Movie Sound Effects | Cars! Weapons! Machines!

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



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If a machine is more of a prop than the “star of the show,” the sound team has more latitude regarding how much sound to include for them. “I have this theory,” says Cohen, “that in normal life, when you’re listening to something, your brain and your ears tune out anything that they start to think is unimportant. If there’s a Coke machine outside your office door, after a while you won’t notice it. But in film sound, we have to be that filter for the audience.”

He put that theory into practice in his work for the upcoming movie Apollo 18. “The movie spends a lot of time in the Lunar Excursion Module, the lander. So all of the background machinery becomes like a character,” he says. “We have to constantly change the level of these elements in the background because your brain won’t. So we’ll come into the scene and we’ve made all these elements that sound like heartbeats, or fetal heartbeats, and they’re like the oxygen scrubbers and other little pumps and mechanisms that turn off. We have to decide moment by moment what we want the audience to hear. And we have to do it in a way that’s a little unnatural. It’s not just deciding that the background is at this level and that’s how we run it through the scene. We want to keep changing the depth of the background. Or we want to maybe introduce it loud and then bring it lower, and then bring it up later on for dramatic reasons.”

When a machine is front and center, the audience is visually focused on it, so sounds must be designed and cut to match its movements. Cohen describes such a situation in his work on the movie Wanted. “There are these scenes that revolve around this big power loom. There was a basic rhythm that was built into the production track and we would use that as our guide,” he says. “I’d come up with a bunch of [looping] rhythmic elements.”

Cohen faced the challenge of how to get all the various loops he created to stay in sync, not only with each other but with the visual motion of the loom, which wasn’t always consistent due to picture edits. His solution was REX loops because they can change speed without changing pitch, and can follow a tempo map created in Pro Tools. “I literally had 100 different loops that would all be in rhythm,” Cohen says. “We would have heartbeats in sync with the loom, we would have train sounds in sync with the loom, we’d have all these different elements in sync with the loom. I gave some of those pieces to the composer, Danny Elfman, early on so that when the music showed up, it was based around that rhythm, too.”

For sound designers and sound effects editors, a lot comes down to the balance between realism and entertainment value. “For the most part, you’re making a movie, it’s not real,” says Title. “Punches in fight scenes would be a good example of reality versus movies. And it’s something that we struggle with because most of the time, filmmakers don’t want to hear big, over-the-top, Rocky, Hollywood-style chin socks. They want to hear something real. Actually, they don’t want to hear what’s real, they want to hear something that’s more realistic, that isn’t over the top, but still they want it to be exciting and cinematic. So you’re kind of constantly trying to find the middle ground between reality and it being a good movie-sound experience.”

Where the sound effects will fall in that continuum depends a lot on the specifics of the movie. “Whether you want a car that sits like it was recorded on the set, or if it’s a crazy car chase where it’s a smash cut and the radiator’s in your face, zooming by, and you want to sweeten it with a big lion roar or a jet-by,” says Assells, “the film totally dictates it.”

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