Middle-earth, Wind And Fire: Empire visits The Hobbit sound department

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Empire visits The Hobbit sound department

The first part in Empire's extended edition of The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies coverage: a visit to the sonic temples of the sound department...

The long, hushed corridors of Weta’s Park Road offices possess the unsettling aura of the Overlook Hotel. Instead of the movie posters that decorate Peter Jackson’s inner sanctum at Portsmouth Road, the walls feature vintage New Zealand travel posters: “Kiwis do fly!”. Here across a highly desirable range of bespoke mixing stages, ADR studios, and recording dens, the dragon sneers and warg snarls of Middle-earth are created and the Black Tongue is refined for maximum clarity.

Ruling the sonic roost are Brent Burge (who supervises effects) and Jason Canovas (who supervises dialogue). Furthermore, Dave Whitehead and Dave Farmer are sound editors: curators, creators and aural hunters. They never leave the house without a digital recorder, for who knows when you might happen across a great sound whose use may yet be uncertain? Farmer proudly found the scrape of Freddy Krueger’s finger blades (for the 2010 remake) in a squeaky ironing board.

Dave Whitehead, sound designer on The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, reveals Weta's inner ear: Park Road's sound department.

“Our job is to simply interpret Peter vision,” says Canovas, who possesses an unmistakable Liverpool accent. “To bring out the best of what he’d got in his head.” A task which often entails negotiating Jackson’s inability to quite verbalise the perfect clang of armour or clatter of staff against stone sounding in his head. “You just have to play him things until he hears it.”

And Pete the piper can be picky.

On Desolation Jackson found the orcs were sounding too “piggish”. “Which meant a lot of the lion sounds that were in there,” notes Whitehead confusingly. “So we had to come up with a new palette of roars.”

Such is the strange journey of the sound department.

“The great thing about Pete is that he never judges,” adds Burge. “He just walks in and goes, ‘I understand where you are going with this. But I want it done this way.’”

There are some big no-nos in the aural landscape of Middle-earth. The one thing to rule them all? Nothing synthetic. “Peter is pretty sensitive to things that sound sci-fi,” says Farmer. “Synth-based stuff doesn’t fly in Middle-earth. It’s a very gritty world.” Indeed, every sound has a real-world basis. Even the use of magic has natural sources such as thunder being the basis for Gandalf’s wonders. And when it comes the emanations of those particularly magical locations such as the enchanted forest realms of the elves? Well, you need to “worldise” your background. “Worldising means taking a sound and playing it back into a space that matches what is on screen,” explains Farmer, meaning they recording sounds for tunnels in tunnels, woods in woods.

And when it comes to the ongoing requirement of film three, no-one seems too flummoxed by the upcoming battle. For Canovas the sturm und clang of war often makes his job easier: “There is just so much going on, you simply have to work toward clarity.” From there it’s just a case of what does Peter want: orc roaring or swords clanking?

“The dwarf chariot has proven tricky to balance,” notes Burge. This turns out to be a dwarvish war wagon pulled by battle rams, with Ben-Hur style spiked wheels (pictured below, skidding on the ice in the current trailer). “You’ve got the mechanics of the chariot. You’ve got these blades that stick out, and Peter wants sounds for how they are used. Plus, you’ve got ice — this chariot is veering on an iced up river being chased by wargs. We’ve had to figure out how it cracks the ice...”*

  • Right now ADR on film three is also well underway around the globe, Jackson has only recently returned from London where he and Fran Walsh supervised sessions with their UK-based stars. The sound effects crew are still in awe of Ian McKellen’s ability to walk in off the street, switch on Gandalf and deliver a dozen different takes without batting an eyelid (unless the scene calls for it). “Some of the others,” admits Canovas, “do struggle with the process”.

Still, the Liverpudlian sound man is happy to confess that he is hardly fluent in the idiosyncrasies of Elvish, or dwarvish or Black Speech: “I’m just like, ‘Whaaat?” No matter, he has dialect coaches on speed dial, he can fire off what-the-heck emails to translators, and Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh circle his process like particularly pernickety hawks. “In the end, all I’m interested in is whether he’s saying it angrily or pointedly,” Canovas shrugs. “It’s the emotion you get out of it. You could say ‘fuck’ a million ways, it depends on how you say it. I work with Fran, more or less on a daily basis — she is really focused on performances.”

“It’s the same every year,” laughs Burge, with a quick internal appraisal of what is still to be done. “We get it in five minutes before the deadline.”

For Peter Jackson on The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies read the current issue of Empire, on sale now.