With the latter series, Hinton brought life to the dystopian megalopolis of Bay City, as seen in the year 2384. His take on the future was carefully considered, and the most minute details were often those that were most difficult to render. Adapted from Richard K. Morgan’s meticulously crafted 2002 novel—which contained an impossibly complicated universe within its pages—Altered Carbon wasn’t a project that lent itself to easy decision-making or unchallenged assumptions.
Hinton’s struggle with the sci-fi series is perhaps best exemplified in his concerted efforts to bring a new take to the futuristic police siren. “I feel like the best future police siren ever is the Minority Report police siren,” Hinton reflects. “It’s been my life goal to see if I could ever make something as cool as that—and I feel like I’ve struggled so much.”
For Hinton in particular, Morgan’s novel proved an invaluable resource throughout the project, a roadmap leading him to an otherworldly, distinctive sound. “It was really refreshing for me because I hadn’t read a sci-fi novel that was quite so compelling in a long time,” he says, “and because Richard Morgan is such a great sonic descriptor, my brain was totally lit up.”
With the novel in hand, Hinton would put all the little pieces together, arriving at a sonic palette to round out a mesmerizing world.
What were the first steps you took in figuring out a sound for the world of Altered Carbon?
As I was going through the scripts, I started going into my sound effects library, pulling stuff and creating folders. Every folder was an attempt to catalog either a prop, a location, a design motif, or an emotion that I was vibe-ing from, reading the scripts.
One thing that we say—a really famous quote from [sound designer] Walter Murch that I’ll probably botch right now—is basically, “Cinema gestated in sight and was born into sound.” Meaning that the picture came first before we had talkies, and as soon as sound came on the scene, it was like, “Okay, now cinema is truly born.” On this project, it was totally the reverse because before I ever saw a single frame of picture, I had already started designing the sounds for the world in my head.
Did Laeta Kalogridis convey any specific sound notes up front?
Our motto is always, “Make it cool.” [laughs] I think we were always trying to do something that you hadn’t quite heard before. With the weapons, we didn’t try to make them sound like traditional guns because obviously, there’s a lot of futuristic weaponry. We also didn’t want it to sound like what you think when you think of a futuristic weapon, which can sometimes be a little laser-y. We really wanted to move away from that. This being a cyberpunk kind of thing, one thing that we tried to do was to give a little bit of that edgy, deep base-y, synth-y kind of vibe to the weaponry. I wanted to have an edge to it.
One thing I will say is that they were really open-minded with us, and gave us a lot of free rein to design. They always let us come up with our ideas first and gave us a first pass before they started. I think they didn’t want to close any door. If we were inspired to do something, they didn’t want to immediately lock us away from something that might be unexpected and interesting.
Do you remember any specific clues Morgan’s novel might have provided for you as you went about your work?
On the very first page, he talks about the maelstroms of Harlan’s World, and we open to this total sonic cacophony. From the beginning, I was like, “Okay, what is this? What is he trying to convey here?” The way that he introduces his books, you can read the first page five times and get different information. So I think rereading and trying to get inside his head is the key to deciphering the world that he’s trying to create—and I think with this show, it’s true as well. You can’t really watch it one time through and get everything you need to get out of it.
Do you view sound as a psychological tool, when it comes to filmmaking? Your work here evokes strong feeling, as the score does.
Yeah, we always try to do things where it’s on the edge between sound effects and music. I think you see that a lot, especially in the first episode. Miguel Sapochnik, the director of the pilot, was very adamant about trying to not rely on score to create the world, to let sound really build the world. There are so many things in the show that have a sonic stamp or resonance to them, that when music gets in there and clouds that, you don’t have as tactile of a grasp of what that thing is from a sound perspective.
I credit Miguel for letting us do that, but when you take music away, you’re also losing an emotional attachment to what’s going on with the narrative. So one of the things that I tried to do was create some of that psychological connective tissue that could play maybe not as quite as overtly as music would, but really create an emotional vibe to the show.
Altered Carbon is action-heavy, to say the least. What went into designing scenes where energy weapons are blazing?
It was really tough in the beginning because I was maybe looking at it the wrong way. I would take these big sequences and try to design every peak and valley—“Okay, now we’re diving down into this thing, so I’ll have the sound be progressing this way.” Then, they’d make all these edits and change it so my design wouldn’t fit the right way, or it would take a really long time to re-tailor it. When I maybe should’ve been spending more time on just, “Okay, this is what the gun is going to sound like. Who cares about the overall composition of where it fits into the thing?”
I kind of made life hard on myself by doing it that way. But then as we got further along, I brought on Mark Allen and Owen Granich-Young, our two main sound effects designers of the show. Owen was my guy who I could lean on for all the super subjective, conceptual stuff. Then, Mark Allen was building these amazing structural components that create all the detail, the components that you’re trying to sell as “this is real. This is what’s happening on the screen.”
That’s kind of how we broke it up as a team, and as we got deeper, I was taking more of a Special Ops perspective. The weapons were kind of my babies, so if there was ever a new weapon on scene, I would do that. On the reverse side, we had the dialogue and ADR and all that, which I was also dealing with. When you talk about actors going in and playing different characters—like in the multi sleeve, when one character has sleeved into another character’s body—that was a big process for us, to try to nail down how their performance sounded. Because now they’re taking on the attributes of that actor: Their speech patterns and the tone of their voice.
What elements were important in defining the sound of Bay City?
When we go into the streets of Bay City, we wanted to sell this funky, multicultural cacophony of a melting pot, with all these different people coming together and living their lives. So we did these group sessions where we would have actors speaking; if you wanted to be in the group session, you had to be able to pass for three or four different languages. We were always shooting Russian and Spanish and German and Japanese so that you never felt like any culture was left out. Then, augmenting that with natural, recorded wallas from bazaars and street markets all over the world, to get that flavor.
This show was like making gumbo. It’s a million different things all competing to try to find this balance where you can taste them all at the same time. So, instead of having just one thing, we had five, and then we tried to use them in ways where they made sense.
The great thing about those kinds of sounds is, they can really define a lot of depth. When you hear a siren, for me, it’s not the sound of the siren that is interesting: It’s the way it’s reverberating off of buildings. And all of the sudden, you’ve got this echolocation happening. There’s more going on.
Another thing we did to define the space and the depth of Bay City was, we would have [actors] do mock commercials for faux products of the 25th century. Every week, we’d have 30 minutes of these mock products that never existed, which are actually really hilarious. Some of them are just amazing. Like, “Oh, we need that.” [laughs]
Then, we would process them, we’d futz them, and we’d put these echoes and delays on them. If you look in the show, you’ll see these ads everywhere on buildings, and the idea is that there’s sound coming from those ads, bouncing off the walls and creating that space. That was something that we loved it because we thought it really helped to define the world.