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PP-Sound on War of the Worlds


Sound designer/supervising sound editor Richard King, fresh off a grueling schedule on Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, talks to Below the Line about crafting the sound for this high-tension aural and visual spectacular.Below the Line: War of the Worlds is very different from the last film you worked on, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. How different was your approach?Richard King: It’s contemporary and it takes place in a specific place, an urban neighborhood in New Jersey mostly. It’s a different approach mainly because we were able to go to those specific places and record those real sounds in the area where the Tom Cruise character works.BTL: What were some of your initial tasks?King: The first thing I did when they were still back east shooting and before I was working on the movie was to send my recordists John Fasal and Eric Potter to go there and record sound effects for me. We wanted to get the basic, ordinary sounds of life. There were also scenes with large crowds and I wanted to have someone around to record the large crowd scenes while they were shooting; that sort of thing is almost impossible to recreate later. In January when I came on, I began working on certain specific sounds such as the aliens and the machines the aliens move around in. Meanwhile, Eric and John were recording buildings being demolished, cars crashing, weaponry and military stuff, and helping me come up with raw material for some of the alien stuff.BTL: A lot of the movie takes place in a kind of altered reality where, after the aliens attack; the soundscape becomes quite stark. How did you achieve that effect?King: Once the action starts and once the invasion begins, all power goes off, nobody’s watches work, there’s nothing mechanical, so the sound of everything changes; you can’t use any city sounds. We got the sounds just for the first scene, to make it as noisy and detailed as city life is, which makes the transition to silence more effective and startling. When everything shuts down, Steve [Spielberg] lost the music cue for that particular spot. It was very effective. From then on it’s a made-up landscape; you have to think, “what would be here if there’s no traffic?” You start hearing odd little details that you wouldn’t normally hear in an urban neighborhood: the odd dog barking down the street, wind that you wouldn’t normally focus on, people’s footsteps and talking… it becomes more of a living tapestry than a mechanical tapestry. And it has to be as convincing as the real world.BTL: What were some of your big sound challenges?King: The aliens, mainly. Steve wanted a sound that when the audience hears it they knew the aliens are coming—not a sound that conveys information, but more of a trigger. The nuts and bolts, the crashes and weaponry, was a matter of persistence: getting in the right situation so we could record the right kind of planes, missiles and tanks. But the aliens could sound like anything. It was noted in the script as a mechanical bellowing, almost like a cry but very subtle. Steven kept saying it’s like a ship horn, he even said he wanted a big ship horn, though that’s not what we ended up using.I worked on that sound for a couple of months. You hear it and think it’s not a big deal, but it was easy to overthink it. It began with an elaborate combination of sounds, but it was clear that was too complicated. Steven called Randy Thom and he worked on it for a bit, but again, it was too complicated. Finally out of desperation and not wanting to deal with this thing anymore—I couldn’t take it, listening to it day after day—we happened upon a certain approach with one real sound we recorded, a real-world aboriginal native instrument, and we recorded it in a very specific way with some simple processing added, and that was it. It sounds monumental, like a big nasty sound that a war machine would make.I also worked at length on the movements of the tripods. They’re mechanical but Steve didn’t want them to be too clunky—he wanted them to be familiar looking and sounding. We were actually making sounds while ILM was working out the details of how these things were to look. There was a good cross-pollination of what it would look like and sound like driven by the fact that everyone was doing their jobs simultaneously. ILM got to start work on it about the time I did, and they were really under the gun.BTL: How long were you working on the film?King: It was a very compressed schedule. I was on this for five months; by comparison I was on Lemony for eight months, and Master and Commander for a year. It was extremely challenging to work at that speed. I probably recorded more sound effects for this than I’ve recorded for a movie. But, as I discovered, your first instincts can be very valid.BTL: How was it working with Steven Spielberg for the first time?King: He’s great about trying to help you solve the problem. He doesn’t just say, “I don’t like it, come up with something else.” He wants you to come up with what viscerally would make him scared, or how to make the audience be affected. He’s extremely sophisticated and smart about how powerful sound is, and how it can be used. It was really exciting.BTL: Did you refer back at all to the 1953 movie in the way you crafted your sounds?King: Steven is a great fan of the original movie, and so we did start out with some of those sounds since they were in his head. As an experiment we used some of them in a presentation to him, just out of curiosity. But it was pretty clear that he didn’t feel any obligation to pay homage to the film. That film affected him really strongly, probably when he was a kid; and he wanted the audience now to have that same feeling he’d had when he saw it for the first time. But it’s a different age; that stuff doesn’t sound or look scary anymore. The goal was to try to give the audience the same scare factor as they had back then.BTL: What were some of the more interesting sound-finding expeditions you took for the film?King: I usually like to go on those expeditions, but because of the compressed schedule I only went on two this time. John and Eric went to Camp Pendleton various times trying to get three specific airplanes that were featured in the film, as well as tanks, troop carriers and humvees. We had a great military adviser who worked on the film and gave us access to stuff it’s hard to get access to. Steven carries weight with the military, so he can get stuff a lot of people can’t get. Through these advisers we could get missiles being fired, and all kinds of tanks and planes. We also did demolitions. We went to an apartment complex in Escondido and with the approval of the owner of the property and contractors got great demolition stuff there. There were several boat sessions also. In the movie the ferry boat is called on to do something that ferry boats can’t do: gun the engine and send off a rooster tail out of the back. For that we had to find other types of vessels that could do that. That was one I went along on because I like boats, but most of the time I left it to John and Eric’s hands. They contributed a lot.BTL: In addition to your recordists Eric and John, who were your key collaborators on the sound team?King: On the sound effects side, Michael Mitchell, Michael Babcock, Hamilton Sterling, Aaron Glascock and Piero Mura. They’re the five key sound effects guys, who helped with some of the sound design. And they cut all the sound effects. Most of them are people I’ve worked with for years. I added a couple of folks in there just because of the schedule, I needed a larger team. But they’re my usual group. Then the dialog was cut by Michael Magill and Hugo Weng. And Bob Kizer did ADR. Chris Flick and Gary Hecker did the foley. Anna Behlmer did effects mixing and Andy Nelson mixed dialog and music.

ten by Sam Molineaux

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