‘The Woman King’ sound team interview
For the sound team behind Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s “The Woman King” — including Oscar-nominated re-recording mixer Tony Lamberti and supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan, as well as production sound mixer Derek Mansvelt — one of the biggest challenges was recreating the time and place in which the film is set. This group, which also included dialogue and music re-recording mixer Kevin O’Connell, was tasked with turning modern-day South Africa, which is where filming for the historical epic took place in late 2021 and early 2022, into 1820s Kingdom of Dahomey.
“Our set there, in modern day, was a city. And even though [the cast and crew] are on the set of the kingdom, in my dialogue tracks… I’m hearing traffic, helicopters, sirens; [when] we go to different locations, I’m hearing — as Derek [Mansvelt] will always point out — the smoke machines, the compressors, fans, a lot of bugs, cicadas, a lot of things that were just on the production tracks,” Sullivan tells Gold Derby in a recent webchat, in which she is joined by Lamberti and Mansvelt (watch our exclusive video interview above). “So, number one is to get all that cleaned out so that we have a beautiful sounding voice of those actors… [so] that those voices sound beautiful and rich and we don’t touch any of the performances when we weed out all those different frequencies of sound.”
Written by Dana Stevens and inspired by real events, “The Woman King” is about an elite military unit of all-female warriors called the Agojie that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey, which was located within present-day Benin, in the 18th and 19th centuries. The film stars Oscar winner Viola Davis (“Fences”) as General Nanisca, a fictionalized leader of the Agojie who trains the next generation of warriors to combat their enemies, as well as Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and John Boyega.
After ensuring that any sounds that could overshadow or distract from the actors’ voices had been removed, Sullivan proceeded to building the cities and life of Dahomey. Creating the latter also meant highlighting its wildlife, underlines the sound supervisor, who explains that, despite there being rather little of it depicted on screen, she was intent on incorporating it sonically in order to give audiences the feeling that they were on the African continent.
“You have the city, you have the palace, you have the courtyard of the Agojie, you have the interior of the palace; then, you have your jungles and your battlefield. So, it’s starting from the backgrounds, getting rich backgrounds,” details Sullivan. “I did a lot of research on birds to make sure that we had the right sound of the right birds… It’s about getting the birds correct and then placing the birds beautifully throughout, so they don’t get on top of any dialogue [but still] envelop the audience, and getting the winds correctly and the background sounds of the grasses right.”
It should come as no surprise that for Mansvelt, too, one of the biggest high-wire acts was working around not only modern-day noise pollution — which included but was not limited to the sounds that Sullivan enumerates in the above quote — but also the intrusive noises coming from production equipment on set in South Africa. His job was to try to block out or disguise these sounds, which, as he describes, was not always the easiest of tasks.
“At one point, Polly [Morgan], our DP, [asked whether I could do] something to mask the smoke machines that she had running right nearby. I sort of stood there and was like, ‘We can’t unfortunately… we can’t lay a truck over your smoke machine, we can’t lay traffic over it — it’s a very modern sound,'” recalls the production sound mixer. “So, it all came down to being able to move things further away. We were under pressure a lot of the time, and a lot of the time, we had to go with what we had. But we didn’t move things as far away as possible. We did try and put trucks in front of machinery at one point, working in the palace, and that became very difficult because we were running two units.”
When asked how Dahomey finally came to life in the sound mix — in which all the final sound effects tracks and the sound design, among other elements, are mixed together — Lamberti accentuates that it was important to him that each of the different settings within the kingdom had its own sonic character.
“[In] using the tracks that Becky [Sullivan] described, in terms of the backgrounds, I [really wanted to make] sure that we hear everything: all the activity that’s going on in the village, everything that’s going on in the palace — each one of those [places] has a very distinctive sound,” shares the re-recording mixer, who singles out the courtyard of the Agojie as an example of those places. “We placed those [tracks] in the space, and that then settles you into to the vibe of [the Dahomey people’s] lives and this world that we’re building.”
“The Woman King” is playing in theaters and available to purchase digitally.