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Posted by on Nov 27, 2011 | 6 comments

Harry Cohen Special: Opening Inglourious Basterds

I got Harry Cohen on the phone to talk about one of my favorite scenes, the opening of Inglourious Basterds. There’s nothing big or over the top in this scene, it just an excellent example of subtle technique in support of the moment. In the course of the chat, we occasionally diverge into some interesting work-flow tangents. Hope you enjoy it.

Designing Sound: The scene was very subtle and had a lot of quiet sounds. It also had a lot of tension. Was this a difficult scene to approach?

Harry Cohen: Technically the hardest part on that was all the production dialog arrived with a lot of hum on it from the generator. Luckily Izotope RX2 had a De-Hum plug-in in it that allows you to dial in the European frequency. That’s how I had to start, was by processing everything with that. You don’t try to get it all out, or it takes too big of a chunk out of the dialog.

After that, we wanted to come up with some background winds and tones that further helped mask that as much as possible…then do a lot of really detailed foley. We get into what we call hyper-reality, especially on a lot of the Tarrantino films. So, as the scene goes on, we start to back off on the backgrounds and the tones and stuff, and bring the focus in on the dialog We had to suck the air out of the scene a little bit, so that it gives you a little more closeness to the characters.

Mainly it was what Cristoph Waltz [ed. Hans Landa character] did with his performance, his eyes and stuff, as he turns from this bumbling almost Clouseau character into the menacing Nazi Jew hunter he reveals himself to be. It was riveting.

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Posted by on Nov 25, 2011 | 2 comments

Harry Cohen Special: Collaborating with Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino

It’s still Harry Cohen’s month here at Designing Sound and now is the time to dig into two of Harry’s most celebrated collaborations: his prolific work with Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone.

Harry has been an integral part of the Tarantino Sound Team since the first Kill Bill in 2003 and was the sound designer on Oliver Stone’s three latest films, World Trade Center, W. and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Harry’s partner-in-crime, supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman, has a long history with Stone, though, as they’ve worked together for more than 20 years.

How would you describe Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone as collaborators and filmmakers?

They are very different from each other. To a certain extent, both expect you to know what is appropriate, that is, what their intention is, by looking at the film. Both are very tuned in to every tiny detail of the sound and dialogue, with amazing memories for what they have heard during the edit and mix process. Quentin in particular is a great communicator. He will make reference to sounds from other movies and such. On Kill Bill, he gave me about 7 VCR tapes of old Hong Kong martial arts movies, and would say “I really like the blood spurt sound in this one”, and such. Oliver can be a bit trickier. He might listen to a reel playback and say “you are burying me with sound”, when what he really means is that he doesn’t want anything in the track to trump a certain sound moment that hasn’t happened yet. It can take a while to figure it out, but it always makes perfect sense in the end.

You’ve now collaborated on several feature filmswith both directors. Quite often, sound can be very tricky to talk about – how do you communicate about sound and how has your dialogue evolved throughout the years?

Someone famously said “talking about music (sound) is like dancing about architecture”. A great way to communicate is by referencing stuff in other movies, but I really don’t know if we are talking about the same thing until I do something and they react to it. Face to face meeting is essential: if I am not sure of what they want, then I can ask specific questions to make it clearer.

How early are you usually involved in their films?

Earlier and earlier. On Oliver’s films, there have been times when I have prepared a track that his production mixer will play back live on the set during shooting, to help create an atmosphere for the actors. Then we have our own material come back to us as production sound! At the very least, we prepare sounds or whole scenes for the Avid as early as they are available. We just had a meeting with the production mixer for Quentin’s next film, and packed him off with a 5 channel DPA mic that he is willing to record as much ambience and production sound as he can with, for the next Quentin film, “Django”. We also try to visit the sets and locations when we can, to gather stuff.

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Posted by on Nov 22, 2011 | 3 comments

Harry Cohen Special: Sound Design Moments Re-visited

[Written by Harry Cohen]

I wanted to write a different kind of article, one that indulges my more geeky-tech side. While the main source for material remains great recordings, there are lots of times when we find solutions to problems in processing; these days that mainly means plug-ins, but that was not always so.

Sometimes, looking back, I see creative sound design moments as being more like a place you might visit, as opposed to a method you might use over and over. Time has shown me that the tools will constantly change around me. My main editing platform has changed three times during the course of my career. And so, some great tools become obsolete or unavailable. For this reason, I always encourage designers, when they find their way to an interesting combination of source/processing, to keep going and record lots of material; the next occasion you may want to repeat the process might not be so easy to get back to !  Some examples from my past follow:

The Ionizer

This was a great, if somewhat hard to master, plug-in. It did lots of stuff, eq-wise. One of its tricks was to be able to analyze the frequency profile of one sound, and then to impose it on another. I used it in the film “Wanted” to make some design-ey glass breaks in the convenience store scene by imposing the frequency spectrum of glass windchimes on some explosions:

The Ionizer was so widely cracked that its makers decided not to carry it forward to OS-X; so it has become inconvenient to use, to say the least.

Vokator

While the NI vocoder Vokator still works, I notice that NI no longer sells or supports it, so it is only a matter of time before it too, becomes unavailable. I have had great luck in using it for creatures. In short, I like to put a series of animal sounds on a software sampler, under different keys, put some under midi fader or foot pedal controller, feed that into Vokator as the carrier, with a mic as the modulator. Set up so you are listening on headphones to your output only, and using lots of gestural control on the faders and pitch wheel, while making ridiculous sounds and screaming into the mic, start to work your way towards interesting sounds. Record your output so that you only have to get it right once, for any given moment ! Record lots of stuff, go through it and pick out the good bits, then edit it together as you would for any creature.

Synclavier

Ah, the synclav. While I have so much to say about how the interface on this wonderful machine shaped the outlook of so many sound designers, for now I will mention only one detail. There was a button combination that would allow you to use the big wheel control to change the octave ratio of the keyboard tuning. This meant that on each side of a breakpoint, as you turned the dial, the sound would pitch up to the right of the breakpoint, and pitch down to the left, by as much as hundreds of semi-tones. It was useful for making some sci-fi type turbine sounds; like this Minbari engine made for the tv series Babylon-Five.

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Posted by on Nov 10, 2011 | 1 comment

Harry Cohen Special: Exclusive Interview

Let’s get started with this month’s special. Below is an interview I had with our guest Harry Cohen, talking about the general aspects of his career.

How did you get started in sound design and what’s been the evolution of your career?

I backed into sound design by accident; I showed up at EFX studios in Burbank to do some piano overdubs on a new-age-y album, and met the staff. They were a music studio just getting into post production. The owner asked me if I would help with some sound effects for game shows they were posting, since I knew synths pretty well. Three days later he asked me out of the blue if I was interested in trying my hand at doing sound fx for a film. (a super low-budget film !), and for better or worse , I agreed. I stayed with EFX for about 12 years, and slowly we built a reputation and started getting better films. Looking back , it was like a rare alignment of the stars or something; so many talented people were associated with that place. (Paul Menichini, David Farmer, Ann Scibelli, Tim Gedemer, Tim Walston, Mike Kamper, Gary Rizzo, Mark Fishman, and on and on). Later, I accepted an offer from from Wylie Stateman and Lon Bender to join Soundelux. Except for a 6 month period where I was ‘on loan’ to Soundstorm, those are the only 3 facilities I have worked for. I’ve been with Soundelux for more than 10 years now.

What are your biggest influences inside and outside the world of sound?

Well , of course , all the great sounding films over the years, and, all the other sound professionals I have worked with. Many people are so open and willing to share what they know, and that is probable the greatest resource we can tap.

I think also that being a musician has had a lot of influence on how I hear things.

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Posted by on Nov 7, 2011 | 4 comments

November’s Featured Sound Designer: Harry Cohen

I’m happy to announce Harry Cohen as the featured sound designer of November.

Bio

I was born in New York City a long time ago…..1954. Grew up in Flushing , Queens (a borough of NYC). Undoubtedly the city has left an indelible imprint on me. As a kid I was mainly a science nerd that liked to build hand wired oscillator circuits in my basement ‘lab’. I moved to CA with my family just in time to start High School, in what is now Santa Clarita. Now, in NY, I was an amateur musician, but never considered good enough to partake in the neighborhood jam sessions. Out in suburban CA, the field was much more open, and I soon found myself playing piano in the school jazz band and involved in several garage bands. I started playing nightclubs like the old Gazzari’s on the Sunset Strip before we were out of High School. After school, I concentrated on music, with several side jobs to supplement income; I was a hospital lab assistant, I worked a plastic injector press, and did some time at a picture frame factory, until I almost cut off my finger. Eventually music was able to barely pay the bills, and I spent the next 12 years or so playing clubs and pursuing a career with various recording acts. Hunting in the bargain bins, you might find some records I did with a band signed to a Motown offshoot. I spent more than a year traveling back and forth from Alaska to Hawaii with a show band; that is where I met my lovely wife; she was one of the singers in the band.

Eventually, I was asked to do some piano overdubs on a new-agey album at a studio in Burbank that was just starting to shift gears into post production. The manager at the time was a musician I had been in several projects with. After the sessions, they offered me some part time work helping to organize their library of synth patches. After about 3 days of that , the owner asked me, out of the blue, if I would be interested in trying my hand at sound effects. So, I was already in my early thirties before I ever even considered getting involved in post !

The facility , EFX, was using emulator II’s (an antique sampler) to generate sound fx that were recorded to multitrack analog tape machines, synched up to  3/4″ video machines, all tied together with early synchronization systems that were very tweaky. I sat in a room with my emu and a stack of floppy disks, with an engineer (Ken Teaney) who recorded the stuff, and was my first real mentor. Occasionally he’d would make us trade places, and taught me the synchronizer and some console basics , though I already knew some of that from my music experience. So, I never went to a school to study post; it was all on the job training.

We started doing overflow work for Dave Yewdall’s company. He was the first real sound editor/designer I met, and he also taught me a lot of stuff, as well as sharing lots of library. I used to go over to his facility and transfer stuff from mag dubbers to F-1 digital tape (an early digital medium, before even DAT). I did a  fair number of films for Roger Corman’s company. I also did lots of industrial videos, some commercials, lots of TV work and animation, and also a lot of stuff for theme parks. The wide range of projects was a great lesson in flexibility. For some of those endeavors, the clients are sitting right behind you the whole time; thats a particular kind of pressure familiar to guys who do commercials.

Somewhere in there we started expanding and getting better films. We switched to Synclaviers, and the edit rooms became one man operations, recording to sony digital multi-track instead of analog; then it became DA-88′s; and finally pro tools. Now that was a great set-up; Synclaviers recording to Pro Tools!

Lots of really talented sound designers and mixers passed through EFX; and it was a great environment of exchanging techniques and figuring things out.(Gary Rizzo, Dave Farmer, Paul Menichini, Tim Gedemer,Tim Walston, Ann Scibelli, Juan Peralta, Tony Sereno, Michael Kamper, Marc Fishman, are just a partial list of ex-EFX-ers).I was head of our small department, and had an awesome day shift of talent ! (I am sure there are lots of names I am forgetting; my apologies.)Also we started to do some game work early on for Charles Deenen; I am sure association with him has had an influence on all of us !

At one point we partnered with Steve Flick’s company, and he was a great source of information and guidance for me. We did one film that mixed up at Skywalker, and that experience was a real eye-opener as well. Randy Thom and Laura Hirschberg were part of the mix team, and Gary Rydtrom came by and introduced himself to me, and invited me to come by and hang out while he was prepping stuff for “Casper”. Everyone was very open and willing to share information.

After about 14 yrs, EFX re-organized their business, and  I accepted an offer from Lon Bender and Wylie Stateman to join Soundelux. Except for a six month period where I was ‘on  loan’ to Soundstorm , I have been here ever since; those are the only facilities I have worked at ! The opportunity to be present at the mixes of the films I work on has been one of the most beneficial learning experiences I can think of.

By the way , when I can, I still get out and play in some local LA blues clubs , and I have an awesome collection of vintage keyboards and stomp box effects!

Selected Works

  • Green Lantern (2011) – Sound designer
  • Robin Hood (2010) – Sound designer
  • Complacent (2010) – Supervising sound editor
  • Inglourious Basterds (2009) – Sound designer
  • Star Trek (2009) – Sound designer
  • Wanted (2008) – Sound designer
  • Death Proof (2007) – Sound effects designer
  • Blood Diamond (2006) – Sound effects editor
  • Van Helsing (2004) – Sound designer
  • Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) – Co-supervising sound editor
  • Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) Sound designer
  • Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) – Sound designer
  • The Patriot (2000) – Sound designer and Sound effects editor
  • Blade (1998) – Sound designer, supervising sound effects editor)
  • Babylon 5 (TV series) (1994-1998) – Sound designer
  • Spawn (1997) – Sound effects editor
  • Starship Troopers (1997) – Sound designer

More at IMDb

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