Production sound mixer Ben Osmo and vehicle FX recordist Oliver Machin recently relied on Sound Devices’ 7-Series of digital audio recorders to capture the high-action, post-apocalyptic soundscape for Mad Max: Fury Road.
The plot calls for a warlord’s harem to race across a desert wasteland in a desperate, high-speed bid for freedom from his ruthless henchman. Both escapees and their pursuers form an “armada” of armored vehicles. Hidden within that sandstorm were members of the audio crew, trying to capture every bit of dialogue and sound effects, all while in motion.
“I used four 788T-SSDs plus four CL-8s, and did mix down to each recorder, plus a two-track mix down to a 744T for dailies,” said Osmo. “I also had a 788T rigged in my sound cart and kept that in a larger truck for a couple of months, next to video split.” In addition to that equipment, Machin brought a sixth 788T in a bag to record extra vehicle FX when necessary.
“The use of multiple 788Ts became necessary when the challenge was to record multiple tracks under extreme conditions,” explained Osmo. “The 788Ts were very versatile. As well as ISO tracks and mix downs, we were able to set up mix minuses with AUX sends into a monitor mixer. We had available 42 channels of radio mics. This was because of the repeater systems and different RF blocks in play, so we could pre-rig vehicles ahead of time, and in my van, I would then cross over to the correct receiver blocks once they were in action.”
Machin said, “It was kind of ridiculous trying to keep track of that many transmitters. We were planting mics on the vehicles…and Mark Wasiutak would also travel with a boom mic to grab the slates and sync effects at the time with the shots.”
There was also a separate action unit sound team, using a more simplified system, still pursuing the action and – because the vehicle sounds were so loud – providing usable guide track dialogue for future automated dialogue replacement (ADR).
Microphones were hidden in the cabin and on the principle cast, in the engine bays, near exhausts, on top of the “War Rig” (the main characters’ get-away vehicle), and on a vast number of supporting cast members in other vehicles. Capturing all of that audio would be a major task on a normal sound stage, but portability requirements for Fury Road would not allow for a typical film-studio audio setup, so the crew had to get creative.
“We had a 4×4 vehicle,” said Machin, describing Ben Osmo’s van they dubbed the Osmotron. “Instead of having sound carts traditionally… that wasn’t going to cut it on a road movie traveling at 80- or 90-miles an hour across the desert. Nobody was going to keep up, so we built into his vehicle huge racks of radio mic receivers.”
“It was lucky that I had all SSD 788Ts,” Osmo said. “So, even though most of the filming was off road, they performed exceptionally well under extreme vibration.” Separately, a 744T was suspended in a pouch so it could absorb the shocks of the Namibian desert during the six-month-long production schedule. “They never skipped a beat, especially when travelling and recording on very bumpy and dusty terrain.”
Adding to the complexity, the cast members were essentially in a rusty box, so RF reception had to be rethought, making repeaters sometimes necessary. The crew set up three multiplex systems (which Ben designed with assistance of RF experts) with RF combiners and high-powered transmitter boosters to maximize the range of 1-to-3 kilometers, not only for recording purposes but also to aid communication behind the scenes.
“As we travelled long distances, the walkie talkie repeater towers were often out of range,” Osmo said, “so I was asked to provide my comms in the Lectrosonics radio mics and IFB systems to director George Miller and first ad and co-producer, PJ Voeten, as they also often were great distances apart – at least 500 meters to 1.5 kilometers – and they were able to have hands-free communication. Cinematographer John Seale and two of his operators were on this system, and the first AC camera people, as well.”
Comms were also used to feed audio to IFB receivers for cast members, including Immortan Joe played by Hugh Keays-Burne. As sound mixer, Osmo also had to feed a musical mix to musicians armed with ear wigs to aid them in keeping time to the beat while riding atop the “Doof Wagon” vehicle, and playing instruments, such as drums and a flaming guitar.
When the action call came, only the camera tracking vehicles, SFX, and the lonely sound van were in pursuit. Mark Wasiutak, key boom operator, travelled on the hero vehicles when cameras were on board. He was able to troubleshoot with assistance from the rest of the sound crew whenever the armada was stopped for checks.
“It was like a whole armada,” Machin said. Once it stopped, “Every department was jumping in their 4x4s and travelling to assist. I mean literally they would be going five, six, seven kilometers across the desert, turn around and come back again, or go farther.” The whole unit relocated to new technical base camps, then waited for the cue to go again. “It was quite a feat to make that happen.”