The Chamber of Secrets

Jan 1, 2003 12:00 PM, by Blair Jackson


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In the year since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released, it has gone on to become the second highest-grossing film of all time (after Titanic), one of the biggest video releases ever and the cornerstone for what should be a massively successful franchise. The second installment, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — released in November to huge crowds — employed the same cast (with a few additions) and crew. Much of the all-British sound team who worked on Sorcerer's Stone (covered in detail in the December 2001 Mix) also came back for the new film, but was augmented by a pair of Yanks: Sound designer and co-supervising sound editor Randy Thom, who's usually based at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, Calif., worked with Potter director Chris Columbus on Stepmom and Bicentennial Man. Co-supervisor Dennis Leonard, another Skywalker veteran, had worked with Thom on a couple of Robert Zemeckis' recent films, as well as The Iron Giant and other projects.

In general, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a louder and more intense film than Sorcerer's Stone, with numerous interesting set pieces and exciting action sequences that allowed Thom plenty of creative opportunities. Thom did nearly all of his work in Pro Tools doing his initial conceptions at Skywalker, but then headed over to Shepperton Studios in England for the bulk of the assignment. Here are a few of his sound effects secrets.


When Harry and his friend Ron Weasley fly to Hogwarts in a bewitched car at the beginning, they crash it into a terrifying tree that has great moving limbs that attempt to crush the car and its occupants. “I was grateful that Chris [Columbus] was willing to drop the music for most of that sequence, because that's one of those scenes that could've been a just a cacophony of music competing with sound effects,” Thom says. “My position about a sequence like that is, if the intensity and peril in a scene are explicitly being shown, there's really no reason to underscore it with music.” As for the willow's sound, “There's lots of creaking of the limbs, some of which is just the old balloon trick: If you blow up a normal party balloon and you hold it in both hands and sort of twist it so that your hands squeak across the surface of the balloon, and you close-mike it, partly because of the resonance of the balloon, you get these great creaking sounds. We also wanted to give the whomping willow a voice — this sort of rr-rr-rrr growl — so my voice is in there, slowed down and EQ'd and bass-boosted, etc.”


In Professor Sprout's class, the assignment is to re-pot these bizarre plants that have roots that look a lot like human babies and scream so loud that the students have to wear protective ear muffs. “I told Chris that we're sort of walking a fine line here,” Thom says. “Obviously, it needs to be intense, but it can't be so intense that it chases the audience out of the theater. For the sound, we started with a baby crying. A woman whose husband was working on the movie had a one-month-old baby, and we recorded it in this little trailer inside one of the shooting stages. We managed to get the baby when it was waking up and really hungry. Then we combined that with some female screams to make it just exotic enough so that you think, ‘Hmm, I've never heard anything quite like that before.’ Then we pitched both sounds up, so there's a lot of 3 and 4k in that sound.”


Early in the film, Harry is spooked by a strange voice whispering “Kill! Kill!” in Parseltongue, a snake language Harry understands. Thom notes, “This was really through Harry's P.O.V., because once you get the feeling, as an audience member, that the sound and the visual images are being channeled through the consciousness of one of the characters in the scene on their way to you, then suddenly the filmmakers have enormous latitude to stylize the sound. I sort of wish there hadn't been as much real language in the snake tongue as there was. There's something about hearing English dialog that kind of goes to a different part of your brain than either music or sound effects does, and it kind of distracts you and pulls you back into the literal world, as opposed to the stylized world. But we still had fun with it. We did backward treatments on it and put it in reverbs and processed it heavily. The principal trick was to play each word in some kind of deep reverb — usually a chamber, with a long decay time — and then reverse that so you hear the word sort of rush in backward up to — in the case of the word ‘kill’ — the first consonant. And then you hear it play out forward, also with a lot of reverb, so it gives it this odd, sinister, otherworldly quality.”


The evil snake monster that resides in the Chamber of Secrets “was quite a challenge,” Thom says, “because it's a giant snake, but it's also like a dragon — not many snakes have teeth like that. He had to hiss, he had to roar and there were times at the end when he was in pain. We used a variety of things, including my voice and some horse vocalizations, elephants and various other things. The key, of course, is doing crossfades that allow you to believe you're hearing one thing instead of three or four things mixed together; one of the tricks is if both sounds have roughly the same pitch envelope, I'll alter my voice and the tiger's roar dynamically so they're changing at the same time. Likewise, if the volume envelopes are about the same, it'll help the idea that that's one sound.”

Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) looking a little nervous in the Chamber of Secrets.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Angus Filch (David Bradley) see the writing on the wall.

Director Chris Columbus (center) provides some guidance on the set to Rupert Grint (left) and Daniel Radcliffe.

Director Chris Columbus (right) and Professor Sprout (Miriam Margolyes) hold up a Mandrake on the set.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has an encounter with Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese).

Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) supervises a dueling wand match between Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe).

Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Professor Sprout (Miriam Margolyes), Professor Dumbeldore (Richard Harris) and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) get serious.

Sound designer and co-supervisor Randy Thom on the sounds of Quidditch and magic wands:
"I thought we could be a little more bold with the sound of Quidditch than they were on the fist film. Instead of primarily whooshes, we used a wider variety of sounds. It's quite a bit more elaborate. I also wanted the wand sounds to vary quite a bit, so almost every wand sound in the movie is different in some way from every other wand sound, because every time you see a wand it's really doing a different kind of job, so I figured why not have each make a different kind of sound?

"Obviously you need to tip your hat to some degree to what was done and the style of the work that was done on the first film. For instance, in Quidditch we didn't change the sound of the Snitch, because I liked that I think it worked very well. But for almost everything else about Quidditch, it sound fairly different than the first film."

Randy Thom on the sound of Dumbledore's rotating staircase:
"It sounds like this big, massive thing-actually the main sound for it is a bowling ball rolling across a scoring stage."

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