Three’s Fantastical 5G Utopia

Will is interviewed by LBB about this enormous sound design project, in which he was tasked with creating the sound of the distant future.

When it comes to visions of the future, there isn’t a whole lot of positivity around. Whether it’s impending climate disaster in the real world or the grim post-apocalyptic landscapes of sci-fi, it’s hard to envisage a future to look forward to. All of which makes UK Mobile Network Three’s bombastic new ad stand out like a crispy roast potato on a plate of soggy brussels sprouts.

Created with Wieden + Kennedy London and directed by Ian Pons Jewell, the brand’s vision of a 5G-enabled Britain is all about positivity, and frankly, we can’t wait to live there.

As well as eye-popping VFX from The Mill, the spot is a symphony of incredible sounds, with String and Tins melding futuristic sound effects and tunes with classic melodies for a unique take on the future.
Will Cohen talks us through creating sound for wormholes and how to build a monkey squawk banana gun...

Q> What was the initial brief from Three, and how did you approach the project?

Will> The client’s top line was to make it fun, crank up the energy, and bring it to life with a rich soundtrack of fx and music. In terms of approach, we built the sound from the ground up: recording foley and dialogue at the offline stage, communicating with The Mill about VFX styles, going back and testing scenes with our sound design, then building it up as the VFX developed. I was still creating fx in the final minutes - certain VFX shots came in on the last day! That laser tattoo was last - made out of a recording I did of the back of a generator with an induction microphone. Adam, Will and James from Wieden + Kennedy had a lot of awesome ideas when it came to certain moments too. ‘Mmm sausage’ springs to mind...

Although I led the project it was a real team effort - every member of the String and Tins team contributed to certain moments - for instance the background audio adverts in the shop were all by different people; special mentions go to Kaspar for ‘Insect Crunch’ and Adam for ‘Meow Pow Now’.

Q> The spot is incredibly fast-paced and eclectic. How did you establish a sound design that both complemented the various scenes and didn’t get lost in all the action?

Will> The creatives and I talked a fair bit in the early stages about the sound rules at play in this film. Certainly with the long version I wanted all the music to be diegetic (in the scene), the only traditional soundtrack being the music for the wormhole that takes us in and out of the near-future world. I guess the challenge was then to make every moment energised and exciting so that the lack of a soundtrack wallpapering over the film didn’t leave us wanting. By not having that wallpaper, we were able to really set the different scenes apart and decide on the definition of the transitions through sound design and mix.

Q> Did you have to create distinctive sound design for each scene?

Will> I generally avoid reaching for stock library sounds unless a film needs you to play on a particular trope. So yes, all scenes received a lot of attention. I made folders of sounds on my modular synth and various plugins, building up a toolkit of interface, weapon and vehicle sounds to place in the various scenes.

After that, we built organic layers on top to bring that sense of fun - see if you can spot the monkey squawk banana gun and the tortoise grunt layers on the turtle cannon.

Q> The spot is set far into the future. How did you go about imagining what these yet-to-exist technologies and the world will sound like?

Will> You would expect the default perception of the future is sort of electronic and busy, with screens and positivity everywhere. So there is a fair amount of techy sound, but we made sure to balance it with timeless or retro music cues and organic sounds so that it doesn’t feel too tryhard.

To be honest, trends come around on a loop and the kids are all listening to the jungle breaks that I grew up on, which is partly why when syncing a sped up booty bass track onto the end of the shop scene, it still feels relevant. Also it’s got to be a bit tongue in cheek - we could have gone more stereotypically ‘future’ for the in-ear music streaming scene, but Jim and the creatives made a ‘nibble nibble’ tune that is more fun and means the viewer knows we aren’t taking ourselves too seriously!

Q> Did you have a favourite sequence to work on? Why?

Will> Ah it’s been such an awesome job to work on, it’s difficult to pick my favourite bit. But if I had to choose, it would be the intro. I love the way Ian portrays humans. And having a filmmaking style that allows you to play with the viewer’s perspective makes me very happy. I had fun getting that internalising of the sound design when we push in on our character on the couch. It transitions to a kind of chest throbbing, the canned audience filters out, everything gets close and focussed and then WHOOSH, we are into the future!

Q> Any parting thoughts?

Will> I think with a big VFX job like this, one of the biggest challenges is keeping track of communications and maintaining the enormous audio session so it’s easy to update and re-cut. We developed a couple of new workflows with editorial on this project that were really handy, and we had excellent people looking after us. Our producer Laura-Leigh and James from W+K smashed it and made sure we had the time and flow to do the project justice.

Originally published on Little Black Book