The Swarm is coming

Why sound and crea­ti­ve pro­ces­ses in post-pro­duc­tion are play­ing a spe­cial role in the best­sel­ler adaptation

A glo­bal best­sel­ler run­ning to 900 pages, published 20 years ago and long con­side­red unfilmable: Frank Schätzing’s sci­ence fic­tion thril­ler “The Swarm” has now pre­mie­red as a six-part series at this year’s Ber­li­na­le. Boas­ting a bud­get of 40 mil­li­on Euros, the series is con­side­red to be one of the most expen­si­ve Ger­man series adapt­a­ti­ons of all time. Show­run­ner Frank Doel­ger (“Game of Thro­nes”) pro­du­ced the novel for ZDF as a mys­tery series event after more than five years of pre­pa­ra­ti­ons with the direc­tors Bar­ba­ra Eder, Luke Wat­son and Phil­ipp Stölzl as well as an inter­na­tio­nal crew. The experts from Potsdam’s Rotor Film were hired to over­see the post-pro­duc­tion which also included working on the sound, mixing and image pro­ces­sing. The sto­ry: an unknown swarm intel­li­gence in the sea is threa­tening human­kind. Peo­p­le are being atta­cked by sea crea­tures at various places around the world. A team of sci­en­tists sets out to find ans­wers when the situa­ti­on beco­mes ever more men­acing. Sound design deve­lo­ped into a key ele­ment during the pro­duc­tion in order to make the silent thre­at under­wa­ter some­thing tan­gi­ble for the viewers.

In con­ver­sa­ti­on with the Media­Tech Hub, Rotor Film’s re-recor­ding mixer Gre­gor Bon­se speaks about how chal­len­ging, enri­ching and crea­ti­ve the work was on “The Swarm”. Bes­i­des the com­plex pro­duc­tion pro­ces­ses of an inter­na­tio­nal series and a post-pro­duc­tion peri­od las­ting 20 months from the time of the shoot, the pro­du­cers crea­ted a bud­ge­ta­ry frame­work sel­dom seen in TV pro­duc­tions that allo­wed for lots of expe­ri­men­ta­ti­on and crea­ting a sound that was con­sis­tent with the story.

Eerie “swarm noi­ses” ins­tead of a melo­dious score

The sound also estab­lishes the atmo­sphe­re of the series from the very first sce­ne: in Peru, a fisher­man is pre­ven­ted from sur­fa­cing by a den­se school of white, sil­very fish and sub­se­quent­ly drowns. The swarm con­tracts men­acin­g­ly with a buz­zing sound abo­ve the water’s sur­face, the back­ground music is deli­bera­te­ly res­trai­ned. The thre­at, the “unknown mons­ter” invi­si­ble to humans, plays a key role, but the sea is also an important prot­ago­nist in “The Swarm”. It not only repres­ents water, but is also a being in its own right with its own phy­si­cal­i­ty. Sound desi­gner Noe­mi Ham­pel expe­ri­men­ted with many sounds during her pre­pa­ra­ti­ons for the sound­track. In the cour­se of her rese­arch, she loo­ked for mate­ri­al such as “the stran­gest sounds ever recor­ded under­wa­ter” in order to get clo­ser to the ele­ment and give it a cha­rac­ter - as she explai­ned at the panel orga­nis­ed by the Berufs­ver­ei­ni­gung Film­ton (bvft) during the Ber­li­na­le. The sea is given a lot of nar­ra­ti­ve time in the series, it is asso­cia­ted with hap­tic, muf­fled sounds, and the­re are times when it sounds as if we are acou­sti­cal­ly sit­ting under a bell.

“Gene­ral­ly spea­king, we were more careful about how music was used par­ti­cu­lar­ly in the first epi­so­des. The­re was no need here for a so-cal­led land­scape score to descri­be places or fores­ha­dow emo­ti­ons. The swarm encoun­ters humans in a cer­tain kind of ever­y­day situa­tions, a fish mar­ket in France, a beach in Cana­da. An appro­pria­te sound design is cru­cial in this ins­tance. Howe­ver, the ele­ment of water is alre­a­dy able to achie­ve a kind of fores­ha­dowing with the cor­re­spon­ding sound effects: it doesn’t mat­ter whe­ther the Peru­vi­an fisher­man has just set sail or a lobs­ter is flus­hed down the drain: the thing always reso­na­ting here is that it’s more than just water. The real­ly big musi­cal moments only come along in the later epi­so­des when the audi­ence has alre­a­dy been able to get clo­ser to the cha­rac­ters and empa­thise with their con­flicts,” Gre­gor Bon­se says about the work.

The­re is even a descrip­ti­on of sound noted in the book - Schätzing’s novel refers here to a “scrat­ching”, an eerie sound that can be heard. A defi­ni­te sound, but one that had to be inter­pre­ted dif­fer­ent­ly for the film. “Con­cre­te sounds can also seem ludicrous and tri­via­li­se the thre­at. That’s why we used gra­nu­lar syn­the­sis to deve­lop a “swarm sound” that also includes musi­cal ele­ments,” Bon­se explains.

What role does bud­get play in sound design?

During the bvft panel on the pro­duc­tion con­di­ti­ons and bud­gets for sound design, Bon­se and Ham­pel each spo­ke enthu­si­a­sti­cal­ly about the ide­al working con­di­ti­ons which were made pos­si­ble by the bud­get: “We had time, we could also expe­ri­ment and had the opti­on in the post-pro­duc­tion pro­cess of then adding some­thing com­ple­te­ly new or revi­sing it else­whe­re. This meant that who­le dia­lo­gues could be recor­ded again during the final mix so that a sce­ne was then more coher­ent as a who­le.” Con­stan­tin Film’s Tim Gre­ve, who was pre­sen­ting ano­ther pro­ject at the Ber­li­na­le, also poin­ted out how dif­fe­rent sound is when it’s recor­ded during shoo­ting or in post-pro­duc­tion. The more boom ope­ra­tors (and thus bud­get) the­re are on set, the more chan­ces that the actors’ voices can be recor­ded via the boom mics. What hap­pens on set is always more authen­tic than in post-pro­duc­tion. But the­se days, the­re are many pro­jects being pro­du­ced at a fas­ter pace, with shorter shoo­ting times over­all and, at the same time, fewer breaks in the dia­lo­gues in the film, which means that the actors start tal­king over one ano­ther. This is whe­re seve­ral boom mics, i.e. a lar­ger crew, are in a bet­ter posi­ti­on to cope with recor­ding the dialogues.

Bon­se also poin­ted out in the Media­Tech Hub con­ver­sa­ti­on that sound is often the last link in the chain and, depen­ding on how the pro­duc­tion and shoo­ting pro­gress, the bud­get gets smal­ler and smal­ler towards the end. Howe­ver, the gene­ral trend is going in the oppo­si­te direc­tion with the time spent on post-pro­duc­tion ste­adi­ly incre­asing com­pared to pro­duc­tion, and this must be taken into account in the budgeting.

Many visu­al effects are a key ele­ment in the pro­duc­tion pro­cess of “The Swarm” bes­i­des the sound design. And this is also a place whe­re sound plays an important role becau­se the VFX ele­ments need sound design in order to make the com­pu­ter-gene­ra­ted fan­ta­stic worlds, crea­tures or ele­ments like ice­bergs or fire look rea­li­stic It takes the inter­play bet­ween sound and visi­on for them to be seen as real and also beco­me a genui­ne fea­ture of the sto­ry. Digi­tal water, digi­tal sky - all the­se things can only ever be a com­pro­mi­se which only then deve­lo­ps into a genui­ne fea­ture of the sto­ry through the inter­play bet­ween sound and vision.

“The Swarm” is airing on ZDF’s ana­lo­gue sche­du­le from 8.15 pm on 6 March. The first three parts can alre­a­dy be seen in advan­ce in the media libra­ry: https://​www​.zdf​.de/​s​e​r​i​e​n​/​d​e​r​-​s​c​h​w​a​r​m​/​s​c​h​w​a​r​m​-​l​a​n​g​t​r​a​i​l​e​r​-​1​0​4.html

Title Image: © ZDF/​Staudinger + Fran­ke / [M] Serviceplan 

About MTH Blog

The media technologies of the future are already being used today – not only in the entertainment sector, but also in a wide variety of industries. Christine Lentz meets up with tech enthusiasts, established companies and researchers for our monthly MediaTech Hub Potsdam blog to tell the stories behind the innovative business models.