Sound Design in movies: From Dubbing to Mixing
In a recent blog a few weeks ago we talked about one of the most innovative ideas that changed the way we watch and listen to a movie: Fantasia was the first audio surround movie ever made. This Disney movie took place more than 70 years ago, but what about now? Technology has advanced so far, that hearing the audio of the first Fantasia sounds old!
I’ve decided to share with you some other original ideas that sound engineers invented for the movies. Some of their ideas revolutionized technology, some were actually jokes, and others were just stunning ideas used to give us the shivers!
The concrete sound of the Balrog, no pun intended
Have you seen The Lord of The Rings - The fellowship of the Ring? Did you feel scared when you first heard the Balrog appear on screen? Did you listen carefully to what he sounded like? If you didn’t, find out now and click on the video below (spoiler alert! It's a crucial scene of the movie!). Are your ears keen enough to recognize exactly how he makes that noise?
The Balrog was dubbed by a Foley artist, a man who “makes noise” that resembles what we should hear in motion, such as footsteps descending stairs or door slams.
In real time shooting the main focus is on the script, while other sounds can interfere with the recording. Foley artists are specialists who dub the sounds of things and later remix the dubs into the original audio. Sometimes the task is easy and they simply record the sounds as they should be. Sometimes it’s more difficult because the sound doesn’t exist and they must create it from scratch or create it as they imagined it should be. That sound must evoke sensations even if it has never before existed! They must invent something using real sounds that recall the sound they need to recreate.
Returning to the Balrog in the movie The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring, David Farmer was hired as sound designer to invent the audio environment of the Middle Earth. For the giant monster made of “fire and shadow”, he recorded a breeze block being scraped on a wooden block. This sound mixed with the sounds of Moria’s caves and with the right spacial design effects gave us the idea of something that would have been better to avoid meeting face to face!
Walla walla? Rhubarb, rhubarb!!
There’s another Foley sound that recurs in movies, the “Walla”. Walla is the name given by technicians to the mutter of the crowd. Walla is created by simply repeating a nonsense word to make the background noise of chattering, like, in fact, the word walla.
Walla is actually regional, since in different countries Foley artists prefer different words, such as rhubarb in England or gaya in Japan. Curiously, in 1969 Eric Sykes decided to transform the word used for the background muttering into the main theme of a short movie titled Rhubarb. This movie is closer to a silent movie than a modern one and all the characters are named Rhubarb. The only word said in the whole motion picture is, well, I’ll let you guess!
Sound wars between the Star Wars
Ben Burtt is the most famous Foley artist, more than Jack Foley himself, the first Foley artist in history. Ben is the inventor of all the sounds in most of the Star Wars episodes. He’s the inventor of the sounds of Chewbacca, R2-D2, the lightsaber, the whole crowd of Mos Eisley’s cantina, and of almost all the sounds of George Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s movies.
Let’s have an overview of one of Lucas’ episodes: The Return of the Jedi, his third movie of the saga. The sound wasn’t just restricted to the dubbing effects this time, but was accurately developed by several incredible specialists! The whole audio team, from the effects to the mixing and John Williams’ music were nominated for the Academy Award. Sadly, they did not win, but I think it’s better to have a group of highly talented artists rather than just one single accolade. In order to ensure the best audio cinema distribution, George Lucas and Tomlinson Holman developed THX, a high-fidelity audio/video reproduction standard for movie theaters, so everyone could enjoy the best movie experience. Since its founding in 1983 THX ltd. has remained relatively unchanged! THX is still the gold standard for audiovisual support, such as video games, consoles, and computer speakers.
One scream to kill them all
Now let’s mention another cinematic Easter egg: the Wilhelm scream. Sometimes Foley artists use stock sounds to save money and time, without the need of recording new material. Today you can purchase many sounds on websites that store recordings by their users, like Freesound and many others. Not so long ago the internet was in its early stages and finding sounds was much more difficult. Therefore you could obtain an audio by recording a pre registered audio or using an already existing audio reel.
This means that sometimes you can hear identical samplings in several different movies. The most famous one is the Wilhelm scream, the cry of pain from an unfortunate character. This scream was first recorded in 1951 Raoul Walsh’ film Distant Drums, where a poor fellow tried to cross an alligator infested swamp. He had a valid reason to express his pain with such a screeching howl! Two years later, the unlucky private Wilhelm from the movie The Charge at Feather River was shot by an arrow in his leg and his howl of sufferance had the exact same sound as the first one from Distant Drums. Ben Burtt (yes, here he is again!), a student at the time at the Los Angeles’ University of Cinematic Arts decided to reuse the sample for a series of movies, including the first Star Wars film. He gave the infamous scream its current name: the Wilhelm Scream.
Since then, the scream became so famous that it has been used in over 400 different movies, from Tarantino’s Kill Bill to Douglas’ Them, from McTiernan’s Die Hard to Brooks’ Spaceballs!
A never-ending stairway to climax
One of the most complex sound designed movies in recent years is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). How do we perceive the sound of anxiety and the horrors of war? That’s probably the question Nolan asked sound engineer Richard King and soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer.
King understood that the solution wasn’t to represent the exact sounds, but to distort noise like we actually perceive it in moments of distress or strong emotion. If a bomb falls, the sound should increase while it approaches and explodes while blowing. In Dunkirk it’s radically different: before touching the ground the sound decreases so the detonation seems traumatic and irreal, more psychological than realistic! They’ve actually done a lot of cool work that you can find here.
While King decided to recreate an impressionistic and psychological use of sound, Zimmer decided to create a dizzying music. Like King, he decided to use sound psychologically with the help of an auditory illusion (that’s like an optical illusion, but with sound). In his soundtrack, what we actually hear doesn’t correspond to our perception! Zimmer uses a technique where he layers different background sounds such as a clock ticking (a classic in Nolan’s films) and continuous various background noises. The musical theme seems to rise continuously creating an alienating effect. In the soundtrack, the pitch seems to never stop increasing, giving the impression of having no end! This is actually an illusion called Shepard tone, which consists in a series of layered scales or melodies that change differently in amplitude, generating a never ending rising sound.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
The 24th of February 2019 Freddie Mercury’s biographical movie Bohemian Rhapsody won four Academy Awards. Obviously, most people were fascinated by Rami Malek’s performance, which was in fact amazing, but just a few understood the sound support that embellished his act. Two of the four Oscars were given to the mixing and sound crew: Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.
Sound editor Nina Hartstone, sound mixer Paul Massey and John Casali, recording mixer Tim Cavagin, and Sound and music editor John Warhurst was the talented team that achieved success.They had a hard task at hand: recreating the vibes of the famous 1985 Live Aid concert, using the original records and recreating the scene as close as possible to the original live, which occurred 33 years earlier. If you watched the movie, you may had noticed the incredible resemblance of the scene to the original concert: they’re practically identical!
To do so, they contacted Queen to obtain the original recording, and it seems that the band gave them complete access to the archive. This was certainly a good start but the records were not enough to replicate the whole atmosphere of the event! The first sound obstacle they had to climb was the crowd. The sensation of being in the arena, with thousands of people watching the show, was really hard to recreate. They needed the sound to change with the frames, so they installed microphones all around the O2 Arena in London and recorded an entire live concert of Queen from different angles. After that recording, all that was needed was a talented ear in the remix to recreate the ambiance of the notorious performance. Luckily, Queen is still impressive on stage, so the sound crew was able to record the sound of the audience’s 40.000 hands clapping in sync to the infamous We will Rock You scene.
They had another task: the recording they had wouldn’t fit perfectly with Rami’s performance because it was too clean. Hartstone decided to render the voice more “human” adding gasps, breaths, and smacks to Malek’s mouth.
Now we have a near-perfect replica of 1985 Live Aid concert, including a beautiful homage to Freddie Mercury and the whole Queen band!