‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Sound Mixer Created Live Sound Design for the Actors During Mo-Cap Filming

TheWrap magazine: “A lot of what we did, nobody had done before,” Julian Howarth says

This interview with “Avatar: The Way of Water” sound mixer Julian Howarth first appeared in a special section of the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Normally, a production sound mixer would be responsible for recording sound on the set of a film as it was being shot. But “Avatar: The Way of Water” was not a normal shoot, which meant that Julian Howarth’s duties went way beyond the job description. “The great thing about Jim is that he’s got such an amazing vision about what he wants, and you just get dragged along,” Howarth said of working with filmmaker James Cameron.

In this case, his tasks began to expand after an offhand conversation during shooting on a motion-capture stage. “We said, ‘How can we help the actors feel more in place?’” he said. “‘How can we make them feel as though they’re in a forest or by the sea or in these environments?’ And so I developed a system where we surrounded the stage with speakers and started doing on-the-spot sound design. When actors arrived on the set, they were immersed in an audio environment that gave them the feeling of where they were.”

The setup grew to where Howarth had an extensive keyboard rig that allowed him to play samples and sound effects through speakers around the stage. “If you’ve been on a set before when the actors are supposed to be responding to an explosion, it’s usually an AD that shouts ‘bang!’ or ‘duck!’ But we were doing actual sound effects that were directional.”

He also worked on submerged audio speakers that would allow Cameron to communicate with his actors while they were running through scenes underwater. (If the director wanted to talk to an actor in the water tank privately, there was a lower-tech solution: a wireless speaker floating on a rubber donut.) At the same time, Howarth had four microphones around the tank that were constantly running. “There is a certain amount of audio transmission underwater that you want to record,” he said. “There are knocks or mechanical sounds or metal clangs that sound different underwater. It’s this clash between the natural and the mechanical, which is so important in the movie.”

The sound department ended up operating what Howarth called “a bit of a mad scientist lab where you could go to figure out how to do what Jim wanted. A lot of what we did, nobody had done before. I’m not one to pat myself on the back, but there were a couple of occasions where I thought, ‘I can’t believe we actually did that.’”

Oh, and he also made an MP3 of sea sounds for Sigourney Weaver, who wanted to listen to it as she went to sleep. “At that point I knew we’d done something special,” he said with a laugh. “When people talk about having a regular job — well, this was the most unregular job I ever had.”

Read more from the Below-the-Line issue here.

TheWrap magazine below the line issue cover
Avatar The Way of Water magazine cover Below the Line issue