Damian Del Borrello is a New Zealand-based sound designer who has been crafting soundscapes for TV and film for more than 15 years. Most recently, he served as the supervising sound editor on Amazon Studios’ The Rings of Power - the prequel to the blockbuster
Lord of the Rings and
Hobbit film franchises based on the books by J.R.R. Tolkien.
He took time to share with Post his experience on the series, which spans eight hour-long episodes.
Hi Damian. How long were you working on the show?
“I started on Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power in February 2020 and finished in June 2022 – around 2 years and 5 months.
The show employs the Quenyan language, which the Elves make use of. Can you talk about it, and the ‘Whispers of Eru Ilúvatar’?
“As intended by Tolkien, Quenya was an ancient language to people of middle earth – akin to Latin in Europe. It’s the language spoken by the high elves and is used for incantations. Using Quenya added an authenticity to the sound, grounding it in a story-world logic. The specific incantation I used translates to: ‘I call to you [plural, formal] to work through me. To hear my needs. To guide my hands.
Hyamin len, i nínen maituvalde, i hlaruvalde maurenyar,
i mahtuvalde mányat.’
“The performance of the incantation was key to being able to use it as a motif through the whole series. Specifically, having some sort of variety in timing and intensity. I recorded myself at 96kHz sample rate, using a Sennheiser 8050 mic, which has an extended HF response. In a tip of the hat to the original LOTR film sound designers, I used GRM Tools plug-ins to process the edited sounds.
“The Warp plug-in gave the whispers a magical quality and also allowed me to pitch down the more ‘angry’ versions to give them weight and a sense of evil. Every line and type of performance required a slightly different level of processing. The final stage was a layer of reverb to make it feel more internal, and for this I used a variety of Phoenixverb and Altiverb. The intention was to demo the idea and then re-record with a voice actor for the final sound, but the original versions worked so well, we stuck with it.”
You mention paying homage to the sonic palette of the original films. Did that influence any of the sounds for the series?
“The original films are often cited as touchstone moments in cinematic sound design, being described as ‘documentary style’ sound. Even though the level of detail is very high, the quality of the sounds themselves is organic. Foley was a big component in achieving the naturalistic tone, and we used a lot of it in the series. We worked very closely with our New Zealand-based Foley team, supplying them with exports of our sound effect predubs. This way, they could sync their sounds more tightly and also compliment the tones developed by us in the hard FX tracks. The result was an organic sounding, yet highly detailed, effects track where the Foley and hard FX sounds play proudly in the mix.”
The show was being produced during the COVID pandemic, but is known for taking advantage of the cloud. Can you describe your workflow?
“The Rings of Power was an incredibly-complex show, both creatively and technically! The original plan involved my supervising partner Robby and I being embedded with picture editorial in New Zealand, exporting our sound effects predubs for the Avids, which would then live in the edit and carry through to the mix. COVID significantly changed that plan. The first wave meant Robby and I needed to find a way to collaborate remotely, with me in Wellington, him in Los Angeles, and editorial in Auckland. The amount we fed into picture editorial was reduced to a handful of key sound design moments, which freed us up to concentrate on building the soundscape without the overhead of delivering predubs to editorial. Once we developed our workflows, it was a natural process – the time difference actually worked to our advantage.
“We worked that way for about a year before we started expanding our team in the five months leading up to the mix. We had sound editors in LA and in NZ, all working remotely. When the mix started in Auckland, the city was still in an emergency COVID lockdown with travel restrictions in place, as well as government-managed quarantine for international travelers. This, coupled with the high expectations for the show, created a pressure cooker environment that actually brought the sound team closer together.
“We created a supportive culture that recognized the difficult circumstances we were experiencing by dismantling the idea of blame – the failure of the individual was the failure of the team, so people were given all the assistance needed to do their best work. In large, part of this wouldn’t have been possible without our talented and compassionate mixers Beau Borders and Lindsay Alvarez. Without their patience with the issues we faced, the process would have been much harder and a lot less enjoyable. The experience I had on this show was both trying and rewarding, with new relationships forged in the fires of Mordor – an epic project for the ages!”
What gear were you relying on?
“Our sound editing workstations were all Avid Pro Tools with plug-in lists that are too long to list! Robby and I are big fans of the JBL 708Ps and worked extensively on them for the show – the translation to larger rooms is very reassuring. During the mix period I used a 16-fader Avid S6 M10, which helped me pull together our effects pre-mixes before sending them to the stage. The main mix stage had a dual (operator) Avid S6 with two MacPro playback machines (dialogue/music and Foley/effects/backgrounds), a MacPro recorder and a Dolby Atmos renderer running a home theater configuration to a 9.1.6 b-chain. We had a second non-Atmos pre-dub stage, which we’d use for dialogue and music predubs. This was a single operator Avid S6 console.”