“The Dark Knight” (Pt.4) – Exclusive Interview with “Ambient Sound Designer” Mel Wesson
Batman-on-film.com (self explanatory) reported last fall that a man by the name of Mel Wesson posted on his personal site that he was to be the “Ambient Music Designer” on “The Dark Knight”. Not only was I excited that a Batman fan site was highlighting someone in the music department(other than the composer), I was intrigued with the idea of that job title. After some IMDB sleuthing I discovered that Wesson has been credited as “ambient music designer” or “musical sound designer” on over 10 films. So naturally, I had to approach him to find out what the job was all about…
• First check out this video from thedarkknightscore.com •
DS: What does an ambient music designer normally do and how was that work unique to “The Dark Knight? “
Mel: Well I can tell you it’s not all about soundscapes and relaxation tapes! Well, on BB (“Batman Begins”) and “TDK” I spent the initial months creating sounds and grouping them in moods and characters, things like ‘Oxides’, ‘Rage’, ‘Chaos’, ‘S-Laughter’. I’ve always found it easier to collate sounds in terms of food groups rather than just “Pulses”, ‘Percussion”, “Underscores”, etc., and anyway, that would’ve been a little unimaginative! An amount of this material first saw daylight in The Prologue. That was invaluable in terms of recognizing at an early stage how far this movie differed tonally from BB. As the team came together over at Remote Control I joined them and began putting ideas together through the reels; these went either directly to the mix or via Hans and James to brighten their days! In reality, every project is unique; Batman sounds only relate to the Batman characters and locations that’s all, it’s not like they’re interchangeable.
DS: Did your work in “Batman Begins” carry over to the sequel?
Mel: Absolutely. You need those familiar markers for continuity. Some sounds are more subliminal, you log them in your subconscious, others are more thematic. As an example, something like the Batflaps are highly visible – that’s the sound that kicks off both movies, as soon as you hear that you know you’re back in that world, then the Joker arrives and kicks the crap out of us all.
DS: Given the job title, ambient music designer, do you think about or approach music differently than other composers?
Mel: I hope so, otherwise |’m out of a job! I’m not sure I know what goes through other composers’ minds but I’ve always been more interested in making the sound do the work as opposed to the notes. What the title gives me is the freedom to experiment without the restrictions of say, a more orchestral approach, but then my contribution has to complement and extend that world. It’s very satisfying when the two come together.
DS: What are your thoughts on the boundaries between music and sound design, if any?
Mel: I wouldn’t differentiate between them sonically, but I’d say there’s a dividing line in whether you’re being figurative or abstract in the way you use sound. The priority for my work is with the score, what I do has to have some musical sensibility, whether it’s playing a supportive, colorist role or driving the structure from which a cue is built up. I always work with the sound design team in mind though, you have to be aware of what those guys are up to, and it doesn’t help if there’s half a dozen things all doing the same job at the dub, you need clarity, and everything has to be focused.
DS: I asked this of sound soup Richard King and now you: Nolan has said that TDK’s main theme is escalation. Was there an emphasis on the score to emote that, too?
Mel: Hmmm…. I’ve not heard that phrase before, but you can’t avoid the way TDK racks up the intensity and the score is a vital part of the engine of that escalation, although the movie builds in an unconventional way. It was never going to be a question of car chase follows train wreck – the Joker monologues build as much tension as the action scenes; he really holds the audience by the throat, as does Hans’ one note Joker theme. It does nothing but escalate! I was very jealous when I first heard that one, I love the purity of the idea – it’s pure menace.
DS: Where does your work end? Since there’s potential for sounds you create to be altered, edited, or even omitted during the final dub, is the first time you see a film in the theater a surprise?
Mel: I’m not sure it ever ends. The only meaningful date is the print master, that’s the only time you physically can’t screw with things anymore! As you say, the final dub is open season for sound, but aside from fixes or specific requests my role morphs into more of a ‘doctor on call’ situation. It’s often the first time everything comes together as a whole, so yes…. there’s usually a few surprises! I don’t get too protective about my work though; if something doesn’t make it to the cut it’s for a reason and I’d sooner hear one sound cut through and have an effect on an audience than have a wall of mush that does nothing. It’s the end result that counts, but I still find it quite nerve wracking the first time I watch a movie all the way through in the theatre….
DS: What was your first gig like?
Mel: My first ‘Ambient’ gig was “Hannibal.” I’d played a more conventional role on “MI2,” and afterward Hans asked if I’d fancy being the audio “presence of Hannibal Lector.” It doesn’t take too much to convince me to come over to the dark side!
There was a lot of experimentation, no rules, no road-map, nothing, although there came a point when a number of people started to feel very uncomfortable about the sounds coming out of my studio… which was exactly what we were looking for! Working with Ridley Scott was a great experience, too. He was very receptive to the whole idea, very concise, very constructive, in fact I’d love to cook up some kind of ‘baptism by fire’ tale of adversity but in reality, “Hannibal” was just a great project. In the closing week or so Hans and I came up with the ‘ambient music design’ label; it’s come in pretty handy over the years…