Who said man wouldn’t land on Mars in the 21st Century? Blasphemy. Ridley Scott’s The Martian, stars Matt Damon as astronaut and botanist extraordinaire Mark Watney in a story of survival, ingenuity and wit. After a violent storm rattles the group of astronaut’s mission, Watney is presumed dead and is left behind by his crew. But the space walker has survived. Now stranded on the lonely planet, Watney uses his intelligence to preserve his own life while finding a way to contact Earth. With a little bit of hope and sheer luck, millions of miles away NASA gets his message and begins to work endlessly in order bring him home.
In postproduction, rerecording mixers Paul Massey and Mark Taylor faced a similar feat as the sound team worked diligently in order to meet a release date that was moved up by the studio. “The whole schedule got advanced as we approached pre-dubs and the final mix. We had enough time to do everything but we were tight without much room to spare,” noted Massey. “Looking back, in many ways it was a good thing. We went for more of an instinctive mix rather than one that was viewed many times with multiple notes. Sometimes when that happens you lose a strong sense of direction. And with this project, it wasn’t like we were going 24/7, but with the tighter schedule, there was no real time to go back and forth. Everyone looked to make decisions, improve the track and move forward.”
But before settling in for the final mix at Twickenham Studios in London, there were other challenges to consider, one in particular was dialogue. “Story is always king, and for me, the biggest challenge was all the different treatments we had to do to the voices,” explained Massey. “There were multiple futz and radio instances throughout the film. In the space helmets we started with the original dry recordings. Then Oliver Tarney [sound designer/supervising sound editor] got one of the helmets from the props department and did individual recordings through a speaker in the helmet to recreate its hollowness. When Mark Watney was talking in his helmet, we had his voice the way it sounded inside his helmet and then Oliver also transmitted that over a local radio station and re-recorded it to become the source for his voice as heard by the other astronauts in their helmets.”
But it wasn’t just the helmets post had to build a believable audio palette for. There were also the transmissions to Earth and Watney recording his video diary. “We had to devise treatments for various PA systems in NASA and JPL, through console speakers on the Hermes spacecraft and others. We went through multiple layers of different treatments until we found the right ones,” said Massey. “All the GoPros that recorded the video logs inside the Hab and the rover had to sound slightly different. We wanted to do all of that while maintaining the believability and reality without losing sight of the story.”
Helping to create those believable tones was Tarney who was able to add field recordings into the mix from NASA and JPL. “Oliver was able to get tons of great recordings from various pieces of equipment during his visits. He was also able to go out to the desert and get original material that would become invaluable for his design of the sound of Mars and the Rover traveling over it,” said Massey.
In balancing the dialogue and effects, one of the directions from Scott that sound followed closely was paying attention to Mark Watney’s breathing. “Ridley was very clear, and correct in my mind, in his direction to highlight the breathing of Watney when he was isolated and alone,” noted Massey. “For Watney, being stuck in this dangerous environment in a very enclosed space, emphasizing his breathing gave his life a more claustrophobic feeling.”
Music was recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin at Abbey Road Studios for composer Harry Gregson-Williams. Besides the traditional approach to micing, they also added mics to record from the ceiling. “Peter used this approach when I worked with him on Exodus: Gods and Kings, so we’ve had success with this before,” noted Massey. “He records everything the normal way, creating 7.1 stems, but having the mics in the ceiling provides separate quads for the Dolby Atmos mix. It doesn’t become ‘over the top,’ but allows the audience to feel a little more air and give a glossy presentation above the orchestra in Atmos.”
Another consideration was how to present the sound of space. One crucial sequence was the attempted rescue of Watney. “The main thing you want is the audience to be engaged in is the story. They are not going to notice those fine details of the sounds in space, and you don’t want to them to be jarred out of a sequence by a sudden change. You take license in different scenes to cheat those perspectives at times in order to keep the audience engaged,” explained Massey. “With that said, there was a section prior to the rescue where the crew blows the hatch of the Hermes to slow themselves down. We used pretty much total silence on the FX side during the exterior POV of the Hermes – and inside the ship it was very load, creaky, and dangerous. We tried to treat most exterior space shots as silent except for whoosh-bys of close-up objects such as when Watney’s space vehicle passes.”
Working with editor Pietro Scalia was crucial to their workflow as well. “The film was close to lock when we started mixing. It went through transitions and revisions, but we weren’t chasing our tails conforming and trying to keep up with a moving picture. We were able to get into overview concepts and field them with Pietro fairly early on,” said Massey. “We worked with him going into the final mix reel by reel, showing him what we developed. We bounced ideas off him and changed those sequences based on what he thought we should do. It’s always a very pleasant experience working with Pietro. He allows Mark and I to mix the dialogue, music and FX as a first pass and then we look at the reel with an overview and get into the details he needs to address.” While Scalia eyed the smaller details, director Scott would speak more towards the overall storytelling and direction during the mix. “It’s a fantastic way of working,” said Massey. “We would get the track very close to finished and then Ridley would listen and comment with his notes, almost like a mastering pass.”
Massey admits how much he enjoys working alongside Tarney and Taylor. “It’s really very enjoyable. The entire team is well structured, and Mark is very talented and skillful at what he does. He knows what to take out of a sequence and not to overcrowd the track. Likewise with Oliver. When we mix, we’re not trying to split it up into three different food groups – dialogue, effects, music – but realize the audience will listen to a single soundtrack, so therefore how are we going to make that one soundtrack work for the story. It’s a great way of mixing.”