Out of all the folks responsible for the latest popcorn-and-explosion festival, movie sound editors are among the least heralded, just behind the best boy grip and the guy that spreads cream cheese on the bagels. To learn more about their underappreciated craft, we talked to industry veteran Dino DiMuro. Dino has over 200 film and TV credits to his name, including Furious 7, Skyfall, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, the Bourne movies, and, of course, the universally beloved masterpiece Leprechaun: Origins.
5 Explosions Are Cats
What do you think goes into creating an explosion? You probably assume "equal parts fire and badass," but there's much more to it. An explosion is basically an overload of sound, a solid wall of noise. In a theater that would sound dull, so you combine and manipulate noises to create a dynamic, booming effect. Part of that is finding a shrieking noise to pierce through the "wall" and stand out to viewers. But explosions don't shriek, unless you're blowing up a banshee orphanage. So we'll manipulate the sound of an angry cat, a straining car brake, a blackboard or ice being scraped, a small firework played backwards ... anything with a sharp element to it.
"Yeah, whatever, I'll get paid for two jobs, right?"
In The Day After, a TV movie about nuclear war, angry pig squeals were used to bring home an explosion that reduced people to skeletons. Trains, trucks, and tanks? Those are growling lions, tigers, and bears. If you thought some of the helmeted fighters in Gladiator sounded intimidating, that's because those are animals breathing through the masks. Have a listen to the masked fighter at the start of this scene:
And then listen to this bear. It's not the exact same clip, but you'll notice the similarity.
In Evolution, there was an explosion that featured a bunch of rocks plummeting down. Normally I'd take the sound of small rocks falling and slow it down, because if we go out and trigger an avalanche to record, people tend to get mad at us. But that just wasn't working, so I found the sound of a clunky old wooden stagecoach rattling around. I could list examples all day. In A Good Year, Russell Crowe had an angry GPS, for which we jammed in a couple of vocals of attacking Samurais. Unless there's an intern who angered the director, we can't break someone's arm for a sound, so we'll use hard toffee being chewed.
An old-timey photo poof? An ax hit slowed down. Sometimes we can even get creative in a storytelling sense; in Nixon, the sound of the gap in his Oval Office tapes is the sound of water on hot coals, because I wanted to represent him burning the evidence. If you say that's some seriously deep symbolism for something nobody will ever notice, well then I'd say ...
4 Reality Sounds Fake
Most people assume the sound is recorded on set, but the quality there just isn't good enough. If you've ever taken a video with your phone, you'll have a sense of the problem -- your video captures the gist of what the event sounded like, but it doesn't quite sync with your memory. The sound from the set wouldn't sound right to you. You'd be expecting to hear more.
I worked on Jackass, the whole point of which is that they really did those ridiculous stunts. But you're still not hearing what you're seeing, because the "live" sound would be really weak in a theater.
No one likes a weak bass drop.
I added the vomit into a helmet, the rocket Johnny rode on, and a car they purposely screwed up, to name a few examples. Reality simply doesn't sound like Hollywood portrays it. Fights are the classic example. Big Hollywood punches have a distinct sound, almost like a whip crack:
But if you hear someone actually getting hit in real life, it's a dull, disappointing smack:
Often I'll work on a movie where the director says, "I don't want Hollywood hits! I want it to sound real!" But then we listen to it and it sounds wrong. This problem also comes up with technology. For years, cellphones in movies made hang-up and dial-tone sounds. I don't think they ever really did that, but people were so used to it from their landlines that they needed the cues. Then we ran into it with computers -- they don't actually beep and boop like they do in movies, but it seemed off if we just left them quiet. Then electric cars started in on us -- it's like reality is part of some big conspiracy to sound way lamer than it should.