If you saw Justice League, and sat around waiting for the post-credits scenes, you know it takes a village to pull off such a super-heroic effort. A good portion of those involved are tasked with bringing the audio and visual designs of the film to life, and two of the leaders of those efforts are cinematographer Fabian Wagner and sound designer Scott Hecker, both of whom we caught up with recently to discuss the sights and sounds of Justice League.
Wagner, who has worked on such favorites as Game of Thrones, The White Queen, Sherlock, and Da Vinci’s Demons, says that Justice League required “more Vfx work” and “more green-screen work” in order to bring director Zack Snyder’s (and later Joss Whedon’s) vision to life.
While Hecker, who has worked on over 100 films, including Mad Max: Fury Road, 300, Total Recall, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, calls Justice League “the most challenging of them all, considering all of the unique sounds relating to the superheroes (their powers and their worlds), the antagonistic creature sounds, and all the related action sounds for the fights and battles in the film. Zack’s amazing visual flair serves it up big time for us to incorporate super colorful, vibrant, and dynamic sounds. Our motto, as usual, was to make it sonically kaleidoscopic, and Kleen (Mr. Kleen kinda clean!), Tight, and Tasty … KTT!”
As such, each character required a different sonic identity. According to Hecker: “Besides retaining the integrity of the character sounds we developed for Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman in Man of Steel and BvS, we were now charged with creating iconic character sounds for the Flash (electricity), Aquaman (water), and Cyborg (computer, mechanical, and flying sounds), as well as sonically establish the worlds and atmospheres they live in.
“For Batman, in addition to a revised Batmobile, we had to design new sounds for the Flying Fox, Bruce Wayne’s prototypical troop/cargo carrier, as well as the Night Crawler, used to climb the walls of the silo during the tunnel battle,” says Hecker. “The antagonist of the film, Steppenwolf, was a CGI character who we had to bring alive with heavy and dominant footsteps, and figure out a vocal process to make the original motion-capture actor’s voice sound like that of a menacing 12-foot-tall humanoid. Steppenwolf’s weapon of choice was his Electro-axe, which buzzed, hummed, pulsed, and whooshed through all the fights and battles in the film. Steppenwolf’s soldiers/ minions were Parademons, scores of flying creatures that we had to develop scary, screeching vocals for along with their flying winged sounds through the whole film. We also had to figure out what the all-powerful and all-knowing Mother Boxes sounded like in their various modes, from awaking with rhythmic pinging and pulsing sounds, to vibrating and rattling with increasing tone and intensity, to cracking and shrieking, to the arrival of the Boom Tube, Steppenwolf’s mode of transporting himself from one place/world to another.”
For Wagner, the idea of each character getting their own aesthetic look took on a more organic approach: “For me a lot of that developed over the course of the shoot. It was more natural. I didn’t set out to give them a very specific individual look.”
Of course, Wagner also had the prior films to look back on, from which to spring forth. “I would watch the previous films, and in this case look at the comics to get a better feel for the subject,” says Wagner. “I have always been a fan of Zack Snyder’s work, so had seen all his movies, but looked in particular at Man of Steel and BvS. Zack told me from the very beginning that he wanted JL to have a slightly lighter style, still dark and interesting, but a little more color and slightly less stylized.”
For his part, Hecker, along with co-supervising sound editor/ designer Chuck Michael, also relied heavily on Snyder’s vision. But when Snyder was forced to step aside eight months into the sound production effort, the team pivoted. “When Zack sadly needed to step aside from the finish of the film, we endeavored to retain the sonic signature that we had developed along the way and at the same time incorporate Joss Whedon’s sensibilities and ideas, especially relating to the additional scenes he wrote and directed,” says Hecker.
Alas, that ultimately accounted for more work. The project was initially only slated to take 10 months for Hecker and his team, but ended up lasting 13, many of which consisted of long days and nights. “Everyone involved was challenged to the max but still retained a positive, fun, professional, work-together spirit and attitude. It was amazing that something this complicated and taxing went so smoothly,” says Hecker. “We finished strong with 46 straight 12-15 hour days on the mix stage, leaving us all exhausted but feeling good and proud of what we created and achieved!”
Quite an effort indeed, but with so many films throughout his long career, it’s interesting to hear that Justice League was Hecker’s most challenging. “Every film I’ve worked on has been a completely different experience, logistically, creatively, and personally. You’d think during a 40-year career each film would get easier, but truthfully, each film I work on feels like my first one … how the heck are we going to get this done?! What sounds do we need to create for the film? What are the director’s sensibilities?” says Hecker. “Based on each one’s unique personality you wonder, what kind of relationship will I have with this director? How will I connect with them creatively? How do they like to work? What are their sensibilities? The list goes on. At the end of the day, each film is so unique, with different stories and visual content, and along with the other factors I mentioned, they each end up taking on their own sonic identity and personality.”
So how does Justice League compare to some of those other classics, with their own unique soundscapes? “With Back to the Future the focus was on accentuating the difference in the spirit of the times in the ‘50s and ‘80s within the time travel, creating sounds for the DeLorean time machine, breaking the time and sound barriers, and all the fun action set pieces in the film," says Hecker. "With Mad Max: Fury Road it was making all the amazing action scenes come alive with punch, and dynamically vigorous sounds, not to mention developing distinct sonic personalities for each of the crazy vehicles George Miller came up with, especially the War Rig, The Gigahorse, The Doof Wagon, The People Eater’s Limo, Nux’s car, Big Foot, The Buzzards, and many, many others … what a fun ride!”