SoundStorm Articles


THE BAT IS BACK: Sound Creation for "Batman Forever"
The third time is definitely a charm. In this age of formulaic, unoriginal, easy-money, Roman numeral Hollywood sequels, Batman Forever strikes a fresh and vibrant chord. All-new cast, all-new crew, a new director (Joel Schumacher), new producer (Peter MacGregor-Scott), and a new sound editorial team -- SoundStorm out of Burbank. Warner Bros. is banking on a huge summertime hit, and from the vantage point of temp mix #2 late April, they've nailed it.

The premise and plot of the film are comic-book simple. Former Wayne Enterprises employee Mr. E. Nigma (Jim Carrey) is intent on destroying Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer). He develops The Box, which allows him to suck the brain waves out of Gotham City residents and brings about his transformation into the Riddler. Harvey Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), meanwhile, breaks out of Arkham Asylum and sets out to destroy Batman, who put him away and permanently disfigured his visage. When the brains-and-muscle team discovers that Bruce Wayne and Batman are one and the same... well that's why we pay $7 a head on Saturday night.

Of course, there's much more to the 2-hour and 10-minute roller-coaster ride through Gotham City. Through a series of flashbacks (which posed their own sound design challenges), and with the help of Dr. Chase Meridian, Bruce Wayne confronts his parents' death and his origins as Batman. And the astounding number of visual effects -- 276 optical shots, including the Bat Car, Bat Wing, Bat Boat and Bat-a-rang--and huge, dark-yet-lush, stylized sets provide a backdrop that pays as much homage to comic-strip creator Bob Kane as they do Tim Burton, creator of Batmans I and II. At the same time, they scream with originality.

"This is the most effects-heavy film I've ever seen, both visually and from an audio perspective," says co-supervising sound editor Bruce Stambler. "The only thing I could compare it to would be the last two reels of Aliens, where Sigourney is chasing down the monster. But this film is that way front-to-back. We've done a number of action films now [Under Siege, The Fugitive, Clear and Present Danger], and we try hard to create a soundtrack that doesn't kill the audience. The key is peaks and valleys, and I think we succeed in this film."

"This film is just so much bigger than I expected," adds John Leveque, Stambler's co-supervisor since Under Siege. "I've done pictures with special effects, but not like this. This is way beyond the norm. My first thought when we began in November was, 'How are we going to get this done?' I thought that when we did The Fugitive we had the tightest post-production schedule in the history of A-films. But this was even tighter, and there's more to it."

Although Stambler and Leveque began in November, and sound designer Lance Brown came on in January, the editorial crew didn't start cutting until April 3. The first temp mix began two weeks later, the second temp mix a week after that. The final began on May 17, for a June 16 release. Fortunately, it's a crack team that has worked together before, and in assigning sequences and reels, an editor's strengths were taken into account: Richard Yawn on explosions and ballistics, Glenn Hoskinson on vehicles, Jay Nierenberg on the flashbacks, etc. From the bottom up, the editorial team raved about the amount of freedom and creative input they were allowed by the supervisors.

"The pressure that we're under with these incredibly tight schedules demands organization and selection" Stambler says. "Our philosophy is such that we don't overdo the Foley, we don't over-pull elements, we don't try to come up with too much, and we ask that our editors be decisive. We try to have as much finished as possible for the first temp mix, with fine-tuning from that point on, and we don't believe in flooding the dub stage with a lot of alternates. There's no such thing as poor prep, and there's absolutely no room for error in this environment. If a sound's not there at the stage, it ain't gonna be there."

But as Leveque says, audio post is an interdependent, step-by-step process, where the final mix relies on the quality of original recordings, the editor's selections, the transfers, and everything in between. If it falls apart at any point, he says, there's no way to recover. Still, you have to begin somewhere, so he and Stambler began, naturally, in bat caves. But because North American bats lie dormant all winter, they flew to Puerto Rico.

"The first cave we went to was huge, easily the size of two football fields, with a three-story ceiling," Stambler recalls. "The bats would come down one of two legs of a 'Y' each night and spiral out of the opening to go feed on insects -- 23,000 pounds a night, our guide said. So we got there at dusk, and John and I flipped a coin to see who would go inside and who would wait at the opening. I won, and I picked inside. I go into one of the legs of the Y, and it's damp, hot and pitch, pitch black. The guide had said that there's no way to tell when they would start moving or which side they would come out of, but that I would certainly know it when it happened. Well, I wait 4/12 hours with my [Fostex] PD-2 DAT, testing levels and the like-nothing. I'm about ready to leave when this strange whoosh started to come from the cavern-not really like a wind, but this unearthly sensation that was more like an energy wave, with high-pitched chattering and wing flaps. I'm up and ready in a second. Then it turns out they flew out the other tunnel. I still got some good sounds, and John got some great stuff at the entrance, but I was disappointed.

"So we take the two-hour drive back to our hotel, and there's a message waiting from our guide, saying, 'Be ready for pickup at 1 tomorrow. We're going to the Cave of the Snakes.' Well, I'm not an outdoors-type guy, and I'm not real crazy about snakes. But we're there, so we do it.

"It's called Cave of the Snakes because these boa constrictors hang on trees outside the entrance and feed on the bats as they fly out each night. We go in, and there's about eight inches of guano on the floor. I shine my flashlight down, and it's wall-to-wall cockroaches. I shine the light on the wall, and about every five feet there's a tarantula bigger than my hand. It's 110 degrees and wet. I slipped a couple of times and fell, with my equipment. But the PD-2 was durable as hell, and we got some great bat sounds." The bat cave ambience is augmented in the film by waves crashing on rock and other elements, for a varied, organic feel to accompany the high-tech gadgetry. And the wing flaps and screeches are used throughout the flashbacks and bat-cave scenes.

Because the look and feel of the film is not based in reality, in-house effects libraries just wouldn't work. About 99% of the film is original recordings, according to Stambler, and they "shot" sound in locations as varied as the Mojave Desert (all types of vehicles and motorcycles for the big car chase, as well as rocket launches for sweetening), an air show in Oklahoma City (to record the Bud Light mini-jet), the Pomona Fairplex raceway (for dragster engines and wheel squeals) and Rocket Dyne in Canoga Park, where they make the engines for the Space Shuttle.

"I've never heard or felt anything like those engines," Stambler says. "We set up a couple of hundred yards away when they tested one, and it wasn't so much the roar, which was deafening, as it was the low-frequency rush that just passed through my body. I felt nauseated by the end of the day, and I'm not even sure we'll get to use it for the Bat Car because it's just too big. But we got some great liquid and pipe sounds, too, because they pump thousands of gallons of water a second under these engines to absorb the heat, and they have a whole manufacturing system set up."

Finally, one of the goals for the audio tracks was to add a bit of light-heartedness to what can sometimes seem rather scary scenes or situations. It is, after all, a PG-13 movie, and the tone is not as dark as the first two Batman films. In one scene, for example, the Riddler dances around, dropping toy-like hand grenades. "We thought, 'Oh no, there's ten more explosions,' says Stambler. "Fortunately, they looked like toys, so we recorded a rather unique comic library on a Foley stage one day, where we scooped up a bunch of my son Robby's little wind-up toys-those things that flip when they're wound up. Then we augment that and add some boings for when the bombs hit the floor. It takes the edge off the explosions and makes them hysterical. We did it more or less as an experiment, but Joel [Schumacher] was ecstatic." "We thought we'd try something a little beyond the visual," adds Leveque. "But that's what a temp is for, to experiment. It's easy to pull back, but it's hard to push the envelope at that point."

For Batman Forever; SoundStorm set up its first-ever sound design station, based around the Fostex Foundation 2000 and the E-mu E-IV, and helmed primarily by Lance Brown. SoundStorm is the only Hollywood editorial house to make such a large commitment to the Fostex workstation, having purchased eight systems, with plans to add up to 8 more, probably the scaled-down RE for brute editing. Across the board, the editors raved about the unit, for everything from its tactile feel, to its ability to make changes, to the fact that there's no mouse and you don't have to maneuver through windows. It was, they say, built for film sound editors, and they ought to know-their input, led by president Gordon Ecker, was instrumental in the unit's development. Most of the 2000s are used simply for editing; Brown's is the only souped-up station at this point, with full mix capabilities and the just-released TimeFlex time compression/expansion.

"The credits will be kind of odd in this movie," Brown says. "Really, the whole crew is doing the sound design, with Bruce and John providing the overall vision. Everyone is encouraged to put their creative input into the sound job, and the editors are just as much a creative influence as the people selecting the sounds, myself included. It's not just, 'cut what we pull.'"

Like everyone else associated with the project, Brown was overwhelmed by the amount of material that would be required and the unique bits of gadgetry and effects that had no precedent. His principal assignments were the Bat Car, the Box and the giant (16-foot wingspan) bat, which, in a near-hallucinatory fashion, is crucial to the flashback scenes. The core sound of the Bat Car is made up of about 20 elements, reaching up to as many as 60, depending on the visual. A bunch of vehicles, including fire engines and dragsters, were recorded, with the core element being an 800-horse-power Buick Grand National with turbo whine that Stambler found while flipping through Car Craft magazine ("0-130 mph in 10.3 seconds," says Stambler, who owns a Grand National himself).

"The Bat Car seemed to come together pretty easily, actually," Brown says. "The trick is to make it constantly varied and avoid monotony. For all the approaches and pass-bys, it's the Buick Grand National, sweetened with some dragsters and other elements. Then, at the point it passes and you move to the rear, we took some of the elements from the Rocket Dyne sessions, augmented with some real rockets, jet roars and some fire sweetener. It gives you a sense that the car is more complex by varying the sound as you move around. We could easily just leave it a big roar, but that wouldn't be very interesting.

"The interior of the Bat Car actually comes from Bruce and John's rental car in Puerto Rico, as they drove over this sort of unique grading," he adds. "I put that in the E-IV and totally twisted it, then added the electronic stuff-little servos and beeps and motors."

The Box, the Riddler's mind-reading device, was a combination of lightning, electrical devices and synth-generated sounds, more like James Bond specialty stuff, or laboratories, according to Brown.

The flashback sequences, in which Bruce Wayne confronts the death of his parents and his birth as Batman, were perhaps the most challenging scenes to design. Brown worked them up in conjunction with editor Jay Nierenberg.

"You have to start with what's there on the screen as you transition from the present to the past," Nierenberg explains. "In one scene, for example, he's at the hearth and there's a clock on the mantel, so we use some fire and clicks to spin in and out. But by and large, we tried to work with some elements that may be peripheral and stayed away from the more standard stuff, such as lightning cracks on an ugly, stormy day. There's another scene where we have the young Bruce Wayne walking through the church at his parents' wake, and we decided to go with wooden coffin creaks and coffin slams and metal screeches - things that might pass through a young boy's head in a situation like that.

"We also spent a lot of time on flashback ambiences," he continues "working with essentially five different intensities. In each flashback, it worked out that there were several points to escalate the intensity, from lowest pitch to highest pitch. It worked in the cave, in the church, and then we add specific designed effects on top. The key is to keep it interesting over time."

"The flashbacks are some of the hardest scenes," adds Leveque, "because you have what is a traditionally scary moment for a little boy whose parents get killed. Then there's a bat cave and a bat that attacks him. It's frightening, especially in terms of how flashbacks are put together. But we don't want it to be frightening; we want it to be haunting and we want it to be evocative -- at the same time powerful but not scary. This is a PG movie, and we want to take the audience someplace they've never been before without alienating them. Haunting is more difficult than scary. It's the same thing with fun. To make a movie fun is very difficult. Putting cartoon effects to every head hit is easy, but it wouldn't mean anything in this context."

"It's a shame we had to ADR this guy," said producer Peter MacGregor-Scott, pointing to Jim Carrey on the screen. "His performance is phenomenal, and then he pulled it off again in the studio. He's unbelievable." It's true. Carrey ad-libbed many of his lines on the set, then duplicated the energy, rhythm and performance on the ADR stage. Not an easy task. Even at the temp mix, it was difficult to pick out which lines were replaced.

But then, depending on who you talk to, anywhere from two-thirds to 90% of the film is ADR-somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 lines according to dialog supervisor Becky Sullivan, who worked in tandem with ADR supervisor Fred Stafford. The reason for the large number of lines was mainly due to the nature of the sets, which were lit extensively and filled with smoke machines, wind machines and other noise-generating devices. Also, some were constructed at Long Beach's Spruce Goose facility, which is cavernous, echo-y, and right near a shipping port.

With more than 48 features to her credit over the past ten years, Sullivan serves as part-time coach, psychologist and technician to actors. She also faced an incredibly tight schedule and had to coordinate with talent that was literally all over the planet working on other projects: Carrey ("the most prepared actor I've worked with," Sullivan says) in San Antonio and Charlotte, N.C., Nicole Kidman by phone-patch in London, Chris O'Donnell in Chicago. Tommy Lee-Jones and Val Kilmer, thankfully, were in L.A.

"My first job is to listen to every single DAT, even from the takes that weren't printed, and try to save the production track," Sullivan says. "Then, since I've been working with Bruce and John for about seven years now, I try to think of effects and how scenes will play as a whole. For example, we have a scene where Jim Carrey is in his apartment-lab typing at the keyboard, so we put in a playful hum as he punches away.

"We also recorded a lot of group ADR," she continues, "especially for the big circus scene. In a situation like that, you don't need the crowd roar -- we have plenty of crowds in effects. You want what I call 'free and clears,' pieces that peek through the walla. For instance, we might have somebody yell, 'There's Harvey Two-Face!' followed by a pause, then somebody yells, 'He's a murderer!' followed by somebody yelling 'Run!' You need interesting spikes in the group, or else it just turns to mush.

"I also really appreciated the director, Joel, because he allowed me some freedom, sought my advice, and in one case incorporated an idea I had. For one of the flash-backs, where the young Bruce Wayne is at the wake, I thought it would work well within the effects if exaggerated breathing was prominent. Then the older Bruce Wayne breathing becomes a transitional element, and it works emotionally. In another case, some light ADR sobbing is used as an effect. So you always have to think of the movie as a whole."

The SoundStorm philosophy seems to be that Foley should not be overdone. It should be used for foot-steps, clothing rustles and the like the more traditional Foley elements -- but not for every door slam. Stambler's feeling is that with the 6-channel digital formats, Foley should be used to augment and work with well-recorded and well-edited effects. They hired first-call Foley walkers John Roesch and Hilda Hodges, and gave them the rubber bat suit to play with for a week. (No jokes, please.)

Elliot Goldenthal composed the sometimes tender, sometimes heroic, always dynamic score, which was recorded in early May at the Sony stage in Culver Culver City by engineer Steve McLaughlin. The mixdown from 48-track digital took place at The Chapel.

Music for the final mix was played back directly from a portable 8-channel Pro Tools III system, controlled by music editors Sigmund Gron and Chris Brooks. A timecode feed from the board was fed to the Opcode Studio 4, then the LTTC code was sent to the Power PC. All of the cues, some of which were final for the temp mix, resided in 2.4-gigabyte hard drives, which could be popped out and worked on in the background while the dub continued.

Re-recording mixers Donald "Papa-san" 0. Mitchell, Michael "Mikey" Herbick, and Frank "fill-in-the-blank" Montano -- perhaps the finest team never to win an Oscar-handled both temp mixes and the final at Warner Bros. Studio Facilities' relatively new Dub Stage 2. Part of the recent facilitywide upgrade, Stage 2 sports a custom hybrid SSL 8000/5000 board and custom, in-house-designed, three-way monitoring system (1BLs for the highs, Community for the mids and Turbosound LF for the lows).

"If this crew doesn't win the Oscar, I'm getting out of the business" said a half-joking MacGregor-Scott, a former sound editor whose energy and style are infectious. "We thought we might get it on The Fugitive, but we settled for the British Academy. And this is even better. I keep saying that some day, in a pinch, I'm going to release a temp mix. They're that good."

Despite the incredible pressure of the tight post-production schedule, not to mention the pressure of a big, big film, the mood at SoundStorm with a month to go was completely relaxed. Yes, 16-hour days were the norm, and yes, the ulcers may have been churning away on the inside. But they had all the confidence and precision of an Indianapolis 500 pit crew -- everybody dependent on everybody else, and hey, they've been in the big race before. It is not a large crew, as far as big pictures go. But it's solid. And enormously creative. Count on them for a fourth straight Oscar nomination.

Tom Kenny is Mix associate editor.

© 1995 by Mix Magazine. Reprinted with the permission of the publishers. Excerpted from Vol.19, No.7, Sound For Picture.