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Sound Expert Returns to Nature to Restore His Golden Ears

Odin Benitez’s enthusiasm, creativity and sensitivity help him layer soundscapes audiences love, from cool animated hits to sizzling action

Sound Expert Returns Nature Restore His Golden Ears
Michael Buckner/Variety Content Studio

As Odin Benitez walks through the gates of Los Angeles’ Runyon Canyon Park, the clatter of the city falls away, replaced by birdsong: cooing morning doves, buzzing hummingbirds and squawking jays.

It’s a foggy morning, and high-pitched chirps pierce the air. “That’s a squirrel!” Benitez exclaims, whirling to point. A scurrying ground squirrel confirms his identification. His ears don’t lie.

Though he can identify species by sound, he’s no naturalist. He’s an Emmy Award-winning sound designer and supervisor — the person in charge of making productions (and even an occasional theme park ride) sound terrific. Nowadays he’s based out of one of the top sound companies in Hollywood, Formosa Group. His credits include “Frozen” and the upcoming “Frozen 2.”

Benitez’s early love for films, and nascent interest in sound, came from watching “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” His father introduced him to science fiction, Godzilla movies, Stanley Kubrick’s films and Norse mythology. “He had a huge influence on me there, still does to this day,” says Benitez thoughtfully.

His name “Odin” comes from a Norse god, but he was really named after the Marvel Comics character, because his father was a fan. (His brother is named Thor.) “My dad’s name is Jose Antonio Benitez. Everybody’s named Jose. He wanted to name me something unique. I hated it when I was a kid. I just wanted to be named like Scott, like everybody else,” he laughs.

For more than 30 years, he’s collected and recorded natural sounds for his own vast sound-effects library. Squirrels of course; huskies; horses; hummingbirds, he recognizes their distinct whirring in the canyon, too, even the underwater reverberations of a frozen lake. The sounds of the human world, also: the thuds and roars of boxing matches, the bustle of diners and many more are all in his sound-effects collection.

He loves music — and plays guitar — and gets especially jazzed about recordings from the analog era. He explains that sound has a fingerprint of its own and even if all the mechanical details are exactly the same, recording studios sound different on playback. “I [recently] came across a song by Ambrosia called ‘How Much I Feel.’ I was just blown away by how well recorded it was in comparison to this newly recorded stuff,” he enthuses.

Music has always been an influence on him — the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Nirvana make his list — and he’s fascinated by music-recording techniques because they’re another world from film and television. “There’s a roundness. it’s the fullness of the recording and it just sounds big and beefy. For some reason, you just can’t get it in today’s recordings.”

Benitez is especially attuned to the sounds of Runyon’s popular trail, a place he’s come to often to escape darkened editing rooms and reconnect with the natural world.

“What I do is basically make sure that the sound [except music] for movies or television shows, including dialogue and sound effects, are all there,” he says. “We recreate the environment, because most of the time, when you’re recording on a set, the sound is unusable.”

On a daily basis, he manages a team of sound editors while collaborating with top talent, including directors David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter”) and Barry Jenkins (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), basketball legend Kobe Bryant (on his animated series) and Oscar-nominated actors such as Willem Dafoe, whose lines he recently re-recorded for the upcoming film “Togo.”

There are broad sound categories to create — “food groups” is the pro term, he says — and then mix. Everything from background, like wind and birds, to special sound effects and dialogue is combined with picture on a dubbing stage. “The best part about doing this job is mixing the sound at the end of a film,” he says. “You’re basically in a theater spending a lot of time with the film, and it’s very rewarding to see it all come together,” he says.

Benitez’s ears are extremely sensitive. He has to cover his ears from loud traffic noises most can shrug off.

“Runyon is an oasis here and so peaceful.” Its trails loop up and down the steep canyon dotted with sycamore, tall palms and native oaks, through scrub brush and yellow mustard. “It’s important to get reconnected to nature: it’s good for the soul and your general mental health.”

He recently adopted a vegan diet, one that he believes is good for himself — he has more energy, he says — and the planet. His commitment to environmentalism begins at home: He powers his house via a solar array.

He took a winding path to his trade. As a film major at Cal State Northridge, he was exposed to all aspects of film and television production and post-production, eventually landing a job as a boom operator (the crew member who holds an overhead mic on set in order to record the actors’ dialogue).

“I like sound because having worked with picture and all these other things, I really felt that you could be creative, almost like solely creative about it, because most people left you alone.”

One thing he loves about sound: Sound effects can mimic reality even more than visual effects can. Play the sound of a doorbell within a house, he says, and “people go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get the door.’

“In that regard, I feel like I can recreate reality. In a movie theater, I can create an environment and you’ll feel like you’re there.”