Movie Sound Effects | Cars! Weapons! Machines!
Sep 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Mike Levine
AN INSIDE LOOK AT THE CREATION OF MOVIE SOUND EFFECTS
From the clang of a sword to the roar of a monster to the rev of a car engine, Hollywood directors depend on sound designers and sound effects editors to craft the sonic elements that help add impact and interest, set the mood or ratchet up the terror of a scene. Working with Foley artists, re-recording mixers, composers and others, the creators of film sound effects have challenging jobs that require imagination, creativity and technical abilities, not to mention a great ear.
There are two primary job titles for those who create and edit effects—sound designer and sound effects editor—though the differences between the two job descriptions have become blurred over time, and both are essentially involved in effects creation.
To learn more about the techniques used to create effects for films, Mix spoke with three pros at Soundelux (Hollywood), all with sound designer and sound effects editor credits to their name. Harry Cohen has worked on such titles as Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, Robin Hood, The Green Lantern and The Perfect Storm. Chris Assells has credits on films like Fright Night, The Green Hornet, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Gladiator. Jon Title’s filmography includes Final Destination 5, Red, Blood Diamond and The Bourne Ultimatum.
THE SCRIPT IS KING
Before delving into specifics, it’s instructive to mention a few general points that all three of the interviewees agree on. The most important is that every film is different, and a sound designer must base his/her approach on the needs of the particular film and the director’s vision for it. “With almost every problem, everything that we tackle,” says Cohen, “it always goes back to the story.”
The three interviewees also concur that the best source material for effects based on real sounds are custom field recordings, made with the needs of the film in mind. That said, a great deal of layering, processing and pitching up or down often gets done to these recordings before the final mix.
“We do a lot of recording for every film,” Cohen says. “There are a couple of reasons. One is that no matter how much you have in the library, it seems you never have exactly what you’re looking for. And the other is that we look at a scene and we talk about what it is we want to accomplish with sound. When we go out to record, we’ve got that in mind, and we’re recording things in a particular way, specifically for that instance.”
If there is no time or budget for custom recordings, quality libraries can provide pretty good substitutes. “I worked in low-budget places early in my career where it was just library effects,” Assells says, “and you do what you can. To make it more dynamic, you’ll pitch it way up or you’ll time-compress it way up—something to make the sound really pop.”
When building and cutting their sounds, sound designers and sound effects editors are always mindful that the other important sound elements will also be occupying the soundtrack. Sometimes the key is what not to include. “If we’re in the middle of a car chase and a gun fight,” says Cohen, “you’ve got three car engines, the gun, the tire skids, the impacts, the ricochets, the dialog and the music. If we present all that to the audience, then they hear nothing; they hear the mishmash. Then we can start saying: ‘What can we take out?’ ‘What do we want the audience’s experience to be here?’ So one of the things we would realize is if we take out the engine in a couple of these shots, now we can hear the guns.”
The balance between the various sound elements is handled on the mix stage by the re-recording mixer, so effects and levels often change quite a bit during a final or one of the temp dubs. “Nine times out of 10, the [sound effects] mix I prefer is way hotter than the one the mixer prefers,” says Assells. “Dialog is king, then music and then effects. That’s usually the way it goes.”
Sound effects are synched to picture and edited, and the effects sequences frequently contain large track counts. Sound designers or sound effects editors will often make 5.1 submixes of their work, using the internal busing available in Pro Tools, to present to the mix stage. “They’ve got tons to do and hundreds of tracks to deal with,” says Cohen, “and if I bring in something that is 200 tracks for this one idea of making the character of the machine change, then I’m not helping the process. We’ll bring it in as a complete rendered thought—a series of thoughts, maybe, a couple of different ways to go—but much more well developed and comped down than all the individual elements are.”
These submixes are especially important during temp mixes, where time is even shorter than at the final. “There just isn’t time to go through 60 tracks,” says Title. “When there’s more time and you’re predubbing for the final, those mixes can be unwound, and the mixer can start from scratch if he wants to. But a lot of times, the 5.1 submixes sound fine.”
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