Bruce Tanis Special: Scale/Perspective on Cutting Sound Effects
Creating sounds for gadgets, machinery, and weapons beyond any mundane character they may have as ordinary objects is a core task of sound effects design. To be sure, there are many of these core tasks, or categories, that most of our work as designers falls into. Creatures and Monsters, Alien Planets, Future Tech, and Comic Book Violence effects are examples of some others. Today, I’d like to discuss editing mechanical effects in terms of scale and perspective.
I’ll start with the scale of an effect. What I mean by this is simply that, if the scene includes a hand-held device of some sort, the sound I try to create for that device needs to fit the size of the object as we see it. It doesn’t work well, in my experience, to have some little gizmo that has a really large sound effect associated with it or, conversely, some huge planetary-level machine that has little cogs and gears as its operative sounds. Gadgets are a staple of most Science Fiction and Caper movies and I’ll try to start with sounds that are appropriate in size to the object on screen. If someone is holding a palm-sized communicator, I’ll look for material to start editing with by searching through cameras or printers and other smallish machines and then process them as needed. I’ll also go through larger things like turbines, wind tunnels, and aircraft inertia starters ( I love those!), when I need to make an interesting power up sound but I know I will need to time-compress them or pitch them up in order to make it seem like they could actually be coming from the little box that we see on camera.
In “The Island” (2005), two of the characters are working in the vitamin lab, injecting nutrients into the food stream tubes of other “Islanders”. I started with a metal tripod to create the sound of the “gun” mechanism and added in a small air chuff along with a wind-down burst from a small electric drill. It ended up working because the sounds felt like they could actually be made by something that size. Half the battle in “selling” an effect is making it believable in terms of what we as viewers would expect the thing to sound like, regardless of how fictional it truly is. The tricorders and communicators in “Star Trek” don’t exist in reality, but since they make an appropriately sized sound when we see them, we’re much more likely to accept them as a “real” part of the scene. The key here is that presentation, or packaging, goes a long way toward gaining client or audience acceptance of what may be an otherwise very subjective sound. Strangely, it’s not just that the sound that needs to feel right, but sometimes it has to look right too. It turns out, either one can cause a client to start second-guessing things on the dub stage and that’s not good. Long ago, I worked on a fairly modest car sequence. The client wanted the car in the scene to be both authentic and “Hollywood” big. Being somewhat two different, mutually exclusive things, I went with the big. I cut in a hot Camaro engine for a Corvette because the Camaro had the maneuvers I needed and it was a better recording of a beefier engine.
We had recordings of a Corvette but the Camaro was the more dramatically appropriate choice to use and the client loved it. On the cue sheet, though, which the client could see, it listed the effect as a being a Camaro and he was very upset. “But that’s a Corvette up there on screen! We paid extra for that car!” Umm. Ok. We moved on and eventually came back around to the same car and the client glanced at the sheets again and turned to us, very pleased that he’d gotten what he wanted, and said, “See, THAT’s the right car!” Well, we hadn’t recut the car. What we had done is reprinted the cue sheets. They now read: “Corvette such-and-such Maneuver”. Now, I’m absolutely NOT suggesting lying to clients by any means but the way you present your material is important just like the actual sound is important. As Jay Wilkinson likes to say, “Start with right effect . . . .and stop there”. I would like to amend that just a little to say: start with the right-sized effect also. Or start wherever you’d like, just make it the right size.
Perspective is another aspect of creating a sound that we accept as correct because it fulfills expectations that we as viewers bring to the film. We listen to the world all day everyday and get to know various aspects of it in terms of basic survival mechanisms. If something is really loud, it’s probably very close to us and may be dangerous therefore requiring attention until we can dismiss the event as being safe to ignore. Conversely, something very quiet suggests being distant and is probably not an immediate threat. Obviously, these are blatant generalities that may be highly inaccurate given the true nature of the event, but, nonetheless, serve to illustrate that we make determinations based on what we’ve heard in the past. A big, loud screech of tires means you probably don’t want to walk out in the street just at that moment. You don’t need to see the car because you’ve heard the sound before and have determined that each time you hear that sound, you need to pay attention for possible danger. It’s a developed shorthand to navigate your environment safely and it’s the same with film language. If something doesn’t fit what we expect to hear, it seems false or incorrect and can pull you right out of a film.
Thankfully, the range isn’t exactly that narrow or every film would sound exactly like every other one and what would be the fun in that? I like to use Randy Thom as an example from time to time because he is great at just getting it right. In this instance, I’m referring to his Machine in “Contact” (1997). The machine is wonderfully powerful and complex ( and the right scale!), when were right up next to it. I completely buy that those revolving rings make that exact sound but what helps is how he’s built the sounds that you hear when we’re miles away and still looking at it. He’s taken that machine and simplified the elements in such a way that it sounds just like we’d expect it to from a long distance. It still has the character of the rings, meaning, it sounds like the same exact machine we heard in the close-up, but now it feels like we’re a long ways off. It’s really nicely done. More recently, in an episode of “Fringe”, nearly the entire episode was set in a small town in which people’s grotesque appearances were masked by a mysterious generator located in the basement of one of the local houses.
The producers specifically wanted the hum to be everywhere within the city limits but a “Fringe” episode is about 43 minutes long without the commercials in place. There’s simply no way anyone would want to listen to a relentless 43 minutes of generator hum! My solution was to build the generator geographically so that where ever we were in town it would have more or less complexity in character. Out by the city limits, the sound was a gentle swelling simple hum with just a couple of layers to it. As we move through town, I added layers to build up the energy and proximity of the generator.
Finally, when we go into the basement where the generator is working, it appears in its most complex state with additional elements like valves clicking and chuffing that we haven’t heard anywhere else. It’s kind of interesting to note that, in the end, the machine had more noticeable movement in the track when played as distant, and, because of its additive nature, less movement but more energy when played as close up. The final example of perspective in cutting comes from several years ago. A film that was supervised by Scott Hecker was being dubbed at Todd-AO by Richard Portman. They’re both very talented professionals and I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to have worked with them! At one point, Richard took issue with a distant train that had been cut in. His explanation, as Scott graciously passed on to me, is a lesson I’ve never forgotten. He said, pointing to a photo perched in front of him on the mixing console, “that’s a close-up picture. You can take it clear across the room and it’ll still be a close-up”. He meant that our train effect was a close-up sound that we were playing as very distant. It didn’t work for him and he was absolutely right.
Written by Bruce Tanis for Designing Sound