How The Sound Team in ‘Ad Astra’ Spiced Things Up by Adding Contrast
When the aural landscape of any audiovisual project aims to support and heighten the story, the effort is normally dialed in subliminally. Audiences don’t even realize what is really happening — they are just drawn to the action going on in the moving images in front of them. In ‘Ad Astra’, a 20th Century Fox film directed by James Gray, nominated for best sound mixing, the sound seemed to do this very simple thing with an extra clever hook.
In an interview, Gary Rydstrom, who served as the film’s sound supervising editor, sound designer, and re-recording mixer, says that director James Gray talked about the sound having a rather realistic approach but also, and perhaps more importantly, a psychological one. As mentioned in previous articles, the sound is what allows directors and filmmakers to put their audience in the place of the character they’re supposed to empathize with and care about.
In ‘Ad Astra’, perspective was also pivotal for detailing the story that takes place in the distant future where Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut who embarks himself on a journey through space to save mankind. If you have not watched the film, there are mild spoilers ahead, otherwise, if you have already watched it, then you must have realized that the movie leans towards an internal point of view over externalized action.
The story focuses primarily on an individual who, in reality, does not say much. The main character, Roy, has his internal monologue, so the sound team had to do different things with the soundscape like loop dialogue lines from other scenes just to be able to get inside the character’s head as deep as possible.
The sound story is conveyed through the main character’s perspective in nearly every shot or scene. The audience is first introduced to it in the opening sequence when Roy is working high atop of what seems to be an antenna designed to search for other forms of life when an explosion makes him and his team fall off down to Earth.
As Roy climbs down a ladder to start his work, the explosion occurs above his head and other astronauts are seen falling from the antenna. Sound dampened the initial explosion as the character is wearing his space helmet and would not have been able to hear it loudly. Once the structure crumbles closer towards the screen, we start to hear more of the distortion and sounds of the destruction from that Roy hears through the helmet.
As for the sound design of the electrical impulses coming from near the planet Neptune, the sound team used an old school technique for crafting them. Rydstrom had done his fair share of NASA and space-related projects in the past. He’s worked with people in the past who know what space is supposed to sound like.
Rydstrom also mentioned that in the script, these impulses were described as a massive gamma-ray interference. Through his research, he could not figure out exactly what the sound should sound like from a scientific point of view, which is why he and his team decided to take a different approach. Throughout the film, there are moments where the sound sucks out. Where the sound is so loud the audience can’t hear it anymore. Rydstrom and his team did exactly the same for the gamma rays, especially in the opening sequence mentioned above. When you hear the pulses it gets so loud that the sound fades away and you are left with utter silence and then it comes back.
Other animal sounds were used to mildly emphasize the main character’s internal conflict. Is he as dark as his father (Tommy Lee Jones) on the inside? In the scene where Roy needs to fight off crew members as he intends to board the ship leaving Mars, different primal animal sounds can be heard underlining the scene and whale groans were used for the ship creaks and rattles.
To depict the infinite expanse of the cosmos, Rydstrom and the rest of the sound team removed any clutter in the track and created an isolated feeling as the character, Roy, travels further deep into space. What you mostly hear are simple background noises and background tones of the ship. By the time the character reaches the planet Neptune, all that is left are his thoughts and the gentle buzzing of the ship. Contrast is always such a great tool.
For the epic moon chase sequence, which involves Roy traveling from the moon’s airport to a U.S. facility on the dark side, the group is assaulted by space pirates, and the following moving images conform an absolutely unique sequence. In order for the team to be able to immerse the audience into the action, the sound team removed any atmosphere on the moon and decided to play the events through the main character’s perspective.
The first gun that is fired in that scene cannot be heard until the impact. Seeing something and not hearing it turned out to be a rather powerful tool that allowed the sound team to engage with the audience throughout the whole sequence. The key was to have the audience hear things from what the main character would hear and how that would resonate in his suit through his mic.