The Two Towers

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


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Two down, one to go. Director Peter Jackson's take on The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a spectacularly ambitious undertaking: three films, each well over two hours, released just a year apart. They were shot all at once in Jackson's native New Zealand two years ago, but the posting and extensive visual effects work (also mostly in New Zealand) has been going on ever since, and will occupy dozens of people's days until next December, when the final episode is released.

For the sound post-production crew, the latest installment, The Two Towers, was an opportunity to build on the sonic foundation created for The Fellowship of the Ring and to refine ideas and systems. The team that brought the sounds of Middle Earth so brilliantly to life — and earned an Oscar nomination in the process — was largely intact for The Two Towers, including sound designer David Farmer, supervising sound editors Ethan Van der Rijn and Mike Hopkins, and re-recording mixers Christopher Boyes (lead mixer and effects), Michael Semanick (dialog), Michael Hedges (music) and others. This time around, Boyes also brought in Gary Summers to help him with the Herculean premix. Post work took place at the Film Unit in Wellington, New Zealand, using an assortment of platforms, ranging from the Euphonix System 5 to Pro Tools (the choice of the sound editors) to Tascam MMR8s.

“Having the library of sounds from the first film was a fantastic place to start from when we began working on film two,” says Van der Rijn. “We were able to really focus on the areas of the film that were entirely new: locations, winds, tree talk, and movement and sounds for massed Uruk-hai marching and chanting, etc. We were also able to deepen some sections of the library, which we already had a really good basis for, such as all of the combat sounds, as well as the initial vocal palettes for the Orcs and Uruk-hai.”

“Having done the first film,” notes Boyes (who won an Oscar last year for his work on another “small” film, Pearl Harbor, and had won previously for Titanic), “we went into film two knowing more about the likes and dislikes of the director: his way of working, his preferences and knowing what kind of stylistic approach he likes to take for certain scenes. For instance, we have a number of scenes where music is used to let the audience experience the events in a more detached, less visceral way. In these scenes, effects are treated in such a way that they take on a ghostly, echo-y quality — weaving in and out of the music as if they were swimming in the air around us. We used this approach on film one in Boromir's death, along with slow, dreamy visuals to stretch out time and space. We returned to this style in film two; but this time, it also served as a way of taking the audience out of the head-on intensity of the battle for moments of time. In this way, it allowed us to shift the drama from individual events to a more massive global event and, at the same time, give the audience a rest sonically.

“The success of the first film had everything to do with the way the second one went,” Boyes adds. “It was a vote of confidence in us as a team that he was willing to let us start the final mix in his absence. When we started final mixing, he was still trying to finish [recording] Howard Shore's score in London, so we set up a ‘polycom’: We had a TV monitor and a camera pointed at us, and he would have the same thing pointed at him in his hotel room in London. We would send a computer file via a fat pipe — an ultra-wideband Internet connection — and then he would sit at a Pro Tools system with Genelecs and a video monitor and listen to our pass at the final mix for any given reel. Then he would send us back his ideas. It wasn't a perfect situation, but better to have that than flying blind or getting typewritten notes and not being able to see him describe what he wants. Of course, in the end, he came home and did his final pass with us on the dub stage.

“Peter's notes tended to be really clear and direct: ‘I want this scene to start really quiet and subtle and then build. I want it to have this structure to it — we're going somewhere with it,’” Boyes continues. “For instance, there's a scene where the Uruk-hai are marching on Helm's Deep, this fortress built up against a huge rock cliff, and they're marching from afar, but there are so many of them that they set up this incredible rhythmic pulse as they're marching. There were certain desires on the editorial team to have that really be big and be felt and have this huge pulsing mass coming at you. And [Peter] came back and said, ‘No, this needs to be subtle — so subtle that you feel the pulse, but you also hear the breath of the warriors waiting for this oncoming army.’ It was a really poetic way to take it, and also, since that scene progresses into absolute chaos and mayhem, it was a great way to start because you've got something to build with.”

“What Peter articulated to us on the sound team in terms of his vision for the sound on film two was not so different from that articulated to us for film one,” Van der Rijn concludes. “Rather, it was a further deepening of certain themes and motifs that we had started on film one. In many ways, this whole three-film project feels like a voyage of discovery that the whole sound team is engaged in together with Peter.”

Helm's Deep welcomes back Gimli and Legolas (of the fellowship, seen on the white horse) and the brave knights who have just fought a victorious battles against a roaming band of orcs.

Fresh from the pits of Isengard, the second day of the battle at Helm's Deep finds these Orcs storming the castle walls and continuing the battle. A flurry of metal on metal as swords and other weapons clang together, coupled with the orc's and man's horrifying squeals and battle cries, makes an explosive sound environment.

Traversing the wildness of Middle Earth, the Riders of Rohan ride away from Helm's Deep, after being cast away from King Theoden, who is now under Sauramon's evil spell. An intriguing sound palette of horses' hooves, armor clanging and chainmail jingles against the actors' mics.

Additional Lord of the Rings quotes:

Lead re-recording mixer Chris Boyes on working at the Film Unit in Wellington, New Zealand:
"Early on, when we were starting Film One [The Fellowship of the Ring] we went around to various studios in Australia listening to the rooms, and we went to the Film Unit and listened to the room there and I just loved the sound of the room. At the time they had an analog Otari board that only had about 100 inputs and they were still based on magnatech, as well as 2-track tape, which doesn't really work for the way we work these days. So we put together a wish list along the lines of: all the editors will be cutting on Pro Tools and therefore we'll deliver to the mix on Pro Tools and record onto MMR8 Tascam. We felt we needed a digital board with at least 200 inputs, and so we got the Euphonix [System 5]. What changed from last year to this year, and Film Two, is they now have two dub rooms [at the Film Unit] and they took a section of the board we did Film One on and put it in the B room. Now, both rooms match, so some sections of my automation could be called up in the B room."

Chris Boyes on the loudness of movies:
"Being the lead mixer and the effects mixer, I have to take responsibility for how loud the film gets. For me, Film One was a little bit loud and I was determined to not let [The Two Towers] be quite that loud, and I hope that I succeeded. It's a tough position to be in-You're faced with a film where every reel is as a big as the biggest reel of a typical film, so it's an amazing challenge. You can't please everybody, but at the end of the day there are two people you have to please-the director and the audience. You don't want to exhaust the audience."

Chris Boyes on the third installment of the trilogy:
"It's going to be intense working on that film because by now we've created this family. It'll be an emotional time for the crew because we will have gone through so much together. For me it will have been four years. Of course I go off and do other films when I'm not mixing, but a lot of these guys-some of the editors are on it ten months a year. It's become their lives, pretty much. So I think it's natural that there'll be a reluctance to let go. You become so fond and so passionate about the product, you fall in love with it. That's what I like about my business-when you work on something like this it really becomes a personal and emotional experience. Everybody's going to want to finish it and make it as good as we can."

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