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The Gizmo Guy's Salute to Sound Designers

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By Gordon Meyer
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I love Awards Season screenings.  In addition to the opportunity to catch up on, or catch in advance, some remarkable films, the Q&As that often follow can be fascinating.  Case in point some of the recent screenings I was invited to via the Digital Cinema Society featuring the creative artists behind the soundtracks of some of 2011’s higher profile studio features.

Even though I’ve been in the business for a very long time, events like these serve as important reminders that, in spite of their star billing, a film’s director is but one of a small army of artists whose talent and creativity serve the stories told on the big screen.

In order to create the audio effects for images that bear no resemblance to anything in the “real world,” sound designers become experts in thinking outside the box, collecting sound samples of just about anything and everything they find interesting, even if they aren’t yet sure how they’ll ultimately use those sounds. 

I remember in my college days hearing stories about Ben Burtt, hired by George Lucas fresh out of USC as a sound editor on the original “Star Wars” and some of the oddball things he used as source material for what ultimately became iconic sounds for things like the laser guns (banging on the steel cables anchoring power line towers) and the light sabers (motors for the old 16mm interlock projectors at USC as they got up to speed).

Today’s generation is just as creative.  At a recent screening of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” one of the sound designers speaking told a story about how he wanted wild baboon sounds for the film.  Forgive me for failing to mention the sound designer by name, but I wasn’t in a position to note who he was at the time. 

The sound designer didn’t know exactly how he was going to use the baboon cries initially, but knew they would prove useful so he went to a place that rescues primates and arranged to encounter a baboon to record the ape’s sounds. Unfortunately the baboon silently just looked at him until his trainer suggested that he nonchalantly hold his keys out, then drop them on the ground and pretend not to see the trainer, who proceeded to “steal” the keys.  The baboon promptly howled out of outrage at the apparent injustice and the soundman got what he needed.  That baboon howl became the foundation for one of the Decepticon sounds.

That’s how it works and it’s very cool.  Sounds that most people would think of as mundane noises magically morph into the roar of strange creatures, ray guns, light sabers and more.  It’s a part of the creative process that isn’t acknowledged nearly often enough.

Many years ago, I produced a tribute to Albert Whitlock, an Oscar winning visual effects artist who specialized in matte work where live action footage is seamlessly combined with paintings on large sheets of glass to create a whole new image.  The late Alfred Hitchcock presented the award to Whitlock following a screening of a number of striking before and after shots. 

Hitchcock said, “You know one of the great tragedies of this business is that the better a job Al does, the less people know he’s been there.  What we really need is for audiences to come out of the theatre saying ‘My, what a great matte.’ But since I can’t wish your more recognition Al, all I can wish you is more …money.”  (had to simulate the trademark Hitchcock pause.)

Like Hitchcock and his friend Al Whitlock, while I can’t wish these audio magicians more public recognition, I wish them – and all below the line artists – more gigs and more money.  The movies literally would not be the same without you!

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