Holy Crap! I went to see “Transformers” tonight. I just wanted to applaud all the great work in this film. Too much cool stuff to list! Check it out in the best sounding theater available. Thanks so much to Sound Designer Erik Aadahl for taking some time out to do this Q and A!
Designing Sound: 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.
DS: Ben Burtt has said films don’t get released, they escape. As a sound designer, how did you guys decide when a sound design or editorial sequence was “done”? Were they ever “done”?
EA: On this film we were blessed with a healthy schedule. Ethan had been doing military recording sessions starting more than a year ago, and I started on the robots around September. By that time, I had known I’d be doing the movie for a few months, so I had already started getting into the “headspace” of the movie, collecting servos and as much fun-sounding gadgetry I could find. So, the design starting coming together around then, and just kept evolving day after day. Ethan is great to work with in that he’s always looking to the next cool concept; something wacky and wild that people haven’t heard before–so that was a great challenge and inspiration to me to keep evolving the sounds as far as we could. Because we started early, we could get our sounds into the Avid right away and get those crappy temp fx (the bane of many a sound team) out of the cutting room. So Bay got a chance to hear our ideas early, fall in love with them, and know all our sounds intimately so they could be featured in our mix to the end. We kept coming up with ideas through the very last day. Playing the Dreamworks and Paramount logos with all sound design and none of the traditional music was a last minute decision that we did on the final mix stage. Some of the best ideas appear late in the game! And then suddenly we were printmastering and it was over. All new ideas after that get saved for the sequel.
DS: How much time did you get to spend on conceptional proofs before going full bore on design and editorial?
EA: 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.
DS: Did you guys get to rap with the VFX dept. during editorial about what the finished robots looked like?
EA: ILM sent us full still-frame renders of the robots, which was very useful. Our foley team, John Roesch and crew at Warner Bros, used those pictures to create “robot foley” to sell the robotic sinews and joints for the various characters.
DS: How late in the process did you guys finally see the fully rendered CGI?
EA: One of the nice things about having a really demanding director is stuff gets done quickly. When I started Transformers, it was leagues beyond most big films in terms of finished visual effects shots 9 months before release. Of course shots were pouring in until the very last minute but we were actually very fortunate that ILM had their game together so early. I could design to shots I knew wouldn’t keep changing.
DS: Ethan said his favorite sounding Transformer was Bumblebee. What was your favorite to design?
EA: 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.
PS: Listen for a vocal from Michael Bay when Megatron flicks an unlucky pedestrian across an intersection-That’s Michael going “No ! No! Woooooahh!!!”
Thanks again to everyone that took time to contribute!