How to Turn an Old Honda Element Into a Hovercraft, and Other Secrets From an Oscar-Winning Sound Editor
The art of moviemaking is actually comprised of many subsidiary arts, some of which are less visible than others. One of the least appreciated but most important crafts in that cinematic stew is sound. I went to two different film schools, one for production, the other devoted to cinema studies and criticism. Sound was barely addressed, and never at any length or depth. Even among academics and cinephiles, sound is all too often taken for granted.
That’s why I jumped at the chance to interview one of the most best sound editors in the business. Mark Mangini has been designing and editing sound for movies for more than four decades. You probably don’t know his name, but you definitely know his work. He created sound effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Disney’s Aladdin. He was a sound designer on The Fifth Element and Die Hard With a Vengeance, and he won an Oscar for his work as the supervising sound editor on Mad Max: Fury Road.
This year, he performed that same role for Blade Runner 2049, helping to bring its dark future of replicants and exotic gadgets to life. During a long phone conversation from his offices at the Formosa Group, Mangini revealed a few tricks of his trade, including the secret recipe to creating some of Blade Runner’s signature sound effects. And he pointed the way towards some classic films he recommends for anyone who wants to lean more about the art of sound in cinema.
What are the responsibilities of a sound editor on a film like Blade Runner?
My job is to be in charge of everything that you hear, other than the music. All sound, exept for music, is under my purview, including dialogue, sound effects, sounds of things you’ve never heard before, atmospheric sounds, foley … literally everything that creates the sound of the environment that the film takes place in. And for a film like Blade Runner, we must create it all from scratch — We call it “world building.” We have to create sounds that no one’s ever heard before and present them to the audience in a way that is believable. So I compose with sound; the composer makes notes with instruments; violins and percussion, and composes a musical score. I compose a sound effects score. Everything we create has been purposefully recorded, edited, and designed for its storytelling value and impact on the audience.
You mention how you have to create an entire universe of sounds. But of course there is the original Blade Runner. Do the old sound effects from the first film still exist? Are you able to draw upon those?
They do exist, and we researched them thoroughly. But we felt that this film was 30 years hence, technology had changed, times had changed, the sonic universe had changed. And we really used the first film only as an inspiration to get us closer to where we wanted to be in 2049 — even to the point where the “spinners,” the hovercraft that K flies, are a different model and they’ve advanced 30 years. Even thought that was the only thing that carried across from the first film, we still redesigned the sound of that to update it. So in fact we didn’t use any sound from the first film.
At one point in the process do you generally get involved in a project?
Every film is different. There’s no cookie cutter way of doing this. Denis Villeneuve and Joe Walker [Blade Runner 2049’s editor] are very passionate about sound and they wanted sound to inform every aspect of the filmmaking. So we began our process — “we” meaning Theo Green, the sound designer, and I — from the first day of production. Which is very rare but very prescient on the part of the filmmakers because they felt that as the film is being shot and being cut, we’re developing the sounds that inform those scenes— and that in turn affects the edit and that, in turn, might even affect the way Denis shoots a scene. It’s all part of a smart post production collaboration of filmmaker, editor, and sound designer. We’re all working together towards a common goal, which is to tell a story.
I saw the movie for the first time at the Dolby screening room here in New York City. And it being the Dolby room, obviously the sound was very good. And it was very intense too — at times it was almost a visceral force in the theater. You could feel the sound.
For example, the very first moments of the film are these intense jolts on the soundtrack. Almost like they’re supposed to snap you to attention and say “Wake up!” And just looking back at the film again today, I noticed that something similar happens to K in that scene; he’s asleep and then a sound jolts him awake. So I was curious whether generally you were going for such intense, visceral sounds, and whether that similarity in that specific example was deliberate or coincidence.
Let me first clarify: Nothing in a film soundtrack is coincidental or arbitrary. Everything down to the smallest bee buzz is designed and considered with a great deal of forethought as to the emotional and narrative impact it’s going to have on the audience. Our goal in that opening scene was to be quite intense, because K is meant to be having a dream, and the audience doesn’t know where he is and he doesn’t know where he is until he’s woken up by this alert tone. We built sounds that were designed to engage you on a physical level to draw you into the film very quickly. To sort of wake you up and say “Hey! This is really an intense moment emotionally for this character. Pay attention because we’re going to start to give you a lot of information”. And we do that with sound and music in a very visceral way with all those intense synthesizer sounds that [composer] Ben Wallfisch created and the dream sounds we created. We exaggerated the sounds of the motors of the spinner that he’s flying in, as well as we created what we called “dream-like tones,” the sounds that it might sound like if you’re in the midst of a very intense nightmare. That was all very purposefully done.
At least to me, there were times in the film where it was hard to tell where the sound effects ended and the film’s score began. Almost like there was an interweaving of the two.
This is a very progressive approach that we’ve taken. The idea was this: In most filmmaking, you compartmentalize it in terms of sound. There’s the dialogue, There’s the music. We know when a music cue starts; the violin or the drums or whatever it might be. We recognize all those sounds.
Denis, Joe, Theo, and I worked together on the idea that we wanted the audience not to be distracted by the mechanics of filmmaking, which is “This is dialogue! This is sound effects! This is music!” We wanted to bring to the audience what we called “one soundtrack,” that all of this is the sound of that futuristic universe. It doesn’t matter whether it’s music or sound effects. All that matters is its storytelling efficiency. With Denis’ encouragement, we intentionally created very musical sound effects. In fact Denis’ first exhortation to myself and Theo Green was to “compose with sound.” Which is to say create sound that would be indistinguishable from music, so that you could be in a scene, we would lead you in a direction with sound to help you feel something, but we wouldn’t do it by using violins playing G flat minor. We did it with real sounds.
You mentioned how you have to create every single sound. I was wondering if you could talk about that process. How do you make the sound of a spinner, for example?
We never got a clear scientific description of the actual propulsion system. We don’t know if it’s a magnetic drive. We know that it wasn’t a fuel-burning engine. It wasn’t a rocket, it wasn’t a jet. You don’t see a flame coming out of the back of it. Inversely, you don’t see propellers, or anything lifting it that way. So what we began to do was look for sounds that had what we call “the envelope” of the sound we’re looking for, the shape of the sound we were looking for. And what we ended up with was the sound of a spinning bullroarer. This is an indigenous instrument made out of cat o’ nine tails that make a buzzing whir when spun above ones head. And we were just captivated by that sound. We took it and, using synthesizers and samplers to modulate it, shaped it into the motion of whatever the spinner was doing. So if it was taking off we would speed them up and you get the sense of it lifting into the air. When it was landing, we’d slow it down. We’d do all sorts of clever doppler shift processing to make it seem like it passes by your ear.
So we started life with a very organic sound of something spinning. The other component to the sound of the spinner was my wife’s Honda Element rattling.
Denis told me that in this 30 years post-nuclear blast future, everything was broken and in disrepair and you couldn’t get parts for anything. And K is at the lowest rung of the totem pole at the LAPD because he’s a blade runner. So they gave him the crappiest spinner they had. Denis wanted it to sound like it could fall apart while in flight. So we put a giant subwoofer speaker in my wife’s old Honda Element and we played all these deep bass frequencies to get everything in it to rattle, like if you were going over an old washboard road. The subwoofer caused all the little metal and plastic parts to vibrate and that’s what we used for the cockpit sounds of K’s spinner. Those sounds grounded the spinner in reality because they were recorded inside the cockpit of a Honda Element. And so that helps acoustically sell the idea that you’re inside a cabin of some kind.
We could probably talk about every single scene in the film because the use of sound is so interesting throughout, but the other one I wanted to ask about was the baseline test, because those sequences are so much about the sounds and the repetition of sounds.
The preeminent sounds in that scene — there are two in fact — are very high-frequency whistling noises. They are synthesizer sounds that we created that lay one on top of the other and were designed to phase against each other, which means one is slightly detuned from the other, and it creates this very disorienting effect inside the ear. The reason we did that is that the baseline test was meant to feel like a futuristic lie detector. The sounds were intended to disorient the subject so that they don’t have the ability to “cheat” on the test because their hearing mechanism is disrupted by this tone.
Theo and Lee Gilmore (one of our sound editors) designed these phasing, high-frequency whirring tones and that’s really all you hear in that room other than a very simple camera click that is meant to be the baseline machine capturing K’s mental state at that moment. The idea is that the interrogator is going through this intense line of inquiry, and at certain points he needs a baseline, he needs a reference of where the subject is mentally, so it takes an “psychological” snapshot of him in that moment. And then he continues with his line of questioning.
The sound of the interrogator’s voice is all around you. It’s in every speaker in the room. It’s above you, it’s in the front, the right, the left, the rear, and all around you. As if there were speakers in every corner of that room, effectively trapping the subject.
That raises a question I was going to ask. From a consumer’s perspective, we hear all this stuff about “Oh, this theater has Dolby Atmos” or this or that technology. Is there a way you recommend to see your movies? If you were going to recommend someone see Blade Runner, how should they try to see it?
What I recommend is to always seek out the highest form of audio, as well as image, that you possibly can. For example, with Atmos, that was the format we mixed the film in. That was exactly how the filmmakers intended the audience to hear the film, and that’s in its highest form.
You’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m sure the tools of how you do this job have changed a lot. Has the tools changing changed the job in any fundamental way?
Fundamentally, no. At the end of the day, my job as a sound designer or supervising sound editor is to tell stories with sound. You can do that in 100 different ways if you know how to use the tools available to you. You can tell a great story without state-of-the-art tools, but state-of-the-art tools have empowered us to tell stories more effectively.
So, for example, when I began 40 years ago, I worked on a sewing machine-like piece of mechanics; a Steampunk kind of machine called a Moviola. The operator could only listen to a single channel of audio at a time. It had sprockets on it; you had to use splicing tape and glue. It was really kind of 18th century technology. Cut to 41 years later, we’re using digital tools that allow us to hear as many channels of audio as we’d like to at the same time as well as do many more sophisticated things like sample audio and reproduce it on a keyboard.
You describe this archaic equipment you were using 40 years ago — but you were working on some really big movies 40 years ago! Can you give me an example of a big movie that, if we looked at it now, we would be shocked to learn that its sound was made on, as you call it 18th century Steampunk technology?
[laughs] Well, three come to mind. One is Raiders of the Lost Ark, another is Poltergeist, and a third is the first Gremlins movie. They are all very dense, and all three required significant amount of design work. That’s hard to do on a sewing machine. On Poltergeist, we had to create the sounds of “the other side,” the spirit world and ghosts and phantasms floating through the room and bursting through the ceiling. We used everything from slowed-down humpback whale groans to putting Jell-O in a balloon and squishing it to make these placental noises that come out of the ceiling. You use everything at your disposal to create the sound you need. All it really requires is a fecund imagination and you can make the craziest sounds out of nothing.
Looking over your filmography, you’ve done many different kinds of movies. Blade Runner is sci-fi, but you’ve done sound for comedies, you’ve done sound for action movies, you’ve done sound for cartoons. Are there any rules of sound that apply only for certain specific genres?
There are rules, and then there are no rules, and then there are rules that are meant to be broken. The beauty of an animated film — for example, I did Aladdin — is that they start life with absolutely no sound. There’s a script, and then you bring in actors to bring to life the voices of the characters. But the whole rest of the sonic universe that they inhabit is silent, because, of course, an animated is drawn one frame at a time. There is no “sound” that came with the images. When you’re in Agrabah, the sounds of camels and flying carpets and talking monkeys, none of those things exist. All of them have to be created out of whole cloth. So there’s this really special, beautiful challenge in an animated film — as there is in a Blade Runner.
Science-fiction lives in that same universe where we have to build a world. One of the most terrifying things for a sound designer is the first day on the job on a science-fiction or animated film. Because you are literally staring at a blank page. You’ve done nothing yet, and you don’t know where to begin, and you have to find a way to navigate your way through this creative challenge. And then the ideas start to come, the creativity flows, and you begin to create form nothing. That’s the joy of these kinds of films.
In traditional films, the role is a little more easily defined. You see something onscreen — a thunderbolt, an explosion, a car crash — and you put in those sounds, the ones you see. That’s the simplest form of sound work. What we’re trying to do is create a universe of sounds that are working on the audience subconsciously and affecting them emotionally; by immersing them into these textures and musical tones and ambiances that make them feel either uncomfortable or engaged or frightened or soothed. We used all of these techniques in Blade Runner to change the mood as we built it.
How carefully you have to protect your ears? Do you avoid rock concerts? Do you freak out if a smoke detector goes off in a room you’re sitting in? You’ve got to be able to hear perfectly to do your job.
I protect my ears in crazy ways. All those things you described I avoid, and to add to that list when a fire truck or a police car drives by and it’s very loud and piercing to my ears, I’ll cover my ears. I generally avoid loud music and if I do go to a concert, I take seats far far back because most concert environments tend to play audio too loud and they usually tweak the high frequency up, which is the range which damages your ear the most. If my hearing isn’t up to snuff I can’t be as effective at my job, so I protect my ears religiously as everyone should.
Even in movies — I’m a really big advocate for not overdoing it. I think the beauty is in the detail work. That’s where most of our creativity is. Movies that are too loud I usually leave. I will just walk out of the theater. And I think it’s unfair of filmmakers to subject us to that because it’s a false sense of engagement. You’re being engaged through bombardment and bombast. I don’t think there’s anything elegant or interesting about that. You must modulate your soundtrack constantly to have important loud sounds and important quiet sounds and everything else in between.
There’s a funny little trope around town: We seem to give awards for most sound, but what we actually give awards for is best sound. Sadly it seems like the awards that recognize sound give them to the big, loud noisy movies. But I would argue that’s the easy stuff.
This conversation has really made me realize that I probably don’t think as much about sound in movies as I should. If you were going to point to some movies that have great sound — movies where someone interested in this topic could go to learn and appreciate how this craft should be done — what would you pick?
You’ve really put me on the spot, there’s so many great movies. Going way, way back I would say Forbidden Planet, the science-fiction film made in the 1950s. These are my spiritual mentors, Bebe and Louis Barron, created a soundtrack on this planet that is alternate music and sound effects all at the same time. And they composed sound and sound effects all as one track. It’s a brilliant, unique piece of work, and they got a credit like “Sonic Textures By,” which I thought was really beautiful.
Another one of the classics is Apocalypse Now. They just spent an extraordinary amount of time thinking and working and creating to make a one-of-a-kind-soundtrack. Star Wars was very unique, and I still think to this day it stands out in the creativity of the way Ben Burtt made lightsaber sounds out of projectors and Wookie sounds out of baby bears. The creativity of that kind of work is really extraordinary.
Saving Private Ryan, you cannot beat for a war film in the way it subjected the audience to feeling like they were actually there on Normandy Beach. I read interviews with veterans who said “It made me feel like I was back there again.” And from two years ago: Son of Saul, a movie about a man in a concentration camp, and everything is experienced through his point of view. As such, much of what you hear, you don’t see. The sound designer had to create a world of a concentration camp outside the view of the audience. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.
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