What does the wind in rural Nevada sound like?
That’s the kind of question at the center of Sergio Díaz’s work. Last year, the sound designer, nominated for the Best Sound Editing Academy Award for his work on Roma, was tapped by director Chloé Zhao to create the soundscape for her new film, Nomadland, now available on Hulu. The movie follows Fern (played by Oscar winner Frances McDormand) after she loses her husband and job, and finds new life on the road, journeying through the American West.
“What I love about Chloé is that she was very specific with the sound,” Sergio says. “She knew, perfectly, what she wanted to hear from the very beginning.” So much so that she literally sketched it out for Sergio.
“She wrote me a map, and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to start here, in Nevada. It’s winter. It should be like a dead town. Then we move to Arizona, where it’s spring, and it should be a warm community. Then we move to South Dakota, the Badlands, and it should be summer. Then Nebraska, late autumn,’ ” Sergio says. “That kind of note made it very organic for me to follow her direction.”
For the film, Sergio built three categories of sound treatment:
Prominent, which we hear inside the van. Fern’s movements are amplified in the confined space and the extreme weather surrounding her is viscerally present. “The winds, the rain, the snow, the wildlife … these are the sounds that should be prominent,” Sergio says.
Serenity, which extends to the montage, the dialogue and Ludovico Einaudi’s score. “It should all be very harmonious, very organic. The idea is to preserve that kind of balance during the whole journey. It brings more life to the whole process.”
Silence, specifically the kind of silence that creates emotional impact. “When we were in the Badlands, when Fern is walking through all these beautiful, big rocks, like a labyrinth, we start focusing on her and her fragility, just hearing her breathing, or the rocks, or the breeze.”
The sounds of the film dance between these three treatments, preserving the fine line between fiction and reality. That’s where Chloé envisioned the film living.
To maintain this level of authenticity, Sergio sought to avoid artificial sounds or tricks. He pulled from his library of sounds, accumulated over the course of his career, and even rented a van—similar to Fern’s in the story—so that he and his sons could re-create sounds with specific microphones; he then placed these sounds below the original track to amplify it. “When you have these kinds of characters on the cinema screen, the dynamic range should be more prominent than usual,” Sergio explains. “If this movie just goes to TV, the treatment is different. We start with the cinematic, and then we do downmixes. Our master is in 7.1, which is more prominent; that’s why the IMAX version is so beautiful.”
Despite Sergio’s vast library of atmospheric sounds, he relied heavily on elements captured during shooting—months before he was hired for the project. It helped that Wolf Snyder, production sound mixer, was able to harness the best qualities of each location—using only boom mikes. “It was a great chain of collaboration,” Sergio says. Wolf captured most of the natural sounds, and Sergio worked to translate them from mono tracks to stereo. “What Wolf did is pretty amazing. He knows perfectly where the microphone should be in every sequence.”
Those recordings, of environments and performances in those environments, became the blueprint for Nomadland, says supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Zach Seivers. “So we had a recorded track that we could always use as a point of reference for what is ultimately the real sound, and we embraced that,” he adds. “As opposed to going into postproduction and then scrapping a lot of it, we kept that most of the time. Almost every single scene in the film uses that as an anchor point.”
Which brings us back to those winds. “The winds during the whole movie have a different density, just to blend accordingly with the next season,” Sergio says. “It was challenging to collect different layers and mold them as needed for specific seasons, and accordingly with the music, and with the dialogue, and everything.” He created different winds to bring out the personalities of different characters and places—but you would never pick this out while watching the film. And that, Sergio and Zach both argue, is the point. “You need to feel it. It’s as simple as that,” Sergio says.
“As far as the audience is concerned, I think sound is really the magic of modern-day film and television storytelling as we know it,” adds Zach. “It sells the idea to you. Not just of what you see on screen, but also the things happening off screen. We use sound to establish time and place. We use it to make you feel subtly uncomfortable, or to draw your attention to a particular part of the screen. There are all of these cool tricks that we use that, ultimately, is all hidden to the audience. It’s a magic trick.”
As supervising sound editor, Zach edited all of the film’s dialogue. And as re-recording mixer, Zach’s job was to “take all of these various ingredients—Sergio’s sound design (the textures and the tapestry of flavors that he creates), Wolf’s recorded sound, Ludovico’s music—and balance them together to focus the audience’s attention and lead them throughout the course of the story.”
This involved hundreds of micro-choices of how to balance sound, whether it’s Fern setting up a lawn chair, someone’s voice off-camera, a line of dialogue or easing into Ludovico’s score. Chloé tasked Zach with the job because of his background working on verité-driven documentaries, where the sound is heightened in postproduction, but remains as authentic as possible.
“‘Nomadland’ is really walking this line between fiction and nonfiction. So we wanted the sound design to be as authentic as possible, to be a tool that [Chloé] could use to put the audience in the footsteps of Fern.” —Zach Seivers
Beginning postproduction during a pandemic was an entirely new experience for both Zach and Sergio, but it didn’t keep them from creating a collaborative atmosphere led by a writer-director-editor with a willingness to explore every sonic possibility.
“You have to be really intelligent and capable and understand the nuances of all of these different crafts to be able to not only write, but direct and edit a film,” Zach says of Chloé. “To be honest, the idea of working with a director-editor can be daunting because that implies that they’re going to potentially micromanage all aspects of postproduction, which would be very creatively limiting.”
With Chloé, that was not the case at all. “She was incredibly precise with her direction and with her take on the perspective of the film,” Zach says. “But at the same time, she was very trusting and let us present our ideas. Her feedback was so specific, but also incredibly encouraging and supportive.” Zach didn’t start on Nomadland until the summer of 2020 (a few weeks after Sergio), which made for a compressed schedule to get the film ready for fall festivals.
To this day, Zach and Sergio have never met in person. “He was down in Mexico City. I worked out of Los Angeles, and we did everything online,” Zach says. “Even working with Chloé, up until the final mix, we used a platform called Evercast, which is an amazing tool that a lot of filmmakers are using now. It enabled us to present sound as though we were working in a virtual room. She was able to put headphones on and listen to it as though she was sitting with us and we could talk about the ideas.”
For the final mix, Chloé and Zach sat together on a mixing stage. “That was the first time I met her,” Zach says. All the while, Chloé was working on Marvel’s Eternals; the team made the decision to mix at Disney so that she could easily walk between the two jobs. The way they worked, with Chloé giving Zach a handful of ideas to work on and letting him run with it, made the process “so fluid and creatively empowering,” Zach says.
Ultimately, via Evercast and Zoom, Zach and Sergio’s micro-decisions amounted to a soundscape that was both immersive and authentic to Chloé’s vision. And they’re both grateful to have been part of a project as emotionally resonant as this one.
“For me, it’s a pleasure and a gift from the universe to be part of this piece of art, to work with Chloé,” Sergio says. “My intention was to build a real cinematic experience for the audience. That’s my main goal as an artist. How can I contribute ideas that create this emotional connection with you?”
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