Over the weekend The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – director Peter Jackson’s second installment of The Hobbit trilogy – earned $73.6 million at the box office, making it the fourth-best December opening weekend ever. Contributing to the film’s success was Full Sail Recording Arts grad and Hall of Fame inductee David Farmer, who was a sound designer on the film. David took time out of his busy schedule last Thursday to chat with students and other fans about his work on the film and in the industry during our latest Ask Me Anything Facebook Chat. In case you missed it, below are a few of the most popular questions from the chat.
Q: I just had the opportunity to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Fantastic film. Best dragon ever portrayed on screen, in my opinion. What were some of the challenges that you faced with the dragon’s voice?
A: First – thanks! The first challenge was the speaking voice, which anytime something that isn’t a robot is talking, it’s very difficult to do much without having it sound fake. I worked really hard to make it sound as natural as possible. But the first challenge really was to make it BELIEVABLE that it was coming from the dragon’s body. Usually clarity is the first concern, but I decided early on that if we didn’t believe it to be coming from him we’d already have lost the battle.
Q: With such massive visual scope in these films (rock monsters for example in The Hobbit) how do you choose what gets sound and how much sound to give it when so many things are happening on screen?
A: Ultimately it’s for the director to decide of course, but really it comes down to what is the eye drawn to … it becomes a battle a lot of the time, because there are differing opinions on what is actually important. When the director has time to come in and give their take, it’s welcome because it puts an end to the debate we have amongst ourselves. Until that happens, we’re just second-guessing what our boss wants, and that’s really what we’re there to deliver.
Q: What did you do to make Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice more dragon-like for Smaug?
A: It helps to start with a great performance which Benedict gave us in droves. His voice is arguably the best I’ve been able to work with. The key was the right amount of pitching, with other low end enhancers, for the most part. But then there was the reverbs to make it sound like it exited the space, as well as vocoding alligator growls to add an extra layer of girth underneath. There were quite a few processes, some added quite subtly, but in the end the sum of the parts created something I hope sounds natural, but yet authentic.
Q: What would your advice be as a first step for someone who wants to work on sound design for such an epic movie?
A: I don’t mean this to sound snarky – but work on lots of smaller ones first!!!! Everyone on a show like this really needs to have their chops up so those things don’t get in the way when the going gets rough. Inevitably things go wrong, whether technically, creatively, or even emotionally! My advice would be to record as much as you can, and practice working with that material. Take scenes from your favorite movies and try to re-create them using your own stuff. You will learn HEAPS doing this, and also discover that things are not as easy to make as they seem. My own experience took a huge amount of practice, unpaid, on my own time, just trying to learn how to even begin to do the things I wanted to do.
Q: It’s obviously not all fun and glamour working on a big project like The Hobbit. What’s the most frustrating or tedious part of the job from your perspective?
A: Playing keep-up with the picture changes is no fun. There’s nothing creative about it and you’re constantly trying to keep things you’ve done that you like from breaking. And also the fact that it can go wrong AT ANY STAGE!!!! You can have a great sound that you’ve had in place for months, that survived all the picture changes and everything, and that can disappear in an instant. The mixer might mix it out or forget to record it, any number of things. If it’s not in the printmaster, it doesn’t go out, and it can get lost at any point. I find shepherding things all the way to the printmaster to be very tedious and stressful.
Q: What’s the most dangerous position you’ve put yourself in to get a sound?
A: I convinced some guys at the Pittsburgh (I think) Airport to let me stand on the ledge of the underground tram to record it as it went by. It nearly blew me off the ledge and onto the tracks. There have been others for sure. You forget that you’re in physical danger while you’re focusing on how great the sound is, and if you can get into a better position … Photographers run into this a lot too.
Q: What is the most valuable lesson(s) you’ve learned in your career so far?
A: It’s hard to pin it down to a single of course, but … it’s something creative people eventually need to understand – ultimately my job is to make my director happy. S/he is the one who is responsible for the track and makes the final decisions, not me. I am part of the process, but there is a balance required to stay personally invested and make contributions (some of which are simply informing the director), while knowing its not about me. Director happy? I work again tomorrow.
Q: Any advice on getting into the film industry? Did you always want to be a sound designer, or did you have bigger plans?
A: As far as film goes, yes sound design is what I wanted to do. I had seen a making-of video for The Empire Strikes Back and that just seemed like the coolest job ever. Getting into it – I get that question a lot and I wish there were a good answer. Everyone I know got in a different way. I hate to say that because it seems like I’m avoiding the question, but it’s the truth.
Q: Your creature voices always have a strong identity. Do you work with all kinds of animal sounds when you design a creature voice or do you pick a specific animal for each specific monster?
A: I generally try to stick with as few elements as I can for each creature. If I start sharing too many elements, then that limits what I can use for other creatures as they all start to sound the same then.
Q: How did you get your name out there?
A: It really was just working my butt off – seriously. I was about as gung-ho as anyone you’ll ever find when I got out of Full Sail. I put everything else on hold and just went for it. There were times when I could’ve gone the route of not working out, but I showed enough of a knack for it to get me through those stages. And it’s important to not only be good at what you do, but be a person that people will want to “be around.” That’s very important and really pays off. Eventually you get on a project that people notice, and then they start to seek you out.
Q: What has been your favorite film to work on?
A: Hard one – but I’ll say Fellowship of the Ring, since it was the first of its scope for me, and I also broke new ground for myself creatively.
Q: What plugin or hardware do you find yourself using the most?
A: Pro Tools for editing and ITB mixing. But a LOT of my processing is done straight from Soundminer via VST directly on importing into Pro Tools. The plug-ins? Too many to mention, plus I think I want people to search those out and reverse-engineer on their own.
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
A: Hmmmm, I think it’s just that I get to stay a kid and play around with sounds. And I’ve been very fortunate to have been involved with both the films (games) and people I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with over the years.
Q: Would you collaborate with the animators? As in would they ask you to make an extra track or part for a certain part, or would you add in parts that you know would sound great with visuals?
A: Great question! Usually and historically sound follows picture, meaning we make a sound for something we first see. However with the tools filmmakers have now, we’re seeing animations turn up that are clearly influenced by sound effects we’ve put in as temporary placeholders.
Q: When deciding to go with an alligator growl for Smaug, how much input does Peter have on a decision like that and how much “artistic freedom” do you have when those decisions arise?
A: It varies from director to director, but the way Peter and I work, he gives me carte blanche to do whatever I want to present an idea, and then he’ll react to it, similar to concept art.
You can check out the full transcript on Full Sail University’s Facebook page.
Above: Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures