How Ad Astra’s Sound Team “Weirded Things Up”
When the aural landscape of a film or television series aims to heighten the story the effort is usually dialed in subliminally. The audience doesn’t even realize what’s happening they’re just captivated by what’s in front of them. In Ad Astra, a 20th Century Fox film directed by James Gray (The Lost City of Z), sound looked to do this very thing with an added hook.
“James talked about the sound having a realistic approach but also a psychological one,” says Gary Rydstrom, who served as its sound supervising editor, sound designer, and re-recording mixer. “[The sound] puts you in the place of the character you’re supposed to emphasize with and care about. That was the primary approach we took to the whole soundtrack.”
Perspective was also key in detailing the story that’s set in the distant future where Brad Pitt’s Major Roy McBride is an astronaut who journeys deep into space to save mankind. “We leaned on an internal point of view over externalized action,” Rydstrom says. “The story is really about a guy who doesn’t say much. Roy has this internal monologue, so we did different things with the soundscape like loop dialogue from other parts of the film, especially in the montage sections. We wanted to get inside Roy’s head as much as possible.”
The sound story is shared through Roy’s perspective in nearly every scene. We’re first introduced to it in the opening sequence when he’s working high atop an antenna designed to search for alien life when an electrical explosion sends the astronaut crashing back down to Earth.
As Roy climbs down a ladder to start his work the blast occurs above him and other astronauts are seen falling from the rig. Sound muffled the initial explosion as Roy is wearing his space helmet and would not be able to hear it clearly. Then as the antenna crumbles closer and closer, we start to hear more of the static and distortion of the destruction from what Roy hears through his helmet.
In treating the sound design of the electrical impulses which originate near the planet Neptune, Rydstrom used an old school technique. “At Skywalker Sound we’ve done our share of space and NASA related projects. There are a lot of experts in the company who know what space is supposed to sound like and in the script, it was explained as a massive gamma-ray interference. Through our research we couldn’t figure out exactly what the sound should be scientifically, so we did something different,” says Rydstrom. “The one idea that was important to me is that there are moments where the sound sucks out. Where the sound is so loud you can’t hear it anymore. We did this for the gamma rays, especially in the opening sequence. When you hear the pulses it gets so loud that it cliffs and you’re left with absolute silence and then it comes back. It’s like when you overload a speaker and it can’t handle it.”
For the rocket launch scenes that take place on Earth, the moon and Mars the sound team that includes supervising sound editor Brad Semenoff and re-recording mixer Tom Johnson treated each with a unique aural palette. The Earth launch mirrored its inspiration from the Saturn V rocket of the ‘60s and ‘70s. On the moon, all the exterior shots are completely silent with interiors harnessing the perspective of the thunderous spaceship set to launch. With Mars, sound “weirded things up a bit,” and used an “old school editing trick” to create the atmosphere of the landing and takeoff. “We introduced animal sounds into the track,” says Rydstrom. We added in animal roars underneath the billowing smoke and sweetened things to make it a little weird. We also found in our research that Mars’ atmosphere allows you to hear low frequencies more than high frequencies so we emphasized them.”
Other animal sounds serve to subliminally emphasize Roy’s growing internal conflict. Does he have the same dark side as his father (Tommy Lee Jones)? In the scene where Roy needs to fight off crew members as he boards the rocket ship leaving Mars, different primal animal sounds underline the scene and whale groans stood in for the ship creaks and rattles.
To represent the infinite expanse of the cosmos, the team removed any clutter in the track and created an isolated feeling as Roy journeys further into space. “What you mostly hear are simple tones and background tones of the ship. By the time Roy gets to Neptune all that’s left are his thoughts and the quiet buzzing of the ship,” says Rydstrom. “Contrast is such a great tool and we got the excuse to use it on this project.”
For the epic moon chase sequence, which cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema shot in infrared and was further stylized by visual effects, Rydstrom felt “it was a moment to do something unique” as it was “shot differently and had different expectations than other science fiction films.” He began working on the sequence from the very start. “It was the first scene I did and it happened to be a year before we started the final mix,” he says.
The sequence involves Roy traveling from the moon’s airport to a U.S. facility on the dark side. The group is attacked by space pirates, and what follows is a thrilling, hugely unique sequence. To immerse the audience the sound team removed any atmosphere on the moon then played events through Roy’s perspective.
“The first gun that’s fired in that scene you don’t hear anything until the impact. Seeing something and not hearing it – those moments for the audience can be more powerful than any sound effect we can put into a scene,” says Rydstrom. “They key to it all is that you’re hearing things from what Roy would hear and what would resonate in his suit or through his microphone.”
To create the sound elements, including the traveling rovers, much was done through feedback and distortion. “It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit as a sound designer because there’s nothing easier to create in sound design than feedback and distortion, but the scene is almost completely made up of all the sounds I tried to avoid in my career. Some of it is just me blowing into a microphone to get that steady distortion or creating microphone feedback. The scene is an homage to all the technically wrong sounds you can create,” Rydstrom explains. “The unexpectedness is a powerful tool in film that we sometimes don’t use to full effect. The unexpectedness of seeing something and not hearing it or the unexpectedness of hearing a big sound effect that’s distortion when you’d expect to hear clean sounds. They end up having power.”
Featured image: Brad Pitt stars in ‘Ad Astra.’ Credit: Francois Duhamel. Copyright Twentieth Century Fox