Interview: Supervising Sound Editor Becky Sullivan and Production Mixer Derek Mansvelt Talk ‘The Woman King’

The Woman King is one of the year’s best movies and greatly benefits from a theatrical viewing in IMAX. Part of the reason why the film is worth seeing in theatres is its intricate sound design, which was done in a “compressed schedule after the studio loved the movie so much they moved the release date by two months,” as described by Supervising Sound Editor Becky Sullivan.

Sullivan spoke with director Gina Prince-Bythewood and editor Terilyn A. Shropshire to keep the sound as organic as possible.

“My task was to envelop the audience in Africa and to bring the sounds of Africa and Dahomey to the audience. This film has an emotional sonic landscape. It takes the viewer to many places, and we feel the Warriors emotionally. We feel their brutality, loneliness, bravery, and all the different things we see in the film. I was pleased to help bring this to life on screen.”

One of the most significant undertakings of the movie was to craft the sounds of the battle scenes, in which Sullivan closely collaborated with Gina Prince-Bythewood to prepare how they would sound like:

“We were trying to get the movie ready for a preview screening. We had about five weeks and had to get the sounds of the battle scenes completed, which was a lot of work. There are three or four big battle scenes. For example, Gina is very particular about how she wants the machetes and weaponry to sound. That brought on going through my collection and finding the right sound for the machete, which is a dark sound.

Gina wanted a deep, metallic, iron sound. Of course, each warrior’s machete sounds different. So we had to find the right sound for each machete, on top of the various weapons that everyone uses. We’ve got knives, ropes, chains, and muskets as well. There’s a variety of sounds that we worked hard to get those right because the film had to be rated PG-13. With that rating, there isn’t a lot of blood happening on camera, so we needed the audience to have the visceral feeling that they may not be seeing the violence, but they’re actively hearing it. Our minds almost have us see things when we listen to them, so we were tasked with bringing those battle scenes to life and their brutality without really seeing a lot of bloodletting on camera.”

Each mix for the film, whether Dolby or IMAX, is done separately, and there are differences in mixing the same movie for different formats:

“For Atmos or IMAX, for example, we go for different speaker locations, different technical things that we prep for, and editing so that we have plenty of material to be able to put it anywhere we want to. I could give our effects mixer Tony Lamberti all my tracks. We sit there and go meticulously through every track and figure out where we want every bird and every wind to get that feel of Africa. It’s a very thought-out process.”

One of the bigger challenges in designing the movie’s sound was finding an authentic period feel to the mix. At the same time, the film was shot in modern-day Africa, as described by Production Mixer Derek Mansvelt:

“Everything about modern-day life is a huge challenge to try and work around. We do our best on set and try and minimize as much as possible, but the guys in post-production did a fantastic job of pulling stuff out and cleaning it up to make it usable. Another challenge was the dialogue itself because it’s no longer a spoken language. We want to use English, but we need an accent to make it into that language. That was interesting: how far can you push that accent without losing something that was without losing the actual words? Obviously, all the actresses and actors worked amazingly hard. Gina worked with all of them. It was incredible how much work was put into the film, and I think it shines through; you hear it in the cast. We try a little bit to try and keep things as clean as possible so that you have something to work with.”

In crafting the “dance battle” sequence from a sound perspective, Sullivan said it was the mix’s “Achilles heel,” while Mansvelt talked about how they wanted it to be as authentic as possible for the audience:

“When I spoke to Gina about the music, we had to decide how to go about it, and she wanted to keep it as natural as possible. African music is generally drumming with many rhythms, especially in drumming, which is incredibly noisy. So we had to work with everything we had. That was my biggest fear with our drums. If we did it for real, which would be great, you’re not going to be able to cut it very quickly. We’ve had many rehearsal days set up where we would record various aspects of the whole number. We would record percussion and the dancers and get everybody separately as much as possible.

The two we focused on the most were Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim. We tried to record as much stuff individually as possible so that we could have stemmed tracks that we could use on the day of playback. Then on the day of playback, it would be a matter of playing back the elements that we didn’t have time for and trying to re-record them, clean, with everything else being played back, at least having control over the drums. In a way, it worked because it was absolutely amazing when I watched it, and it felt genuine, which was the objective from the beginning.”

Mixing the dance battle took lots of time, as described by Becky Sullivan:

“Every time we would play it for Gina, she was always like, “Oh, guys, you know, what about this, what about that?” and I was always assuring her that by the time we got to the final version, we would nail it. However, it took a lot of time and work to prepare everything and weeding out things that we didn’t need to make work, such as getting machete hits out of the dialogue without hurting the production and singing.

That took an enormous amount of meticulously getting into each of those tracks and finding what we needed. Of course, we augmented it with Foley, which I love in this film. In other films, you have people with shoes on, walking on cement, tile, or wood. In this, we have barefoot warriors walking through dirt, so the sound of the ground and the grit on the feet is precise. While they’re dancing, the earth flies up, and we hear a little grit pass our ears. I love the sound of that realistic dance with the feet on the ground, so I’m passionate about that sequence because it was the most complex, yet it’s the most beautiful.”

The Woman King is now available to rent or buy on video-on-demand.

[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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