The War of the Worlds started on the radio, but the sound is just as important in the latest small screen turn of the HG Wells classic. Adrian Pennington goes behind the scenes of the audio behind the BBC’s new TV adaptation.
Peaceful Edwardian England turns into a chaotic warzone and then an apocalyptic world of red weed, in the new mini-series of HG Wells’ classic.
Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for TV) adapted the novel into three parts in Mammoth Screen’s production for the BBC, directed by Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None).
The show will air in the UK on BBC One from Sunday 17 November.
Relocating the landscape from Surrey to the North of England, the production shot in and around Liverpool including at a former oil-blending plant turned make-shift studio on the Birkenhead docks.
At the time of the story’s turn of the twentieth century setting Britain is the world’s superpower but the invasion begins to sap the life from the seat of empire.
The contrast between the industrial power of man and the creeping alien world is reflected in the organic sound design of the title sequence which sets the tone for the series.
“Craig wanted the world to feel vibrant, full and powerful,” says Tony Gibson, sound effects editor, Molinare. “We talked a lot about getting an alien feel to the world slowly creeping in with the insect sequences before we fully reveal the alien sounding red world.”
Gibson combined research into the period with his own library of sounds accumulated from years of drama work.
“The pre-invasion sections have a sense of hubris, of an Empire at its peak but on the verge of starting to fall,” says re-recording mixer Dan Johnson (Molinare).
Some characters talk of Britain’s military and technological superiority and this is represented by the sound of machinery and the technology of the time. These include sounds of trains and printing presses, cameras, a giant telescope, a gramophone and, later, machine guns.
The Martian technology, on the other hand, is alien and unknowable. “It had to be uncanny but not in a synthetic way – things are stranger when they are almost familiar but different in some way,” Johnson says.
The black smoke had to be tangible, thick, suffocating and enveloping. “In a way you are trying to use sound to compensate for the lack of some of the senses such as touch, smell, taste. The occasionally exaggerated use of sound helps to fill in these gaps in the viewer’s experience.”
The red vegetation is intended to sound almost creepily alive – half-plant, half-animal. “Adding the sounds of crowds and people helps to enhance the idea that appalling things are happening.”
Dialogue editor Filipa Principe (Molinare) recorded many hours of crowd ADR to reflect the horror on screen.
As the story unfolds, large scale scenes of destruction and mayhem are contrasted with much smaller domestic, intimate scenes.
“It was really important to highlight this – as the contrasts really enhance the nature of these scenes,” Johnson says.
That entailed controlling the dynamics so that scenes of terror and destruction sounded loud without fatiguing the audience. One of the ways this was achieved was building in a slightly quieter section before something that was supposed to be deafening.
“Our volume perception is based on comparing to what was there before so if everything is constantly loud then it can lead to nothing being perceived as loud,” explains Johnson. “We made extensive use of high-quality, controlled distortion to simulate what happens when sounds are loud in real life. For example, the tripod roar is distorted to mimic the sound of the air itself distorting and being unable to contain the amount of sound.”
Viveiros and Johnson maintained the illusion of volume by doing much of the final mix on small TV speakers. “If the sound didn’t feel loud on those then we had to keep working until it did,” he adds.
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As expected, the Martians and their tripods were one of the main creative talking points.
Their construction, sound and movement had to appear not only ahead of its time for the Edwardian period but light years away from our own.
“In the artwork of the 1900s there was a lot of Meccano style riveted steel,” Viveriros says. “These were monsters born out of the industrial revolution but we wanted something that also had a life of its own, that could regenerate.”
The producers tasked Realtime UK, a Lancashire based facility renowned for video game cinematics, to create the VFX.
From an audio point of view the producers wanted the tripods to sound natural and not too robotic. There were clues in some of the script. For example, Ogilvy, the astronomer, talks about something in the mysterious capsule that lands on Horsell Common as sounding like clockwork. Gibson created sounds that sounded like giant clockwork “with a slight, uncanny twist to them.”
Viverios’ briefed the tripods’ voice to mimic that of whale song in being able to communicate with other over great distances.
“We sampled a library of whale calls and morphed these with some didgeridoo, elephant calls and some fog horns to convey their range of emotion,” Gibson explains. “Dan worked wonders bedding this sound into the show and allowing the range for them to be heard at full volume.
“The tripods are covered in a graphite-like substance that is always breaking and regenerating as they move and they needed to sound massive. We put this together from ice sheets cracking, building destruction libraries and some ingenious Foley work.”
The Martians themselves were designed with a membrane over their mouths leading the sound team to select a clicking / rattling effect recorded using a bottle of water and software called Dehumanizer.
“This allowed us to integrate other animal sounds like seals and pigs into their screeches and chatter,” Gibson says. “Once again we collaborated with the Foley department to get a leathery and slimy sound for their movement.”
Hackenbacker (Ciaran Smith, Foley mixer; Stuart Bagshaw, Foley editor; and artists Ruth Sullivan and Paula Boram) worked on Foley. Almost all of it was featured in the final mix.
“I often think of Foley as the audio equivalent of focus, subtly drawing the audience’s attention to something on screen,” observes Johnson.
And in a not so subtle way it helps to bring a level of detail, focus and reality to what is often a highly constructed scene. For example, when Stent, another astronomer, touches the capsule, the foley sound of the squelch allows the audience to imagine what this would feel like if they had done it themselves.
Director of photography James Friend worked with Molinare senior colorist Andrew Daniel to develop a “classy and low contrast look for the project” in particular testing mixtures of lighting and grading for the ‘red world’ scenes.
“In the end we decided to sort of meet each other half way to allow room for manoeuvrability in the grade,” says Daniel. “We had the idea that we could make the show feel like a black and white film that had been colourised. It gave the series a feeling that it had existed for a long time and we were only just discovering it.”