Three-Quel Spring

Jun 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Ch-ching! The bean-counters will doubtless be happy with the box-office returns from the third installments of these four franchises: Spider-Man 3, Ocean's Thirteen, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. But we're here to talk about audio.


The last time we checked in with supervising sound editor and sound designer Paul Ottosson three years ago, he was finishing up work on Spider-Man 2 (July 2004), for which he would receive an Oscar nomination. When we speak again in April 2007, Ottosson reveals that he's worked on and off for the past two years on Spider-Man 3, which, it turns out, was even more taxing than the previous one — ain't that always the case!

Spider-Man 3’s sound designer/editor Paul Ottosson in his studio

With most of the same team coming back (director Sam Raimi, editor Bob Murawski and much of the sound crew — production mixer Joesph Geisinger, supervising ADR and dialog editor Susan Dudeck, re-recording mixers Gregg Russell and Kevin O'Connell, et al), the machine was in place for a smooth entry into the complex new world of Spider-Man 3, which in addition to introducing us to the evil villains Sandman and Hobgoblin, also features Spidey's evil alter-ego, dark Spider-Man, who morphs into Venom. For Ottosson, the work on 3 began before the script was even in place.

“Sam storyboards the whole movie,” he says. “Then, with certain scenes, he wanted to see how they would play, so I cut some sound effects for Spider-Man 3 way before they were done writing it. We'd look at it with the producers and go back and forth about what we might need. There are a couple of moments that are identical [to the original concept]. We kept going for more sounds, hopefully bigger and better sounds with more detail, but the idea of how things worked is very close to what we worked on two years ago.”

Ottosson says that he and Raimi and Murawski talked extensively about the complexities of the Spidey-Venom relationship and how it could be reflected sonically. “With regular Spider-Man, he's almost like a ballet dancer in the air, so you want it to sound somewhat delicate,” Ottosson says. “You can hear a lot of small subtle movements of the feet and the hands. Venom is more of a brute — when he punches, and his web is a different kind of web — it's almost like gnarled barb wire versus Spider-Man, whose web is silky and smooth. When Venom's web fires and it's covering over the city, we wanted to get across a certain tonal quality, like hitting piano strings on the inside. We strung some ropes across stages here and sort of played them like a huge cello of some kind; very strange. It was a lot of work. The web itself when it fires is a bunch of different recordings — creaks, little animals snuck in there, rope to give it a gnarled, leathery, creaky sound. It's got to be an evil, dirty sound compared to Spider-Man.

“The web is almost alive with this goo that becomes the suit for black Spidey and Venom, and there are other layers of sound in that, like flank steaks and meats I would semi-freeze, and then cut them with a knife and kind of tore them off to get a tearing sound. We also recorded some meat stuff with the Foley guys; they gave me a batch of sounds — they had turkeys, ribs and chickens on this huge cart. There's also some liquid-y wetness in there, too. Even though what's happening is the goo attaching itself, I wondered, ‘What if it were more like he was being ripped apart instead? So it's almost the opposite of what you see on the screen. It think it's pretty effective.”

Ottosson's main recording rig is a Sound Devices 722, which he likes for its portablity, stock battery, clean sound, menu structure and acceptance of an SAS FireWire hard disk, which gives him plenty of space even when recording at 24-bit/192kHz. After tagging the files, they get loaded into Pro Tools.

For this film, one of Ottosson's greatest challenges was coming up with sounds for the ever-changing Sandman character. Actual sand, it turns out, is a tough medium to record.

“The sound of sand falling or moving is almost like white noise — sssshhhhhh — and that's something you usually try not to get in your recordings,” Ottosson says. “So part of what we used was the sound of big rocks breaking and hitting. If you just hit two rocks together, that's a pretty thin sound; in fact, it's almost like metal in that way. It's not a sound you want to listen to too many times. I knew that east of L.A., out by Palm Springs, they have a different kind of rock — it's like a sandstone. If you smash two together, you can get them to break and you'll get a thicker sound. So way early on, even before the movie got started, I went with my wife and we bought a bunch of different sledgehammers and pick-axes. I'd take these rocks, as heavy as I could carry, and drop them down 10 or 15 feet, and they'd break and shatter and some would almost explode. I'd record that and I'd also get the resonating part from the ground itself. I'd use one dynamic mic and one condenser mic up close; two monos. So I used some of those sounds for movement for Sandman when he's walking. I did a little bit of EQ'ing and compression with these McDSP plug-ins — I compressed the heck out of the low end.

“You also have sand sheathing off every time Sandman moves,” Ottosson coninues. “We needed something to represent what you see on the screen. So I bought these huge restaurant-sized bags of salt and sugar, Rice Krispies, coarse salt, beans, herbs — different things like that. I recorded something like 20 different foods to get the sheathing sound. Depending on what was happening onscreen, I would pour some onto a flat concrete surface, but also I might pour sugar on top of the rice. Some I would pour through a pipe so I'd get some ‘whoosh’ movement through the pipe. I would also sometimes move the mic toward the source and by it as I poured it, and I would get a weird sort of Doppler effect.

“The other thing we had to deal with is that Sandman is a regular-sized guy in the beginning, made out of compact sand, and he's got to sound different from when he's the giant sandman later, so there's this progression in the sounds. In the end, he needs to be as big as he can.”

Working on a film that's full of big, loud action scenes, Ottosson and the rest of the sound team were kept extremely busy for months on end, and as is usually the case with heavy-CGI films, were still fine-tuning and filling in holes up to the very last second as final FX came in and the mix was in full-swing at Sony. (For more on specific scenes, see “This isn't like a war movie or a car chase movie,” Ottosson says. “A movie like this has everything; all this incredible action. You have [Hobgoblin's] sky stick flying around and they're fighting on that; different swords that have laser electricity; fighting with ‘razor bats,’ these bombs that have their own life and personality. There's fighting over subways, with trains going back and forth; car chases; just so much. I do love it, but when it's over you feel punished. My first thought when I walked off the lot was, ‘I never want to do another one like this.’ It absorbs everything in my life. It's been six to seven days a week for 10 months.”

Okay, but how about those rumors that there might be a fourth Spider-Man film up the road? “Oh, I'd love to do it, of course!” he says with a laugh.

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Paul Ledford, production sound mixer for Oceans Thirteen, on delivering tracks to the transfer house, in this case Technicolor Sound Services:
“We do a sync test before every picture and that serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone that passes through all of the different stages or pieces of equipment or, nowadays, different software versions, so when we step into productions we don’t have surprises in dailies or further on in the editorial processes.

“I’ll also send a daily e-mail brief to the transfer folks. I’ll tell them how each scene is done and if there was anything notable they should know about on their level. Sometimes in the middle of the night they have to do some detective work if the notations aren’t clear enough. Then, to take that one step further, I started writing down things like, ‘For this isolated track here we bounced between the lavs and then went back to the boom’; Things that might also be of use to the post sound editors.

“I’m marrying all the tracks to a DVD-RAM. That goes into transfer and transfer picks off tracks 1 and 2, which goes to dailies. Then the DVD ram goes to the picture editorial people and they can go back and find any tracks they wish. Otherwise the DVD-RAM will pass on to post sound. But at the end of the picture we also do a full backup from the Deva to a FAT32 hard drive so all the sound resides on one drive.”

On working with the same actors over a several different years:
“It took a little while to get the mics right, even having done the previous two, because it’s been two years and people’s voices change a little bit. I know where George [Clooney] is going to be [sonically], where Brad [Pitt] is going to be, but so-and-so sounds like this now, or their wardrobe might be a little different from show to show, so I might choose a different lavalier; whether I’d use the [Countryman] B6 or the Sanken [COS 11]. And of course we had new people in it. In this case we had Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin, so it takes a little while to figure our which mikes sound best with them.

On the fast-paced challenge of working on Traffic:
“Those were 2-tracks, very much reality, mixing by the seat of your pants, watching what cameras are doing, flying wireless mics in as things evolved. Portions of the film were standard, but some of the material on the streets was very much in guerrilla mode. It could be pretty tiring, but it was also exciting and a lot of fun.”

On doing production sound for low- budget indies:
“I did Slingblade and I’ve done a few others. The budget might affect the number of takes a director does, so you really have to get the performance when it happens. But whether it’s a large budget or a small budget, you still have to have microphones in the right places so people understand what they’re saying, and, of course, you have to watch the recording. Steven [Soderbergh] is always pushing us all to be more clever; to come up with ideas on set that will translate and help in post-production to give him more choices.”

Paul Ottsosson, sound designer on Spider-Man 3, on the Sandman character:
“After we cut say 100 feet of it I bring Sam [Raimi, director] over and say, ‘Here’s what I had in mind, what do you think?’ In the case of Sandman he liked it right away. I cut some of the end sequences where he’s like 80 feet tall and showed it to Sam. What I usually do is crash it down to a stereo track and then give it to the picture editors and they live with it in the Avid for the remainder of when they’re working on the movie.

“One challenge on Sandman was his roaring, which had to be reflective of how big he gets. I always try to get [actor] Thomas Haden-Church to do his voices because he’s really full-voiced by himself. I thought that would better than just using a bunch of bears or lions or whatever. This way you can get the inflection of his human voice going through the pain, or challenging Spider-Man. So I had three or four ADR sessions with him to do Sandman roars and efforts and reactions to certain things. I pitched him down a tad and compressed it and EQ’d it. You can still hear that it’s him, which I really like. I think there’s only one spot where we sweetened it with and animal."

On creating sounds for Hobgoblin’s “skystick”:
“The skystick is almost like a snowboard with a lot of weapons. That involved a lot of recording. I knew about these miniature jets I’d seen on the Internet, so I thought it would be interesting to get the sound of these small jet engines. So I strapped some wireless mics on these miniature, six-foot, jets. They function like real jet planes and was a lot easier to walk around that with a mic than getting a real F-16. I could get two inches away from the engine, which was great for picking up these high, squealing whines. Then we also followed with a shotgun mic, or we moved the microphone and left the jet stationary. Sometimes the jets would crash and burn and the engines would die. I have so many recordings, someone shouting “F___!” and the jet goes down!" [Laughs]

And that weird noise of the “razor bats”:
"My wife plays this [Chinese] stringed instrument called the erhu; she’s a virtuoso. It’s a very sensual kind of instrument. It doesn’t have a fret board, so it’s all feeling; there’s a lot of expression. Anyway, on Grudge 2 there were scenes where people had been possessed­taken over by the evil­and so I took the sound of my wife playing the erhu and screwed around with it and made it sound evil. I remember liking the qualities in the instrument, the variance when she played it. So for the ‘razor bats,’ which are bombs with blades on the side used by Hobgoblin] a lot of the sound of that comes from her playing."

To hear an erhu demonstration and to see a cute wedding photo of Pail Ottosson and Karen Han, go to

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