Lessons from SXSW: "The Emotional Language of Film with Skywalker Sound"

SXSW Synopsis:

"Through his work on both independent and studio films, Pete Horner has developed an approach to film sound that explores the unique language of each film. In this presentation, Pete will share clips illustrating the potential of sound to express underlying emotions, with the intent of encouraging filmmakers to engage the audience more fully through sound."

Pete Horner Bio:

"Pete Horner is an Emmy Award-winning sound designer and re-recording mixer at Skywalker Sound. He studied percussion and music recording at the Cleveland Institute of Music and discovered the musicality of film sound at American Zoetrope, where he worked on films including Apocalypse Now Redux and The Virgin Suicides. His work at Skywalker covers a wide range, from large animated features like How To Train Your Dragon to documentaries like Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure. In 2012 he won an Emmy for his mix and design work on Hemingway and Gellhorn; in 2013, he was awarded the first-ever Sundance Special Jury Prize for Sound Design for his work on Upstream Color."

This one is going to be a lot harder to explain without access to Pete Horner's wonderful sound design examples. However, his discussion did generate a smattering of interesting quotes and pieces of advice that I may be able to condense for the purpose of this blog.

He opened with a clip from a documentary film called "Hell and Back Again", which tracked the lives of Afghanistan & Iraq War Veterans. In the scene, a veteran was discussing his treatment with a doctor, and the dialogue faded away and the soundscape was bathed in more abstract sounds and effects. While this made the sound harder to understand, that was the point - it expressed the soldier's lack of understanding of perhaps interested ability to focus on what the doctor was saying. 

It was pretty effective, and it served as a good lesson on how sound - or really any aspect of the arts that comprise film-making - didn't need to be literally reflecting exactly what is happening diagetically in the scene, but can be manipulated and mixed solely to express the subtext of the story being told.

Sound is a dramatic element in the film, just like anything else.

The next story he told was about working with Walter Murch on a film. A sound from a clock-tower needed to be recorded, and the director & producers suggested that they send an intern. Pete was too inexperienced to protest, but fortunately, Murch jumped in and said:

"If you send an intern to go record a sound, you may get the recording... if you're lucky. But if you send an experienced sound designer, the microphone becomes a divining rod."
- Paraphrase of Walter Murch

There's more to being an excellent sound designer than simply generating accurate recordings of specific sounds. Ultimately, Pete Horner went to record the clock-tower and in the process found a range of new opportunities for recordings which ultimately made it into the film.

Happy accidents only really work if you have the skill and knowledge to know them when you see them.

Another excellent piece of advice from this session:

"Take advantage of a film audience's open-state when the house lights go down."
- Pete Horner

As a film-maker, you have a virtually guaranteed moment at the beginning of any film to have the audience's undivided attention. Exploit that opportunity by using that moment to set the tone for the rest of the film.

Pete turned out to be a fountain of interesting quotes like that. His approach to sound design is built around using sound to create auditory poetry.

"The beating of the glass by the moth (wings) can be the chattering of lips... I'm always searching for some kind of sonic metaphor."
- Pete Horner

At one point, highlighting this concept, we were treated to an example of Pete using rattlesnake rattles to replace the sound of rustling leaves outside the Dachau Concentration Camp in the film "Hemingway and Gellhorn". That rattlesnake rattle returns thematically over the course of the movie, wherever there's a need to subtly express violence and danger. 

It is sound design as leitmotif.

"Anger is like a cold front that moves into a human place."
- Pete Horner

Pete was a fantastic presenter and I will be looking out for his work from now on.

Sean Malone

Washington, DC