For director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, sound designers Theo Green and Mark Mangini relished the challenge of creating the film’s soundtrack without the use of any off-the-shelf effects. The director tasked them to “compose with sound.” Everything heard in the film’s universe was “created from whole cloth” by sound designers and sound editors.
“Theo and I embarked on this process that we call world-building, which I think is sort of a unique process that we go through in science fiction films. We created a soundscape from scratch. Nothing in this film is either lifted from the first film or a library sound,” shared Mangini.
Everything in a science fiction world tends to look and sound different from the real world. Certainly iconic sounds were established in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, but Green noted, “There are so many aspects for a world like Blade Runner that we need to feel familiar with from the original Blade Runner, but we also need to construct an alternate universe, in a way.”
Unlike the more common practice of editing sound closer to picture lock, Villeneuve and picture editor, Joe Walker, who had worked as a sound editor, wanted to develop the sound at the same time as the picture edit. Green started a couple of weeks after shooting began in Budapest, working for three months at the same studio as the production. Mark visited Hungary, then joined on in Los Angeles, right after the shoot wrapped.
“Not every film has the budget to do that or the prescience to arrange it, but I think it is one of the things that enabled us to do something very special,” said Green.
The extended length of time developing and testing sound effects, allowed the team to find just the right effects for key sounds like the futuristic flying “spinner car.” Although the original film had a similar car, thirty years later, the car is technologically advanced. It looks and sounds different. That sound evolved through multiple iterations. The process allowed the director to become familiar with the sounds so he could make adjustments until the sound was exactly right.
“It eventually becomes a sandwich of different people’s contributions and ideas,” Green remarked. “It’s like growing something organically. You plant the seed early on, but the director has the ability to trim and cultivate as it grows.”
In addition to effects-filled action scenes, there are moments of silence, giving the film’s sound work nuance and subtlety that is rare. A critical aspect of the sound design was inventing sounds that are not seen, building an audio universe outside of the borders of the frame that informs how the audience thinks and feels about a scene. In its simplest form, sound design is like about seeing a gun discharged and hearing the sound of the shot – a very mechanical process that minimizes the contribution of sound to the emotional storytelling.
“It’s like a coloring book exercise. You see the outlines. You fill in the appropriate color,” explained Mangini. “Where I think Theo and I were successful, we colored outside the lines. We have sounds everywhere that expanded the frame, that informs the feeling, the mood, the emotion of the scene.”
An added advantage to the development of sound early in the process became apparent when music was added towards the end of post. Because the audio was so full, the composers could tell where effects were taking the lead and insert music that did not conflict with the sound effects. The music could also be tonally dovetailed to the ambient sonic pads, like the pitched chimes and bells that the filmmakers used in creating the background for K’s lonely walk through the abandoned casino.
“There were so many sequences where we were kind of breaking down the traditional barriers between scoring and sound design,” revealed Green. “People don’t see what sound editors do. I think a lot of the time people imagine that when you have that kind of sound and music integration, that’s a factor of the sound mixing.”
Much like in the original film, I n Blade Runner 2049, is hard to tell where score starts and sound design ends and vice versa. That seamless incorporation with the music resulted in creating “in essence, one soundtrack,” allowing the audience to experience the film without being distracted by notions of score or sound effects.
Mangini added, “It’s an important message to send to our filmmaking community of the value of sound and the capability to inform how the filmmaker tells the story. Audio is informs the very fabric of the edit.”