"Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" – Exclusive interview with Supervising Sound Editor Julian Slater
Full disclosure, I haven’t seen Edgar Wright’s first film (A Fist Full of Fingers) but his two other theatrical releases(“Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz)” I enjoyed immensely and were both very sound friendly. “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” follows suit and interviews with Wright confirmed my suspicion of his love for sound. Below is an excerpt from a Cinematical.com interview with Edgar.
Cinematical: I had a conversation with a friend who mentioned that there is a sound effect that comes from Sonic the Hedgehog, which I actually didn’t know or recognize. How much are people supposed to be identifying the specific little sounds and details like that, and how much is meant to be just a part of the overall pastiche?
Wright: I think it’s not the central part of that joke, but the Sonic the Hedgehog noise is, and I feel like those things are kind of to create almost a pavlov’s dog response for people in the audience who have grown up with those sounds. I think it’s more that I wanted to create – those sounds and audio references and motifs are not supposed to stop the film dead. If people don’t recognize them, it’s not what the scene is about or even the joke is about. It’s more that what I kind of figured is that with some of that music, and even like Mac and PC and Blackberry noises, is that they’re the kinds of sounds of the last 15 years. So it’s sort of like a pavlovian response to like a Mac error sound is that you know you’ve done something wrong (laughs). Because I think if you actually put a microphone in somebody’s apartment that uses a lot of technology, there would just be a number of sounds that we take for granted that are just part of our lives – vibrating cell phones, Mac errors, the sound of trash.
Basically, Scott Pilgrim is like living his life through the pop culture he’s consumed over the last 30 years, so there’s like this endless jumble of resonant sounds. So to the character and to me, it’s like the Sonic the Hedgehog noise is basically just like 1993’s lightbulb sound, do you know what I mean? Ding! That’s it – there’s nothing and not extra jokes written in that, and it’s sounds that you recognize and have grown up with over the last 20 years. I love that it has that sort of pavlovian response; I mean, some of them are very kind of buried in the mix, but it makes me laugh because we went through all of the Windows and Mac sounds of the last 15 years, and just when somebody wakes up it has the sort of startup sound, so that it just happens to be in the background. But a lot of them are diegetic as well, and I’ve done that in Spaced as well; I always find that interesting, trying to soundtrack things rather than raid the Hanna-Barbera sound effects. You sound diegetic from the technology we use.
I’d love to share more examples of Edgar’s thoughts on sound (There’s plenty more) but I’d better get on with our interview with sound supervisor Julian Slater. Slater has been working with Edgar since 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead” and I actually interviewed him for 2008’s “In Bruges”. Anyway, Thanks to Julian for answering some questions about his work on “Scott Pilgrim v. The World” and you can see him in The Soundworks Collection’s interview for the film too.
DS: When did you start working on the film and what were the initial conversations about sound with director Edgar Wright like?
(Julian Slater) JS: Edgar first approached me around December 2008 to talk about the project and what he felt would be the overall ‘feel’ of the soundtrack. He actually showed me some test footage they already shot which turned out to be very accurate to the finished film. I started on some initial sound work around May of 2009 which included new video game and 8 bit sounds to send to the cutting rooms over in Toronto while they were shooting.
DS: What sound effects were lifted direct from video games, inversely when paying homage to video game sounds what type of research went into the process?
JS: Ha! Lots of playing video games! Actually, as a percentage very little of the game sounds you hear in the movie are lifted from the actual video games. There are some from Zelda, Sonic, and Super Mario Bros but pretty much everything else was created from scratch. If you go way back to the early 80’s many game sounds were created from pretty basic chips and as such are quiet easy to replicate or recreate with a similar feel. One of the tasks we had was making each sound complement what was happening on screen. If you are a retro gamer like myself, your brain inherently associates those old 8 bit sounds with particular graphics or images so when you apply new images to this (particularly with such vivid visuals as we had) your brain has problems coupling the old sounds with the new images. So we spent a fair amount of time experimenting and seeing what sounds, old or new, would work within the context of the scene. Bill Hader’s voice is featured heavily in the ‘Ninja Ninja Revolution’ game that is a new spin on the popular dance game in arcades. The game looks like a real game but its not, its all a recreation so all those ‘in game’ sound effects are totally new. Once we had edited and mixed the sounds afresh, we actually worldized them through an old arcade machine that had sitting in my garage for the past 6 years!!
DS: In the Soundworks Collection interview you talked about electing to manipulate high fidelity sound effects into an 8bit futz rather than use existing 8bit sound effects for on-screen action. What plug-ins or other processes did you use to achieve this and what type of sounds translated the best into an 8bit counterpart?
JS: We knew from the outset that using real 8 bits punches etc were not going to cut it within a modern cinematical soundtrack. Not only because they would not have the weight and low end required but also because we needed to come up with a bunch new variants. I had the immense pleasure of working with Sound Designer Jimmy Boyle on this movie and he spent a lot of time combining real punches with his own vocal sweetners (almost human beatbox style) to come up with new punches that sounded retro and 8 bit but also fresh and new. He also used an old Atari console that had been mutated into an 8 bit synth that generated a ton of new variants on the classic sounds of old!
poster credit: MONDO (They have so many cool designs there)
DS: In the same interview you mentioned the use of whooshes, not to emphasize action but to add a subtle layer of aural cues. For example the espresso machine hissing underneath Scott Pilgrim’s ex-girlfriend “Envy’s” dialog in the scene @ Second Cup? What other scenes have this type sound in it and how was this conceptual sound design conceived?
JS: A common thread in the work I do for Edgar is he likes having new sounds pop out with repeat viewings. This film is littered with that kind of sound design. Pretty much every scene has some type of layer used as a device to reinforce the action. Edgar was clear from the outset that he wanted to take the sound in this movie to another level from where his others had been.
DS: Speaking of Edgar, in an interview about Hot Fuzz he said, “I just really, both on Shaun of the Dead and on this, kind of like making the sound mix really vivid. …we set out to make the loudest British film of all time. I think we succeeded. Calendar Girls is a close second … If we don’t get an Oscar nomination for sound effects editing, I’m going to cry.” Edgar comes off as a director passionate about the sound in his films. What sets him apart from other directors you’ve worked in this respect and how does his enthusiasm carry over to the way you work?
JS: I think I remember reading that! I actually remember Edgar telling me while we where mixing Hot Fuzz that comedies don’t get nominated for anything other than ‘best comedy’! He’s definitely sound aware but i don’t think he is anymore into his sound as he is, say the editing or music, etc. He is just totally into every aspect of his film. Working with Edgar definitely pushes you further creatively. Firstly because he gives you great visuals to lay sound against, but also because once you think you’ve finished a sound, he will then ask you to push it another 3 stops further! More than once on this movie i would present something to him that we felt was amazing and perfect but Edgar would make a suggestion that would be exactly what was needed to finish it off.