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How They Created the Sounds for Oscar Nominee ‘The Martian’

How They Created the Sounds for Oscar Nominee 'The Martian'

The biggest sonic challenge with “The Martian” was was to make the sound of an environment that has never actually been heard seem completely natural to the viewer. Fortunately, Oscar-nominated sound editor Oliver Tarney had access to actual field recordings from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for the sounds of Mars, Pathfinder, and the Rover. Then, in keeping with the epic and intimate survival story, the sound team intricately balanced dialogue and effects, paying close attention to Matt Damon’s breathing as astronaut/botanist Mark Watney.

“As the film is set in the near future, we wanted to avoid a conventional sci-fi sound, and instead use an array of sounds that would be familiar to the audience,” explained Tarney, who collaborated with nominated mixers Paul Massey, Mark Taylor, and Mac Ruth. “This is also primarily a drama but there is still a huge amount of humor and positivity throughout the performances, so we wanted to avoid a cold, solemn sound and aim for a warmer, more engaging sound, whilst still conveying the dangers in that environment.”

The biggest advantage of connecting with JPL was an understanding of the stripped back, function-over-aesthetics approach of their engineering due to the incredibly high cost of sending each kilogram into space. This heavily influenced the sound design approach. “We designed the sound of the technology Watney inhabits and uses to have a raw, pulsing, buzzing, resonant quality. It also helped sell the idea that there was a vulnerability to this technology, built to only last a short while. Whereas JPL exists to think outside the box and keep at the cutting edge of technology, NASA is responsible for running the missions and ultimately for astronaut safety. The precision here is in how efficiently and effectively they react to live mission data.”

After the storm subsides and Watney regains consciousness and begins to move, we hear the low rumble of his suit moves and heavy, labored footsteps as he struggles toward the Hab. And, according to Tarney, we immediately connect with his personal struggle through the intimate nature of the mix.  

“We worldized all the breaths through a helmet rigged up with a speaker and mic inside to achieve that claustrophobic breathing quality. In actuality, only in very few of the scenes on Mars’ surface were any of the actors wearing visors on their helmets. This was due to visual reflections, so the visors were added in post. This meant that our production mixer, Mac Ruth, was able to get very clean and consistent dialogue recordings, which gave us the flexibility to then choose the degree of visor effect we wanted to add later.    

“The central focus should always be the connection to Watney, but we also wanted to maintain a sense of the huge barren landscape he is stranded on. All the suit moves and footsteps that we hear were a blend of recordings from inside and outside the suit, meaning we could cheat the perspective to be from both Watney’s claustrophobic interior POV and the sweeping exterior landscape at the same time.”

As the final rescue begins, they cut between Watney on Mars’ surface, the crew of the Hermes in orbit around Mars, and Mission Control in Houston — as well as the public watching on big screens and TVs in New York’s Times Square, London, and Beijing.

“This section of the film provided us with numerous challenges in terms of giving each treatment its own sonic identity, and a sense of the distance each transmission has traveled.  When we hear Mark and the Hermes transmissions in Mission Control we ended up broadcasting those recordings through an old valve AM transmitter, recording them over a radio on the other side of our building. No plug-in gave us this same feeling of distance that the dialogue had traveled through the ether. It added to that sense of isolation for the astronauts.”

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