Sound designer John Kassab recently interviewed supervising sound editor James Mather about his work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. He kindly sent me the full Q&A for publishing here on the site, so we hope you enjoy it.
[By John Kassab for Designing Sound]
JK: To What extent is sonic consistency a priority when creating sounds for a film franchise like Harry Potter?
JM: Each production of Harry Potter demands it’s own unique sonic requirements but there are always generic sounds which we carry along the way. More often than not we start off with elements from the previous instalment, then tweak them to work in the latest version. Obviously the score has a considerable influence on how we approach things, defining whether or not tones are appropriate or more gritty, staccato or percussive elements. Spells and charms are an obvious example, so to are the Hogwarts fx (doors, ambience etc. ). We also like to stick with specific design elements like Gringots vault locks or the the door to the Chamber of Secrets, as the fans will know and love these. The Snitch is another favorite.
JK:What was your favorite sequence/character/object to make sounds for and what was your process to create it?
JM: One of my favourite scenes is in the forest when Harry retrieves the sword and Ron kills the horcrux. It has a lovely blend of subtlety and mystery which builds to a huge crescendo. This allows ambience, music, foley, dialogue and design to all feature without crowding the soundtrack. It also enhances the emotion of solitude and intimacy as well as being cinematic. The treatment for Voldamort horcrux voices gave the dialogue team a chance to be creative, which is always appreciated.
JK: With the desaturated color and hand held camera work, this new chapter is visually much grittier than the other films, as if to suggest that nurturing of Hogwarts is over and reality is starting to set in. How was this realism supported in the sound?
JM: The realism of sound in this particular adventure gave us some rare opportunities to veer away from the usual Potter palette. With the snatcher chase scene we relied heavily on the production sound to cover the human elements, breaths and moans etc. these were not necessarily in synch which often meant hearing a close breath on a distant perspective, and not always of the person in vision. It helped heighten the jeopardy and put the audience into the chase. A rare occasion where the lack of music meant a less predictable experience. We also had the use of the Potter-watch radio tuning to help segue between the characters and Harrys visions, thereby using an everyday sound to jolt us out of the moment, also allowing us the chance to add subtext dialogue when needed.
JK: The animated sequence was very delicately handled by the sound department. What was the design brief for this scene and how did you address it?
JM: Having a long lasting love of animation this scene was a joy to experiment with and again do something very different to any previous Potters. The look was very Eastern European and therefore we wanted a minimalist, quirky track, something along the lines of a Brothers Quay film. The veiled effect which filtered the images led us to mix down everything to an almost dreamlike level, so one was only vaguely aware of the sounds, just as a support to the subtlety on the screen. The odd creak here or whoosh there, letting the choral music support Emma’s narration.
JK: The scene transitions throughout the whole film are quite stunning. can you talk to me a bit about how you approach the transitions in atmosphere/back ground sounds from one location to the next?
JM: Where necessary we liked to make the passage of time stretch out using the ambience and spotted fx, the occasional woodpecker or fly past. The soundtrack allowed us to be really subtle but this made it all the more convincing and effective. Again the radio treatments and horcrux tones also helped tell a story throughout that allowed us to bed in the fx and music with more conviction. Backgrounds are often overlooked and under-rated as a tool, with there being so many more locations than in previous productions this film relied heavily on them to help the audience along the journey.
JK: I know you are a big supporter of MIDI keyboards and samplers. To what extent did you used sampling or any musical hardware on this film?
JM: Sampling and midi editing proved very useful in this production. Especially to design the soundscape for the horcrux, as it is the first thing you hear over the WB logo! I collated a large collection of drones, sirens, insect and rings which I could then trigger at different times and pitches, with eq and fx assigned through Structure. Then play this live as many times as necessary to get the right crescendo and balance. It was very much mixing in the box, but being so subjective it needed to be adjustable continuously. It also meant I didn’t have to endlessly re-lay the fx as audio files but simply hit the keys at different times, allowing the whole process to be more spontaneous and instinctive. This sound pervaded throughout the film and needed to be both recognizable and unique every time, something that copy/paste just doesn’t do!!
JK: There is talk that the next and final chapter of Harry Potter will be made as a 3D film. Are you interested in exploring 7.1 for this project? What are your reasons.
JM: While 7.1 is an interesting option it still has a limited market and therefore in a minority. Dubbing for 3D is, in my opinion, something of a red hearing. As surround sound is already in the 3 dimensional realm there are very few occasions when mixing for 3D alters what you would already tend to do. As the visuals clearly indicate what is likely to jump out of the screen it is an easy estimate to address. In addition the schedules invariably deny you the option, as the 3D picture arrives on or after the final day of Print-master!! Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to have an extra week of dubbing, with the finished article, to finesse those guesstimates.