<I>The Woman King</I>: Inside the sound & picture post
Issue: September/October 2022

The Woman King: Inside the sound & picture post

Sony Pictures’ The Woman King tells the story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors that protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. Inspired by true events, the film follows the epic journey of General Nanisca (Viola Davis) as she trains the next generation of recruits and readies them for battle against an enemy determined to destroy their way of life.

Gina Prince-Bythewood directed the feature, which also stars Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin and John Boyega. It opened in theaters on September 16th.

Editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, along with the sound team of re-recording mixer Tony Lamberti, sound supervisor Becky Sullivan and production sound mixer Derek Mansvelt, each took some time to answer a few questions about their individual roles on the film.

Editor Terilyn A. Shropshire

Terilyn, can you provide some insight into your role as picture editor? 
“The Woman King is my eighth project with Gina Prince-Bythewood over a 23-year collaboration. As editor, I was tasked to facilitate and honor Gina's intention to make our historical film ‘intimately epic.’ I worked to ensure the action moments were both propulsive and character-driven. Allowing the characters the space for their quiet, personal moments was as integral as showcasing their ferocity in the action sequences. It was important to give the audience the time to imprint on these characters and their relationships with each other.”
Which editing system were you using?  
“I edited on Media Composer 2018.12.12 on the Mac OS platform.”  
Can you recall the timeline and workflow you were working within? 
“The five months I spent on location in South Africa with the production meant navigating the intense schedule and the volume of footage from multiple units. Each day, I reviewed the dailies and began to quickly pull and assemble selects to inform the director with the main unit and the 2nd/splinter units of any additional footage or pickups needed. Since the VFX team was shooting additional assets on-location simultaneously, I needed to provide them with as much visual information as possible about the sequences in progress. 

“We began filming in KwaZulu-Natal, where much of the jungle footage was shot. It was essential to ensure we captured that environment's natural footage and sounds to support the world-building for the Kingdom of Dahomey of 1823. On any given day, I might be migrating between the very restricted set (due to strict COVID protocols) and the editing room, depending on where I was best serving the needs of the director and production crew. Remaining adaptable to the demands of production translated to long days in the editing room, and I could not have done it without my outstanding editorial team, which included Corinne Villa (1st AE), Aldine Bronkhorst and Jess Phillips (assistant editors, South Africa), and A’sia Horne (assistant editor, LA).”
Can you provide some insight into the 'battle dance' scene right before the final battle?
“The ‘battle dance’ sequence comes at a moment in the film when two of our central characters have diverged amidst an inevitable and imminent war between two opposing kingdoms. We wanted to create an immersive and visceral experience for how these warriors prepared for battle. First, I juxtaposed the construction of the ‘weapons’ by the male soldiers with the Agojie warriors' fierce, powerful ‘war dance’ and the solemn images of Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) readying herself away from her sisterhood. Initially, Nanisca's (Viola Davis) fiery speech to her army was designed as a separate sequence. At a certain point, I was tasked to explore the ‘what if?’ of folding her scene into the body of the montage. Once I placed the right emotional moments of Nanisca's speech against the passion of the Agojies' movements, I was able to build a call-and-response interplay between Nanisca and her warriors.”

Re-recording mixer Tony Lamberti

Tony, tell us about your role in the making of The Woman King?

“I was the FX re-recording mixer on the film, responsible for mixing all the sound effects, design, backgrounds and Foley. I worked closely with Kevin O'Connell, who was the dialog and music re-recording mixer. Together we took all the sound elementsfor the film and shaped the final soundtrack track to give our director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, the epic sound she wanted to hear.”

What gear are you relying on?

“I mix on an Avid S6 using the latest version of ProTools with Hybrid engine. I use Ircam Evo-Channel, Liquidsonics Cinematic Rooms and Cargo Cult Slapper for processing. We mixed natively in Dolby Atmos.”
What were some of the challenges you faced?
“The biggest challenge was mixing a movie of this scale with all the various battle sequences up against very hard deadlines, which meant some long days in order to get it finished. The music also came in very late, so there was a bit of reworking around with the sound effects to accommodate the new music.”
Can you talk about your work on the ‘battle dance’ scene?
“The ‘battle dance’ leading into the Oyo battle was the single most intricate scene in the movie for us to mix because it entailed all the elements to be woven together seamlessly in order to convey the emotion and intensity that our director was looking for. The sound effects had to have a certain sound and rhythmically work with Terrance Blanchard's amazing score, while also ensuring we got all of Naniska's (Viola Davis) impassioned speech as she rallies her troops before the battle of their lives. We worked very hard on this and once we got it, we knew it instantly.”

Sound supervisor Becky Sullivan
Becky, tell us about your role as sound supervisor?

“As sound supervisor, I make decisions that build the sonic landscape of the film. The film’s director, Gina Prince- Bythewood, asked for a very organic soundtrack. I wanted the audience to be enveloped in the sounds and textures of the African Kingdom of Dahomey. To be immersed in the sounds of life there in the Kingdom, and also the fierce battle sounds of the Agojie. These sounds come from my extensive sound effects library or are specifically recorded for the film. Using production dialogue, sound effects, Foley, ADR and background atmospherics, we layer it all together to form an emotional and exciting soundcape.”
What tools do you rely on?       
“The ‘gear’ I work with are ProTools and various plug-ins.
We used Izotope RX10, Waves Clarity Pro, SoundRadix Auto Align Post, and Todd AO Absentia DX for cutting production dialogue.”                                                     

What were some of the challenges you faced during production?                                              

“The Woman King was filmed on location in Africa, which brought many challenges for sound. Having so many scenes filmed outside, we faced the issues of generator hums, local winds hitting the microphones, hand-to-hand battles, which included mic hits, dialogue recorded next to waterfalls, levels of mic distortion, crickets, cicadas and a host of other sounds that married themselves to the production dialogue. These extraneous sounds had to be removed from the voices of the actors. Removing these unwanted sounds from the dialogue tracks is a tedious and specific art form — creatively removing the unwanted sound without hurting the actor’s voice and performance. Another challenge was making the battle scenes feel and sound realistic: needing the sounds of heavy machetes, swords, spears, ropes, knives, efforts, death screams, and then cutting the sounds together to put the audience right in the middle of those battles. On-screen during these battles, you never saw bloodshed, but you heard it.”
How did the ‘battle dance’ scene come together?

“The ‘battle dance’ was a sequence that took all the elements working perfectly together to make it work. Our director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and picture editor Terilyn Shropshire, cut the battle dance sequence using the dance, intercut with the building of the termite mounds into Nanicsa’s battle speech, and ending in the Oyo battle. The Agojies’ singing had the sounds of plastic machete’s hitting the chests of the actor’s, which then also hit the lavalier microphones. Removing this sound and yet keeping the integrity of the vocal performances was our first challenge. From the hiss of the fire trails to the grit on the dancing feet, FX, Foley, dialogue and ADR all worked together with the music filling this sequence with storytelling magic. This was challenging and turned out perfect.”

Production sound mixer Derek Mansvelt
Derek, tell us about your responsibilities as production sound mixer?

“I am responsible for audio on-set. This involves the recording of the dialogue, effects, ambiances and also playback, on-set. My job entails working with the director and all departments to get the cleanest possible audio for editorial and post production to be able to create the show envisioned by the director.”
Do you have preferred gear that you rely on?

“We use Zaxcom Nomad recorders and Zaxcom Oasis and Mix8. All our wireless is Lectrosonics for booms, HMa and personal mics SMQV (super micro). Great, rugged tools that are also well supported here in South Africa. Panamic booms and Sanken CS3e mics, with the Schoeps MK41 and Sennheiser 416 making the occasional appearance. Our go to lapel mics are the Sanken COS11d, and when needed, we will use DPA 4063 and Countryman B6 lavaliers.”

What was challenging about recording the location sound for this film?                           
“Recording sound on location is always a challenge. Modern life just gets noisier, more traffic, planes, helicopters, sirens, and film sets also seem to have a lot more going on than they used to. More generators, lights, cranes, cherry pickers, smoke, more everything.         
“As with any period of production, the biggest challenge is working around all this modern-day noise pollution. There was no way to integrate any of these sounds into a world where they didn’t exist. We recorded many winds in the trees tracks and ocean noise, anything natural that we hoped might be useful to possibly mask any audio intrusion into the 1812 Dahomey world.
“We used two booms for most of the show, and Bruce and Kerry-Mae, my two boom operators are both world-class, great at negotiating the various cameras and quieting down the set or getting a smoke machine or fan moved further from the set or around a corner, but we also must rely on radio mics, and that was our next big challenge that I was concerned about. I spent a lot of time in pre-production with the costume department, we knew it was going to be difficult to get body packs and lapels onto the cast with their costumes. The costume department was extremely helpful and we had a great relationship with them. Together, we managed to hide mics - sometimes almost in sight - on all our cast in all their costumes. Viola led the way, she took the mic pack, hid it herself, and placed it perfectly - she always sounded great. Clarity is king, but not always the easiest to achieve. We had an amazing dialect coach, Joel Goldes. He worked tirelessly with the cast to get them to roll their tongues around the accent of the Dahomey people while maintaining clarity.
“It takes a lot of help from many departments to achieve usable sound on any set, and I have a lot of people whom I would have to thank for helping us achieve what we did.

“The Woman King had one other large challenge in all the music, dancing, singing and chanting scenes. From the beginning, Gina wanted this to be as authentic as possible. Had it been possible to shoot it all live, we would have.”
The ‘battle scene plays an important role. Can you talk about that sequence?

“The first prize in any musical on-screen performance is to have a live recording on set and then use that to playback into the cast on nearly invisible earwigs. I have used this method on many musical scenes in the past, but I was against using it for The Woman King for several reasons. The dancing, chanting and singing were for the most part very physical, and can’t be mimed to be real. The chances of an earwig getting dislodged were very high. They wouldn’t be loud enough once we got going. And finally, we would have needed a very large number of earwigs. We decided to play a prerecorded version and to use the fact that the performance would be loud enough to mask the playback. Production managed to get the talented composer Lebo.M on-board, and he, in consultation with Gina, composed the various tracks.

“These were all prerecorded in Johannesburg by Lebo.M and his artists, and sent to our cast to all learn their various parts. In early December we had the dancers and musicians ready, and we were going to start rehearsing everything to the playback of the composed tracks in anticipation of the shooting later that month. Then COVID struck. On the day of our first rehearsal, we were shut down, and later that week it was decided that our Christmas hiatus would start early and run longer than originally planned. This left everyone learning their various parts on their own, and we would get together in the new year. Although this placed time pressure on us, it did mean the set would be ready in time for us to rehearse and record.
“So, we returned to work in the new year and we had one day with all the cast, dancers and musicians to rehearse and record all the various elements of all our music scenes. We set up playback for Gina to rehearse with all the various elements. While they were rehearsing, my team and I planned our recording session. Two boom mics were set up as a general type of stereo image. Another boom following Lashana's ‘Izogie.’ We placed a dynamic mic between the drums and another boom on the drums. 

“Once Gina, the cast, dancers and musicians were happy and comfortable, and we had everything in place, we could hit record. First, we recorded a clean percussion track of our musicians on-set. Once we had that track, we were ready. For our recording, we played our percussion track to maintain the rhythm and which meant we could control the volume of the drumming, and we recorded everyone else live. That became our master. Using that, we would play back over headphones and re-record as many clean elements as possible - the dancers and warriors ululating, shouting or chanting back, feet stomping, etc. It was a great day. We worked hard but it was festive and gave us a chance to get some amazing performances recorded.
“I recently watched The Woman King and I am proud of what we achieved both in sound and the movie. Agojie!!!! Wazoooo!!”