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How Sound Editors Search High and Low for the Perfect Noise

quentin tarantino Once Upon a Time
Courtesy of Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures

Sound editors are always on the hunt for that perfect mumble, ring or click. They want the one that will somehow cue the audience to feel that what they’re watching is real and move the story forward. And those noises can come from anywhere.

Academy Award-winning sound editor and sound designer Randy Thom made a lot of the gurgles, chirps and purrs used for Toothless and the other dragons on “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” while sitting alone in his office. While he always prefers to start with the sounds of animals like whales, tigers, cats and dogs when it comes to an imaginary creature like a dragon, when he couldn’t locate the exact emotion he needed, he used his own vocal chords.

“It was really important to [director] Dean DeBlois to give Toothless and all the dragons a language, a way of communicating and that evolved beyond what we did in the first two films and helped tell the story,” says Thom. “You should have the sense that they’re really talking to each other. We often have to literally make hundreds of sounds until we find the one that gives us the exact emotion we’re looking for. When Toothless falls in love with the Light Fury, he makes different sounds and those sounds tell you what he’s feeling.”

Thom came onto the film early and worked with images of dragons created by the art department to give them the sounds that matched the look of the dragons and what was happening in the story. The artists and animators would then work with the sounds and give Thom feedback. They fine-tuned things until the vocalizations matched the character and the moment in the storytelling. It’s not an exact or technical process and is more about trying things out until the sound editing team has the sound that tells the story.

“People often ask about the technology or things that we use to make the sounds, but this is a very intuitive process and it’s a process that also involves taste,” says Thom. “Anything you do has to support the story and in this film, you have dragons working together toward something so anything we do in sound should add to the director’s vision.”

For supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman, putting together the sounds for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” started with helmer Quentin Tarantino’s script. Stateman has collaborated with Tarantino on “Django Unchained,” “Inglourious Basterds” and other films. After years of working together, the two have a shorthand, and Stateman always leans into the dark humor and vivid
characters he finds in Tarantino’s scripts.

“There’s a scene where Leonardo [DiCaprio’s] character is in his trailer, and he’s basically having a fit of rage and a nervous breakdown and there are a series of jump cuts and those sounds needed to have Quentin’s ironic humor and also tell the emotional story of the character,” says Stateman. “There’s also a scene with Brad Pitt’s character where he’s making himself dinner and feeding his dog and those sounds were also there to tell the story of this stuntman and his life. I love that Quentin isn’t afraid to shoot in tight places where you can tell a lot of the story with sound.”

When Pitt’s character, Cliff, has a flashback to a night on a boat he spent with his ex-wife in the film, Stateman used sounds that reflected water washing up on the bow, and various other boat and water noises. The scene was meant to be a memory that just existed in the mind of the character, so the sound editor took a more abstract approach. This moment also is complicated by rumors that Pitt’s character may have caused his wife’s death.

“There are a lot of interesting things happening there. It’s very mysterious,” says Stateman. “You don’t know if [Cliff’s] wife was shot or if she fell off the boat, so the sounds are what Quentin wanted, you’re not sure what they are, and we don’t know what happened to her.”

In “Uncut Gems” supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Warren Shaw worked with helmers Josh and Benny Safdie to set a manic pace as the film followed the life of a jeweler with a gambling addiction through a series of high stakes bets. This wasn’t an abstract process. For background sounds, they went straight to the source and then sound mixers layered it all very thick later on in the process.

“It was really a never-ending search for detail after detail, especially in the street scenes,” says Shaw. “Every scene has just hundreds of little moments where we could put in one more person yelling in the background, one more screeching car, one more unsettling sound. We went into the Jewelry District in New York and recorded all kinds of sounds. It just creates this energy, and there’s also this energy in the performances that you never would have gotten if this movie had been shot in that conventional, formal kind of way.”

It was a switch for Shaw, who’d never been asked to source so many sounds for each scene. In this case, they were building sounds that would also reflect the chaos in the mind of Howard, the character played by Adam Sandler. And since the character never stopped, never took a breath and was always “on,” they needed the kind of incessant, high-octane sounds that would make the audience feel his mania.

Not only was Shaw out in the streets looking for everything from conversations to car noises, but he also had to find a way to source the basketball games that are the focus
of Howard’s gambling addict-ion. Also, the film is set in 2012, so the NBA element is a bit … vintage.

“The games become a sonic character because he’s watching them in different places and they’re going to sound different if you’re watching them at the sportsbook or if he’s watching them at his office or at home,” says Shaw. “There are also so many sounds in the game and you have to choose which ones will become bigger in the scene later on.”