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Brent Burge on creating the soundscape for The Hobbit

The sound designer talks to ScreenTech about Peter Jackson’s return to the world of Middle Earth.

Brent Burge has been part of Peter Jackson’s sound design team since the director 1987 sci-fi horror film Bad Taste. Much of the conversation about Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been about its cutting edge image technology. ScreenTech’s interview with Burge, who was The Hobbit’s supervising sound editor, talks about how The Hobbit – and film sound generally – is riding the cutting edge of film technology. 

ScreenTech: What innovations have been brought to the sound design of The Hobbit? 

Brent Burge: Sound design innovations are always people driven. The Designers on The Hobbit, Dave Farmer and Dave Whitehead, certainly had new software to work with, and advancements in the sonic quality of design was evident. The innovations though, came from the way design was approached in The Hobbit. We had a framework to work towards in The Lord of the Rings, but we had the opportunity to develop ideas in The Hobbit to lead us there. Hobbiton and Rivendell were embellished while paying homage to the originals for instance.

There was a lot of creature vocal design in The Hobbit, both animal and speech based, and this side of sound design has progressed with the most innovation and better convolutions, higher resolution processing all leant themselves to a richer cleaner track.

Animal creature vox also benefitted from a greater palette of tools to work with. The one thing that has not changed in determining the success of design is the raw material. The original recordings were key. We had bears recorded in the US and Canada, alligators in the US, and a myriad of other elements were recorded using high resolution mics to allow the designers maximum latitude in processing.

ST: How does Park Road’s work on The Hobbit compare technically and creatively with The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Is there an attempt to keep the sound design thematically connected with LOTR or did you start from scratch?

BB: The beauty of a film like The Hobbit is its lineage. LOTR had a wealth of sound signatures developed, and we were very respectful of these in building the soundtrack for The Hobbit. The problem with this is how sound resolution has improved. Although we were using the most advanced techniques we had available on LOTR - they are still obsolete in the age of The Hobbit. This gave us license to “update” the signatures in LOTR, while being faithful to their original intent. 

ST: Could you share some of Peter Jackson’s vision of the sound for the film and how Peter and Park Road collaborated?

BB: One of the issues we had on The Hobbit was Peter having to finish his shoot while we were preparing the soundtrack for the first film. We had some preliminary spotting sessions on set! The approach has always been to be respectful of what has gone before, while advancing as far as we could within the bounds of the themes and descriptions passed on by Peter. Then in temp mixes we would see what things worked and what didn’t, so by the final mix we had a fairly clear idea of how it should play. Of course Peter would often suggest things we weren’t expecting in the final - as he always has. It’s always a challenge and a pleasure of working for the man.

 ST: Are there any special challenges or issues editing and mixing a film shot in 3D and/or in high frame rates?

BB: From the sound perspective, clarity was always a startling thing in viewing the HFR version. Dialog often had issues to adjust, as did some of the FX to tighten sync. The 3D did occasionally need an emphasis change in the mix determined by the location of things on screen.

There was a temptation to cover more detail to match the amazing clarity presented in the HFR presentation, however maintaining the focus on the story is always the priority for a successful soundtrack.

ST:  How would you compare recent advances in film image presentation with advances in film sound. Is sound keeping pace? Does an enhancement in one demand an enhancement in the other?

BB: Film sound has always been at the forefront of cinema presentation. We have been presenting 3D sound, with 5.1, for some years now. It still really is the foundation of the film soundtrack - even with all the recent advancements of 7.1 and Atmos. We can expand the soundstage to create a more immersive experience - but it can never be at the expense of the story, or what the filmmaker is trying to put across on screen. Three-stripe mono still is the purest form of sound content.

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