Interview: The Circle’s Dror Mohar on Designing Convincing Futuristic Sounds

The Circle - Dror Mohar by Alex Diaz.
Dror Mohar, Supervising Sound Editor, The Circle Photo by Alex Diaz

How do you invent sound for a world that doesn’t exist? To create the most convincing—and harrowing—science fiction soundscapes, audio post production experts must mimic real-life noises from futuristic sources of sound, like holograms. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to pull off.

For Dror Mohar, Supervising Sound Editor of 2017 film The Circle, this was one of the main challenges in editing the film’s sound. And to make matters more challenging, he joined the team midway through the sound design process.

I spoke with Mohar about working on the tech-driven psychological thriller that’s based off of Dave Eggers’ novel, keeping futuristic sounds authentic, and how he uses RX (and other iZotope products) in his workflow.

What was your process like designing sound for The Circle?

The sound of the film was constructed in three phases. Julian Slater [supervising and design partner on The Circle] started working on the film last year when I was on Deepwater Horizon, and created the foundation and direction that director James Ponsoldt wanted. I joined in the second phase, after James finished shooting the film, and continued building on those ideas through to the final mix. The third phase was the mix stage where a lot of editorial shaping came together as a result of extended visual effects schedule and revisions to the cut.

I started designing with two goals in mind: the first was to extend or refine the existing track, and the second was to explore sounds and treatments that were outside that vocabulary. It was a combination of updating existing designs, exploring what kind of range sound could contribute to story points in the new footage, and premixing them so they worked together. Mix treatments are just as much a part of sound design as sounds themselves. With iZotope, I have chains set up for both design and mix treatments so I can create a source, cut a sequence, and audition mix ideas in tandem. For example, I’ll find myself using Iris and Trash in combination with RX and Neutron.

What were some of the challenges working on sound design for The Circle?

From an editorial perspective, there a couple of action-driven scenes that are more kinetic and involved in the traditional sense. We had fun with them, but overall The Circle didn't call for a sound-effects-intensive track for complex cutting patterns. I can’t say there was a specific scene or sequence that was harder than others.

The challenge on The Circle was more psychological. The film blends current-day themes with elements that are outside of our daily experience, but it isn't specific about when the story takes place. It’s not the distant future, but not clearly present day either. As a result, much of the work was about defining what that world should sound like and making sure any new concepts were clear. Technology plays a central role in the story, and while the basic mechanics in the film are current, they’re applied in ways that are a couple of tech generations away. On the tech front, we went back and forth on where to stay true to current trends and where to be more cinematic with our approach. For instance, some components associated with technology stand out visually and have important implications, but in reality I wouldn’t expect or want them to have a sound. So we experimented with which sound was right and how to play it, so that it supported functions or devices we aren't familiar with, yet still remained credible.

All of the iZotope processors and instruments have precision built into them. They're a lot of fun to use, and at the same time they’re detailed and powerful. It’s like they're saying, "Let’s take this idea a step further—with a fine brush—on steroids."

Dror Mohar, Supervising Sound Editor, The Circle

Dror Mohar in studio

The other big focus was the overall character of sound. The film has a friendly aesthetic but deals with dark/hostile aspects of the virtual social universe. So the challenge with the tone was whether to follow the friendly nature of the visuals or support the darker narrative under it. On both fronts it was important not to feel futuristic, to keep the story and consequences relevant for the audience.

Ultimately, I found that the track felt right with much less design than we had originally imagined and the interesting opportunities came from distilling the designs until they felt organic. I found myself systematically trying out ideas and then stripping them down. Sometimes the elements I was left with were not what I thought would anchor the sound, and they would lead me in a new direction.

Can you give me an example of one of those devices?

One example is text messaging and user comments posted on The Circle’s open platform called Zings. In the film, when a message or post is received on a Circle device, it is also projected like holograms in free space, and the audience gets to be part of these conversations. These graphics are clearly a cinematic tool that serve the narrative, but the decision whether or not to give it a sound was tricky. My instinct was to avoid anything that might sensationalize those visual effects, but when I played them without sound the result was the opposite—they felt artificial. Giving the hologram visual a sonic feedback actually dissolved some of its futuristic quality and made it more authentic.

This is a good example of how the sound came together over the three phases. Julian had come up with a sound for the Zings early on that James liked. I explored some sweeteners and variations, and what ended up feeling right was slightly simplifying the pattern and shifting the sync so they didn't land right on the beat. We were almost at the end of the final mix when we received the updated visual effects. Then we mixed the sound effects so that we just heard the first few instances of them, and faded them away.

This approach ended up being very thematic to how the mix came together. Many of the sounds we started with were stripped down, abandoned, or played in a much subtler way. James had explored the culture and the technology aesthetics of companies like Google and Facebook and had come away with firm ideas. In terms of sound, trends are moving toward either no sound or more subtle feedback, and this was important to the overall character of the sound James wanted. Ultimately, that meant a minimal treatment to the track for sound effects.

The Circle is a timely movie. Our lives are wired and dominated by social media. Our art reflects that in critical ways—think of shows like Black Mirror, for example. Which films or other and soundscapes influenced your work on The Circle?

My influences for The Circle did not come from other films. In my first meeting with the film, it already had the track that James [Ponsoldt] and Julian [Slater] had worked on, so I didn’t reach for influences from cinema—I looked for real-life sources. I found so much real footage out there that relates to the subject matter online, and I spoke with people that actually work at places like Google and Facebook about what life is like on such campuses. Joining the film when I did was an interesting experience and changed my workflow. Normally, I am involved from the start and at ground zero the track comes together like a puzzle, putting together pieces—forming the shape from the inside out. There’s a period of micro work with discrete sounds and treatments before you can zoom out on the macro and get an impression of the form of the track. On The Circle, it was the opposite. My ground zero was a big picture of the cut with the range of sounds that Julian and James had already laid down. Having fresh ears on the overall direction of the track was an opportunity to expand on its parts and do so in the context of the sonic style James was after. That was way more important to me.

My main takeaway was that we wanted the sound to feel based in reality. When sounds are played beyond the dynamic range—the resolution—of what an analog device can reproduce in the real world, they cross the line into fantasy. That works great for music, but in trying to keep the sounds from being futuristic, we always played sounds that related technology within the range of the speaker that it was supposed to be coming from.

How long have you been using RX?

I’ve been using RX for the longest time—ever since I discovered it. I think it would be five years now. In the last two or three years I’ve gotten serious with it. In The Circle, there are some strong monologues by Emma [Watson], Tom [Hanks], and John [Boyega], and some of them invariably had extraneous sounds we wanted to minimize. The RX Suite allows me to choose what component of the sound to treat—whether I’m replacing it or minimizing it, sampling some of the EQ from another section, and deciding where to carve a hole.

What I listen for in the production record is the quality of voice—what’s good about it, not if there’s dirt around it. Then if the noise floor is hurting the intelligibility of the dialog or the performance, I treat the sound around the voice just enough to clarify the words. Our minds naturally focus on what we need to focus on—what is valuable. It’s easy to forget that and spend a lot of energy doing too much clean up. Often I find that when you leave some of that material it actually binds the track.

Coming from a music background, I’ve used Nectar, Insight, and Ozone forever. But I didn’t get as deep into everything iZotope has to offer until the I got into sound design for film.

All of the iZotope processors and instruments have precision built into them. They're a lot of fun to use, and at the same time they’re detailed and powerful. It’s like they're saying, “Let’s take this idea a step further—with a fine brush—on steroids.” For example, I love the body and harmonic qualities in Nectar and use it to add color and density to backgrounds and sound effects. Sometimes I’ll process an entire section of a stem/pre-dubb with Nectar to give it a little attitude. Then Iris is such an intuitive instrument and integrates smoothly into my workflow. On The Circle, I would use it to morph some of the original sounds with new ones on the fly, go through DDLY, and then process them using Trash to create a dynamic range that could fit into the real-world devices the sounds are coming out of. Neutron is my go to for overall shaping and dynamics.

How did you use Neutron on The Circle?

That was the final step for me, combining all the different technology sounds. Even though things sound very singular, I created a lot of different layers. Summing them all together, they all went through Neutron.

Is there anything else we didn’t talk about that you wanted to mention about working on sound for The Circle?

Just that working with James was great. He truly does commit himself to every part of the discipline. It was clear when talking with him that his focus was on exploring how different disciplines can shape the film, and that applied to sound, too.

I worked on the mix with Mike Minkler, which was great. He brought such a 360-degree view to the process. His sounds were tasty and made some really beautiful decisions with us on stage. Truly influenced the sound design of this film.