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The Fine Art of Cacophony

Sound design scares me. There’s just so much I don’t know or understand about it. Of all the aspects of Voyage of the Chimera that the shortcomings of doing everything yourself can be evident, sound design is probably at the top of the list. Good sound is invisible, but bad sound sticks out worse than bad picture quality. We tend to take sound for granted in our daily lives, and it’s often neglected in low-budget movies, to their extreme detriment. For me, doing so much myself is not the end goal, but simply a means to make the movie at all.

Due to my inexperience, the sound mix on Chimera was difficult right out of the gate. Our first night on set, we realized that the mics we had were not really the proper type for what we were doing. Worse, the boom pole we’d brought creaked and groaned horribly on the first recordings we did. In the end, the mics were placed on stands and remained that way for the duration of the shoot. Sadly, you can audibly hear a major difference in quality in some scenes because of this, though I did my best to clean it up. For several scenes, I also brought cast members back months later to re-record their dialogue. In hindsight, I wish I’d done this for a few more. If you ever make a microbudget movie, make sure you get your on-set dialogue recording figured out before you shoot! I learned that lesson the hard way.

In post-production, I had time to learn some of the things I didn’t know about mixing and editing, but I remain a long long way from being a proper sound designer. I was so far behind the curve when I started that composer Martin Mahoney had to give me a few mixing tips to help smooth things out. Even though I’d been editing for decades, doing the sound for an actual feature film for release felt like I was starting completely from scratch. 5.1 surround is the standard for features these days (6 speakers: left, right, center, rear left, rear right, and a subwoofer for low frequency rumblings), but I knew going in that this would be beyond me. I settled on creating a basic stereo track.

Conceptually, I wanted realistic sounds that shied away from science fiction. Funds were low, but near the beginning of production, I scraped together a few dollars and bought a pile of sound effects libraries, concentrating on industrial and mechanical sounds, plus some computer interface effects and, of course, explosions and fire. Later, voice actor Peter Greenwood graciously provided effects from his own library of restoration and preservation efforts. You’ve probably heard Peter’s voice as a wide variety of characters in The Rescuers Down Under, Pirates of the Caribbean, and a bunch of TV shows, all noted on his IMDB page.

Sound is easy to dismiss, because it’s all around us, all the time. It is easy to forget how much complexity there is to sound both in life and in film. If a character walks into a factory, simply laying in a couple of mechanical sounds is not enough; indeed, the result may be laughable. The sound of a factory is really a dense combination of many sounds. The background ambiance alone is created by things like spinning turbines, electric motors, levers clanking, product sliding from one conveyor to another, air roaring through ducts, people pressing buttons or walking from place to place over concrete, rubber mats, and metal catwalks, calling to each other, humming or singing to themselves while they work, their clothing rustling as they move – not to mention these sounds interacting with the environment and each other. And all of this is still dependent on the location of the hearer. All these elements and more will combine to create a background drone that cannot be faked with a simple dull roar. You either need a long recording on an actual factory floor during working hours, or you need to build a convincing facsimile using all the elements and a lot of creative mixing.

I was fortunate on Chimera because the nature of many scenes meant that the background could be somewhat sparse. Still, I needed to build the background rumble of engines and distant work into every scene. Different rooms on board needed to have a slightly different ambiance to differentiate them sonically, but I thought it should be subtle, so as not to be distracting. I also added footsteps whenever characters walked. When Marcus DeVol opens his orders, the only sound that was audible in the footage was of the envelope being opened, which somehow didn't feel right. Maybe it's the way our minds process images, but it seemed like the paper should rustle more, even though in real life it didn't. I guess this is why sound designers can get away with so many swooshes whenever someone swings a sword on screen. And so I added light rustles for moments like Marcus turning over the envelope in his hand, or unfolding the paper to read it. These quieter scenes required a careful balance, lest a footstep or closing door be distractingly loud, or inaudibly quiet.

The action scenes were much more difficult because so many elements had to compete with one another. You can hear 3 - 5 different alarm and alert tones at any given time during the climactic encounter with Voltairine. In addition, there are the usual explosions, rending metal, electrical discharges, and even the rumble of an earthquake. Even then, the soundscape felt too bland, so I added shouting and screaming. Random yells alone weren't enough, so I recorded myself shouting a lot of panicked lines, and changed their pitches to try and make them sound slightly different from one another. From moment to moment you have to prioritize what you want the audience to hear: music or sound effects, and if sound effects, which?

And then there were the sci-fi elements. If I would not allow the Static Shift Drive (our stand-in for warp capability), computers, and rail guns to utilize “bleep bloop” and ray gun sci-fi sounds, then what should they sound like? For the rail guns, I looked up actual footage. The sound was not well recorded in these clips, mostly consisting of a very loud crashing sound with a kind of electronic edge. Since my gun blasts looked somewhat like 18th century cannon fire, I started with the sound of black powder weapons. The Canons I bought were okay, but I ended up using black powder hand mortars more often. I also mixed in shotgun blasts and, to give it some edge, the sound of a man screaming, but heavily distorted and processed into a flangy, electronic shriek.

The SSD needed to sound heavy, dangerous, and a bit wild, suggesting a powerful force barely contained. The whining sound of a heavy turbine spinning up provided that base. This long sound effect builds over the course of several minutes until the drive finally activates with a series of clanks and resounding thuds. This is not merely a whooshing “jump to lightspeed,” but a violent use of tremendous power to leap the vast distances of space. Hopefully, this comes across on screen.

And then there's the elephant in the room: should there be sound in space? When I was growing up, sound in space was still the norm for most movies, even the realistic ones. That's a lot less common now, but it seemed to me that both had become accepted styles. Since Chimera was a bit of a throwback, stylistically, I opted for noisy space. I tried to be at least somewhat subtle about it though, and aside from the shrieking railguns, tried to keep most of these sounds in the lower register -- duller, boomier, as opposed to sharp.

On a technical level, I can honestly say I was never fully satisfied with Voyage of the Chimera’s sound mix. My own limitations in this area are very clear when listening to it, but I’m also proud of the work, such as it is. But above all, I came away with a great respect for people who do this work for a living. The degree of creativity and resourcefulness required to do it well cannot be overstated.


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