Detail Oriented: Sound Design and Aural Art of “ Nomadland ” (Part Two of Two)

In Part one of our two-part interview with the Nomadland The sound design team, Sergio Diaz and Zach Seivers spoke about the benefits of director Chloé Zhao’s thoughtful approach to incorporating sound into every step of the production process, long before release. Now, we go deeper into how the team filmed a key sequence during an actual Amazon accomplishment and their experience working with the score by Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi.


LR: Chloé Zhao, Writer / Director of ‘Nomadland’, Joshua James Richards and Frances McDormand (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

You worked on this film during the pandemic. How did it work with you Sergio in Mexico City, Zach in LA and ChloIt is in Ojai?

Diaz: Without a doubt, it was a challenge! But thanks to Chloe’s clear vision and precise direction, everyone made it happen. Using Evercast [HD live streaming and video conferencing platform] to collaborate remotely, Zach and I worked on a specific workflow for 20-30 minutes of film every two weeks. We’re so proud of the end result – I think the film is very powerful in its emotional connection.

Seivers: It’s crazy, Sergio and I have never met in person! Using Evercast, we both worked with Chloe throughout the process, and then Chloe and I met at Disney in Burbank to do the final mix. This has been carefully coordinated with Disney to track their [COVID-19] protocols and making sure we are as safe as possible. It was the first time that I mixed a film with an all day mask; it was really quite strange at first, but we all got used to it.

An Amazon warehouse, as seen in ‘Nomadland’ (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

How did you recreate the soundscape of Amazon’s fulfillment center to make it so realistic?

Diaz: This fell into the category of “prominent” sounds [see Part One] also. We wanted to immerse the public in what it really felt like to work in this industrial context. So I brought in crowds of people talking offscreen, which added to everything you see onscreen that came from Wolf, to give you a realistic feel.

Seivers: The din of noise with forklifts, conveyor belts and machinery was recorded by Wolf. Chloe is filming in documentary style, so she doesn’t stop work at the distribution center when the camera starts rolling. Allowing everything to continue influences performance and creates a very authentic production recording. But some of these realistic sounds aren’t necessarily the most cinematic. So Sergio came up with specific elements – whether it was the clicking of a treadmill or the sounds of the robots moving – and entrusted it to me so that the final mix resulted in what you hear in the movie. We wanted to stay true to the actual physical environment while adding just the right amount of amplified sound, to make the film’s soundtrack as immersive as possible and to cross the line between fiction and non-fiction. Our goal was to make it feel transparent and realistic to the audience, while being emotional and poetic.

Did the cameras continue to roll in a live Amazon facility throughout filming?

Seivers: Yes. In fact, Joshua told me that even though he shot the movie and knew how great it was to be there, hearing it in the final mix took him to a whole new level that he didn’t. not expected. It was a huge compliment coming from him, because he was actually there on the set!

Another tender scene was when Fern looks through old photos in his van one evening as an old classic plays in the background.

Diaz: This cinematic language of this film really balances all sound layers, creating a unique and smooth immersive soundscape to bring out the natural harmony of soundscapes in the great outdoors of the American West.

Seivers: These are all of Chloe’s decisions regarding the tail. But I worked on the mix to make it look like it was playing from his radio, although we took a creative license and didn’t put too much emphasis on the sound or make it too rough, so that it is more emotional.

The music of the composer Ludovico Einaudi is sublime. The piano and violin score when Fern takes a walk in the evening after meeting Bob Wells – explain why this score was chosen to accompany this sequence and what emotions you wanted to evoke?

Diaz: Chloe wanted Ludovico’s music to be the “hero” of each edit, so the sound elements were there to complement but not exceed the melancholy of the moment. Here we see both sound design and notation working together to create a smooth, immersive soundscape.

Seivers: Even though the score appears to have been composed just for the film, Chloe chose lines that had already been released by Ludovico years ago. What’s so cool about this approach is that Chloe basically edited the final music image and then we were able to design and mix the sound of the movie with the final clues from start to finish. This is very unusual, as we don’t normally hear the final score until the very late stages of the mixing, which can sometimes create some interesting changes at the 11th hour. In this case, we still knew exactly what the signals would be, so it really helped gel everything organically.

Nomadland now streams exclusively on Hulu and plays in select theaters nationwide.

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