We chat with the man behind the sounds of some of our favorite movies, including ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049.’
Sound design – an aspect that’s supposed to disappear into the background of any given movie – can be a mystery. But it’s something that allows modern-day film aficionados to dive deep into the very fabric of the world that unfolds onscreen. It’s nothing short of magic.
If you’ve ever loved hearing a film, chances are it’s because of Mark Mangini. Mangini is a sound editor with a tremendously prolific career that spans over 40 years. Having worked on films of all genres, Mangini has created enduring sound edits on films such as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Aladdin, The Fifth Element, Mad Max: Fury Road and Blade Runner 2049 – and these are just the movies that were nominated for Oscars. For Fury Road, Mangini and collaborator David White won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing.
Mangini’s impeccable work on the Blade Runner sequel remains a favorite of mine out of anything that came out last year. There is no denying that the film is a visual feast, and is no different when it comes to sound design. Blade Runner 2049 fits seamlessly next to an iconic original while remaining distinctive in its own right because the film’s visual effects and sound marry to create an extravagant experience of a constantly-unfolding mythology. If only Blade Runner 2049 could have shared Dunkirk‘s wins for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing at the 90th Academy Awards. It certainly deserves a seat at the table as a celebrated technical feat; it was a pinnacle of sci-fi in 2017, for sure.
I had some questions for Mangini about his process as a sound editor in general, and of particularly tackling the many nooks and crannies of sound in Blade Runner 2049. Here’s what he had to say.
You’ve edited some prolific films. When it comes to Mad Max: Fury Road and Blade Runner: 2049, what’s it like working on the sequels to some of the biggest sci-fi movies ever?
I have been extraordinarily lucky to not only work on two of the arguably greatest sequels ever made but to have worked with two of the most gifted and visionary directors of our time. It’s fair to say that most sequels do not do justice to their originals. Mad Max: Fury Road and Blade Runner 2049 managed the impossible: to honor their originals and better them.
That being said, one must delicately balance the importance of honoring what made the originals great while being true to one’s own sense of artistic integrity and originality. In short… I felt the pressure constantly.
With sound editing involving elements that audiences probably take for granted or are unconscious of in the cinema (such as effects, dialogue, and music), how do you begin to conceptualize a sound edit?
My process isn’t that much different than what an actor or director does with a script before they shoot. I attempt to fully understand the narrative, the backstory, the character arcs and all the other dramatic underpinnings of the story; because story drives everything. It drives how and why I make sound. Without a comprehensive study like that, sound design and editing is an empty and soulless exercise of synchronizing sound. Computers can do this. Artists have a higher calling.
Sound can really amplify a film’s world-building. Blade Runner 2049 tends to feel both grounded and otherworldly depending on the scene, and this is often signaled in the sound design, such as through music cues. How do you find the balance between of all these elements in the edit to create an overall effect of authenticity?
I find the balance by honoring and being sensitive to what’s happening dramatically. As I said, once I understand the script, the story, the characters motivations… I have a very clear roadmap for that journey. In a way, it simplifies my process.
Authenticity with sound is simply ensuring that my work is consonant with the drama. If a character is having an internal moment, perhaps diegetic sound works against that moment and sound can be subjective. If the story dictates the need for the audience to experience the harsh reality of this world, sound will reflect and amplify the visceral and diegetic aspects of that moment.
Sound, as with cinematography, acting and directing, is all about focus: what do you want the audience to experience in any given moment. All of those disciplines are working on a moment-by-moment basis to draw your attention, to selectively focus it on the information you need to have to best tell the story. Sound does this on many levels, sometimes obvious, sometimes obliquely. We are constantly “racking focus” with sound to draw your attention to or away from some part of the story that needs to be told.
Blade Runner 2049 encompasses so many genres; it’s a detective story, a drama, an art film and an action movie all rolled into one. How do these genre classifications inform the sound edit? Is there such a thing as a clichéd sound technique and did you try to avoid that?
Genre classifications and sound clichés function like reference works for a writer; ideas to be interpreted to suit the needs of the story. For example, a science-fiction cliché is to use beeps and electronic sounds for computers and machinery that doesn’t exist. The argument being that electronic, synthetic sound is non-organic and hence, futuristic. We opted to create our own logic from that by using little to no synthetic sound or “beeps,”, reasoning that a) there is no future we want to be a part of where everything makes a noise and b) designers of futuristic technology would have long since grown past 20th century ideas of how a device communicates information.
It goes without saying that, if one desires originality, one must forego clichés. But we can still use them as motivation to push us further forward.
Was a lot of the film re-recorded in post or does actual diegetic sound play a big part?
Most of our film was created in post. [Sound mixer] Mac Ruth did an extraordinary job of capturing our “sync” sound – the dialogue – but, as you know, our film doesn’t really have a lot of dialogue. It’s an expressionistic experience of sight and sound. There are vast swaths of the film – K’s walk through the desert, the nuclear bees, the empty casino – that have no sync sound at all.
But that’s only half the story. We endeavored to, in fact, immerse the audience in non-diegetic sound whenever and wherever possible. In almost every scene, you hear composed musical tonal atmospheres that have no rational audio sources. These were designed and composed specifically to surround the audience in an unknown environment and induce mood without traditional score.
Denis Villeneuve, in fact, encouraged this approach saying that he wanted us to “compose with sound.” While much of the work that sound designers do is diegetic, it reduces our contribution to something akin to a coloring book exercise: fill in the empty spaces and don’t color outside the borders…
“…We took a more abstract, “modern art” approach [to Blade Runner]; something akin more to a Jackson Pollock painting by splashing sound everywhere on our canvas with no regard for synchronization. In that sense, we colored way outside the lines.”
Tech-y noises are obviously a huge part in Blade Runner 2049, with lots of stuff whirring and buzzing constantly; even Joi being a hologram must have required her own set of sounds. How did you go about creating all these individual details in the movie and make them so distinctive?
As mentioned before, we set a priority to not use synthesizers and imitate the science fiction clichés of the past. This started with a much more minimalist philosophy that mandated absence rather than presence. It was better to not put a sound on every device. That being said everything, the holograms and computer screens and other tech objects that did have sound were made from organic sounds — twisted and filtered to take them out of their original context. So I suppose the distinctiveness of these sounds started by first avoiding the clichés and then using acoustic sound; sound you kind of recognize for something you expect to sound “futuristic.”
The “interlinked” scene is one of my favorites because it’s so tense without the visuals conveying very much at all – there are no frenetic cuts, for example. The pace of the dialogue is the main focus and keeps everything suspenseful; there is no background music. Why were so many scenes like this one – those with substantial dialogue – music-free?
Because the script, the dialogue, and the sound are doing everything, the scene needs. Denis Villeneuve is a very economical director. He is smart enough to know when a scene works and not attempt to overcook it with an easy crutch like music. Not that music is a crutch – it’s essential – but most inexperienced filmmakers don’t understand the value of using it only when it’s needed. The insecure filmmaker would have added score to the scene to “amp-up” the tension even further. Why? It works on its own merits and by overusing score or sound effects, you actually rob them of their value later in the film when you really need it.
Denis gave us a first cut of the film with no music in it. His goal was to see how far sound could go in supporting the drama without the need for music, so that he could be as economical as possible in identifying the really important moments in his film that did need music. This was an approach he applied across every discipline. More is not better. Correct is better.
What was it like collaborating with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch?
Since we had the film long before Ben and Hans came on, we had the opportunity to flesh out the sound design and its contribution and lay out a roadmap for them of where we were doing the heavy lifting and where we needed them to do the heavy lifting. Since they came on so late in our post process, we didn’t have time for the usual collaborations between sound designer and composer — something I would have relished with Ben and Hans. But they had a serious time crunch to get a lot of music written in a short period of time. Yet they had, as a guide, a very polished and complete version of what sound was doing and they worked brilliantly with it and against it. One the achievements I am most proud of is the seamlessness of the soundtrack. The joins and blends between score and sound design are invisible, making what the audience hears simply “the sound of Blade Runner.”
What was the most complicated part of the sound edit to manufacture?
Creating the sound of the Spinners, the craft that K and others fly about the city. Almost everything else came very easily. [Sound designer] Theo Green and I created many iterations of this sound and didn’t really nail it until very close to the end of the final mix. At the end of the day, it was made from the sound of a spinning bull-roarer and my wife’s Honda Element, all beautifully articulated by our sound editor, Chris Aud.
What was the most tedious part of putting together the final mix?
The “mastering” process we go through after the creative work was done. Once the filmmakers signed off on the mix, it is left to us to manufacture the many formats the film will be released in, such as Dolby ATMOS, IMAX, Auro, DTS-X, etc. This is a very tedious technical process of mathematically re-mixing for all these different speaker configurations. The final mix proper, however, was a joy. We had an amazing crew and group of filmmakers and every day was an exercise in close collaboration and discovery.
You’ve created some of the most enduring and engaging sound edits throughout the span of your career and have worked on films in so many different genres. Does the process change for you throughout each project as you move from genre to genre? And if so, how?
My process doesn’t really change that much. I’m always thinking about the story first and how to best tell it with sound, from there. However, different genres engage different parts of my brain, and it is hard to change gears – as I am doing now – to a different mindset. I’m doing a hysterical comedy about five guys who play the children’s game Tag as adults. My approach doesn’t change but my sensibilities about what kind of sound works does, and it’s hard to erase nine months of Blade Runner immersion and switch over to comedy.
But this is an important exercise for me. I feel like my strengths in sound are a function of my adaptability to any genre, and the plasticity it has given my thinking. I didn’t want to do another big, science fiction film after Blade Runner. It’s like eating steak all the time. Fun at first, but not good for your overall health.