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Daniel Colman GALACTICA.TV interview
Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Daniel Colman is the supervising sound editor for the Battlestar Galactica 2003 series. His credits include Invasion, The Agency, Eureka and The American Experience. Daniel was nominated for an Emmy award for his work on the Battlestar Galactica Mini-Series. Noah Kadner recently caught up with him and talked to him about how some of the sounds on the series were created.

 What's a typical episode's workflow for you?

There's no such thing as a typical [Battlestar] Galactica! (laughs). It's the most varied show I've ever worked on. An episode comes in and it's nowhere near being a locked edit. I'll start working on the backgrounds and the basic structure of the show, what all the environments sound like, etc. I do very little as far as visual effects shots are concerned initially. Typically I have a vague previsualization on what I'm looking at for those and very occasionally I'll see final graphics, maybe 1 in 1,000. Then on the first and second day of a 2 day mix, I get to see the final effects shots. I'll always prepare a bunch of effects so that on the dub stage I'm typically tweaking things. Our turnaround per episode varies. The longest has been 2 weeks and the shortest has been about 3 days. An average episode(minus the commercials of course) is forty-three minutes.

How familiar were you with the original Battlestar Galactica in terms of sound design?

I watched [Battlestar] Galactica when I was a kid in the ‘70s and felt that some of the original Battlestar Galactica sound design had been done already on Star Wars by Ben Burtt. The lasers were the metal clanking on a guide wire sound effect that everyone associates with lasers only because that's how they sounded in Star Wars. They didn't pay attention to the idea of ‘no sound' in space, it was as if they were just dog-fighting within the atmosphere.

Two signature sounds stuck out in my mind that really needed to continue from the original series. The sound of the Cylon eye scanning and then there was a pulsing sound when they launched the Vipers out of the Galactica's launch tubes. The original Cylon eye was kind of melodic, they later used a very similar sound effect for KITT on Knight Rider. Flash-forward and I was doing a lot of the effects builds while they were still cutting the miniseries. Michael Rymer, the director, had never really watched the original series. So I just put in the original Cylon eye sound. He heard it and said, "What's that?!" I told him it was the original sound effect. "Well ok, if you want to do something like that, make it sound more scary and like it really comes from that robot," he said.

What audio equipment do you work with on Battlestar Galactica?

We design, edit and mix in ProTools and I've got a ProTools MBOX that I use on the stage with my laptop. We mix on a Digital Harrison board over at BlueWave Audio at Universal Studios in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Galactica is mixed specifically for the DVD release because we can mix a dynamic range up to +20db(decibels). For broadcast we can only go to +12db. This is a show that varies widely from explosions to whispering dialogue. The DVD's are noticeably better audio quality. Also I notice the visuals, the difference between what you see on SciFi Channel in Standard Definition vs. the High Definition masters we look at. The amount of detail that the VFX people put in for example is just amazing.



How do you approach sound design in space?

The whole concept of the sound for Battlestar Galactica was written by Ron Moore on the first page of the Mini-Series script, within a whole page of general technical notes.  It basically said, there's no sound in space. Space is a vacuum so there's technically no medium for sound waves to travel, thus everything would be silent in reality, Ron wanted us to be faithful to actual physics.  They envisioned getting around that with a lot split screens. The idea was you'd see silent space but you'd simultaneously see and hear from within an interior cockpit. They cut a version of the pilot like that and it just didn't work.

A solution came about on the miniseries from Michael Rymer. He told me to translate to the audience that there's no sound in space via sound design. We were at lunch and I didn't quite know how to do that (laughs). I thought about how sound travels underwater, when you're submerged in a swimming pool for example. You don't hear the sound in a pool coming straight at you, it's the reflections off the wall you hear.

The concept of underwater sound doesn't come in mixing, it comes during design. It involves lot of very careful equalization and reverb. Lots of times we're playing just the reflection of the sound rather than the sound itself. We're also washing sound back and forth through speakers to create more reflections and muted sound. The sound of the Cylon Raiders is one of the few exceptions, it's a cheat. It's highly processed, starting with the sound of a Nascar racing by. They always have this very clear sound, which adds to the fear as they approach. The first time we see the Cylons in the miniseries, it's a black screen. You're there with extremely muted sounds and then there's this very loud and frightening sound to set the tone.

How do you design the environments inside ships, like Galactica?

The way that Ron Moore described it, he wanted it to feel like life aboard an aircraft carrier. The whole concept was that we were going to put muted sound in space and then get really loud when we're inside these ships. The problem there is that most of our dialogue is inside the ships and there is often quiet, whispered dialogue on this show. A good amount of my work is editing everything else around the dialogue. For example, on the CIC (Combat Information Center) any time I can put an off-screen line of dialogue such as someone calling out a command or giving a status report, metal creaks of the ship or keyboard typing I will. Anything I can do to make it feel very active.

The smaller the ship, the more constantly changing the engines are. The Vipers have the most active sound design because they're small. On board a Viper, you're constantly hearing one thruster powering up as another is powering down. With Colonial One the engines are further away, so you hear them muted and occasionally powering up and down. Colonial One is a large ship but nowhere near the size of Galactica. Galactica's engines are very far away from the crew compartments so it becomes the more general hum we're used to hearing on sci-fi shows to a certain extent.

How do you approach the sounds of firearms and ship weapons?

The Cylon Raider's guns were inspired by producer David Eick. He really liked the sound in the movie, Blackhawk Down, of a helicopter minigun, with spent shells dropping from it. I played that over and over again and figured out the frequencies and matched that sound. I'd use the attack of one sound, then put that in and then 3 or 4 frames of it attached onto something else.

The effect of the Colonial handguns are also a combination of different sounds. It ended up being a combo of probably 70 different elements. To get the initial attack of the gun, I was beating on a microphone stand with a hammer. There's a grenade launcher sound effect for the launching sound. With ship weapons I take a different approach because we have the no sound vs. interior sound concept. For example, inside the Viper it's very different from the outside when the weapons are firing. Outside you have a muted firing effect. Inside the cockpit it's very loud, there's a whir when each cannon reloads and powers up before it starts feeding ammunition. Every little place they have for a sound on Galactica we try to fill it.

How is the sound of the FTL (Faster than lightspeed) drive created?

The FTL drive sound is quite complex when there's time to show the full sequence. Sometimes they cut the action way down. In the miniseries, you see everything power down on the Galactica, the nacelles come in, the FTL powers up and then the ship shoots away. I recorded the sounds of my computer workstation powering up and down and then I digitally processed it a lot to get the overall sound. For the actual jump there's a sort of rigging sound which is a piece of a gong, played backwards and heavily processed. There's also sonic boom from a fast airplane going over.

Believe it or not, there's also a piece of the Jaws ride at Universal Studios in the FTL sound, the one where the trolley goes through the water. One day we convinced one of the tech guys to take us around the park near closing time. We were able to record a bunch of the rides without the tourists, getting all kinds of machinery sounds. I recorded the flood gates which go back across to dam the water on the Jaws ride after the shark attacks. When the Galactica is about to jump, the energy buildup comes from those gates. A lot of the big sounds in my library come from that trip through Universal.

What's your favorite episode from a sound design perspective?

I enjoyed doing "Exodus, Part II" from the third season. That episode has about eighteen minutes of solid battle sequences! One of the most challenging things was where Galactica jumps into the atmosphere of New Caprica. It's the first time we ever hear what the ship actually sounds like: the non-muted/non-underwater sound. It needed to be reminiscent of how it sounded in space, but now twice as big because it was in an atmosphere. I had forgotten how the original Galactica engines were created to a certain degree, so I had to listen to my design from the miniseries and copy myself.

Another of my favorite episodes was "Resurrection Ship, Part II". Apollo is floating out in space- he is slowly dying. We wanted to play this big exciting battle sequence from his perspective. It made more sense to start with big orchestral music and less sound effects. When they finally blow up the Resurrection Ship, that was almost completely silent. Itt gave us a very different emotional effect.



Where do you get the sounds from?

I've got a huge library of sound effects. All of the episodes are still on my hard drive too, so I can review how I created something and reuse it. We've gone through four different planets and twenty different ships. When we come into a new environment, for example, Pegasus' engine room, I often have to build it fast. There's not always time to go out and grab something new. So I have to go through my library of recordings and work something up. Only once in a while do I go out and record something new specifically for a shot. I carry a portable recorder with me all the time and I'm always recording things with the idea that I can then use them in a show. These recordings are the pieces that I then go to when designing the new shots.

For example, this season the big challenge was creating the sound inside the Cylon base ship. There's this moaning that goes throughout the interior. A friend of mine is a pastry chef and she has this ancient gas oven in his kitchen. It's the size of the average bedroom. There's a metal contraption inside that rotates and spins the bread over the fire. It has this great metal groaning sound that's constantly changing. I had them hold door open and we placed the microphone inside. I figured if I get a great sound and it kills my equipment, it's worth it. We got the basis of the sound for the base ship and the mic survived! (laughs)

The thing I love about working on Galactica is how sound design and music work together. There's this very nice balance between our effects and Bear McCreary's music. He can compose high-frequency music because I'm working on the low end and often muted. That allows his music to be much more percussive, so you hear things like drums a lot. Many times the final conversation of where music or sound effects take precedence happens on the mix stage. Bear will have music for a sequence and he'll take it down to favor my sound design. Or vice versa, we might decide a scene works better with only music. Galactica is always a collaboration and it's very satisfying to see and hear it all come together.

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