Dolby Institute Fellowship
A small committee from Dolby®, the Sundance Institute®, and Academy Award®-winning sound designer Skip Lievsay picked Last Days in the Desert to receive the Fellowship because the film presented compelling opportunities for creative sound design and immersive mixing. The film opens with Ewan MacGregor portraying Jesus as he wanders in the desert. The first 20 minutes of the film contain very little music and almost no dialogue, providing a powerhouse opportunity for sound design.
"He's out there looking for something, looking to have a conversation with his father, and that conversation was surrounded by silence — not literal silence but just the sounds of the desert. In the absence of the voice of the father speaking, all he had was the sounds of the desert. So I always knew that setting and its sounds were crucial," explained writer-director Rodrigo García.
Sound supervisors and rerecording mixers J.M. Davey and Zach Seivers joined García's team before filming began. This gave them the opportunity to visit the movie's desert location during production and build a full library of original sound recordings to draw from as they built the film's signature sound environments.
As J.M. Davey explained, "The biggest challenge right out of the gate was knowing that the music would be sparse, and that we would have to sustain the audience's interest for a feature film entirely in the desert. So it was all about how to portray different environments in the desert in a way that was interesting and engaging and do all of the little tricks that we do, as far as design, with the ebb and flow of the emotional journey of the characters and the emotional changes even throughout a single scene."
When you're in the desert, your ear is much more in tune with specific sounds and things that seem like silence, and the distance to sounds. So when I was thinking about it and prepping it, I knew that the movie had to be an immersive experience.
RODRIGO GARCÍA, WRITER-DIRECTOR
Critical to that approach was coordinating with the film's composers, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, to integrate the minimal score into the film's sound design to create a cohesive weave. "We talked to Danny and Saunder and got a list of the instruments they were using," sound designer and mixer J.M. Davey said. "Then we did our own recording session with those instruments, instead of recording music, to just record noise and odd sounds that the instruments would make. We used that design in the film, the theory being that because they come from the same source material, it would blend relatively seamlessly with the score."
The Dolby Institute Fellowship allowed the film's team to augment the sound design and to mix the film in Dolby Atmos®. Sound designer and mixer Zach Seivers said, "[Dolby] Atmos has really allowed us to elevate our work. It's helped us to create a sense of space and authenticity that honors the location and the environment in a way that allows the audience to connect emotionally with the characters in a very exciting way."
You might think that a film that features a man wandering in the desert would not be a great candidate for immersive Dolby Atmos sound, but as J.M. Davey explains, "Any film is great for [a Dolby] Atmos mix, because it just enhances the sonic qualities of the film. But Last Days in the Desert, because it's so atmospheric, because we rely on the backgrounds, on the winds, on sand blowing so much, [Dolby] Atmos gives us control over where that sound is coming from. We can construct a three-dimensional world for the audience to be in, with incredible realism."