The Trouble With Rain: Designing the Sounds of Noah
CreativeCOW presents The Trouble With Rain: Designing the Sounds of Noah -- Audio Professionals Editorial
Oahu Hawaii USA All rights reserved.

For 20 years, you've been hearing Craig Henighan's work. As a sound mixer, sound designer, supervising sound editor and more, he's worked in both movies and TV on projects such as Friday Night Lights, Red Dragon, Sin City, La Femme Nikita, Moonrise Kingdom, and three features for director Darren Aronofsky: The Fountain, Requiem For A Dream, and Black Swan, where his work was nominated for a BAFTA, and awards from the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Cinema Audio Society, USA.

On Noah, Craig teamed up with Darren once again, building the soundscapes for an epic of literally biblical proportions. He also saw an opportunity to take advantage of the new Dolby Atmos surround technology.

Rather than limit the surround placement to a few number of channels, each speaker has a discreet feed, enabling much more precise positioning of sound. Additionally, Atmos takes advantage of overhead speakers so that listeners aren't just surrounded -- they're enveloped. Just the ticket for putting audiences right in the middle of the overwhelming events as experienced by the characters in the film.

Dolby Atmos Theatre
Dolby Atmos surround technology takes advantage of precise positioning of sound and includes overhead speakers.

The production was also committed to finishing in New York, where Darren is based, and where the ark itself was built. To be a bit more precise, the ark was built in Planting Fields Arboretum State Park on Long Island, and sound was mixed at Deluxe New York in Manhattan. Deluxe had in fact worked around the clock through the holidays to create one of the largest Dolby Atmos stages on the east coast just so the folks working on Noah could have everything they needed to create the cinematic experience they wanted.

One of Craig's toughest tasks would be to make the rain stand out as more than static, without drowning out (sorry) the rest of soundtrack, as Creative COW's Tim Wilson learned when he spoke to Craig, that was far from the only one.

Creative COW: How do you even start thinking about sound on a movie with this many elements?

Supervising Sound Editor Craig Henighan
Supervising Sound Editor
Craig Henighan
Craig Henighan: I started with the script: reading it, talking to Darren, and earmarking what we'd need. Essentially, making a grocery list of sounds, and thinking about how to go about getting them.

A little bit more than a year ago, my effects editors and my field recordists and I just started capturing sounds. I've worked with Rob Nokes for field sound effects on a lot of movies, having him go out in the world and capture different types of sounds for me while I'm in the studio creating and designing. It works great, because Rob is a real go-getter when it comes to finding unique places to record.

We sat down with a map and broke it down. "Hey man, the rainy season is coming up in California," and all of these other places to capture different sounding rains. Then in each of these different places, we recorded in different environments: wooden barns, forests, fields, and a couple of abandoned houses that we found in the deserts north of Los Angeles. We really just kept an eye on the weather in different areas, then headed out there to record as much as we could.

My main sound effects editor, Coll Anderson has a big property in northern New York, and they had a huge amount of rain last year that culminated in Hurricane Sandy -- but in that whole area, there were storms that went through the winter into early spring. So we were able to capture all these realistic rains.

I also built sort of a mini-ark in my backyard, where I could really control close-up sounds. It was built haphazardly, but I used different kinds of wood to get different effects. There was a sheet of plywood, some bamboo and other kinds of wood to get different kinds of sounds. I had a ladder, and turned on the hose to act as different kinds of rain and dripping sounds. Then we brought all those different sounds we'd found into the computer, and started laying them out and processing them.

Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe on location for NOAH with the Ark.
Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe on location with the Ark.

What kinds of processing?

The trouble with rain is that it becomes like white noise very quickly, so you look for specific rain sounds: rain on wood, rain on grass, rain on trees, rain on cement, rain on mud -- the list can go on and on and on. It takes a lot of listening, a lot of EQ'ing, sort of pitching sounds as you lay them up. You could record the best-sounding rain in the world, but in context with music, dialog, the sounds of the ark and the animals, it has to read as rain. You can tell pretty quickly if it turns into hissy white noise.

Russell Crowe as Noah
Russell Crowe as Noah

The main thing was how to make the ark feel it like it was raining constantly, but still hear the rain, have it be interesting. You don't want it to be annoying, but you don't want people to forget it's there, either. Darren was very, very focused on wanting to kind of drive people crazy with hearing the rain, no matter where you were in the ark. That's the psychology of it. When the rain stops, it's a relief for the characters, but also for the people in the theater.

What were some of the other things you were thinking about as you tried to make the sounds as specific as possible?

The ark is a three-level ship. On the top floor, you have the birds, so you hear more rain there. The mid-level deck is for the snakes and other reptiles, so hear less rain, and still less rain in the bottom level where the mammals are -- but as you go between the levels, you hear ambient shifts in certain areas.

A view inside the Ark, VFX courtesy of LOOK Effects.

Down below, in the bowels so to speak, you hear heavier sounds: the sounds of the boat under water. In the mid level, you're hearing more splashing, because you're closer to where the rain is meeting the surface of the water, and the water is hitting the side of the ark. Even though you're hearing a lot more rain on the top level, you can still hear some of that splashing, too -- but you hear it directly, rather than through the walls of the ark.

That was the sort of sonic geography that we used for the sonic environments for the water, but there was also the creaking of the wood of the ark, and the dripping, and the sounds of the animals. They were sleeping, but for example, a lot of birds don't make a lot of noise when they sleep -- obviously other than doves and birds who do make those kinds of sounds, but we had to figure out how to get a sense of birds sleeping without cooing. We had to come up with other kinds of language for sleeping reptiles, too, to give the feeling that they were living creatures.

Beyond just the animals, we wanted to give the sense that the ark itself was alive.


What's your approach to the mixing process in general?

On Darren's movies, I'm basically a combination of the Supervising Sound Editor, the sound designer, and the re-recording mixer. I start mixing and designing at the same time, very early on. I'm layering up sounds and mixing them, and trying to make them sonically appropriate from the beginning.

My job during the final mix is to do sound effects, foley, backgrounds and all the atmospheres, and my mixing partner Skip Lievsay dealt with all of the dialog and the music. At the same time, the score was being mixed down by Jeff Foster. Darren likes to hear sound in context, so it was important to get things working right away. Even if it's with temporary music or early dialogue work from the picture editor -- we work with those tracks in whatever state they're in, so that we're all in tune with each other.

This was obviously a pretty massive undertaking. How long did it take?

The sound effects mixing for this movie were done over the course of six or seven months. Near the end of the film, there was a 3-week dialog and sound effects premix while the score was being finalized. Then it was a five-week final mix.

Deluxe New York reception lobby

Because of real estate, New York doesn't have the giant mix stages we have in LA, so one of the first focuses was to find a room that was large enough. You want a room that you can push some air through and make it feel like you're working on a BIG MOVIE.

I'd done a temp mix in the main room at Deluxe New York in October and thought it sounded good. It has nice high ceilings, and had all the bells and whistles we needed...but when it came down to the final decision, we wanted to use Dolby Atmos, and had to think about where in New York were we going to go to try and do that. Thankfully Dolby and Deluxe got together and pitched us a package that we really couldn't refuse.

Deluxe New York became the second theater in the city to put in Dolby Atmos, which they did specifically for us. They worked over Christmas break, and basically just busted their asses to get it all together. Between Dolby and Deluxe, they managed to engineer it, get all the speakers in, get it tuned and get it ready for us to go, so we had Dolby Atmos from the beginning of our final mix, straight through to the end.

What about Dolby Atmos made you commit to it?

The format itself is a technological advancement both in monitoring the mix, and the delivery to audiences. It's so far above anything else that it allowed this movie to breathe and come to life in a way that we could never have imagined.

Unlike regular 5.1 or 7.1 Surround, you can actually pan through every speaker in a way that sounds completely believable, completely real. The overhead speakers specifically for the rain give you the feeling that the rain is on top of you. That was the great thing about working in that format, that anything we wanted to try, the immersiveness takes you to that place where you say, "I'm THERE. I'm right in the middle of that ark. I'm in the middle of that rain storm."

Let me back up. You said that Deluxe put together the Atmos room by working around the clock over Christmas?

We'd done some temp mixes at Deluxe, but by the time we got to November 2013, we were still wondering where we were going to go for the final mix. There was another room in town that we looked at a fair bit, but what it came down to was, I really wanted to push Dolby Atmos. I really felt that this film would be one that could take advantage of that format, and really do something special with it.

So when it came down to brass tacks, our wish list was that we wanted to stay in New York and we wanted to do Dolby Atmos. Deluxe came to us and said, "We can make this happen." Of course, Deluxe wasn't going to pull the trigger on designing, engineering, and setting up a new Atmos room until they had a 100% commitment that we were going to go there.

Deluxe NY Dolby Atmos sound room
This is the new (since October) sound stage at Deluxe, New York, and one of the first Dolby Atmos enabled mixing facilities in the city. It's where Noah was mixed in Dolby Atmos. Click to zoom.

Being a big studio movie, no decision gets made quickly from a budget standpoint. A lot of things have to happen. "Well, if you want to go there, then we need THIS to happen, and then THIS to happen, and then THIS to happen...."

It all came together, but by then, it was the middle of December, with premieres starting in March!

I came to New York January 6 and did about a week and a half of mixing in regular 7.1, and then at night, the guys from Dolby and Deluxe would work on fine-tuning. Then the last week of my effects pre-mix, which was the last week in January, I was able to slip into full Dolby Atoms mode. From that point on, it was Dolby Atmos.

It was absolutely crazy, but they got it done. Dolby went to great lengths to make it happen, and Deluxe was right there with them. On top of all the design and engineering, they had to buy speakers for us, which meant going through their own budgeting process, then get all the gear together to get the speakers in place. It was a phenomenal feat that they managed to pull off in about 3 weeks. The room worked great, it sounded great, and Deluxe was great to work with.

There was a lot of sound, a lot of music and a lot of layering in this movie, and Dolby Atmos really opened up everything -- the sound effects, the atmospheres, the music, the dialogue -- with amazing clarity and definition, without starting to feel cluttered with sounds on top of each other.

With all of those different kinds of ingredients having their own space, you can start to build an interesting sonic landscape, and hopefully that's what we did.


The Evolution of Sound: Dolby Atmos

The official trailer for Darren Aronofsky's NOAH starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Anthony Hopkins.