The following is an exclusive interview with Supervising Sound editor and Sound Designer Tom Bellfort about his work on “Source Code”.
DS: How did you convey the feeling of confusion through the sounds that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Captain Colter Stevens hears as he wakes up the first time in Source Code?
TB: The first concept I experimented with was to sonically bridge Colter’s helicopter crash (which you subsequently see in reel 4 although this is hinted at in the very first train scene in reel 1). The very first sound you hear when Colter emerges in pod #1 is an eerie high pitch sound meant to convey hearing loss at the helicopter crash. This is followed by a muted and pitched down helicopter rotor fx. Colter does not know, if he is at the crash site or not. The rotor fx slowly becomes a heart beat and the High pitch eerie sound becomes squeaky creaky medical equipment sounds, mri, metal lung machines. In addition I added high pitched subway train brake squeaks, also manipulated in Altiverb and pitch shift. The attempt was to create a very subtle world which hoovers and is delineated from the intersection of the train, the helicopter crash and and Colter’s life and death situation.
DS: What continuity was there in the sounds that transitioned in and out of source code? Did they evolve as the film progressed?
TB: Each time Colter transitions into the source code (out of the train) the images we see are by and large variations of violent agitated movement, Michelle Monaghan and the Chicago “Bean”. The duration and sequence of each image was always different from transition to transition. And so it was hard to establish a leitmotif if you will to this area. It was always changing. There was a common sound in all for Michelle and the “bean” put I think because these transitions were so rapid, it is hard to distinguish these.
As to the transitions out of the source code back to the train; these, by and large stayed the same and this was the breaking apart of Colter’s being: The idea was to produce a shattering expulsion type of signature effect followed by a gliding effect over the lake and finally into the train; Colter jolted back into that reality. A combination of rockets, glass and tonal elements were used for the expulsion. Once I was satisfied with that design, I duplicated each element and then created an aliasing effect by removing a quarter to half a frame for the duration of each effect and then recombining these to create a staccato feeling of Colter breaking apart to be re assembled back into the train. Once gliding over the lake, processed brake squeals and train horns were used to get Colter back into the train. To jolt Colter back into that reality I used train bys and or bell bys to “wake” him back up.
DS: Are there any sound hints helping the audience along as they watch the film?
TB: Obviously people have commented on the “Groundhog Day” of Source Code, and just as obviously that is one of the main story lines of Source Code. And the repetition of the train announcements, as well as the beer can opening, the college kid bumping into the girl’s term paper, the coffee spill, the visual as well as sonic repetition of of all these events are meant to add weight to the story line. The other repetition more sonic and visual in the intersection of of the passenger train, with the boxcar train which then is followed by the explosion. And so when this happens in reel 1, I think it takes you by surprise, but when it happens again, you are set up to hear the explosion and I believe the subsequent intersecting train sounds in then become anticipatory and yet shocking at the same time.
DS: What motivated the sounds Captain Steven’s hears while in the pod?
TB: There are three pod, each increasing in size as the film progresses and each pod share three constant sound elements: Colter’s heart beat, the sound of blood coursing through his body and an artificial respirator. The idea here was to find a common link to all pods and ultimately to his final isolation chamber. The audience and Colter are always in the final chamber, his vital signs observed and recorded. The only change is his and our experiences of these. However, as the pods change so do the sonic qualities of his heart, blood coursing and the respirator. As the pods increase in size all his vital signs are pitch down, then slow down and get more and more reverb as he sinks deeper and deeper into his world. The other elements in the pods do change from pod 1 to 2 to 3. The more mechanical sounds of the mris and lung breathing machines and the subway brake squeaks over time become more abstract through the introduction of metal creaks and moans which again over time got manipulated through pitch and time and various reverb programs as well as delays. And so in essence all the pod sounds share a common basis and at the same time are all different.
DS: What was director Duncan Jones approach/attitude towards sound editorial and mixing?
TB: Duncan was exceptionally open to the entire sound process. Whenever I thought I had an idea, a concept, I would call him and most of the time he would simply walk to my cutting room and I would play him what I thought were viable concepts. He was generous and open minded. The hardest aspect of the sound design for me was literally coming up with the concept of what we/Colter would hear in the very first pod; And really Duncan gave me the best direction: think of pod 1 as the size of a telephone booth, like a womb; and off I went with the concept of what a child might hear in his mother’s womb: heart beat, blood and breathing. And all of these were to be muted and muffled. That was my point of departure and Duncan provided me with the foundation. When I played him the transitions in and out of the pod, he at the same time loved them but felt there was a missing element. They were violent but maybe a little too “pretty”. And Duncan kept pushing me to make them more stuttery and that’s when I thought of deleting quarter and half frames to each event.
DS: What was your first gig like?
TB: Do you mean my very first job as an apprentice or assistant? That was many years ago. But if memory serves me well, it was fear. Fear of not building the reel properly, fear of forgetting a pop and conforming my reel incorrectly.
I would like to add one other element. Before starting Source Code, I was the sound supervisor on The Pacific, the HBO mini series. That was a project driven by the objective horror of war, the realism of the situation of war. And so Source code and a canvas very much open to subjective emotive situation in which Colter finds himself. There were no road maps beyond one’s imagination. That was the challenge and joy of Source Code.