Explosions Are Pigs: 5 Weird Truths About Movie Sounds
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.
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 ...
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.
Sound Effects Repeat
Most of you are probably familiar with the Wilhelm scream, a famous sound effect that now gets used just so editors can see if they'll get away with it.
But if you start to pay attention, you'll be able to pick out other recurring sounds. After all, there are only so many sounds in the world, and libraries never throw anything away. Why would they, if we could reuse them? I've used effects that were around in Charlie Chaplin's day. There's a wind effect from 1948's Yellow Sky that gets used all the time, and it was probably made by rubbing some rough materials together. Dive-bombing planes, trolleys, sirens, fog horns, and steam trains have also survived over the years. And we all know what happens when it's a dark and stormy night:
Remember the trailer fight scene in Kill Bill 2? At one point an acoustic guitar gets used as a weapon, so my colleague and I had the idea of using the "kabong" sound from the old El Kabong cartoon. We had access to the Hanna-Barbera library, so in it went. Here's the effect:
And here's the scene:
Sadly, we can't always get away with our little jokes. In the first live-action Scooby-Doo, there's a scene where Shaggy sprays whipped cream on Scooby's jaw to make him look rabid. Then he takes the can, huffs it and makes a face like he took a little hit of the nitrous. So I went in and added a goofy, warped acid trip sound. I saw it in theaters and couldn't believe we got away with that joke in a kid's movie. We didn't: When the DVD came out, it was gone.
Dang, we would've gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for ...
Sound Effects Are A Legal Mess
Back in the day, phones made phone noises, but ringtones are all copyrighted now. Anytime we see a phone we have to figure out what model it is, determine if we have legal clearance, and then track down the exact tone so we don't get sued and so Leprechaun: Origins Part II: Pot Of DEATH doesn't get canceled.
He is so over the rainbow.
Even the most innocuous sound can be a legal nightmare. Studios have entire departments dedicated to music legality, and anything with more than one note needs to be paid for. You know how if a car blasting its stereo drives by you can hear the bass thumping? A single boom of the bass is fine. But two booms in a row? That's a melody, son, and someone owns that.
It's a major problem, because accidentally committing copyright infringement is super easy. Editors hoard sounds like your weird aunt hoards old magazines: constantly and with no idea where they originally came from. Before we went digital it was impossible to watermark sounds, so trying to track an effect's origins after a thousand long-forgotten duplications was like trying to perform parental testing by eyeballing a kid and his potential great-grandparents.
"I recognize my father's brand anywhere! Get my lawyers."
As a result, many effects libraries are full of more stolen goods than a meth-head's basement. It doesn't help that technicians moving from company to company often bring their personal libraries with them, spreading the copyrighted material around, usually without even knowing it. I'd wager that most libraries in Hollywood have at least some sounds that aren't legally theirs. It's one of those uneasy situations where nobody sues because everyone's a little guilty.
Good Sound Can Mess With Your Head
Unless I do my job horribly wrong and make bullet impacts sound like farts, the average moviegoer doesn't put a lot of thought into sound. But if you immerse yourself in it, it can mess with your head in all sorts of weird ways. For example, I have a colleague who noticed that a floorboard in my living room made a cool creak, so he recorded it for his sound library. A few months later I'm watching Used People in my living room, hear the creak come from a speaker not five feet from where it was recorded, and go, "Who the fuck's in my house?" That hokey '90s rom-com terrified me more than any horror movie.
Sound of Kathy Bates busting ankles? No problem. Sound of Kathy Bates answering a door? Heart attack.
Speaking of horror, The Chamber features, well, a gas chamber, and they recorded sounds from actual prison chambers. When I listened to it I heard the ticking clock, the creaking door, the leather restraints being pulled taut ... and I thought to myself, "These are the exact sounds that people who were put to death heard in their finals moments." I was totally freaked out. It was like watching a snuff film.
The best way to sum up my job is to tell you about the time I found a great clip of an airplane taking off. It took me through the whole thing -- the engines winding up, the air pressure kicking in, the "fasten seat belt" tone. I had headphones on, and as I listened my ears popped. This ultra-realistic clip tricked me into thinking I was actually taking off on a plane. That's the power of sound. Keep that in mind the next time you watch someone vomit into a helmet.
To read more from Dino, check out Elmwood, the true story of Dino and his best friend starting a tape recorder rock band at age 13.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy (An Insider's Perspective) and 5 Things We Learned Making The Biggest Flop In Game History.