Tim Nielsen Special: Interview on Backgrounds

DS: I know you’re quite of fan of background sounds for movies. What is it that fascinates you about this part of the soundtrack?

Tim: First, backgrounds are the bed upon which all the other sounds must be built. It’s foundation work, and I love foundation work. And as the first thing I cut on a project, it’s really the first layers of paint so to speak. So I love that, the very initial layer. Second, the backgrounds have the most power to sell time and space. If done right, you plant the audience clearly in the scene, in the location, and in the world of the film. Third backgrounds have an amazing ability to evoke emotion. Tension, sadness, agitation, fear, love, all of these can be evoked in the backgrounds and in subtle ways. The same scene, cut different, could evoke safety and comfort, or tension and danger. Even the simplest choice of room tones can have an effect on the emotion of a scene. Fourth I just love the types of sounds, winds and rain especially. I love listening to them, I love to record them, and I love to cut and layer them.

DS: What is your preferred background element to play with and why?

Tim: Wind and water. These are both categories of sound that have almost limitless possibilities. Wind can be cold or hot, gentle or piercing, howling, singing, whistling. It can move things around, move through and over things. And water as well, of course. It flows, drips, pours. Just rain by itself could fill an entire library. Soft rain, rain on an infinite variety of surfaces, thick rain, thin rain.

Of these, wind is the base of all backgrounds, when you include room tone, or simple ‘airs’. And it’s wind that I find distracts me the most if done wrong. There are also a handful of library winds that get used over and over, and I can’t say I’m immune from using them as well. But such is the nature, that when a director calls for a ‘whistling wind’, most of us will find the same commercial sound that you know will always work and sell ‘whistling’. I keep hoping to find my own perfect whistling wind. It’s eluded me so far. I’ve made some things with some deer netting that are ‘close’ but not quite perfect yet.

On something like Prince of Persia, wind becomes a major element of the soundtrack, and we spent a lot of time trying to build a library of wind for  the film, especially wind and sand together. Scott Guitteau went to Death Valley for us and recorded as much sand as he could. The recordings yielded a lot of new sounds and textures. We recorded a lot on the Foley stage as well. While this is of course useful for the main cutting of the film, it’s crucial to have that library built for the final mix so you can quickly find the sounds you made for the film. On Persia I built a library of just wind and sand gusts, which proved really useful, as we’d see some more detail in the final picture, and say ‘oh we can throw in a small gust there, see the sand blowing on frame left?’

DS: You mentioned There Will Be Blood as one of your favorite films to work on – and you did the backgrounds. To me, this film had wonderfully gritty and textured images (and characters) – how did this influence the work with the backgrounds?

Tim: When I was asked to work on the film, I was living up in Vancouver supervising Journey to the Center of the Earth. I happened to be on a short hiatus when my friend Chris Scarabosio called. There had been another crew on There Will be Blood, and they had gone through one temp mix I believe. But, and I don’t know any specifics, the clients weren’t happy with the sound that they were getting. Chris asked if I had some time to work with the backgrounds.

I was given the tracks that the other crew had been working with, which is rare, but since I had a short amount of time to work on them, the plan was that I’d take over their tracks, adding or changing what I needed. But I quickly decided that even on the short schedule, I wanted to recut the tracks from scratch.

It wasn’t that the other work done was bad. But I suppose it just wasn’t ‘mine’ and seeing the film, I really wanted the backgrounds to be mine (at least until I turned them back over to Chris of course, after which point, it would all be out of my hands).

I had felt mainly that the original work was too clean. This was, as you mention, a gritty film. When I first watched it, I realized, that unlike probably any other film I had worked on, the backgrounds in this film could be dirty, gritty. The film has an almost documentary style to the shooting. The backgrounds were also crucial, and in many ways make up the bulk of the sound in the movie. There was to be little music in the film, and in fact the film opens I believe with about 10 or 15 minutes with no music, and no dialog. Some backgrounds and a bit of Foley is all we have for the entire opening of the movie.

We also have so many perspective changes, so many scenes in different locations, but all within the same geographic area, that the backgrounds were a real challenge. It certainly pushed my library to the max as I amassed any and all wind in grass that I could find! You need the continuity of geography, but the detail of shifting perspectives.

There were so many great scenes in There Will be Blood for backgrounds, and I’m very proud of the work we all did on that film.

One of the other joys in this track was in cutting mistakes. As I worked with the tracks, and I saw so many places where the camera work and editing was so raw, so gritty. Oil drops hitting the camera glass for instance. And I realized that I had the opportunity to match it with sound. So I actually spent quite a bit of time cutting in mic bumps, mild distortion, things of that nature, to match the nature of the picture. I loved that I could be putting in all the sounds that I would normally spend so much time cutting out. We think that things like mic bumps or distortion have no place, but in There Will be Blood, they fit perfectly.

DS: When working on something like There Will Be Blood which is linked to a special location and a special historical era, how much time do you spend on getting these ‘factual’ things right?

Tim: I know that many people go to great lengths to be factual about the sounds used in the backgrounds. I’ll be honest, that partly for practical reasons, and partly for purely creative ones, I don’t care much about getting the ‘facts’ right. The only fact I care about is this. Does it sound right? Does it do what’s needed there. Does it help the story, sell time and space, and sell the emotion of the scene. Now if a client cares and really wants us to be factual, of course we’ll invest the time. Things like the Cornell Library make finding birds specific to a location easy if the clients want us to spend the money to do so. And always an effort is made to find sounds that are natural to the location.

But I’ll give a real world example. I did a lot of recording and editing on Charlotte’s Web. Now we did source some birds from Maine, I found some nature recordists there that were kind enough to share some recordings. We had an assistant take a recorder back there to his family farm and record some sounds for us too. But I grew up in Minnesota, and had great connections there, so I spent a few weeks recording on some farms there. And the truth is, wind through Minnesota grass sounds like wind through Maine grass! Barns are barns, and crows are crows, and pigs are pigs. So most of the recording for Charlotte’s Web was done in Minnesota.

In Fellowship of the Ring, one of the things I was tasked with were cutting the backgrounds for the entire film. And being a fan of Tolkien, I knew that although Tolkien had built Middle Earth as a fantasy realm, he let it be inspired by real world locations. He had wanted it to feel familiar. With this in mind, I certainly set about to create and gather new sounds, especially the birds. But in addition to creating some background birds completely from scratch, or other animals, I didn’t shy away from using real world birds at all, although they were almost always affected in some way, usually pitched down, drawing them out, making them in my opinion a bit more lyrical. But I wanted that familiarity as well, of the birds sounding exotic but real. Chris Ward, who was then I think First Assistant and ADR Recordist went out several times recording birds, and while we were out, I picked up this blade of grass and started to make bird calls. He moved quite some distance, and we recorded a lot of ‘fake’ bird calls that would be used in the film. But there are also birds from the US, from England, Australia in the film. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I certainly didn’t put a Red-Wing Black bird in the film, but very possibly there are part of one.

I spent a lot of time taking a whole series of bird phrases, and re-editing them together, half of one phrase, half of another, to build a library that felt real, but that hopefully no-one singled out a particular bird.

But the short answer to your question is, I don’t much care. I know that will seem like a lazy answer to some, but the truth is, it’s the right sound if we all feel it is, if the director and clients are happy, then I’m happy.

The same applies to sound effects. I know of Supervising Sound Editors going to great lengths to record the ‘real’ sound of something, only to find that faking it with something much smaller and cheaper yielded a much better result than trying to get the real thing.

DS: When you’re the supervising sound editor of a film, how do you ’direct’ the effects editors when they are working on the backgrounds?

Tim: To be honest, I almost always cut a lot of the backgrounds myself, at least in Journey to the Center of the Earth, where I cut a lot of the FX for the entire film, and also Prince of Persia, I end up cutting, at least to establish, a lot of the backgrounds myself.

But the editors I have the pleasure of working with all have their own taste and style, and I have never found myself giving a lot of direction up front. After hearing what they’re working on, usually it entails me saying either ‘maybe we could do _______’, or else ‘I have a sound I’d love to use here.’ But I will have spotted some sounds, or ideally build a library of the sounds I’d like to use, and then let the editors make their own pass. I want.

And sometimes, I’ll have cut a reel or two of backgrounds, and any other editors can take that work and source from it. We do that a lot, whoever ends up establishing a location for instance will share those sounds and notes with the other editors.

DS: How much direction and which kind of direction do you prefer to get yourself, when you’re the sound effects editor?

Tim: I selfishly prefer to get almost no direction, and most of the supervising sound editors I’ve worked with have allowed me this freedom. Of all the Supervising Sound Editors I’ve worked with, almost none of them spot sound effects for me before starting, and I’m usually left on my own for the first pass at least. In some cases, it will be in the premix the first time the Supervising Sound Editor will hear everything. That level of trust is a real treasure.

Working with Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom, I’ll have a database of sounds spotted. In Ben’s case, he’s very particular about having chosen the sounds he wants to use, and his notes are very detailed. This doesn’t mean that we don’t go outside of those spotted sounds where necessary, but rarely is it necessary. In the case of Gary, on War Horse, a large database of new sounds was built, recorded, designed before I started. Detailed notes were available, mostly ideas like ‘Try this sound for incoming artillery’, or ‘I like this one the best’. Gary and I would spot the reel, and he’d give me his thoughts about overall direction the scene shoudl take. But then Gary gave me incredible leeway as well in cutting, letting me make my first pass on my own.

For the backgrounds in particular, Gary had spotted certain sounds that he thought would work well in the trenches, and really wanted to make sure we differentiated between the German and the English trenches. I had some sounds in my library as well that I thought worked, and so if I had something in my library that I thought would help, I would add it in.

DS: In your story on MS-recording you talked about delivering LCR ambiences to the mix stage. How do you build up your tracks for backgrounds – do you like to have a bed of sound that goes throughout the scenes or do you build up your backgrounds of a lot of small specific elements?

Tim: Both. These days I usually end up with six background predubs, usually calling them A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. So think of them really as three different predubs, each with two sub-predubs, done either for checker-boarding, or additional splitting out of elements.

Predubs A1 and A2 usually contain the really basic sounds, room-tone, light or basic wind, really generic city backgrounds, etc. In a scene of rain they might contain the constant rain that will run through the scene. As such, A1 and A2 are often the largest ‘blocks’ of sound.

B1 and B2 are usually the perspective cutting elements, be it wind, rain, traffic, etc. They usually have a lot of edits that follow the geography of the scene.

C1 and C2 usually contain the specific ambience sweeteners needed, be it individual rain gusts, wind gusts, etc. They could also be traffic sweeteners, or additional layers, for instance if someone in the scene were to open a window, the additional sound to enter the scene might be placed here.

DS: Do you ever use ‘musical’ elements as part of backgrounds – by which I mean abstract sounds or treated elements?

Tim: Absolutely! That’s a large part of the fun for me. An example I already mentioned is when the Ring Wraiths are entering Bree. That sound there is a very abstract sound that most people would think is a musical element, or part of the score, but it’s the metal bowl and razor sound I mentioned in the first interview.

There is always a place for musical elements, be it in the glass water sounds of Rivendell, in the winds in Lorien, which are layered with quite a few musical elements. Even in something like There Will be Blood there is room for these types of sounds, although they’re much more subtle.

The danger of course is that you have to be careful of what your sounds might do when played alongside music later.

In the case of Bree, that scene was originally scored. Early on, once we (David Farmer, Brent Burge and I) had cut that scene and thought it sounded great, we lobbied for Peter to hear it as it was, hoping that perhaps it wouldn’t be scored. We felt we had created tension and made something that really worked for the scene. I don’t believe that ever happened, Peter hearing it, since in fact the scene was scored. But in the final mix, hearing some of the sounds behind the music, Peter heard what we had all put together, and the decision was made to remove some of the music at that point to allow our sounds to play. I wish he had heard it early on, I do think he might not have scored the scene and we would have had even longer to establish our sounds and make the scene even creepier.

But yes, I love musical elements. It’s all sound, music included, and I certainly don’t shy away from exploring musical, tonal, magical sounds anywhere they might be applicable.

But certainly I’m careful that they’re not married to other sounds, knowing that until we all arrive at the final mix, I can’t be certain they’re going to survive.

DS: A couple of years ago Randy Thom commented at the yahoo sound design list that some of the directors he was working with had an inclination to minimize ambient sound. Do you feel the same trend (still) happening?

Tim: Interesting. I remember working on a film very early in my career set in the height of summer. We of course had birds cut for all the suburban scenes, and the picture editor had us remove almost every one, saying ‘the director doesn’t want to hear birds’. So I don’t think this is really a new trend, it’s a personal one from director to director

But certainly as films begin to use more and more music, the backgrounds are often first to go. I’ve noticed in some of the animated films I’ve seen lately rarely have much in the backgrounds. So he might be right. I’m not sure what the reason is. I suppose somehow the directors feel the backgrounds are getting in the way.

But other directors really still love sound, and love backgrounds. I think even though the Pirates films have a lot of music, there are a lot of backgrounds in there as well. Same for Rings, and people like Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron, their films, as big as they are, still have a lot of detailed work done in the backgrounds.

I think David Fincher’s films as well, with Ren Klyce at the helm, have amazing background work, even in something like The Social Network, a film that you might not normally think of backgrounds.

I hope it’s not a trend that is continuing. But he might be right.

DS: Which are your favorite films for backgrounds – which have inspired you throughout the years?

Tim: I remember some films that as I watched them I thought had great creative use of backgrounds, films like Full Metal Jacket and Doctor Zhivago. These aren’t necessarily films that have high-fidelity backgrounds, but I remember seeing the Vietnam sequences of Full Metal Jacket and feeling like I was really there. In the case of something Doctor Zhivago, and most of David Lean’s films, there is beautiful use of sound as transition.

I thought The Thin Red Line had beautiful backgrounds, very lyrical in line with the filmmaking. I think Fight Club has some amazing work in the ambiences, especially the ones relating to the decaying house. There is a realness in those sounds, they are perfect.

Castaway is a brilliant use of backgrounds as storytelling. Here you are on this island, and really you have two main elements, waves and wind through palm fronds. But it’s a fantastic use of backgrounds to mentally isolate you on this desert island. There could have been bugs, birds, it could have been lush sounding, but of course that would have been the wrong direction for the emotion of the movie.

DS: Anything Else?

Tim: I find backgrounds difficult to talk about. Of all the things I tend to do, I find working with the backgrounds the most instinctual. With the backgrounds, I simply know when the sound is right for me. Yes there is a lot of thinking that goes into it as well, but ultimately backgrounds are felt.

I wanted to write an entire article on backgrounds here for the site, but I’m still struggling with an angle, or a structure for it. Maybe this interview is enough. I know there’s more to say, and if I can find words to talk about it more, I’d like to continue this discussion.

14 Comments on “Tim Nielsen Special: Interview on Backgrounds

  1. Great interview. Thanks guys. I’d be interested to hear a lot more about backgrounds.

    For instance, how static/dynamic do you let it become. Where do you create movement and where not.

  2. Also, 2nd thought. I’d love to hear some examples. Especially with the different predubs. And talk about the choices of those examples.

  3. Anton, I’d love to post some examples too, but legally I’m sure it’s way too complicated. 

    In answer to your other question, I’d say there are two answers. First you create dynamics and movement to match the picture and action, for things you see. Like wind gusts. If you see one you cut one. 

    Second would be to work in dynamics other places you can, around the dialog, music, etc. You find holes in the other sounds that might allow you to place some offscreen sounds.

  4. Just spent the last few days (still on it) editing backgrounds for a feature I’m working on at the moment so this article was a cool read! I definitely  think backgrounds are my favourite element to work on. You can really say SO much with backgrounds and be SO detailed. Of all sound elements in a mix backgrounds are the ones that have the largest role in creating the world of the film. You are recreating reality (or the reality of the film anyways) and that is not an easy task! So I am fascinated by the depth and storytelling one can put into backgrounds! Anyways, brilliant articles you are putting out for us Tim! I’ve been checking into the sight daily in the hopes of a new one so was a happy surprise to see your article on a moment ago!  Finally, I definitely believe that the backgrounds are only as good as the sounds you use and therefore having one’s own recording rig or recordings to use is a priceless requirement!  Right…off to more backgrounds editing with a nice motivation boost after this article :)

  5. Amazing interview, I’m a background fan myself.

    When you talk about dividing your BG stems in 3 (A,B,C) do you think about the panning? or you leave that to the mixer?, if you do think about the panning, does the order of this stems (A1 A2, B1 B2, C1 C2) have something to do with it?.

    Thanks.

  6. Hi Pepe. These days I’m likely to deliver my tracks to the mixer in one of two ways. Either I’m delivering a pre panned 5.1 output from PT, where I’ve done the surround panning, or I’m delivering straight tracks to the board. In that case I will have marked in the tracks or made mental notes about which sounds I think would work best in the surrounds. 

    But either way, each pre dub will be a full 5.1. Does that make sense?

  7. Thanks, yes it does.

    One more question though I was commentating the article with a sound design friend and we both have the same doubt about what you call pre dub, are they banks of eight tracks? or something similar

    Thanks again Tim!

  8. Well usually recorder has 8 tracks so a pre dub can have up to that many. Sometimes we will only use five of the tracks (5.0 is it’s like a rain background pre dub that doesn’t need subwoofer) or 5.1. Other times we might use the 8 tracks different like to make a 5.0 and an LCR. We do that in FX pre dubs sometimes. Or in Foley we might use the 8 tracks as LCRLCRCC. Dialog is the same, they will often use the leftover channels to store something they want separation on later, or an alt line perhaps they want to mix and have ready later. 

  9. Tim – Another great article in the series and a must read for my students. Like many of the responders to this article, BGs are my favorite thing to cut. Creating whole worlds in sound that all of the rest of the film lives in. And we call this work?

  10. Great interview. I tend to struggle with the balance of too much, too little, and my favorite movies seem to take a less is more approach to bgfx and yet be very intentional and specific rather than immersive. Any advice on where you draw the line between hard fx and bgfx other than the obvious definition?
    thanks, enjoyed the reading.

  11. Tim, this article is awesome. In fact I am loving this series you are doing and am grateful that you are sharing your knowledge with all.

    This article has inspired me to try a new project and I have managed to source some raw material of NYC from a couple of generous film makers. I plane to edit the footage together and build a few landscapes, then utilise some location recordings that I obtained whilst on holiday. I can’t wait to get stuck into this project as I have always believed that its the little details that make for good sound.

    Thanks again Tim

    Graham Donnelly

  12. Pingback: Designing Ambiences in Max/MSP : Designing Sound

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