'Cowboys & Aliens'

Aug 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson



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Those hummingbirds came in handy when Farmer was putting together the sound of lights from alien crafts sweeping the ground at night in search of prey to “rope” and take away. “They have these lights that are scanning the ground,” Farmer says, “and for that I had a patch I had made in [Virus] Indigo in Pro Tools with a nice throbby sort of pulsing sound. I was working in one of the ‘Pod’ rooms out at Skywalker—a really nice environment for building 5.1 material, speakers that are very full-range. So I took something from the Ben Burtt playbook when he made the [Star Wars] light sabers. I had a loop of this synthesized sound coming out of the speakers and I took a Sennheiser 416 and did all these mic Dopplers on it. To me, that worked so much better than plug-in Dopplers; there’s a realness to them that works. If you generate a synth sound and then cut it in Pro Tools, it doesn’t enter the air until it hits the speaker in the theater and then hits the audience. Every other sound you record has been in the air once already, whether it’s a tiger growl or whatever. So to take that synth sound and make it not sound like a synth, you can record it with a microphone and that helps bring it to reality some more. So I used that a lot for these light sweeps that were going around.

“Then I also used some hummingbird wings. If you’ve ever listened to a hummingbird up close, they have a really low-end sound to them. So it was those elements, some arc welding [sounds], because those lights looked like they might be searing across the ground, and also some Tesla coils I recorded years ago.”

More on the speeders from Farmer: “For the first temp, I tried to make them completely out of animals. I had a loop of some pig groans that I had left the Doppler process running on for about 10 minutes—you let the randomness of the universe present you with some material. Frank and I liked that a lot—just using that one element—but when they got down in the temp with the music and everything else, they weren’t quite reading the way we had hoped, so Jon mentioned using jets and rockets, too. That became a challenge because I didn’t want to just use plain jets and rockets. I wanted to mix it with other things so it had a certain cool factor that was unexpected. So Frank did a pass using jets and rockets, and Jon is really good about using very descriptive terms when he wants to hear something, and one of the things he said, which I would never have thought of, was, ‘When these things are flying by and the air passes through their wings, I want it to have a tonal sound, sort of like a didgeridoo.’ So I had some didgeridoo recordings and I did the same process—the mic Dopplers with the same speakers. So we had the animal element, the didgeridoos and the rockets and jets, and then I wanted to do one more thing to give it some ferocity. I had recorded these Ferrari F1s a couple of years ago and those things really have a sound that indicates speed, even if they’re not going fast around the track. So we had another layer of those and we delivered all those elements to Chris.”

When it came to alien vocalizations, Farmer once again turned to his extensive library of animal recordings (as well as some of Skywalker’s material), mixing in tigers—which he says are often a good base sound for creatures because of the depth and rasp in their growls—coughing and trilling seals, horses in heat (“if you pitch those up you get a scream-y element”), groaning pigs and, at one point, a New Zealand possum.

Rather than building a large palette of vocalizations and then cutting them into scenes, Farmer says he likes to work to picture and build each one from scratch—a painstaking process, “but in the end you wind up with a lot more variety and you repeat yourself a lot less.” Later, Eulner and Boyes did more work on specific alien vocals as scenes required (Farmer was on another project and not available during the final mix for revisions) and, as is typical on a production like this, things were changing up until the last second.

At least in director Favreau they had an ally with good instincts and a strong interest in sound. “He has very good ears and he notices very subtle changes, which is great,” Boyes says. “He’s very specific about how hard he wants things to hit, how much low end there is in them, and obviously he’s very involved with the music and how it evolves and how it plays out in the final. In terms of director involvement, he’s right about where we like them to be.”

Blair Jackson is Mix’s senior editor.

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