of the web in tension for Peter’s swinging.
The first of these -the webshot- was actually relatively easy to achieve. The first thing that struck my fancy was a whip crack, which seemed to make a lot of sense as a sonic device the only problem though was that is quite obvious what it is. So, it got related into being a sweetener instead of a principal component… So the hunt continued-Investigations of things like blow-darts didn’t seem very useful, and chemical rockets were too identifiable as well. An odd twist of fate did wander in through this process for a bit of creative serendipity….
At my home, we had taken in a litter of kittens and their feral momma cat to save them from being destroyed by our local pound. The kittens were about 4 weeks old, so we had to keep the mother until they weaned from her and could eat solid food- The mother was a ferocious little beast and would attack you anytime you came into the same room as her and the kittens, so I would have to wear a leather motorcycle jacket and gauntlets to feed her- In the course of this, I quickly noticed the utterly awesome spitting she would do- Which I proceeded to record and use as the foundation for the webshooting sound.
So basically the components for that sound were:
1. cat spitting
2. bull whip crack
3. processed model rocket launch
The next part to deal with was the sound of the web traveling through space- thi proved to be an elusive one to nail down and ended being a combination of wire and rope being spun around, a processed stream recording I had made which was processed through GRM Tools and some effects from Steve’s library of film being manipulated by hand.
As to the impacts, We had Gary Hecker do a bunch of different foley things for this that were then combined with different squishy impacts. These change through the cut, and Donald Flick ultimately covered them for the final.
The tension sounds were actually probably the ones most reliant on tools. I was able to take the processed stream recordings used for the travel of the web and treat them with the Waves’ “Enigma” plugin, using the factory preset titled “always rising” It was “The” sound I was looking for. This foundation then had a layer of film stretches and foley which was used in the final mix.
One thing that was fun for the sequence was being able to actually all the hard effects for it, which included the cars, impacts guns and motion sound design- as well as designed backgrounds. This sequence was also one which Danny Elfman had done some early work on, so we had a sense of Sam’s desire for music was for it- It was fantastic to cut the sound for it, especially after doing the design work for it- and for me, it is one of my favorite sections of the film…
For the 2005 film Fantastic Four, I was hired by John Larson at Fox to be the sound designer for this new look at the classic Marvel team of heroes- The film itself had many challenges and creative issues to address and for that, John had assigned a great crew of editors to realize Tim Story’s direct vision- The sound editing was handled by the previously mention Jay Wilkinson- in my mind the best film sound effects editor I have ever worked with- also Eric Aadhl contributed design and editorial to the process which was exceptional- he and Jay did the majority of the sound work for the unveiling of Mr. Fantastic’s rubber like mailability when he slides his hand under a high security door to gain access to Ben’s (The Thing) hospital treatment room.
The two films shared a lot with the general Marvel sort of creative sensibility, which really does like to capture kids imagination as well the adults- so we had a general sense of needing to not get too gross or offensive in the design and effects sensibilities. The Characters had the following qualities which required specific sound design:
- Mr Fantastic – Plastic/rubber like stretching and shape changing
- The Thing – Made of rock. And is crazy strong and seemingly indestructible
- Johnny – Can become fire and fly
- Sue – can make herself invisible and has forcefield powers
- Victor – Carries electricity in his body and can zap things at will
- Also we had the core of the powers, a space storm which had its own challenges
For Reid Richards “Mr Fantastic” we used all sorts of different things to sell his elastic nature- Erik Aadahl and Jay Wilkinson did the initial workup for his first scene with his stretchable physiology which really got the concept almost completely. When we add the work that Dan O’Connell did for his stretching body it was quite delightful- The last component that was added… (as you can see, as “Sound Designer” I had a relatively small hand in this!) Doug Hemphill (a legend, for those who haven’t meet him) suggested we use some foodstuffs (ala’ Gary Rydstrom’s always awesome work) similar to the liquid metal morphing that was a signature of the T1000 in Terminator II. So, Doug went off to the grocery store one morning when the dubstage was down and got all sorts of funny foods to play with- For T2, Rydstrom used yogurt for the impacts on the body of the T1000, so Doug brought that and a couple of cans of dog food to mimic the sound of the T1000 going through the Jail Cage at the Mental Hospital. He also bought some different dry breakfast cereals for us to try- Rice Krispies and Honey smacks*
We mucked around and recorded a bunch of these different things- making an unholy mess of the stage too- but we were both totally impressed by the sound that the Honey smacks made if they were smashed with a spoon in a bowl with no liquid. When we added that element the next day during the predubs Both Tim Story (the Director) and Bill Hoy (the picture editor) were profoundly satisfied that we had made Reid’s stretching real. But I want to once again say…. Eric really made the effect work with the great sounds he had cut for Reid in the multiple sequences he prepared- he rocks! (but I think everyone is well aware of that!).
For “The Thing” Jay Wilkinson really took the lead on that character- using rock elements he had recorded over the years with the insane great foley of O’Connell and the team at One Step Up- he just created an awesome texture that was quite believable- The “Thing”(pardon the pun) that was interesting about the treatment was that it was really quite concrete as to how we approached the sound work- it was pretty much “see rock- hear rock” I was able to sprinkle some pixie dust here and there for the design work, but it was usually attached to the things that “the Thing either broke, or used to break other things…..
Johnny the Human Torch – Again: fire, is generally going to sound like fire- there were some funny things done for doppler pys and so forth, but the image was so strong, that making Johnny cool, funny and believable was remarkably easy. I did make a well detailed set of predubs for The Human Torch for Doug to have some latitude in mixing, but for the most part it was fire, more fire, a few predubs of turbulent wind, and some designed whooshes we added fro passbys-
Sue, The Invisible Woman – This one was the challenge of all the characters- the first scene I got to work with had Sue very quietly going invisible, then visible- and it drove me a little crazy trying to address the events in a manner which would be acoustically believable…. for that I tried recording a bunch of we movements on glass surfaces, and even went to the trouble of suspending a huge piece of plastic stretch wrap in my design suite at Fox and tried getting it wet and rubbing it with different plastic and glass items trying to get something that would match the vfx… these recordings I then processed in ProTools with GRM Tools and Spectron (A plugin I grew quite fond of when I did design work for the film “Constantine” and came up with some sounds that I played for Tim, Bill and Ralph Winter, the Producer- they actually liked a few of the sounds and we evaded up using those as the main element for Sue’s transformation- What was actually more fun was creating Sue’s force field effects at both the big bridge sequence and the climatic battle at the end of the film with Dr Doom- basically for these- I took the FX stems from the temp dubs we did and processed them in the same manner I created Sue’s vanishing effects- it created a cocoon like character for them that actually made sense to the picture which was very good fun.
And lastly, the cosmic storm in the beginning of the film which caused the characters to acquire their curious powers. This was a BIG challenge, we had really cool vfx with huge tendrils and tentacles which whipped through the space ship the crew is on- some of the source material used for this ranged from the sounds of sand dunes moaning, to processed thunder and lightening effects to a bunch of human, bug cat and pig screams which I manipulated with an Otari MTR12 that was loaned to me from the fox sound dept. I recorded my source material onto the 2 track, then used “rock and roll and varispeed techniques to manually mangle the sounds, these were then further processed by Sound Blender to give a surreal effect.
All in, it was an exciting sound design opportunity, and having the combined genius of Jay, Doug, Dan and Eric around really inspired me to explore the possibilities of the bizarre with enthusiasm. For me, these guys were the real Fantastic Four.
Written by Charles Maynes for Designing Sound