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How Oliver Tarney designed the sound of 'The Martian's' monster villain: Mars

For Oliver Tarney, sound designer and supervising sound editor of "The Martian," the Red Planet was more than a landscape. It was a monster.

"There's no human that's a baddie or a villain in this piece, so Mars becomes the villain," said Tarney, whose job encompassed collecting or creating the sounds heard in the film.

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For the Record
Jan. 21, 12:05 p.m.: A photo caption in this article says that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is in Pasadena. It is in La Cañada Flintridge.
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Tarney started his career as a guitarist, keyboardist and songwriter — following in the footsteps of his father, an English musician who produced hits for A-ha and other bands.

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Tarney then transitioned into sound for film, working on several of director Ridley Scott's projects — including 2005's "Kingdom of Heaven," 2013's "The Counselor" and 2014's "Exodus: Gods and Kings" — before signing on for "The Martian," in which astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars during a NASA mission.

In your initial conversations with director Ridley Scott, what was the big vision?

He wanted for the audience to feel the Mars monster — totally unrelenting, totally unforgiving. We had a persistent and hostile presence of the wind bearing down on [the NASA-built shelter] the Hab, sometimes just enough to ripple the roof. But at other times, it was roaring gusts, raging and clawing against his shelter. We worked at always having an awareness of this unsettling elemental presence, ready to remind Watney that any mistake could be catastrophic.

For instance, when the air lock fails, Mars' thin atmosphere triggers a huge, explosive depressurization, hurling Watney violently across the surface. He's left with a fractured visor, and we hear the hiss of Mars mercilessly bleeding his oxygen supply through the cracks. The anxiety in his breathing, the panicked ripping of duct tape, the insistent beeps of the warning alarm and unnervingly flat delivery of the computer voice informing us that he has just seconds to live all play against the violent whistle of escaping air, rising in pitch with each crack he manages to seal — a cacophony of noise that eventually dissipates as he wins this battle. Mars retreats, ready to strike again another time.

Did you visit any Mars-like landscapes on Earth?

I did. A couple of months before I started on the project, to get my head in that place, I took a road trip around Arizona and Utah and California, Nevada, and did a lot of recordings in Mesquite [Flat] Sand Dunes and the salt flats [in Death Valley].

Did you also visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory?

Yeah. They have an exact copy of the Curiosity rover there. It's a different kind of rover to the one that's used in the film, but it was still useful to get some sound effects from that. But even more useful was to see how stripped back the rover was there. Aesthetically, it's just really bare. There's cable ties on it and things, even though it cost a billion dollars or whatever it is. And so the best piece of information, really, from that trip is we realized everything at NASA has to be function over form. And so when we were doing all the interiors to the Hab, we wanted it to have that whirring, buzzing, rattling sound, because that's how it is. It can't be a nice, smooth, luxurious sound. It has to sound raw, almost austere. So there's no comfort there at all.

How did you create those sounds for the Hab?

We basically put great big subwoofers inside filing cabinets. And then running with huge low frequency oscillations through them to vibrate and play them crazy loud in the cutting room and in the whole corridor, [we made] it feel like the whole thing was shaking the whole time with the air unit, with the life support system that's there for him, just the throb of that. [We] introduced more creaks and squeaks to it as the film progresses, because it's only meant to be functional for a month or two, and he's there for significantly longer than that. So you wanted to have the feeling that it's starting to fail. So that it amps up a little bit more how urgent it is, and how Watney has to get a solution.

What other key sounds did you use throughout the film?

The biggest sound that we used all the time was just the breath. We got the [space] suit from production the day after they finished filming, basically. When we got the suit, we put the helmet on. You just feel that, and you just instantly go, "Yeah, that's what we need to convey." And it really helps us amp the feeling of anxiety, adrenaline, because you really feel that fast breathing against the glass. We had the helmet set up as part of the dialogue editor's rig. And so any new material that would come in, any [additional dialogue recording] or any takes that weren't sounding helmet-y enough, we would then just have a speaker that's actually placed inside the helmet, and then a microphone at the back of that. So we always had that same consistent sound of the claustrophobia of the helmet.

What do you like the best about your job?

Helping somebody like Ridley tell a story, and being involved on a narrative level on a film that connects with an audience so well, it's hugely gratifying for us to be a part of that. And you take something that was shot on a set, so there's absolutely no ambience at all, and then you develop an entire world that the audience believes.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 28, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Merciless hiss of Mars - THE CRAFT" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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