This is the start of something new here at Designing Sound. Once a month we’l try to interview a sound person from a past film. I haven’t figured out a formula yet of what films or years to feature so It may be a little hurky jerky time period wise as I settle into this. That said, it was easy enough to follow up the “Predators” interview with one of my childhood favs, 1987’s “Predator”. I was fortunate enough to find one of the sound supervisors David Stone, teaching at Savannah College of Art and Design and willing to answer some questions about the time he spent on “Predator”.
Designing Sound: When did you start on Predator and what were initial sound design conversations with the filmmakers like?
David Stone: Steve Flick and Richard Anderson probably would have met first with Joel Silver to finalize contracts and then they hired me to work as Co-Supervisor with Richard. Steve, as was the custom, would have given the film editors a handful of FX to liven up their work-track before he moved on to another picture. Rich and I met first with the producers, John McTiernan, and the original film editor, Stuart Baird. Baird was about to move on to another job, and was handing over the editorial to Johnnie Link. They ran some footage for us, and explained how the Predator would appear wrapped up in a red bodysuit on our work picture. (That was to make a hold-back matte against the green of the forest, kind of an opposite of green screen. Those wonderful opticals took a long time to make and Silver, smartly, would only promise that we would get to see them in the very latest days of our final dub.) Incidentally, there are two guys from that viz FX crew, neither of whom I knew at the time, who are now my colleague professors at Savannah College of Art and Design: Stuart Robertson and Robert Mrozowski. Stuart was Chair of the Visual Effects department here at SCAD.
Anyway, as to sound conversations, I have notes from an initial spotting session at the end of March, 1987. According to my notes, we would have spotted the first 6 reels and followed up another day with the second half of the show. We talked about the space stuff, the weaponry, the “Pred-a-vison” POV shots, and of course the jungle itself, which we always thought could play as an active character. I always made notes that I could distribute on paper to the whole crew, including specific issues about new FX, or spots that would inevitably raise questions. An example of these notes was reprinted in “The Foley Grail,” where I was communicating about props and surfaces to Vanessa Ament’s Foley crew.
DS: What did sound editorial cut on in 1987? What format were sound libraries stored on and how did the effects crew search and access the library?
David: Mag. Everything was on magnetic film, to be cut on movieolas and Kems. You predubbed and finalled to multichannel “fullcoat” mag, and cut on mono single-stripe mag or two-track stereo fullcoat mag. Sound effects libraries were kept on 1/4” reel-to-reel tapes, usually the original generation of tape they were shot on in the first place. So I would audition library FX on these 1/4” reels, and always gave the sound editing crew a complete notebook, listing the choices and combos of FX they’d need for each scene. We “Supes” always broke the film down scene-by-scene after spotting with the filmmakers and then translated those ideas to our FX and Foley crews. John Pospisil used an 8-track Otari tape deck at the time, to handle the special design of new Science Fiction FX. He could edit and combine elements from 1/4” tape, and run sound through a lot of processing hardware, mixing to the 8-track and then down to two. I think that 8-track was running 1/2” tape. John also loved to use, among other cool gear, his beat-up old analogue Arp synthesizer.
One of this movie’s great features is the wonderful stereo BG’s of the rainforest. These were recorded for another movie by Andy Wiskes and they were probably the earliest digital sound recordings for a movie done as a complete series in a remote location. Andy shot hours and hours worth of beautiful stuff on a Sony PCM F1 1st generation analogue to digital system. In those days (before DAT) you had to record all of the digital data onto videotape, the only medium with enough bandwidth to capture all of those ones and zeros. Although a smaller Sony Betamax 1/2” videotape deck was available for this system, Andy recorded to a much bulkier 3/4” video deck, which he had to schlep through the jungle with all the other gear. He’s a strong guy. Andy’s wonderfully detailed sound logs often included notes about how many mosquito bites each take cost him. He’s such a pro, you never heard him slapping at the bugs or complaining throughout the many hours of this stuff. I thought if carrying the 3/4” deck didn’t kill him, the mosquitoes would. Andy licensed the jungle material to us and we transferred it to 1/4” for the Anderson-Flick-Mangini library. Richard Anderson took on the task of cutting these BG’s. He orchestrated all of their surround layout, the progress from light to denser jungle, the way the animals would freak out or be silent, the individual touches of parrots or howler monkeys, or what have you. A happy moment for us was when the music mixer, Kevin Cleary said to me, in his “Aussie” accent, “Tell your crew, Dave, thanks for not putting the kookaburra in your tracks. It only lives in Australia, but it shows up in all the jungle pictures. Africa, South America, India. People have been cutting the kookaburra in all these pictures since the 1930’s. Thanks for not doing it!” Click to listen to a vintage Kookaburra sound effect by designingsound
For me, part of the magic of this movie is Richard’s masterful background work. Don’t forget, a great deal of the production sound was shot near a freeway in northern Mexico, and didn’t really sound the least bit like a rain forest until Richard’s backgrounds put the audience there.
The other half of what makes this sound track outstanding to me is the Foley work of Vanessa Ament and Robin Harlan, with J.R. Westen mixing at Directors’ Sound, which is now the Chace Audio Foley stage. I had heard Vanessa’s, Hilda Hodges’ and Alyson Moore’s uncredited work on “Platoon” at the Academy’s theatre, and I marveled at how cleanly and stealthily the Foley seemed to match and enhance production. You have all this military gear rattling, and these three tiny women performing combat boot footsteps for big macho guys, and it never, ever seems fake sonically. So the military guys’ movement is one aspect of it, but Foley is always about the friction between characters and their environment. In “Platoon,” the Foley jungle always sounded incredibly lush and green. You knew these Foley Artists were not walking around on crispy 1/4” tape (a common substitute for grass back in the day) in the dirt pits, and whenever they would brush by the big palm leaves, it always sounded moist and lush… You could smell the chlorophyll everywhere. So I asked Vanessa to bring all that skill to our little sci fi picture. I told her what Flick had told me: “It’s Arnie in the Jungle with an Alien!” Every morning the Foley stage was working, Vanessa and I would steal fresh vegetation from around the neighborhood; big-leafed plants and palm fronds, whatever green stuff we could find. As long as they weren’t potted in people’s yards, they were fair game. Vanessa worked in the Foley pits for 25 years, and teaches film sound to college students now. She wrote “The Foley Grail” (Focal Press,) the only book exclusively on Foley, about the whole craft developing through the hands and feet of these amazing sound performers.
DS: What was the dynamic on the dub stage like back then? Pro tools rigs litter the stage now, but what was it like before computer screens and mice ruled the dub?
David: Big dub stage, the Zanuck Theatre at Fox, their biggest room. Don J. Bassman captained the room, and mixed dialogue. Kevin F. Cleary mixed music, and Richard Overton mixed effects. The standard 3-mixer room worked like this at the time. Dick Overton made the FX, Foley, and BG (background FX) predubs. Kevin mixed the music during the final, and worked with Mike Tronick(a music editor at the time now edits picture) to handle Alan Sylvestri’s tracks. In those days, most of the predub period was characterized by an empty stage, one busy mixer, and one sound editor. Joel Silver or McTiernan would come once in a while to review half-finished stuff, and then inhabited the stage for every second of the final. Even Arnold and Maria showed up very late one night, on their way home from some black tie event, just to hang out for a while. Arnold was very kind. I remember him taking a big puff on his cigar and saying, “We thought we had it tough, sweating it out in that rotten location all day. But you guys are here day and night, and it’s 3 in the morning and you’re still on the dub stage. Way to go, guys!” I’m paraphrasing wildly, of course, but that was the sense of his comment.
That was a classic mid-eighties dub stage. Instead of ProTools rigs and portable drives cluttering the room, you had paper cue sheets, little stray rolls of mag on plastic cores, old issues of Daily Variety, and half-eaten bagels. There would have been quite a few three-ring binders, lots of rolls of white paper tape and black, red, and blue sharpies for identifying things, and of course a paper cutter for slicing up cue sheets. This kind of clutter will be familiar to any Baby-Boomer film editor.
As for social dynamics, the protocol was that the stage boss, in this case Don, was the clear authority until the Director or Producer stepped aboard. In spite of having too much to do and not enough time, the ambiance was pretty jolly most days. This kind of team knows how to goof around creatively while waiting for someone else’s technical process to get done and then they’re ready to jump back into intensely-focused work for more long hours.
When we got into some of the big action scenes, we made a helluva lot of noise of course. I remember running into the actors Julie Kavner and Harry Shearer a couple of times, who were recording “The Simpsons” in the basement below us. I felt like a noisy upstairs neighbor with a loud stereo. I asked Shearer if our low-end was screwing up their sessions too badly. He said they were O.K. downstairs, so I guess that their studio was pretty well isolated.
DS: How much experimentation went into those click based vocalizations that the predator emits? What did they derive from and did you have any idea they would be so iconic 20 years later?
David: No idea it would become so iconic, but I understand why it is. And I can’t take credit for the clicking either. It was already in the soup when I arrived. If memory serves, and it usually doesn’t, that stuff came from Steve Flick in the earliest days before we began our work. It went into the editor’s worktracks, and it stayed there. Everybody loved it, so it only went through the slightest changes of sync, and EQ, through the entire job. That means it went through the dub on a special track that was neither dialogue nor FX. I noticed on IMDB that Peter Cullen, an actor who has done a great deal of animation work, among other things, contributed some kind of vocalizing for the Predator, and I don’t know exactly what that was. I was working on FX, BG’s and Foley. Norman Schwartz supervised all the ADR. I’ll bet he knows.
What exactly were the clicks? I don’t know. You’d have to ask Flick. I know him quite well, but every day for 23 years I forget to ask him about those clicks. I suspect it might have been one of his favorite Arizona cicada recordings, slowed ‘way down. To me it sounds like a giant insect rasping anyway, which is why it works so well as a design element for this hard-edged carapace-armored alien in the first place. The funny thing is how no one, and no group of people, ever sat down and agonized artistically over that sound. For all I know, because he is such a sound genius, Flick may have thrown it together in five minutes on the way to his car and forgotten all about it until he saw the movie.
DS: What was the direction behind the pred-a-vison sounds? (The Predator’s bio sounds, how the world around it is futzed through the mask, and how the predator mimic human voices)
David: From that first spotting session, I believe I understood what McTiernan needed there. They only had to tell us once at the spotting that this guy is a living organism, with electronic parts embedded, like a cyborg, or maybe the parts are in his suit or helmet. Luckily McTiernan, Johnny Link, and the sound crew all agreed that it didn’t matter what was part of the suit, and what was connected cybernetically to the being… the ambiguity would keep things scarier. So, we’re all smart guys, we got that. Futzing through the mask was done to all production dialogue, ADR, and Foley. We just split those tracks out on every POV shot. Foley and production ran through the old Eventide harmonizer on Don’s stage during the Finals. Don would have processed the DIA and ADR, and Dick would have processed the FX and Foley. But this is done in the Finals, so each of them can make delicate adjustments in their own stems. You didn’t want to process sounds with a delicate flange effect before you had the final context with music and everything else. That kind of processing would not have been committed to in predubs. Our job as editors is to make sure those tracks are split properly and easily available to the mixers. So most of the POV is done this way. He watches them in the forest, he picks up the scorpion, those kind of shots. Now as to the Predator’s processing what he hears, such as where he mimics Sonny’s voice in progressive layers… That’s a special project. I think John Pospisil and Norm Schwartz worked together on those pieces (as audio without picture) well before our final dub, so we’d have time for both Norm and McTiernan to audition and approve them and not have any surprises during the final. I don’t remember if that’s the way we had set things up, but it certainly is what I would plan for today.
I’m not sure who first came up with the jokey reference “Pred-a-vision,” for these all-important POV shots, but I think it was Vanessa Ament. It quickly became a useful shorthand for everyone to use, because it obviously affected all of our cut tracks except for music, and when you’re sound editing this kind of a movie, there are hundreds of track units. Here’s the Pred-a-vision layout for all the POV’s whether or not there was Foley or dialogue running: There’s a base layer of hummy, buzzy electronic notes, created by John P., probably a combo of his favorite old synthesizers and whatever MIDI toys he had at the time. On top of that is the Predator heartbeat. I found an old glass flower vase with a very wide mouth. I put some water and a natural sponge inside it. John P. and I talked about how Predator should have a human-like heartbeat, but with something strange and alien in the rhythm. We decided maybe he had more ventricles than humans, or something.
Ezra Dweck helped me record the sponges squishing in odd rhythms. We gave that tape to John P. to play with. He processed and tweaked, and he would have had to edit my terrible sense of rhythm. So those “Predator heartbeat” tracks went into the library. We made stereo mag prints of the heartbeat, and I probably asked BG editors to cut two pairs of John’s hummy buzzy electronic BG for the underlying stuff. This way we could add a bit from the second pair to go in the surrounds. The piece de resistance for Pred-a-vision was the “SLAM-IN” effect that we needed to cross every film cut where his POV begins, no matter what else is going on. John made this beautifully threatening “WHOMP!” sound, probably on his 8-track with his broken old analogue hardware. There were a few variants, I think, so it wouldn’t get too old too fast. We always cut that as a pair of stereo pairs on mag. I was interested in trying to get a feel that the sound suddenly collapses inward from the wide shots, with wide-spread jungle BG’s, to this weirdly claustrophobic sense of being inside the guy’s alien body, or at least his helmet. I don’t think we ever got the directional effect. That would have necessitated a lot of detailed fussing in the predubs, getting the sound to move like that. Really didn’t have time. Anyway, I always thought that Fox TV stole that Whomp FX from our Predator materials, and used it thematically for some idiotic tabloid TV series, like “Hard Copy” (I can’t remember the actual title.) They certainly had access to our sound materials, and were the legal owners, so they had a right to do that, if they did.
DS: How did the effects team approach the sound of Blain’s mini-gun? I love the sounds you guys used.
David: He called the weapon “Painless,”(thank you IMFDB) didn’t he? You’re reminding me that “Predator” is the only movie starring two future Governors. How’s that for silly trivia?
What you need to understand is that the production weapon fired rounds so fast that it created a very high frequency of explosions. I called the gun wrangler a few times while we were researching for our sound effects. He told me how many rounds, but I forget. Could it be as many as 3000 rounds a minute? That would be about 50 explosions a second. That could be about right. Understand that a high frequency of explosions will create a high frequency of sound. We always feel intuitively that low-frequency sounds are more macho, or at least more threatening to audiences. The actual gun in production sounded high and raspy to us… not unlike a gasoline leaf-blower. That’s a very annoying sound on the street, but certainly not frightening. So John Pospisil had to resolve this for us. He and I auditioned a lot of shotguns and canons and other weapons. We ended up liking the sound of a .50 cal tank weapon, in the context of each single shot.
Now John P. had to construct something. If he built those FX out to 3000 rounds a minute, we’d be back to having another leaf blower, so that wouldn’t work. The final sound results from two kinds of cheating for the sake of drama: One, the individual shots are bigger, deeper in middle and low-end modulation than the real gun; and (B), there are far fewer shots than 3000 rpm. John had to layer a bunch of individual shots in clusters on the eight-track, so that none of their tails would be cut off. He went through this in several iterations, until we both felt that he’d reached the right sound, and that it repeated in a naturalistic way without sounding “cutty.” This is a great example of what I tell my students, “It has to sound like it needs to sound in a movie,” as opposed to prosaic realism. The other very effective part of the gun is the spinning cylinder when Bill Duke freaks out and mowed down the forest, after Jesse Ventura is killed. The beauty of this moment is entirely from McTiernan’s direction and the film editing: His thumb is frozen on the button, and he finally lets it go, and it stops whirring. An incredibly dramatic moment! What we did was just to enhance the production gun, which sounded almost exactly like what you hear in the movie, just (being production sound,) not as articulate. We added a metal shop lathe spinning and then spinning down, and we added some metal switch FX, that’s all. The drama came from the staging of this. In this case sound FX works more like the sonic analogy to what makeup and lighting do routinely for an actor. I wish people could understand how much and how often sound effects and Foley are working in that subtle way in all professional movies. Usually, people and fans just perceive the biggest and most artificial sound effects. There’s a lot more to it.