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

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Chris Assells created the sounds for the sword fight scenes in <I>Gladiator</i> and worked on the <I>Green Hornet</I> (pictured).

Chris Assells created the sounds for the sword fight scenes in Gladiator and worked on the Green Hornet (pictured).

KILLER SOUNDS
Gunshots are a big part of many action films and require a lot more than just the placement of a gunshot recording in the appropriate spot on the Pro Tools timeline to sync with the action on screen. “In real life, most guns just go, ‘pow,’” says Title. “But in the movies, for the most part you don’t want it to just go ‘pow,’ so you add these other elements to give it texture and make it exciting.”

Recordings for gun sounds can be quite involved. As an example, Title mentions his work on Black Hawk Down, where the guns were recorded in a setting that was acoustically similar to the Mogadishu, Somalia, streets where the film was set. “It all takes place in an urban environment between buildings,” Title says. “We went out and recorded all the main weapons for that film: the AK-47s, the M-16s, and the mini-guns and the 50-caliber. There’s a bit of a slap on those weapons that is natural, that came from where we recorded it.”

“There’s often eight to 10 [recorders] going from different positions,” adds Cohen. “You’ve got one that’s kind of on the side of the gun so you try and record the mechanism. There are a couple that are further away to get the boom. And some that are downfield. And some that are close to the muzzle but in back of it so the pressure wave doesn’t hit the capsule. Then we’ll take all these recordings back, and the librarian will line them up so all the recordings are in sync to each other. And that gives you a wonderful tool kit to create an interesting shot.”

The editor can then choose a specific combination of these synched recordings to use for that single gunshot sound. “Maybe I’ll have one very tight, high-frequency, snappy gun in the center,” says Title, “and then maybe [layer in] a boomier stereo pair for the left and right. And then depending on how close it is, if it’s a big, in-your-face gun, maybe I’ll use a sweetener with a subwoofer element.”

Especially in a complex battle scene, the 5.1 panning of a gunshot can be quite important for sound placement and impact. “On close-up guns, I use a center-channel element so it’s right there, connected to the middle of the screen,” Title says. “For the most part, my general rule is to do an L/C/R and a sub. Sometimes not a sub, but definitely an L/C/R. If it’s a gunshot right in your face—a close-up of someone firing a gun—it really attaches to the image. For medium and distant sounds, I’ll use a stereo pair or just a mono. I can use that same gun, but choose a distant recording of it.”

Cohen says compression plays a big role in making gun sounds work in the movies. “We can’t really re-create the exact experience of being in the presence of the sound of a real gun,” he says, “because there’s this huge pressure wave that’s damaging to your ears. So we have to kind of imply that by making the large part of the sound last longer instead of a single transient at maximum volume. We’ll work with the sound to keep the front part of it at maximum volume for longer than a single transient. We can’t really make it louder, but we can make the loudest part of it last a little longer.”

For this application, Cohen typically sets high ratios and low thresholds on his compressor plug-ins; McDSP’s Compressor Bank and ML4000 are among his favorites. “All the big Hollywood-sounding guns and big punches and stuff, we’re listening to a lot of compression artifacts,” he says. “You just want to find compressors and limiters and things that behave the way tubes and tape did, and give us that large warm sound, which the audience has been taught represents size and power. The sound of a Hollywood punch, a chin sock, that doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s a compression artifact.”

There are other elements to gunshots such as the sound of the bullets flying. “‘Bullet whizzes’ or ‘whiz-bys,’” says Title, “are those little ‘chu, chu chu’ sounds. If you watch a movie like Glory, they really played up the sound of the bullets going overhead. And it really added to the tension. And then there’s the bullet impacts, which also represent danger. And you get the sound of bullets not only impacting and going into things, but also ‘ricos,’ ricocheting off of things. And that whole package of the gunshot, the whizzes and the bullets impacting or ricocheting is what really makes the gun battles exciting.”

Other types of weapons are also created as larger-than-life sounds and often have multiple layers. Assells talks about working on the sword sounds for Gladiator, where he started with sword recordings from Soundelux’s extensive library. “Sometimes the sword sounds aren’t as big or as heavy as you want so you can pitch them down,” he says. “You could add sounds such as bells hitting.” He also added whooshes, which were synchronized with the arc of the sword movements. “If you watch the picture again and listen,” Assells says, “you’ll hear that whoosh on almost every impact.

“These gladiator battles were so full of stuff that you try to find a place in the soundscape so it would kind of sit by itself,” Assells continues. “An old sound editor trick is to put a gap before the impact sound, an actual gap of silence, because it makes the sound hit bigger. We use this a lot in gunshots and gun battles, where a gun will be fired rapidly and you’ll actually make a little empty frame or two of no sound at all so that when the sound hits—boom, it smacks you, and the previous sound is not bleeding into the next sound.”






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