Creating the Sonic Worlds of 'Terra Nova'

Sep 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Matt Hurwitz



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The 2149 version of Chicago has one key quality that the producers wanted to convey: disrepair. “It’s a future environment that has broken down,” says Graham. “It’s a planet that has consumed itself.” Adds Harvengt, “The machine has taken over plant life, so to speak. So what you hear is the sound inside: a low, thundering machine life. It’s really about coming up with sounds that the audience will connect with as being of that time, but always slightly different.”

Co-supervising sound editor/sound designer Michael Graham

Co-supervising sound editor/sound designer Michael Graham

Vehicles, such as the maglev trains ferrying passengers around the city, are given such a treatment. Though, by definition, a maglev vehicle is suspended above its track by a magnetic field, it has a decidedly squeaky wheel to it. “They still have the telltale sign of disrepair—a squeal,” Graham explains.

“We change the pitch of it and add other elements,” says Harvengt, “so it takes us out of what we normally hear, but it’s still grounded in what we know.”

Rick Steele has been editing and designing sounds for 25 years. He has access to an extensive library of sounds, maintained across 6 terabytes of local and server storage space. Steele searches and accesses files through Sound Wrangler, a proprietary software developed by Steele (and available in Beta form for free online at

“I can search either by the sound’s name or by the path at which the sound is stored,” he explains. “So if I’m looking for ‘Matterhorn roller coaster,’ I can search ‘Disneyland,’ ‘amusement’ or ‘coaster,’ even if the sound’s file name is only ‘LOUD BY.’ I can then cut any section of that sound right to my timeline at the cursor position, in any track or stream configuration with handles. Or just drag and drop the entire selection set to my timeline and start cutting away.”

Hope Plaza’s particle accelerator required Steele to preview no less than 2,500 sounds to find an appropriate combination of roughly 13 sounds that went into the effect. First, he took the explosive “whoomp” sound of a parachute opening and looped it at various intervals and processed it to give it a pulsing “whappy” sound, adding an explosion underneath with a previously created sound called “Green Rubber Slime.”

“I had used Sound Toys’ Crystalizer plug-in and processed a short lion snarl and I doubled it up,” he explains. “That sound runs underneath the whole thing.” The startup of an industrial electric pump begins the whole process.

“The producers wanted to feel that this place was enormous, full of energy and dangerous at the same time. Then we had to explode them back into the past,” Graham explains. “Most of that was Rick Steele.”

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