<I>32 Sounds</I>: Sound designer Mark Mangini shares insight into this immersive documentary
November 8, 2023

32 Sounds: Sound designer Mark Mangini shares insight into this immersive documentary

The new feature 32 Sounds (https://32sounds.com), from director Sam Green, is an immersive documentary and sensory experience that explores the elemental phenomenon of sound. The film is a meditation on the power of sound to bend time, cross borders and profoundly shape the listener’s perception of the world around them.

32 Sounds exists in three forms. The first is for a live audience, complete with individual headphones for each audience member and featuring live narration by Sam Green and live original music by JD Samson. The second is specifically designed for an immersive at-home experience. A third theatrical version of the film is being shown in theaters. 

The feature premiered in January 2022 at the Sundance Film Festival, and was produced by ArKtype, The Department of Motion Pictures, Impact Partners, Wavelength Productions and Free History Project. The project is supported, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sound designer Mark Mangini was a key part of the filmmaking team. Mangini is an an Oscar winner for his work on Mad Max Fury Road, and a five time Oscar nominated sound designer known for his contributions to Dune; Blade Runner 2049; Star Trek (I, IV & V); The Fifth Element; and Gremlins. He has spent his 45-year career in Hollywood, imagining and composing altered sonic realities for motion pictures, and is a frequent lecturer and outspoken proponent for sound as art. He is a member of SAG, SMPTE, and ASCAP.

Mangini recently shared with Post some insight into his sound design for 32 Sounds.

Mark, how is this film different than the so many others that you have worked on? Is it because sound is such a key focus of the story?

“32 Sounds is different from many of the films I have done in a number of ways. First, it isn’t a movie about ‘sounds,’ in spite of there being 32 of them. It's a movie about people and how and why and when we listen, and the effect sound has on us. The 32 ‘sounds’ themselves are interesting in and of themselves, but are used as a narrative device to focus our attention on the more expansive issue of sound and its emotional, physical and social impact on us...and culture. 

“Second, it is different from many of my previous films in that the ‘hero’ mix was done on headphones. Our first release of the film was for a live theater experience, where the audience would - and does - wear headphones while Sam Green and (composer) JS Samsons perform live. I had never done a headphone mix, only ever on speakers for traditional theatrical release. Kudos to Sam for allowing me to learn on the job. 

“An important aspect of this headphone mix was the use during production of binaural and ambisonic microphones to capture more ‘immersive’ sync production audio. This begat a desire to make all the remaining production sound that was shot mono feel as immersive as the binaural audio. I spent a great deal of time developing ‘upmixer’ cocktails of plug-ins that expanded the audio presentation to feel all of a piece. I would end up generating, in fact, four distinct mixes: Headphone Binaural Live, Headphone Stereo LR, Headphone Streaming Binaural, and Theatrical 5.1 and 7.1. The 7.1 was also a unique challenge in that there is no codified way to ‘up mix’ binaural to planar speakers for theatrical. This begat a very complex mix cocktail to render binaurally-captured audio and make it still feel immersive across speakers. I employed bespoke multichannel delays, IR-based reverbs made from clap sticks in those scenes, surgical editing techniques to separate discreet elements of the original binaural record, and surgical ADR to separate characters and place them on separate sides of the screen.

“Third, I was engaged as an advisor for a year before we started actual post production. Sam is very forward thinking this way. Not just because it was a movie about sound, but because it is a movie that uses sound as central narrative device. Our early discussions were more about the ephemeral nature of sound and how he and I experienced sound than they were about diegetic application or technical usages of sound. We talked a lot about how sound tells story and its uses therein. It was a rare experience to be engaged proactively as a filmmaker in creating the film and collaborating through that process rather than a more traditional approach that utilizes sound after a film is shot and sees sound as a reactive element to what’s already been done.”

What were the needs of the film, and what gear was used by the sound team for editing, design and mixing?

“The needs changed significantly over the course of filming and post. Sam found me in the middle of his shoot and put me on as an advisor. During these discussions, Sam indicated that he wanted this film to be created as a ‘live’ experience with the audience listening over headphones. Given he had already shot the sequence with Don Garcia (the man who travels NYC blasting ‘In The Air Tonight’), I asked how he would get the dramatic impact he wanted (rattling windows) without the ability to reproduce below 80Hz in the headphones. Thus begat very technical considerations of traveling with a separate subwoofer and the importance of getting the audience to feel the bass in the headphone-only experiences. 

“While Sam understood what immersive sound is and was, he didn’t quite have an awareness that there were techniques like binaural and ambisonic recording that could be employed during his shoot. Sam was focused on telling a story about sound. I advocated early during his shoot to employ multichannel microphones and, especially, binaural recording to enhance the audiences headphone experience. These discussion would lead to his introduction to Professor Choueiri and to his eventual inclusion in the film. Both Sam and I feel that Edgar’s on-camera moment listening to a tape that his 10-year self made, is one of the most emotional moments in the film.”

Is there a scene or sequence that you would point to as a highlight in the soundtrack, or one that has particularly interesting use of sound?

“There is an extended section in the first act where Sam introduces Professor Edgar Choueiri and the concept of binaural recording and reproduction, and we ask the audience to close their eyes and listen. This gives way to some on-screen fun with more binaural captures of scenes Sam had shot, ending with Phillip Glass playing piano…and a pesky fly. 

“I like these sequences very much because they introduce the audience to a number of concepts about sound, immersion and proximity in a way that is easy to understand by a lay-person and engaging for the sound professional. Arguably, binaural reproduction has the ability to immerse an audience in ways that traditional loudspeaker-based audio cannot, especially with regards to proximity and true 360-degree immersion. I’m particularly proud of these as well, because I introduced Sam to Professor Choueiri (and old friend) and he found his way into the movie through that introduction.”