Our job as sound designers is to be storytellers. Instead of words or pictures, we tell the story with sound. And it all starts with the script. Sometimes I’ll get a script in advance of a job, sometimes not. Ideally, the screenwriter has worked sound into the very fabric of the script. Some of my favorite movie scenes of all time were written with sound as a central player. Once Upon a Time in the West comes to mind, where a badass is introduced entirely offscreen with the sound of intense battle going on outside, as saloon patrons tremble inside listening to the chaos.
Last year’s No Country for Old Men is another great example, where the beep of a tracking device tells us the villain is slowly approaching–a far scarier technique than just showing the guy walking up. What we don’t see is often scarier than what we do see, and sound is a great tool to achieve that.
But sometimes the script can be a little misleading. I don’t know how many times I’ve read “and then they fight”; just four words on the page, but depending on the director those four words may translate to 20 minutes of insane action.
If we’re lucky, we get a chance to visit the art department during production. On Transformers, this was very helpful to give us an idea of the different robot characters we’d be be dealing with, since the animators might not have a finished shot for another year or more. We browsed conceptual artwork and got an idea of what types and sizes of robots we’d be dealing with, and what sort of vehicles they’d turn into, giving us a head start to get into the right head space while prepping.
Sometimes we get started with a little sequence that may be mostly storyboard or animatics, which is blocky temp computer animation. It’s amazing how a crappy-looking previz scene improves once there’s some sound put in to glue it together and bring it to life. Ideally, those sounds get put in the cut and go to the animators who may (or may not) draw inspiration from it. I love that sort of cross-pollination.
We’re lucky to sometimes get schedules were the sound crew gets started before the picture department delivers a cut. This is play time, and because we’re not grounded by the picture, we can design blindly with a completely blank canvas, which can be very fun. In this phase, I’ll start making different categories of sounds depending on the movie.
During this period for Transformers, I recorded every motor, winch, scissor lift, power window, printer, copier, scanner, remote control servo and gizmo I could think of. That started getting boring and monotonous, so about a week in I started manipulating the sounds to un-ground them from reality. Mind you, this is before we even saw a scene of the movie. Ethan Van der Ryn suggested I try an experiment and do a “vocal pass”. I really wasn’t sure what that meant, so I bummed a smoke to get my voice gravelly and raspy and sat in the dark making weird growls and nonsensical babble into a mic for a day, and then played with those sounds, twisting and processing. This is often the most fun part of the process, playing and experimenting and building the show library. Those vocal sounds became the genesis of Bumblebee’s voice, and a good portion of Megatron’s evil vocalizations and breathing.
Before filming of Valkyrie was complete, I was planning on visiting my 95 year old grandma in Europe, and used it as a chance to record more authentic atmospheres.
Before starting work on Shrek 4, we knew we’d need a war horn sound, so an editor we work with –Tobias Poppe–arranged a recording session of easily 50 different conches, shofars, cow horns, antelope horns, ram horns, a euphonium, you name it. We also started collecting large carnivorous animal sounds, mules and donkeys, wood and armor, creaky carriages and magical sounds like belltree glisses and anything sparkly we could get our hands on or create. We didn’t know if we’d need all the sounds, but better having too many at the ready than not enough!
This kind of prep work always gives us unexpected ideas. And bottom line, it’s fun. And doing all this before seeing the film gets us ahead of the game so we can spend our editing time taking it to the next level instead of just playing catchup. Because the bottom line is, no matter how long the schedule, there’s always going to be a ton of work, and falling behind is as inevitable as gravity.
Written by Erik Aadahl for Designing Sound