'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'

Aug 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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James Mather’s sound team recorded the cacaphony of a piano being dropped from 30 feet high for a scene in which a decrepit house is magically conjured back together.

James Mather’s sound team recorded the cacaphony of a piano being dropped from 30 feet high for a scene in which a decrepit house is magically conjured back together.

Asked to list a couple of the sound editors who were particularly helpful working on Half-Blood Prince, Mather notes that there were many, but mentions Michael Fentum, who previously worked with him on The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and is also part of the Sherlock Holmes team; Emmy- and BAFTA Award-winner Andy Kennedy, who has contributed sound work to the last five Potter films, and “is a trusted favorite, always good to have onboard”; and James Boyle, “who came in on Order of the Phoenix to take care of the fight between [good wizard] Dumbledore and Voldemort.” Mather says that in general he prefers to have his editors work on a multiplicity of tasks — say, a reel's worth — than specialize in a certain area (fire, cars, etc.) as is fairly common on big American films. “I like to give the editors the flexibility to try different things so they don't feel like they're being pigeonholed. And through that process, I devise who's going to be really good for design and who's going to be good for FX and allocate work according to their strengths. It's also refreshing for editors to pass scenes over to each other for a different perspective — this way, the scene builds in dimensions and benefits from diversity.

“It helps everybody if there's a lot more sharing,” he continues. “We don't have a big industry here. We have some big films that come through it, but we have a small industry, so it's crucial to get as many people into the fold — even if for only a short period of time — as we can.”

Mather says that when it comes to sound, director Yates is “very hands-on, but he's got a very light touch — he loves the idea of things being very delicate and very beguiling. He very much likes the simplicity of sound. He's very clear about how he wants to keep people enthralled rather than repelled by an onslaught of sound. I completely agree with him about that. You let the big scenes be big, certainly, but the rest of it doesn't have to be quite as brash or loud. The soundtrack on the whole is a lot quieter and more enigmatic than previously. A lot of what makes it work is small sound details, and that's where having worked in animation really helps.”

This isn't to say there aren't many big sound moments and highly sophisticated sound design elements in the film — after all, this is a rich and strange fantasy world filled with magic, where the very future of the planet hinges on the outcome of epic skirmishes between Good and Evil. The film starts off with a bang — the skies over modern London darken with grey, billowing (CGI) clouds, one of which forms into a giant skull — the Dark Mark! — which precedes a sensational attack by Voldemort's wizard lieutenants, known as the Death Eaters, who soar through the skies and swoop through the city like midnight-black vapor trails, causing mass destruction in their wake.

“It's composited in a very dynamic way,” Mather says, “and that was great fun for us because you're flying with the Death Eaters, and it's a bit like a fairground ride — we wanted the audience to experience the same momentum with their eyes shut as they did when open.” To create the sound for the Death Eaters in flight and attacking, “We actually used some very simple methods combining Foley and passes of objects, such as fire, water and such, which we recorded and played with. There are also a lot of vocal effects that we use, not just there but throughout the film. With plug-ins, you can pitch and change the quality of almost everything, and vocals are particularly good for doing that because you can make so many weird sounds with your mouth and then manipulate them. When you pitch down vocal sounds, they can be very ominous. So everybody on the team contributed to that — you open the door to that kind of opportunity and everybody wants to have a go at it; everybody wants to try.” [Laughs] Breath passes were doubled and tripled and manipulated. To add even more heft to some of the mayhem, “We recorded the sound of jumping on cardboard boxes — we had these DPA mics that can take a lot of level and we practically had them inside the boxes so we could really get the air movement.”

Among the plug-ins Mather and his team employed to alter sounds were various bundles from GRM Tools and iZotope. “We tend to record as much as we can at 192 kHz so we can actually import it in a 48kHz session in Pro Tools and it pitches down really cleanly, and you get an amazing amount of weight and body to it without the artifacts,” he says.

Field effects were generally recorded to Sound Devices rigs, then transferred to Pro Tools, but Mather adds, “Effects and dialog editors now all have small hand recorders that will record up to 96k, and they're 24-bit so they can go out and record anything they want. It only costs a couple of hundred quid to buy these things, so why not?”

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