Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who packs her van and sets off on the road following the economic collapse of her rural Nevada town. Fern’s journey explores life outside conventional society as a modern-day nomad.
Supervising sound editor Sergio Diaz and re-recording mixer Zach Seivers went a long way toward capturing the sense of longing, grandeur and oneness with humanity and nature that reflects the American West.
Frances McDormand’s character spends much of her time in her head as well as in the natural world, so every little sound was mixed in to heighten this naturalism, whether it’s the slam of the garage door, her feet in the snow, or birds and flowing water. The team worked remotely, with Diaz in Mexico City, Seivers in LA, Zhao in Ojai.
“We wanted to keep the sound design true to the soundscapes of the places where Fern finds herself," explains Zhao. “Very much like the music, we didn’t want to use ‘tricks’ in sound design to tell the audiences how and what to feel. We wanted to be creative, experiential in our sound design, as well as true and honest.”
According to Diaz, his main objective was to create a realistic and minimalistic - yet at the same time - immersive soundscape.
“After my first encounter with the movie, I created a concept in my mind and called it ‘fragility,’” he recalls. “All the treatment of the sound design had to reflect the meaning of that word. I knew there was a fine line between fiction and non-fiction. That is why I built the sound design on the edge of that line.”
Diaz divided his sound proposal into three categories: prominent treatment, serenity treatment and silence treatment, with a minimalistic focus throughout the journey so that at each moment, the soundtrack would be able to emotionally reach the audience with a real perspective of Fern’s circumstances.
“The most important thing about my research was the vastness and richness of sound of the American West, so finding a harmonious balance between the numerous layers of sound that I chose allowed me to be very selective and explore the different tones and densities of wind of the four seasons and the wildlife and nature sounds that embrace Fern at all times.”
Diaz’s remote collaboration with director Chloé Zhao was both productive and precise.
“In the beginning, we used traditional video conferencing to become acquainted and exchange ideas about the sound design that Chloé wanted for the movie. It was a huge challenge to choose sound elements that would contribute creatively to the movie and honor Chloé’s original idea, while at the same time harmoniously coexist.”
To achieve this, Diaz devised a work plan with colleague and co-supervisor in the US, Zach Seivers, who would be in charge of editing dialogue, overseeing ADR recording, editing remotely, and giving the mix the final touch with Zhao in person at the Disney Studios in Los Angeles. Diaz would create and send premixed proposals in context for her to review.
“An incredible, powerful video conferencing tool called Evercast, with high video and sound quality, allowed us to have realtime review sessions with Chloé in virtual rooms, at which time Zach and I could take notes,” Diaz recalls. “The most important thing about this workflow was its effectiveness. All of this was achieved thanks to a precise focus on the concept of the sound design and mixing process.”
McDormand and Zhao on-set
Nomadland was originally conceived for the 7.1 format, so the sound team focused on the depth of each sequence, following the camera’s movements with great enveloping detail and adding to the beautiful landscapes.
Diaz calls attention to a plug-in called Flux IRCAM Tools, which he used a great deal to give a specific modulation and density to each atmosphere and the winds of the American West. He adds that there were three fundamental aspects of Nomadland’s soundscape that allowed the team to have all the ingredients needed to make a natural, immersive mix with a minimalistic touch.
“We had clean dialogue recorded naturally by Mike Wolf Snyder,” he notes. “The separate elements of Ludovico Einaudi’s music, which allowed us to choose and focus on certain instruments that would more emotionally impact the audience. And finally, the sound design that was rigorously built so that everything would coexist harmoniously and emotionally connect with the audience. This was my greatest challenge, making it look natural without dramatic touches.”