White Noise, Hot Sounds
From a small Mac Plus studio at New Zealand’s University of Waikato, to international feature films such as The Hobbit, District 9, Elysium, and Chappie, Dave Whitehead has been refining the craft of sound design for over 23 years. C+T ‘sounded him out’ at BroadcastAsia2016.
With sound design, how bespoke is your work on a project by project basis? How different your approach with each one?
“I believe you have to give each film its own voice. I mean, it’s got to have an original voice and it’s got to come from a place where you’re not referencing another film.
“I’ll get given a reference from someone and they’ll say ‘Have a look at this’. And, then I’d look at it and then I’d try and throw it away, then try and use that as maybe something to spur me on and spur my own ideas on. But, I think they have to be different in the sense of – it’s more fun for you if you make it different.
“If you’re trying to find a new process, like trying to advance the technology, for instance, on Chappie, it was an interesting process. We had a digital character, a robot that is walking around, and we decided ‘okay, can we extrapolate data from the effects to control this character?’ And, we did.
“We designed an application. A friend of mine living in New Zealand, David Lawrence and came up with an application to upload a VFX text file, data file, and it spat back a MIDI file. And, so then we would import that into Pro Tools and that would be the data for one of his limbs.”
So, instead of an instrument, the MIDI data was driving a sound effect?
“Exactly. So, we made contact banks of, say, the feet. We’d have a content bank of dirt feet, for the metal feet, for little ratchets, for servo’s, for those little earpieces. And, each one of those came up as a MIDI track. So, the data was completely correct as it came from the VFX and so the motion was perfect.
“There was too much data, though. We had to thin it out, but that’s an example of a situation with Chappie where we have a problem to solve which is we’ve got the printable character who is a robot. Let’s try and use the actual data to make the robot come to life.
“The other thing I did was put a guitar pickup on the console to get electrical impulses coming from the faders moving and reacting to the MIDI. So, it was like the robot created itself.
Using MIDI like that, what sort of parameters are you drawing on?
“So, the VFX data, we asked them to limit the export to 0-127 which is MIDI. From there we decided whether it was an on-off situation or whether it was a velocity situation. For each of the limbs, when the MIDI data changed direction to positive or negative, that’s when you had a note change.
“I’m actually thinking of putting it up as Freeware. It’s one of those things that a small market of people that would use it, but it could be of use to someone.”
You’re a Pro Tools user?
“Pro Tools is my canvas. I’ve used it for years and years and years. It’s just part of my work life. I don’t have to think about it. It’s an extension of my process.
When Lord of the Rings was made, the sound designers made use of recordings of lions and pigs, and the like. How much have things progressed from those films to The Hobbit?
“You still have to record pigs … As sound designers, you all have libraries. I’ve got the first recording I made which was rain outside my window that I recorded with a Shure VP-88. I’d recorded stuff before that, but that was the first one that was a great recording – and a bumblebee – and they are still in my library with metadata and I can call on those.
“But, the fidelity nowadays has changed and, so, we’ve got extended frequency range on microphones, speakers have got better. The technology is changing and also, a lot of times, we were recording on DAT, 44.1KHz 16-bit, so those libraries are grainy, but still some of them are irreplaceable and there are some things that I still use to this day.
“We recorded every day when we were on those Hobbit films, in some way or form. If we’re not doing it then, we’re getting our assistants to record it. We need some mud splats, we need some dry ice being rubbed across the metal, anything to get detail. Sometimes, we can add too much detail, but with a film like that you’ve got to try and give the re-recording mixers and the director everything that they need so that you’re creating a canvas for them. Pro Tools is my canvas and I paint, but then I’m providing it for them to paint themselves once everything’s in place.”
With those films being in 3D, is that a consideration for you as well?
“I guess it does once you see it in 3D, because a lot of times we’re obviously just working with 2D pictures and once we had a screen that we could go and see it in 3D, ‘oh boy, are we going to need something extra for this moment’.
“And, of course, with Atmos being here now as well, we’re starting to be more conscious of separating components that we want to be going into the top speakers and moving around the room.”
So, is Pro Tools your entire toolset?
“I explore a lot of options. I use things like MidiSynth and iZotope’s tools. I use anything I can to make the sound I need to make, and I will explore. I have synthesisers, external ones, Midi Voyager. I have my old Jupiter 8 synthesiser. I use whatever I can, but Pro Tools is the inbox for me. That is where it all comes together. I don’t have to think about it.
“As well as the synthetic sources, there’s still quite a lot of original recording from original sources. I have a recorder everywhere. Some directors hate synthesised material as well. Neill Blomkamp prefers to have organic material and so we always try and start with organic sources. For Elysium, we had a Dobro guitar and a vibrator shoved between the strings swinging it around my head. That was one of the spaceships, the Raven. They was an original source, different pulses and vibrations, and it came up with an amazing synthetic sounding sort of a spaceship.
“So yeah, I record nearly every day. It means storage has to be great and so we have, at the home studio, a 12TB RAID.
“That is metadata named, just full descriptions and all that sort of thing. I use Soundminer as well. The Cargo Cult has something called Slapper and Conformaliser, which has been huge for us. It helps us conform our massive sessions. But, Soundminer, since I’ve moved to my home studio which is where I work, I use that. I can search and find something. For a film though, I like to give it an original voice. People don’t use stock footage in feature films, so, you don’t want to use stock sounds.”
How do you approach a new project?
“First off, I will make extensive lists of the script, looking at art work, from concept art. You can make a lot of sounds from the concept art itself and I encourage, directors or producers to give me that stuff so I can actually start early planting seeds. But, you can write an effects list just off those and then when you see the film itself, then you start getting specific.”
So what are you working on now?
“We just finished Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi called Story Of Your Life. He did Sicario and he’s about to do Blade Runner. I’m working currently on Fedor Bondarchuk, who’s a Russian Director, his science fiction called Attraction – at least that’s the working title. And, then later in the year, Bong Joon-ho, his film called Okja. He did Snow Piercer and The Host.
“So, all those films I’m working on from my studio and I’ve been doing a lot of international work from my studio which brings up the encryption question like, you know, and I have to say MediaSeal was quite amazing. That was one of the most secure methods I’ve come across recently, but we encrypt drives that we work on as well so that you have to put in passwords to open the drives.”
What’s your feeling towards storage in the cloud?
“I’m not so into the Cloud, for that sort of thing. If the studio’s providing that Cloud, right, then I think I’m comfortable with it. I’m not comfortable putting media up there. It’s someone else’s house, pretty much. I mean, if it’s not in my house, it’s in someone else’s and whose house it is, I don’t know whose it is.
“The one thing I do like is this collaboration feature within Pro Tools. And this is something new for me which I haven’t actually explored it yet. The Russian project, I’m going to start using it to send my 7.1 pre-mixes as work-in-progress weekly. And, I think it’s going to be great for me to push a button and he knows that there’s something to download and then he uploads it and he’s got fresh stems.
“I mean, this is really cool for working off shore. I think that’s going to change a lot of the ways that we work. At least, it’s going to make things easier. I don’t have to export all those tracks, zip up a file, send it, all that sort of junk. And, delivery. I mean, in the past it was using Dropbox, using HighTail, and all that sort of stuff. I just think it’s going to simplify things.”
Dave Whitehead, along with Australian-born sound designer, Michelle Child, operates White Noise Ltd.