Having superpowers doesn’t make you a superhero as the Amazon Original series The Boys proves. The show — developed by Eric Kripke (creator of the Supernatural series) and based on comic books by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson — follows a group of elite super-people known as The Seven, who take advantage of their super abilities. For instance, their team-leader Homelander (Antony Starr) uses his x-ray vision to spy on his boss/love interest and eventually uses his laser eyes to kill her. Then there’s Translucent (Alex Hassell) who uses his invisibility to hang out in public bathrooms. Next is Lamplighter, who apparently burned children alive. The fastest ‘supe,’ A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), literally runs over a woman in the street and doesn’t stop to help. And there’s the aquatically adapted supe, The Deep (Chace Crawford), whose questionable relationship with a certain dolphin is the least problematic of his horrendous interactions with members of the opposite sex. All in all, they’re a super-douchey bunch.
Enter “The Boys,” a group of vigilantes determined to bring The Seven to justice because their lives have been irreparably altered by them. The Boys go after the supes and the corporation that controls them, called Vought International.
Superpowers, excessive gore, and sketchy morals make for an interesting series and offered plenty of opportunities to have fun with sound. Formosa Group supervising sound editor Wade Barnett and re-recording mixers Alexandra Fehrman and Rich Weingart were encouraged to push the envelope by showrunner Kripke, who didn’t have to worry about broadcast content restrictions on The Boys like he has to on the CW’s Supernatural. “A lot of the sounds we used would probably have been flagged as too over-the-top for network, like the sounds in the dolphin rescue or when Popclaw [Brittany Allen] bursts that guy’s head open. That is gory. And the subject matter of that scene is not something you’d ever find on network TV,” observes Barnett.
Kripke made sound design a priority early on, reaching out to Barnett to discuss the direction for the superpower sounds even before the first turnover of the first episode. He wanted to develop superpowers that sounded natural and organic and felt real, even though the supes are larger than life. “We did two rounds of sound design reviews, bouncing ideas off Eric. Once we got the first turnover, we did another two rounds. We probably did four rounds of sound design before the episode got to the mix, which is really great,” says Barnett. “Oftentimes, the showrunner will be very busy and won’t hear the sounds before we get to the mix stage. But that wasn’t the case on The Boys. Eric was very involved because the superhero sounds are a big part of the show.”
The mix team was also involved early. Re-recording mixer Fehrman (dialogue/music/group) says they requested to see the cuts as they came through “because Rich and I knew this was going to be a really fun and different mix for us,” she says. “So as soon as Wade got them he would ship them over to us. We would watch the cuts by ourselves at home and start to get ideas.”
Barnett tapped sound designer David Barbee to help with the superpowers. First, they tackled Starlight (Erin Moriarty), the newest recruit to The Seven. Starlight manipulates energy in an environment and uses it to destroy things. It also causes her eyes to glow. For instance, after Starlight is inducted into The Seven, she joins The Deep for a tour of the meeting room. The Deep coerces Starlight into oral sex and her angry energy shorts-out the video monitors along the wall. Barnett says, “We really needed to tell her story, of how she was building up with all of the emotions that she was having, with her drawing in that energy and internalizing it. That was one power that we focused on a lot. How do we have that play dramatically and help tell the story of her trauma?”
Starlight sometimes channels energy into blasts that emanate from her hands, as she does in her fight with A-Train. “For her hand blasts, Eric had a lot of ideas about that. He describes it as a sonic gong as she does her sonic punches. It’s kind of like a sonic boom. Eric wanted that to sound very organic and real, and not super electric,” says Barnett.
Homelander was the second supe they designed. Since Homelander can fly, they created take-offs, landings, and fly-bys. He can heat up with energy, like Starlight, which causes his eyes to glow. He has powerful laser eyes that can melt weapons to bad guys’ hands or shoot down an airplane. But Barnett notes that “Homelander’s laser eyes are very pinpointed. It’s not like a laser cannon so the sound isn’t boomy.”
Re-recording mixer Weingart (effects/backgrounds/Foley) adds, “There was some notion about how loud Homelander’s laser eyes should be. It seems so much scarier to turn it down a little bit than to play it super hot. It was better to play the consequences loud and the lasers quieter.”
For Homelander’s x-ray vision, they let the emotion of the scene help direct the sound. For example, when Homelander was looking through the wall and fantasizing about his boss Madelyn Stillwell (Elizabeth Shue), Barnett notes the x-ray vision sound is played a little lower and more ominous; it’s not as overt as when he is looking through the side of the van in search of Translucent. “That was a different emotion, so we played it slightly differently to help tell the story sonically,” explains Barnett.
“We had all the same sounds in there for both versions, so Rich could play each event the exact same way if he wanted to. But, since the characters’ emotions are different for different scenes, we wanted to play their superpowers slightly differently,” he adds.
The story’s dark undertones and intense emotional situations didn’t just inspire the direction of the superpower sounds. It also influenced their approach to subjective-reality moments, like Hughie’s panic attacks. “We tried to tell the story really dark and make the audience feel what Hughie was feeling. We even did sound design reviews with Eric for those moments as well,” says Barnett.
The death of Hughie’s girlfriend Robin (Jess Salgueiro) was another subjective moment that Kripke and the sound team reviewed multiple times. Robin is standing in the street talking to Hughie when A-Train runs into her. She’s essentially liquefied and the scene plays out in slow-mo with a minimal soundtrack — a thunder clap-type sound, a rush of wind, and a few splatters of blood. “We wanted to have it feel like all of the air is sucked out of the environment. So we’re going into Hughie’s head. Eric really likes the gore and so that was the main element. Our Foley team — Sovereign Sound Inc., in Van Nuys, CA, led by James Howe — helped us out a lot on that,” says Barnett.
This scene went through numerous VFX updates; each one required the sound team to adjust their effects and mix. There was much discussion about how liquefied Robin would be and how many solid parts might be left when they do the slow-mo reveal of what happened. “Are we hearing liquid? Are we hearing solid? Are there bits? When it goes into reality what is left that hits the ground? There was a lot of discussion about the shape of that sequence,” says Weingart. “Wade supplied us with elements, and resupplied us with elements, and resupplied us with elements for the third and fourth times. Wade went deep on this one.”
Fehrman adds, “We were moving stuff around too on the stage. We were all holding hands on this one.”
Another challenging slow-mo scene was the battle between Starlight and A-Train. Even though it was slow-mo, the sound design still needed to feel big and A-Train still needed to feel fast. “We have Starlight’s hand blasts and the emotion that she is feeling but also A-Train’s take-off sounds and his pass-bys as he’s dodging her blasts,” says Barnett. “And we really wanted to dial-in that one in because it was the final episode.”
One of the most challenging episodes in terms of sound was Episode 3 “Get Some,” in which A-Train races against Shockwave (Mishka Thébaud) to see who’s the fastest person in the world. The event takes place in a stadium packed with fans. “There was a crazy amount of crowds that we had to build with loop group. We needed a large crowd sound but we wanted to have specific callouts so we had a lot of specificity with the group,” says Barnett.
On the mix side, Fehrman notes the crowds required a careful balance between the dialogue, loop group, and music on her side of the board, with the effects, backgrounds, and Foley on Weingart’s side. “Rich and I worked hard to get those crowds to feel real and wide and full without interfering with the subtleties happening between the characters. We worked together on making sure we had reverbs that really sold the location and spatially put our material out away from the dialogue so there could be intimate exchanges.”
For instance, there’s a scene in the stadium in which Homelander and Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) share an intimate conversation about their past relationship while waving to a crowd of cheering fans. “People are yelling and calling for Homelander and Maeve and we wanted to gradually go into a world where it’s just them,” says Barnett.
Fehrman adds, “That’s one instance where Rich and I simultaneously wash out our material. We would feature the group when there were holes but we had to carve around these story points that were happening.”
Then, when the crowd sees Homelander brush Maeve’s hair aside, the moment is interrupted by loud whistles and woohoos.
“We did a lot of work to make sure you felt that location but then very carefully carved out space for the dialogue and for the action to take place in. We had to find ways of putting the audience in the space without overwhelming them with all of this material at the same time. It required a lot of careful weaving,” adds Weingart.
When A-Train and Shockwave finally make their entrances, there are announcements and driving music tracks being blasted over the PA system, which Fehrman created via processing through iZotope/Exponential Audio’s R2 surround reverb.
As A-Train and Shockwave take their marks, the score takes over and there’s a tense stare-down between Homelander and The Boys leader Butcher (Karl Urban) in the stands. “We wash out the crowds and bail out of reality so this stare-down is almost like a dream state. This was one place where stylistically we made a choice to help push the story,” Weingart says.
The camera goes back to the racers and the starter pistol fires, creating a sharp transition back into reality and full-on sound effects.
Another scene that required specific loop group and detailed dialogue work was in Episode 4, “The Female of the Species.” Homelander and Maeve attempt to stop an airplane hijacking. They enter through the plane’s side emergency door, causing a huge rush of air that sucks out one terrorist. They neutralize another two but miss one in the cockpit, who ends up shooting the captain of the plane. The bullet shatters the windshield. Homelander’s laser eyes kill the terrorist but fry the control panel. With no one to fly the plane, and no way to fly it either, the super-duo decides to abandon ship. The plane starts to dive and hits a massive patch of turbulence, sending people flying from their seats. The engines whine outside the fuselage; the hull rattles; there are alarms and screaming and rushing air as Homelander and Maeve make their exit through the back.
“On set they had so many wind machines, so pretty much all of the production dialogue was unusable. Luckily, the actors were so great at ADR and were so patient with us so we were really able to nail the ADR in that scene,” says Barnett.
“Our loop group did an amazing job on that as well. John Gidcomb (Loop De Loop) handled loop group on the show and did a fantastic job of really nailing the emotion of the passengers on the plane,” adds Barnett.
The sound design had to build with the scene. They used slowed-down metal wronking sounds for the turbulence and tried dry ice on metal, pitched-down, to create metal bending sounds. For the wind in the cockpit after the glass breaks, Barnett notes it was really difficult to make that sound authentic because the plane is going so fast. “That’s a really hard type of recording to get. It’s almost like the microphone is being blown out. It’s weird how that actually sounds authentic, with a microphone capsule really distorting. We had to go big on that to make it sound real and believable,” he says.
Barnett’s favorite scene for sound was the series opener, with the police cars chasing an armored money truck. Maeve steps into the path of the armored truck, her body nearly splitting the vehicle in two. Then she beats up one guy while Homelander appears out of nowhere and uses his laser eyes to melt the gun onto the other bad guy’s hand. “It’s great when a show kicks off with a bang. Building up that first sequence was so awesome and it was good that we got to introduce two of the characters right off the bat,” says Barnett.
The mixers have their favorite scene, too. In Episode 4, The Deep tries to save a dolphin from Oceanland. They’re in a van making their escape as The Spice Girls “Wannabe” plays on the radio. The Deep and the dolphin have an awkward conversation — a conversation about special feelings. “We needed to create dolphin sounds that told the audience this dolphin had a personality and was turned on. So we tried different creatures, different recordings of sea lions and dolphins and layered them on top of each other and pitch-shifted them. We needed to convey the feelings of the dolphin. It was so bizarre,” says Barnett.
As The Deep preached restraint and not rushing into anything too fast, the cops catch up with them. The Deep slams on the breaks; the dolphin goes sailing through the windshield and hits the pavement right in front of an oncoming truck as the lyrics hit a nearly-appropriate phrase, “Slam your body down and wind it all around.” Smear it all around, more like.
According to Fehrman, there was a feast of sound for that scene. But Weingart notes they “didn’t want to overmix it because what happens is so good all by itself that you have to be judicious. There is so much going on. It’s not about how much to play; it’s figuring out what not to play so you can cue the ears to focus on the action and the story. Eric sat with us and helped pick through all of the layers. He was very specific on his playbacks.”
“He’d give us his specific ideas that he had and let us execute them. He gave us a lot of freedom to have fun with the mix. We got to complement this show’s creativity in all ways. We were encouraged to push boundaries,” Fehrman concludes.
Images courtesy of Amazon Studios and Formosa Group