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‘Fate of the Furious’ Sound Crew Had to Go Bigger, Louder

It’s hard to imagine that a single sonic failing could derail a film, but that’s exactly what the sound team was grappling with on Universal’s “Fate of the Furious.”

It was the moment in which Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) stomps on a red button on the floorboard of his souped-up 1971 Plymouth GTX, and the car goes into misfire mode, giving him a ruse to slip from the clutches of criminal mastermind Cipher (Charlize Theron). The audience needed to be convinced that the misfiring engine sound could fool Cipher, and make sure people would buy it.

“The whole film almost unraveled at that point,” says supervising sound editor Peter Brown. “Basically, we gave [re-recording mixer Frank A. Montaño] every sound effect of a stalling car that’s ever been recorded and he did something with it — a lot of different times.”

Although pivotal, the car misfire is just one tiny element in the movie’s massive aural landscape, comprising complex layers of dialogue, effects and music that added up to hundreds and hundreds of digital audio tracks. The teams of artisans behind a film’s sound are not what audiences really think about, until they have to make a choice about mixing and editing on their office Oscar pool ballots.

Once Montaño finally got the car’s sputter, backfire and shudder in some semblance of proper balance, he went out on to the streets of the Universal Studios lot and pulled in random strangers to listen and describe what they were hearing.

“If they can explain it, we’ve made it [work],” says Montaño, who works on the effects mix, while re-recording mixer Jon Taylor handles the music and dialogue.
“And when they couldn’t, we’d just go back to work for a couple of hours and get another group,” Brown says.

“There’s so much stimulus going on at all times. If there’s not some amped dialogue scene or some crisis happening where cars are getting smashed together, there’s some fast musical transition from one scene to the next.”

The sonic challenges on “Fate of the Furious” were mitigated somewhat by the fact that it was the eighth film in a franchise that started in 2001 with “The Fast and the Furious.” The high-octane aural aesthetic was well-established, as was its production team. Brown has been onboard since the third installment in 2006, Montaño since the fourth in 2009 and Taylor since “Fast Five” in 2011.

Many others up and down the call sheet are longtime members of the “F&F” family, including Brian Tyler, who’s scored five of the past six franchise entries. The only new sound department head was supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger, who was brought in by his longtime collaborator and first time “F&F” director F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton”).

“Being the new guy and seeing the history, it’s awesome to watch, because there is a lot of history, a lot of shorthand,” Stoeckinger says.

In addition to institutional memory, the “F&F” sound team had also built up a deep library of vrooms, crashes and bangs over the years, but they still had to make frequent trips into the field to record new sounds for the latest entry.

When the sound of a small grenade launcher was found lacking, Brown — a member of the Western Pyrotechnic Assn. — went out to the Nevada desert and recorded the firing of 30-pound fireworks mortars to give it more explosive oomph. To create the sound of the flying, flapping cables that shoot out from the cars of Dom’s erstwhile allies to harpoon his Plymouth GTX, he recorded a line rocket — a small pyro device that attaches to a wire with a tube — as it swooshed horizontally across the desert floor.

The biggest task was giving voice to the film’s fleet of autos, which ranged from a rusted 1951 Chevrolet Fleetline with a rigged up turbocharger to a giant Ripsaw armored fighting vehicle. Stoeckinger recorded some of the roars and revs while the cars were stationed atop a dynamometer — typically used to measure engine horse power and torque — where “the car can do absolutely insane things that might be too dangerous to do out on the [road],” Brown says.

To execute the crazier road maneuvers, the sound team called on some of the film’s stunt drivers and recorded their starts, stops, drifts and burnouts with a collection of microphones mounted on the inside and outside of the vehicles, as well as an array of eight mics on the ground, to give themselves a wide variety of aural perspectives to choose from during the mix.

“A lot of race car drivers will try to perform perfectly,” Brown says. “I don’t want perfect! I want it messed up. I want a bad clutch… the muffler to be loose … the rear axle about to break, so the car shakes and shudders and hops and pops and does all these different crazy things, and the stunt guys get that.”

No matter how well a vehicle was recorded, the sound team would often have to give it some sonic sweetening, adding layers of dragster sounds on top of growling small-block V8 NASCAR engine revs until Gray determined it felt sufficiently huge.

The director’s feelings were not hard to read.

“He’s super-excitable,” says Taylor of the director. “When he’s down, he’s down, but when he’s up, he’s up, and everybody knows it. He’s bumping, high fives all around.”

Crafting the overall dramatic arc of the film’s mix was more important than creating any individual sound. The soundscape tops itself with a succession of set pieces — from the opening Havana street race, the rhythmic grunts, to the punches and body slams of a prison break cut to “Speakerbox” by Bassnectar, to a cascade of cars crashing down from the upper floor of a New York parking garage — that build up to a multi-vehicle chase across the ice in Russia (shot in Iceland). That climaxes with a nuclear submarine bursting through the frozen surface.

For the massive ice breech, the sound editors assembled what Brown describes as “the world’s biggest explosion.”

Even on a sonically supercharged movie like “Fate of the Furious,” sometimes less is more. On the mixing stage, Taylor pulled back the faders on the explosive effects, leaving only a majestic blast of horns.

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