YRF Films’ sound experts, Ganesh Gangadharan, Dileep Subramanian and Anuj Mathur reveal how they created the audio landscape for the high-octane Tiger Zinda Hai
By Vinita Bhatia
Dileep Subramanian is a man for all seasons – literally and rhetorically. Over the past three decades, he has travelled all over the world as an on-location sound recordist. For several weeks this year, he traipsed all over Abu Dhabi and Austria capturing various sounds for the Ali Abbas Zafar-directed Tiger Zinda Hai, which will release on 22 December, 2017.
And it was not an easy task, mind you. While the temperature in Austria could go down to -5°C, in Abu Dhabi, it would go up to over 42°C! This is the reason most on-location sound recordists get involved in the film’s making at the script level – it helps them plan the equipment they need to procure for different types of shooting environments.
Talking about this, Subramanian said that one issue about shooting in Austria was that the low temperature would have affected the battery’s performance. “Mercifully, the Sound Devices products that I was using did well there. For most of ski slopes, we used portable gear, as it was difficult to negotiate,” he added.
However, Abu Dhabi posed a major challenge as the set up called for massive cooling systems during those months. At times, there were truck-mounted air-conditioning systems with collapsible ducts and Subramanian had to carefully position the sound equipment around these to avoid the ambient noise, while capturing dialogue during sync sound.
“The huge set for the film was powered by generators running the air-conditioning. These troubled us a great deal as shifting them involved cranes and prior notice. We split units in the interior of the set to minimise the sound because it was impossible to shoot without air-conditioning for even a minute – the actors would actually collapse in the heat, if I switched the ACs off. It was challenging to capture a large part of the dialogue while avoiding the air-conditioning and generator sounds,” he recalled.
For recording, Subramanian had been using Zaxcom Deva 5.8 as the primary recorder for most of his films for almost five years but it had been giving him trouble. Reliability and memory backup had started becoming an issue as the basic hard disc core of the recorder started developing connectivity issues leading to data loss.
“I realised that the first schedule was in Austria, where the temperature was -4°C and the subsequent schedule was during the summer in Abu Dhabi in 50°C. I needed new and sturdier gear for this wide temperature variation. I switched to a Sound Devices setup with an SL6 protocol for wireless microphone connection that was very reliable, battery friendly and easily switchable between portable and a trolley mounted studio setup with sliding faders. I also bought two matched pairs of Sennheiser 416 microphones and wireless microphone Lectrosonic with DPA capsules.
WORKING IN TANDEM
Back at the YRF Films, the camaraderie between Subramanian, sound designer Ganesh Gangadharan, and rerecording sound engineer Anuj Mathur is so strong that sometimes one knows what the next is thinking even before the other says it aloud. You can’t expect anything else from a trio that has orchestrated the sounds for several movies together at YRF Films.
While they are working on the sound of Tiger Zinda Hai, the VFX and a round of edit is taking place parallelly; and everyone is racing against the clock to ensure that they finish their task well within the deadline. But Gangadharan is a not troubled – in the 11 years he has worked at YRF Films, he has not missed a single deadline.
“At YRF, we fix a schedule and stick to it. We plan things in a way that we receive the print at least a month before the release date. That way, once we are done with the first half, we stitch it and watch it once; following the process with the second half. Then, we watch the entire movie once,” Gangadharan said. Thus, there are multiple screenings in the studio before the copy if finally released. This way, the audio experts can innovate and add more aural elements to the films as they have the luxury of time to do it.
One of the first scenes that Gangadharan started working on receiving the print involved a pack of wild animals. He realised he needed to create effects for this sequence, over and above the ones that Subramanian had captured on-location. “I layered it with additional animal sounds that I had in my library and got a new animal collection for Tiger Zinda Hai that had a lot of growls, howls and other variations,” he said. Editing wild animal sounds was also very new and difficult for him because his only point of reference was watching some videos on how animals behave, and then relying on his imagination. Ultimately, he had to find a sound that he felt would best suit the animal’s expression and aggression, and edit and process it.
“So, if the expression was a growl, I had to make the sound as heavy and guttural as possible. I had to give it the right pitch and roughness. I actually erased it several times before I was sure, and even convinced the director, that it was the right sound,” Gangadharan said.
Luckily for him, most of the time, director Zafar concurred with Gangadharan’s choice. It helped that the latter, as a rule, does not use sounds that are extremely sharp. “I try to roll down lot of sounds that are expected to be sharp, so that it does not hurt when you are listening to it, because there are many layers. You have the music layer that itself takes up lot of pectorals, then there is the mid-range – everything is packed so how cut through this. There are certain places in this movie particularly, where the music has been notched down discreetly for the sound effects to get accentuated or the other way around, depending on the nature of the story,” he said.
WORKING A WIDE RANGE
The other challenge Gangadharan faced in Tiger Zinda Hai was the multitude of sounds involved in a single scene at times, since this was high-adrenaline movie. It had almost every kind of action – from a gunfight, fist fight and sword fight to a car chase and bike race. At times, he had to work hard on singling out a single sound and make it the focal part of the narrative.
“If there is a scene where a chopper is flying overhead, a bike is racing past and a bullet is shot simultaneously, I could not have all the sounds at the same in the frame as it would have just resulted in noise. So I would to filter it out where the chopper would fly out first, then the bike would screech past and a bullet whizzing past is heard. That way, each element plays its distinctive part in the story,” he added.
This is a challenge that even Anuj Mathur, the YRF’s rerecording sound engineer faced, since a mainstream movie like Tiger Zinda Hai has a wide spectrum of audience ranging from kids who are fond of action to older viewers who are fans of the actors but are not enamoured of loud sounds. “I had to isolate frequencies from the score and sound effects, monitoring each and every track and remove the ones that could hurt the audience’s ears. Also, I had to create a frequency bandwidth of dialogues, sound effects and the music score so that they did not clash with each other, which would have resulted in cacophony,” he added.
This is why, according to him, working on an action movie is always a tad different from working on a drama or any other genre. The mix of an action movie is complex as it involves lot many tracks compared to a romantic or a drama. The job of a mix engineer is to ensure that the sound track holds the audience’s attention till the last frame of the film.
“With such action films, as a re-recording engineer, I had to try different combinations of the score and sound effects and figure out what worked best. At times, this could involve muting some musical elements or complete music scores that could clash with the sound effects. So, basically one has to work out different perspectives and present it to the director to find out the perspective for the film,” Mathur noted.
Despite the complexity of the work that Gangadharan, Subramanian and Mathur put together to make any movie successful, it is unlikely that most people would have heard of them. While the public might not recognize their painstaking work, they are well known in the audio designing industry, because of their expertise. With a collective portfolio of over 100 movies between them, that comes as no surprise, and yet is fitting.