‘Death Note’ Sound Team Brings New Palette of Aural Cues to Netflix Adaptation

Jeff Pitts Andrew Hay Death Note
Courtesy of Netflix

Japanese pop culture has undergone a nearly two-decade love affair with manga series “Death Note,” consuming iterations of the supernatural revenge story in magazines, miniseries, videogames and feature films.

Supervising sound editor-rerecording mixer Andrew Hay had begun watching the miniseries, and supervising sound editor-designer Jeffrey Pitts had seen animated and live action versions of the story, when director Adam Wingard contacted them about his feature adaptation for Netflix, which debuted Aug. 25.

The duo had collaborated with the director on such thrillers as “You’re Next” (2011) and “The Guest” (2014), and they knew “Death Note” matched Wingard’s style.

Better still, the sound team had the luxury of time — 36 weeks — to experiment and shape the sound for the Seattle-set story. Pitts began his design process by flying to Japan to capture ambient sounds of Tokyo he could fuse with Seattle-based background noises. “I had this cacophony of sounds,” says Pitts. “Every city sounds different. Each has its own flavor. It’s fun to mix those sounds and make them clash.”

Because the film was shot primarily on stages, most sounds had to be created. In addition to cues provided by Los Angeles sound studio Happy Feet Foley Prods., Hay and Pitts recorded the noise of wildly diverse objects to create an original soundscape. For an accident scene involving crushed metal, they gathered a variety of mics and visited a desert graveyard of junky old Ford Mustangs. They spent the day working with the dilapidated vehicles, recording the tension of hinges straining and hoods creaking. For more atmospheric beats, such as those in the film’s opening montage, Pitts recorded the sound of Japanese paper as he tore it, waved it in the air or scraped a cello bow.

Hay says the images made it easy to determine what sounds were needed. “The scenes reveal themselves to you in terms of what they want and need, and then it is just painting, really.”

As mystical character Ryuk, actor Willem Dafoe recorded his lines on an ADR stage. Hay found the perfect mic to capture his vocals and left the rest of the character’s sound development to Dafoe and Wingard. Pitts used Dafoe’s contribution in other ways: He stripped away elements of the actor’s voice and used the alterations for subliminal effect in the sound design. Wingard, who has composed, was present during the sound design and mixing process, but, having established a strong level of trust over past collaborations, he remained in the background, giving Hay and Pitts full creative range.

Joining Hay on the rerecording mix was three-time Oscar winner GreggRudloff; Hay handled dialogue and music, while Rudloff mixed effects, foley and background. “Gregg has great taste;he knows what to play when, where and how,” Hay says. “That’s instinctual. You can’t learn it.”

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