An interview with Mark Edward Lewis Re-Recording Mixer/Special Starship Sound Effects Designer
STA: What excites you about doing audio for a sci-fi movie?
MEL: There’s nothing more exciting than a starship flying by in a huge battle scene. The smooth lines of a Federation ship, the bristling weaponry of a Klingon cruiser or even the screech of phasers, and disruptors never cease to entertain and amaze me. It’s probably some youthful version of myself still wishing for a yellow jersey and a reasonably uncomfortable chair to sit in and explore the cosmos. The joke of it all being that there’s no air in space – so there’s no sound – at least not that human ears would perceive. And while Kubrick managed it well given the music of Strauss and others, such treatments tend to leave audiences without the experience of awe and wonder that the incredible visual effects scenes of modern day sci-fi filmmaking create. So, yeah, doing audio for a sci-fi films means that I get to create sounds that don’t exist, couldn’t exist and won’t exist ever – which means I get to do what I want to support the director’s vision and make amazingly cool sounds.
STA: How did you get involved with Axanar?
MEL: I was actually introduced to [Executive Producer] Alec Peters by Richard Hatch [who plays Admiral Kharn], who is a long-time friend of mine. It was months before the [Prelude to Axanar] Kickstarter video had been conceived of, and having been involved with other Star Trek fan films, I was excited to hear about someone doing something inspired by the FASA Star Trek universe. So when Alec asked me to work with him on the edit and sound of the original Kickstarter video for Prelude to Axanar, I knew it was going to be great. I also knew that we would have pull out all the stops to make the forthcoming Axanar videos the most powerful audio experience anyone had heard. I mean, this is a part of the Star Trek universe of which very little has been explored, and, in the end, it should blow people away.
STA: You obviously love the Star Trek universe. What do you like most about it?
MEL: Everyone adores a different aspect of Gene’s vision of humanity’s future, and what appeals to me are the 23rd and 24rth century ships of the Star Trek universe and their incredible technologies. Growing up, my brother and I played FASA’s Starship Combat Simulator as one of our favorite past times. We must have destroyed hundreds of Gorn, Romulan, Klingon, Andorian and, of course, Federation vessels. I was immediately excited to be apart of Axanar, because, like director Christian Gossett, I always wanted to see the Klingon wars. I originally was not going to have anything to do with the sound design of any of the projects for Axanar, but at the time that we were working on the Kickstarter video, there was no one in the sound department (save me). Someone was going to have to make the sound design for Tobias Richter’s virtuosic starship visual effects…and that someone became me.
To be honest, I’d never done extended starship effects before. Certainly the odd planet explosion and star travel sounds were easy enough, but to put an entire orchestration of “from-scratch” sounds together, mega-battle-scenes and make it compelling was outside my experience…but I knew it wasn’t outside my ability.
STA: So, if you’d never done sound effects to that scale, what was your process? How did you figure it out?
MEL: Thousand mile journeys… Eat the elephant one bite at a time… As a composer, the scariest thing is the blank page. So to get around that you just start writing themes and use broad strokes to being the process of what will ultimately be tens-of-thousands of notes for a score. For me, I had to come up with an audio sound…a concept for the film. Conceptually, I knew that I wanted to stay away from the usual lo-fi TOS sounds. I also wanted to stay clear of 24th century sounds for the most part. I’ve always been a fan of Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom’s work. They take the craziest sounds and change how society thinks about what a submarine or starship sounds like. So, I was looking for “Star Wars” audio production values in the Star Trek universe and that felt super right to me, and Christian [Gossett the director] agreed. This meant taking many layers of sounds that normally wouldn’t be applied to a “spaceship,” tweak them, resynthesize them, reperform them in some cases, and integrate them into what the human brain considers “appropriate Doppler effects” as objects fly by the screen. Even for the Kickstarter video, the 5 or so shots of Tobias that we used were a large undertaking. Especially since there would be nothing “original” or “cannon” to pull from.
STA: You did use some original TOS sounds for weapons, right?
MEL: Well, yes that’s true. We even used Voyager and TNG sounds. But it was rare that we just left them naked on their own. First, TOS sounds are notoriously lo-fi. Lots of noise and artifacts. Some of which came from the creation of the sounds themselves. So, when we used something from TOS, we always tried to layer it with something “hi-fi” not only to mask the fidelity loss, but also to give more production value. When we used something from the 24rth century, we tried to “dumb it down” with darker, noisier layers so everything weapon-wise had a homogenous sound when combined.
STA: You were working on Axanar while you were also working on Avenger’s S.T.A.T.I.O.N. Was there any crossover of inspiration?
MEL: Without a doubt. Both projects had the unstoppable Frank Serafine on board as Senior Sound Designer/Sound Supervisor, and he brings all the experience from TRON, ST:TMP, Hunt for Red October and so many more. It was sort of funny. We were working with Disney and having to analyze all of the sounds from the Marvel universe in order to make the [S.T.A.T.I.O.N.] exhibit feel like it was in the Marvel universe. So we were analyzing some of the work of even more world-class sound designers and having to emulate their work…and in some cases one-up them. Well, naturally, all that education and know-how translated into how we designed the starship sounds and battles. We were using the Zoom H6 to record sounds in the shop for S.T.A.T.I.O.N. We got wonderful saws, and drops and all sorts of industrial sounds. At the same time I camped out for an extended period of time on an underpass on Interstate 5 at the foot of the grapevine [a very steep grade] and recorded semi trucks and trailers grinding through gears and going full throttle. Well, hey, that stuff turned into some of the best parts of the starships found in Axanar. We even had a race car driver friend, Kyle Whisner, take us to Irwindale Speedway and record his cars in the shop and the track. In fact those sounds became a foundation for the Ares impulse drive.
STA: So where did the inspiration come for the Ares?
MEL: Admiral Ramirez states that the Federation had never built an “pure warship” before, so I figured we needed to really give it an explosive and powerful audio footprint. I wasn’t sure where all the elements were going to come from, but I knew that big gasoline (or indeed Methanol) engines were going to be required. From our research and work on the [U.S.S.] Korolev and the [U.S.S.] Triton, we knew that we had to invent sounds for the Bussard ramscoops and the deflector dishes. These are critical items to space travel without which, warp travel in particular wouldn’t be possible. I mean, when my brother’s D-10s would knock out the deflector dishes on my Reliant class ships (which aren’t actually there in the ST 2) those feds are history. And since we’re always seeing these machines in every shot from every angle except astern, I figured they should have some sounds of their own…and no one had ever made sounds for these amazing devices. So once we created the “Federation” ramscoops and deflector dishes for the Ares, we designed its special shaped “hull-pushing-water” sound. See, each starship gets a “push by” sound when it’s primary hull whooshes by screen – or its pod or ports or whatever. Once we had all the elements in, I saw pretty quickly what our lady needed to sound like. Especially in the scene where she slams by camera and fires on the D-6. It’s a resynthesized mixture of Kyle’s cars, 18-wheelers going up the grapevine, and some synthetic and dub-step bass elements. I love incorporating sounds that just shouldn’t go together in order to make something that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.
STA: You mentioned the D-6. Want to talk about that?
MEL: Sure. Actually, the D-6 was the first ship that we worked on. I started with the shot of the D-6 flanked by the two assault craft that Tobias made. A beautiful flyby that had me inspired for weeks. Now, if you’ve played SCS [Starship Combat Simulator] at all you know that D-6s weren’t actually “real” – I know. A bit silly to say given we’re talking about Star Trek and FASA to boot, but there it is. However, if you’re into SB [Starfleet Battles], you know that the D-7 took its designs directly from the D-6, but SCS states that the D-7 got its designs from the D-4. Well, as crazy as all that sounds – both universes tell the same tale of the D-4/D-6: they weren’t very well designed. Hastily made with zero regard for the crew complement. In fact, regularly the impulse fusion reactors would leak lethal radiation killing many onboard – and this wouldn’t have the Klingon admiralty mothball a vessel, they’d just dispose of the bodies, put on a band aid, and a new crew would take over. Not until the advent of the D-7, which was a superior ship in every way, did the Klingons have a “smooth and sleek” sort of heavy cruiser design. Since all the battles in Prelude were at sublight, the impulse engines were going to be the most critical sound to every starship. So when I approached the sound of the impulse drives of the D-6, I really wanted to demonstrate that these things weren’t really the most well made. I created a pulsing “bump” that was powerful but also gave the feeling that it was a bit “gaffer’s tape and line” in terms of structural integrity. I also created a whine of what I theorized was the Klingons “overclocking” their SIFs [Structural Integrity Fields] in order to keep the ship together. What was lucky for me is that in doing so, instead of having super bright and roaring impulse engines like the Federation ships have, the klingons have a very distinct impulse sound that is unmistakeable. In fact, there was a shot of a D-32 Alpha BOP [Bird Of Prey] that didn’t make it into Prelude where the ship noise was really heard. We sped up the bumping noise and raised it in pitch, and it actually sort of made the ship feel more birdlike and, honestly, was scarier.
STA: How many layers go into each ship”
MEL: Anywhere from 5 to 15. Also consider that there’s space noise, asteroids sometimes, and other sounds that we have to throw in there. The climactic battle where Garth makes his “Klingon maneuver” was over 96 tracks. We had to create “Phaser cannons” for Kate Vernon’s ship which we based on the earliest audio renderings of such things from “Enterprise…” but we wanted them to feel more powerful. Frank Serafine came in and added giant mini-guns from an Apache helo and when we mixed them in, it was pretty cool. We’re always fighting the battle of “TOS doesn’t sound that great…but we’re before that” and “Enterpise sounded great but we’re after that…” So, for me it quickly became a battle that I couldn’t win. A lose…lose. I just wasn’t going to be able to make great sounding VFX that felt 100% like TOS and which had its origins in Enterprise. So, for me, the choice was obvious: reinvent everything. Create something that was derivative of TOS using weapons fire, but take the propulsion toward a much higher production value. What works in our favor, of course, is that the story takes place 20 years before TOS. And, in the case of 2014, imagine the propulsion we’ll have 20 years from nowgiven the speed of technology. Imagine the speed propulsion would take in the 23rd century.
STA: I see the trouble. But then, if technology is moving so quickly in the future why are they still using impulse drives in the 24th century?
MEL: Exactly. You can’t solve everything in the so-called, and I believe mis-named, “cannon” of Star Trek. Honestly, “cannon” for the most part is 1966 set designers, wardrobe and VFX trying to do everything they can to make the best sci-fi show anyone had ever scene…forget that everything has to fit into a “cannonized” universe. I think the offshoot television series in the 22nd, and 24th centuries have done a crazy-good job of walking that audio tightrope, and they’ve inspired me for years.
STA: You were also the re-recording mixer. Any anecdotes?
MEL: One of the things I love doing most in film audio is re-recording mixing. I’m the guy that gets to sit in front of the big screen and watch the movie for hours while mixing all the elements of Dialogue, Music, SFX and more together. So, I think my job is the best in post. It doesn’t feel like a movie until all the audio is in. Then the magic starts, and it starts to feel like a movie. With the Kickstarter video, it was pretty much just throw everything into ProTools and go-go-go. But with Prelude we had about 150 tracks of audio to mix in 5.1 surround. For a documentary, that’s a ridiculously high track count. We mixed at Sol 7 Mix & Post in Encino, CA which is where I do most of my surround mixing. A great place and a wonderful room. Having Christian there to provide his vision was critical to bringing about the great result that we got. In a mix I’m balancing three things with three different jobs: DX [dialogue], MX ([music)], and SFX. I’m not sure anyone else has my view, so I keep it to myself usually, but as a filmmaker myself, I find it’s critical to keep these things in mind while production is going on. I’m always balancing DX. It’s purpose is really to deceive the audience. Just like in real life. What’s really going on has nothing to do with what’s being said, it’s all about what’s NOT being said. Someone yelling about something they’re upset with you about? It’s not about that thing as they suppose, it’s about something else – deeper – that’s far more interesting and far more connective. Someone telling you they want to work with you or even that they love you? It’s not what’s really going on. And, for the purpose of filmmaking, a well written script always keeps this in mind. Of course, DX helps us move the plot forward and tell the story, but it shouldn’t be boxed into that solitary role. So, while it’s critically important to have the DX up strong, I’m not always so interested in having it be dominant especially when a director isn’t looking for deceiving an audience – and may be looking for one of the other two things to be workiing. MX is all about moving the audience’s emotions. Nothing else moves an audience better or more efficiently than music. You can have the antagonist chopping the heart out of our heroin, but if there’s a polka with tubas going on, everyone is laughing. Lastly, for me SFX is all about immersion. It’s terrible at telling the story or deceiving and isn’t too good at moving people through emotions. However, to dispel belief in a picture, nothing does this better than SFX. So, I’m always asking directors when they’re telling me to turn something up or down in a mix “Do you want to move the audience’s emotions or do you want them to be immersed? Perhaps you want to lead them astray a bit?” With Christian in Axanar, we really got this down to a science in a few moments. We got to a battle scene and it was like he’d say, “Immersion,” and I knew what to do. “We need to build the emotion here…” and it was obvious which faders to pull and push. I like this kind of vocabulary when doing the broad strokes in a mix because it brings about the entire purpose of filmmaking to me – which has everything to do with transportation to another place…and audio does it best.
STA: Mark, thanks so much for joining us, and we look forward to hearing more of your work soon. If someone wanted to find out more about your projects and work where would they go?
MEL: http://www.markedwardlewis.com will bring you to the most relevant places including my little mini-courses on how I did the sound effects for Prelude to Axanar. Thank you for having me.