Movie Sound Effects | Cars! Weapons! Machines!

Sep 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Mike Levine



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Jon Title recently finished work as sound designer for <I>Final Destination 5</i>, in which he had to create the myriad sounds of a massive suspension bridge collapsing. He also worked on <I>Black Hawk Down</i> (pictured).

Jon Title recently finished work as sound designer for Final Destination 5, in which he had to create the myriad sounds of a massive suspension bridge collapsing. He also worked on Black Hawk Down (pictured).

Another major effects category is car sounds. Assells describes how for many movies, budget permitting, there will be a custom “car series” recorded. “A car series means they’ll take a particular car and record everything it does,” he explains. “So you’ll have a library of a 5-mph-by, a 10-mph-by, 15—all the different speed-bys. It’s backing up, slowing down, chase driving. They’ll do a parking-lot-maneuver series where it just kind of creeps around a parking lot, slowing down and getting quicker.”

Recordists will place mics in the tailpipe, the engine and the interior. The different recordings can be synched and used in any proportion that works for the given moment in the film. “Let’s say you’re driving along,” says Assells. “It’s a dialog scene, two characters are talking. You can use the interior recording [for background], it’s kind of washy, but it’s got a nice spread to it, you’re not crowding that middle speaker [where the dialog is]. And then he says, ‘Oh no, the bad guy’s after us,’ and we’ve got a chase. He stomps on it, then you can bring in the tailpipe recordings, which are nice and beefy and throaty.”

Although realism is important as a baseline, more often than not the recordings (or library recordings) get beefed up considerably. “The way films are now,” Assells says, “cars are over the top, and there’s CGI, and they’re doing things no real car would do. In those cases, I’ll pitch stuff down to give it more heft. Or I’ll EQ it or run it through plug-ins just to give it more bottom and more boom.”

Car sounds have many elements, and Assells likes to do separate submixes of the various categories to give the mixer ultimate control. “There will be the engine category that’s going to the engine predub,” he says. “And this is so when we final, if they want to just bring up the engine, they can. The tires will be separate, they’ll go under another predub. Rattles/impacts will go under another predub. Wind/buffeting will go into another predub. And then we have another one we call Design/Special Effects. That will go into another predub.”

Assells says that tire recordings are key to creating a convincing car sound. “A big item that we use a lot is called ‘gravel roll,’” he says. “It’s basically somebody with a mic, pointing down at a tire rolling on gravel. And we’ll use it on parking lots, on asphalt, and even though it’s not gravel on the asphalt, you play it at the right volume and it gives a sense of movement and it glues the car to the ground. Even if I’m cutting a car driving along at 35 miles an hour, I will always cut a tire steady, even if you’re barely playing it at all.”

A classic technique for making car chase sounds more exciting is to subtly layer in a lion (or other large animal) roaring to add to the tension of the sound. Although that’s become somewhat of cliché, it can be very effective. “If you mix it right, it’s kind of subliminal,” Assells says, “so you just kind of sense something’s there.”

Title agrees. “I don’t want anyone to go, ‘Oh, I heard that lion in there,’” he says. “But for some reason, those sounds, because they’re organic, are very powerful; they feel dangerous.”

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