Clowns in the Mix: Building the Sound Design for Audi Clowns
Read our press release about our contribution to this film, collaborating with BBH and Rattling Stick.
It’s undeniable that the beautiful re-record of ‘Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’ by Faultline featuring Lisa Hannigan, is one of BBH and Rattling Stick’s film’s most potent ingredients, but underneath the surface lies a bed of sound effects that heighten the jeopardy of the action, steer the emotion of the clowns and add a touch more humour to a song that originally formed part of the soundtrack to the fairly dark 1973 musical ‘A Little Night Music’.
Director, Ringan Ledwidge comments: “When you have a track as strong as ‘Send in the Clowns’ it can be quite intimidating in regards to what you do with the sound design. Finding the sweet spot that allows the track to breathe whilst still adding texture and story with SFX isn’t an easy balance to strike and requires real nuance. Will [Cohen, co-founder and sound designer at String and Tins] and his team instinctively understood that which is a rare thing.”
String and Tins built all the sound design elements from nothing as the commercial was filmed mute: all clown character voices, door slams, squeaks, rattles, engines, skids, cable plucks, light bursts, balloon movements and atmospheres were recorded on various locations in the UK including their own studios, The Foley Barn and as far as dirt tracks in Buckinghamshire for some of the motorbike engines.
The foley played a key part in bringing the cars and action to life in the film, in part to make the Clowns and their vehicles seem as ruinous as possible. Will worked with long time collaborator Julien Pirrie, spending a day at The Foley Barn recording everything from violent shaking of buggies, rattling pipes and TV aerials, scattering 300 ball pit balls around, all cloth and feet moves, to some metal work with various elements of Julien’s extensive props collection. Will brought the recordings back to String and Tins to fit into the atmospheres and other effects that were best created at HQ or sourced from libraries.
Julien notes: “This level of attention to detail by Will brings a new life to the picture and makes doing foley on a project an exciting challenge. To have to create different rattles and squeaks for each clown car and try and create a difference in character for each one makes for a fun day of recording. I’m still finding ball pit balls around the studio weeks after the recording.”
On the clowns dialogue, Will said: “Initially we covered every clown vocalisation in camera, with variations ranging from goofy and over the top, to more natural. One highlight for me was eventually making the couple at the beginning mostly mime – it’s easy to force a sound onto everything but sometimes its right for the soundtrack as a whole to pair it back. Other nice moments are when the bus driver subtly whistles a line from ‘Send In The Clowns’ and the first motorbike rider vocalises engine sounds as he pulls a wheelie!”
Conceptually, for once the engine sound of Audi was not the focus, the key being the tech performance of the car and it’s reactions to the world around it. The clown vehicle sounds focus on the ramshackle, uncontrolled shaking and skidding, rather than typical boy racer high RPM bursts.
Drawing focus to the clowns at times was achieved by removing all Audi engine sound completely such as in the tunnel scene where the sound design is more washed out and dreamlike – the Audi is silent, even on the close-ups.
As the team wanted to see how far to push the clown vehicle sounds, part of that involved Joe going out to spend time with bike specialist Mark of Ridewell Motorcycles, recording a variety of 2 and 4 stroke bikes to get the right sound.
Combining all these elements that are fighting for supremacy into a cohesive soundtrack was the final challenge – BBH producer David Lynch says: “String and Tins are greatly trusted by BBH and the Audi team in particular – their attention to detail never ceases to amaze us.
This advert was very music focused, yet Will still managed add his creative flair to the mix. It was a challenge to get the balance right between the music and the SFX so that neither was too overbearing – Will answered this as we have come to expect. He looked at the environments in each scene and like in our Absolute ‘Kiss’ film, Will gives the viewer a spatial awareness through the sound design. There was a temptation with having clown characters to go over the top with their wackiness but Will, Ringan and the creatives felt a more subtle approach brought a unique likeable feel to our clowns. Overall both BBH and Audi are very proud of this advert and sound played an integral role in the process.”