Pet Sounds

Falling Skies, the TNT Network sci-fi series that debuted in summer 2011, is certainly one of the creepiest shows on TV right now. It’s creepy because of its grotesque, mysterious alien protagonists. And they’re creepy in large part because of the way they sound. At a presentation Monday night in theater at the Los Angeles office of Dolby Laboratories, two of the audio professionals responsible for those sounds explained how they did it.

Season 1 of Falling Skies will be available on Blu-ray Disc on June 5, complete with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack that will show off the audio effects in significantly better quality than the TV broadcast, which was in Dolby Digital. Season 2 premieres on TNT on June 17.

Supervising sound editor Michael Graham and sound designer Rick Steele went into great detail about the techniques they used to create the sounds of the alien creatures, and to make sure those sounds stood out in the mix.

“You have to find the frequency ranges where you can punch in with the sound effects, because the music is taking up so much space in the mix,” Steele said.

“In some cases, they say, ‘Let’s lower the music,’ but that’s very rare,” Graham said.

Craig Eggers, who bears the lengthy title of “director, content creation and playback, Dolby home theater ecosystem,” called up some scenes from Falling Skies to demo the effects at ear-splitting volume through the theater’s state-of-the-art sound system. One scene showed an alien dying — an event that occupied only seconds onscreen, but that took Steele four hours to put together.

Asked how he created the alien’s “voice,” Steele listed the sound clips that he mixed to get the effect: “A moose. A buffalo. A horse coughing up its cud, which I pulled off a quarter-inch tape from the old Columbia [sound effects] library. And a man having an emphysema attack.”

“Rick has about 500,000 sound files he can pull from,” Graham noted.

Graham mixes the soundtrack at Disney Studios, Stage C. “We treat everything we do like a feature film,” he said. “We typically have 125 to 130 tracks of sound, which is crazy for a TV show, although it’s normal for a feature film.”

I asked Graham and Steele what kind of direction they got from the show’s producers (including executive producer Steven Spielberg) when it came to the sounds of the aliens. “None,” Steele said. “We had conceptual artwork, and they gave us some descriptions, but a lot of it doesn’t carry through — the concepts change over time as the show’s being developed.”

“It just kind of grew,” Graham said. “It starts out with the feet of a creature being like this, then no, they’re like this, then they end up with suction cups, and you just have to adapt as it changes.”

The presentation was a little too loud for my delicate ears — and, I would argue, a little too loud for the theater’s speakers — but I’m looking forward to giving the discs a spin on my home system. Who knew it was so complicated to make creature sounds?

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