In a DC Universe that is brimming with sci-fi sound effects — such as those for Lex Luthor, Batman and Cyborg — it’s refreshing to hear director Patty Jenkins’s earthy approach to sound for Wonder Woman. “This film is big, but it doesn’t have that in-your-face, huge, CGI Dawn of Justice feel,” says dialogue/music re-recording mixer Chris Burdon at Warner Bros. London (www.wbsound.com/london). “That is quite apparent early on as Wonder Woman opens in Themyscira, the island paradise that’s home to the Amazons. It’s a very feminine open to the film and that is unusual for a big set piece. It establishes this cool, slightly different vibe for the DC Universe.” He shared the console with re-recording mixer Gilbert Lake, who handled the sound effects on the film.
Wonder Woman’s story unfolds during WWI. A pilot crashes near Themyscira and washes up on the island’s shore. His tale of war inspires Amazon Princess Diana to take action. Being a warrior, she’s compelled to leave her home to aid in his fight.
Just because Wonder Woman isn’t in-your-face, like Dawn of Justice, doesn’t mean it lacks power. In fact, director Jenkins wanted a soundtrack with abundant low-frequency energy that would shake the room during action sequences. She called on supervising sound editor James Mather and composer Rupert Gregson-Williams to deliver material that could move the theater. “She didn’t want to hear high-end, harsh, shrill sounds, like metal clashes. There are no guns that sound too loud. The crowds are less punchy, with their screams and so on. And, the entire soundtrack is music-led,” notes Burdon.
“One thing that can happen in an early mix is that if you are trying to go all guns blazing then, quite literally, you end up with an assault. This didn’t happen with Wonder Woman. There was no question that we were going to have a music-led mix, and so it evolved that way subsequently,” he adds.
According to Burdon, when listening to music cues during the big action sequences, like the beach battle sequence in reel two, Jenkins consistently wanted to push the low-end of the music a great deal, to have a driving, rhythmic feeling with lots of energy happening in the low-frequency range. “Having the music lead, in some ways, simplified some of the action sequences. It wasn’t a typical big movie where you have directors, producers, creatives and the editor all pushing for music and multilayered effects and the articulation of everything. This was slightly easier because Patty’s starting point was that she didn’t want huge effects. So for the beach battle, it’s music-led. There was quite a lot of clarity for me, from music to crowd dialogue, in that battle sequence. Then we just embellished that with effects for the final,” Burdon explains. “One of the last things we did for the beach battle — after we watched it through, was to add more energy to the low-end. Patty felt like it needed more low-end.”
Another huge, music-led action sequence is when Wonder Woman is fighting her way across “No Man’s Land.” She’s striding through the open space between the trenches, taking heavy fire from her foes. Burdon notes, “There, the music really leads and the sound effects aren’t even sitting just below. They are a few levels down. It’s all about the drive and emotion of the music.”
Subsequently, the next fight is a stylized sequence in the “fight room.” The scene flips between bullet-time and realtime as Wonder Woman takes on a room full of adversaries. “There are lots of things breaking, and there are more effects in that scene, but it’s still music-led. The fight room sequence is the first time in the film that we have the Hans Zimmer cello theme — a distorted cello that appeared for Wonder Woman in Batman V Superman. That was interesting sonically because it sounds quite different from some of the other elements we’ve had up to that point.”
Another thrilling subwoofer sequence comes near the end of the film, where Diana is in a full, raging battle. “She has this huge emotional outpouring of anger as she’s fighting toward her nemesis and she’s battling with people hand-to-hand. For the low-end there, Gilbert [Lake] went to a really big, sonic low-end effect. Musically I do the same, and then it just releases. Patty wanted that to really feel like the whole world is in this battle, that Wonder Woman was battling the whole world, and that she was right in this inferno,” says Burdon. “It’s not subtle. It’s amped up low-end combined with diegetic effects, and then it releases into the dialogue with a beautiful shape musically and sonically. The room just rocks. It is so right in your gut. It is fantastic.”
With all of that low-end energy in the film, there’s always a potential to have it build up. Luckily, Burdon says, many of the sound effects were more like punctuations. “If an effect did have a sustained, resonant low-end, it would be in a slightly different register. But the transients punched through and we weren’t getting this wall of low-end,” says Burdon.
“Low-end is complex. It can vary from room to room. We had to be careful that we were not overloading that for too long of a time, but Patty was so thrilled when something really moved and shook the room. We were definitely encouraged to do that,” continues Burdon.
Having separate 5.1 stems of the music — with several quads and Atmos elements, Burdon was able to shift certain musical elements, or EQ them for a few frames, to avoid problems with overloading the subwoofers. Additionally, having separate stems gave Burdon the ability to take out any higher range elements that were competing with the dialogue while leaving the low-end elements in to drive the music. “That way you don’t feel a huge dip like you would if you just had one massive fader for your music,” he says.
In keeping with the rich low-end directive, Burdon was conscious of not thinning out Wonder Woman’s dialogue with EQ (which can be a useful tactic for helping dialogue cut through a mix). “Patty was keen to make sure that Gal Gadot sounded strong and had confidence and strength. My style has always been to try and keep the low-end in the dialogue and that is exactly what Patty wanted for Wonder Woman. She wanted Gadot’s voice to sound strong and full,” says Burdon. Doing so wasn’t too challenging for this mix. He notes that, “the dialogue played quite solid from the get-go because there wasn’t so much competing in that frequency range.”
Burdon and Lake monitored their final mix in 7.1 as they mixed it in Dolby Atmos. Burdon explains, “We know that 5.1 is going to be the de facto way that 90 percent of the world will hear the film. It’s an ongoing complication. We want to really enjoy Atmos and 7.1, but we know that the 5.1 mix will be the most played. And so the compromise is to monitor in 7.1 and then reference the Atmos mix, in which we open it up a little and move a few elements around.”
When they played the Atmos mix for Jenkins, they were aware that it couldn’t sound radically different from the 7.1. That’s because “the nuance of the film, the emotion of the film and the feel, it was all about subtlety with Patty,” says Burdon. “We tried subtle music level changes and swapped out music takes that had a subtly different feel. She was aware of the subtle changes and how they affected the emotion of the film. We were careful with the Atmos mix so that it would be in the ballpark of what she was used to hearing. We didn’t do crazy things, like fly objects around in the overheads or change the music level so much. It’s a slightly more conservative mix. We just tried to keep the Atmos nicely controlled."