Interview: Supervising Sound Editor Becky Sullivan and Production Mixer Derek Mansvelt Talk ‘The Woman King’
The Woman King is one of the best films of the year and benefits greatly from an IMAX theatrical screening. Part of the reason the film is worth seeing in theaters is its intricate sound design, created on a “compressed schedule after the studio loved the film so much it pushed back the release date by two months,” according to described by Supervising Sound Editor Becky Sullivan.
Sullivan spoke to the director Gina Prince Bythewood and editor Terilyn A Shropshire to keep the sound as organic as possible.
“My job was to envelop the audience in Africa and bring the sounds of Africa and Dahomey to the audience. This film has an emotional soundscape. It takes the viewer to many places and we feel the warriors emotionally. We feel their brutality, loneliness, bravery and all the different things we see in the film. I was delighted to help bring this to life on screen.”
One of the film’s most significant endeavors was creating the sounds of the fight scenes, in which Sullivan worked closely with Gina Prince-Bythewood to prepare how they would sound:
“We tried to prepare the film for a preview screening. We had about five weeks to finish the battle scene sounds, which was a lot of work. There are three or four major fight scenes. For example, Gina attaches great importance to how the machetes and weapons should sound. This got me going through my collection and finding the right sound for the machete, which is a dark sound.
Gina wanted a deep, metallic, iron sound. Of course, every warrior’s machete sounds different. So we had to find the right sound for each machete, in addition to the different weapons each uses. We also have knives, ropes, chains and muskets. There are a variety of sounds that we worked hard to get right as the film had to be rated PG-13. There’s not a lot of blood happening in front of the camera in this rating, so we had to make the audience feel like they might not be seeing the violence, but are actively hearing it. Our minds almost let us see things as we hear them, so we were tasked with bringing these fight scenes and their brutality to life without actually seeing much bloodshed on camera.”
Each mix for the film, whether Dolby or IMAX, is done separately, and there are differences in mixing the same film for different formats:
“For example, for Atmos or IMAX, we choose different speaker locations, different technical things that we prepare and work on so that we have enough material to put it anywhere we want. I could give all my tracks to our effects mixer Tony Lamberti. We sit and meticulously go through each track, figuring out where each bird and wind is supposed to get that sense of Africa. It’s a very thoughtful process.”
One of the bigger challenges in designing the film’s sound was giving the mix an authentic sense of time. At the same time, the film was shot in what is now Africa, as described by Production Mixer Derek Mansvelt:
“Everything in modern life is a huge challenge to try and overcome. We do our best on set and try to minimize as much as possible, but the guys in post did a fantastic job pulling things out and tidying them up to make them usable. Another challenge was the dialogue itself, because it’s no longer a spoken language. We want to use English but we need an accent to put it in that language. That was interesting: how far can you take that accent without losing anything, without losing the actual words? Obviously all the actresses and actors worked amazingly hard. Gina worked with everyone. It was incredible how much work went into the film and I think it shines through; You hear it in the cast. We try a bit to keep things as clean as possible so you have something to work with.”
Designing the “Dance Battle” sequence from a sound perspective, Sullivan said that was the “Achilles’ heel” of the mix, while Mansvelt talked about how they wanted it to be as authentic as possible for the audience:
“When I spoke to Gina about the music we had to decide how to go about it and she wanted to keep it as natural as possible. African music in general is drumming with many rhythms, especially the drumming, which is incredibly loud. So we had to work with everything we had. That was my biggest fear with our drums. If we actually did it, which would be great, you won’t be able to cut it very quickly. We had many rehearsal days where we would record different aspects of the whole number. We would record percussion and the dancers and as much as possible record each one individually.
The two we focused on the most were Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim. We’ve tried to record as much material individually as possible so we have chiselled tracks to use on playback day. Then, on playback day, it was all about playing back the elements we didn’t have time for and trying to re-record them, cleanly, playing everything else, at least the control over the drums. In a way it worked because it was absolutely amazing when I looked at it and it felt real, which was the goal from the start.”
Mixing the dance fight took a lot of time, as described by Becky Sullivan:
“Every time we played it to Gina, she would be like, ‘Oh guys, you know, what about that, what about that?’ and I always assured her that we would make it to the final version. However, it took a lot of time and work to set everything up and sort out things that we didn’t need to run, such as: B. Getting machete punches out of the dialogue without sacrificing the production and singing.
It took a tremendous amount of meticulous digging into each of these tracks and finding what we needed. Of course we infused it with Foley, which is what I love about this film. In other films, people with shoes walk on cement, tiles or wood. In it we have barefoot warriors walking through dirt, so the sound of the ground and the sand on your feet is precise. As they dance, the earth flies up and we hear a little bit of sand against our ears. I love the sound of that realistic dance with your feet on the floor, so I’m excited about this sequence because it was the most complex but also the most beautiful.”
The Woman King is now available to rent or purchase via video-on-demand.
[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]