Deepwater Horizon: New Developments in Sound, Mixing, and Editing Elevate Moviemaking Into Immersive Entertainment

23 November 2016


  • New workflows in sound allow the storytelling process to evolve organically. Sound can be done concurrently, rather than going through traditional laborious and time-intensive processes.
  • Advancements in sound formats allow audiences to feel completely engaged in and part of the story.
  • Beyond traditional cinema, new opportunities around immersive media, challenge sound artists and engineers to further engage the audience. The sound provides information and triggers impressions from the audience’s own references. In other words, the sound gives as well as elicits.
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  • New workflows in sound allow the storytelling process to evolve organically. Sound can be done concurrently, rather than going through traditional laborious and time-intensive processes.
  • Advancements in sound formats allow audiences to feel completely engaged in and part of the story.
  • Beyond traditional cinema, new opportunities around immersive media, challenge sound artists and engineers to further engage the audience. The sound provides information and triggers impressions from the audience’s own references. In other words, the sound gives as well as elicits.

Modern technologies are giving filmmakers the opportunity to tell more realistic, engaging and powerful stories than ever before. In addition to 4K, High Dynamic Range (HDR), and even virtual reality, there are new tools and processes in sound, mixing, and editing that can elevate the film experience, giving audiences immersive entertainment that puts them right in the center of the action.

We got a chance to talk about sound and editing with leading sound artists Dror Mohar, a sound editor and designer and re-recording mixer, and Mike Prestwood Smith, a re-recording mixer. Both worked on Deepwater Horizon, the hit movie receiving a tremendous amount of positive attention, and they are also working with the same director, Peter Berg, on his film Patriots Day, due out in early 2017.

You both worked on sound for Deepwater Horizon, a powerful story directed by Peter Berg, that is not quite news, not quite history. Instead it is described as being ‘pulled from the headlines.’ What was the creative challenge for you on that project?

Mike Smith: They call it the doc-buster – I heard someone calling it that the other day – which I thought was an interesting one. And it’s in the Paul Greengrass-school of grabbing events and dramatizing them. They are compelling stories that everyone knows about, but this is just a different way of presenting them – an exciting, more dramatic way of presenting them.

Dror Mohar: Pete is someone who often gravitates to the real-life stories of exceptional things, events that people go through. And it’s a real pleasure to work on those projects because you do get a lot of emotion and real-life story that you can pass on to the audience.

How do you work in sound when the topic is something that’s so familiar, like Deepwater Horizon? And what role does sound work play in expanding the audience experience and advancing the storytelling process?

Dror Mohar: I think that the Deepwater Horizon story – the disaster itself and the experience of the people on board – is a very important story. It raises questions about our energy needs, about big corporations, and about the personal stories of the people on that day. Pete is a guy that’s very much into what creative work and technology can do in terms of bringing the story to the forefront for the audience. So in terms of our creative work, there was a lot of very close back-and-forth with Pete and his editors that we were able to do very early on in the process.

Were there expectations up front? Is there a clear idea of what it is a director wants you to do, or is it your responsibility to say, “Hey, here are some things we can do”?

Mike Smith: These are complex films and I think having a workflow where sound is constantly evolving as they cut means that the sound is constantly informing how they edit and vice versa, and it’s a constant hand-off. It has really only become viable to do that in very recent times.

What’s made this level of extemporaneous collaboration viable?

Mike Smith: It’s technology, and it’s the workflow between virtuals and the edits, and it’s about being able to position someone like Dror in a room next to the edit room with a mixing console where sound can be evolved to a very high level – concurrently.

Traditionally the edit got made, then some sound effects got put in, and then you started deconstructing it and finding the story that way. Going with this new workflow, the story evolves organically as they’re cutting, and sound really serves the story to the highest level from a very early stage.

You might decide you can cut a whole scene with one sound, and that one sound might just inform the directors to completely re-edit the film and effectively deliver the story more succinctly. Right there and then as they’re putting the thing together – rather than going through this laborious process of temps and working it out logistically over a long period of time – you can do it concurrently now.

Deepwater Horizon uses sound to tell the story – it illustrates the chaos – since there must have been an outrageous amount of noise for the people on the rig. How did you balance that with the conversations that are also part of the story?

Dror Mohar: I think that the balance between immersing the story and exhausting the audience with very dense sound is something that’s always at the forefront of how sound contributes to the impression of the story.

It’s always about determining the story we want to tell, both in the immediate arc and then the long arc. And then it becomes very simple. You just start with the most important one sound that makes a moment effective and brings to life the intention of the filmmakers.

You can then expand beyond that to the kind of experience you want to wrap the sound in, whether it is about destruction or highlighting the tension…what we know or don’t know…or where we want to place the audience in the story. Do they know something that the characters don’t? Do they not?

Coming back to what that Mike said – which is very much a part of this – because we’re always able to work with the filmmakers to not only identify the singular sound signature, but also give it a shape that can stand the test of time – we’re able to distill this all into sound “sessions” that are very easily transferrable between the design and the mix process.

So this collaborative, almost administrative tool, has really become an important part of the creative process.

Mike Smith: Yes. And it’s only really recently become viable. You know, this is the sort of film that demands this capability because the sound is doing a lot of complex storytelling, especially early on in this movie.

You’ve got complex things like negative pressure tests, and you’ve got sound doing a lot of story work referring to pressure and gas that the audience doesn’t really know about.

But a simple sound can tell you “oh, the rocks are getting caught in this pipe here,” and yes you’ve got a visual…but there’s obviously so much going on that the sound is doing a lot of the heavy lifting early on. And so to have sound highly evolved as they edit at this point is a great way of distilling the story to its purest form, which I think this movie really does very clearly.

So we’ve been talking about the creative process. Let’s flip it and talk about the audience perspective. What are audience’s expectations today, and what are some of the developments in sound that are creating new audio opportunities or addressing some of these expectations?

Mike Smith: We’ve been talking about how the sound is really involved with the story early on, and the audience doesn’t really see the mechanics of the sound creation process…nor should they.

But I think they get a much more clear, concise story. And also the sound is highly evolved. It’s fine-tuned as the film is being cut and put together, so I think from a story perspective, the audience is getting a clearer story. I know that sounds simplistic, but the sound is doing an immense amount of storytelling throughout the whole film. It’s a kind of experience.

Dror Mohar: Another side is that whenever we talk about evolving technologies in projection or playback systems, the underlying element is the resolution. I think the synergy between sound and picture means that it’s really important to consider what that resolution is. I don’t mean use more of the space in terms of the way the sound is used, that is not necessarily the first thing that we should reach for. It actually allows us to be more focused, not just expanded.

So sometimes, less is more, right? The more tools you have, the more opportunities you have, but use them in a judicious manner.

Mike Smith: Yes, I think so. You talked about resolution, and one of the things about that is the dynamic. Deepwater Horizon is a very dynamic sounding movie. It goes from super quiet, singular choices to mayhem. And I think the formats that we have available to us now allow us to manage that on a greater resolution than ever before. And it’s using that dynamic in a creative and constructive, storytelling way. That’s what we aim to do.

A lot of films today are experimenting with virtual reality. And there’s the question of how that medium—virtual reality or immersive experiences—can handle narrative storytelling. It appears that sound will play a critical role in terms of directing and managing the attention of the audience. What is your opinion?

Mike Smith: I guess the fundamental difference is it becomes a first-person experience in a way. There are no storytellers. You are telling your own story effectively once you go in, which is a fundamental shift in creative filmmaking. And I guess the jury’s out. Sound will obviously be a huge component, and the mind boggles with the associated variables and how we accommodate that. I think the aim of the format is to give the choices to the person having the experience. How that works, and how we create and curate it, is going to be fascinating. I can’t wait to do it, as long as I don’t spend all day with a VR set on my eyes.

Dror Mohar: I think that’s a great point. It is a very first-person experience, and I think immersive formats create a new vocabulary…but it has to be transparent to the audience…they should not be aware that they are being handed things or directed by sound.

That’s what is great about sound, it is an engagement or a collaboration with audiences. The sound gives you some information and it triggers other impressions from your references.

In the world of VR or immersive, it’s exciting in that it really gives the audience the opportunity to take that reference and so that they – the audience — can then make choices.

For your next project with Peter Berg – Patriots Day – tell us a little bit about what you guys are thinking. What are your audio and sound aspirations?

Dror Mohar: I think the subject matter of Patriots Day – which is about the Boston Marathon bombing — has become something that is universal, or internationally relevant. It is about terrorism and how it seeping into every part of our society.

It’s not confined to the battlefield. It’s not confined to government locations. The story’s the individuals who carry out terrorism and the people who are affected.

It is really interesting, because the weapons themselves are hand-built weapons. Pressure cooker bombs are what I’m referring to. You put in nails and razors and all sorts of stuff, and you understand what you’re going to do to another human being.

So there’s something strong and very terrifying about it. In terms of creating sound for that, it was about trying to define a singular signature for how it felt for the people in Boston, how it felt for the victims, how it felt for the first responder forces that had to deal with it.

It’s really an emotional story. In terms of the design, one of the leading things that I’ve been telling myself is to hold off as much as possible and let the humanity play out. Let the faces, let the dialog, let the story kind of hold itself until sound becomes a helper. What is the one singular sound that we can put in a scene or sequence that really makes it all “blow up” so to speak, or really just lifts it up with one singular moment, without too much pizazz.

What do we need to understand to really appreciate how you’re taking the state-of-the-art and sound to the next level?

Mike Smith: Wow, that’s a big question. You know, these are all stories. Lone Survivor, Deepwater, and Patriots Day –what we’re working on now.

I think the public has an understanding about what happened, but I think what Peter does, and does it incredibly effectively, is give us a behind-the-scenes look at what really happened. There’s an immense amount of research going on, and so the audiences will get this sort of heightened-reality version of events.

From an audience’s point of view, it’s having them really engaged with what happened and get a deeper understanding of events, but kind of get a ride with it as well. It’s really about getting that story, getting that feeling of what really happened when they’re watching the movie.

Dror Mohar: I think one of the great things Mike has been able to work out in DeepWater Horizon — and then do really well on Patriots Day — is that stories like this really benefit from very strategic sound storytelling and placing and shaping sounds.

Being able to share our treatment back-and-forth, and for them to inform each other, really works in terms of sound basically being able to be very compelling but in a pretty simple and transparent way where it’s really distilled to the most important stuff.

Smith: It’s quite a tightrope act, especially something like this where real people got hurt and killed, and it’s a tightrope act between reality and a heightened dramatization. These are difficult movies to get right, and having this workflow between us allows you to balance that tightrope more succinctly.

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