Mike Wilhoit is currently a Supervising Sound Editor for Technicolor and has perviously worked for Soundelux, Universal and Goldwyn Studios. Designing Sound spoke to him about his career with a focus on his work in comedic feature films.
Designing Sound: How did you find your way into sound for film and television?
Mike Wilhoit: I started at Goldwyn Studios in 1974. I started as an apprentice and worked my way up; Assistant Sound Editor, Foley Artist, Sound Editor, Sound Supervisor. My father Ken Wilhoit was a music editor for Quinn Martin Productions. He called me at work (I was also attending California State University, Northridge) and said “Son you have a union job as an apprentice, you start tomorrow”. I quit my job and studies, and started the next day.
DS: You have fellow family members who also work in the film and television business. Do you all enjoy talking about each other’s work, is it nice that they all have an appreciation for what you do?
MW: I work close with my Daughter Kimberly Ellis. She is my lead dialogue editor. Kimberly revitalized my enjoyment in sound, someone I could train and now we enjoy working together, exchange ideas, and seeing them through. My daughter Lisa Wilhoit is a voice actress. I have been lucky to hire her on many of my projects. Lisa started acting and working as a voice artist when she was 12 years old. My father died last year at 89. He is the one that started this whole thing. Brother Jeffery Wilhoit is a foley artist, I also had the pleasure to hire him many times over the years. Nephew’s Dylan and Blake were actors when they were very young. It is great to part of an entertainment family. We all have so much in common.
DS: You’ve worked on a broad range of films across multiple genres from “Flubber” and “Django Unchained”. Do you find that a film genre such as “comedy” has much influence on the way post-production sound is approached?
MW: The post experience is defined sometimes by the type of film. When you work on a comedy, the filmmakers are usually funny people. The goal is to make people laugh, this is a great way to be creative, invent new jokes, enhanced with sounds that help the humor.
DS: Do you feel the language of comedy film sound evolved over the years you’ve been working?
MW: I have worked on a broad range of comedies from “Home Alone” to “Jackass 3D”. Every film is different. In the “Home Alone” series, the idea was to increase humor by augmenting sounds. A kid booby-traps a house with electrocuting door knobs, sticks tar on floors, bodies falling down stairs, a scary furnace, all these sounds need to be created in post through recording sounds specific for the film and creative use of sound libraries and sound design. The Jackass series on the other hand relied on real sounds and locations. The trick here is to augment with sound and still make the scene sound as if it happened spontaneously. All the sounds in the Jackass films are augmented, but in a very discrete way so that the audience does not suspect.
DS: Silent film had a rich comedic tradition, how did the arrival of sound influence comedy films?
MW: Comedy films rely on a great musical score, that with an intricate sound FX track is the key. In silent films the action was over-acted to get attention. Now with sound, telling the story is much easier.
DS: You’ve worked on a few “Scooby-Doo” live-action movies. How influential were the original cartoons on your approach to the sound?
MW: The director (Raja Gosnell in this case) and Producer (Chuck Roven) are key to these films success. Their vision usually drives the process. Certainly we wanted voice work from the great Frank Welker, but sound design was much more sophisticated in my feature film track. Audiences demand and deserve a “good ride” when they go to the movies. The early cartoon version sound mixes were more basic, and relied on Hana Barabra comedy sound FX. We tried to stay away from that.
DS: The “Scooby-Doo” movies incorporated CGI characters. Did you approach sound differently depending on whether the characters were physically played by humans or computer generated?
MW: No, we want the audience to believe the CGI characters are real. All the Monsters in the Scooby Doo’s were created from a sketch. We interviewed and recorded several voice actors for the voices and had fun creating their sound design. The most difficult problem with CGI is the fact that the final version of picture is processed late. We tend to create first to sketches, and then at the last minute crazily cut all the associated sound.
DS: What are some of your favorite examples of comedic use of sound?
MW: Back in “Home Alone 2”, Marv gets electrocuted by a washing machine. We replaced his vocals with a voice actress screaming. His screaming as a woman with a high pitched voice really helped that scene. “Home Alone” is a sound editors dream. It is the hundreds of unique sounds that make a film fun and challenging. This is a film when an audience laughs at the sound FX, there is instant enjoyment. Then of course most comedies (“Scooby Doo” included) have our favorite comedy sound of flatulence. Although seemingly easy, these are often the toughest jokes, getting the correct sound that everyone can agree on.
DS: I understand your father was a music editor. Music and sound often interact by supporting or making room for one another, especially in comedy films where various moments might be ‘hit’ by one or the other. How and when are moments like this decided upon, do you find yourself communicating with directors and composers or is it often decided ahead of time?
MW: Growing up with a musical background was influential for me in post sound design. This helped me understand the importance of music and Sound working together. I meet early in the process with the Composer. We strategize on how to best play the comedy and how to approach to the final mix.
DS: Timing is a key element in comedy whether it be anticipating action, hitting it, leaving dead space or delayed reactions . How does timing impact the work in sound post-production? Are you a slave to the image or are there moments when you get to try something unconventional or scientifically implausible for the sake of a laugh?
MW: So much of sound design is unconventional. We create new and unique sounds for every film. Sometimes the funniest sounds don’t make it to the final mix. It is important to not upstage the actors or the story, our job is to support the action, and we want people to believe that the sound is real and not created. We are most times tied to the picture.
DS: When working on a comedy, do you find the laughs get old or do you try and maintain a sense of humor throughout, even on the 100th viewing?
MW: I have the ability to block out the past 100 viewings and watch and react to a scene . Often new ideas unfold, and the final mix can change at the last minute with a new idea. That is the fun of the creative process.
Big thank you to Mike for taking the time to answer our questions around this month’s theme of comedy. You can see a list of his credits on his IMDB page. Stay tuned for more articles and interviews on the subject in the coming weeks.