Noah, presented by Paramount Pictures and starring Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, and Jennifer Connely, released this past weekend. Many critics have mixed views on the films and the story adaptation itself. I didn’t have much desire to see the film until I heard it would be mixed in Dolby Atmos. Since a lot of the film centers around a huge storm that floods the world, I expected it should sound amazing in Dolby Atmos. It definitely did not disappoint. There were some things that I loved about the mix and, as always, some things I did not.

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Noah is written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream), and he brought with him his sound team from Black Swan. The team consists of Sound Re-Recording Mixer and Supervising Sound Editor Craig Henighan (Black Swan, Real Steel), as well as Sound Re-Recording Mixer Dominick Tavella (Black Swan, Wolf of Wall Street). Aronofsky even topped off his sound team by hiring Black Swan composer Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) who scored the music for all of Aronofsky’s previous feature films.

The film is shot mostly in Iceland, which makes it look more like Middle Earth than the Middle East, and an actual ark was built at Planting Fields Arboretum in Upper Brookville, New York. The post production audio was also done in New York, where Aronofsy resides, at Deluxe New York’s new Dolby Atmos mixing stage.

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Sound Mix of Noah

“I really felt the atmosphere side of the movie would be enhanced with the Atmos…we used it for every showpiece in the movie.”  Henighan to The Hollywood Reporter. 

Since a lot of the team on this project, including Aronofsky, is based in New York he wanted to do the post audio mixing there and use Deluxe New York’s recently completed mixing theater. However, with the success of films like Gravity, he wanted to do the mix in Dolby Atmos. Deluxe NY decided to accomodate this and spent 2013 installing Atmos, getting it done in December 2013 so the team could start mixing first thing in 2014.

A lot of the film is very atmosphere based. There are wide open spaces of a desolate land in the beginning along with a massive storm and flood later on. Having the capabilites of mixing in 360 degrees and with overhead speakers really gives the film a realistic nature.  The sound-scape matches the open spaces, incorporating a lot of wind and silence wrapping around you and making you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere.

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One of the things I noticed is the panning dialog technique. While watching the film, I thought the dialog mix sounded very similar to the mix done for Gravity. While researching my article, I learned that Skip Lievsay (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Gravity) actually did the dialog and music mix for this film, which explains why it feels similar to Gravity. However, I think it was a bit much for this film. The panning dialogue distracts instead of bringing me into the story. There were times I heard dialog behind me and it was much louder than when the camera swung around and showed that character in front of me. There is another moment in the film where we see a silhouette of Noah and his wife, Naameh,  having a conversation. Noah’s dialog is panned to the right and Naameh walks into frame from the left. Her dialog follows her properly, but her footsteps sound like they are behind her. Granted, it is something not many people will catch, but they are the only times the “panning dialog” technique was distracting for me.

In my opinion, what makes this film epic are the rain and flood scenes and the way the Atmos system complements them. The sound of the rain from the storm surrounds you, as well as the sounds inside the Ark while it’s tossed around and struggling to stay afloat. Since filming took place around the time of Hurricane Sandy, Henighan was able to record actual rain noises in different locations in NY to create this experience. Of the recordings, Henighan says:

“There was a big rainy season in New York. We recorded old abandoned houses; we did recordings from barns — inside and outside. … We also built a 4×8 mini wooden ark in my backyard. We did fake rain with sprinklers and a fire hose, and we’d record drips and things for close-ups. So between the natural rain and stuff we recorded for close-ups, we were able to manufacturer rain from all sorts of angles and perspectives. Then we recorded an old wooden tall ship in Uruguay, and I was able to build these creeky sounds and the idea of a big moving arc.”

Since the ark was so massive, they had to treat each level with its own unique atmosphere:

“The birds were on the top deck, where you would hear more of the rain. The middle deck was where the snakes and reptiles stayed. The bottom deck was for the mammals, which theoretically was below water so it had more of a rumble and a deeper sound and less direct rain. For that deck, we also recorded different animals such as horses sleeping; we also recorded people sleeping in clinics and were able to manipulate that.”

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A lot of the big action movies seem more prone to use Atmos, but this time it was nice to see it used in the way I feel it is intended – to create atmospheres. “I actually had more fun with the atmosphere in terms of subtlety and space. Noah was perfect for that. You had the big loud sequences, but it was in the quiet stuff where the format really shined,” Henighan said.

Music of Noah

The musical score for Noah was composed by Clint Mansell, and was written with the San Francisco string ensemble, Kronos Quartet. Kronos is the same quartet Mansell worked with on Aronofsky’s 2006 film, The Fountain, and on 2000′s Requiem For A Dream.

Mansell decided to make the score for this film less about following the story and more about following the emotions of Noah. “To me, the magnitude of what Noah has to do, and his contemplation of what he has to do, is terrifying for him.  He’s isolated,” said Mansell.  “I thought that’s where the music may lie.”  Mansell also chose to stay away from making the music sound like a period piece. “The film has its own unique geography,” Mansell said.  “The idea was that it could be set 5,000 years ago or 5,000 years in the future.”

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The overall approach Mansell took to find the proper music for Noah was a bit of a struggle for him. “It was a long journey for me to find the style and instrumentation, a long period of gestation,” he added.  “There’s a lot to be gleaned from the subtext of the film and what’s being said outside the narrative.  It’s a harsh story, to a degree.  When you’re in the grip of nature, it’s terrifying.”  The score is an entity of its own in this film and truly helps the audience connect with Noah and the emotionally taxing journey he was chosen to undergo. It is entirely in sync with the what the director seemed to be trying to achieve, meaning it regularly switches between epicly dramatic and over the top showy.

The End for Noah

The modern retelling of this age-old story is enjoyable, but might quickly be dwarfed by other showy films on the horizon like Captain America: Winter Soldier releasing next week.  Noah stands as a shining example among the other Atmos Films out there and deserves a close look, but it might not get the time in front of audiences that it deserves if other films eclipse it. Regardless, it is a visually and sonically epic film that uses the most modern technology to draw watchers into a story that has been told for centuries.

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Blog Edited by Holly Foreman

Post Written by James Alire

An accomplished musician and consummate professional, James Alire brings education, passion, and a wide range of experience to the sound table. He has excelled as an IT specialist, recording engineer, and sound mixer/ editor in many arenas. His company, 5J Media, has steadily expanded to include a broad range of web design and audio/sound services for musicians and filmmakers. His stellar reputation is well-known in the film community, as evidenced by the multiple awards James has won for his work. His unique expertise and cutting edge knowledge and technical resources result in 5J Media consistently innovating with creative solutions for every challenge. For quotes to engage James for audio and/or web services, contact us.

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