SFP: "Watchmen"

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



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Standing: supervising sound editor Scott Hecker (left) and re-recording mixer Chris Jenkins. Seated: re-recording mixer Frank Montaño.
Photo: Gary Krueger

Standing: supervising sound editor Scott Hecker (left) and re-recording mixer Chris Jenkins. Seated: re-recording mixer Frank Montaño.
Photo: Gary Krueger

There was plenty of room for creativity in both the sound design and the mix because of “the wide variety of locations where the film takes place and the decades it spans,” Montaño says. “There are realistic things and situations, and also things you've never seen before. It allowed us a lot of leeway; it's like a smorgasbord of sound.”

One thing you've never seen before is The Nite-Owl's strange flying vehicle known as the Owlship. Hecker says, “We wanted to try to keep it from sounding like a jet as so many spaceships do. It does have a couple of elements like that, but mostly we wanted it to sort of sound purple, like a vibrating, humming, whirring orb; a modulating and oscillating being. You sort of feel it, too — it's got a rich, warm low-end hum to it.” Hecker and Norris ultimately processed and layered synth tracks, as well as various organic sounds to get the overall sound they were after.

Wait a second — purple? “Visually and sonically,” Hecker notes of the film's sound design. “Some of it is like ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ — looking or hearing through a kaleidoscope; really colorful and almost psychedelic in a certain way. Even though it is reality-based, it's sort of an alternate reality fantasy world.”

“The whole main title [sequence] is a subversion of recent American history.” Jenkins adds. “All the iconic images that you knew growing up from the '30s and '40s are subverted, and then music is subverted, sounds are subverted, and all of a sudden you're establishing right away you're going to break all the rules, that it's okay to break rules as far as sound goes. So whether it's with music or sound design or dialog, you have this huge license — 12 or 15 minutes into the movie, all bets are off.”

The “electric” Dr. Manhattan character was another sonic challenge, Hecker says. “He's tortured and conflicted and he has human emotions, but he's trapped in this god-like [form], so we tried to articulate his feelings with various different sounds that would convey his emotions, whether they be happy, sad or angry.” Among the sounds that were used for the character were moaning whales. “But I hate to even say that,” Hecker continues, “because I don't want people sitting there listening for whale sounds. They've been worked with, modulated and pitched and whatnot, and it's very subtle. I don't want the audience thinking about it; you want them to tune into the emotional quality you're going for throughout the film.”

Despite the tremendous latitude the designers and mixers had on this film, “We tried not to over-cover,” Hecker says. “Before we get to the stage, we're very selective; like when we Foley, we don't do the people in the distant background and pedantically just cover every single thing that moves.”

“It's all about audio focus,” Montaño offers. “Are we telling a story here? Are we in an action sequence? Is it a combination of things? Wherever you want to focus in a given scene, or even a given frame, determines what you're going to emphasize or play down. And it's fluid all the way through the film.”

“Chris and Frankie do a fabulous job of articulating what we want to hear from moment to moment; it works really, really well,” Hecker adds.

The team did four temp mixes — the first three for studio executives, the last for a regular audience — and along the way they managed to get the film into good enough shape that the final mix wasn't nearly as taxing as it sometimes is. Of course, there was the usual situation of having to adjust sounds along the way as visual effects came in, but mostly director Snyder liked the direction the sound was heading throughout the process and his comments were minimal. With Bates' music, too, the sketches he offered and the temp music that was selected made it so there were no rude surprises when the final score came in.

And the fun (and work) didn't end with the final mix for the theatrical version. When I spoke to Hecker again a few weeks later, the sound crew was in the throes of finishing up the Ultimate Watchmen director's cut — 25 more minutes of story, plus a 22-minute stand-alone animated featurette that's part of the graphic novel called Tales of the Black Freighter. “It's a lot of work,” Hecker says, “but it's all been very cool. Zack really knows what he's doing. The fan-boys are gonna love this!”

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