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Dolby Atmos Adds To Desert Sound Design In “Last Days In The Desert”

By: Marjorie Galas

Bitter winds tearing over vast open landscapes. Razor fine sand pelting against fabric. Dry earth crunching underfoot. Sound designers J. M. Davey and Zach Seivers found amazing creative potentials with these and many other acoustic influences when working with the desolate desert setting of “Last Days in the Desert

The founders of Snapsound, an Emmy-winning Post Sound facility based in Los Angeles (Snapsound has a satellite office in New York) Davey and Seivers discovered these creative possibilities in Rodrigo Garcia’s latest film, “Last Days in the Desert.”

Featuring Ewan McGregor in a dual role as Jesus and the Devil, “Last Days in the Desert” is the latest film by director Rodrigo Garcia that explores the emotional turmoil Jesus experiences during the final stretch of his forty day journey through the desert. Davey and Seivers, the founders of the Emmy-winning post sound facility Snapsound, joined a top- shelf team of artisans including DP Emmanuel Lubezki (two consecutive Oscar wins), Production Designer Jeannine Oppenwall (four Oscar nominations) and Production Sound Mixer Peter Devlin (four Oscar nominations) who contributed to the film’s stunning aesthetics. Davey and Seivers were brought onboard the project by producers Bonnie Curtis and Julie Lynn.

“Julie and Bonnie understand that sound design is an integral part of storytelling,” said Seivers. “They felt comfortable with us and suggested us to Rodrigo for the job.”

After reading the script, Davey and Seivers recognized sound design would play a crucial role in bringing life to the desert. They revisited their work on Curtis/Lynn produced “5 to 7”- a film set in the busy New York City streets – and decided to use a similar approach for “Last Days in the Desert”. They gained access to locations during production to capture material that would aid their post-production process.

“You can’t escape the city,” said Davey in regards to their unique approach to sound design in “5 to 7”. “In having access to locations during production, we captured recordings of the same intersections used during production that we were able to mix in post.”

Davey and Seivers were able to begin their process in pre-production on “Last Days in the Desert” through skype meetings with Devlin. The three men shared ideas and discussed their unique intentions and expectations of what they hoped to achieve. During the last week of location shooting, Davey and Seivers joined the production to make additional recordings of the film’s props, wardrobe and physical sets.

“It’s great having access to the location managers, who have a relationship in place with the park rangers,” said Davey. “We were able to get ultimate access utilizing exact GPS coordinates and capture the authenticity of locations.”

Davey and Seivers recorded sounds throughout the Borrego Springs, CA based set. High powered audio equipment including Sound Devices 744T Portable Four Track Recorders, Shoeps M/S Steeo Mic Rigs and Sanken CSS-5 Stereo Shotgun mikes helped capture sounds the production sound equipment might miss during live takes or room tone.

“There’s a disadvantage on set when room tone is recorded because everyone is eager to move on to the next location,” said Seivers. “We were able to catch the dead silence and record the sound of the wind or footsteps. We were capturing great texture. The desert becomes a tremendous foley stage.”

Davey and Seivers finished the audio mix in 5.1 , however their process wasn’t complete.  Feedback came from a Sundance affiliate (where the film premiered) who suggested to Lynn and the team they consider submitting the film to the Dolby Family Sound Fellowship competition. Sponsored by the Dolby Institute, the fellowship awards a film the opportunity to remix the soundtrack into full Dolby Atmos by utilizing the Dolby soundstage in Burbank. To their surprise, “Last Days in the Desert” became the second film to receive the special fellowship.

“Dolby considered us for the nuances and subtlety our soundtrack presents,” said Davey. “It’s the opposite of what people expect. They think of an Atmos sound design for action and huge concept films.”

At its core, the Atmos utilizes 64 speakers to create a natural soundscape. Audio can take a “physical” shape with sounds coming from every possible direction within a room, providing a viewer a fully immersive sound experience. As part of their fellowship, Davey and Seigers worked closely with “Gravity” Oscar-winning Sound Designer Skip Lievsay, who provided guidance throughout the Atmos conversion.

“He pushed us to be experimental,“ said Seivers. “I’m more conservative. At times I would pan a sound but Skip reminded me with Atmos I must let go of the conventions. Values don’t apply in the same way.”

In addition to presenting wind storms that pushed the air patterns from every direction, Atmos made full effect of musical instrument “sounds” Davey and Seivers incorporated into the sound design (an idea that came from sound design mentor Gary Rydstrom.) Having connected with composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Davey and Seivers gathered a list of musical instruments used in the score.  They then had middle and high school students experiment with the instruments, capturing sounds they created. Careful not to clash with the score, Davey and Seivers used these experimental tones in concert with windstorms and to emphasize Jesus’ emotional turmoil.

While not all theaters, in particular home theaters, are equiped with Dolby Atmos systems, a 7.1 or 5.1 version will play on the speakers.  If the theater has a Dolby Atmos system but has a limitation to the speakers, the Atmos has an intuitive design that reconfigures the audio to match the system it’s projected on.

“Atmos recalibrates pans to work as intended in each theater,” said Davey. “It’s an intelligent system that takes into consideration any set up.”

Davey and Seivers hope that future sound designers who use Atmos reap the benefits of its experimentation and lack of standards. Every sound design of the 200 plus films that have utilized a Dolby Atmos format have all approached sound design in a slightly different and creative way.

“With any format you have to learn and make mistakes. We look back at our early work and see what we could have done differently,“ said Davey. “Just like 3D – there are ways to do it without being gimmicky that really support the story.”

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