World’s Fastest Indian

Back in 2005 we did sound design for a NZ film called World’s Fastest Indian and its a film that people still comment about today, primarily because its one hell of a true story based on the life of a truly inventive kiwi by the name of Burt Munro. From an early age Burt was into modifying motorbikes to increase performance & his weapon of choice was an Indian V Twin Scout. The film follows the true story of his journey to Bonneville Salt Lakes where he set a land speed record for bikes under 1000cc. Heres the trailer:

Every time I read a script for a film I start making a list in my head of the challenges involved & this film was going to be all about the vehicles. Apart from Burts bike, the film is set in the late 1960s so any secondary vehicles must also be from that period… And once he gets to Bonneville and the speed trials we also see a number of speed racers cars, also of that era….

For the shoot two exact replicas of Burts bike were built and we inherited a number of wildtrack FX from production, but by the end of the shoot the bike was producing too much power for the clutch and accordingly it sounded like the bike was misfiring when it was at full revs… But we also knew we would need to do a recording session with the bike, as no matter how many wildtrack FX we get from production more material is always required when you see the way the film is cut …

A timed speed trial was organised at Edendale (half an hours drive from Invercargill) by the Southland Motorcycle Club and we totally lucked in with a windless day! The bike was running well & was clocked on its fastest run doing 109mph.
You have to experience the physicality of the sound of this bike to fully appreciate it! It is so LOUD that you can feel the physical impacts on your chest as each cylinder fires! This effect is especially apparent as it passes you slowly, where the exhaust starts off pointed away from you & then dopplers & becomes VERY LOUD as it comes on-mic….

We had a total of four record kits rolling for the entire session:
1. onboard DAT machine in a backpack which the rider Wayne Alexander wore, fed by two dynamic mics: one gaffer taped near the exhaust, the other for close up engine sounds.
2. Hard disk recorder Fostex FR2 (24bit/48k) fed with a Sanken CS5 stereo shotgun mic recording the starts, revs and away followed by up and stops at end of each run.
3. At the mid point of the run we had two DAT machines: one was getting close passbys and was fed from a Sanken CS5 stereo shotgun mic, following the pass as it went by.
The other DAT machine was fed by two fixed position Sennheiser 816 mics which were setup so that one recorded solely the approach and the other the away.

At the end of each run, when the bike was turned off I would rewind the onboard DAT & check it wasnt overloading etc… Weirdly on one of the last runs I checked it & discovered the exhaust channel was getting no signal & after tracing the cable back to the mic I discovered the mic was totally missing!!! It wasnt an expensive dynamic mic so I didnt freak out, but when the speed trials were finished I went for a walk & found the mic lieing on the side of the road; it had a few gnarly dents but was otherwise fine!

Burt Munro Indian bike recording examples:
download Munro Indian bike start, away (Sanken CS5 mic) mp3
download Munro Indian bike onboard (2 x dynamic) mp3
download Munro Indian bike passby (Sanken CS5 mic) mp3
download Munro Indian bike passby (Senn 816 mics) mp3

Here is a screenshot of the ProTools session of the bike FX for Reel 5 of the film:

When Burt is running speed trials, each time he passes a time counter his speed is increasing, and while we made sure the bike sound effects supported this, it was also a challenge from a sound point of view to accentuate the physicality of the speed – simply making the passby faster wasnt going to make the passby sound more dangerous. I tried adding many other dopplered elements, which made the passby sound more powerful, but not more dangerous… So I started thinking about the sounds created by (non-vehicle) objects that move very fast and started playing with sounds related to the ultimate sonic passby ie breaking the sound barrier. The fact that the camera is so close to the passby meant that accentuated sound was totally justified, as no human could safely hear it from that proximity… but it also had to relate to the physics of the situation, hence the sonic boom element worked a treat & I ended up using various explosion elements plus also a great rifle shot recording with a slap delay into the surrounds… I also have some recordings of small stones flying & hitting the underneath of a car (which I had made for a car chase in another film) & using some of these as debris in the aftershock also provided a closeness that almost made you duck!

download bike FAST passby mp3

The foley team at Park Road Post contributed some great elements for the bike, including movement, rattles & smaller mechanisms… One of the great things about film mixing is that the dynamic range is so wide, and for example in the scene where Burt has a race on Oreti beach & crashes, within seconds the soundtrack ranges from the full on roar of many vintage bikes racing, through to the subtle sound of sand falling through the bike frame of Burts bike when he picks it up after the crash.

While we were down south recording Burts bike, we also attended a vintage bike race at Teretonga racetrack and recorded many great passbys… We also arranged for Burts bike to do a few circuits & one of the best sounds we got was when the bike was in the distance: the power of its sound slapping against the hills was beautiful & was very useful for wideshots in the time trials at Bonneville.
Once we were back in Wellington we also tracked down a mechanic who had a workshop for vintage bikes & commissioned him to take four or five of his bikes out for a run for us… These were for the Oreti beach race, but also for when the biker gang arrive uninvited at Burts fairwell party….

download Norton Commando passby mp3
download Triumph Bonneville 750 passby mp3

Once Burt gets to Los Angeles he buys an old Chev car which is running a bit roughly… After buying it he does some work on it & gets it tuned up & running smoothly before driving across the States to Bonneville. I managed to track down the same model & age of car locally & we recorded all the required moves & onboard effects that we needed and I then set about trying to convince the owner to pull the wire off a spark plug or two to get it running roughly. He agreed and we got some good sounding effects of it running roughly but I wasnt totally convinced it was enough. A few years back I had recorded effects of another car where, in the film the car properly broken down. At that time I found a mechanic who was more than happy to torture the car for me – it was a 4 cylinder Citreon and he proceeded to remove spark plugs until we were down to it running on just one cyclinder!!! It was backfiring & coughing like it was on its last legs, so I used some of these sounds, pitched down a bit as added components… and was pretty happy..

But as luck would have it, while we were down south recording Burts bike, another of the exact same model car drove past & it was running really roughly – you could hear its tappets rattling whenever it accelerated. So we jumped in the car & chased after them & of course they were more than happy to let us record it!

While we were near locations from the film we also took the time to record ambiences – in particular Oreti Beach where a bike race takes place, as well as a dialogue scene inside a car. Accordingly we recorded various perspectives of the surf roar on the beach, plus an interior car ambience. It makes such a difference to have real recordings when editing & mixing ambiences for a film, as a reference if nothing else…

download Oreti beach EXT mp3
download Oreti beach INT mp3

And a few photos from the mix: ProTools on the far left was feeding the music, on the near left was dialogue & my FX session was running off the PT on the right…

Of course I had to at least sit on the bike & have my photo taken… I’d love to say I went for a ride on the bike but it would scare the daylights out of me – it has a foot activated clutch & only 3 gears, yet Burt Munro rode it at over 200mph!!!!

For more info on Burt Munro this site has some great history and I can also reccomend this book, which is a great read, especially some of the anecdotes!
Also funnily enough, the director of The Worlds Fastest Indian, Roger Donaldson also made a documentary on Burt Munro back in his youth called Offerings To The God of Speed. Its been taken down from youtube but is on one of the DVD sets & is worth seeing!

7 thoughts on “World’s Fastest Indian

  1. Tristan Horton

    Finally got round to hiring and watching it. Really fantastic job. I real education on detail. Love the dynamics. The emotional buildup in his record breaking run is intense and its completely reliant on the sound.
    Your blog is becoming the closest thing I’ve had to a mentor. (Sound design is not a big industry in Durban)


  2. zameer

    great work done by you guys ..
    i hv 1 question how about using contact (pizzo) mic on bike for recording bike sound???
    (for minimizing wind sound on bike)
    would it be give me desired frequency response????

    1. tim Post author

      I haven’t tried that, just bear in mind contact mics are sensitive eg capture subtle vibrations from a piano or a harp… So you may have trouble with it overloading if there is too much vibration, so you will have to experiment with placement… I never had any wind problems using dynamic mics wrapped up though

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