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Issue: July 1, 2011

Audio: 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'

By: Richard Buskin

CULVER CITY, CA — When the first Transformers film was released four years ago, moviegoers were treated to an Earth-based battle for control of the universe between the dastardly Decepticons and heroic Autobots, based on the Hasbro action figures that twist, fold and double in on themselves. Two years later, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen resumed the war underwater and in outer space. Now, in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, our robot buddies not only try to annihilate one another in downtown Chicago after getting caught up in the US-USSR space race, but they do so in 3D and 7.1 sound.

“This is the most complex, intricate soundtrack that I and my Academy Awarding-winning sound team have done,” director Michael Bay recently commented on his Website. “They really outdid themselves to make this a big picture experience.”

As per its Bay-directed predecessors, Transformers 3 used the effects trio of re-recording mixer Greg P. Russell, supervising sound editor Ethan Van der Ryn and sound designer/co-supervising sound editor Erik Aadahl, alongside supervising dialogue editor Mike Hopkins, dialogue mixer Garry Summers, music editor Alex Gibson (who worked on the second movie), and — new to the series — Jeffrey Haboush, who handled Steve Jablonsky’s music score.

“It’s probably the busiest special effects movie I have ever seen in my entire life,” says Greg Russell, who has been Oscar-nominated more than a dozen times for his work. “Still, despite being big, bold, and a lot of fun to watch and listen to, it isn’t overwhelming.”

“Along with the robots that everyone expects to see, we have a lot more spaceships and cosmic stuff,” adds Erik Aadahl, who has been nominated for multiple Emmy and Golden Reel Awards. “The Decepticons’ invasion of Earth involves ships of all sizes — huge motherships, smaller attack fighters — and it was a huge challenge to come up with that whole palette of sounds while keeping it fresh and interesting.”

Constantly in work mode, even away from the studio, Aadahl had the idea of using a whistling tea kettle long before he knew the movie would feature spaceships.

“I heard it in the kitchen of a friend’s house and realized it could be a treasure trove of weird little sounds,” he recalls. “At first, I thought it could be used for missile whistle-bys. But then, once I got my recordings into the computer and started slowing them down and beefing them up, I realized they had a really crazy howling quality that reminded me a little bit of the TIE fighters in Star Wars. So, Transformers 3 has an opening sequence where a spaceship is being chased by attack fighters and the tea kettle features prominently throughout.” 

“From the sound design perspective, when we start working on a project we think about the principle that we’d like to push forward, and on this movie it was all about morphing and twisting between organic and synthetic sounds,” explains Ethan Van der Ryn, who scooped Oscars for his editing on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and King Kong (2005).

Aadahl picks up the story: “Ethan had this idea to play with musical instruments, especially electric guitars. One of our lead sound effects editors is John Marquis, who is quite an accomplished musician, and one of the licks that he played for us became the sound of the turrets locking into place. Everytime you hear that sound, you know someone’s about to get blown away.” 

“It turned out to be a really fruitful venture,” Van der Ryn confirms.

Ditto Jablonsky’s rich, luxurious, orchestral score, which, boasting warm, soulful strings and majestic brass, provides the film with plenty of heart for the emotional sequences and a lot of drive for those loaded with effects.

“I was provided with about 64 channels and a couple of 5.1 spares, but the score itself was 80-plus channels,” says Haboush who, in addition to winning an Emmy with Russell back in 1989, has also shared nominations with him for a BAFTA and a couple of Oscars. “We actually had a really groovy spread. There were long strings, short strings, brass, low percussion, mid percussion, high percussion, low synth, high synth — a wide variety of this score, separated at my fingertips, made it great in the final mix for blending with other sounds and any of the sound effects sequences.”

INSIDE THE KIM NOVAK THEATRE

While working on Transformers 3 inside Sony Pictures’ Kim Novak Theatre, the mix crew used a Harrison MPC4-D digital console on which Russell adhered to the adage that less is more. “This was a busier movie, but we were more concise in our approach,” he says, “There was tremendous density throughout the big set pieces and we were trying to be as focused as possible. So, I have to applaud Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn for not throwing in everything plus the kitchen sink. We really tried to find out how lean we could come into every sequence and not feel like we were missing things. It’s about going with less; as big and dynamic and powerful, but with a more singular focus pertaining to specific moments in the film.

“A perfect example is the wonderful, subtle shuttle blast-off. NASA tested a rocket several months ago, Erik and his team recorded it from 500 feet away — which is the closest they’ve ever been to a launch — as well from a mile setback and a five-mile setback. Then, for the epic shot of this rocket taking off, we used a single stereo track that sounds absolutely phenomenal. In fact, the whole sequence has very few tracks, but it is so big, so bold and so singular that it’s really fantastic.” 

The template for the first two Transformers movies allocated 5.1 effects pre-dubs 1 to 14 for the cars, helicopters, jets, artillery and assorted explosions on the human side, while the robots were allocated effects pre-dubs 15 through 23. This time around, mixing in 7.1, the template was the same minus one effects pre-dub for the robots.

“The maximum number of faders I have on the effects section of the console is 256 and I filled every single hole for this movie’s final mix,” Russell explains. “That’s why, mixing 7.1 with two extra channels, we had to do away with one pre-dub.”

Having already created a sort of 3D sound for the first two movies, flying things into the theater and over the audience’s head, the post crew made the most of a 7.1 configuration that included four discrete channels in the rear; two on the back wall and one on either side.

“Pulling something into the room via the rear sides before crossing over to the back wall provided a field from the screen to the middle of the room that I could play with in terms of the 3D visuals,” Russell says. “Accommodating the 3D was, for me, the best and most fun use of the 7.1. The biggest challenge was to get the whole package as clean and discrete and have as much definition as possible.”

“Greg is the most 3D mixer of any re-recording mixer I’ve ever worked with,” adds Aadahl. “He is an artist with those joysticks and he plays them like a musical instrument. Greg Russell with 7.1 is an experience that I don’t think anyone has ever heard before.”

“This new Transformers movie is an all-encompassing theatrical experience,” Russell concludes. “I feel incredibly proud of all the work everyone did on the movie, and it is, without a doubt, the most impressive project I’ve ever been a part of.” 

PHOTO: Greg Russell at work inside the Kim Novak Theatre on the Sony lot. The team used a Harrison MPC4-D digital console.