Subtle Sounds

September 15, 2013 Sep 15 2013 Posted in
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It happens every time we introduce ourselves and mention that we’re sound engineers–the inevitable, “So what do sound design and mix actually DO for a movie?”

It’s true that we sound folks really get a chance to shine during ninja fights and robot wars, but it’s also true that sound can be used for more subtle things– to draw attention to the emotional state of characters, emphasize and intensify specific actions, and give environments dimension.

We recently completed sound design and mix on Troma Entertainment’s latest flick, Return To Nuke ‘Em High. If you aren’t sure if you’re familiar with Troma or director Lloyd Kaufman, perhaps you’ve heard of their most famous creation: The Toxic Avenger? A staple of the New York independent film scene, Troma has been making good ol’ campy horror films for the last 40 years. Though the movie is chock full of exciting and over-the-top transformation and action-y sequences, we thought  it would be more interesting and informative to show how very integral sound is to the success of any scene– even one without explosions, mutants, or monsters.

Uncle Lloyd + Silver Sound = Good Times!

The setup is simple: Two high school students, Chrissy (in red) and Lauren, (in blue) accidentally bump into one another. Chrissy is knocked to the floor. After standing up, Chrissy threatens Lauren– only to be foiled and embarrassed by a well-placed stomp of the foot. Take a look and listen to what the scene was like before any post sound work by selecting “RAW” on the application above.

Other than the obvious unwanted clicks, gaps in tone, and uneven levels, you’ll notice that Lauren suddenly becomes very echo-y around 27 seconds into the scene during the line, “You know what? Some of us actually have plans for our future…” In addition to that, she gets very quiet on the words “food stamps” and the director, Lloyd Kaufman, wanted a more forceful delivery. When faced with a problem like this, there are two different routes that can be taken to remedy the situation: 1) Look for alternate takes, and match them up so that the voices are still in sync or 2) ADR [hyperlink] the character. In this particular situation, the performance of the ADR didn’t feel as “in the scene” as the alternate takes, and we were lucky enough to be able to combine two cleaner and more forceful takes to replace the line seamlessly.

Select “DIA” to hear what things sounded like after our dialogue edit.

In addition to Lauren’s lines feeling more present and less reverb-y with a forceful delivery, you’ll also notice some of the following changes:

  • At the beginning of the scene we hear a boy off-screen taunting the mohawk girl, who then throws a spitball at him, and heyelps when hit– this helps remind us that we’re in a rowdy high school hallway.
  • The itchy boy in the black shirt is making weird groaning noises as he scratches himself– adding to sub-plot of the mystery of strange things happening to the students.
  • Chrissy grunts as if the air is knocked out of her when she bumps into Lauren and before she falls.
  • A group of boys exclaim “ooooh” and chuckle when Lauren is shoved into the locker– we’re in a place where actions are public, and the surrounding crowd is not only paying attention to what is going on, they also have the capability of being antagonistic.
  • The boy with the black hat, white tee-shirt and backpack on laughs goofily and mercilessly at Chrissy after she gets foot-stomped.
  • Chrissy, after smacking the locker, exclaims “Ow!” after hitting the locker with her fist– adding injury to insult to the previous injury.

Select “FX” to hear the FX and Foleys isolated for your listening pleasure:

While there are a lot of things going on visually in this scene– many of the extras in the hallway are walking and shuffling around– we always try to make sure that the sounds that we are adding help underscore the important actions and have a specific narrative purpose as well:

  • The spitball thwacks somebody– eww!
  • A single set of footsteps coming from off-screen alert us to Chrissy’s presence before she appears– they are steady and quick, suggesting that she is walking straight and fast, and is not expecting to have to alter her course– this is a confident girl. Lauren, on the other hand, is dodging her way around other students.
  • There is a sharp thud when the two girls knock shoulders.
  • Chrissy’s backpack rustles and bumps, her stumbling footsteps are loud, and her hand slaps roughly against the hard tile floor as she tries to steady herself–ow!
  • Chrissy’s hand slaps Lauren’s shoulder before she shoves her roughly into the locker with a bang.
  • There is a sickening bone-crunch when Lauren stomps down on Chrissy’s foot.
  • Lauren pitter-patters away to avoid retribution. Her footsteps are quick and light– she’s not a bruiser.
  • Chrissy slams her hand into the locker— she is impetuous and aggressive, and it doesn’t always work out for her.

Select “BGs” to hear the background track we added to the scene:

Now it feels like a bustling high school. We hear papers, shuffling, etc.– but notice:

  • At first there is more stereo information, there are more voices– and they are all echo-y: this is a crowded place.
  • After we zero in on Lauren and Chrissy, the echo-y voices fall away, and sparser, more specific sounding BGs take their place.
  • At the end things thin out even more– allowing the audience to focus on Chrissy’s plight and Lauren’s flight.

MIX will let you hear everything together, with music.

We feel that the difference speaks for itself. However, please feel free to play around and see how the different layers interact with each other and add to the scene. Hope you enjoy!