King of the noisemakers

'Master' soundman works to 'enhance the storytelling'

A lifelong sailor, sound designer Richard King has been listening to the sea all his life. In “Master and Commander,” he finally got to marry his love for the ocean with his career.

“I’m a fan of (author Patrick) O’Brian’s books and a huge fan of (director) Peter Weir, so it was a dream come true,” says King, a sound designer and sound editor who is making a name for himself in those circles.

King received a Golden Satellite nom in 2002 for his work with director M. Night Shyamalan on the thriller “Signs,” with his eerie, almost pictorial soundscape. The movie was inexplicably absent from last year’s sound bakeoffs for Oscar hopefuls, says veteran “Star Wars” sound designer Ben Burtt, who picked it his favorite of 2002.

As arguably one of the most involved and historically accurate movie soundscapes of recent times, “Master and Commander” may provide King with a better shot at the grand prize. Pic eschews fantasy for dead-on, almost documentary realism. Weir set out to paint the most realistic picture of life on the high seas during the Napoleonic wars, and it was up to his collaborators to carry that vision through.

“We spent several months compiling a library of ship sounds, going out on several ships in different conditions, recording many different sail sounds and a lot of weapons, canons and muskets,” says King. “We went to extraordinary lengths to attain accuracy, in the same way as Peter was being accurate in the way he shot the film and the look of it.”

So much of the film plays without music, that designing the sound became as much about conveying feeling as matching the sound effects to the action, says King.

“We wanted it to be a realistic painting of what that life was like, but we also wanted it to be emotional and visceral, to put the audience in the state of mind of the sailors. The storm at sea, for example, I’d never done anything like that before, being realistic in the intensity of the water and the wind, and also conveying the enormity of the wind in the rigging and its effect on the ship.

“There are some great period descriptions (in the book) like, ‘the screaming of a thousand animals being tortured,’ and we tried to make those types of sounds.”

Good sound design, says King, is a subtractive process. Rather than having 50 sounds happening at once, it’s better to have one sound, like a solo instrument that helps tell the story.

“It’s there to enhance the storytelling, not get in the way of it,” King explains.

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