EDIT: Signing off – thanks for all your questions! That was a lot of fun. If you use sound in creative projects, check out King Collection: Volume 1 – my new sound library with Pro Sound Effects. Cheers!
Hi Reddit! I've been creating sound for film since 1983 and have received four Academy Awards® for Best Sound Editing over the last 15 years – Dunkirk (2018), Inception (2011), The Dark Knight (2009), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2004). I'm currently working on Wonder Woman 84.
I also just released my first sound effects library with Pro Sound Effects: https://prosoundeffects.com/king
Full credits: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0455185/
Ask me anything about how I do what I do, your favorite sound moments from films I've worked on, or my new sound library – King Collection Vol. 1.
Hi Richard! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
In a past Soundworks Collection video (I think for Inception) I remember you describing the process of stacking the separate moments of a recorded gunshot, placing the gunshot itself, the whiz by and impact all on top of each other. This creates an impossible sound that could never be heard in real life.
It seems like this is one of those moments in filmmaking where a subtly unrealistic approach results in an almost more realistic sounding track, possibly to due audience expectations built through decades of "movie magic".
Off the top of your head, can you think of any other instances like this where a creative and "unrealistic" design approach results in a more effectively perceived sense of realism by the audience?
Thanks again for doing this! No doubt this thread will be used as high quality inspiration material for a lot of people.
This is a really good question because it revolves around reality vs. our perception of reality.
In cutting sound, I personally go for accentuating the scene I'm working on regardless of what it takes. I've said this before, one can get away with a lot with sound because everyone assumes the sound was recorded the day the images were shot. The audience questions very little unless you go too far.
I often add little subwoofer impacts for emphasis, and occasionally add other synthetic sounds as highlights to achieve that heightened sense of realism.
It's like photography you can look at a piece of scenery and it's amazing, but you can take a casual picture of it and it may not be as impressive. Ansel Adams can make that scenery look amazing with framing, lighting, shadow, etc. It's how you frame the sound.
The most memorable moment for me in Dunkirk was when the plane crashes into the sea and there is super loud "CRACK." It was exhilerating in the theater to hear because I think we are conditioned in movies to always hear a low "boom" no matter what the collision on the screen is.
How did you get that sound and was it a conscious effort to try and make it sound that way?
Also, how do you approach dynamic range to get such loud explosions or other sound effects? Do you run into any limitations and how do you handle them?
Thank you, I love your work and you are a huge inspiration!
Chris had the genius idea of having the plane's engine winding up instead of sputtering as it goes down. I put a billiard ball in my dryer at home to get random banging to simulate like a crank shaft is broken loose. He's going 100 knots so at that speed hitting water is like hitting concrete. The penultimate moment had to be huge. That's a sound we worked on for a long time to try to give it the biggest metal crack we could make.
Loud sounds like explosions are more startling and effective if they're preceded by a little silence. For instance, the scene where the British soldiers are hiding in the metal trawler which the Germans begin using as target practice. It's shocking because it's a fairly quiet scene.
Hi Richard! This is amazing, thank-you for taking the time.
I'm really intrigued about the gun sounds in Dunkirk. They sound like no other movie - I saw the movie quite a few times on 70mm and the mix was staggering. Aggressive, harsh, with this almost terrifying quality to them that has a very visceral feel and emotional response. How did you achieve that sound? Did you approach them in a different way to the way you'd usually cut weapons in a film? to me, they had something of a 'raw' feeling to them. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks again!
The guns in the opening sequence in the town of Dunkirk were a combination of great production sound(!) and the German machine guns that we recorded. The production gun sounds had a great crack and had the benefit of the natural reverb of the narrow cobblestone street. They were also played very loud, which makes them abrasive and shocking. They also sound harsh and raw because there's no sound absorption on that street, it's like a little stone canyon, which makes it bright and abrasive. So we got lucky with production guns in that scene.
What was the best sound "accident" you had? Thanks!
I accidentally crashed a Mercedes Benz once and got an incredible impact sound. We crashed into an airplane hangar within 2 feet of an airplane propellor.
We revved up an electric car so high that the engine seized up and I got a great shuddering clunk sound.
We dropped a concrete k-rail on a car, inadvertently crushing the microphone inside. We got a great crash sound up until the mic was destroyed.
These are accidents I would not suggest repeating, but we got some great sounds (and nobody got hurt).
I often get happy accidents working with plugins, pushing a particular parameter to an extreme.
The horn from War of the Worlds was sort of an accident born of a lot of experimentation and trial and error. At first the elements we used (didgeridoo, bowed metal, other horn instruments, etc) didn't sound scary or enormous enough, so I ran them through Altiverb and cranked the shit out of a particular parameter and it distorted and it made a huge sound like an overloaded PA horn.
Hi Richard! Thanks so much for doing this. I have two related questions:
Mr. King! Thanks for doing this!
Something I'm always interested in is when a scene will utilize a lack of sound to accentuate the other noises that are happening and establish tension or wonder. I think of films like No Country for Old Men and Wall-E. How do you go about crafting a scene in which there is "no sound?" What techniques do you use to capture the perfect ambient room tone and ensure that the subtle noises that are happening are accentuated to the degree they need to be? Is most everything added afterward? Is it a mix of both?
Thank you again, and I hope you have a great day!
There's always some sound of the world outside or ambient sound. It's the kind of scene where foley can come into its own. Subtle details of people moving. We did a lot of this in the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It's just a dialog scene between Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, and it's so tense. The only sounds are chair creaks, striking a match, the odd footstep, etc. It's about zooming the focus from macro to micro.
Thanks for taking the time to do this!
I've seen a number of young sound designers torn between focusing on creating/utilizing their own sound effects libraries for projects (which ends up taking a ton of time and can often times be of lower quality than intended) , and using entirely canned sound effects for their projects (which can result in over manipulation and an unnatural sounding product). Where do you find the balance for creators on a budget? And with this in mind, how can someone utilize the library you just released effectively? Would you be able to go into some more detail on what the library has to offer?
Record as much as you can because a young sound designer's recording chops will get better with practice.
Unless it's a very simple film you'll probably find that you won't have all the sounds you need. The bigger your toolbox, the more varied sounds you have access to. This makes the process easier and allows you to work faster and more creatively.
The King Collection goes in-depth into certain categories, as well as offering a general assortment of useful backgrounds, hard FX, animals, etc. There will be several more volumes to come.
What was the toughest scene you ever worked on? Was it because of the multitude of sounds required to produce the right audio or because it was tought to decide on the best representation for a particular...something?
It's always a particular sound that makes a scene difficult.
I'd say the Bat from The Dark Knight Rises. We didn't want it to sound like a helicopter, it needed more of a flangey whir. It was a long process to try to figure out how to accomplish that without making it just sound like a big fan.
I know an even better one. The Stuka siren for Dunkirk I worked on for the entire duration of the movie until the very end. It was a long trial and error process since the sound had to be created from scratch (no Stukas to record).
Could you comment on your sound design process? Specially thinking outside the box when it comes to sound editing? I often find myself being too literal about what's on the screen!
I was thinking about this the other day. If you can put yourself in the place of the characters and try to feel the world of the film through them and enjoy being in that space with the characters, you just naturally are inspired to come up with sounds that will flesh that world out and make it a more real vibrant experience.
I don't really think about what's going to please anyone else(of course you need to take care of the needs and requests of the filmmaker), I just want to do what makes me feel like I'm in the film. Imagine if you're in a car and you hit a pothole. You put in bump and rattle, but you also want to feel like you're in the moment and feel like you're in the car with it bottoming out. You just keep working until it gives you the same shock as if you were driving.
What was your experience like shifting from working with analog machines to digital ones? I assume there were some pros and cons, and I would live to hear how your experience shaped your current approach to sound design.
Also, is there a specific plugin (or type of plugin) that you find yourself coming back to again-and-again?
As a sound editor early in my career, thank you for the endless inspiration!
Moving into the digital world from analog was like opening Pandora's Box. It allowed me to do all the things that I would have had to do through mechanical means in the analog world(like slowing down a dubber, or manipulating the speed of the playback machine). I was an early enthusiastic adopter of digital audio workstations.
So many great plugins. I love Altiverb, all the FabFilter stuff. Elastique. The UVI Falcon sampler is great. So many others.
Since the 2000s, does it seem like Hollywood has lost interest in immersive surround sound? It seems that there are only a few movies released nowadays that actually dedicate some creative energy into crafting an excellent surround sound experience.
Also, how much say do directors have in how the film is to be mixed? Is a lot of the creative control in your hands and they let you play around with it? Thanks!
I think it's completely filmmaker dependent. Some filmmakers are keen to exploit immersive sound, i.e. flying stuff around. I think it's really dictated by filmmaker style. It's just like any other creative tool, some people really want to make a point of using it, and some people don't.
My job for the mix is to conjure up the director's vision. I'm here to bring that vision to life so I'm following their lead and their taste. Sometimes producers weigh in, studios weigh in, but the real arbiter of taste is the director.
Is it me, or has the dynamic contrast between dialogue and action scenes gotten worse in movies over the years (i.e. dialogue scenes being noticeably quieter than action scenes)?
If it's not just me, then what do you suppose is driving this increase in dynamic contrast?
Film mixes were designed to be watched in movie theaters. If you're watching feature films on television then the dynamic range is going to feel accentuated.
How do you approach making objects feel immense in size, like giant ships or explosions, without just turning the volume up? Do you worry about headroom and the mix in your design process, or are you more focused on choices and sound creation?
Part of the sense of immensity and scale is the way the sound is affected by and affects the environment around it. The amount and size of the reverb and the effect that sound may have on its environment. Examples,- setting off car alarms, sympathetic rattles in the vicinity of the sound. Also, low end implies immensity.
Start with large scale sounds. It's great to start with sounds that have an inherent sense of size. It's hard to make small sounds sound big.
I do watch the meters. I'm trying to achieve the quality that conveys immensity, not just making it loud.
Hi Richard, all of us who love our jobs and dedicate a big portion of our time seem to struggle with work life balance. Do you still go through the same struggles? Do you have any tips on achieving full attention to work and our loved ones?
Yes, that's a difficult one. I've been freelance my entire career and I still struggle with that to some degree. You just have to do your best and hope your loved ones are understanding.
Why does Christopher Nolan tend to have some dialogue drowned out in favour of loud music or sound effects?
As a film geek, and a music/sound fan, this drives me absolutely crazy and does a major disservice to his, and your, work.
Chris is trying to create a visceral emotional experience for the audience, beyond merely an intellectual one. Like punk rock music, it's a full body experience, and dialogue is only one facet of the sonic palette.
He wants to grab the audience by the lapels and pull them toward the screen, and not allow the watching of his films to be a passive experience.
If you can, my advice would be to let go of any preconceptions of what is appropriate and right and experience the film as it is, because a lot of hard intentional thought and work has gone into the mix.
In the film Dunkirk during the Stuka's dive bombing beach scene, would you have preferred to have used the historical high pitched scream rather than the deep roar that was used in the film?
All of the sound of the Stuka are prewar and sound like crap but they have a terrifying intensity to them. It's such an iconic sound that we wanted to acknowledge that historical sound. Our goal was to make the Stuka siren sound like what it would have sounded like if it were recorded with high quality mics and recorders today (impossible because there are no Stukas flying).
This is AMAZING!
Hi Richard. When it comes to sound design, I run all of my audio through to a group channel. On that group I have an EQ with a low cut at 35Hz and then a brichwall limiter for all the big explosions and sounds like that. Is this correct or would you suggest something different?
I don't activate any limiters, compressor, or filters on the tracks as a standard operating procedure. I utilize them as needed using automation.
Miles Davis, John Coltrane, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, The Who, Aaron Copeland, and Beethoven.
Hi Richard! Thank you for taking your time to answer our questions!
After enough projects concluded, have you challenged yourself into recreating your workflow process? Or the sound you would normally go to as a first instinct? How do you deal with process of starting a new project and still keep a fresh new perspective.
My approach changes for every film. I begin each film with the attitude of a beginner. I keep my workflow fluid enough that I intentionally avoid getting into habitual ways of working or using the same sounds over and over again.
What does your default effects chain look like on a new track?
I really don't have a default FX chain, except for the compressor and EQ parked at the predub level and at the individual track level (to be used when needed). Otherwise, I insert plugins as appropriate.
Could you please turn it down a little?!?
If you watch it at home you can turn it down yourself!