How ‘Everest’ scales new heights in film sound

Ever wanted to know what it’s like to be trapped in a blizzard at the highest point on Earth? The new blockbuster film Everest will bring you about as close as you’ll want to get to the real thing, and that’s largely due to the sterling work of the team at Sound 24, as Adam Savage discovered…

After rightly winning an Oscar last year for his work on the sensually stunning Gravity, Glenn Freemantle could’ve been forgiven for thinking he may never again get an opportunity to push his sound design skills to the limit. His latest project, though, turned out to be another truly testing one, also offering more than a slight likeness to Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi thriller from an audio perspective.

Everest tells the true story of two groups of climbers who are on a mission to conquer one of the world’s toughest physical tests, but are instead left fighting for their lives after finding themselves engulfed by one of the worst blizzards ever recorded.

One of the main challenges for sound designer and supervising sound editor Freemantle and his colleagues at Pinewood Studios-based Sound 24 – sound design editor and re-recording sound mixer (effects) Niv Adiri and sound re-recording sound mixer (dialogue and effects) Ian Tapp – was piecing together a sound mix that would meet two very different objectives: provide enough aural razzle-dazzle to make the audience believe they really are taking a tour of one of the most dangerous environments on Earth – suffering the full force of nature’s wrath – while also ensuring that the bond between the characters – clearly important when telling a harrowing true story such as this – is not lost.

“It’s an epic so they wanted to shoot it wide and do these big shots, but it also had to be intimate,” explains Freemantle. “It was about making the film as real as possible and pacing the film through the journey. We wanted it as though you wouldn’t question it – you think you are actually on the mountain. The great thing is that people have thought that as well.”

“A lot of the filming and the way it was cut was done very close-shot, and that helped us get the human contact of what was happening to them,” says Tapp.

“In every film we try to make the audience part of the experience, but for this one in particular it was important that people feel that tension, and with sound you have the ability to create physical reactions with people,” adds Adiri.

One scene that won’t fail to generate a physical reaction with viewers is the moment the storm hits. It’s impossible not to be blown away (no pun intended) by the sheer aural onslaught cooked up by the guys at Sound 24 once, as Freemantle says, “it all kicks off”.

“You really feel the weight of it – it literally pushes people back in their seats,” he notes. “There isn’t any music in a lot of that part of the film as well, so it really feels like you’re there. All of a sudden you’re put in that position where you really develop this fear for them and their struggle.”

“When you get that first cut to Jan [Keira Knightley] at home and there’s this sudden silence, you realise what you’ve just sat through for the last ten minutes and you really notice how strong that part is,” explains Tapp.

“The build-up to that is also very important too though, because you’re not hit with all that sound straight away – it all slowly comes together,” Adiri says.

Easy Does It

Although the crew’s aim was to make Everest a white-knuckle ride for the audience – and they’ve definitely achieved that – they knew there was a limit to how much the listener could take before it became too overwhelming.

“Wind and ice are quite harsh elements so there’s always the danger of pushing people away because it can be painful to your ears, so the job was to get them to experience that without going too far,” reveals Adiri.

Unfortunately – but unavoidably – the filmmakers were made to rely on visual aids such as wind machines, while the filming locations were less than ideal for dialogue recording, which made things more than a bit difficult for the sound department. It also meant Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR) had to be used extensively throughout.

Picture credit: Jasin Boland

“We had to do a load of ADR and a whole pass of the film really quickly because when they were on the mountain or wherever they were [filming] you couldn’t hear anything that was going on,” recalls Freemantle. “Loads of dialogue was recorded to start with just so they could cut the film properly and then it gradually got replaced.

“When they went up the mountain, though, we had a completely blank canvas and everything had to be done again because the film was 80-90% ADR. We concentrated a lot on really tiny details – all the snow sounds, footsteps and little bits like that we put a lot of effort into, and we did quite a lot of it a few times.”

“For every footstep and the sprays [of snow], for example, we concentrated on using different layers of elements so we had control of how we wanted it to sound in that moment,” Adiri continues.

In fact, Adiri is keen to stress the importance of the work that went into the spray effects, which might not sound like a big deal at first, but really helped achieve that feeling of intense, biting cold.

“We tried the sprays about six or seven times just to get it right – on clothes and on skin – just to try to get that sense of pain and the physical feel of it,” he states. “Then when the visual effects came in we could see whether we’d been trying too hard or not.

“The sprays were all added later. At the beginning we put the sound in and it wasn’t attached to anything, but slowly the sprays would start appearing and you’d know whether it was working. At the start it was hard to know because you couldn’t see it.”

Those of you who read Audio Media’s previous interview with Freemantle on the sound of Gravity will know that improvising with different sound ideas is a big part of how he works. With Gravity, he was tasked with obtaining the kind of vibration sounds you would expect to hear in a spacecraft; this time the question was how to recreate the feeling of a sub-zero setting, and make those voices as believable as possible, especially when things really take a turn for the worse.

“They got these weight vests and the actors would put them on, tighten them up and in some cases they’d be lying on the floor, having the air squeezed out of their chests. They got these great performances from them, because in the film they were gradually dying. It was pretty phenomenal how much they put themselves through,” explains Freemantle.

“They really got into it from what I heard – one of them was on the verge of throwing up because they pushed themselves so hard to get into the right sort of physical zone that he needed to be in,” adds Tapp.

“We also froze jackets, spraying them with water and putting them in the freezer overnight so it would sound right when they [the actors] walked in them,” recalls Freemantle.

To and Fro

What also would’ve made Freemantle think back to the time he spent working on Gravity was the constant back-and-forth between the audio and visual teams, meaning what was previously considered finished often had to be revisited and tweaked, sometimes several times – not unusual on a film like this, but it can make things tricky to say the least.

“There was a lot to keep an eye on with this film as there was stuff [visuals] coming in all the time, which would have an effect on what you’ve done, especially with the sprays and the snow,” reports Freemantle.

“You’re also never quite sure how much sound a film will actually take until you start doing it and you learn as you go through the process. As long as you’re aware that you can’t ever just think ‘that’s it’, we’re always thinking that we can do something else to it. It’s like everything with films – you just run out of time, otherwise you’d never stop looking at it.”

This devotion to ensuring that a movie is not oversaturated with sound has arguably become even more important since the rise of new formats such as Dolby Atmos and Auro 3D – Everest is available in both – which allow post-production specialists more freedom than ever before, and the ability to manage their mix much more accurately.

“The great thing about the way we mix today is that we have control over every single tiny little bit of sound. It’s mixed, but it’s separate at the same time,” explains Freemantle. “Up to the point where we can actually say ‘we’re finished’ we can adjust that one tiny little bit. That’s how you can get so much detail – you used to have to tie things up and didn’t have as much control.”

The ability to control sound with such precision was unsurprisingly advantageous when trying to recreate the sheer ferocity of the snowstorm and the vastness of the landscape.

Picture credit: Jasin Boland

“The sound design was all about moving it around and making it feel like you were walking through that hostile environment – there was never a point where we just put wind tracks up,” says Freemantle. “We’ve really made it so you can tell the geography of where the climbers were on the mountain.”

So what were the main tools that they relied on for this job? There were no real surprises or new additions to the gear list on this occasion; instead their tried and tested Avid setup did the job once again. There was agreement that technology shouldn’t get in the way of the task at hand, too.

“It was all done through Pro Tools 11 and some of it was done on the [Avid] System 5 [large-format console] using EUCON control with Pro Tools,” says Adiri. “We try not to overcomplicate things and keep it as simple as possible – if I can have it all in one session then I will, rather than four.”

“Working with the System 5 and Pro Tools there’s real flexibility as each job is slightly different, and so is the workflow, so it allows us to work out between us what the best method on any given project would be – how much we’re going to do on the desk, how much we’re going to do in the box etc,” adds Tapp.

“When you stop and think of what we’re asking these systems to do and how they do it – most of the time with no problems – and how much time it’s saving us, then you realise it’s unbelievable,” comments Adiri.

The Everest sound team can certainly be proud of their work on this film. Speaking to the three of them, it was evident that they enjoyed conjuring such a terrifying tempest for the enjoyment of millions, but it was essential that the seriousness of the subject matter was not ignored, and that the tragic story was told appropriately, with the help of good sound.

“It’s very much about the emotional contact between the characters, and whatever you do with the set you’ve got to make sure that’s there in a film like this, and you feel it all the time,” concludes Freemantle. “It’s a human tragedy and it’s something you won’t forget.”

Lead image credit: Universal Pictures