'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'

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



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Supervising sound editor James Mather at one of his favorite studios, London’s Goldcrest Post.

Supervising sound editor James Mather at one of his favorite studios, London’s Goldcrest Post.

We asked Mather to talk about three other scenes that feature imaginative sound design.

Order of the Phoenix was the rare Potter film without a Quidditch scene (Quidditch being the main sport played at Hogwarts — it's sort of like very high-speed lacrosse played high in the air on broomsticks), so for Half-Blood Prince Mather had to develop his own sonic vocabulary for the sport without completely abandoning the approach his predecessors had taken. “We played quite a bit with new effects,” he says. “What we wanted to lose was anything at all electronic-sounding. We wanted to make it sound as airy and realistic as possible, so we used a lot of brush wood and wind passes, and dynamically we tried to change the sound of some of the quaffle balls, which are the big football-like things.” For the sounds of the (mostly CGI) crowd in the stadium below the mid-air match, “We had a crowd [ADR] session in an airfield north of the studios where we could orchestrate 50 people all reacting in different ways. And, as is often the case, it was the specific yells and shouts that we recorded later on that really peaked through.” When it came time to mix the scene in 5.1, there were a huge number of perspective changes to deal with, between the action in the air and the people on the ground — it became quite a playground for surround sound. Add to that a prominent score, and you've got quite a full track.

One of the book's central storylines involves Dumbledore showing Harry Potter scenes from the life of a one-time Hogwarts student named Tom Riddle, who would grow up to become Lord Voldemort. To access Dumbledore's and others' memories of Riddle, Harry has to stare into a swirling silvery-liquid/gas in a stone basin known as a Pensieve to enter the scenes. “We played with a lot of liquid sounds, of course, because everything floats down [toward the center of it] in a sort of ink-through-water way. In one instance [where Professor Slughorn's memory of Riddle has been tampered with], we treated the voices with a really, really convoluted experiment. Basically, we took the dialog, reversed the words and laid them in sync back alongside the original words, then did a delay reverb, which we reversed and played back underneath the voices. So you have this kind of incoherent voice playing underneath the real voice. At the point where the memory has been tampered with, we dip out of the real voice and let the incoherent voice blur the words, keeping the ambiguity. It sounds watery because of the nature of the plug-in. It gave it that slightly off-set feeling. Again, it's a little thing, but it adds a lot. Although an arduous process, it worked in surprising ways, especially with footsteps! It was plug-in hell,” Mather says with a chuckle. “We also found ourselves incorporating low-end pulses and beats throughout the film, as though there was an ebbing and flowing heartbeat, to hint at the intimacy of the script, as well as complement the music score.”

And then there is the eerie set-piece that leads to the eventual denouement: Harry and Dumbledore must find a secret cavern that holds an important relic connected to Voldemort's past, and then travel across a lake there that's infested with ghastly and ghostly Inferi to retrieve it. To establish the ambience of this environment, “Initially, we went tonal,” Mather says, “so we used vocals and slowed them down, things like that. And one of the key points of it is the lumos [the little balls of light that illuminate the cave's antechamber]. Originally, the lumos lights had a high-pitched tone and it was a bit uncomfortable, but then one of the designers came up with a lovely sound that was very much like a small firefly in a jar, so we went for this sound that had much more texture to it and was a bit, without sounding too corny, like a Tinkerbell effect. It's funny how sound prompts things already familiar. [In the scene,] that sound comes and goes, and that does so much to locate you and also the space — you could suddenly bounce this reverb off the huge cavern. We used ice and water sounds, obviously, which we played around with a lot. We spent some time down on the coast recording sea-wash scooping into inlets and gullies. But a lot of what you hear is very subtle.”

For the attack of the Inferi, who try to drown Harry in their lake, Mather and his team employed a combination of liquid sounds and heavily manipulated screams from another ADR group. “We also did an ADR session with Daniel [Radcliffe, who plays Harry] where he insisted that he should record his vocals under water! So a large bucket of water was prepared and, with his head in it, we recorded his shouts and so on. He's incredibly enthusiastic with things like that. He wants it to be as much fun as it possibly can, as they all do.”

This is just a small handful of the enormous number of settings and FX that had to be created for the film by the sound team. Needless to say, there is also fantastical wand-work throughout (both whimsical and dire), not to mention rooms ranging from grand, stone-walled castle halls to claustrophobic huts, crashing waves on a forbidding coast and flames devouring a small village; spells and potions that inspire their own sonic signatures; even a decrepit house magically transforming to its former glory: “The house looks derelict and Dumbledore conjures it back together!” Mather says. To get one of the sounds for the scene, Mather's team dropped a piano from 30 feet high and recorded it from different angles. “The piano was one of the objects that reverses from broken to fixed, along with the splintering wood, et cetera. We also used some of the discords made during the break-up as elements for the cave ambience at the end of the film.”

As Mather continues to toil on Sherlock Holmes, more Potter awaits him up the road: The Deathly Hollows, parts 1 and 2, are currently in production at Leavesden, and that means scores of new sound challenges will be coming his way shortly. Then, like the actors young and old who have populated this magic universe for so many years, Mather will join the rest of us in a world without a new Harry Potter story coming around the next bend.

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