Unless your name is James Bond, Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne or Indiana Jones, the odds are high that you don’t know what it sounds like to be in the midst of a smash-bang-boom gunfight in which semitrucks crash into abutments and automatic weapons spray bullets across avenues while a 90-piece orchestra plays in the background.
Yet sound designers are charged with creating the sounds that make viewers feel as if they are in the middle of the chaos. Intuition seemingly calls for a more-is-more approach, yet the audio pros who worked on some of the year’s most ambitious action films unanimously report that subtraction is the way to cut through an aural miasma.
“The key thing is to focus on the story, and whenever anything gets in the way of the story, no matter what, you get rid of it,” says sound designer Richard King, who worked on “The Dark Knight” this year.
The subtractive approach is especially crucial during signature scenes when both visual and aural senses are sure to tilt toward overload.
During “The Dark Knight,” that time came during the semitruck and armored car chase scene.
Rather than crushing the audience with sound, director Christopher Nolan decided to play the scene without any score. “That really put (viewers) in the middle of the chase,” he says, “because they weren’t emotionally guided by music.”
Then the sound team ensured that every sound had a touch of reality.
“If (the sound) becomes abstract, then it becomes entertainment,” he says. “It’s important to put in details that ground you and make you feel like (the action) could actually hurt. That’s what makes you sit on the edge of your seat.”
Moreover, says “Iron Man” sound designer Chris Boyes, those sounds have to contribute to the development of the story and the characters.
That philosophy occasionally runs counter to the wishes of the director, Boyes reports. “Often they say, ‘There has to be a tremendous rumble and the footsteps have to be the biggest thing you’ve ever heard and they have to shake the earth.’
“… As an effects mixer, you are playing an instrument, which is the console, that has all of these wonderful sounds,” he continues. “But none of them are going to be wonderful if they are stepping on each other. I would think there are parallels to being a musician in a symphony orchestra, because flute players have to figure out how to juxtapose themselves to the brass players.”
The balance of power and clarity is the ultimate sonic holy grail — dynamics. That only comes, states “Quantum of Solace” supervising sound editor Eddy Joseph, by being ruthless in the editing process. “If you have two sounds that are the same frequency, they almost rule each other out, so you have to choose carefully.”
Or, with the use of digital technology, you can manipulate the tone of a sound to make sure that each effect is heard clearly against the next and within the sonic field of the score. Joseph did that during the opening scene in “Solace” by pushing tire squeals and score through reverb.
Ben Burtt, sound designer and supervising sound editor on “Indiana Jones,” did that by tweaking the sound of the crystal skull during the jungle chase scene.
“I changed its pitch so that it would coexist with the music,” Burtt reports. “You don’t want to create dissonance, and you can’t stand up and say, ‘Could you go back and rescore this?'”
Ultimately the key in these films, King says, is to spread the sounds across the entire spectrum. “A colleague of mine jokes that you want to include all the food groups,” he says. “If everything is one way, then it has much less of an impact. If there’s something to contrast with, it’s much more effective.”