Interview: The Ardmore Sound team on mixing ‘Room’

Nominated for four Academy Awards, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room has been drawing worldwide praise lately, particularly for the quality of acting on show. Adam Savage discovers why the work of the sound team also deserves recognition.

When seeking out the next subject for one of our regular film sound pieces, I’m sure you can understand our tendency to be drawn towards the latest big budget action-packed blockbuster, sci-fi epic or disaster thriller, requiring a sound design to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, but this time we’ve gone for something a bit different, and you’ll see why.

Already nominated for a whole host of awards – including three Golden Globes – despite only just arriving in UK cinemas this month, Room tells the story of Jack, a five-year-old boy who has spent his entire life confined to a small, windowless, soundproofed room along with his loving mother, who does everything she can to make the environment as comfortable and stimulating as possible for her son, but yearns for the chance to escape and at last introduce him to the outside world.

A heartwrenching and emotional tale, with some stellar performances from the two leads, there was clearly no need for booming effects or a thunderous score here – quite the opposite, in fact – but for sound designer and re-recording mixer Steve Fanagan and supervising sound editor and dialogue/ADR editor Niall Brady, both based at Ireland’s Ardmore Sound, the film provided ample opportunity for the pair to do what professionals in this area of the industry often list as their favourite part of the job – storytelling through sound.

“Ultimately the story was the most important thing for us so we were always thinking about what we could do with the sound to aid the story and help the audience have the most experiential version of this story as possible. That’s what we talked about a lot,” says Fanagan. “One thing that was really important is that you’re always experiencing the story through Jack and so it’s his POV of the world, firstly his experience of the room and then the outside world in the latter point of the movie. We had a very loose rule, which was ‘what’s Jack’s point of view at this point, and are we reflecting that in terms of what we’re doing with the sound?’ That was our acid test for everything as we were working through it.”

“A large part of it was being conscious of the subjectivity and whose eyes we’re seeing the world through so it was important to have full control over all the elements in the mix at any one time,” adds Brady.

What enabled the team to have more control than perhaps they normally would was the generous timeframe. Whereas a lot of projects these days can end up stretching sound experts to the limit due to increasingly tight turnovers, Fanagan and Brady didn’t suffer from this problem with Room.

“For me it was the longest schedule I’ve ever been part of,” recalls Fanagan. “Between March and August there were maybe two weeks where I wasn’t on the job. Because we’ve worked with Lenny [Abrahamson, director] and the producers before and built up this relationship it meant they could see the value in what we were doing, and how important sound was to the story, so they gave us the resources that we needed, which was amazing.

“We started while they were still cutting picture. They asked us to start slightly earlier so they could deliver some temp mixes, but we wanted to keep anything we did for those temp mixes live throughout the sound edit process so we weren’t spending a week doing work on something, dumping it and moving along.

“One thing that was new for us was this goal of keeping everything live throughout. They gave us our first turnover for a temp mix in the middle of March and essentially we kept iterations of that live all the way through until we delivered the mix in August. So one of the main objectives was to nail the workflow and make it work for the film and not get in the way. As we were working in conjunction with the cutting room it was very important that they felt the results of that.”

Moving on to that workflow then, it’s hardly surprising that for a film like this, clear dialogue was crucial, but what presented the mixing team – also including re-recording mixer Ken Galvin – with one of their biggest challenges was how to use sound to amplify the intensely distressing feeling of confinement within a soundproofed space. It was a lot more complicated than having just virtual silence behind the main dialogue; the scenario was instead seen as a chance to really get creative, and there were a number of tools that helped them along the way.

Niall Brady

Tools of the trade

“Niall spent a huge amount of time in his edit exploring all the multitracks that had been recorded on set and making all the right microphone choices in his dialogue edit, using tools like [iZotope] RX to do some clean-up of any editorial work that he was doing and because we were in that perpetual temp mix mode we had begun to start playing around with reverbs and other acoustical ideas for the final mix and just trying to find something that was true to the spaces and the reality of the film,” explains Fanagan.

“As usual on the dialogue side there was EdiCue [software for ADR cueing] and the other thing we’ve been using a lot more for a few projects has been the FabFilter Pro-Q 2 [Equalizer Plug-In),” comments Brady.

“For the most part Ken and I worked with Altiverb for reverb and one of the reasons for that was quite early on we decided that we’d try to record and create our own impulse responses because we’re in this soundproofed room and it just wasn’t going to sound like anything else,” Fanagan continues.

What about for the effects and music mixing? What gear proved most useful for that?

“EQ-wise I was using a combination of FabFilter and Flux Epure v3, we were all working on Pro Tools 11 and I don’t tend to use a huge amount of compression but occasionally we were doing some light limiting here and there for the louder moments,” reveals Fanagan.

And so to complete the equipment overview, what were the main microphones deployed?

“The majority of the ambient recording was done using DPA 4060s and that was something I picked up from doing a workshop with [sound recordist] Chris Watson a few years ago, and that gave me a really nice atmospheric spread. The spot effects and the main part of the Foley would’ve been recorded on a Sennheiser MKH-60 and a variety of ambient mics, but our Foley crew also then used, for bassy stuff, an AKG D112 bass drum microphone.”

From time to time

Even though much of the film takes place in just one setting with no aural or visual indication of what’s going on externally, making it perceptually difficult for the characters and audience to recognise the passage of time, part of the storytelling brief was to bring in subtle audible changes as the tale develops chronologically, particularly when the narrative moves between day and night.

Steve Fanagan

“Obviously you’re in the space the whole time but you have to tell the audience that there’s a time code and a change in experience as time passes. With Nathan Nugent the film editor we figured out rules such as nighttime sounding different to daytime, so nighttime tended to be heavier ambiences, we worked with more low frequency and just a really subtle neutral room tone. From Jack’s point of view Ma is his whole universe but at night it’s a much darker place and the sound hopefully on some subconscious level is helping to tell that story. The reverbs we were choosing and how we made and used those impulse responses was very much informing that idea.

“The room is also a little bit rundown and you can imagine that all the facilities in there like the fridge, the air conditioning, the lights have all degraded over time and the character of a rattling fan or a cistern overfilling became this great texture for the storytelling within those four walls. The outside world doesn’t get in so the absence of birds singing outside, for example, is also part of that story. It became very much about tonality and the characteristics of those things that were in the space.”

Team players

It’s not the first time that Fanagan and Brady have partnered with Abrahamson – they were all involved in the making of Frank, starring Michael Fassbender – while the pair have collaborated on around a dozen projects in total. How then does Room relate to their previous jobs, if at all?

Above: The Main Stage at Ardmore Sound

“We’ve done about 12 features over the past four or five years together, but over the last year and a half there’s been a feature animation, a futuristic sci-fi and a horror story, so it’s very hard to compare those things,” explains Brady. “I think what we have now is a very good shorthand between each other, which helps.”

One final advantage the crew did have with Room – and not to say this wasn’t the case with the other films they’ve worked on – was that the performances were top drawer, which undoubtedly increased the enjoyment factor from their perspective and proved to be an efficient motivator.

“We were in a brilliant position we had this great cast and story and the film had been brilliantly realised. Everything we did was in response to the great work that had already been done,” concludes Fanagan. “There’s nothing quite as inspiring as getting to work on a film that’s been so beautifully acted and directed.”

Room is out now in cinemas across the UK and Ireland.

Main Picture: StudioCanal