8 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
‘Room’ sound team on creating an “honest, truthful sound world”
11 Jan 2016 : Seán Brosnan
Jacob Tremblay and Golden-Globe winner Brie Larson in ‘Room’
With ‘Room’ finally released to Irish cinemas on January 15th, we talk to Sound Designer Steve Fanagan and Supervising Sound Editor Niall Brady about the sound work in Lenny Abrahamson’s acclaimed film.

Since premiering at Telluride in September 2015, ‘Room’ has been a critical hit – winning the People’s Choice Award at Toronto as well as garnering nominations at the BAFTA’s and Golden Globes. It is widely expected to receive Oscar nominations also when they are announced on January 14th.

Here, Steve Fanagan and Niall Brady take us through their many discussions with Lenny Abrahamson and creating an “honest, truthful sound world” that reflected the circumstances of their characters.

IFTN: Have you been blown away by the success of the film so far?

Steve Fanagan: It's been really exciting to see the film go out into the world and be so well received. Beginning with Telluride and Toronto last September, it has continued to get great reviews, strong audience reaction, and so many deserved nominations and awards. It feels like it couldn't have had a better birth into the world. I am so delighted to see people paying attention to Lenny Abrahamson, Ed Guiney, Element Pictures and everyone involved in the film. They've worked so hard and made such amazing work over the years and it's wonderful to see the world stop and pay attention to that. It's also great to see such an amazing film get the attention it deserves!

Niall Brady: It’s really brilliant, it’s so well deserved for Lenny and Element. It’s been great to see 'Room' continue to figure at the box office in the US, even after 13 weeks on release. Hopefully after Brie Larson's Golden Globe win on Sunday, it will get another bounce that will continue to keep it in cinemas in the US. I’m also excited to see how the release goes in Ireland and the U.K and to hear family and friends reactions to the film.

‘Room’ is essentially a film of two halves - Ma and Jack in the claustrophobic and eponymous Room and then the two in the outside world following their escape – how did the Sound reflect this?

Steve Fanagan: From discussing the film with Lenny, we knew we needed to create an honest, truthful sound world that reflected the reality of the circumstances our characters are in, and one that evolved and developed as their circumstances change. From the beginning we knew the world inside Room would be confined, run down, intimate and not quite usual. Jack, a five year old boy, is our narrator, he is also our point of view for the duration of the film. This was our first ‘in’ as to how to shape and express the sound for Room; when in doubt, we would ask ourselves, What is he experiencing? What is the world delivering to him? How is he perceiving it?

We are in one location for half of the film. It's a soundproofed shed. We are experiencing the world from Jack's perspective. This shed is his entire world. As you can imagine, the scope for sound work was a vast and an exciting prospect. We had a great challenge in trying to use sound as a tool for expressing time within in the soundproofed confines of Room; the time of day, and the passage of time. Since the space is soundproof, we couldn’t use traditional sound signifiers for this, so we played with the nature and tone of the ambiance. We worked in collaboration with Lenny and Nathan Nugent to evolve this idea of using lighter tones for early in the day, when Ma and Jack are alone, and then, as we get toward night, the sound gradually gets heavier. We captured numerous recordings of sound-proofed spaces, from the inside different ADR booths, studios, mix theatres and other almost ‘silent’ places. We would automate EQ across a scene so that the quality of the air is slowly changing, depending on a time, mood, or story-point shift, allowing the room tone to feel lighter in the daytime when it’s just Ma and Jack and then slowing shifting to a heavier, more oppressive feeling as night arrives and Old Nick’s visit is imminent. In addition to this, we captured recordings of rattling air conditioners, old fridges, cisterns, lighting and any other characterful background sounds we could use to express the rundown nature of this confined space.

In the second half of the film, we got to broaden our palette of sounds into the wider world outside. Initially, as this is Jack's first experience of the world, our task was to underscore Jack’s sensory overload by heightening the reality, detail and texture of the sounds he hears. Another key story point outside Room is Jack’s longing to be back in Room with Ma. Life on the outside is initially overwhelming for both of them for different reasons. Jack misses Ma’s full, undivided attention, and Ma’s is really struggling to reconnect with a life that now feels unfamiliar and moved-on without her. Ma’s old family home becomes a new four walled space for them to become confined in. Again, this provided us with some great, challenging sonic possibilities. By use of exterior sounds lightly filtering into the interior scenes in the house, we wanted the audience to hear the world continuing outside, full of possibility and new adventure beyond the four walls, but keep Ma and Jack removed from it, unable to quite connect with that freedom awaiting them. It is a subtle detail that we worked really hard to create, again to place the viewer in our lead character’s head space.

Niall Brady:There is two distinct worlds in the film but the perspective is always that of Jacks, so, although the palette of sounds does change post the escape, the first question is always what would Jack be hearing or tuning into at any given time and it was by this we were always led. It was clear from Lenny’s direction and the picture cut that the line we should take through the film. This attention to subjectivity both in 'Room' and after the escape is very important and so in order to subtly maintain this focus on Jacks point of view in the mix we were careful always to cut a breath track for Jack so that when required we could lift it in an effort to quietly put the audience with Jack.

Can you tell us a little about the equipment used in the film?

Steve Fanagan:We worked in ProTools 11 in 5.1 in our edit suites and on the mix stage. We mixed the film on the Main Stage at Ardmore Sound, which was recently upgraded. The new 64 fader Avid D-Control console provides complete integration with Pro Tools, and allows for two mixers to work simultaneously. We're running four ProTools systems on the stage with capacity for hundreds of tracks creating a powerful and flexible setup. All of the Foley for the film was recorded on our state of the art Foley Stage, which is Ireland's only purpose-built Foley recording facility.

From the outset, our goal was to do something unique and tailored with the sound design for the film. We recorded a lot of our own sound effects mainly using a sound devices recorder and some DPA 4060 microphones. A really useful tool for creating a believable space inside Room was Audio Ease’s Altiverb. We recorded a variety of unique impulse responses in dead spaces, different sized mix theatres, foley stages, ADR and VO booths, and any confined space we could fit a speaker and a pair of microphones into. This allowed us to create our own reverbs for the film; we were looking for a sound of a space that didn’t feel familiar. It had to be something that was a little bit otherworldly and very much of the point of view of someone stuck in that experience. We ran Altiverb in both the dialogue and effects sessions during the edit, using the same room IRs to ensure that the dialogue and ADR, Foley and effects would sit in the same space.

Additionally, the performance and recording of the Foley for Jack and Ma helps bring the audience right into their world, giving the perception that they’re right there next to Jack, experiencing the claustrophobic closeness of Room, and, later, the larger world. The work that Caoimhe Doyle, the Foley artist, and Jean McGrath, the Foley mixer, did was fully tailored to this end.

Niall Brady: For this film and all the films we work on it is important that we’re working in ProTools from day one of editorial through to the completion of the mix and deliverables. This means that the mix is constantly ‘live’ and we’re shaping the mix from the very beginning of editorial. This was particularly useful for ‘Room’ as we started sound editing and providing material for temp mixes while Lenny and Nathan were still picture editing. It also meant that the work for the various temp mixes was carried through editorial and into the final mix.

What was the main challenge when working on ‘Room’

Steve Fanagan: Our starting point on ‘Room’ was to begin work with this beautifully shot, directed, edited, production designed and incredibly acted film. The big challenge from the outset with our sound work was to do something that we felt matched the quality of the script and the depth and richness of the film’s direction, performances and execution across all of the other departments. It felt like the work everyone had done on the film was of such a high quality and we had to rise to the occasion. Lenny is very interested in sound and what it can bring to his films; he gave us great notes and direction throughout the process. It felt like a real privilege to get to work with him on such an incredible piece of work.

Niall Brady: Being trusted with any film is not a challenge but is an opportunity to learn more about sound and film-making. As we've had the great fortune to work with Lenny on a number of films from 'Garage' through 'What Richard Did' and 'Frank', and now to 'Room', I always feel that the challenge is to deliver work that is thorough, accomplished, smart and textured - work that should sound great and make it easy for Lenny to make the decision to work with us again. Essentially this is the challenge we endeavour to take on with any film we work on.

What are you working on at the minute?

Steve Fanagan: I am currently working on the sound design for Juanita Wilson's new film, ‘Tomato Red’, which is a beautiful adaptation of a novel by Daniel Woodrell (Winter's Bone). It's been a great creative challenge and collaboration so far and I am looking forward to the rest of the work on it!

Niall Brady: Like Steve I’m working on Juanita Wilson’s ‘Tomato Red’, a really great film which interestingly is another ‘American’ story, and similar to ‘Room’ and ‘Viva’ is an ‘Irish’ film only by virtue of the directors nationality, the production company and some of the crew working on it.

Full Sound Post on ‘Room’ took place at Ardmore Sound and ScreenScene:

  • Supervising Sound Editor: Niall Brady
  • Sound Designer: Steve Fanagan
  • Foley Artist: Caoimhe Doyle
  • Foley Mixer: Jean McGrath
  • Additional Sound Editor: Peter Blayney
  • Sound Re-recording Mixers: Ken Galvin & Steve Fanagan

Stay tuned to IFTN for interviews with ‘Room’ director Lenny Abrahamson, ‘Room’ producer Ed Guiney and ‘Room’ editor Nathan Nugent. Check out the trailer below:

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