With the Academy Awards just days away, we’ve started working on our Oscar pools and that got us to thinking: what is sound design, really? We know that sound is so integral to film. It creates emotion, fills empty space, and adds context and texture to the picture. The problem, of course, is that, like editing, good sound design is almost indiscernible to the uninitiated. And it’s one of those categories that yield a best-guess vote in Oscar-night polls.
So we decided to get the skinny on sound by consulting one of the field’s leading artists, Ren Klyce of Mit Out Sound. Klyce is nominated for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing Oscars for his work on Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and is one of David Fincher’s longtime collaborators. His other film credits include Fincher films The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fight Club, and Se7en, plus Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and Being John Malkovich.
Listen up. In an effort to demystify this invisible craft we asked Klyce to give us an earful on what sound design is all about and walk us through a few scenes from the Oscar-nominated Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Co.Create: So… what is sound design?
Ren Klyce: I see it as the partner to the image. The ultimate compliment to sound designers and mixers and editors is when no one actually notices the work. The reason you want to go unnoticed is that if your work is noticed it’s drawing attention to itself and making people stop thinking about the film. So, it’s oftentimes a subtle, supporting character to the image, but it’s also why it is so often misunderstood.
What’s the most common misconception around sound design?
Often people automatically assume that everything they are seeing or hearing happened at that moment in time. Let me give you an example: There was once a filmmaker who wanted his sound designer to be credited [in an awards show] but got some resistance from the organization. The filmmaker invited a representative from the organization down to the mix. It was a spectacular scene: bridges breaking and buckling and snapping, people screaming… all the things you could imagine in this wildly loud spectacle of a scene. The filmmaker hits stop and says, ‘What do you think?’ The representative said, ‘What’s the big deal? All you did was put up a microphone and record the bridge falling.’ The filmmaker then holds out his hands and says the bridge to show that the bridge was a miniature. Everything you hear in a film is added and labored over just as much as the image is. Therein lies the inherent problem of what we do. We’ve gotten to a place where the audience expects and assumes that the sound and image were created at the same time. It’s actually wonderful because if you can achieve that, you’ve done the job well.
So how do you evaluate good sound design?
I would say the best way to judge it as a whole is: how you react to the film emotionally and almost texturally. What often ends up happening is that people, after they see a film and find out it was supposed to have good sound design in it, they might go through the film quickly and go, what was the thing that stood out? People remember loud sequences. It’s a funny thing—the more challenging things are the softer, more nuanced scenes that take a lot of time to create most of the time, but the ones that get all the attention seem to be the loud scenes. Take for example, a friend of mine who said, "I love the gunshot when Mikael Blomkvist is being shot at on the hill. It startles me." It’s a perfectly great example of someone wanting to say something nice about what I do.
Do you prefer the quiet scenes when you go back and reflect on your work?
That’s interesting; I think I do. Only because those are the things for me that are often the most challenging because it has a lot to do with rhythm, spacing between dialogue, and in a way acts like production design. Here’s a good example of how David Fincher made this film: He shot the majority of this film, in like 20 weeks, in Sweden, most of which was exteriors to establish location—he wanted to show the snow, the exterior of the Vanger mansion, the landscape, the city. Then all of the interior shots were shot in L.A. on a sound stage. So if the production designer’s job was to match visually the exteriors that Fincher chose, it’s the same with sound. We have to match sonically what’s happening inside to what’s happening outside. Once we’re inside, we’re in a perfectly quiet soundstage. Everything having to do with a dialogue has to be in an absolute vacuum. Maybe that’s why I like these quiet scenes—because the sound has to be created to make it seem like we’re still in Sweden, like we’re still in Lisbeth’s apartment.
Speaking of Lisbeth’s apartment, the scene when Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander meet for the first time at her apartment is a really good example of what you’re talking about. Can you talk through what’s going on in this sequence?
The sound was particularly fun to create because there’s no music and we just came off a loud music cue from the club where Lisbeth had been out late and picked up a young lady. As that filters out we wake up with these girls in bed and we hear Mikael knocking on the door. What Fincher wanted was to make sure the audience felt like we were in Lisbeth’s environment. You know, when you heat up a stew you let it simmer for a very long time? He wanted to have this aroma of her environment still simmering throughout the scene and wanted to maintain there’s a sense of poverty and desperation in her environment.
So the sound design for that scene was built in several ways. One was vertically, which means by frequency, starting with low, rumbling sounds. The low rumble of the city is one component to say the walls are thin and she lives near a freeway. The next level above that would be the tone: there’s loud air-conditioning because the HVAC system is not very good. Beyond that, the walls are thin so we might hear a distant television.
Then there are the horizontal sounds that happen in sequence, like the environment of what’s outside. They’d be hearing the motorbike go by, the floor creak, the dripping of the bathroom faucet, and sirens in the distance. Those sounds are specific to moments that are placed very strategically in time to that scene in and around the characters dialogue. Each sound is recorded, processed, placed, mixed into the scene and slid in time. If a motorbike sound is crushing a line of dialogue, we’ll move it off that line. If it’s a really dead and slow moment, you work some sound into the scene so that it makes it feel awkward or lonely or cold, like in the case of when Mikael first comes to his cabin and lets the cat in through the window.
At what point of the process does the sound happen… after it’s all shot?
Yes, normally. But with David, he was re-shooting scenes while we were doing sound, like the sequence with the revenge rape. He shot it several times because he wasn’t happy with it. It was very difficult for everyone. With the audio, we brought Yorick van Wageningen (who played social worker/rapist Nils Bjurman) in and asked him to give us your best scream or whimpering or panicked breathing and he’d be like, "Oh God, why do I have to do this now, again?" So all of these sounds—the sounds of him wrestling to be free, his thighs slapping together—are added to make the audience feel completely uncomfortable. David kept saying to me, "This guy needs to sound like he’s 350 lbs and at any moment could break free like a bull in a china shop and destroy her." So there’s a lot of thinking that goes into sound, like something as simple as that.
In addition to creating ambient and specific sounds, what role do sound designers play in creating the dialogue track?
We have a whole team for when we create the dialogue. They take the production dialogue that was shot on set and then edit that together. And Fincher will be very involved in that as well. For example, he’ll say, "Give me an ultimate take of Lisbeth saying this word." And because he’s done 20 takes of her saying that particular word, we’ll go through them and find the ones that will sound the way he likes and present them to him. So we’ll go through each word sometimes and mine sweep for alternate takes. Often he’ll choose a take visually, because of the lighting or the camera angle, but he won’t like it sonically because the actor didn’t say the line properly.
How are these sounds created? Are they computer generated or are they collected for real?
There’s nothing synthetically created in our film. Everything you hear in our film is organically recorded or acoustic in its origin. The way that this particular soundtrack was done, we started recording sound after we read the script. I made a spreadsheet of all the sounds we might need in terms of ambiance. Then when David was in Sweden he called me up and said, "You have to get over here and collect these sounds because it’s very different sounding here." That was very important to him, but I didn’t know the landscape really—or the language.
So I got a good friend of mine, Danish sound recordist Rune Palving who worked on many of the Dogme films, to collect the sounds. I told him to find a cabin out in the freezing cold and collect any and all sounds you can gather. Then in the city I had him go into a church and a bank or museum; museums are great for getting sounds of people that aren’t necessarily specific but instead a wonderful texture of voices but is indiscernible as language. At the same time we were recording all the sounds that I knew were not important to being specific to Sweden, like doors and wet city sounds.
That’s a lot of sounds. What do you do with them after you’ve collected them?
From all of these recordings there was this giant pile of raw sounds and I would go through each one and listen for wonderful accidents or sounds and label it and created a library. Then when it came to editing, we had a palette to choose from. The job is basically like, "Boring, boring, boring, oooh! That’s an interesting laugh." That’s the job, to be ready with almost any type of texture because at that moment, we’ll need a sound.
You said earlier you really like quiet scenes. Is there a loud scene in this film that you’re particularly fond of?
Yes. The scene where Lisbeth gets her computer stolen in the subway station is really interesting because David didn’t want any music but he wanted it to sound musical. He wanted a pulse to go through it but he didn’t want it to be a typical movie moment where this drama was happening and was being underscored by dramatic music. Yet he wanted to have the emotion of dramatic music through sound.
So, if you listen to the scene and study it, you’ll notice that the sound kind of changes from realistic to abstract midway through. The scene starts where the camera is on focused on her back as she’s coming down an escalator in the subway, there’s a couple in front of her, and then the subway comes in. Just as she’s about to step forward onto the subway, this man comes forward, grabs her backpack and tears up the escalator. From that moment, the sound starts to change, almost in a way to support her anger. It was really important for David that this be the scene that shows the audience that she’s a badass.
So, she goes chasing after this guy, they get into a scuffle, and as she elbows him, the sound changes. All of a sudden it becomes tonal and there’s almost a pulse that goes through it. Those sounds were created from different train sounds that I recorded about 10 years ago in Tokyo. There’s a tone that’s like ‘whaaaaa’ that has a musical sound that was manipulated to sound like a howl. Underneath it is a pulse that goes ‘boom, boom’ and those were the rails I recorded in Tokyo in the Akihabara section where the trains go over head, and you can hear the rail clicks which are quite reverberant. I took those sounds and slowed them down to make it like the heartbeat or pulse. Then the vocal part was a sound that Rune recorded, which was just a standard PA announcement in a subway in Sweden. I took that and distorted it and made it sound almost piercing.
Lastly, there’s a moment where Lisbeth elbows the guy that mugs her but David didn’t want that sound to be loud. He said, ‘I don’t want to hear that sound. I want the place to seem like it’s loud with the train.’ Loudness is sort of relative. If we make the environment loud but at the same time we hear a loud punch and grunting on top of that, then the proportions and scaling get thrown out the window. So if you watch it, at one point she screams at the guy, and you can barely hear her screaming. Instead you hear the rail screeches of another train coming into the station. So her anger is personified with the screeching train.
That goes back to what you were saying at the beginning. If we’d heard her scream, that would have made the sound design obvious…
Yeah, but in movies we want to hear the punching and the scuffling, which is fine and it works because it’s visceral. But in this particular case, in David’s filmmaking style, he wanted to try something different. We were pretty happy with how that turned out. It’s much more abstract than it is real, and that’s fun to do for the audience. Subtlety can be very powerful in filmmaking.