The Matrix Young guns, new tricks

Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne's new special effects extravaganza, The Matrix, placed particular demands on its sound teams. Richard Buskin talks with sound designer-supervising sound editor Dane Davis, FX mixer Gregg Rudloff, dialogue mixer John Reitz and music mixer Dave Campbell

by Richard Buskin

Ever had trouble analysing your dreams? Thomas Anderson has--in The Matrix, the new sci-fi thriller written and directed by brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a mild-mannered computer programmer by day who, in his night-time guise as an arch hacker named Neo, sets out to find the legendary hacker-outlaw Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). The trouble is, when he finally encounters this mythical god of dreams, Anderson is informed that his nocturnal world, the Matrix, is just one great big virtual reality trip. By then, however, he is transfixed, and so it is that the fun really begins, resulting in an effects-laden extravaganza of comic-strip cyber escapism.

'Basically we wanted to create all of the sounds for the movie from scratch in order to give it a very unique quality, but we were also dealing with a lot of genres that we really wanted to transcend; martial arts scenes, gun battles, and so on,' says sound designer-supervising sound editor, Dane Davis, who started full-time work on The Matrix project in July of 1998. This was about a week and a half before the completion of principal photography, which, although this is a Warner Brothers film, largely took place on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in Sydney, Australia. Thereafter Davis used his own Pro Tools-based Danetracks facility in Hollywood, while the mix took place on a Neve and Fairlight-equipped Warners sound stage in Burbank.

'We wanted to take all of the conventions, both good and bad, and just sort of blow them up,' Davis continues. 'I therefore created all of the noises for the movie--every body-hit and whoosh--and for these I primarily used plug-ins with the Pro Tools. I have a gigantic Pro Tools system with loads of plug-ins, and a lot of these sounds are evolved step-by-step. In fact, many plug-ins are feeding other plug-ins.

'Pro Tools was used for recording, editing, processing and manipulating all of the sound in the movie--the music, the dialogue, everything--and, aside from some mag stems for one of the temp mixes, tape was never used for any of the post work. That kept everything flexible and efficient, and I also think it added a lot to the clarity.'

And that is a word that keeps cropping up whenever I talk with the audio guys about their Matrix assignment; clarity. 'Retaining clarity is, I think, the challenge with any big scene,' says effects mixer Gregg Rudloff. 'You can put in everything and add all of the music and it just becomes a cluttered mess. So, trying to keep clarity and have your focus go where you want it is the thing, and on this movie the directors were very keen on keeping it clean, whereas often you'll have a client who's interested in just having a lot of things going all of the time and they end up getting in each other's way. The Wachowskis draw a very definite line when it comes to distracting the audience, and that also ties into the sense of dynamics. We wanted the movie to be as dynamic as possible without necessarily being loud. We knew a lot of the scenes would be loud, but we did not want anything to be so loud that it would put people off.'

The audio team for The Matrix was basically the same as that which worked on Andy and Larry Wachowski's previous picture, Bound. Once again, the film shoot adhered strictly to the storyboarding, so everyone was well aware in advance of what to expect, and consequently all of the special effects had to spring from the storytelling.

'The Wachowskis wanted electricity to infuse the whole movie,' Dane Davis explains with regard to his work as the sound designer. 'After all, it's about electricity. It might be dealing with the digital domain, but you're still talking about pulses and electrons, and so they wanted everything to have a kind of electrical edge and that was therefore one of the framework dimensions that I tried to go with.

'For instance, there were things like the Nebuchadnezzar hovercraft, where the propellers had to be electromagnetic. Well, I didn't see what those propellers looked like until just before they finished the movie, and the idea was to build something that had no engines, no thrust, no explosives, no exhaust, no combustion. The power had to be purely derived from electricity, and to that end those propellers were all made from arcs. We rented a six-foot-tall, 30,000V Jacob's Ladder, and I obtained the sort of Dopplering arc cycles that Ineeded for these propellers by recording this huge arc going very closely by the mic and making forward-reverse loops. I think there were ten propellers, and each of them had three forward-reverse loops of this Dopplering arc, and they were also pitch-shifted as samples. That's where all of that power comes from.

'There's also a lot of metallic resonating of the Nebuchadnezzar when it's moving, and, although that's propulsive it was all just produced with huge sheets of steel that were being vibrated with dry ice and things like that. So, that wasn't specifically electrical, but, being that the ship is electromagnetic, everything on the Neb is steel, and so that was another emphasis. I got to stomp around on some of the set parts from the ship when I was in Sydney and get a feel for that, because, even though it wasn't really steel, it looked like steel. I wanted to convey the idea that the electromagnetic field from those propellers was affecting everything--you know, like the steel was always being kind of pushed and pulled by the electromagnetic field, and so that's why I used the steel sheets.

'There was a giant metal gate that Irecorded in Texas a few years ago that made this singing resonance, and so Ipitch-shifted that down many, many, many octaves using a program called SoundHack, one of the few stand-alone applications that I used, can do pitch-shifting a long way without hearing any nonsense, and so I used that to create all of these extremely low metal resonances that you hear inside the ship.

'Another program that I used was MetaSynth, and that really defined the sound quality of a lot of things, giving them an extremely clean and distinct timbre while doing digital processing. I used it on anything that had to feel digital, not wanting to get grainy in an ugly way--except for five or six sounds in the movie that did have to be grainy in an ugly way. In some cases I had to create an audio file and import it to MetaSynth, export it back to Pro Tools and then let it continue with its linear progression.'

Meanwhile, further electrical devices wererecorded in order to attain the sound of the power plant which the main characters visit. 'Everything had to have these throbbing electrical cycles,' says Davis, 'so I used a lot of free-arcing, where I was just taking transformers and arcing in the air, and recording Tesla coils and things like that. In all, that power plant has about 50 electrical elements that are all kind of working in sync to a big pulse, and that was fun. Also, when you go through the TV monitors, through the letters on the screen or through the code, there's a lot of electrical arcing that's been either digitally manipulated to feel digital or left fairly raw in some cases, just pitch-shifted way up in order to give it a really crackly quality. That's one of the things they really wanted, giving you the feeling that you are moving through electricity when you go through the screens.'

John Roesch and Hilda Hodges took care of the Foley work at the Warner Brothers facility in Hollywood, with Thom Brennan supervising. Recorded on 2-inch tape with SR before going into Pro Tools, this comprised a lot of the film's external elements in addition to the usual array of sounds. 'They did a fantastic job,' says Dane Davis, 'and it was very sparse Foley for a movie like this. Scenes like going into the pod in the power plant, all of the little splashes and movements were done by the Foley crew and the effect was beautiful. We were shooting Foley for months before the mix, because I was incorporating Foley into what I was doing, and I was doing little temp mixes for their Avid all of theway through the process.

'Being that the picture editors were in Sydney and I was in Los Angeles, Ihad editors building the sound-design and action-type scenes from the material as Iwas making it, and Iwould do premixes that I would wire back to Sydney. They would then download them the next morning--which was really a day and a half later for them --and cut everything direct into their Avid. Therefore, as they were cutting the movie they would have early versions of everything that I was making, which is a terrific way to work in spite of the 8,000 miles between us. Once or twice a week we would get on the speaker-phone with the Wachowskis and discuss where things were at, and so we all evolved together. Then, the morning after they arrived back in the US, we did a 3-day temp mix in my studio with all of the music that had been cut to that point, and for the first time we all got a sense of how everything was going to play.'

Chris Jenkins, Mark Smith and Ron Bartlett spent eight days in January of 1999 doing a temp mix off of five Pro Tools systems using a Neve console at Todd-AO. Thereafter, the temp mix updates were done by Dane Davis at Danetracks, while the mix proper saw John Reitz, Dave Campbell and Gregg Rudloff taking care of dialogue, music and effects on a brand-new sound stage at Warners, where a pair of 32-output Pro Tools fed a Fairlight MFX3 setup via the recently installed AMS Neve DFC console.

'The Fairlights and the Neve worked together really well,' says Rudloff who, together with his colleagues, mixed over the course of a 6-week period from early February to late March of 1999. 'The setup provided flexibility so that, when there were picture changes, the drives could be pulled out for the fixes to be made on a Fairlight editing station on the lot and then popped back in. That's very necessary on these kinds of movies. We used the Fairlights both for recording and playing back, and it all went fine.'

Configured for dialogue, music and effects, the all-digital, all-automated DFC console is set up in four tiers, with each fader capable of up to an 8-track pre-dub. 'We did a 6-track mix, so all of my predubs were in 6-track form,' explains Rudloff. 'The six channels consisted of left-centre-right, a left surround, a right surround and the sub information. I wasn't using the faders of each tier; just one layer had the 6-track predub, but I was using multilayers for other things. Depending on how you set it up and what you're using the signals and routeing paths for, the board can provide up to 500 paths.

'It was a straightforward project in terms of satisfying what the client wanted, but it was also fairly complex, with a lot of stuff going on--the lobby shoot-out, the shooting-out of the office building with the helicopter and all of that--and so we kept as much separation as possible in the predub process. I was basically working with like 20 predubs per reel, and we were also flying stuff in wild because we didn't get some of the final visuals until we were in the process.'

In terms of the dialogue there was very little ADR, the Wachowski brothers largely shunning the looping option--out of about 100 lines shot roughly only 20 were used, whereas some film projects can call for as much as 700 lines of ADR. Nevertheless, this is not to say that The Matrix didn't need it.

'The dialogue was in terrible shape,' says John Reitz. 'They had a lot of problems when they were shooting in Australia, with plenty of rain machines and lighting machines causing some high-frequency problems that we had to get rid of. Basically, anytime you have that many special effects going your production has a lot of noise that you have to deal with, and so I used different devices to clean it up. I used a 4-band gate splitter, and I also used the Yamaha dip filter in a lot of cases to get rid of steady frequencies. In the construct area where it was all white-screen I had all production dialogue and it was pretty noisy, so it was gated quite heavily, not so much with Dolby 430s, but basically just with the 4-band gate-splitter.

'Keanu Reeves doesn't really project that much, so it was kind of difficult at times to get him through. However, battling the effects wasn't really a problem because Gregg tends to work around me in a lot of cases, and the same applies with the music mixer Dave [Campbell]. We all pull down a little and he fits in around the dialogue--the three of us have worked together for 18 years, so we're very tuned into each other, and, if one guy has a problem trying to get something through, the other two guys will back down for him.'

'I worked less on this show than on anything I can recall,' adds Campbell regarding his mix of the score that was recorded on a Fox sound stage. 'It came in on 24-bit Pro Tools, it was set up in an adjacent room here and I never even saw it. It just came to me on faders and it worked wonderfully. Armand Steiner had recorded a 6-track orchestra and it was magnificent. It was absolutely perfect. Then I had an additional six tracks of synths which Don Davis did beforehand--these had been mixed down with Armand's orchestra, and it was so well balanced that I almost never touched it.'

Still, touch it he did. Meanwhile, when it comes to the overall sound, with any action movie there is always a danger of employing what could be described as 'Mickey Mouse effects', emphasising every nuance in unimaginative audio fashion. On The Matrix Davis was therefore determined that obvious solutions to the on-screen proceedings were to be avoided at all costs.

'It's quite risky using things that illustrate the film-making process rather than what the characters are perceiving,' he says. 'You experience that in a lot of movies, where the sounds are all about the sound editors and the mixers. Well, the audience doesn't care about that process and it's also a distraction from what they're watching. On the other hand, a scene such as that in which the government lobby is invaded had sounds for every movement, every bullet, every explosion, every possible detail, and then during the mix we pulled everything out and just put in the things that we needed based on how the characters perceived them.'

'That scene, we decided, was really too big for too long, and it could become annoying,' says Gregg Rudloff. 'Again, there are directors and producers who like it to be that way, but the Wachowskis were more interested in peaks and valleys.'

'As soon as the audience would expect something, such as the guards to keep shooting, we'd pull way back on the gunfire and just go with the sound of the bullet flying past from Neo's perspective,' adds Dane Davis. 'That means it doesn't play at all in a literal way, but it's still really exciting. Similarly, a lot of times we'd insert the reverse sounds of guns being shot because it worked great with the music. It made the beat more intense and punchy, even though it had no literal meaning, and we'd also put in off-screen gunshots because they were interesting in a musical way. In fact, the producer, Joel Silver, is known for liking things louder, but he loved the poetic approach so much that even he said, "Hey, go more abstract". Coming from Joel that was terrific, and it was a license for joyous insanity.

'I always try to break down a scene into characters, whether they're humans, animals, robots or any other machines, and I then try to figure out what noises they would create when doing whatever they're doing in that scene.'

An approach that Gregg Rudloff refers to as 'see a bear, hear a bear'. 'Sometimes that makes a really big difference,' Davis continues. 'I don't ever use synthesisers--whether we're talking software or hardware, and even though I have tons of them--unless the thing on the screen is a synthesiser, and I apply that same principal to creatures such as the robots in this movie. I didn't want them to make a sound that seemed like it was being made for the benefit of humans, and, while that's guiding principle in all of my work, in this movie it was a law. If a sound makes the audience think about somebody creating that sound then it's the wrong sound.'

Still, with movies such as The Phantom Menace lurking around every corner, there is undoubtedly a lot of pressure on sci-fi film-makers to hit audiences between the ears with a plethora of novel sounds. 'We didn't want anybody to hear anything that they had heard before,' agrees Davis. 'Nevertheless, that kind of pressure to be unique does make it a lot more fun; ten times as much work, but a lot more fun. I had to kick people's butts with the sound effects, because certain scenes had to be really radical and intense, and they had to make a huge impression on the audience. Of course, I also didn't want it to seem like we were trying too hard--and that's never easy--but in a lot of cases the rule had to be that when we were getting used to a sound then that was the time to get rid of it.'

Studio Sound, April 1998

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