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Avid Powers the Epic Soundtrack for Slumdog Millionnaire

India is a boisterous place, and its city streets are often loud and filled with chaotic activity. Glenn Freemantle understands the country’s non-stop commotion all too well. As supervising sound editor and sound designer of Slumdog Millionaire, the Golden Globe and BAFTA Award-winning film set in Mumbai, it was his responsibility to oversee every element of the film’s soundtrack with one goal in mind: to portray the burgeoning vitality and paradoxical charm that is modern-day India. Avid’s proven and trusted audio solutions gave Freemantle the cutting-edge workflows he needed to handle the rapid-fire pace and multiple integrated subplots of the film.

An original vision

Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) entrusted Freemantle with the job, giving him and his team at London-based Sound 24 free rein in handling the sound design, sound editing, music editing, dialogue editing, and Foley editing for the film. “Danny basically said, ‘Make something different, make something original.’ So that’s what we set out to do,” says Freemantle, who won a BAFTA award for Best Sound and was nominated for an Academy Award in the same category.

The first step in creating the soundscape was to remove everything but the voice tracks from the original on-set recordings. “The whole film was shot in India and given the nature of the recordings—with so much activity in the background—the originals were very noisy and messy. The whole thing needed to be stripped to retain the clarity of the voices. Then we built the whole of India back up again around the voices,” Freemantle says.

Because everything is on the Pro Tools system, you can make the changes and quickly conform all of these multiple layers.

NIV ADIRI, SOUND EFFECTS AND MUSIC EDITOR, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Freemantle and his sound team, which included Tom Sayers, Gillian Dodders, Ben Barker, Niv Adiri, Lee Herrick, Hugo Adams, and Danny Freemantle, scoured the world for sound recordings that would authentically represent the sounds of Mumbai’s slums, city streets, cricket fields, and subways. “We used every possible detail we could find to build up the tracks—Indian drums, Indian cars, Indian trains. We tried to find the most interesting pieces of India we could sample to create this entire world—a world that we could control. We used hundreds of layers of sounds to create feeling and emotion.”

There is a great depth to the soundscape, with a foreground, middle ground, and background of sounds, and as an example, Freemantle cites one pivotal scene in the film in which two young boys witness a violent act. Instead of focusing solely on the realistic sounds of the violence, Freemantle and his team accompanied the sequence with a distortion of the background sounds of trains screeching to a halt, filtered through the childrens’ perspectives as they play underwater.

“That whole scene was constructed all the way through to create this poignant moment from the childrens’ point of view,” says Freemantle. “The kids dive underwater and they are not sure what is happening. Gradually, there is all of this shouting, and this violent act occurs. At that point the whole sound comes in every speaker and you really get the emotion of what’s happening through the sound. This huge volume comes in with a great ferocity. It is only after the violent act is over that the music comes in and takes over the emotion of the scene.”

A seamless Pro Tools workflow

Behind the scenes, a Pro Tools workflow gave the sound team a reliable and comprehensive digital audio platform. Seven editing rooms at Sound 24 were used to handle the work of two sound designers, two sound effects editors, two dialogue editors, and a Foley editor. Each room was equipped with a Pro Tools | HD system, which in turn was networked to a master editing suite with an ICON D-Command mixing console used for pre-mixing and screening cuts on a 50-inch plasma monitor. A Surround Panner ES Option was also used in the master suite to achieve the most finely detailed leveling and panning adjustments, before taking the sessions to the mixing stage.

Changes were easily accommodated with this setup, enabling the team members to focus squarely on the creative aspects of their work. “Because you can run so many tracks and have so many outputs, you can keep everything online from beginning to end,” says sound effects and music editor Niv Adiri. “We would get new cuts all the time from the picture editors as QuickTime files. Because everything is on the Pro Tools system, you can make the changes and quickly conform all of these multiple layers.”

Each editor further streamlined his work through the use of 5.1 templates that contained all the standard automation required for the film’s surround sound files. This resulted in a smooth and time-efficient collaboration among the various members of the sound team. Choosing to use the same consistent Pro Tools platform also enabled team members to easily supply different sessions to the master suite for pre-mixing and screening to ensure that the entire soundtrack was on the mark. “The team could work in all these different rooms and then we would bring it all together using the D-Command worksurface every few weeks. We knew everything was going to be all right before we even got to the mixing stage,” says Freemantle.

The score and other audio elements created in India were also added to the mix. Sound recordist Resul Pookutty, also a BAFTA Award winner and an Academy Award nominee, used a Pro Tools | HD system to capture Hindi dialogue and ADR, which was delivered digitally via hard drive or FTP. Composer A.R. Rahman, who won BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards for his score, used a Pro Tools | HD system at various points for the music mix as well. Pre-mixes from Sound 24 were eventually transferred to a sound stage at Pinewood Studios as Pro Tools sessions for the final mix.

Freemantle says that Avid solutions not only provided the team with a seamless workflow, it allowed them to fully achieve its creative vision. “The creative expression of sound is what we do here,” says Freemantle. “It was the energy of India that we wanted to recreate for this film. We feel that we really achieved what we set out to do.”

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