Trevor Gates talks the power of sound, “Teddy Perkins,” and the most disturbing movie moments he’s brought to life.
Sound design is hands-down one of the most important elements of any horror movie; the aural experience of a jump scare or a gross-out moment is key to the overall viewing experience, and a purposeful lack of sound–the perceived silence before the chaos–is just as important.
Supervising sound editor Trevor Gates has likely created the soundtrack to at least a few of your nightmares over the past few years thanks to his work on films like Get Out, Gerald’s Game, Mayhem, Happy Death Day, Oujia: Origin of Evil, Don’t Breathe, Honeymoon, Evil Dead, and The Bye Bye Man. Outside the horror genre, he’s also responsible for the sound behind Atlanta‘s masterful second season, even garnering an Emmy nomination for his work on horror-influenced centerpiece episode “Teddy Perkins.”
In fewer than ten years, Gates has racked up over a hundred film and television credits, curating sound for stories across every genre and working with various visionary filmmakers. Today, he’s eager to talk to us about the complex artistry of sound design, how it felt to see Get Out for the first time, and his collaboration with Hiro Murai to create one of the year’s best episodes of television.
FSR: So how’s it going?
Trevor Gates: It’s great! It’s a pretty fun and interesting time right now with this Emmy nomination going on, pretty fancy. We’re all really excited to go to the show.
Yeah, that’s amazing. I definitely want to talk about Atlanta but I had a couple questions about your job in general first. A lot of us here at FSR have been talking lately about how there are so many elements going into movies and even the biggest fans might not know the details of each of the important jobs. I think sound design is one of those things that’s a lot more complex than people realize.
Could you walk me through a day in your job? Just kind of a rundown of what you’re normally doing?
Yeah, it’s multifaceted for sure. Being a sound supervisor, you’re responsible for delivering an experience from a sound perspective to the audience. There are several different departments of sound or categories of sound that you’re responsible for. Sometimes you’ll have different people do different categories of sound and sometimes you’ll do them yourself. Every project is a little different. I think you’re right in that people don’t really understand how much of the sound that they’re hearing is fabricated in TV and film. We’re responsible for cleaning up and presenting the best possible production sound, so everything that was recorded on the day on set, which is just a fraction of all the sound you generally hear as an audience. So production sound is one.
We’re responsible for creating the ambiances. Basically, if you’re inside, what does the inside of a building sound like, with the cars that are driving by outside or the birds that are chirping? Maybe you can be out in a forest and what does the wind through the leaves sound like, and the wildlife? Whether it’s at night or day, crickets and birds and–we carefully craft those sounds to be appropriate and also to be, you know, sometimes artful.
Then there’s the world of what we call “hard effects.” Hard effects are generally things like doors and cars and gunshots. Anything that happens, an occurrence. The ambiances are beds that lay behind and hard effects are things that happen in time. Then we have foley. Foley is very similar to hard effects where there are specific sounds for things that are happening, but they’re generally categorized into foley when it has some type of human interaction or nuance that is hard to create from a library sound or from previous recordings. We’ll hire a foley artist and somebody to record the foley and they’ll watch the film or TV episode and perform some of the sounds that are happening in time with little gadgets and props and knick-knacks and things to create the different sounds.
My job is to basically take a vision of the director’s. The first thing that I’ll do is sit in a room with the filmmaker and we’ll watch whatever the content is. In Atlanta, I’ve sat down with Hiro Murai and we watch the episode and we talk about what his visions are for the sound at any given time. I take that information from that meeting and go get my team started. I’ll give them a focus, sound ideas, and in the case of Atlanta, I did a lot of the work myself on hard effects and backgrounds. I’ll talk with my team and talk about what’s important. We hit the go button and we build a bunch of stuff and then I have to pull it together and make sure it works in what I think is in favor of what the client wants. Once I pull all the sounds together and get them in a place where I think they need to be, then we’ll get in a room with a re-recording mixer, somebody who pushes the faders on the soundboard, and we’ll mix everything together. Then the final product is what you see and what you hear on the TV and in the theater.
Wow, that’s awesome. That’s a lot.
It is a lot and it’s very fun because for me there’s a couple of things about my job that I really love. I love the craft. I love building the sonic spaces and the sound effects. But I also am a people person. I love building relationships with people and I think that both of those things are very important in a sound supervisor, that you can navigate relationships with your clients who are the filmmakers and build cool sound for them. It’s kind of a dream job, so we’ll just be clear on that.
You’ve worked on almost every genre of filmmaking, and sometimes almost every genre just within Atlanta.
*laughs* Right, for sure.
How does your job change depending on the genre you’re working with?
There are different ways to bake a cake, you know? In the end, we’re in the business of telling stories. In any form of art, there are different ways to compose the art that you’re presenting. I feel like I’ve been lucky to have a lot of experience in a relatively short amount of time in my career, to have had the opportunity to work on many different genres and to learn the tricks of the trade of telling stories in different genres. Comedies are very different from horror and action films are very different from the both of them. The one thing that I think is universal across the board is timing and specificity. So like in an action film you would have a series of things that are happening and you have to make some really specific choices about the sounds that you’re hearing and create a rhythm to them.
An example I can give is in Atlanta, in the cold open for “Alligator Man,” the first episode of the season with the AK-47 shootout in the restaurant. You really sculpt and carve sound to make space and time for different things that are happening. There’s a rhythm to it so it can be exciting and you can hear everything that’s going on with this. Inside the restaurant when there’s a bunch of shooting going on–one thing I like to do is create extra sound and chaos of things that could be happening but didn’t necessarily happen on the day of [filming]. So the guy with the AK-47 shoots some bullets into the other side and maybe it hits a pan and falls on the floor and, you know, a cup bounces and a piece of glass breaks. These are things to create rhythm and you don’t see these things but you do them in a very specific timing to make it exciting.
Timing is really important for the thriller/horror genre which I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of lately. It’s lots of fun. I’ve talked a lot about perceived silence for horror films. For me, when you’re watching a thriller/horror, it’s really imperative that you get quiet, which is one of the things that we had to do for “Teddy Perkins.” I’ve talked about this before and I’ll probably keep talking about it, but perceived silence is not actually the absence of sound, it’s an isolation of sound. The viewers are hearing something but you have to craft what they’re hearing with extreme articulation for them to perceive it as quietness or silence. In the house with Teddy Perkins, it was the air. It was cold and it didn’t have any air condition or any technology. It encompassed the space that felt vast, so that was something that really helped us hold the silence.
There was a movie I did a few years ago called Ouija: Origin of Evil and there was a clock that we created a sound for. You never actually saw a clock in this house but we wanted something with that meter that we could play at a very articulate level to hold what we perceive as silence. Comedy is the same way. A lot of the comedy timing has to do with the dialogue and the interaction between the words, so a lot of that has to do with how it’s edited. That’s not my job but I think it’s kind of a universal thing. The tool is very similar from genre to genre, but it just has a little bit different shape or form, your timing and how you can sonically give meter and pace and rhythm to a story.
You were talking about crafting sound. That’s something I always wonder about as a viewer. I was thinking of a couple of moments that are just kind of disturbing, like in “Teddy Perkins,” with the ostrich egg. I also have a friend who said that the only part of Get Out she couldn’t handle was the sounds of the climax’s violence, the surgery and everything. When it comes to things like that, do you amp them up a little bit or do you go for realism? How much of it is calculated for maximum impact for the viewer?
That’s a really interesting question because the juxtaposition of what you think is real or right versus what isn’t is sometimes what makes things so disturbing. A heightened reality in some places can really drive something home. These are questions that I usually ask the filmmaker in the very beginning. Do they want to have a really dynamic juxtaposition of sound? Do you really want to go for the heightened to drive it home or do you want to understate it to be more impactful? It’s very situational, it depends on context. I think in Get Out, the violence in the end, we went for it. We definitely went for the big blood and gore. I think that was pretty effective in the third act of a movie that was very quiet and very understated mostly all throughout. I guess the answer in Get Out was the delta between quiet and loudness from the beginning to the end. It was definitely a ride and we really wanted to drive it home in the end.
The only problem is [that] you have to be careful because when you’re telling stories and you have an audience in front of you, the most important thing is for you to suspend their disbelief. That’s what Hollywood is, you know? We have to make somebody believe somebody. There’s a fine line and you can take it as far as you think that you should take it, but as soon as you take it beyond the line of believability the person’s disbelief is no longer suspended and they’re like, “Eh, that’s cheesy. I don’t believe it. I’m not scared anymore.” I think it’s something that you learn. I think it’s a skill of how far you can push the envelope. Verbatim I say, “I’m going to get as weird as I want to get. You hold me back a little bit.” You know, you kind of push the threshold and the boundaries of the threshold a little bit. I think one of the ones that we took the farthest is in a movie called Gerald’s Game.
Yes, that was going to be my other example.
Yeah, I think that was one of the hardest scenes for me to ever work on, because I was literally holding my hair when I was watching the degloving scene for the first time. There are only two or three times in a couple of different movies where I’ve been that disturbed. That was a time we really went for it and we also built some really nasty, disgusting sounds, but in the mix, we dialed it back a little bit. It ended up we pushed past the threshold and we were like okay, what’s really scary about this is that it looks real and sounds real. *laughs* That was a wild one, for sure.
That would’ve been my third example earlier but I was getting grossed out even thinking about it so I didn’t bring it up.
I mean, there’s only been a couple of other scenes. Maybe I won’t share them with you, but a couple of movies have pushed me to the limits.
You can if you want!
Well, there was a movie that I did three or four years ago called Honeymoon.
Yeah, I saw that too.
Okay, so when her husband is pulling what they’re calling the proboscis, the alien from her body, that was also one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever had to cut sound. Especially because the director–we did this whole like gushy-sounding sound and she [Leigh Janiak] was like, “Yeah, I don’t want it to be so gushy, I want it to be sticky,” and I’m like, “Eck!” *laughs* Yeah, so, anyway.
Besides the cold open of “Alligator Man,” is there a moment in Atlanta that stands out as one that you were proud that you got right?
You know, “Teddy Perkins” was a huge win. Each episode had its challenges. There’s the cold open for “Alligator Man” where there’s a pretty creative and technical exercise. “Woods” was a pretty creative exercise. It probably had more sound in that episode than a lot of the other ones. But “Teddy Perkins” was…we had to be so sharp and we had to be so articulate in all the choices that we made.
Hiro, when we did our spotting sessions and our meetings prior to getting to work on “Teddy Perkins,” he kind of hinted to the fact that this was his crown jewel, it was really important to him. So we were very careful, we were very articulate, we did what I think and a lot of people think was some really good, articulate, sharp work. When we were done with our mix and what we call “playback”–where we play it down for the clients and they tell us what their thoughts are and what notes they have and things they want to change, take out and add–Hiro was kind of speechless. He told us that he loved it. He basically actually stood up and put his hands in the air like a field goal, you know? Like we had kicked a field goal, and that was very cool and felt very good. He left and got a cup of coffee, came back in the room, and then he said, “You know, guys, I really want you to know that you have 100% realized my vision and my dream for this episode.” It was a very tricky episode and I think that that’s a huge win for the crown jewel or something to be so subjective and for us to nail it like we did. That felt very good, to know that the craft was appreciated.
In Atlanta, there were a lot of things that you wouldn’t think would be difficult but were. Things like “Champagne Papi”: they’re in what was supposed to be a Drake house party and there were people in every different room. We had to create spaces with the sound of people that were just a little bit different going from room to room, upstairs, then back downstairs. That stuff was very challenging to [make it] feel real and that you’re moving through spaces.
I remember when I watched “Teddy Perkins,” I finished it and I just didn’t know what to do with myself except watch it again. It was just a very unique experience and I feel like everyone felt that. Did you know that it was going to get that response, that it was going to be so special?
I felt like it was going to be something. We didn’t know exactly what, but it felt special. It was special to Hiro and we made it special to us. The care and the craft in what we do help translate some of that stuff to the people. I think a lot of people didn’t know what to expect. They wanted to expect something. You have a feeling sometimes when you’re working on something and it feels special. I remember watching a first assembly cut of Get Out with Jordan [Peele] and I was blown away. I made a phone call to my boss when I left and I’m like, “This is going to be something.” You definitely have an intuition sometimes but you never really know. It could be taken different ways. Did you know it was Donald right away [playing Teddy Perkins]?
I kind of thought so but I felt like I knew at the part where Darius is like, “Oh, I understand,” and Teddy is like, “NO, YOU DON’T!” He says it in this crazy voice and it sounds like Troy Barnes in Community and that’s when I knew for sure.
When we were doing the ADR recording, Donald was fantastic and he stayed in character the entire time. Once he got into the Teddy voice, he didn’t get out of the Teddy voice until we were done three hours later. It was pretty awesome
What are you working on next?
Well, I have some stuff coming up. I am finishing up a Netflix series called The Haunting of Hill House. It’s based on the Shirley Jackson novel from 1959 and it’s one of my favorite filmmakers to work with, Mike Flanagan who did Gerald’s Game. This is a fantastic series. I think it’s coming out right around Halloween so be on the lookout, you will be impressed. I’ve got a couple other really big projects that I’m super excited about, but I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about them yet.