Feature: Portrait of a Sound Designer
UCSD Grad Creates Sound Effects for Summer Blockbusters
Thursday, May 12, 2011
KPBS film critic interviews UCSD graduate Martin Lopez about working as a sound designer in Hollywood
Martin Lopez went to UC San Diego as a pre-med student but left as a filmmaker. Now he's a sound designer in Los Angeles and he gives us the lowdown on designing sound effects for summer blockbusters like the upcoming "Priest" (opening May 13 throughout San Diego). Listen to my radio feature to hear the anatomy of a sound effect or read the extended interview with Lopez.
When Martin Lopez goes to work his goal is to be unnoticed.
"Absolutely true," he says, "It is an exercise in trying to be invisible and completely unnoticed. If we are really doing our job well then it just seems to fit and no one really questions it. If something doesn't click and people are noticing a sound then they are not in the movie any more, they are taken out of it and that's not good."
Lopez is a sound designer who began working on Hollywood features back in 1995 with "Twister." His initial interest had been in cinematography but he felt it was more practical to go for the less glamorous role of sound designer.
"It's a supporting role, it's a craft role. At your best it might bump up against art but mostly it's craft," Lopez says, "I think what drew me to it is that it's unappreciated and like music it works on a subconscious level. You don't know why you are afraid in that scene you just know you are afraid. And the sound design is contributing to that. You're the puppeteer you are pulling the strings and making things go dramatically go one way or the other and people aren't always aware what's making it go that way."
But there is one time of the year when sound designers get to move into the foreground and shine, and that's during the summer blockbuster season.
"In the summer venue we have a little more say because in a sci-fi world and fantasy world in some way we're king," Lopez explains, "There's a lot more sound design and it's making the illusion complete."
Making the illusion complete requires a lot of work and often clever invention. Take the unlikely solution Lopez found to creating the sound effect for Spidey's web spinning.
"'Spiderman' was my favorite one, stomping on a catsup squirt bottle to make the web launch sound," Lopez recalls, "When you stomp on it you get that effect of 'thwip-thwip' of the thing filling up and blasting out the nozzle."
Spidey's web also challenged Lopez on the sequel "Spider-Man 2."
"On 'Spider-Man 2,'" Lopez says, "Spidey had to stop the train and I had to do this web stretching sound and that was one that took a little while. I finally used fishing wire that I wound back and forth across like a cello body, a steel cello, I had built for another show, and then just twisting the tuning pegs so it got tighter and tighter and tighter while you bowed it. And I could do that until the thing snapped. So I had a lot of room to get higher and higher pitch."
Lopez just finished work on "Priest," a 3-D film adaptation of the Korean manhwa (or comic book). The film is set in a retro western future where a priest hunts the vampires that kidnapped his niece. Nowadays, with compressed shooting and release schedules, sound designers can start working on a film almost as soon as shooting begins. So Lopez and Jussi Tegelman, the other sound designer on "Priest," came onboard about the same time as the picture editor. They divided up the more difficult sound effects duties, spent time coming up with concepts, and then presented their ideas to the sound supervisor Steve Ticknor and to the director Scott Charles Stewart.
"One of the unique things about doing the sound design on 'Priest,'" says Lopez, "was that Scott Stewart the director came from our ranks, came from being a craftsperson. He came from the world of visual effects as a very highly regarded visual effects supervisor so he was accustomed to working like sound designers within the vision of a director so I think that makes him so much more sensitive to the communication flow and to the give and take of the creative experience. That was really refreshing."
Because of the futuristic setting, one of the challenges was to create sound that was familiar on a certain level but also fueled by unknown technology. So Lopez combined created and existing sounds for the cool high tech cycles the priests ride.
"I wanted all of the mechanisms of a regular motorcycle that jangling parts, the suspension, what have you but without the motor," Lopez states, "I wanted the motor to be something entirely fabricated.so how would I get that well I could coast motorcycles down hills."
Then Lopez discovered Zero Motorcycles that used electric motors. Now he could begin recording the layers of sound for the cycle effects.
"The first layer," Lopez says, "would be sort of the mechanical sounds of the linkages and suspension, sounds that are the recordings of the Zero motorcycle, the electric motorcycle. The second layer is going to be synthesized, this is all analog synthesizers, it's going to be low end like an energy throb I call it. Then the top layer is also like energy like a turbine sound but it's in the higher end and that's so it sits on top of music better because sometimes low end stuff gets sucked up by music." [Listen to my radio feature to hear each of the layers.]
Tegelman and Lopez also got to create sound effects for the fights that involved a lot of blades and wirework, both of which harken back to Hong Kong action movies.
"We both dealt with the weapons," Lopez says, "The throwing stars and a lot of those type weapons are sped up metal sword elements and sometimes we'll put doppler effects on them. So there's like a 'shooo' sound on them; there's like a pitch bend across them to make them feel a little more active. Most of them are sword or knife elements, and occasionally there's one that has a mechanical opening to it. When Paul Bettany's character is fighting off vampires we've used gun elements for the engaging of the parts of the throwing weapons."
The most challenging effect might have been creating the vocal elements for a creature known as the Hive Guardian.
"Whenever you have a creature with a vocal it's very subjective and it's very hard to create something that sounds like a living creature but doesn't sound like anything else," Lopez explains, "On the Hive Guardian, which had a bigger mass than the vampires, I even used some of my old recordings on this artificial lung that I had built for way back for 'Godzilla,' to do these really low end growly elements."
"Godzilla"? That's right. Lopez worked on the American "Godzilla" film and was tasked with creating audio elements for the creature. In order to convey the breathing of a giant beast, Lopez built a large bellows and larynx and then forced air through to create sounds of Big G breathing. The artificial lung -- built from items bought at a 24-hour Home Depot near Lopez's home -- is long gone but Lopez has kept the sound elements in his audio archive.
In the case of the Hive Guardian, a lot of the sound design relied on jaw snaps and the breathing to creates the menace of the creature that is being kept tightly under wraps until the film opens.
But the CGI creature raises an issue that Lopez refers to as the "bane" of an audio designer's life: working with visual effects.
"The toughest thing is getting incomplete picture, and the flow of information is not always great. So sometimes we don't really get any explanation of what a green screen shot is and we have to read the script pages to try and figure out what will be on screen. But it can be really hard to guess what's going on. We have to guess what the shot's going to be."
That can mean being surprised by a volcano that suddenly shows up in the background of a shot that had previously been a blank green screen, and having the director ask where's the sound of the eruption?
But in a lot of ways, Lopez has an old school sensibility not only about sound design but filmmaking in general.
"I mean the story has to be it. All this other stuff, it's just patches, bandages, and sometimes crutches for story either there or lacking. Stanley Kubrick, remember, did all his mixes in mono even until his last film so it's sad to say it's not really about sound. It's about the story working and it doesn't really matter how many channels you have to put sound out. But that being said, I enjoy the technology and the fact that theatrical exhibition has improved a lot."
You can hear Lopez's latest work in "Priest."
Companion viewing: "Spider-Man," "Mulan" (Lopez's "voice" is used for the cricket), "Vampire Hunter D"