LORD OF THE RINGS: Rings of Power Sound Supervisor & Orchestrators on Making the Sound of Magic

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Supervising Sound Editor Damian Del Borrello and Orchestrators Jonathan Beard, Ed Trybek and Henri Wilkinson (collectively known as Tutti Music Partners) recently spoke with ProductionHUB regarding their work bringing the incredible sounds of Tolkien's world to life on Amazon Prime's Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
 
Interview with Damian Del Borrello
  

PH: Can you share a bit of your background? How did you get into the business of sound editing? 

Damian Del Borrello: In high school, I was a drama and music nerd, performing in school theater productions as well as playing in bands from when I was sixteen. I’m originally from Perth, which is a city on the other side of the world! It’s one of the most isolated capital cities in the world, and there wasn’t a big music or film industry there. So, when I was younger, the path to a creative career was not very clear. I spent a lot of time at university, but then over years, through my early 20s, I started realizing there was this other side to the creative performance—post-production.

I completed an undergrad media degree where I learned a bit about general media & TV. I had to make a decision around, “Okay, do I go to film school, or do I go to music school and get classical training?” At that time, the music industry was imploding. Napster had become the dominant form of how you got music. So, I put my adult hat on and said, “Maybe I should go to film school.” I moved to Sydney, started that path, and haven’t looked back. Music was the gateway, and film school was the stepping stone to entering the industry proper.

PH: How did you become involved with Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power? Can you sum up your experience creating sound for 2.5 years (from Feb. 2020 - June 2022)? 

Damian Del Borrello: It goes back to 2019. The week before Christmas I got a call from a post supervisor friend of mine, asking me to come and meet the associate producer in charge of post. Robby Stambler was my supervising partner on the show, and he had a relationship with one of the producers, so he got the call first. Then through my contacts over here in New Zealand, he called me, and by February 2020 we were off to the races.

There were lots of different elements to design, the world-building being the starting point. But then also all the creatures and the magic and all of those elements that had to be created. In a way, the workflow of chipping away on sequences and scenes instead of reels or full episodes worked in our favor because they were bite-size chunks.

The experience I had on this show was both trying and rewarding, with new relationships forged in the fires of Mordor – an epic project for the ages!

PH: What was it like working with a dialect coach and the Quenyan language to create the "whispers of Eru Ilúvatar"?  

Damian Del Borrello: I’m quite a conceptual and analytical Sound Designer, so one of the first things I did when I started on ROP was look for an authoritative archive of Tolkien lore, I found tolkiengateway.net. That became an encyclopedia for me. Whenever new ideas, places or characters came up, I’d dive in and get some background. This goes back to trying to respect the lore. Apart from the original films, the fans are a big part of the whole process as well, so I was making sure that we were on the right track the whole time.

One thing that was quite obvious from the start was all the magic elements, some of the early sequences where we’re getting to know who these giants were, and magical scenes with The Stranger. The question is, ‘What is the unseen world and what does magic sound like without the Ring?’ We don’t have the One Ring yet. In the original film, it was the sound of Sauron, and the eye of Sauron talking through the ring. It was a lot about the voice, and the magical ambiance around that, but without the voice. What does that sound like? I went on a deep dive down into the source. What is the source of magic without the Ring?

There was no simple answer but I came to a logical conclusion that it was the creator, Illuvatar. Everything was created in the mind of Illuvatar. So, what do the thoughts of Illuvatar sound like, practically, right? It must be an incantation, and an incantation in one's mind is a whisper. We had this fantastic dialect coach who was working with the production and with all the actors. She was also in and out of ADR sessions with us. I wasn’t in a lot of ADR sessions, but I reached out to her with a transcript that I had done of a piece of production sound, and I asked, ‘What does this mean? What is this? Can I use these words in this way?’ It was, fortuitously enough, perfect. It was, “I call to you to work through me, to hear my needs, to guide my hands,” which was a perfect little incantation.

This was in the very early stages, back in February 2020. I just jumped in a booth, recorded myself with a high-resolution mic at a high sample rate, performing these whispers in a whole range of styles — long, slow, and gentle, all the way up to quite strong, angry, short, and sharp — and then did a whole lot of processing. The intention was for me to demo it and start to put it into the sequences and the scenes; to just try and figure it out, workshop it with the editors, and present it to the showrunners, to then later — when we’re in proper post-production — have a voice actor come in and actually perform it. Redo it in a way that, maybe, was better.

But it all worked so well that it’s actually just me as the whispers. It is an element that becomes a motif across the show. It’s just one element because magic always has an effect on the world, and there are a whole lot of heavier elements around it, like ripping trees, and the sound of the energy waves. It’s not a heavily featured element, but it’s a motif that ties together all of the different magic events.

PH: Can you talk me through how you created one of the most technically complex and creative soundtracks mixed during COVID lockdowns?

Damian Del Borrello: Rings of Power was an incredibly complex show both creatively and technically. The original plan involved my supervising partner Robby & I being embedded with picture editorial in NZ, exporting our sound effects predubs for the avids, which would then live in the edit and carry through to the mix. COVID significantly changed that plan. The first wave meant Robby & I needed to find a way to collaborate remotely, with me in Wellington, him in Los Angeles and editorial in Auckland. The amount we fed into picture editorial was reduced to a handful of key sound design moments, which freed us up to concentrate on building the soundscape without the overhead of delivering predubs to editorial. Once we developed our workflows it was a natural process – the time difference actually worked to our advantage. 

We worked that way for about a year before we started expanding our team in the 5 months leading up to the mix. We had sound editors in LA and in NZ, all working remotely. When the mix started in Auckland, the city was still in an emergency COVID lock down with travel restrictions in place, as well as government managed quarantine for international travelers. This coupled with the high expectations for the show created a pressure cooker environment that actually brought the sound team closer together. 

We created a supportive culture that recognised the difficult circumstances we were experiencing by dismantling the idea of blame – the failure of the individual was the failure of the team, so people were given all the assistance needed to do their best work. In large part this wouldn’t have been possible without our talented and compassionate mixers Beau Borders & Lindsay Alvarez. Without their patience with the issues we faced, the process would have been much harder and a lot less enjoyable.  

PH: How did you feel about stepping into such a big, iconic world - and did you feel pressure to deliver to fans of the Lord of the Rings films?

Damian Del Borrello: The original films were, in part, a help for me in deciding to pursue sound. They were such a big influence on cinema and the way cinema sounds, that they drove me to follow this path. Actually, it’s why I moved to Wellington. I worked for the company that did the original films for a few years before I ended up on the show. 

One of the big things that was important to me was honoring the legacy and paying homage to those films, because they were so good. To not reference them and not use them as a stepping stone to create this show would have been a bit silly. I also know a lot of people that worked on those films, so it was important for me to respect the legacy of those artists.

It was a busy period leading into the start of the show because I was on another show, which I literally finished the Friday before starting ROP on Monday! I did manage to squeeze in a refresher viewing of the first three films and it was a lot – like, wow, okay, so this is the starting point and we have to at least reach that and then bring something new to the party. It was pretty daunting at the start looking up at this mountain of creation that had to be done. 

PH: I'd love to hear how you paid homage to the sonic palette of the original films. Can you share a bit of your approach with this?

Damian Del Borrello: The original films are often cited as touchstone moments in cinematic sound design, being described as ‘documentary style’ sound. Even though the level of detail is very high, the quality of the sounds themselves is organic. Foley was a big component in achieving the naturalistic tone, and we used a lot of it in the series. We worked very closely with our NZ based foley team, supplying them with exports of our sound effects predubs so they could sync their sounds more tightly and also compliment the tones developed by us in the hard fx tracks. The result was an organic sounding, yet highly detailed effects track where the foley and hard fx sounds play proudly in the mix.  

Interview with Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson, and Jonathan Beard 

PH: Can you share a bit of your background and how you became interested in orchestrating? 

Henri Wilkinson: All of our backgrounds are a bit different. Ed studied guitar performance at USC, Jonathan studied cello performance and composition at UCLA and Stanford and I studied jazz piano performance and music education at the Sibelius Academy in Finland, followed by a year at USC’s film scoring program. Ultimately though, what brought us together was the three of us starting to work for Bear McCreary in 2009, when his career started to get really busy. Prior to that, we did not know each other, but quickly realized that we got along well both personally and professionally. So much so that forming Tutti Music Partners grew organically out of our friendship, comradery, and close working relationship. 

PH: You've been working with Composer Bear McCreary since 2009 on everything he does. What has that experience been like and what have you been able to learn in the process? 

Edward Trybek: It has truly been, and continues to be, a thrill-ride for us. When we started working with Bear in 2009, we were almost immediately thrown into orchestrating a fully orchestral show that was recorded on a weekly basis, alongside a large video game and several other TV shows that were mercifully smaller in instrumentation - all happening simultaneously of course. Realizing how much teamwork meant to us when confronted with time and volume pressures set us onto the path of formalizing our partnership. Every project and client has different needs, instrumentation, and challenges, so our line of work is a constant learning experience and that is what makes it such an interesting profession!

PH: How excited were you to work on Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power? 

Jonathan Beard: We’re definitely all fans of Tolkien, so for us finding out Bear had been engaged for the production was a dream come true. And of course considering how large of an instrumental palette we had at our disposal compared to the usual television shows, with full orchestra, full choir, percussion and world instruments is truly equivalent to the kids-in-a-sandbox feel for us. Every episode was around an hour of music, and the project felt more akin to orchestrating eight movies back to back, in terms of the scope and size of the ensembles, as well as intricacy and sheer amount of music.

PH: Every episode had 55-63 minutes of music. Can you talk about some of the challenges of working on a series with so much music. How do you approach that and plan for that before filming begins? Does that influence what the scenes look and feel like? 

Edward Trybek: As orchestrators, we were brought on after the show had already been in production; after Bear had already started writing in fact. In August of 2021, Bear and the three of us had a private meeting to discuss his vision on the approach and instrumentation. That way, once we started orchestrating the score itself a couple of months later, we had an idea of some of the colors that were at our disposal to experiment with and would fit into the vision that Bear had, whether it be soft background wind textures or raspy choral voice effects. There were also extensive back and forth musical conversations with Bear during the entire process to clarify his musical vision and the direction that he wanted to go. 

PH: Can you talk about some of the challenges with orchestrating music without seeing any video? 

Henri Wilkinson: This is where the relationship between the composer and orchestrator comes to play in a fairly substantial way. While it’s usually crucial for the composer to be working to picture, it’s less so for the orchestrators, who are helping to bring the composer’s already-expressed intentions to life. We have a comfortable shorthand with Bear at this point, and are pretty good at interpreting and executing his orchestrational wishes. But there definitely were a few instances where we initially interpreted something in an entirely different way than what was actually intended; I remember us adapting some text for the choir where we took the passage to be going for a wistful or mournful vibe, and the intent was entirely the opposite. Luckily, that’s where the good back and forth communication with Bear comes in. He was watching video of course, and could flag that immediately.

PH: How was the experience completing all the orchestrations in 6 months (Nov. 2021 April 2022)? Was the pressure on? 

Jonathan Beard: There is always pressure! However, we knew it was coming so we made sure to have as much room in our schedule and support/understanding from our families lined up in advance. Once the music starts to come, we put our heads down and keep moving forward until suddenly we are done…until the next episode arrives.

PH: Due to Bear's busy schedule, you produced the recording sessions for the whole season. What was that experience like? How did you all lean on each other to get that accomplished? 

Jonathan Beard: The experience was daunting, but amazing. On the plus side, we were fortunate to have very large string, woodwind, and brass sections for this score, as well as a large choir. On the challenging side, due to COVID we could not have all the musicians in the room at the same time, so we needed to record the strings separately from the winds and brass. This all contributed to the sheer amount of sessions. 

Edward Trybek: Every episode had four full days of orchestral recording sessions, two days of choir sessions, as well as various soloists and percussion. Given that sessions were often occurring simultaneously in London with the orchestra, and in Vienna with the choir, having a trusted team or partnership was paramount. We would pass notes and marked-up scores back and forth to one another, giving heads up on adjustments we’d had to make in one section of the score, that might affect a section that a different one of us was overseeing. 

Henri Wilkinson: And though Bear could not be present to produce the orchestral sessions for each episode due to the tightness of his writing schedule, he was always available to take a quick listen if there were questions. It is definitely beneficial that we have such a long-running working history with Bear, and we were honored that he entrusted us with this process. 

PH: Can you share how the music had added complexity because of the lyrics in Quenyan? 

Henri Wilkinson: For all of the various languages used on Rings of Power, be it Quenya, Khuzdul or Black Speech, Bear was committed throughout to treat the lyrics with care. Language experts were involved, final sign-offs by the showrunners were involved, all to make sure that the lyrics communicated their meaning appropriately in these languages. And like opera, those lyrical choices could influence some of the musical choices we made in orchestration, and vice versa. For the relatively small subset of fans who understand these languages, there is an additional layer of depth to be mined, while at the same time, the musical expression can be enjoyed by all listeners either way. 

The music for LOTR has a lot of old school classic adventure music/sounds - so TMP had a bigger palette to work with and explore - more so than you usually do for modern day tv and film music. I'd love to dive into the music themes: Saoron's evil theme and Galadriel's theme. Can you break those down? 

Edward Trybek: From an orchestration perspective, Galadriel’s theme changes quite a bit depending upon the dramatic content. For example, in “The Boat and the Crater” from Episode 1,

her theme is heard on a solo horn accompanied by minimal strings and later it is given a full sweeping orchestral treatment with all the French Horns triumphantly playing her theme while the rest of the orchestra and choir are accompanying with multiple musical ideas. That can be contrasted by a solo soprano rendition in another scene, so Bear does whatever is necessary for the picture on screen. 

Jonathan Beard: Sauron’s theme gets a bunch of its unsettling power from the start, by the fact that it’s in the rather asymmetrical musical meter of 7/8. It’s always keeping you slightly off balance. Add those ominous male voices alongside their churning low string accompaniment, and you really get a strong sense of dread. Similar to Galadriel’s theme, there is a bit of variation based upon what is needed by a given scene, and there are musical elements adjacent to Sauron’s theme that also build off of its features. The “Nampat” Orc chants have an extra-raspy performance from the men in the choir that go beyond their already-ominous singing, and hints of Sauron’s theme connect with other thematic material in unexpected ways. The landscape is vast for further adventures - both visual and musical. We’re thrilled to have joined Bear for the ride thus far!
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