Hello Film Doctor friends.
Theo Green has sound designed and composed for a string of films including Jennifer Lawrence psychological thriller House at the End of the Street and The Gambler starring Mark Wahlberg.
But most recently – and spectacularly – the award-winning, British creative lent his talent to Denis Veilleneuve’s epic, Sci-Fi masterpiece, Blade Runner 2049, for which he is BAFTA-nominated with Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill, Mark A. Mangini and Mac Ruth for Best Sound and Oscar-nominated with Mark A. Mangini for Best Sound Editing.
Here Theo joins us for a Film Doctor In Conversation to talk about designing sound for the film, how he got started in the industry, along with some excellent advice to filmmakers.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: where you’re from, when you did specifically get interested in the idea of sound design and working in films, etc?
I come from an electronic music production background. It’s something I’ve been messing around with since I was at university. I was actually studying something completely different – History of Art – but it was in the early 1990s and technology was coming up at the time, to the point where I was aware that something that previously would cost a band a lot of money to go into a recording studio and make an album was now something more accessible. I was hearing records that people were making in their bedrooms, literally. Just a computer and nothing else.
At the same time, I’ve always been struck by the sort of “blending of oils” between sound and music. Stuff like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Delia Derbyshire (most famous for her rendition of the Dr. Who theme), and these sort of characters that in 1960s and 1970s were making music out of, what was in those days, tape loops.
Delia would have fish hooks lined up all over her walls, each one with a little section of tape, which she would pitch up and down and make 20 different notes out of, which she would then splice and glue together and make into a sequence. It took an extraordinary, elaborate effort to put that kind of music together in those days. And what hit me in the early 1990s was a very similar attitude to music production – taking recordings, samples, noise, whatever it might be and processing it, without fish hooks and tape loops. It was suddenly an accessible art for everyone.
I got pretty lost in that world for a while, and throughout the 1990s was making various experimental tracks and pressing them onto records, and would try to sell them. At some point I realised that the film soundtracks that I was hearing in the 1990s – like the work of Hans Zimmer, who was clearly blending orchestral performances with synthesisers and processed samples – could possibly make composing an option for me.
I’ve moved out to Amsterdam for a couple of years, late 1990s/early 2000s, and started to get my first jobs processing sounds and writing jingles for TV and just getting an inkling that this might be something I could for a career. At that point I realised I really needed to be where stuff was happening, where I knew people who were making films – and, at least at the time, there wasn’t much of this going on in Amsterdam – so I moved back home to London.
I started doing any films thrown in my direction. A friend of a friend at that time was an upcoming director, called Rupert Wyatt and he’d just made a short film called Get The Picture, which had Brian Cox in it. It felt very cinematic;and he was very much interested in this idea of breaking down the walls between sound design and music and wanted to create a ‘score’ for this film largely using atmospheric and ambient sounds. So that began as a collaboration in 2003-2004, and it was a couple of years before he got his first feature film, The Escapist, off the ground.
In between those years I started getting some work as a sound designer, with Pinewood and Shepperton studios; and did a couple of films just to “learn the ropes”, so to speak. Meanwhile, Rupert had put together his amazing first feature again with Brian Cox, and Brian helped him bring this great ensemble cast, with Dominic Cooper and Joseph Fiennes – quite a wealth of talent – in this prison break type of movie that he put together. Strangely enough, the editor of that movie, Joe Walker, also edited Blade Runner 2049 and the composer was Ben Wallfisch [also on Blade Runner 2049]. This is like 10 years before. At the end we all looked at each other and thought ‘I think we’ll be working together again at some point in the future’; because I think that’s what all of us hoped for and strived for – that kind of integration.
I got more jobs offered to me as a composer – of industrial, ambient and electronic kind of music – and I am still working as a composer more than I am as a sound designer. I joined Air-Edel, my first agent – Ben Wallfisch was also with them at the time – and I think I did something like 17-18 films as a composer; often contributing in the sound design. I did quite a few horror movies… I think, if you’re not writing a score that is melody-based but something more ‘textural’, something where you’re trying to elicit a ‘skin-crawling’ effect in the viewer, those are the areas where sound design and music live hand-in-hand anyway. Often on those movies I’d be contributing to Sound Design, almost as a freebie, to compliment the music I was writing.
It’s almost five years now since I’ve moved to Los Angeles. I did House at the end of the Street – which was a Jennifer Lawrence teenage horror movie [laughs] – and when it came out I thought it was a good time to see if I could continue my work as a composer out in LA. I got another film from Rupert Wyatt – 2014’s The Gambler.
I was doing a couple of movies as a composer, met up with Joe Walker again and went to see a test screening of Arrival, which just blew me away. Denis Villeneuve was there at the screening – now, I usually restrain myself from going up to a director and just blurting out how incredible I think they are, but I couldn’t restrain myself. Arrival, in a way, was the movie I’ve been waiting for as a fan of Sci-Fi. His gritty, realistic style applied to a high Sci-Fi concept, such as this, ‘aliens come to our planet’ – I was absolutely blown away. I think he described that movie as “dirty sci-fi” [laughs] which I pretty much approve of.
So is that how you got involved in Blade Runner 2049?
I met Denis at that point and when Blade Runner 2049 came up – I first started talking to Joe [Walker, editor] about it and he was saying “I think you’d be the perfect person to come out and start something”.
Something that Joe and Denis wanted to do is start the process of sound making at the same time as the images. So many times, directors make the images and live with the images in the edit, as they refine the cut, and then at some point, months later, sound starts to appear. And, I think, Denis said it was just something that wasn’t possible before for budgetary reasons: most productions see it strictly as “sound design starts in post-production, that’s how we schedule it”. The idea of having both the editor and sound designer come out and work on set during filming takes a certain kind of budget. Villeneuve said he wanted to do that since the early days, when he was making shorts, and that it would be his first opportunity to do that.
And I think vital to that was having Joe [Walker] with him, who’s obviously cut Arrival and Sicario before that. At the end of every day they had dailies and Joe could start looking through things with Denis, rather than having what generally happens – the first time the director sees what he’s shot in any sort of sequence is in the assembly cut which is often 5 hours long and a torturous process. Why not start refining the cut from day one?
Of course, with a movie like this, there are a lot of things that don’t come from our world. They are essentially fantasy elements, sonically, as Joe said, what are you supposed to do when you have a flying spinner car? Are you just going to take off-the-shelf spacecraft sound or vacuum cleaner or whatever it is that he’s trying to sell that image with? Whoever looks at it, it’s not easy to sell how it’s going to feel when completed. Whereas, if we start building those ideas right from day one, first of all, we will have something to work with and play to the director or producer as a sense of where it’s going, but, most importantly, it gives the director a chance to live with those sounds, with the images, right from the start. And jettison, if necessary. If something starts to annoy you, after listening to you for two months, then perhaps it wasn’t the right sound in the first place.
With the ‘traditional’ way post is scheduled, you don’t even have those two months to get used to it – you hear it, it’s mixed, it’s done and it’s over. That was the idea, that I originally came up with, and Joe supported, so they got me out to Budapest – that was late August or September 2016. I think the very first scene they gave me was where the killer replicant takes Officer K to the ‘Memory Vault’, where they find these optical spheres with little bits of information on them. There’s a door that’s jammed and, obviously, they had a set door, which sounds like what it is – a piece of plywood – and she has to drag it aside…and it’s the first point where we really have to sell the idea that she’s got some pretty scary superhuman strength.
I just remember, on my first day, making this mechanism that sounds like there’s something jammed inside it and then, as she teared the thing apart, a bar of metal drops out of the mechanism…I just made this little sequence that felt like server mode of someone struggling to open the door and get this rending sound of someone tearing a metal door open. So, you know [laughs] not the most impressive sound design of a door opening, but Denis was super happy to hear it. It was that or having to live with the sound of a plywood door being easily moved by the actress. You get to put the story point across from the off.
Within the first few weeks there were various other fascinating tasks, like the Elvis scene – that was a funny one, actually. It was very, very different in its initial iterations; a lot of work was done filming different passes, with Elvis singing the whole song. The original idea was, instead of having this ‘glitching’ Elvis, in an otherwise silent room, having a cacophony of music, which would dazzle Officer K. You would first hear Elvis singing, then you’d have Marilyn Monroe singing on top of him, and all the holograms would be overlaid. Then it would be Liberace a Bollywood troupe and a Cirque du Soleil troupe. The whole place crammed with holograms, crammed with lighting and colour, and music, and just cacophonous.
And we did do that, and [laughs] it didn’t last very long. It was one of the few things that Denis really didn’t like in the first cut of the movie, as it felt like we were dropping into a different universe. It too colourful, too musical and, ultimately, we lost the sense of it being a tense manhunt.
There were a couple of scenes like that, which they handed to me and were like “see what you can do with it”. And, obviously, Joe was doing the same thing with the visuals. We stripped off the layers and then there was the idea, what if there was a faulty hologram projector – gone wild and loose. You’ve got Elvis glitching out, occasionally kicking in and then going silent for 20 seconds.
So we got a completely different scene out of it as a result, which I really liked. It’s near silent: you can hear K breathing, you can hear Deckard’s footsteps approaching, then suddenly you’ve got the distraction of a couple of bars of Elvis, then a gunshot…suddenly, there was this radically different take on a scene. And because Denis had allowed this melting pot to be taking place so early in the post-production, scenes like that really got the chance to go through our processes; see what we can add to it or take away from it.
Coming into it as someone who’s been composing for the last 10 years, I was very much given the instruction to think of sound as if it were music; to think of the original Blade Runner, where so often it is impossible to tell what you’re listening to e.g. you’re in Deckard’s apartment and you hear this kind of wobbling sound, and you’re not sure if it’s a machine within his apartment or it blends into the music that Vangelis wrote in places.
I was tasked with coming up with an atmosphere for every room and every exterior we’re in, that slightly reminds us that this is futuristic, and things are slightly different.
At the end of my time in Budapest, as we transitioned back to post production in Los Angeles, we were looking for a supervising sound editor – someone I could work hand in hand with, like a partner, where if I was tasked with all these ambient and atmospheric sound, someone who can look after the foley and the dialogue, and just, generally, create the overall soundscape.
Joe and I had been to see Mad Max: Fury Road, and Mark Mangini had been the Supervising Sound Editor on that and so when it came to trying to think of another film that has extensive desert scenes and takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, rusted and worn out, Mad Max certainly came to mind. We got Mark to come and meet us out in Budapest, and we figured he and I would make a great team, working on it together. So for the next nine months in Los Angeles we worked very closely, and often found ourselves sandwiching our ideas together.
How long did the total process take? How many cuts did you go through? How many tracks were on the final thing?
I’d say, a year. I think Mark said that they’d recorded something like 12, 000 unique sounds for the movie. I looked through my folder for Blade Runner 2049 and it also comes close to something like 15,000-16,000. It’s kind of insane. Obviously, not all of them are prominent or heard, but there’s an insane number of layers in certain places.
There are some sounds which are super simple. A lot of people ask me about the blaster gun sound, which is an iconic thing from the first film, although the technology is slightly different in this one. Ultimately, it came down to just two recordings. I’d taken a Roland 909 bass drum – the sort of thing that you’d put in a techno track – and Mark had a recording of a Barrett sniper rifle. The sounds existed on their own. I’d been working a long time just putting this 909 kick as a Sci-Fi blast sound, which sort of worked, but it needed some reality in there as well and Mark’s gun had the ‘reality’ but sounded just like a sniper rifle. So, sandwiched together we came up with a sound that was, literally, two things, and somehow encapsulated the need for that Sci-Fi hyperreal feel.
Then, looking at the track count…woo-ooh… I mean, it’s difficult to say, because we’d fold loads down, just to make them manageable, you know? [laughs] I’d say, in its most expanded form, it’d be a track count of 250. Then the way we folded them and kept them in separate “food groups” to make it manageable…probably 150 tracks. Something like that.
When you mention creating original sounds, what did you use for that, specifically, and what do you operate on, generally?
I’ve got a theory, that if I’m going to heavily process a sound, I’m very happy going out and recording with any of these portable recorders, like a Zoom. If it’s something that I’m going to heavily mess with, I’d rather get a bunch of different recordings, with different mic heads, like from a Zoom H6. With these portables, I’d be going around Budapest and just hearing sounds. It’s there in my pocket and I can just pick up stuff that sounds good at the time.
If it’s something I know I’d need to mess a lot with to get to the final sound, I don’t bother too much getting the clearest possible recording. But then there are plenty of other sounds where the clearest possible recording is really important. Like, for the rain, for instance. And also for very-very quiet things. There are so many really quiet scenes in Blade Runner 2049, whether it’s walking through the desert or the abandoned casino, where no one’s been in 30 years…So there were cases of “how do we make an absolutely silent space sonically interesting?” I think it was Mark [Mangini] who pointed out that sometimes it’s very important to define nothingness by just having a ‘sprinkle’ of something in it.
So we were looking for those ‘sprinkles’, like tiny creaks and little bits of dust falling, recording with a custom 7.1 rig made of Schoeps capsule microphones. We went into incredibly quiet studios and just dropped little piles of dirt, or got a band of friends, each holding a creaky chair, making a tiny, micro creak [laughs].
But rain – so much of the time when people are recording rain, they’re standing right on the edge of rain, hiding under a shelter and pointing a microphone out, and you can either hear the thing that they’re sheltering under. You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of the rain. Obviously, there’s oodles of library recordings of rain, but it just felt like a cop out to use those and most of them had that problem of sounding like someone was hiding on the edge of the rain. To get that real sense of immersion in rain, which is such a Blade Runner thing, we knew there was going to be a lot of need for that. We ended up putting 5.1 surround recording rig directly under those acoustic foam tiles that you get in recording studios on the walls. So for about five minutes that would protect the mic from getting rained on and, also, absorb the sound of the drops, as well as allowing us to put the microphone right out into the middle of the rain. Los Angeles also fully obliged with these insane rain storms, that just never happen there except for Blade Runner [laughs] so yes, at that point in 2017 every time it rained, we would run out and record whatever we could.
Also, what Denis told us he was most interested in getting across was the sound of nature; and seeing as we don’t have any animals, that meant the sounds of weather. One of the things he brought as this new atmospheric idea to Blade Runner was the snow. Denis grew up in Montreal and has a lot of childhood memories of the kind of silence when everything is muted and muffled with snow, or you just hear those few flakes falling. And actually, that was one of the hardest things to come up with – we went through so many iterations of what a snowflake falling should sound like [laughs]. Of course, you know, it doesn’t sound very much at all, and so many things just sounded very crackly, like twigs on fire. I ended up filling up my bath with shaving foam and dropping little plops into a bath full of shaving foam [laughs]. Just to get that sense of something so absorbent, it almost doesn’t make any sound. The softest of sounds.
Thinking about these atmospheric rain and snow scenes, often very quiet – and there are some very delicate moments, like the end of the movie – it’s a surprising amount of work that goes into the silences and subtleties.
In fact, that’s what we generally notice – the big, loud stuff is not so hard. It’s easy to come up with a massive explosion or a huge gunshot. But getting something to really sell the idea of near silence, without it just being boring or seeming like the sound’s cut out, that takes a huge amount of work.
Was the score worked on on set as well?
In this particular case, Ben and Hans [Zimmer] actually came in fairly late. For a certain amount of time we were working with the score that Johan – Johann Johannsson, with whom Denis has worked before – provided us. And it wasn’t until we were back in LA, that it became clear that it was missing that iconic Yamaha CS-80 of the first film, which is sooo iconic – the second you hear something played on it, you’re like “Ooh, that’s Blade Runner”. We just really needed that.
As it happened, Ben, who’s been working at Hans’ place for some years now, knew that Hans had a CS-80. They created a suite of musical ideas, and I remember when it got presented for the first time, everyone was like “Oh, yes! We’re in that Blade Runner universe again!”.So we started our collaboration in March or April 2017.
How did it feel to be working on something that is continuing such a legacy – Blade Runner…?
Well, of course there was the huge weight of my own, personal knowledge and feelings, and relationship with the first movie, and how influential it’d been on me. And then knowing that all of my friends, when I mention to them I’m going to be working on the Blade Runner sequel, would be like “You better not f*** it up!” [laughs] You realise it’s a huge responsibility, to a movie that is so beloved.
I had many questions about how closely should I be playing up to the audience’s memories of the original – and Denis’s answer to that was very liberating. Actually, he was like “We’re 30 years on from the events in the original, technology has moved along; it’s not exactly the same spinner car that they’re flying in, it’s not exactly the same blaster gun they’re shooting, so feel free to evolve.”
What he wanted was for the sound to recall the atmosphere of the original very closely, as he was diverging, in places, from the original visuals – taking some liberties with the heavy-shadows noir and the depiction of the Blade Runner look. So it was very important for him that the sound wasn’t diverging hugely from what people remembered, as an atmosphere. But the specifics, he was very much “find your own way of making these sounds.”
I remember one of the days when Ridley Scott came round to the editing suite, Joe and I had plenty of questions for him. I really wanted to know certain geeky things, like “Do you remember how certain sounds were made?” – and he was very obliging and told some amazing stories about how they got the elements that they’ve got. I received a great breakdown of what was what, a list of ‘ingredients’ from him and I got to test out some ideas from the original one.
For example, he told me that the spinner car sound is actually a slowed down sound of an a metal spinner top. So I went out and got a bunch of vintage spinner tops and played around with them – and that was an example of something that worked before but didn’t work for the new film. The sound just wasn’t “beefy” enough for the way the spinner cars looked in Blade Runner 2049. It did have something, and I eventually came up with a sound. It was used for that little drone-like thing that launches off Officer K’s car. That was entirely the sound of one of those spinning tops slowed down. It’s kind of like a little call back to the sound of the original one.
So, yes, there were certain ideas that were based loosely on the ideas from the original, but mostly how we went about making the sounds was using new techniques. In particular, there’s a technique that I used a lot – granular synthesis – which is basically breaking sounds down to micro second level and you’re able to put a sound into a synthesiser and then splinter it into a million little pieces. That was very useful for this weird, sort of skittering, sound of hologram projectors – both in Dr. Ana Stelline’s memory laboratory and in the sequence with the broken Elvis hologram. That’s a really useful technique for taking a sound from the real world and messing with it; and it wasn’t around as a technique in the 1980s.
I’d say the most carefully reproduced sound from the original one was the work Hans and Ben did with the Yamaha CS-80; that was very much something that imbued the whole thing with the same spirit.
So how have you found it composing and sound designing? Because obviously we believe in excelling at multiple crafts but some people might not – even though those two crafts are so closely linked.
I suppose, what I’ve been trying to do over the years is something that doesn’t quite fit into any one box. I keep kind of falling between two stools, as it were, that is music composition and sound design. In some ways, it’s been difficult, because you might work with some people who just don’t get it and they need to put you in a box, and pigeonhole you. The way they understand it is you can only do one thing. You’re either a composer or a sound designer, and they can’t compute someone who’s claiming to be both.
It’s also given me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I was just claiming to be one of these things. I’ve landed working with these directors who have an interesting vision and an open mind partly because they’ve seen that and, perhaps, themselves have been thinking “Yes, why is this division between these two worlds.” It’s an artificial division – ultimately, this is all organising noise [laughs].
So, in some cases, this idea has fallen on deaf ears and people went “I don’t think it’s possible and I’m going to force you into this box” – and I had a bad time – but, most of the time, I’ve been very lucky to have met people who’ve gone “Oh, this is what I’ve always wanted to strive for and, if that’s something you think you can do, I’m going to give you the opportunity to try and do that”.
I think in the early days it had worked, because mostly it would be like “Great, so we have budget for only one of those things and if you can do both” [laughs] but then eventually it became a selling point, working with directors who have interest in doing things the non-traditional way.
And what advice could you give to sound designer or filmmakers wanting to work on massive projects like you have?
My only advice there would be that if someone feels like they don’t fit into a specific, defined box, and they’re burning with a passion to unite two disparate fields, then maybe you’ve got something there. Maybe it could become your unique selling point. But also be cautious how this can confuse the f*** out of certain people [laughs] who need to see things only in black and white, and won’t understand that. In my case, it led me to interesting filmmakers.
Ultimately, filmmaking is appealing to me because it is a synergy of all these different art forms. I’m not sure it’s helpful to be a specialist in just one area – especially for directors. It must be very important to have at least a general working knowledge of many other departments.
I think for anybody, whether they’re working in VFX or music, or writing, it probably helps feed into your knowledge of the whole of filmmaking, if you do understand about another area. And it might even, strangely, directly feed into your creativity, if, for example, a writer knows something about composing music.
Every time I meet someone who’s developed more than one arrow in their quiver, they seem stronger because of it.
RELATED ARTICLE: Interview with BAFTA-nominated Blade Runner 2049 editor Joe Walker.
RELATED ARTICLE: Interview with Blade Runner 2049 costume designer Renée April.
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