How Michael Bay’s ‘Songbird’ Sound Team Captured a Pandemic Soundscape
Michael Bay’s “Songbird” now available on-demand, is a pandemic thriller shot in Los Angeles during lockdown. The film stars Demi Moore, Paul Walter Hauser and Craig Robinson and takes place years in the future, in which a mutated strand of coronavirus, called COVID-23, continues to wreak havoc on the world’s population.
As the country-wide lockdown stretches into its fourth year, infected Americans are forced into quarantine camps. Amid the dystopia, one courier (portrayed by “Riverdale” star KJ Apa) who is immune to the virus, falls in love with an aspiring artist (Sofia Carson), who is believed to become infected.
The King Soundworks team: Gregory King, Re-Recording Mixer, Jon Greasley, Re-Recording Mixer and Supervising Sound Designer and John-Thomas Graves, Supervising Sound Editor discuss how the sound of isolation, nature and a pandemic came together for Bay’s thriller.
With the lockdown, the soundscape of Los Angeles has changed so much from traffic to planes to even birds, so what did you discuss with Michael and Adam about what this would sound like?
Gregory King: We wanted to get the message that there was a pandemic happening. In the opening scene of the movie with the voices from around the world, the idea was to make sure as much of that was shown as possible.
As far as the workflow, the producer Jason Clark and we had worked together on “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” he was the one who called us.
He said, ‘I’ve got this great project that’s got these great people involved. We’re going to be the first production that’s going to try and shoot during COVID, we’re not quite sure how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to try and get it shot in 17 days.’
He asked if we were interested based on all those unknowns, and of course, we were. The more unknowns there were, the better.
This was back in early June. We were still getting our feet wet as a society when it came to COVID. As far as filmmaking, it was brand new territory. We didn’t know if anyone was going to get sick. Would the L.A. Health department step in? Is the union going to step in? We didn’t know if we were even going to get this movie made.
That’s the thing, this hadn’t been done before, so you were making it up as you went along, and the production did get shut down for a day or two, didn’t it?
Jon Greasley: It got shut down before they started filming, but that got resolved before the initial shoot date.
In terms of the soundscape, the pandemic has changed dramatically, what was the pandemic sound to you?
Greasley: I was remarking in my neighborhood that the whole area seems to be currently taken over by crows. That’s the third or fourth weird animal resurgence that we’ve had in my neighborhood so far this year. Earlier this year, it was the sound of squirrels. There are these weird nature sounds that is atypical for Los Angeles.
When we talked with Adam over Zoom about our first remote spotting session, L.A. was in lockdown. There was no traffic and we didn’t want to add any to the film. It’s completely counter to any other film you would have set in L.A. because there are usually people honking at one another, traffic, car crashes and car alarms.
The whole atmospheric soundscape of the film is very much wild packs of coyotes. We used more exotic birds than you would ever have in L.A. We pulled recordings from different parts of the world just to give it that slightly kind of weird and disconcerting, more natural feel to it and it created this cool vibe.
I went out and recorded birds because you would never hear these birds this clearly in town. I thought it was better to have genuine Los Angeles lockdown recordings rather than faking it with countryside recordings.
King: It’s this juxtaposition of getting rid of the normal traffic and industrial noises you hear in L.A. and by getting rid of those normal sounds made the foundation light.
The one sound we did keep and add were the sounds of authority, like helicopters and sirens to give that feeling of lockdown and the enforcement which was more severe and militarized in the movie. So, when you hear them, it felt more severe.
John-Thomas Graves: It was great to have the sound of isolation because you would never hear these sounds in the detail that you do in a situation like this. Usually, there’s a cacophony of sounds where everything gets lost, so the detail in each of the scenes stands out. And whether you’re aware of it or not, it’s, it’s nice to hear those things. Some of them are just odd to hear on their own. The birds and minutiae of everyday life gave it a different flavor.
How did you capture that sound of isolation, which is technology – those phone calls and Zoom conversations?
King: Everyone was on a different device whether it was an iPhone, a tablet or a Ring device. We wanted to make it sound different and not make it tricky to hear. We wanted to create disembodiment so that you could hear that we are separated.
We recorded some of the stuff through the devices during production, and some of the stuff had to be done after the fact.
We’re a SAG-AFTRA certified studio, but there’s still the fact of some actors who were apprehensive about coming in to redo their lines. We could do some in the studio with a boom mic, some of the ADR was done remotely and we had to gather all of that through the devices. So it was a big workload.
Graves: There were so many different challenges, and all the actors are located in different parts of the world. Not everyone could come into the studio. What worked in our favor was that because the movie is played through so many devices and the point of view of that device, using an iPad to record ADR helped in some situations where normally we would cringe at the thought of it.
King: ADR is a solution, but it’s not a substitute. There are still a lot of variables there that we don’t have when we bring them into a proper ADR studio. The actors are on their own when they do this. They’re not getting direct feedback right away from the director about their performance, and everyone has different levels of technical sophistication.
Graves: It was a challenge timewise, because when we normally do ADR, it’s live, you can listen to it instantly. Here it’s delayed and you have to listen to 20 takes and figure out the best takes.