Realism created by believable soundscapes
It’s one thing to create an original sound for a person you can see walking around on any given day. Imagine, though, designing something for a robot that lives on an abandoned planet, a superhero who can fly at the speed of sound or a vigilante who fights crime with the help of nifty gadgets.
Welcome to the world of Ben Burtt (“Wall-E”), Richard King (“The Dark Knight”), Christopher Boyes (“Iron Man”), Wylie Stateman (“Wanted”) and the other sound designers and mixers who had to conjure complete soundtracks for films that were born from a silent medium, be it animation storyboards, comicbooks or graphic novels.
Most had to balance the demands of directors and the fans of the existing work while conjuring a fantastic new world that had to have realistic touchstones.
“Wall-E” had no fanbase to satisfy, but Burtt’s major challenge on Pixar’s toon was that the film was different from many other dialogue-heavy American animation features.
“To some degree you can close your eyes and listen to those films to get a lot of the story,” he explains. “‘Wall-E’ isn’t that way. You couldn’t look away from
the movie and get all the information you needed.”
So he designed the film as if it were a live-action movie. “My approach was to fabricate with sound a world that had this illusion that things were real.”
Turns out reality is the audio touchstone for each of these films.
“We had to create a world that the audience could believe in,” “Dark Knight” supervising sound editor King explains. “In fact, (director Christopher Nolan) wanted the film to be much more like an urban crime drama than a normal superhero movie.”
So the audio team was charged with constantly returning to reality. “Any time we went too far, Chris pulled us back,” King states. “On the other hand, everything had to sound huge and gigantic and impressive.
That’s the line we had to walk. Hopefully (the sound) is more of a photorealist painting rather than an expressionist painting.”
“Iron Man’s” Boyes had to deal with the same sort of situation. “We approached the film with fantastic, amazing sounds, but the challenge was to keep it believable so that it never eclipsed what could actually happen,” he says. “That was the onus given to us by the director — people needed to believe that these suits could actually fly.”
As an example, Boyes points to the sounds of propulsion that accompanied Iron Man’s suits. “We needed the audience to say, ‘That doesn’t sound like an F-14 or an Atlas rocket, but it sounds like it has components from both, and I believe that he can break the sound barrier in the suit.'”
It’s a fine line, Boyes adds: “We’ve got to tip into the world of being beyond belief but at the same time pull ourselves back. It’s the comicbook nature of the work, and we are constantly walking that tightrope.”