HT Talks To . . . Lost's Sound Crew
ABC TV's Lost is a phenomenon recalling the best of The X-Files or Twin Peaks' mind-warping weirdness as it slips between edgy drama and scintillating sci-fi. The show's creators, J.J. Abrams (Alias) and Damon Lindelof (Crossing Jordan), set Lost on a mysterious tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, populated it with an ever-expanding cast of survivors, and pepper the episodes with flashback scenes that add depth and complexity to the show's epic story arc. The episodes are shot on location in Hawaii, but they're edited and mixed at Buena Vista Sound at Disney Studios in Burbank, California. To learn more about how Lost's incredible soundtrack shapes up every week, I spoke with the show's supervising sound editor Tom de Gorter and rerecording mixers Frank Morrone and Scott Weber. Lost is currently in its third season; seasons one and two are available on DVD from Buena Vista.
I'm a bit of a movie snob and rarely watch network TV, but Lost hooked me from the first episode.
TdG: The producers want this show to be different from everything else on the air. They want people to argue about the show around the water cooler the next day and wonder about what's going on.
SW: The writers play off of some of the things people are talking about on the message boards and put them in their story lines.
Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Lost's Most Compelling Criminal Mind
A feedback loop between the show and its fans—that's so cool. Your sound mix is the very last stage of production; how long after you're finished does the show air?
TdG: On this last show, we were mixing 16-hour days for four days, and the episode we finish on Monday airs on Wednesday. Our challenge on a week-to-week basis is to mix the show in a fraction of the time we would get to do a feature film and still achieve the same detail in sound.
Lost is also unusual in that it's not shot within the controlled environment of a soundstage. How much of the dialogue recorded on location is usable?
FM: We try to use as much as possible to maintain the feel of the original performance. But there are all sorts of on-location problems—they might be running a noisy rain machine on the set, and the mikes are cutting out. In those instances, we'll have the actors replace their original dialogue, rerecording it in a studio.
So, when Sawyer and Kate do, say, a beach scene, and the pounding surf obscures their lines...
FM: They have to go into a studio, look at a monitor, and re-create the same performance they did on the set. Then I have to match the studio sound to the location recording's sound.
How do you do that?
FM: I just keep going back and forth, comparing one to the other, matching the original's sound, getting closer and closer to a seamless match. The editors also provide me with a sample of the original background sound—the surf, in this example—which I mix in with the new dialogue to match it with the original.
You make the quiet studio dialogue sound exactly like the dialogue recorded on the beach or wherever. that's amazing. What about the original sound of the surf and jungle scenes?
TdG: It depends. We might get lucky and use the location recording, but it's usually a combination of that and sound that we design and create.
That reminds me—what's up with the Smoke Monster? That thing looks like an angry black tornado and sounds, well, Weird.
SW: Since there's nothing in our sound-effects library called "Smoke Monster," we had to create it from scratch. The producers weren't looking for a Jurassic dinosaur effect—they wanted some type of mechanical element with an organic quality. The challenge for the sound designers was to make it neither or both. It's also a work in progress. Each time we use the sound, we add something to it, so the monster's sound continues to evolve. There are hidden messages in its sound.
Wow, I'll have to listen more closely. and do the sound designers create the less fantastical stuff?
TdG: Sure, the doors in the hatch [an underground bunker] are an example of that. They're actually made of wood, but, to make them sound metallic, big, and heavy, our sound designers might use five or six elements: metallic impacts, creaks, a latch, and maybe a heavy boom. It's the combination of those elements that make up the sound of the doors. The hatch also has an electromagnetic buzz happening all the time, and the computer room has retro-sounding Apple IIe computers. One of our techno geeks had some of these computers, so we fired them up and recorded them.
The scenes with rain always sound amazing.
SW: When it's raining, the sound changes all the time.
It gets lighter and heavier; it moves with the wind. The sound we use involves several layers of effects with specific elements—rain hitting the leaves, the actors' clothing, and other things. [Producer] Ra'uf Glasgow is very adamant about getting the details right. Rain can very easily turn into a mush of noise.
Mixing is a finely tuned balancing act—it's all about aligning the various elements to sound natural.
TdG: We have to make choices about what's going to play and what's not. On a beach scene, for instance, the surf might be so loud, we have to back off of the effects to let the dialogue come through. Or, if the scene has music, we have to leave room for it and back up on other things. Then we listen to everything together—sound effects, music, and dialogue—because they sometimes compete with each other. The producers might even decide to pull the music out if it's ruining the moment for the sound effects, or we might have to pull back on the sound effects for a musical moment.
Locke (Terry O'Quinn) leads fellow Lost survivors through the jungle one more time.
Composer Michael Giacchino's score is incredibly cinematic.
FM: Most network shows do a few scoring sessions and then library the cues and reuse them every week. Lost has an original score every week, recorded with an orchestra. They're all live sessions with, I think, 40 string players.
So, There are No synths—it's all real string players. No wonder it sounds so good. how many tracks are you mixing?
FM: There are 60 dialogue tracks; 12 tracks are for music, and the 140 or more effects tracks can run the total to over 200. We use the Digidesign Pro Tools editing system; that allows us to handle even more virtual tracks.
What sort of speakers are you listening through when you make all of these mixing decisions? Some Home Theater readers might want to duplicate your system so they can hear exactly what you heard when you did the mix.
FM: We have a big JBL THX theatrical monitoring system in our studio, but, for the most part, we use a home theater–type 5.1 system with THX-approved M&K MPS-150 speakers and the MPS-350 subwoofer. It's the same system Skywalker, Sony, Warner, and, of course, Disney use. We monitor our stereo mix on Genelec 1029A speakers.
Do you guys have any inside dope about where Lost is headed?
TdG: They do give us advance knowledge on certain story lines we need to know about, but we can't talk about them. I will say there are sound effects in some episodes that provide clues about stuff that will be revealed later on. You could call them Easter eggs for very careful listeners.
Last question: Do you have a favorite episode?
TdG: The episode ["One of Them"] from season two when Sayid was in Iraq was a lot of fun to mix. There's a lot going on in the surrounds, and there are explosions in the subwoofer. The pilot has always been a favorite of mine, and we spent the most time mixing that one. Scott and Frank were nominated for Emmys both years; I was nominated the first year. We won awards from the Motion Picture Sound Editors guild for the pilot episode. It's great to be recognized by our peers, and that's very gratifying for us.