Terminator III - Sound for Rise of the Machines
Date: September, 2003
By: Richard Buskin
Richard Buskin talks with supervising dialogue/music mixer Kevin O'Connell, supervising effects mixer Greg P. Russell and scoring mixer Dennis Sands about their work on Arnie's latest sci-fi extravaganza.
Nearly a decade has passed since John Connor (Nick Stahl) helped prevent Judgement Day and save mankind from oblivion. Now 22, he finds himself back at square one... well, almost. This time around, Connor has to contend with a futuristic cyborg killing machine in the shapely female form of the T-X (Kristanna Loken), while his old nemesis the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the one who tries to save his skin and forestall an apocalypse.
Slicker and altogether darker than The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines also contains thousands of more computer-generated images than its illustrious predecessors. Those movies were both directed and co-written by James Cameron. T3 is helmed by Jonathan Mostow, and his influence is evident not only in the pronounced use of visual effects, but also how he chooses to underscore them in terms of the sound. Mostow really pushed the audio envelope on this major Hollywood movie, and chief among those who helped him achieve his goals were supervising sound mixers Kevin O'Connell and Greg P. Russell.
O'Connell and Russell first began working together during the late 1980s, when their contributions to the sound of the Ridley Scott thriller Black Rain earned them an Oscar nomination. They have since collaborated on nearly 40 films, O'Connell taking care of the dialogue and music mixes while Russell mixes the effects. Given the character of Terminator 3, where hardly a second passes without some sort of high-impact sound, Greg Russell had to shoulder much of the load.
"He did a spectacular job and I'm so grateful for his contribution," Kevin O'Connell remarks. "I'd say that he's pretty much responsible for the dynamic of this movie. It was mostly his responsibility to make it big, bold, and loud without hurting, and he pulled it off 110 percent."
"It was a huge effects task," Russell comments. "The director wasn't always available for pre-dubbing to preview the many conceptual sounds and design work, so we ended up having to create quite a bit of that during the final mix. On standard movies, you're normally adding five per cent of your sound at that stage, whereas for this film we probably added 45 per cent. It wasn't about the authentic sounds of Pearl Harbour. This was about the conceptualised sounds of crystallised balls that transport the Terminators to earth, and as such they were all subjective choices that were made on the stage. The sound designers were involved in creating elements that were previewed with the director, but he then had second thoughts about some of these during the mix, and as sequences and visual effects evolved, the sound changed. We were actually seeing things that we'd never seen before, and we therefore had to create a lot at the very end of the process instead of having all of that together prior to the final mix. It was a big challenge."
Indeed, believing that a movie depends as much on the soundtrack as it does on the visuals, Jonathan Mostow was very hands-on in this regard; more so than most other directors with whom Kevin O'Connell and Greg Russell have worked.
"We would run sequences for him, and on his laptop he would print out maybe 45 notes for each of them," Russell recalls. "We would address those notes and play back the sequence again, and then we'd have 35 new notes. It was all about chiselling and designing according to what he was looking for, and that certainly wasn't an easy job. Based on our first presentation, nine out of ten directors would have changed about twenty per cent of what Jonathan required changing, but he had his vision, and when someone knows what he wants we'll jump through hoops all day long.
"For my part, if I had 13 effects pre-dubs, each one was probably created from 30 to 80 tracks, so prior to the final mix a lot of decisions had to be made in terms of balancing, panning, equalisation and treatments. Our sound editorial team did the best that they could by trying to provide as many options as possible, but then it was really down to us to assemble this particular project."
Not for Jonathan Mostow the norm of allowing the audience to settle down following a big, loud chase scene - he wanted the punters to go home exhausted, and to that end he undoubtedly succeeded. "Even when there isn't a chase scene, he wants to fill the track with all sorts of other sounds to try to keep the tension and momentum going," says O'Connell.
During the course of working on big-action films such as Crimson Tide, Godzilla, Pearl Harbor, Spider-Man and the aformentioned Black Rain, O'Connell and Russell have attempted to hone the craft of attaining high-impact results without succumbing to the current industry epidemic of louder-is-better. Yet, on T3, they were required to crank up the volume in order to meet Jonathan Mostow's demands.
"Greg and I were pushed beyond our comfort zone in terms of how loud we wanted it to be," O'Connell admits. "The gunshots are loud, the explosions are loud, every time the Terminator takes a step it's loud. Everything is loud, and I'd say that the meters went into the red more times than not. However, it is what it is, and at some point we have to defer to the director with regard to what he wants. Every time Jonathan asked us to raise a fader and make something louder, Greg and I compensated with EQ to take out a little top or mid-range and prevent it from biting us in the head. In this way we could provide the volume pressure that he was looking for without hurting the audience. It's easier to just roll off the highs and give them the punch with the low-end, because the low-end doesn't hurt as much as the loud high-end stuff. If every sound is at 100 per cent, you have nowhere to go, and on this movie it was between 80 and a 100, running at a high-octane level all the time. Normally we like to drop down to 50 per cent once in a while, so that when we hit you with 100 per cent you feel like you've been hit in the chest.
"One of the main challenges on Terminator 3 was to ensure that the movie didn't sound like a train wreck, which it very easily could have. Greg and I therefore looked at every single shot - this is something we've developed over many years - and asked, 'What do we want to hear?' Because we can't hear it all. We're seeing Arnold tossed into a plate glass window on a crane that's being chased by cars. Well, we know that the cars aren't going to be heard and the truck's not going to be heard. The only sound we're going to hear is Arnold's crane being smashed into the plate glass window. We therefore take everything else back in the pre-dub stage, so that when we get to the one cut where that thing is ripping down, all we hear is him smashing through the glass. At that point, the sounds of the crane and all of the cars and motorcycles chasing him don't matter.
"That's just for that one cut. Now, for the next cut we have to decide what's important - Arnold is coming back out of the glass and being tossed onto the street where we're going to hear his body fall onto glass shards. Do we need the sirens, the trucks and all of the other debris? No, we just want to focus on this one sound. And that's the art of trying to make the loud movies not seem overbearing."
Another pivotal scene in terms of the sound was that featuring the stunning showdown between the two Terminators. Since each weighs about 910kg, a lot of effort was expended on conveying the gargantuan effect of them slamming each other into brick walls.
"I utilised a lot of different low-end elements within the sub tracks as well as in the mains, and I did a whole different sub-woofer treatment for that sequence," Russell explains. "I put a lot of low-end in the mains, so that when it does go to a two-track and people listen to the video, it's not just this ultra-thin sound that's totally reliant on sub-woofer. Even on television it will still have a strong low-end element to it."
For T3, the dialogue/music/effects mix took place on one of Sony Pictures' Harrison MPC2 consoles, utilising all 300 inputs. Just under 200 were used for the sound effects alone.
"Those were pre-dubbed channels, because obviously each pre-dub was created by many more tracks," says Russell. "Some effects sequences have about 500 tracks running through them. It was a pretty elaborate set-up, and it was a full eight-track mix from start to finish - the pre-dubbing as well as the final - because five speakers can do better than three. My inner speakers were not playing the same information that my left, centre, right ones were playing, so on explosions I would place low-end elements separate from higher-end elements in order to provide just a little more definition. That's our favourite format to mix in. You can achieve dynamic range without pain, and it gives you a more well-articulated and defined mix."
Late additions and changes are hardly uncommon in film post-production, but on T3 they were a little extreme, some visuals not being completed until the very last day of the sound mix. These included many featuring the T-X, such as those where parts of her body melt, as well as computer-generated images of the truck crashing during the chase scene. Kevin O'Connell and Greg Russell had their work cut out.
"A portion of the sound design took place on the dub stage between Greg, myself and the sound editors," O'Connell states. "Steve Flick, the Supervising Sound Editor, and Steven Ticknor, the Stage Editor and Sound Designer, deserve a special mention for that. They worked tirelessly with us to best develop the scenes sound-wise. Along with the director, Greg and I decided to remove many minutes of music during the chase scene featuring the crane and the Terminator. That then resulted in us spending about two days filling any little gaps and holes, and tweaking out the sound effects, so that the scene could run without music for two or three minutes and yet the track still felt full."
"The music wasn't the driving force of this movie," Greg Russell asserts. "It really was subservient to all of the sound effects. Of course, the emotion of music can be very dramatic, and therefore on most films we try to give and take in that regard. However, Jonathan Mostow wanted to convey power on Terminator 3, and it was the sound effects which achieved this. The movie, by and large, is a chase from beginning to end."
A Subservient Score?
Mostow, nevertheless, did pay a lot of attention to Marco Beltrami's score, involving himself - as per all other elements of the movie - throughout the composing, scoring, recording and mixing processes. Scoring mixer Dennis Sands used a Super Pro Tools HD rig and a standard HD3 during five days of recording sessions at Sony, where there was a 72-input Neve VSP, and the mix at Warner Brothers, which was equipped with a 96-input SSL 9000. As supplied by DMT Rentals, the Pro Tools set-ups comprised DAWs equipped with 64 digital I/O and 48 analogue I/O ports, linked to eight channels of Pacific Microsonics Model Two 192kHz A-D and D-A converters, 40 channels of Genex 192kHz GXA8 Linear Phase A-D converters and db Technologies 96kHz D-A converters. The Super Pro Tools captured 64 tracks of live 96-piece orchestra, while the standard HD3 played back the 128 synthesized tracks.
"Jonathan Mostow is very musical in his sensibilities and he's very specific in terms of the sound he's looking for," says Sands, who was Oscar-nominated for his work on Cast Away, Contact, and Forrest Gump. "He loves bottom-end, and he wanted this score to be real loud and aggressive. Marco is a great guy and he was very accommodating. Jonathan would say, 'Look, Marco, I want you to hit this particular spot harder,' and Marco would have to interpret this and translate it into a musical component. Jonathan wanted everything to be extreme, to the point where he wanted the orchestra to play as hard as possible.
"Guide mixes of the synth elements were made to four stereo pairs. Just for simplicity's sake in terms of monitoring for scoring, you still need to be able to reference these synths in a reasonable format. They're not final mixes, by any means, but they give us a real good sense of the synth elements relative to the orchestra. That way we can judge how the orchestra sits against the synths; whether there are any conflicts, whether we need something more from the orchestra to help add a particular sonic characteristic, or whether we need something less. By doing the sub-mix into the stereo pairs it gives you some control over the synth stuff, and at the same time it's simple to deal with - just eight tracks as opposed to a huge number.
"Using the Pro Tools mixing environment, I was able to mix 128 channels of synths down to 24 channels into the analogue board. Whenever you have a large number of synths, it's always a challenge to make the orchestra live with them so that everything has a space, a sound and a big size, without one detracting from the other. The synths must have a big presence but not diminish the size of the orchestra, and vice-versa, because that's real easy to do if a couple of tracks aren't handled properly. That's where the arrangement can make my life a whole lot easier."
"Dennis did a terrific job," says Kevin O'Connell, whose own life was made easier thanks to the production dialogue being delivered in extremely good condition. "It was fairly simple, and the production mixer and sound editorial crew did an excellent job," he says.
"This project was hard work but it was also very enjoyable," concludes Greg Russell. "I really respected Jonathan Mostow's input and direction on the actual mix, I'm thrilled with the results, and so was Arnold, who actually came in when we were working on the battle sequence between the two Terminators and said, 'Ja, the sound is fantastic!' It was a lot of fun."
© 2003 IMAS Publishing UK Ltd.