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Music shapes sound effects

In tentpoles, score leads intricate aural dance

There’s a long history in film of finished musical scores being rushed to the final mixing stage and then being shoehorned in amid the dialog and effects in a sometimes contentious battle over sonic real estate.

But in recent years, more directors have turned to composers earlier in the filmmaking process, so audio post teams can do sound effects, Foley and pre-mixing with more finished elements, easing the big crunch at the end.

On a few of 2010’s tentpoles, in fact, the score was in place so early the sound effects were built to work with the music, not the other way around.

“Tron: Legacy,” for example, is a visual effects and sound-effects extravaganza, but much of its atmospherics arise from the moody, propulsive orchestral and electronic score by French dance/techno duo Daft Punk (Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter) and the way the music and sound effects work together.

According to the film’s supervising sound editor, Addison Teague, Daft Punk wrote the score long before post-production even began — which is unusual. He says the score became “a major factor in defining sound effects.

“There are times in this movie when it may not be clear if music or f/x are responsible for what you are hearing. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the sound is enhancing the escape for the audience.”

Teague says it was an advantage to have the music at hand, because sound-effects concepts that didn’t work with the music could be abandoned or redesigned.

“Sound-effect playbacks for (director) Joe Kosinski were a two-part critique,” Teague says. “First, the bare sound effect, and if he liked it, then came the real test: ‘Now let me hear it with the music.’ I never auditioned any sounds to Joe without having the music for the specific scene on a fader. Knowing what a player the score was going to be, it was the only way to proceed.” The film was mixed at Skywalker Sound by Christopher Boyes and Gary Rizzo.

Ren Klyce, supervising sound editor and music re-recording mixer for “The Social Network,” also found himself working with a top contemporary musician and a highly unorthodox score. In this case, director David Fincher tagged Trent Reznor, frontman for the industrial/electronic rock band Nine Inch Nails, and his occasional collaborator Atticus Ross, to compose hypnotic, computer-generated, electronic music for this film about a computer genius.

Here, too, the music turned up early in the process.

“I think the initial pass Trent provided us with was 17 or so tracks,” Klyce says. “He might have seen the first half-hour or 45 minutes of the film, but the tracks weren’t tied to specific moments in the film. Each track was one long MP3 that might be three, four, five minutes long, so then I took these long tracks and cut them up and put them up against the picture. I ended up cutting nearly the whole film with this selection — a good 85% of it.

“Later, all the stuff they gave us in rough form they provided to us again in a better mix.” Klyce adds, “In many places, we sculpted the sound effects and the dialog around the musical beats.” That film, too, was mixed at Skywalker by Klyce, Michael Semanick and David Parker.

Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” has been lauded for its creative and at times hallucinatory sound design (spearheaded by supervising sound editor Richard King; it was mixed by Lora Hirschberg and Rizzo at Warner Bros. in Burbank). But the way Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer’s eclectic score is employed heightens the film’s intensity and mystery.

“There are a number of themes that are interwoven, and also a lot of different styles: orchestral, percussion music, loops, sampled material,” King comments. “Hans’ score really reflects the film’s many sides, including the unreality.”

King says he and Zimmer were always very much aware of what each other was doing, and shaped their contributions accordingly.

“The great thing about the way Chris works is he likes to get temp versions of the score from Hans early on, so there never is a temp mix using cues from other movies,” King says. “Instead, I can hear the evolution of the score and Hans can hear the evolution of the sound effects as the track evolves. We maintain an ongoing dialog, and when we see each other at screenings and so on, we share our thoughts. I think his score for ‘Inception’ is really powerful. He’s very bold in his approach.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: VFX, Sounds & Editing:
How to spot the vfx pro’s signature | Editors say the eyes have it | ‘Unstoppable’s’ track trek | Music shapes sound effects | Echoes of the Old West | Silent takes speak volumes