How Big Bang Sound brought ‘Gods of Egypt’ to life

Devising a sound mix to portray mythical deities is never going to be a simple process, yet Colby Ramsey spoke to the head of a team who recently pulled out all the stops to achieve just that…

Since taking on the role of additional supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer on the truly explosive Mad Max: Fury Road – which earned a clean sweep of the Academy Awards for both sound categories this year – Wayne Pashley could have quite easily found himself in a state of flux following such a convincing, prestigious success on the big stage.

Yet his most recent venture saw him turn his hand once again to a similarly big-budget motion picture which would undoubtedly require a transferral of those skills used to bring George Miller’s action-fuelled vision to life.

Gods of Egypt tells the tale of Set (Gerard Butler), the god of darkness, who forcefully takes over the Egyptian empire, only to have his reign thwarted by a mortal hero, Bek, who partners with the god Horus (Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to save the world and rescue his lover.

It is a story that hails from the very start of human story telling around 4,500 years BC, yet the manner in which the film’s plot unfolds is far from innocent in its depiction.

The main objective for Pashley and the sound crew was to be truthful to the Egyptian mythology that the film is based on. The film’s director, Alex Proyas, is Egyptian himself and so displayed an immense respect for the story he was telling, making it clear from the outset that he wanted to approach the film from a fantastical level. Pashley and the sound team therefore spent a lot of time becoming intimately acquainted with each of the gods’ characteristics in order to depict them as accurately as possible in a filmic sense.

“That naturally led to one of the biggest challenges we had – how to sonically deal with each character,” says Pashley. “Their mythological characteristics, their ‘godlike’ voice, their costume, their scale in comparison to objects around them, and in particular in reference to the mortals on Earth, and sometimes not on Earth.”

Divine intervention

The ongoing battle between Ra – the sun god – and Apophis – the god of chaos – throughout the film is a good example of where the events are seen and heard not only from a human perspective on Earth, but from a celestial one as the audience is thrust into the midst of battle in the god’s empyrean world.

Pashley explains: “In one scene where our lead mortal character finds himself on Ra’s celestial barge, floating on the waters of creation, Alex would ask, ‘What do the waters of creation sound like to a human, is it the same as they sound to a god?’ and ‘If a human has never heard the sound of Apophis, then what would he hear as the creature attacks Ra?’

“This is an enormous challenge, to create a beast that is not only the biggest sonic character in the movie, but have it be a monster that has never been heard before in cinema.”

It took a total of nine months for Pashley’s Big Bang Sound Design team to arrive at the final mix, initially starting as a smaller design crew and gradually expanding as more of the film’s visual effects came into play.

However, as a film that is so heavily reliant on VFX, the sound design team were still involved early on in the post timeline, contributing fundamental sounds to aid storytelling for screenings and preparing for the inevitable last-minute flow of ideas.

“It is vital to the VFX that the ‘weight’ of the sound helps to bed those visuals in truth. We used a lot of sub-harmonics in the vocal treatment of the gods, and zoomorphism within the sounds created for the gods to link the images and sounds together,” says Pashley.

“The biggest difference was probably the enormity of the visual effects. The sheer amount of visuals, and how much they were changing right until the end was on a scale I hadn’t encountered before. It wasn’t just the occasional shot or scene coming in late, but so much detail in each shot that was constantly evolving, from backgrounds down to the tiniest detail.”

Godlike gear

When it came to the details, Pashley and the sound design team utilised Neumann KMR 81 and U 87 microphones for recording ADR, and an Electro-Voice RE20 for loud crashes and god-like fight and vocal effects – all of which were recorded at 96kHz for later manipulation to reduce artifacts.

Sounds in Sync’s EdiCue software also allowed them to easily re-configure cues when updated pictures arrived only hours before an ADR record session, and transfer the EdiCue clips (Pro Tools clip groups) into the record sessions, streamlining the whole process. The recordist used the clip groups to locate the sections of dialogue to be replaced, making short work of loading the sampler with the location dialogue when an actor wanted to ‘parrot’ a cue multiple times in a single run.

“The mix was 7.1 from the start, with pre-dubbing completed at Big Bang Sound Design using Pro Tools 11 and D-Command, with the final mix finishing at StageOne Sound on a AMS Neve DFC console,” explains Pashley. “We wanted the environments to be very clean, to sparkle and suggest a world created from god’s inception; sounds from when the world came into being, a time when magic and superpowers ruled the Earth.”

To achieve Proyas’ vision, the team recorded countless hours of specialised effects in order to bring the right level of detail to such hyper-stylised imagery.

The vocal effects – of Anubis, for example (god of the underworld, who is depicted as a jackal) – were also highly stylised, in this case utilising wolf and wild dog sounds to gain the right effect.

Pashley notes that creating sounds that have never existed before is what makes films like Gods of Egypt so amazing to work on: “Alex gave us a lot of space to create the world and develop the characters as we saw them. He allowed us to find a fundamental truth in this new world and be inspired by the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and this classic story.”

Picture: Lionsgate