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The Swarm is coming

Why sound and creative processes in post-production are playing a special role in the bestseller adaptation

A global bestseller running to 900 pages, published 20 years ago and long considered unfilmable: Frank Schätzing’s science fiction thriller “The Swarm” has now premiered as a six-part series at this year’s Berlinale. Boasting a budget of 40 million Euros, the series is considered to be one of the most expensive German series adaptations of all time. Showrunner Frank Doelger (“Game of Thrones”) produced the novel for ZDF as a mystery series event after more than five years of preparations with the directors Barbara Eder, Luke Watson and Philipp Stölzl as well as an international crew. The experts from Potsdam’s Rotor Film were hired to oversee the post-production which also included working on the sound, mixing and image processing. The story: an unknown swarm intelligence in the sea is threatening humankind. People are being attacked by sea creatures at various places around the world. A team of scientists sets out to find answers when the situation becomes ever more menacing. Sound design developed into a key element during the production in order to make the silent threat underwater something tangible for the viewers.

In conversation with the MediaTech Hub, Rotor Film’s re-recording mixer Gregor Bonse speaks about how challenging, enriching and creative the work was on “The Swarm”. Besides the complex production processes of an international series and a post-production period lasting 20 months from the time of the shoot, the producers created a budgetary framework seldom seen in TV productions that allowed for lots of experimentation and creating a sound that was consistent with the story.

Eerie “swarm noises” instead of a melodious score

The sound also establishes the atmosphere of the series from the very first scene: in Peru, a fisherman is prevented from surfacing by a dense school of white, silvery fish and subsequently drowns. The swarm contracts menacingly with a buzzing sound above the water’s surface, the background music is deliberately restrained. The threat, the “unknown monster” invisible to humans, plays a key role, but the sea is also an important protagonist in “The Swarm”. It not only represents water, but is also a being in its own right with its own physicality. Sound designer Noemi Hampel experimented with many sounds during her preparations for the soundtrack. In the course of her research, she looked for material such as “the strangest sounds ever recorded underwater” in order to get closer to the element and give it a character – as she explained at the panel organised by the Berufsvereinigung Filmton (bvft) during the Berlinale. The sea is given a lot of narrative time in the series, it is associated with haptic, muffled sounds, and there are times when it sounds as if we are acoustically sitting under a bell.

“Generally speaking, we were more careful about how music was used particularly in the first episodes. There was no need here for a so-called landscape score to describe places or foreshadow emotions. The swarm encounters humans in a certain kind of everyday situations, a fish market in France, a beach in Canada. An appropriate sound design is crucial in this instance. However, the element of water is already able to achieve a kind of foreshadowing with the corresponding sound effects: it doesn’t matter whether the Peruvian fisherman has just set sail or a lobster is flushed down the drain: the thing always resonating here is that it’s more than just water. The really big musical moments only come along in the later episodes when the audience has already been able to get closer to the characters and empathise with their conflicts,” Gregor Bonse says about the work.

There is even a description of sound noted in the book – Schätzing’s novel refers here to a “scratching”, an eerie sound that can be heard. A definite sound, but one that had to be interpreted differently for the film. “Concrete sounds can also seem ludicrous and trivialise the threat. That’s why we used granular synthesis to develop a “swarm sound” that also includes musical elements,” Bonse explains.

What role does budget play in sound design?

During the bvft panel on the production conditions and budgets for sound design, Bonse and Hampel each spoke enthusiastically about the ideal working conditions which were made possible by the budget: “We had time, we could also experiment and had the option in the post-production process of then adding something completely new or revising it elsewhere. This meant that whole dialogues could be recorded again during the final mix so that a scene was then more coherent as a whole.” Constantin Film’s Tim Greve, who was presenting another project at the Berlinale, also pointed out how different sound is when it’s recorded during shooting or in post-production. The more boom operators (and thus budget) there are on set, the more chances that the actors’ voices can be recorded via the boom mics. What happens on set is always more authentic than in post-production. But these days, there are many projects being produced at a faster pace, with shorter shooting times overall and, at the same time, fewer breaks in the dialogues in the film, which means that the actors start talking over one another. This is where several boom mics, i.e. a larger crew, are in a better position to cope with recording the dialogues.

Bonse also pointed out in the MediaTech Hub conversation that sound is often the last link in the chain and, depending on how the production and shooting progress, the budget gets smaller and smaller towards the end. However, the general trend is going in the opposite direction with the time spent on post-production steadily increasing compared to production, and this must be taken into account in the budgeting.

Many visual effects are a key element in the production process of “The Swarm” besides the sound design. And this is also a place where sound plays an important role because the VFX elements need sound design in order to make the computer-generated fantastic worlds, creatures or elements like icebergs or fire look realistic It takes the interplay between sound and vision for them to be seen as real and also become a genuine feature of the story. Digital water, digital sky – all these things can only ever be a compromise which only then develops into a genuine feature of the story through the interplay between sound and vision.

“The Swarm” is airing on ZDF’s analogue schedule from 8.15 pm on 6 March. The first three parts can already be seen in advance in the media library:

Title Image: (c) ZDF/Staudinger + Franke / [M] Serviceplan