Fathom, on Apple TV+, is a documentary in which scientists Dr. Ellen Garland and Dr. Michelle Fournet focus on the study of humpback whale songs and social communication. Directed and photographed by Drew Xanthopoulos, the project shows the parallel research journeys the doctors took on opposite sides of the world as they seek to better understand whale culture and communication.
Brad Engleking (pictured) of TBD Post (https://tbdpost.com) in Austin, TX provided audio post production services for the documentary and recently shared his experience with Post.
Tell us a bit about your background and training as a re-recording mixer and sound supervisor?
“I graduated with a Bachelors in Music, with an emphasis in sound recording technology at Texas State University in 2000. After bouncing around a couple recording studios, I was lucky enough to meet Mark Genfan, who was building studios around Austin and had a gig building Robert Rodriguez’s room in Austin. Robert and I hit it off and he asked me to stay on to help run the room and tech his composing system. I was very fortunate that Robert invested in me and encouraged me to learn. The guy who really taught me was Sergio Reyes. I really owe just about everything to those two for giving me a shot and allowing me to learn and progress. Recently. I’ve been working a lot with Terrence Malick, who has taught me so much about filmmaking, taste, and always pushes the envelope with what sound can be in a film.”
How did you get involved with Fathom?
“I knew director Drew Xanthopoulos peripherally through the Austin film scene. Producer Megan Gilbride was someone whose work on The Tower I really admired, and we met at a Super Bowl party that a local editor throws for filmmakers every year. Coincidentally, I had just put her husband’s song - who was in a local band - into a movie I was working on, so we hit it off. She told me about the concept that Drew had and I was really excited about it. A year or so later, as Drew was preparing to head out to shoot, we discussed some best practice stuff, since he was a one-man crew on the film and all the audio was recorded in mono on the camera.”
Photo: Dr. Ellen Garland
Tell us about your process as a re-recording mixer and sound supervisor?
“The first time I’m watching a film, I’m trying to understand what the filmmakers are going for and thinking of concepts and ways that sound can help tell the story. The next step is working with the director to create a vision for the soundtrack and identifying dialogue issues. Then, depending on scope, I either keep the film in-house at TBD Post in Austin, or we supplement our in-house editing crew with talent in Austin/New York and LA. In the case of Fathom, sound designer Nick Ryan worked in London on the big whale sequences and a lot of the Alaska stuff. In Austin, we did the dialogue, the French Polynesia sections, and then did a final effects pass across the film.
“When I start a mix, I always begin with the dialogue. It’s the most important thing in any mix and it’s vital to have a good dialogue track to build your mix upon. I often mix the dialogue and the background effects at the same time if I’m doing the whole mix myself. I like to have the backgrounds available to see how far I need to go with noise reduction - less is always more. After the dialogue is dialed in, I like to mix the Foley, then effects, and finally I add the music. As I get further and further along in the process, I like to take longer and longer passes. So first I get the scenes working within themselves, then string them together to form a reel, then string those together to make a long play. By the end of the process I’m trying to watch the movie in long chunks to make sure that it all works together as a piece.”
What was your setup for Fathom?
“Fathom was mixed in Dolby Atmos at TBD Post in Austin, TX. There, we have an S3/Dock setup for control and a Colin Broad Pec/Dir controller to punch into the recorder. The playback/mix system is a new Mac Pro and HDX3, which feeds into a Pro Tools HDX2 record system on a Mac Mini. The recorder then feeds the Dolby Home Theater RMU via Dante, that also lives on a Mac Mini. The theater uses JBL theatrical speakers controlled and tuned by a QSC Qsys.
Photo: Dr. Michelle Fournet
“In the mix, I worked really hard to evoke Drew’s memory of his experience with these scientists though sound. I felt that if we could take him back to Alaska and back to French Polynesia with audio, that we’d be successful taking the audience there as well. Fathom really highlights how Atmos can be used on a picture that’s not an action feature. We made extensive use of the Atmos objects, not only in the sound design sections of the film, but also in the vérité sections to create an extremely-dynamic soundtrack. The format is just so powerful and really lends itself to experiential storytelling.”
What are some of the audio highlights in Fathom?
“I really love the opening six of seven minutes of the film. It starts with a simple rumble that slowly pans around the room. Dr. Michelle Fournet makes these incredible quadraphonic recordings, where she places hydrophones 1Km apart in a square. Sound designer Nick Ryan and his team in London painstakingly cleaned these tracks and they are heavily featured in the intro. I assigned these quad recordings to the Atmos objects and added some additional movement to them while maintaining the incredible spatial information that is inherent to the recordings. As the open continues to build, and layers are introduced, we build to a sudden climax where the audience is slammed into reality, racing along with Dr. Fournet in her small boat in Alaska. There is a sudden drop back to Dr. Fournet’s perspective, listening to these whale recordings on her quiet boat in Alaska. All of this intro is done in sound. When we introduce Dr. Ellen Garland’s voiceover, we have amazing score from Hanan Townshend, and we build into the first vérité section of the film. There is so much dynamic in this open, where we go from silence to super loud and back again. It’s a great introduction to the film and lets the viewer know from the top that Fathom is not your standard documentary.”