By Mary Ann Skweres
Sound editors are the hidden artists of the filmmaking process. They build sound effects that enhance drama and add realism, create new sounds for imaginary worlds and give voice to mythical and extinct creatures. That was the theme of a presentation, “Big Movie Sound Effects: Behind the Scenes and Out of the Speakers,” presented this summer by the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) in association with the American Cinematheque. Supervising sound editors/designers Dane Davis, MPSE and Gary Rydstrom, MPSE played excerpts of their work on The Matrix and Jurassic Park, revealing in great detail the creative processes they used to create the films’ unique audio effects.
As sound designer on Jurassic Park, Rydstrom—a 20-year veteran of Lucasfilm and Skywalker Sound, who recently moved to Pixar Animation Studios to direct—aimed to “make the unbelievable, believable, give a sense of fear, a sense of scale and tell what’s going on off camera.”
He told the packed auditorium that the hardest thing to come up with is a character vocal. On Park, he had to give voice to creatures that had never been heard. Source material included from everything from natural wild animals sounds, including angry geese, Koala bears, mating tortoises, and a whale expelling air through its blowhole. He even recorded his own dog, Buster, playing with a rope toy.
Building sound effects, he said, is like orchestrating music. Bits of sounds are layered and blended together to create new sounds. He assembled the animal sounds to voice the various dinosaurs. The whale’s expelling air became the breathing of the T-Rex, while the same creature’s roar consisted of low-frequency sounds from a lion, a tiger and an alligator—with a baby elephant’s squeal used to fill the high-frequency range.
In layering elements, Rydstrom revealed that small sounds can become much bigger, and EQing the sounds or changing their speed can create entirely new aural experiences. The sound effect of the T-Rex shaking the lawyer was Rydstrom’s Jack Russell shaking his rope toy—only slowed down. A horse crunching on a corncob was the sound of the lawyer being bitten in half. The creature’s earth-shaking footsteps were trees falling.
Dane Davis’ explained his approach for The Matrix as one that involved creating two entirely different sound palettes: real-world sounds and the sounds of the world within the matrix. The guiding principle of the film was for the sound effects and music to work together, he said. The designer recorded a massive amount of sounds for the film including unique effects for the matrix code, window washing squeegees, the dojo fight and the famous “bullet-time” effect.
Similar to Rydstrom’s approach on Jurassic Park, Davis went for a creative blend of recording, layering and mixing various sounds. For instance, the directors wanted the matrix code—which might seem like a simple digital sound—to sound wet. Davis layered synthetic sounds with water dripping into a barrel, then manipulated it in the digital realm to remove obvious frequencies.
The window-washing squeegees were more than they seemed. They worked as an alternate dialog to counter the real dialog in the scene and served as a metaphor for the movie: the transparency of relationships. In the dojo fight Davis used a lot of “whooshes—almost everything that moves whooshes.” The scene was “all about rhythm,” said Davis, not only the rhythm of the music, but the rhythm in the picture.
He also had to take into account the developmental arc of the numerous fight scenes, building to the big fight at the end. The “bullet-time” effect had to convey not only the energy of things slowing down but also a sense of the massive and dangerous power of the bullets. It proved one of the film’s biggest challenges, involving a full dramatic effect for each bullet to make them different enough to distinguish one from the other.
Overall, it was an informative and entertaining presentation of every little detail that gets lost in the final mix and the stories behind them. It left one with the distinct sense that there’s more to a movie than meets the eye. Next time you’re at the movies, listen a little harder. You might hear something you’d never expect.
By Mary Ann Skweres