Big bangs and booms are the quickest way to catch a viewer’s attention. From “Transformers” to “Pirates 3” to “American Gangster,” scenes upon scenes are packed with sound effects that are designed to wow.
Yet, in the midst of the explosions, fights and gunbattles, mixers and designers are finding moments in the madness to supply a small detail that adds to a scene’s realism.
For instance, “Transformers” mixer Greg P. Russell worked with more than 1,000 tracks of sound effects on certain scenes to feature a machine’s motion. “That is, without a doubt, the most I’ve ever done, and I’ve done my share of action films,” he says.
On an average dialogue-driven movie, he explains, there are about 100 tracks of sound. On last year’s “Apocalypto,” he used up to 400 tracks.
The tracks in “Transformers” covered all mechanical movements, from the largest machine transformation to the smallest eye socket movement.
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Ridley Scott directed supervising sound editors Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Lander to add aural dimensions to the “American Gangster” soundtrack.
Specifically, Scott wanted the audience to constantly feel the weight of the city, but Lander points out, that had to be done carefully.
“You don’t want to create a veil between the audience and the characters by playing something too loud or being obvious. You want to support the energy and the tension in the room.”
That’s often accomplished, she notes, by adding a sound in the distance. “You layer sounds to create an emotion,” she says, “and help push it towards the audience. It’s supporting the energy of the scene, and sometimes (that’s done by) not playing anything. Silence is really awkward.”
More than adding layers to sounds, many are finding they have to add sounds to a score. “We know that music is going to carry these blockbuster films quite often,” says “Pirates 3” mixer Christopher Boyes. “So, the challenge is not to try to figure out how to poke through (the score), but how to complement it in a way that makes it better.”
Or, as occurred in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” sound design had to replace score. “When a movie is designed like that, it gives an audience a more first-person relationship with the characters,” says supervising sound editor Richard King. “They less feel like they are watching a movie.”
The same was done during the dialogue-free first 17 minutes of “There Will Be Blood.” “It was man against the elements, and we were trying to drive that point home,” sound designer Chris Scarabosio says. “We wanted to engage the viewer and get the audience immediately with this character.”
Directors seem to understand that a great sound job doesn’t necessarily have to include dialogue, effects and music all playing at the same time, says sound designer and mixer Randy Thom.
“What tends to produce a powerful sound sequence is figuring out how to gracefully pass the ball back and forth from one department to another, rather than using all of your arsenal of your weapons firing all at the same time.”