In space no one can hear you scream… unless you’ve a microphone inside your spacesuit. That’s how the sound for the film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was captured. The whole story revealed now.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the Sci-Fi blockbuster based on the French comics from 1967 that were the inspiration for much of Star Wars, is, reportedly the most expensive movie ever produced in Europe. The new film from internationally acclaimed director Luc Besson features over 100 characters, many of whom wearing intricate costumes including space suits. While it looks great for production and really helps the narrative, taking viewers into the universe of the heroes Valerian and Laureline, those garments represent a problem for audio specialists.
Capturing audio properly was the difficult task faced by French sound engineer Stéphane Bucher, when asked to record intelligibly the dialogues. How and where to place microphones, how to best capture sound, while making it happen at the pace that director Luc Besson likes to work? Bucher accepted the challenge, knowing that he had the solution in his tool kit: the d:screet 4060 Omnidirectional Miniature Microphone from DPA. DPA microphones are an integral part of Bucher’s audio tool kit, and he has used the company’s products on many previous films, including Taken 3 and Lucy, so was more than happy to try them out for this role. Still, that was only the beginning, as the crew faced more challenges.
“From an audio point of view, this was an insanely complicated movie to capture,” Bucher explains. “It wasn’t just the costumes – we also had to cope with actors talking through walls and hopping around in space. The spaceship, Intruder, also has a mind of its own and therefore a voice that needed to be recorded. Added to this, Luc Besson was very clear from the outset that he didn’t want to replace dialogue in ADR, so we had to get it right first time on set.”
Stéphane Bucher says that “DPA’s wireless d:screet 4060 Miniature Microphones deliver exceptional audio quality and are also very small, which makes them much easier to hide. Thanks to their omnidirectional characteristics, they don’t need to be aimed directly at a sound source to capture great audio. They are incredibly tough, which is important when you are shooting an action film with a lot of movement and when you have to keep swapping them from one costume to another.”
More than 30 d:screet 4060 microphones were delivered to the Valerian set in Paris, all supplied by DPA’s French distributor Audio2. As Luc Besson likes to play his cards close to his chest, Bucher and his team had very little time to go through the script and prepare before shooting started. On filming days, time was even tighter because the microphones had to be positioned within each costume before the actors came on set.
“Luc likes to start shooting immediately – there’s no point trying to fit or to move a mic in a costume because it is just too late,” Bucher says. Knowing that, Stéphane Bucher worked closely with Olivier Bériot, who headed up the costume department, in order to find ways to properly add the microphones to the customs used by the actors.
“Many of the costumes are made from thick, synthetic fabrics that give them a futuristic look but are not that easy for the sound team because they make a lot of noise. With Olivier’s help found places to hide our mics without them being visible on screen. Our main challenge, however, was the spacesuits worn by Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Olivier chose a fabric that was light and well insulated from a sound point of view, but we couldn’t hide the mics inside the shell of the suit because they would still have been muffled by the plastic. Instead we decided to mount them inside the huge ruff that the actors wear around their necks.”
As the microphones needed to stick out but at the same time blend into the design or the ruff, Bucher and Bériot decided to make them look like an intercom between the spacesuits.
“We tried various options,” Bucher says, “At first we had the microphone sticking out of the ruff but that didn’t work, so then we tried a d:screet 4060 with a high boost grid, which was chosen for aesthetic reasons. We didn’t worry about high frequencies because we thought we could bring them down in post production, but when we heard the sound we realised it didn’t work because the high frequency was way too powerful and was bouncing off the surface of the grid in an unacceptable way. Finally we swapped to a soft boost grid, which gave us a much more balanced sound. By adding a small rubber joint and lifting the mic capsule completely clear of the ruff, we were also able to reduce vibration noise.”
Valerian and Laureline each had three ruffs so that spares were immediately available. The microphones were left in position, which meant that all the sound crew had to do was plug in the wireless transmitter. DPA d:screet 4060 microphones were also used on the motion capture costumes that the actors wore when shooting CGI scenes.
“To reduce noise, we put the microphones on the costumes with a semi rigid surface that we built with a 3D printer,” Bucher explains. “For the main actors who were wearing camera helmets, we positioned one mic on the helmet and one on their chest in case Luc wanted them to take the helmet off for a close up.”
Besson’s decision to keep ADR to a minimum put additional pressure on the sound team to capture great audio on set.
“The good thing about Luc is that he really understands sound so he was able to get involved when we were debating microphone positions and what would work best,” Bucher says. “He expects you to find solutions and that pressure does make you raise your game. In the end, the audio we recorded with our DPA microphones was fantastic and everyone was impressed, especially the post-production team who said the richness and clarity of the sound gave them many more options to play with.”
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens in cinemas at the end of July. The film is based on the comic series Valerian and Laureline, written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, published between 1967 and 2010. The series is considered a landmark in European comics and pop culture, and traces of its concepts, storylines and designs can be found in science fiction films such as Star Wars and The Fifth Element.